Until the adoption of the new Syrian constitution in February 2012, the Baath Party enjoyed exceptional status in Syria. It is formally recognized as the “leader of the state and society” in Syria according to the 1973 constitutional amendment that solidified the party’s status. But this mainstay of the Syrian regime, which by official count had 2.5 million members in January 2011, has been slowly deteriorating since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011.
The progressive alienation of the party’s cadres as violence intensified, as well as the increased involvement of the state’s security services in directing the party, defeated the Baath’s efforts to spearhead a political counteroffensive and regain popular support for the regime. Voter disinterest in the May 2012 general elections and the defection of several senior party officials since July reflect the party’s advancing paralysis. This decline has, in turn, contributed to the breakdown of the country’s administration, which is inextricably intertwined with the Baath Party, and further undermined the power base of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Structures of the Baathist State
The Baath Party has an extensive network of command structures at the national, provincial, and district levels in Syria. The regime has pursued its counterrevolutionary strategy through those command structures and through the corresponding state institutions—central ministries, governorates, and municipalities.
At the highest level of state, the Baath Party’s Regional Command determines the broad strokes of Syrian national policy and mobilizes the party’s militants in order to ensure public support. It oversees the translation of those broad lines into actual policies by the government. The leaders of the Regional Command (fourteen members in total) are the highest-ranking state officials: the president, the prime minister, and the president of parliament—all ex officio members—as well as the vice president and the minister of defense.
The appointment of Regional Command members is itself approved by the Baath Party’s Central Committee, which currently has 96 members and is usually elected by the party congress every five years. The Central Committee ensures that the policy lines of the Regional Command are aligned with the resolutions of the congress. The members of the Central Committee hold high-level positions in the state administration, the diplomatic service, trade unions, and other working-class associations, such as the Union of Journalists or the Union of Syrian Students, and also in the military, security, and intelligence services.
More than a dozen senior officers are members of the Central Committee, including the president’s brother, Maher al-Assad. The most influential of these officers form the Military Committee, a secret body that was officially dissolved in April 1965 but in reality is still active and plays a key role in strategic policy decisions as well as high-level appointments.
At the provincial and district levels (the governorates and municipalities), the Baath Party is integrated into the Syrian state through the its branches (furu’) and the branches’ subordinate units, called sections (shu’ab), groups (furaq), and cells (halaqat). The branches ensure that the party’s resolutions are implemented by the governorate administration in the country’s fourteen provinces, and they supervise the mobilization of the lower-level sections, groups, and cells. They also coordinate the actions of the party and the government at the governorate level, participating in budget and public policy discussions and submitting their nominations to the governor for the posts of provincial and district officials, who then act as additional intermediaries between the central government and traditional local leaders. The governor, an ex officio member of the party’s provincial branch, is appointed by President Assad and generally drawn from party ranks.
Similarly, a majority of members elected to municipal councils are drawn from the Baath Party. The army also has its own party branches, sections, groups, and cells, and it organizes elections to select the officers who will represent it within the party. Finally, trade unions and local organizations are tied to the Baath Party as well because the Regional Command oversees a trade unions office that acts as an umbrella organization for union activities throughout the country.
Loss of Authority and Leadership Defections
Despite the Baath Party’s long-standing control in Syria, the party leadership has largely been superseded by the military, intelligence, and security services. As the highest party organ, the Regional Command should, in principle, have been in charge of setting policy for dealing with the uprising. Instead, it was relegated to a subordinate role. Alongside the Central Committee and the Military Committee, the intelligence services and the army imposed their own violent nationwide anti-protest strategy on the country.
Thus, the Regional Command partially lost its authority over the Baath civil apparatus. This was apparent, for example, in the party elections conducted in 2011 and early 2012. Although this was an internal party matter that should have been under the exclusive purview of the Regional Command, it was the heads of the intelligence services who chose the delegates to represent the governorates—including Damascus, Suweida, Hasaka, Aleppo, and Hama—at the forthcoming eleventh party congress (postponed indefinitely since February 2012).
This loss of influence was directly linked to the Regional Command’s inability to execute its core roles: mobilizing party militants and reassuring domestic public support. With a weakened Regional Command, the security services and the military were able to step in and take over, particularly in disputed governorates in which the regime and the opposition continue to struggle for power such as Houran, Hama, Homs, Deir Ez-Zor, Aleppo, and Damascus suburbs. Among the Regional Command’s civilian members, only Mohammed Sa’id Bkheitan, who was responsible for the countrywide coordination of the security services, has retained influence within the Syrian government.
The Regional Command’s loss of influence has spread to lower levels of government as well. Today, apart from the party branch of the security forces, all branches of the Baath, whether at the governorate or district level, are nonoperational. They are no longer able to lead the political process, report to the Regional Command concerning the situation on the ground, or provide economic and social information. In addition, Regional Command leaders witnessed the alienation, and indeed defection, of branch secretaries—the Baath Party’s most senior representatives in the provinces.
The phenomenon of party defection has been particularly noticeable in regions where demonstrations were fiercely repressed such as Houran, Latakia, Hama, and Homs. In Deraa, local party leaders and active members were defecting as early as March 2011. Indeed, the branch tried to organize a large political rally, calling on 3,000–4,000 party members and supporters from across the province. However, less than 100 people actually showed up, forcing the branch secretary to hold a modest meeting instead.
Gradually, members of the different branches have also distanced themselves from the operations conducted by the security forces throughout the fourteen governorates. While many have refrained from officially defecting, they have stopped actively engaging with the Baath Party. Those officials who continue to swear allegiance to the party are often subjected to threats of retaliation from anti-regime forces. ’Abdul Hamid al-Taha, a well-known Baathist personality in Houran, chose to maintain his candidacy in the parliamentary elections of May 7 and was murdered by anti-regime militias shortly after.
More generally, the relevant party branches are unable to supervise the functioning of provincial administrations. Provincial state services (courts, public transports, schools, health, roads), which have already been seriously affected by the critical security situation, can no longer be efficiently organized and ensured.
The Erosion of the Baath Party’s Base and Authority
A long-standing bastion of support for the Baath Party is also deteriorating. Despite its extensive presence throughout Syrian territory, the Baath Party is losing much of its membership in rural areas. In fact, active membership in rural areas has all but disappeared, draining the party of a social base it has enjoyed for forty years. Members have abandoned party institutions in those governorates most heavily affected by the fighting, and many party activists have defected either to join the protesters, out of fear of reprisals, or because they oppose regime policies.
Former Baath officials have estimated that more than half of the 2.5 million members officially claimed in January 2011 have now left party ranks. Deraa had an estimated 70,000 party members before the start of the uprising, for example, but now has very few active members. Similarly, the party had attracted several thousand younger members, but the massive anti-regime mobilization among Syrian youth since March 2011 makes it likely that most have since turned their backs on the party. The destruction of Baath Party offices in places where it was once well established—on the outskirts of Homs, for example, or in Deraa—reflects the extent of public resentment.
The party structure has progressively fallen apart at the district level much as it has at the provincial level. The municipal councils, which are largely composed of elected Baath officials, are in a state of total disarray. The few services still being provided meet only the most essential needs of the population such as water and electricity—and those services are under the control of the army.
A New Regime Without a Baath Party?
Given this demobilization and demoralization, the Syrian Baath Party no longer has the power to guide the political process and ensure the normal functioning of the state. As a consequence, in the major embattled areas in the north, the local populations have formed village councils and committees to fill the vacuum left by the Baathist central government.
The party is not completely defeated. Despite the defection of former Prime Minister Riyad Hijab and of senior diplomats and military and security officers such as Ambassador Nawaf Fares and Brigadier General Manaf Tlass, the party apparatus still holds at the highest level.
Still, having lost much of its authority, leadership, and support base, it will be difficult for the Baath Party to play a significant role in a future political order. That will be especially true if a post-Assad government dissolves the former ruling party—as the Syrian opposition pledged to do at its July 3 meeting in Cairo.
Yet the Baath Party is so deeply intertwined with the state’s administrative, military, and intelligence services as well as with Syrian labor organizations that a complete political purge may prove unlikely if not impossible.
Souhaïl Belhadj is the author of: Anatomy of Ba’athist Authoritarian State in Syria (forthcoming, 2013).