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Michel Aflaq founded Syria’s Baath Party 75 years ago

On April 7, exactly 75 years ago, the Baath Party was founded with an aim to promote pan-Arabism in Syria.  

Michel Aflaq is considered to be the father and founder of the Baath (renaissance) ideology, which emerged as a nationalist reaction to the imperialist order in the Middle East.

Born in Damascus in 1910, Aflaq was a member of an Orthodox Christian family, who were traders by profession. After completing his secondary education in French-language schools in Syria, he studied philosophy at Sorbonne University in Paris between 1929 and 1932, where he was influenced by the ideas of the philosopher Henri-Louis Bergson and became interested in Marxism.

In France, he met Salah al-Din al-Bitar, with whom he would later establish the Baath Movement. After returning to Syria, he taught at schools.

The duo founded the Arab Ihya Movement in 1940. They tried to form a party two years later, but the French mandate, which administered Syria, blocked the move. Following this, they changed the movement’s name to the Arab Baath Movement.

When Zaki al-Arsuzi joined Aflaq and Bitar in 1947, the movement turned into a political party. Around the same time, the party held its first congress, where Aflaq was elected as the party’s spiritual leader and mentor. Al Bitar was elected as its general secretary.

The party’s media organ, the “al-Baath” newspaper, was founded in 1948. Due to the defeat in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Aflaq sharply criticised the government of the time and organised protest demonstrations. As a result of these criticisms, he was imprisoned for a time. 

Under Hashim al-Atassi’s rule, Aflaq was sworn in as education minister and remained in the post until December 1949.

In 1951, Adib Shishakli took over the administration in a coup d’etat. When he seized power, he banned the activities of all political parties. Due to the increasing pressures, Aflaq fled to Lebanon with Salah al-Din al-Bitar and mobilised all opposition parties to oust Shishakli.

In 1953, the Arab Socialist Baath Party was formed in Lebanon, and a year later, Shishakli’s rule ended with another coup. Aflaq returned to Syria to participate in new elections, in which the Baath Party won 22 seats in the parliament.

The defeat of the Arab armies in the war with Israel in 1948 increased the anger and intolerance of the people against the mandates and kingdoms. In 1952, the Free Officers Movement led by Gamal Abdel Nasser carried out a coup against King Farouk and seized the government, and then the republican system was declared as the new form of government in the country. Gamal Abdel Nasser became the country’s president in 1954.

In 1958, the United Arab Republic of Syria and Egypt was established, and Gamal Abdel Nasser was appointed as its leader. But in 1963, Baathist officers, who received the support of Aflaq, took over the administration in a coup d’etat. The conflicts between military and civilian Baathists began to come to the fore.

As Aflaq lost his party’s support in 1965, his close associate Al Bitar was appointed as the prime minister in the new administration. During this period, the military and civil conflicts within the party continued to increase. Pro-military Baathists dismissed those close to civilian Baathists, and civilian Baathists returned the favour. In 1966, Baathist officers under the leadership of Hafez al-Assad and Salah Jadid staged a coup again. Many civilian leaders of the party fled the country.

Aflaq first fled to Beirut with the help of some of his trusted friends in the army, and after a while, he fled from Beirut to Brazil. After the coup in Syria by Assad and Jadid, the Baath Party split in two as the Iraqi and Syrian Baath Parties. Jadid was appointed as the leader of the Syrian Baath Party. Zaki al-Arsuzi was declared as the new mentor of the Baath movement.

However, Iraqi Baathists led by Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr and Saddam Hussein thought of Aflaq as the leader and mentor of the movement. Iraqi Baathists elected Aflaq as the party’s general secretary at the congress held in Beirut in 1968. But several conflicts between Aflaq and Bitar came to light, and their paths diverged after this congress. Bitar declared that he ultimately rejected the Baathist ideology.

Aflaq moved to Baghdad after being elected general secretary at the Beirut Congress. The Iraqi Baathists’ failure to support the Palestine Liberation Organization and Yasser Arafat caused a rift between Aflaq and Iraq’s then Baathist leader, Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr. Aflaq reacted to this situation by leaving Baghdad in 1970 and moved to Beirut. He returned to Iraq before the Lebanese civil war began. After Aflaq and Bitar, Assad and Jadid became the new leaders of Syria. However, the defeat in the Six-Day War caused a rift between Assad and Jadid. On November 13, 1970, Assad staged a coup against Jadid and took the leadership seat. 

After returning to Iraq, Aflaq stayed away from politics but continued as the party’s general secretary. He devoted most of his time to writing books.

He died on June 23, 1989, in Paris. His body was brought from Paris to Baghdad. Saddam Hussein announced that Aflaq had converted to Islam before he died and took the name Ahmed, but the claim is yet to be ascertained. He was buried with Islamic rituals in the mausoleum built by Hussein.

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