1966 Syrian coup d'état
|1966 Syrian coup d'état|
|Part of the Cold War|
| National Command of the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party
Small part of the Syrian Armed Forces
| Syrian Regional Command of the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party
Large part of the Syrian Armed Forces
|Commanders and leaders|
| Michel Aflaq
The preeminent figure of the of the National Command of the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party
| Salah Jadid
Assistant Secretary General of the Regional Command of the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party
|Casualties and losses|
The Syrian coup d'état of 1966 took place between 21–23 February and was led by neo-Ba'ath Party members against the country's first Baathist regime. It brought to power Syria's most radical government and was precipitated by a heightening in the power struggle between the party's old guard and younger factions. On 21 February, supporters of the old guard in the army ordered the transfer of their rivals. Two days later, the Military Committee, backing the younger factions, launched a coup that involved bloody fighting in Aleppo, Damascus, Deir ez-Zor, and Latakia. As a result of the coup, the party's historical founders fled the country and spent the rest of their lives in exile. The coup also created a permanent schism between the Syrian and Iraqi branches of the party.
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Consolidation of power 
After taking power in the 8th of March Revolution, a power struggle broke out between the Nasserist faction in the National Council for the Revolutionary Command and the Ba'ath Party. While the Nasserists wanted to reestablish the UAR on the same terms, the Ba'athists were skeptical of a new union, and only wanted a loose federation where the Ba'ath Party could rule Syria alone without interference. The Nasserists mobilised large street demonstrations in favour of a union; the problem facing the Ba'ath Party was that the majority of Arab nationalists in Syria were Nasserists, and not Ba'athists. Instead of trying to win the support of the populace, the Ba'athists moved to consolidate power over the Syrian military. Several hundred Nasserists and conservatives were purged from the military, and Ba'athists were recruited to fill senior positions. Most of the new Ba'athist officers came from the countryside or from a low social class.
The cost to the clamp down on protests was a loss of legitimacy. The traditional elite, consisting of the upper classes, opposed the Ba'athists on the ground that they had lost political power and were threatened by the Ba'athists socialist policies. The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria was a historical rival of the Ba'ath Party, and it was threatened by the party's secular nature. The Syrian Communist Party and the supporters of Akram al-Hawrani rejected the form of single-party system which the Ba'athists were establishing. The majority of Sunni Muslims were Arab nationalists, but not Ba'athist, making them feel alienated. It didn't help either that the party was chiefly dominated by minority groups such as Alawites, Druzes and Isma'ilis and people predominantly from the countryside; this created an urban–rural conflict based predominantly on ethnic differences. However, with its coming to power, the Ba'ath Party was threatened by the predominantly anti-Ba'athist sentiment in urban politics – probably the only reason why the Ba'athists managed to stay in power was the rather weakly organised and fragmented opposition it faced.
Conflict with the Aflaqites 
Another problem facing the Ba'ath was internal unity; Michel Aflaq, Salah al-Din al-Bitar and their followers wanted to implement "classic" Ba'athism in the sense that they wanted to establish a loose union with Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt, implement a moderate form of socialism and to have a one-party state which respected the rights of the individual, e.g. tolerating freedom of speech for instance. However, the Aflaqites were quickly forced into the background, and at the 6th National Ba'ath Party Congress, the Military Committee and their supporters succeeding in creating a new form of Ba'athism – a Ba'athism strongly influenced by Marxism–Leninism. This new form of Ba'athism laid emphasis on "revolution in one country" and opposition to Israel rather than to unifying the Arab world. At the same time, the 6th National Congress implemented a resolution which stressed the implementation of a socialist revolution in Syria. Under this form of socialism, the heights of the economy were to be nationalised, the economy as a whole would adhere to state planning and foreign trade was nationalised. Exploitation of labour would end, capitalism would disappear and in agriculture the plan was to give "land to he who works it". However, private enterprise would still exist in retail trade, construction, tourism and small industry in general. These changes and more would refashion the Ba'ath Party into a Leninist party.
In the aftermath of the 1964 riots in Hama and other cities, the radicals were on the retreat and the Aflaq took control for a brief period. al-Bitar formed a new government which halted the nationalisation drive, reaffirmed respect for civil liberties and respect for private property. However, these policy changes did not win enough support, and the population at large still opposed Ba'ath Party rule. The upper classes continued to disinvest capital and smuggle capital out of the country, and the only foreseeable solution to this loss of capital was a nationalisation drive. The party's left-wing argued that the bourgeoisie would never be won over unless they were given total control over the economy as they had before. It was this power struggle between the Aflaqites (the moderates) who dominated the National Command of the Ba'ath Party and the radicals who dominated the Syrian Regional Command of the Ba'ath Party which led to the 1966 coup d'état.
Power struggle 
Before the crushing of the nationwide riots of 1964, a power struggle came into being within the Military Committee between Muhammad Umran, the Minister of Defence, and Salah Jadid. Umran, the committee's most senior member, wanted reconciliation with the rioters and an end to confrontation with the middle class, in contrast with Jadid who believed the only solution was to coerce and repress the protesters to save the revolution. This was the first schism within the Military Committee, and would prove decisive in coming events. With Hafez al-Assad support, the Military Committee initiated a bloody counter-attack on the rioters This decision led to the fall of Umran who responded by telling the Ba'ath Party's National Command of the Military Committee's plan for taking over the Ba'ath Party. Aflaq, the Secretary General of the National Command, responded to the new information by ordering the dissolution of the Syrian Regional Command. Aflaq was forced to withdraw his request because the party's rank-and-file rose in protest. When an old guard Ba'athist tauntingly asked Aflaq "how big a role his party still played in government", Aflaq replied "About one-thousandth of one percent". Umran's outpouring to the National Command led to his exile, and with the National Command impotent, the Military Committee initiated an attack on the bourgeoisie, initiated a nationalisation drive and extended state ownership to electricity generation, oil distribution, cotton ginning and to an estimated 70 percent of foreign trade.
After Umran's downfall, the National Command continued to wrestle for control of the Ba'ath Party against the Military Committee. While the National Command invoked party rules and regulations against the Military Committee, it was clear from the get-go that the initiative laid with the Military Committee. The reason for the Military Committee's success was its alliance with the Regionalists, a group of branches which had not adhered to Aflaq's 1958 orders to dissolve the Ba'ath Party. The Regionalists disliked Aflaq, and opposed his leadership. Assad called the Regionalists the "true cells of the party".
The contest for power between the Military Committee and the Regionalists and the National Command were fought out within the party structure; however, the Military Committee and the Regionalists managed to turn the party structure on its head. At the 2nd Regional Congress (held in March 1965), it was decided to endorse the principle that the Secretary of the Regional Command would be ex officio head of state, and the Regional Command acquired the power to appoint the prime minister, the cabinet, the chief of staff and the top military commanders. This changed weakened curtailed the powers of the National Command dramatically, and they had from then on very little say in Syrian internal affairs. In response, at the 8th National Congress (April 1965) Aflaq had originally planned to launch an attack on the Military Committee and the Regionalists, but was persuaded not to by fellow National Command members – most notably by Lebanese Jibran Majdalani and Saudi Ali Ghannam – because it could lead to the removal of the civilian leadership of the party, which had occurred in the Iraqi Ba'athist Regional Branch. Because of this decision, Aflaq to his horror was, in a vote, removed from office as Secretary General and succeeded by fellow National Command member Munif al-Razzaz. Razzaz was Syrian-born Jordanian who was not rooted enough in party politics to solve the crisis, even if under his command several joint meetings of the National and Regional Commands were held. Not longer after Aflaq's loss of office, Amin al-Hafiz, the Secretary of the Regional Command, changed his allegiance in support of the National Command. While Hafiz was the de jure leader of Syria (he held the offices of Regional Command secretary, Chairman of the Presidential Council, prime minister and commander-in-chief), it was Jadid, the Assistant Secretary General of the Regional Command, who was the de facto leader of Syria.
The coup 
In November 1965, the National Command issued a resolution which stated it was forbidden for the Regional Command to transfer or dismiss without the consent of the National Command. When hearing of the resolution, Jadid rebelled immediately, and ordered Colonel Mustafa Tlas to arrest the commanders of the Homs garrison and his deputy, both were known to support the authority of the National Command. In response, Razzaz called for an emergency session of the National Command which decreed the Regional Command dissolved, and made al-Bitar Prime Minister, Hafiz was made Chairman of a new Presidential Council, Umran was called back from exile and was reappointed to the office of Minister of Defence and commander-in-chief, and Mansur al-Atrash was appointed Chairman of a new and expanded National Revolutionary Council. Jadid and his supporters responded by making war on the National Command. Assad, who neither liked or had sympathy for the Aflaqites, did not support a showdown by the use of force. In response to the coming coup, Assad along with Naji Jamil, Husayn Mulhim and Yusuf Sayigh, left for London.
The actual coup itself started on 21 February 1966 when General Umran tested his authority as Minister of Defence by ordering the transfer of three key Jadid supporters; Major-General Ahmad Suwaydani, Colonel Izzad Jadid and Major Salim Hatum. The Military Committee would respond the next day, but before that it staged a ruse which threw the National Command supporters off balance. The ruse was that Abd al-Ghani Ibrahim, the Alawi commander of the front facing Israel, reported to headquarters that a quarrel had broken out among frontline officers, and that guns had been used. Umran, al-Hafiz and the Chief of Staff left for the Golan Heights in a hurry for a lengthy discussion with the officer corps there; when they returned at 3 am on 23 February they were exhausted. Two hours later, at 5 am, Jadid launched his coup. Not long after, the attack on al-Hafiz's private residence begun led by Salim Hatum and Rifaat al-Assad, and supported by a squadron of tank units by Izzad Jadid. Despite a spirited defence, Hafiz's forces surrendered after all their ammunition was spent – Hafiz's own daughter lost an eye because of the attacks. The commander of al-Hafiz's bodyguard, Mahmud Musa, was nearly killed by Izzad Jadid, but was saved and smuggled out of Syria by Hatum. There was resistance outside Damascus too; in Hama Tlass was forced to send forces from Homs to quell the uprising, in Aleppo Aflaq loyalists briefly controlled the radio station and some resistance was resported in Latakia and Deir ez-Zor too. After their military defeats, resistance all but collapsed – Razzaz was the only National Command member to put any organised resistance after the military defeats by issuing statements against the regime from his different hiding places.
The new regime 
Immediately after the coup, a purge of officers loyal to the Aflaqites and Muhammad Umran was carried out. The victims of the purge, and Umran himself, were imprisoned at Mezze prison. One of the first acts of Salah Jadid's regime was to appoint Assad Minister of Defence. Assad however, did not support the coup, and told Mansur al-Atrash, Jubran Majdalani and other Aflaqites, that he did not support Jadid's actions. Later, in an interview with Le Monde, Assad claimed that the military's intervention was regrettable because the Ba'ath Party was a democratic party, and the disputes should have been resolved in a democratic manner. However, Assad did view the actions as necessary, as it put an end, in his view, to the National Command's dictatorship.
Jadid's regime has been referred to as Syria's most radical government in history. He initiated rash and radical policies internally and externally, and tried to overturn Syrian society from the top to the bottom. While Assad and Jadid agreed ideologically, they did not agree on how to implement these beliefs in practice. The Military Committee, which had been the officers' key decision-making process during the 1963–66 years, lost its central institutional authority under Jadid because the fight against the Aflaqites was over – the key reason for the committee's existence in the first place. While Jadid never acquired, or took the offices of Prime Minister or President, and opted to rule through the office of Assistant Secretary of the Regional Command, he was the undisputed ruler of Syria in the years 1966–70. Before the 1966 coup, Jadid had controlled the Syrian armed forces through his post as Head of the Bureau of Officers' Affairs, but from 1966 onwards Jadid became absorbed with running the country, and in his place, Assad was given the task of controlling the armed forces. This would later prove to be a fatal mistake, and lead to Jadid's downfall in the 1970 Corrective Revolution. Jadid appointed Nureddin al-Atassi as President and Secretary of the Regional Command, Yusuf Zu'ayyin became Prime Minister again and Ibrahim Makhus was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs. Other personalities were Ahmad al-Suwaydani, the former Head of Military Intelligence, who was appointed Chief of Staff, Colonel Muhammad Rabah al-Tawil was appointed Minister of Labour and Head of the newly-established Popular Resistance Forces, and Colonel Abd al-Karim al-Jundi, a founding member of the Military Committee, was appointed Minister of Agrarian Reform and later, Minister of Interior.
Some believe that the Ba'athist ideology preached in Syria after the coup should be referred to as neo-Ba'athism since it has nothing to do with the classic form of Ba'athism espoused by Aflaq, al-Bitar and the Aflaqites in general. Munif al-Razzaz agreed with the theory, and stated that from 1961 onwards, there existed two Ba'ath parties – "the military Ba'ath Party and the Ba'ath Party, and real power lay with the former." He further stated that the military Ba'ath (as "paraphrased by Martin Seymour") "was and remains Ba'athist only in name; that it was and remains little more than a military clique with civilian hangers-on; and that from the initial founding of the Military Committee by disgruntled Syrian officers exiled in Cairo in 1959, the chain of events and the total corruption of Ba'athism proceeded with intolerable logic." al-Bitar agreed, stating that the 1966 coup "marked the end of Ba'athist politics in Syria." Aflaq shared the sentiment, and stated; "I no longer recognise my party!".
The split 
The ouster from power of Aflaq, al-Bitar and the National Command is the deepest schism in Ba'athist history. While there had been many schisms and splits in the Ba'ath Party's history, Aflaq and al-Bitar always emerged as the victors, and remained party leaders, but the 1966 coup brought a new generation of leaders to power who had different aims than their predecessors. While Aflaq and al-Bitar still had supporters in Syria and in non-Syrian branches, they were hampered by the lack of financial means – the Syrian Regional Branch had funded them since 1963. Jadid and his supporters now had the Syrian state fully at their disposal, and could, in theory, establish new party organisations or coerce pro-Aflaq opinion, and even if they were unable to do this, they had the financial means to overshadow pro-Aflaq opinion within the Ba'ath movement. Later in 1966, the first post-Aflaqist National Congress, officially designated the 9th, was held, and a new National Command was elected. Another change was to the ideological orientation of the Syrian Regional Branch and the new National Command; while the Aflaqites truly believed in an all-Arab Ba'ath Party and the unification of the Arab world, the new leaders of Syria did not believe that this could be enacted in practice. Following the coup, the National Command became subservient in all but name to the Syrian Regional Command, and stopped having an effective role in Arab or even Syrian politics.
Following the exile of the National Command, some of its members, including Amin al-Hafiz, convened the 9th Ba'ath National Congress (to differentiate it from the Syrian "9th National Congress") and elected a new National Command, with Aflaq, who did not attend the congress, as the National Command's Secretary General. For some the exile from Syria was too hard, and they left the party, among them were al-Bitar and Razzaz. Aflaq, while not leaving the party, lived in Brazil until 1968. An important note however is that the Iraqi Regional Branch still supported the Aflaqites, and the old National Command. Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, the Secretary of the Iraqi Regional Command, was elected a member of the National Command. When Aflaq moved to Iraq in 1968 after the 17 July Revolution he was never given any decision-making power, and he had practically no influence over day-to-day decision making.
In the aftermath of the coup, Syrian Ba'athists began denouncing Aflaq as a "thief"; they claimed he had stolen the Ba'athist ideology from Zaki al-Arsuzi and proclaimed it as his own. Whatever the case may be, al-Arsuzi was hailed by Assad as the principal founder of Ba'athist thought, following the 1966 Ba'ath Party split. The Iraqi branch, however, still proclaims Aflaq as the founder of Ba'athism. Assad has referred to al-Arsuzi as the "greatest Syrian of his day" and claimed him to be the "first to conceive of the Ba'ath as a political movement." Aflaq was condemned to death in absentia in 1971 by Assad's regime. The Syrian Ba'athists have erected a statue in al-Arsuzi's honour; it was erected following the 1966 coup. Even so, the majority of Ba'athists outside Syria still agree that Aflaq, not al-Arsuzi, was the principal founder of the Ba'ath movement.
See also 
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