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The Baath Party: A History of Internal Divisions | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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The Baath Party: A History of Internal Divisions

The Baath Party: A History of Internal Divisions

The Baath Party: A History of Internal Divisions

Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat- Abdul Halim Khaddam’s split from the national leadership of the Syrian Arab Socialist Baath Party and exit from Syria was not the first nor will it be the last. The former vice- president’s involvement in the party spawned decades; he was one of the founders of the current leadership.

In fact, the Baath Party has seen numerous splits and divisions since it was founded in the 1940s. Each secession had its own unique background, transpired as a result of specific motives and brought about a host of consequences. The same applies to Khaddam’s recent split. It is difficult understanding the history of the party without understanding its splits and internal divisions.

The Baath party was officially founded in 1947 by Michel Aflaq, its main ideologue, and Salah Bitar, the intellectual and politician, and Jalal al Sayyid, a politician and member of the Syrian parliament. The Arab Socialist Party, a party headed by Akram al Hurani had similar objectives. Both groups focused on Syria but the Baathist had branches in Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. In 1951, the two parties united under the new name of Arab Socialist Baath Party. However, since then, internal rifts have plagued the party.

The first division occurred because Jalal al Sayyid, one of the Baath’s three founders, did not accept al Hurani’s membership. He resigned in 1955 and became the first leading figure to leave the party. He never formed another political group.

When Egypt and Syria united to form the United Arab Republic in 1958, the Baath party voluntarily dissolved itself as a contribution to ensure the success of the union. The decision led to disputes among party members. When disagreements between President Jamal Abdul Nasser and the Baath party multiplied in 1959, the group became ripe for splits and divisions. The then president of the Baath’s branch in Jordan Abdullah Ghinawi, a former member of parliament and minister, left the party to form “the revolutionary leadership of the Arab Socialist Baath party” but his efforts came to no avail.

In 1960, a conflict with Iraqi occurred when Fuad al Rikabi, the group’s secretary general in Iraq and minister in the first Iraqi cabinet after the July 1958 revolution resigned over differences about the relationship with Nasser. Other Iraqi Baathist soon joined him.

After the union was dissolved in 1961, the party witnessed several splits. Three main factions appeared. The first, represented by the Socialist Unionist Movement, called for a return to unity with Egypt. The second, represented by Akram al Hurani, called for guarantees to avoid repeating what happened during unification. As for the third, it was represented by the mainstream nationalist leadership of Michel Aflaq and Salah Bitar, as well the Baath party branch in Iraq, which was gaining strength and readying itself to seize power.

Amid this tense atmosphere, the Baath party held its fifth national conference in Homs , Syria , in May 1962. Instead of ending the divisions, the meeting cemented them. The first faction, the Socialist Unionist Movement emerged as independent. Other Baath members, the “Syrian Regional Command” objected to the party’s dissolution and held Aflaq, al Hurani and Bitar responsible. They sought to reorganize the party without its founding ideologues. A third group emerged, led by al Hurani and calling itself the Arab Socialist Movement.

For the first time in its history, on 8 February 1963, the Baath party came to power in Iraq. This was followed by yet another military coup in Syria, in March, which also brought the Baath to power. However, with the failure of the Iraqi Baathist to hold on to power (it lasted until November of that year), division emerged about how to analyze that brief reign. Ali Saleh al Saadi and several prominent members split after accusing the historical leaders of being Leninists. They formed a leftist-Marxist faction called the Arab Socialist Leftist Baath.

In Syria, the Baath remained in power but was beset by the rivalries between its two wings: the historical leaders such as Aflaq and Bitar on one hand and the military faction led by Salah Jadid and Hafez Assad on the other. In February 1966, the military wing overthrew Aflaq and Bitar, thereby creating the most significant division in the Baath party’s history.

At the time, the party was strong in Iraq, under the leadership of Saddam Hussein and Ahmad Hassan al Bakr. They were keen on maintaining strong ties with the Syrian regime in order to ensure support for its program in Iraq. But the Syrian branch, and especially Salah Jadid, was suspicious of Iraqi intentions. Under Noureddin al Atassi took the decision to suspend the membership of al Bakr and Hussein. As result, the Baath party was split in two: one headed by Michel Aflaq and the other by its Secretary General al Atassi. Two parties with the same name by rival leaders emerged. One was based in Damascus and the other was without a base, until the Baath seized power in Iraq in July 1968.

Two years later, a dispute erupted among Baath leaders in Syria, pitting a faction led by Salah Jadid against a group led by Hafez Assad. The latter succeed in gaining power in what he called “the Corrective Movement” in 1970. He jailed other high-ranking officials, including Syrians, Palestinians, Jordanians and Iraqis. Many died in prison. A new national leadership emerged which included Assad, Abdul Halim Khaddam, Abdullah al Ahmar and Mohammed Haidar.

In the meantime, after the Baath reached power in Iraq, differences emerged on the nature of the relationship between the different branches of the group and the legitimacy of seizing power in a military coup. Aflaq moved to Beirut but returned to Iraq because of the Lebanese civil war.

The Lebanese branch loyal to the Baath Party in Iraq rebelled. Maan Bashour, Beshara Merhij (a former Lebanese minister and member of parliament), Habib Barakat, Habib Zogeib, Hussein Othman and Ahmad al Sufi formed a new splinter organization called “the Federation of Popular Leagues and Committees”.

During the late Hafez Al-Assad’s reign, the Syrian Baath witnessed only one split when the president’s brother, Rifaat Assad, who was vice-president at the time, launched an unsuccessful coup in 1983, while the president was in hospital suffering from a heart attack. The president defeated Rifaat’s “defense brigades and sent his brother to exile where he remains until this day, trying to form an effective opposition. A number of officers and leading officials left the party prior to the death of Hafez Assad and afterwards but they remained nominally part of the Baath to pave the way for a new leadership to seize control.