Syria. In February President Hafiz al-Asad dismissed his brother Rifat al-Asad from the post of Vice President. The two brothers had been on edge before, including 1984 when Hafiz al-Asad forced his brother into exile. In July, several changes took place in the leadership of the military and the security service. According to Countryaah, the capital of Syria is Damascus. Commander-in-Chief Hikmat ash-Shihabi was succeeded by Deputy Commander Ali Aslan and the head of the intelligence service Bashir Najjar was replaced by Mahmud ash-Shaqqa, who had been the regional head of the intelligence service. The changes were considered an attempt by the president to give his son Bashar al-Asad greater influence.
In June, it was reported that over 200 political prisoners have been released from Syrian prisons. However, about 500 political prisoners were estimated to be left. Hafiz al-Asad came to France in July on state visits, his first official visit to Europe since 1976. French human rights organizations and Jewish groups protested against the visit.
Syria’s relations with neighboring Israel and Turkey were tense. Syrian radio reported in February that violent clashes broke out on the Golan Heights between Syrians and Israelis in connection with the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
At the turn of the month of September/October, Turkey demanded that Syria expel the Kurdish guerrilla group PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party; Partia Karkaren Kurdistan) from its bases in Syria and the Lebanese Beka Valley, which Syria controls. Syria surrendered and PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was forced to leave for Russia (see Turkey).
After World War II, the Baath Party became the politically leading party in Syria. It was founded in 1947 by Michel Aflaq and Salah ad-Din Bitar. In the 50s, Baath joined forces with Akram Hawrani’s Socialist Party and formed the Arab Socialist Baath Party. Baath is first and foremost Arab-nationalist, socially progressive, “socialist” – but non-Marxist, declared anti-imperialist. But it also has national romantic and anti-communist tendencies. The passwords are: (Arab) unity, freedom, socialism. The slogans were tried in 1958 when Syria and Egypt formed the United Arab Republic. The ambitious project collapsed in 61, and a new attempt 10 years later also suffered shipwreck.
The social base of the Baath party lies among the middle classes and with the small farmers in the countryside – especially among the minority groups. The connection with the officers in the army – which has been largely recruited from just these layers – has been crucial to Baath’s political power. The party participated in a number of military governments in the 50s and has been in power continuously since 1963. Baath has a “national” (ie, Arabic) leadership with “regional” departments – ie. in every single Arab country. It is also the government-supporting party in Iraq.
The Communist Party was founded in 1924, and from 1932 led by Khaled Bakdash. It has always had a strong influence among the poor rural population and at the grassroots level in the trade union movement – despite Baath’s attempts at control from above. At times, the party was severely persecuted, at other times it had close cooperation with Baath. The party was heavily Moscow-oriented. There is also an illegal Communist Party – outlaws from the official party.
Since 1966, there has been a deep divide between the “national” and Syrian “regional” leadership of Baath with regard to the place of socialism in the party and relations with the Soviet Union. But the split also stems from strong personal rivalry in top management. The left wing in Baath was in the offensive from about 1966 and initiated extensive land reforms and nationalized most major companies in the country. An extensive expansion of the infrastructure took place and oil pipelines were built to transport oil from Iraq. At the same time, an important cooperation agreement with the Soviet Union made the construction of the Tabqa dam possible. It should secure the electricity supply and be used for irrigation systems.
At the same time, a political campaign was waged against the reactionary regimes of the Arab world and propagated for an alliance between the progressive states. During the June 1967 war, Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel and faced a serious refugee problem. The Baath regime led a militant anti-Zionist policy with full support for the Palestinian liberation struggle, until in 1970 a coup by the party’s right wing, led by General Hafez al-Assad.
The coup marked that a new middle class that had emerged in the shadow of Baath gained prominent positions of power. Throughout the 1970s, and especially after the October 1973 war, the regime provided substantial economic concessions to Syrian citizenship and foreign capital. At the same time, a clearer economic and political approach to Arab conservative regimes was taking place: Saudi Arabia and in its wake Jordan, Egypt and Sudan. On the other hand, the policy was tightened against the Palestinian liberation movement.
During a crucial phase of the Lebanese civil war of 1976, Syria intervened directly against the Palestinian and Lebanese leftist forces, which were then in the offensive. A left-wing government in Lebanon would represent a radical alternative to Baath and strengthen the leftist opposition in Syria.
Within the military, there was considerable dissatisfaction with the invasion of Lebanon. Replacements and arrests followed, but the regime regained control. Other developments in Lebanon had contributed to spreading unrest among the numerous religious communities in Syria. Both the Muslim right-wing forces, the Islamic Liberation Party, the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohammed’s Falangists mobilized against the Assad government, which is dominated by supporters of the Alawi sect (unorthodox Muslims).
From the mid-’70s, an approximation of the Iraqi and Syrian factions of the party took place, and in 78 it led to an attempt to merge the two states, but the project suffered, like the previous shipwrecks, on ideological differences between the two factions. In 79, Baath criticized the Muslim Brotherhood and accused it of being “Zionist agents.” The government imposed the death penalty for acts of sabotage and gave the fraternity members a deadline until December 7, 80 to surrender if they would avoid being hit by the legal austerity.
But the fraternity attacks continued. In 82, the government carried out a military offensive against it. 10-25,000 people were killed in fighting the uprising – which was the center of the city of Hama – and the government blamed Iraq for armed the rebels. In April, the border between the two countries was closed. Iraq’s response was to close the oil pipeline, which otherwise transported oil from the fields of Kirkuk in Iraqi Kurdistan to the Syrian port of Banias.