The Ba’ath (“Renaissance” in Arabic) was a pan-Arab political party founded by Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din Bitar. From Syria, Aflaq (1910–89) came from a Greek Orthodox family; he studied at the Sorbonne and became a teacher in a well-known secondary school in Damascus. Bitar (1912–80), from a prominent Damascene Sunni Muslim family, also studied in France and taught at the same school as Aflaq.
In 1940 they led a small group known as the Movement of Arab Renaissance, or Ba’ath, that professed a pan-Arab, anti-imperialism program. Aflaq was the preeminent ideologue of the party, which published a series of papers dealing with Arab nationalism, Arab union, and Arab socialism, as opposed to a strictly Marxist ideology. The party’s motto was “Unity, Freedom, Socialism.”
In 1947 the group merged with another nationalist party to form the Arab Ba’ath Party. The new party attracted members including nationalistic youth; disaffected minorities, especially the Alawites in Syria; and young army officers.
In 1953 the party unified with Akram Hourani’s Arab Socialist Party to become the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party. A popular nationalist, Hourani had a far wider following than Aflaq, and his participation in the party enlarged its support and membership.
The party was organized into cells on the grassroots level, giving it considerable flexibility. Groups of cells (two to seven) were formed into party divisions that merged into party sections representing entire towns or rural districts and, at the highest level, party branches. At periodic party congresses all the party branches met. The national command was the executive that exercised considerable power from the top down.
In 1958 the Ba’ath strongly supported the creation of the United Arab Republic but became disenchanted with having to take a secondary role to that of Nasser and Egypt. The Ba’ath supported Syria’s withdrawal from the union in 1961, and a military coup in 1963 brought the Ba’ath into power. Bitar and Aflaq both supported the so-called civilian wing of the party versus the military wing, but they were outmaneuvered in 1966.
Although he retained the title of secretary-general of the party, Aflaq held no real power and went into exile. He ultimately moved to Baghdad in 1974, where he enjoyed considerable respect but no real power. In 1989 Aflaq died, whereupon the Iraqi regime announced that he had converted to Islam prior to his death.
After considerable infighting among Ba’athist officers in Syria, Hafez al-Assad seized power in 1970 and proceeded to establish a regime that lasted into the 21st century. Bitar split from the party owing to disagreements with the Assad regime; he went into exile in Paris, where he was assassinated—possibly by Syrian intelligence—in 1980.
The Ba’ath established branches in Jordan, Lebanon, North and South Yemen, and other Arab states. Al-Saiqa was the Palestinian branch of the Ba’ath under control of Syria. Although these separate branches played some limited political roles in their respective countries, Syria and Iraq remained the centers of the party’s power.
In Iraq the Ba’ath Party came to power in 1963 under Abd al-Salem Arif, but internal disputes again led to its loss of power. Under General Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, who led a military coup in 1968, the Ba’ath returned to power. Although most Iraqi Ba’athists were not professional soldiers, they attracted considerable support from the military.
Bakr’s main protégé, Saddam Hussein, a committed Ba’athist, ousted his mentor from power in 1979. Assad in Syria and Hussein in Iraq became bitter rivals, but both claimed to represent the real Ba’ath Party. Although both leaders professed their commitment to pan-Arabism, they adopted increasingly nationalistic policies to retain power. The Ba’ath Party in Iraq was dismantled after the U.S. invasion in 2003 but remained in power under Bashar al-Assad in Syria.