I’ve almost finished Nikolaos van Dam’s stunning book The Struggle for Power in Syria, which was first published in 1979 as a doctoral dissertation but proved so popular and informative that it has since been updated and re-published a further three times, most recently in 2010. The first six chapters explore the political and sectarian machinations behind the coming to power of the Ba’th party and of Hafiz al-Assad, along with an exhaustive analysis of the fluctuating representation of each of Syria’s national minorities in government from 1948 to 1976. The last four chapters discuss the ramifications of the information presented in the first half, along with accounts of the Hama massacre, the purge of Rif’at al-Assad, and Bashar’s accession to power in 2000. It is horrifically well-researched and incisive, if a bit statistic-heavy at times, and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone with the merest whiff of interest in Syria.
As I read The Struggle for Power, I kept coming across bits of information or analysis which related to Syria’s current hideous situation. There are many events in the past which have a bearing on the attitude held towards the opposition – by both the government and large segments of the Syrian population – which are frequently ignored or simplified. This is in no way a defence of these ways of thinking: rather, it’s an explanation of the associations some elements of the Civil War will have for large segments of the population – particularly the low-level Ba’th Party members, loyalist Alawites, and many members of the urban religious minoritarian groups. Of course, the degree to which the inner members of the government themselves believe that the opposition is comparable to the Muslim Brotherhood or other anti-Ba’th groups is impossible to gauge. However, that hardly matters – even if many of them don’t believe it, that won’t stop them exaggerating the comparisons for their own gains.
Here, then, are my thoughts, in a fairly disorganised fashion:
Salim Hatum’s Druze Revolt: In September 1966, soon after the second Ba’thist coup by Salah Jadid against Amin al-Hafiz (who had himself come to power in a coup in 1963), there was a further coup attempted by a Druze Ba’thist military officer named Salim Hatum. Hatum succeeded in arresting many high-level Ba’th Party officials in Suwayda, although he gave in swiftly after Hafiz al-Asad, who was at that Minister of Defence, sent tanks into the south and threatened to destroy the city. This attempt, the first challenge to Alawite Ba’thist rule since its accession to power earlier that year, led to the expulsion of huge numbers of Druze from the ranks of the Ba’th Party. Even now, although the provinces of the Hawran are overrepresented among the civilian party apparatus, there are no Druze officers in the Party’s military command, which holds the real power. Hatum’s revolt, abortive though it was, will have come to the minds of more than a few Ba’thists during the initial stages of the war last March and April, when the Hawran was awash in protest.
Hama, 1982: The comparison with Hama has been worked to death, especially over the last year as the clashes and violence have intensified. Either the government calls on it, tacitly, to compare the opposition movement to the campaign of assassinations that the Muslim Brotherhood waged in the late 70s and early 80s, or the opposition calls on it to illustrate the magnitude of overreaction of which the Ba’thist government is capable. However, even when Western journalists pepper their Syria dispatches with mentions of Hama, they still refuse to engage with the scale of violence that was visited upon the city. Thus, the massacre of several hundred people or the occasional use of jets and bombers can be unironically referred to as “the full force of the regime”. Dreadful though these events are, rough estimates calculate that the total number of dead in the Civil War since last March is still lower than the number of Hamwis who were killed in February 1982.
I would point those who doubt that the government could call on such force again because of high levels of defections to the situation in Syria prior to the destruction of Hama. Hafiz al-Assad had been in power for just over ten years, and for much of that time the specific makeup of the institutions of power had been changing frequently as people were discovered not to have been at loyal as expected. On top of this, there had been years of assassinations and attacks against the government from a group which, unlike the modern opposition, was genuinely and deliberately attempting to split society – and the army – along sectarian lines. Hafiz al-Assad countered these attempts and crushed the resistance, then spent the next twenty years keeping the same people in power. When their positions were replaced under Bashar, it was usually by their own sons (Mustafa and Manaf Tlass, Rami and Adnan Makhlouf). While the greater part of the civilian ranks of the Party and the government is not Alawite, they dominate the military in such a way that potentially restive elements are matched at every level by loyal elements – a policy introduced in the run-up to the massacre in Hama.
Hama has another lesson for us, aside from military strategy: sectarianism. Current journalistic opinion sends to regard the Muslim Brotherhood in those days as just another opposition movement. But for Syrians who were alive during those years, the campaign of assassinations and attacks had the same effect as the IRA bombings did on this country, and they enjoyed roughly the same level of popularity. Although the events are never spoken of, everybody is aware of them, and the failure of the current opposition to effectively distance itself from what many Syrians fear it represents accounts in part for its inability to proceed.
The various inaccurate characterisations of the opposition movement as Islamists and bandits produced by the Syrian government are not just simple slander – they are based on a terror of the possibility of a resurgence of that campaign and its eventual result for the Alawites should they come out on the losing side. In the current war, as back in 1982, the Alawites perceive this as an existential struggle. For the Brotherhood’s opposition to Ba’thist government was not simply for being secular – it was for being Alawite, a term which was used with disgust by the governments of both Egypt and Jordan during the 1970s and 1980s to describe Hafiz al-Assad’s rule. In most of the Brotherhood’s announcements they described the Alawites as ‘Nusayris’. This term, originating with Muhammad ibn Nusayr, who is regarded by orthodox Islam as a wild and dangerous extremist, distances the Alawites from other Muslims. It has been experiencing a resurgence since the beginning of the present crisis along with the rise to prominence of groups like the Al-Nusra Front. Although the FSA may regard controlling the more fundamentalist elements as a mere public relations exercise, it will make the situation far more stable if the government does actually collapse.
Ideology and Sectarian Power: During the period of inter-Ba’thist strife between 1963 and 1970, van Dam notes that the opposing blocks within the Party formed along regional and sectarian lines rather than ideological ones. This is in marked contrast to the behaviour of the ruling party in the USSR, whereby each Soviet leader had his own philosophy which the leaders of the other bloc nations were expected to follow (hence Stalin’s dismissal of Władysław Gomułka from being de facto leader of Poland in 1948 because he suspected him of being a Titoist, and hence also Khrushchev’s reversal of this decision eight years later).
But no matter how rigidly the Ba’th Party adhered to its principles while governing, the clashes and coups which took place during the early Ba’thist era were caused entirely by regional discrepancies between politicians rather than disagreements over policy. There was usually a veneer of political rationale because the topic of sectarianism was utterly off-limits for discussion: during Salim Hatum’s revolt, he objected to the expulsion of ‘leftists‘ from the party. But when the revolt was over, all the Druze members of the armed forces were purged  because they were assumed, however unjustly, to have been on Hatum’s side. Similarly, after the destruction of Hama (see below), huge numbers of loyal party members from the city were rounded up and shot because they were Sunni. In its attempt to prevent the country from splitting down sectarian lines, the Ba’th Party instead cracked it wide open.
This process accelerated towards the end of the 1960s, and although further groups were purged from government it was not until the run-up to the Corrective Revolution of 1970 that a genuinely doctrinal power struggle took place. In that instance, Hafiz al-Assad, who represented the military wing of the Ba’th Party, overthrew Salah Jadid, who was the head of the civilian party apparatus. Such was the regional concentration of power by this point that both Assad and Jadid came from the same part of Lattakia province.
In fact, Saddam Hussein came to power as head of the Iraqi Ba’th Party by overthrowing his Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr. Both were from Tikrit, although the Iraqi Ba’th Party tried to suppress the fact by banning regional names such as Tikriti in the mid-70s. Tikrit was actually the village where the Americans captured Saddam Hussein in 2003. Given the apparent homing instincts of Arab leaders under threat (Gaddafi), I wonder if Bashar al-Assad will yet be run to ground in the outskirts of al-Qardaha.
But why should we care at all about the origins of Ba’thist rule, and the complex power struggles of the 60s? Firstly, to understand the composition of the Ba’thist government and the background of its relationship to other religious groups in Syria. Secondly – and far more importantly – the process by which the Ba’th Party, and Hafiz al-Assad’s Corrective Revolution in particular, came to prominence during the 1960s has implications for the current Syrian opposition which they seem to be ignoring.
If a group, no matter what its ideological inclinations, seeks to come to power in any country, it needs a strong base from which to launch its campaign (military or electoral). In a country as religiously and ethnically fragmented as Syria, those in charge of the group will look to those who share their identities first. Even if the various strands of the movement manage to come together as one body, unless earnest steps are taken to tie everyone together, they will come apart again. For the Ba’thists, despite their early unified successes, layer upon layer was gradually peeled away until (some of) the Alawites were the only ones left standing. That a fiercely secular and anti-sectarian organisation such as the Ba’th Party, with its long history of activity in Syria, considerable if unbalanced party membership, and unified organisational structure, gave in to this madness does not give me hope for the governmental prospects of the divided Syrian opposition.
 I should mentioned that with the exception of in Hama in 1982, being ‘purged’ usually meant being dismissed from the Party or from a position of importance rather than being a Stalinist euphemism for execution.