Al-Assad attempts to boost “Ba’ath” vigor to tighten control
Murad Abdul-Jalil | Yamen Moghrabi
“The Ba’ath party is the leader of the state and society” a phrase that was used as a cover to rule Syria for more than half a century. This took place under the pretext of number of resounding party slogans which called for unity, freedom, socialism and an absolute glorification of Arabism. However, throughout the years of the Syrian revolution, these slogans have been dismantled, especially after the direct involvement of Ba’ath party in suppressing peaceful demonstrators.
This phrase, which is the essence of the eighth article of the Syrian constitution dating back to 1973, has transformed the “Ba’ath Party” into a tool to control all joints of the state including all its structures and institutions by the former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar al-Assad. Although the article was abolished from the constitution of 2012; it is still valid in many public sectors to date.
While the uprising continues against the regime and its party’s activities being restricted to Syria only, after being taken off the map of nationalism, the regime attempts to restore the role of its party in the Syrian street. These attempts are translated by organizing its institutions and ranks as well as restoring ties with other countries and allies. Additionally, enhancing the participation of “party members” to choose their representatives for the People’s Assembly elections due to take place next July.
In this file, Enab Baladi tries to shed light on the most prominent organizational changes within “Ba’ath Party” and its attempts to invest in the current phase to prepare itself for future developments. In addition to analyzing the party’s future in the light of scenarios of Syria’s upcoming political visions.
“Ba’ath” and revolution …steps to revive the party
During the past year, the “Ba’ath” party has undergone some major transformations that exposed the weakness and fragility of its organizational structures, which the President of the Syrian regime and the Regional Secretary of the party, Bashar al-Assad described as a “healthy phenomenon” in his speech in March 2014, during the 51st anniversary of the party’s coming to power. Back then, he said that this phenomenon has helped the party to get rid of those he called “opportunists.”
The most prominent of these transformations was when thousands of Ba’ath members deviated from its known and official vision. This, in addition to the significant numbers of defections in the army’s ranks and security branches from one hand. While the party was fully involved in the suppression of the Syrian revolution through the participation of “Baathists” in anti-demonstrations, before being involved in armed action through “Ba’ath Brigades” which were established in 2012. These brigades constituted auxiliary military arms to the Syrian regime forces. Most of these military formations include male and female volunteers from all the Syrian governorates to participate in battles throughout the country under the direct supervision of the Assistant Regional Secretary General of the party, Hilal al-Hilal.
According to the researcher at the “Imran Center for Strategic Studies”, Maan Talaa, thinks that Ba’ath “participation in the revolution has weakened its ranks and led to an organizational impotence within it. Consequently, the party was no longer able to mobilize. This urged the party to be in a state of “regression” because reality on the ground was in favor of certain militias following the intervention of Iran, “Hezbollah” and Russia in the Syrian scene.
This weakness urged the party to set out measures and reforms to be prepared for the coming political phase and the various possibilities through several steps:
The first step was through regression inward and moving from the regional framework to the local one, through conducting certain changes and replacing the name of the “Central Leadership of the Ba’ath Party ” with “ the Regional Leadership,” as was stated in the party’s official page on “Facebook” in October 2018. Consequently, the position of the “Regional Secretary of the Party” was replaced by the “Secretary-General”. While the “Assistant Regional Secretary” became “Assistant Secretary-General”. Meantime members of “Regional Command” became members of “Central Command”, in addition to replacing the name “the General Conference” by “the Regional Conference.”
The party attributed these changes, the first of its kind since its founding in 1947, to “the need to keep up with developments of the current situation and nationalist faction in the party”, in a way that “preserves national interests”, which marks a change in the internal policy of the “Ba’ath” party and means that it is no longer an organizational “cross-border” party.
The second step was through relying on highly loyal figures, the most important of whom was Hilal al-Hilal, who started active diplomatic moves inside and outside Syria. Al-Hilal has personal characteristics that helped him control the state of regression in the Ba’ath party through tightening the security grip while implementing its local policy, according to Talaa.
In November 2019, al-Hilal visited both China and Russia, to strengthen cooperation between the “Ba’ath Party” and parties of both countries and coordinate to “combat terrorism” as well as plan for the reconstruction phase, according to the official Syrian narrative.
As for the third step, it was relying on the “domestication” mechanism to choose its candidates for the People’s Assembly elections, which is based on the selection of candidates through conferences held by the party branches, as well as relying on the personal opinions of the party’s officials. Meantime, the selection process was previously done through issuing lists called “the National Frontlist” which includes also other recognized parties’ candidates represented within the “National Progressive Front” (NPF).
Al-Assad considered, in a written speech published by “Baathparty “ website, on 15 of the previous month, that “the experience of domestication (…) is compelling evidence of the Ba’ath dynamics and development, and its ability to adapt and looking forward to the future,”. He also considered that “it was necessary to expand the participation of party members in choosing their representatives in People’s Assembly (…), this step is necessary for its organizational and ideological renewal and constitutes an objective and a clear response to those who described it as being inclusive and detached from the spirit of the times.
According to researcher Maan Talaa, through “electoral benefits” the party realized and took advantage of the local affairs, and benefited from a clear legal loophole, the eighth article that was abolished from the constitution, yet it is legally still valid in many public sectors especially in two jobs: particularly jobs related to security and military services, where the party still manages the army through a department called the department of political guidance. The main role of this department is to distribute daily media and political bulletins. Hence, one can say that the army is still under the Ba’ath party control. As for the second job, it has to do with continuous oversight over all joints of the state.
These steps by the party indicate its attempts to adapt itself to the current situations in order to play a more effective role through “rehabilitating some segments which incubated chaos and terrorism, so there will not be a loophole through which Syria will be targeted in the future.’ as al-Assad put it during the meeting “the Central Committee” in October 2018.
Al-Assad admitted committing “mistakes” which led to a decline of the party’s role, which the Syrian scholar and academic Abdel Aziz Dioub considered, “a maneuver to blame the party for his own failure”; however, the question raised here is: to what extent will the regime be able to reactivate the party’s role?
The researcher said in an interview with Enab Baladi, that reactivating the party’s role violates the eighth article that was abolished from the constitution of 2012; yet the purpose was to exclude old members through the process of “domestication” adopted in the selection of the People’s Assembly candidates. Abdel Aziz Dioub stressed that “the party did not and will not develop taking into account its current wooden discourse. ”
For his part, former leader in the “Ba’ath Party”, Dr. Nasser Saba, thinks that “the party now belongs to al-Assad family, and we can name it (the Military Group Party)”. He considered attempts to activate its role “a waste of time”, while their main purpose is to degrade and demean the essence of “the Ba’ath” which revolves around the Arab unity, that the regime claims to pursue.
In his talk to Enab Baladi, Saba considered that the regime is trying again, after all the crimes it committed against Syrians, to invest and use the name of the “Ba’ath party”, while al-Assad’s confession of making mistakes is merely small talk because the party has no role whatsoever in Syria. He proceeded by saying, it is rather an organization of a security nature affiliated to security and military bodies and has nothing to do with other political parties that are based on freedom, political practice and freedom of expression.
He pointed out that the Syrian regime trampled the party’s ideas and crushed its ideology; as there is plenty of historical evidence on that, starting by the execution of some prominent leaders to splitting Palestinian ranks, in addition to supporting Iran against both Iraq and the Iraqi “Ba’ath” party during the Gulf War, let alone massacres the regime committed throughout its history in several Syrian regions.
Saba resembled the party’s attempts at the present time, by “restoring souls unto dead bodies,” as the party currently lacks any sort of will or independence, while most of its affiliated partisan bodies and institutions operate outside the framework of political and partisan work. These bodies and institutions use the party’s slogans for political ends that serve al-Assad family and its rule. Saba also stressed that the Ba’ath party is “unable to keep pace with developments in the current status.”
Poll: Why the Ba’ath’s roles are in decline?
Enab Baladi conducted a poll through its official page on “Facebook” about the decline of the Ba’ath party’s role after the abolition of Article 8 from the constitution of 2012. 71 percent of voters, whose numbers amounted to 400 participants, considered that the party’s role did not decline, while the rest think otherwise.
Meantime, commentators underestimated the importance of the constitution inside Syria and described it as “merely ink on paper”. Ahmed Muhammad, one of those who wrote their comments, said “inside Syria there no such thing as parties, they are just facades and interfaces for a criminal system.”
Additionally, Imad Imad’s account confirmed this by saying, “basically, the Ba’ath Party has no role. Whoever rules Syria now constitutes a dirty mix of security services, sectarian militias, and corrupted businessmen.”
هل تراجع دور حزب البعث بعد إلغاء المادة الثامنة في دستور 2012.. ولماذا؟
Ba’ath tools…mobilization and identification
The Ba’ath party has tools to what it calls course correction under the rule of “changing priorities does not change principles”, which was confirmed by Bashar al-Assad during his speech before the party two weeks ago.
According to the researcher Maan Talaa, the party is trying to come up with new tools to implement the same old policies, in order to adapt itself with any new political forms in Syria through “mobilization and identification”. This gave the party a large margin to correct its situation and urged it to take advantage of its reconciliations with opponents in many parts throughout Syria, to form a class of “community mediators” composed of elected officials, known as “mukhtars”, prominent mayors and jurists that would be later selected as members of the People’s Assembly.
Additionally, the Ba’ath party still has infrastructure and properties, along with a number of unions and organizations which are supposed to be away from politics, such as the peasant’s union, workers’ union, women’s union, and the “Ba’ath vanguards”, among others. All these organizations constitute channels through which the party tries to impose itself again. Moreover, the party uses “combating terrorism” slogan to take over certain service departments in various sectors.
Talaa believes that Bashar al-Assad’s talk about mistakes’ correction is not to acknowledge them, but rather a way to motivate the party to use various tools and work on different issues in the coming phase. It is also an attempt from al-Assad to identify himself with other public leaders.
Being under siege and amid the current economic crisis, the party is requested to control society and prevent a revolt. These were among the mistakes al-Assad considered that they prevent him from controlling the Syrian scene according to Talaa, who inferred to anti-protests at the end of June in As-Suwayda chanting slogans “the party is behind the leadership.”
In his speech during the meeting of the “Central Committee”, in October 2018, al-Assad said that “the Ba’ath must have a role in dealing with the consequences of the war, and conduct a thorough and deep study on society and the transformations the former underwent. It should also put forward its perceptions and definitions about the titles and terms used by society, and ensure there is an alignment between its discourse, practices and beliefs, so it would be able to reach out to the various society segments.”
Talaa considered that the party is preparing itself for the new political life through more organization across Syria thanks to its infrastructure and organizational rules. Therefore, it will be ready to take over the next phase regardless of its form. The Ba’ath party also attempts to establish connections inside the decision-making corridors of Russia, China and Iran; and obtain support for the regime policies, which tries to portray itself as capable of managing any future changes inside Syria.
Al-Assad and the Ba’ath Party… which one is connected to the other?
Bashar al-Assad is the Regional Secretary of the “Ba’ath” party, after his “election” at the ninth “Regional Conference” in June 2000. Back then, he said in his speech that “I am part of the Ba’ath”, to be re-elected for the same position in 2005.
According to the Ba’ath official website, unlike his father, who joined the party in 1946 and fought a lot to lead the party, Bashar al-Assad did not go through all of this. Therefore, Bashar’s relationship with the party is completely different from that of his father.
This difference is highlighted by Bashar Al-Assad’s own moves regarding the “Ba’ath”, and his attempts to adapt it to suit the current circumstance and the future of the political process in Syria. All this has prompted him to change the “National and Regional Leadership” by the “Central Leadership”.
Syrian academic and researcher Abdel Aziz Dioub thinks that the party is linked to al-Assad; however, he considers it “the ruling party and not the party he rules.”
Meantime, former Baathist leader, Nasser Saba, thinks that the relationship between al-Assad and “the Ba’ath Party” can be concluded in “al-Assad use of the party as a means of intimidation against the Syrian people”. He added that the president of the regime considers “the party one of his inherited properties, which means that he is neither a partisan nor does he understand what it means to be part of it. Nasser Saba explained that being a member of the party means to be engaged in “struggles, politics and make sacrifices”, which Bashar al-Assad did not experience in the first place. Meantime, Hafez al-Assad used the party as a facade to rule Syria.
Researcher at “Omran Centre for Strategic Studies”, Maan Talaa, explained that Hafez al-Assad re-structured the party and killed all its leaders so to detached from its civil roots,”. He added that back then Hafez al-Assad took control over politics through the local scene while he transformed “the Ba’ath Party” from a political party to “a leading party for both the state and society” and paved the way for the foundation of what it is called the “Progressive National Front.”
What is the National Progressive Front (NPF)?
Founded in 1972, the “NPF” includes the “Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party”, the “Arab Socialist Union” (ASU), the “Communist Party” (CP), the “Al-Ahd Party” (AP), the “Arab Democratic Union Party” (ADUP), the “Syrian Social Nationalist Party” (SSNP), along with the General Union of Peasants (GUP), and c (GFTU).
The “NPF” also includes “Socialist Unionist Party” (SUP), Democratic Socialist Unionist Party (DSUP) and Syrian Communist Party (Unified) (SCPU).
According to the (NPF)’s charter, its primary goal is to “consolidate the principle of political pluralism, enhance the democratic approach, and contribute in the political life.”
It considers that its tasks include also “liberating occupied Arab lands since 5 June in 1967 (since Naksa or setback of 1967), while working on the process of comprehensive reform led by al-Assad, and affirming socialism as an economic approach.”
Talaa added that Hafez al-Assad sought to frame the Syrian society through several channels, whether through organizations or unions, to ensure tightening his grip on the Syrian society and prevent the emergence of opposition and protests against the regime.
For his part, Nasser Saba denied any sort of connection between the “Ba’ath Party” and Bashar al-Assad, and explained that the latter’s fate is in the hands of Iran and Russia, while Syria’s fate depends on the undertaken decisions of five countries, in addition to militias and armed organizations. Consequently, one can say that al-Assad is attached to the “Ba’ath” on paper only.
Eradication or reform
While major players try to solve the Syrian crisis and find a political solution that secures political pluralism, attention is drawn to the party’s fate, especially after Iraq, the neighboring country, has “dissolved the party to prevent its members from access to power.”
Syrian Academic researcher, Abdel Aziz Dioub thinks that any future political solution in Syrian would eradicate the party and al-Assad altogether, while former Baathist leader Nasser Saba thinks “it is important” for the party to remain in the post-regime phase, especially that the party’s ideas and theories concerning “the Arab identity” is not merely an “ideology” but rather a national identity able to gather all Syrian under the same umbrella and coexist with each other.
During his talk, Saba referred to Syria’s modern history since the establishment of the “Syrian Kingdom” on “8 March 1920”, which came as a result of the Ottoman forces’ withdrawal following the “Great Arab Revolution”. Back then, the kingdom was established on “Arab basis” till the “Great Syrian Revolt” in 1925 in the face of the French occupation which took place between (1920-1946). The revolution rejected the sectarian division following the martyrdom of the Minister of War then, Yousef al-Azma, in 1920.
Taking all this into account, Saba explained that the Arab world needs to stand in the face of all imposed challenges. Thus, it has nothing to do with eradicating the “Ba’ath” or not, but it has to with the continuation of nationalism, there might rise a new party calling for the same ideas.
According to Talaa, the Ba’ath party’s future can be tackled from two different angles; first from “a revolutionary angle” which calls for dissolving and eradicating the party so to prevent its return to the Syrian political life completely, through “isolation”.
This perspective goes in conformity with the Iraqi experience, where a special committee was formed for this purpose and lists were drawn up containing the names of hundreds of people with close ties with the party. The committee also published lists and issued decisions on the official website of “the Supreme National Authority for Accountability and Justice.”
As for the second angle, it indicates that any political process between the Syrian regime and its opponents includes a political solution with the existence of “Ba’ath Party”, being the ruling party and since it has a number of legal tools which enable the party’s return to Syria’s rule.
From Aflaq to al-Assad
Historical Stages of the “Ba’ath Party”
In 1934, both Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar returned from France to the Syrian capital, Damascus, after their graduation from the French “Sorbonne” University.
Their return was unusual, as they sought to spread their ideas about Arab nationalism and the necessity for the Arab countries’ unity in one single country. Their calls coincided with the ascendancy of Zaki Al-Arsuzi, who is one of the most prominent theoreticians of Arab nationalism.
After six years, in “al-Rashid” cafe located on “the 29th of May Street in Central Damascus”, both al-Bitar and Aflaq announced the establishment of the “Arab Revival Movement” (ARM), before changing its name to the “Ba’ath” instead of “Revival” following “Rashid al-Kilani Revolution” against Britain in Iraq. According to a book entitled “Asad of Syria: The Struggle over the Middle East” by the British writer Patrick Seale, this change in names was linked with to “Ba’ath” being “more radical and deeper”. Later, both al-Bitar and Aflaq applied for the party’s license in 1945, and in 1946 Hafez al-Assad joined the Ba’ath party, which is also the same year in which “al-Ba’ath” newspaper was founded.
In 1952 “the Ba’ath Party” merged with the “Arab Socialist Party” (ASP) led by Akram al-Hourani, to be officially named “The Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party” (ASBP) and to become the second-largest block in the Syrian Parliament following the elections of 1954.
This political life in Syria did not last long, and soon unity was announced between Egypt and Syria in 1958. This led to the abolition of parties, including the “Ba’ath Party”, until 1961, which witnessed a military coup by Abdel Karim Nahlawi, followed by the return of the parliamentary life to Syria and the election of Nazim al-Qudsi as president.
During the years of unity, the late Egyptian President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, decided to transfer Syrian officers to Egypt, among whom was Hafez al-Assad, who along with Salah Jadid formed the “Military Committee” in Cairo, which ruled Syria for seven consecutive years.
In 1963, the “Military Committee”, composed of Hafez al-Assad, Muhammad Imran, Abdul Karim al-Jundi, Salah Jadid and Ahmed al-Meir, announced a military coup with the blessing of the “Civil Committee” in the party. The coup was later called the “8th March Revolution,” a date which coincides with the anniversary of the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in Syria, when Faisal Bin Hussein was proclaimed king of Syria in 1920.
Soon political disputes broke out between both committees, which led to Salah al-Bitar and Michel Aflaq exclusion from the party. at that time, the “Military Committee” took over in 1966 in what was called the “February 22 Movement”.
After dissolving the “Civil Committee”, a new conflict erupted between Hafez al-Assad and Salah Jadid about a number of political issues, including the defeat of 1967. Back then, Hafez al-Assad held the position of the Minister of Defense and showed his support to Palestinians against the Jordanian king in what was called the “Black September”. Meantime, in 1971 Hafez al-Assad led what he called the “Corrective Movement,” and arrested his comrades and took over, issued a new constitution that contained the eighth article which states: “The Ba’ath Party is the leader of the state and society.”
Following the coup of 1966, both Aflaq and al-Bitar fled to Beirut, then Aflaq headed to Iraq and joined the Iraqi branch of “Ba’ath Party” there. This prompted al-Assad to communicate with Salah al-Bitar and try to find a political balance. Both men met in 1978 amid extremely complex political circumstances, according to an article published by Salah Nayouf in 2005 in a journal called the “Civilized Dialogue.”
Al-Assad failed to convince al-Bitar who returned to his exile in Paris and founded a magazine called the “Arab Revival” through which he criticized al-Assad and communicated with the latter’s opponents, until his assassination in 1982. Meantime, Michel Aflaq died in Paris and was buried in Baghdad in 1989.
“Military Committee” …a bloody end
The “Corrective Movement” came after al-Assad disposed of his comrades, where both Salah Jadid and Hafez al-Assad agreed to get rid of Muhammad Imran because the latter insisted on restoring unity with Egypt. Imran was arrested in 1966 and was later released in 1967. Later, he left to Tripoli in Lebanon where he was assassinated in 1972 at his doorstep despite warnings about attempts to assassinate him.
As for Abd al-Karim al-Jundi he committed suicide when he heard about sending a patrol to arrest him, after being politically besieged by Hafez al-Assad in 1969. Al-Jundi left a note accusing al-Assad of treason and talked about his views regarding the political conflicts between the different wings of the “Ba’ath Party.”
Salah Jadid died in 1993 in the Mezze military prison where he was jailed following the 1970 coup, while Ahmed al-Meir, who was relieved of his position as commander of the Golan in 1968 by al-Assad and engaged in the diplomatic work, died in 2007.
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