|Syria's Ba'athists loosen the reins
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - A new Ba'ath Party law is to be created in Syria, breaking the
socialist parties' monopoly over politics in that country, in place (with the
exception of the years 1961-63) since 1958. The move is a calculated gamble on
the part of the government, and will also challenge a US bill against Syria
calling for "Assistance to Support a Transition to Democracy in Syria".
On March 8, 1963, the Military Committee of the Ba'ath Party came to power in
Syria, pledging to restore the Syrian-Egyptian Union of 1958. All parties that
had supported the post-union order were outlawed, creating a one-party state in
Syria, headed by the Ba'ath, modeled after Gamal Abd al-Nasser's Egypt since
The offices of the Communist Party, the Syrian Social Cooperative Party, the
Muslim Brotherhood, the Arab Liberation Movement, the National Party and the
People's Party were all shut down, and their newspapers were banned. Already on
the blacklist of political parties in Syria since 1955 was the Syrian Social
Nationalist Party (SSNP).
Over the years, as the founders and members of these political parties died,
either in exile, jail or political retirement, the parties evaporated from the
consciousness of the four generations that emerged in Syria. The only
exceptions were the Muslim Brotherhood and the SSNP, which although banned (for
different reasons) remained popular, and the Communist Party, which decided to
cooperate with the Ba'athists after 1970 to avoid the fate of other parties in
The 1974 party law, which laid ground for the National Progressive Front (NPF),
a parliamentary coalition headed by the Ba'ath, allowed more parties to emerge,
yet conditioned that they had to be from the socialist orbit. President Hafez
Assad ended the one-party system, conditioning, however, that new parties be
socialist ones, and allowed the creation of other socialist parties such
as the Arab Unionist Party, the Democratic Socialist Party and the Unity
The NPF monopolized power in the hands of the socialists, who functioned under
the umbrella of the Ba'ath. Apart from the Ba'ath, which has nearly 2 million
members, these parties have no power base throughout Syria. In 2000,
independent figures tried to re-establish the National Party of Damascus and
the People's Party of Aleppo, but for a variety of reasons the projects never
materialized. The SSNP reactivated itself in public life, and so did the
Communist Party in 2001, by republishing its two political weeklies, outlawed
since 1958, al-Nour (The Light) and Sawt al-Shaab (Voice of the People). In
February 2001, vice president Abd al-Halim Khaddam reportedly promised Riyad
Sayf, the Damascus deputy in parliament, a new party law for Syria.
For various reasons, that did not happen in 2001, but today it is almost
certain in Damascus that a new party law will be created, and announced at the
upcoming Ba'ath Party Conference in June, breaking the socialist parties'
monopoly over politics in Syria. President Bashar Assad was very clear about
that when speaking to Spanish journalists in Syria in March. He said, "The
coming period will be one of freedom for political parties" in Syria.
In 1973, Article 8 of Syria's new constitution said the Ba'ath Party was the
ruling party of the state and society. Ba'athist Syria was modeled after the
USSR with regard to the ruling party and its relationship with state and
society. Just as in Syria, the Communist Party of the USSR became
virtually indistinguishable from the USSR, from the Bolshevik Revolution
of 1917 until the Communist Party Conference of 1986, after which membership
dropped significantly. When the conference took place, the USSR had 19 million
people registered in the Communist Party. In Syria, with different proportions,
the number is 1.8 million.
In both Damascus and Moscow, membership in the party became a privilege, and a
guaranteed path to success in government, society and the civil service. The
Ba'athists created the political elite of Syria from the 1960s onward,
just as the communists did in the USSR. It became virtually impossible, in
both the USSR and Syria, to assume senior government office without being a
member of the ruling party. Some joined out of conviction, yet most out of a
desire to advance in the civil service, military, diplomatic corps and
government institutions. Not anybody could become a Ba'athist. And not
everybody could become a Communist. One had to be recommended by an existing
member, and one's past was closely studied. The slightest history of deviance
was enough to turn down membership application. As several consecutive
generations grew up under one-party rule, it became normal, and in some cases
expected, for an ambitious man or woman to join the Ba'ath Party.
In the USSR, a youth organization was founded called the "Young Pioneers",
where young members would join until the age of 14, from which time they would
become members of the Komsomol (Young Communist League) before becoming
full-time members in the Communist Party. In Syria, the steps were repeated,
only replaced with the Ba'ath Pioneers, Revolutionary Youth, and eventually
full-time membership in the Ba'ath Party.
The SSNP in today's Syria
Under the new party law expected in June, parties not affiliated with the NPF
will be permitted to operate as long as they are not Islamic, or encourage
sub-national loyalties (eg Kurdish, Circassian, Armenian, etc). The first party
expected to receive a license is the SSNP. It is also the party expected to
obtain the widest popularity in Syria.
Founded in Beirut in 1932, originally as a secret society of five
intellectuals, by the revolutionary philosopher Antune Saada, it grew into an
official party and became immensely popular in Syria from the 1940s onward. A
radical and secular party, it originally flourished among students at the
American University of Beirut and spread to other intellectual centers in
Lebanon and Syria, calling for the unification of Greater Syria (Syria,
Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Jordan), and challenging the ideas of modern Arab
nationalism that became popular in the 1950s under Nasser of Egypt. Meaning,
the SSNP was uninterested in North Africa (Egypt included) or the Arab Gulf
It was outlawed in Syria in 1955 when some of its members were accused of
assassinating Adnan al-Malki, the deputy chief of staff of the Syrian army.
Malki was an Arab nationalist, an ally of the Ba'ath, and his brother Riyad was
a ranking Ba'athist in Syria. Authorities cracked down on the party, forcing it
to move underground, and greatly persecuted SSNP members from 1955 onward.
Restrictions softened when Hafez Assad came to power in 1970, reportedly
because he sympathized with the SSNP, and in February 2001, his son, President
Bashar Assad, gave an interview to the Jordanian weekly al-Majd saying that he
"did not mind" a relaunch of the SSNP in Syria. A few months later, the SSNP
was permitted to attend a meeting of the NPF as an "observer".
This was seen as an indicator that the state was willing to grant more freedoms
to the SSNP, especially since it tolerated its members having seats in
parliament. After an uprising started in Palestine in September 2000, the party
was permitted to stage a rally in Damascus, in favor of the Palestinian
resistance, for the first time in 50 years. This month, Assad received a
delegation of SSNP leaders in Damascus, including Issam al-Mahayri, the aging
secretary general of its Syria branch since the party founder's death in 1949.
All of these are indicators that the SSNP is back on its way to becoming a main
factor in political life in Syria. The failure of modern Arab nationalism, and
the distance of countries once considered as solid Arab "brothers" such
as Libya, Sudan, Morocco, Kuwait, Yemen and Oman, all explain why the
concept of Greater Syria is on the rise in modern Syria. Of all the other
parties that will be authorized, the SSNP probably has the largest power base
(unofficially estimated at more than 90,000), matched only by the
Other parties expected to emerge are the Coalition for Union and Democracy, a
Nasserite organization, and the Arab Socialist Union of Jamal al-Atasi, a party
that is Arab nationalist in outlook, pro-Nasser, relatively popular in Syria,
which deviated from NPF ranks for ideological reasons in the 1970s.
If the arrested Damascus parliamentarian Riyad Sayf is released from jail (his
prison term ends in 2007), he will strive to re-establish his Movement for
Social Peace. An unofficial party, it was created and abrogated in 2000,
lobbying for the creation of a multi-party system, a release of political
prisoners, and an end to socialism in Syria. If no legal obstacle prevents him
from getting a license (he might be stripped from his civil rights), then Sayf
might succeed and his party would win during election time, because he is
popular in Damascus.
A moderate Islamic party might be permitted to operate under the leadership of
Dr Mohammad Habash, the regime-friendly Islamist deputy in the Syrian
parliament, but no license will be given to the Muslim Brotherhood, which tried
and failed to topple the Assad regime in 1982, inflicting a lot of blood in
Law No 49, which makes membership in the Brotherhood a criminal offense
punishable by the death penalty, will most probably be abolished in the
upcoming Ba'ath Party conference. This is seen as a gesture on the behalf of
the government to build bridges with its opponents. Other similar gestures have
been the return to the country of General Jasem Alwan, a Nasserist officer who
tried to topple the Ba'athist regime in July 1963, four months after it had
come to power. He was sentenced to death, escaped to Egypt, and ever since has
been a loud critic of Ba'athist Syria.
Having spent more than 40 years in banishment, he returned to Syria this month,
and so did Yusuf Abdelki, a popular and widely respected artist, persecuted and
arrested previously for his communist views. Abd al-Hamid al-Sarraj, the
ruthless director of intelligence who persecuted the Ba'athists from
1958-61, and has also been in Egypt ever since, is also due for return in 2005.
Probably, in a healthy political environment, independents will strive to
re-establish the National Party of Damascus, loyal in the 1950s to Syria's late
president Shukri al-Quwatli, who died in 1967, and others will work for the
People's Party of Aleppo, whose president and co-founder Nazim al-Qudsi died in
1998. Both parties were non-ideological, unlike the Ba'ath and communists, but
rather mirrored the socio-political interests of their respective communities,
and promised to represent them adequately in parliament during the 1940s and
The National Party ruled Syria from 1946 to 1949, and again in 1955-58, while
the People's Party reigned in 1949-51 and 1961-63. These parties did not have
firm objectives, and were pragmatic, doing what was in their communities'
interest to survive politically. When it was popular to demand union with Iraq
in 1949, for example, the National Party did that, yet when it became needed to
support a union with Egypt instead in 1958, it also did just that.
The new generation of Syrians will head toward politicians who have no
ideological convictions, and are working only for the interests of their
respective communities. It is not a crime in politics, contrary to what many
believe, to be pragmatic, and change sides and convictions according to needs
and circumstances. Since ideologies have failed their founders all over the
world, these non-ideological parties will probably be the most popular if a
true multi-party system emerges in Syria.
In 2000, Paris-based Syrian businessman Umran Adham tried to re-establish
Quwatli's National Party, but the project was delayed "because the state was
unenthusiastic". A legal team was put in charge of paperwork, and the National
Party's 1946 constitution was updated to apply to modern Syria. Adham had
explained that the party should be ready by late 2001 and able to take part in
the parliamentary elections of 2002. He then spoke to the Beirut-based Daily
Star and said the project had been delayed "for another three to four years".
He added that he had "sent out signals" showing that the project was ready and
awaiting approval, and received "an extremely passive response" from senior
state officials, showing that no Ba'athist leaders wanted to resurrect the
National Party in 2001.
Today, the mood is different in Damascus. It is very likely that a resurrection
for the National Party, the People's Party and the SSNP will happen. To
succeed, they need credible people to lead them. The success of the National
Party, for example, was due to the immense popularity and trust that people had
in its unblemished leader Quwatli and his prime ally Sabri al-Asali. There
aren't many people in Syria today with the caliber of someone like Quwatli to
inspire immediate confidence among the public. Without real leaders, both the
National Party and People's Party will be failures.
The question that many are asking: "Why now?" Why has the Syrian government
decided to create a multiparty system which might challenge the power of the
Ba'athists? Contrary to what many believe, the Ba'ath Party is very strong in
Syria, and has a lot of active supporters. Changing the views of a society
indoctrinated with Ba'athist views since 1963 will not be easy. The masses, who
generally lack a proper democratic culture, will not readily join other
political parties, especially ones that challenge Ba'athist ideology.
This is the exact reason. The state is confident enough that no real threat
will be presented to its power if a multi-party system emerges in Syria. Let
the parties operate, and let them win parliamentary seats. The ruling party of
the state and society will still be the Ba'ath Party, since amending Article 8
of the constitution, which gives it that leadership status, will not be
discussed at the upcoming conference. A multi-party system will threaten
nobody, and yet be greatly welcomed by the Syrian masses, who are demanding
such a kind of political reform in Syria.
The Syrian masses will be pleased, and the Syrian government will get good
public relations credit for it. It will also challenge a US bill against Syria,
presented on March 8 in the House of Representatives, calling for "Assistance
to Support a Transition to Democracy in Syria". It reads: "The president is
authorized to provide assistance and other support for individuals and
independent non-governmental organizations to support transition to a freely
elected, internationally recognized democratic government in Syria."
The message from the public and government alike in Damascus is clear: there is
no need for US help, the Syrians will democratize on their own, at will.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.
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