Today in Middle Eastern history: the 8 March Revolution (1963)

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As with Iraq’s 1963 “Ramadan Revolution,” which preceded and helped to inspire the event we’re here to discuss today, Syria’s “8 March Revolution” is a military coup that got rebranded by the successful coup plotters. However, just as the “Ramadan Revolution” had a fair amount of civilian support—mostly from middle class Iraqis who were displeased with Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Qasim’s ad hoc relationship with the Iraqi Communist Party—this incident drew support from the Syrian middle class, along with the Syrian peasantry. As in the case of the Iraqi coup the previous month, this Syrian coup brought the Baath Party to power. Unlike what happened in Iraq, where the Baathists were soon purged from government only to return later, in Syria’s case the Baath Party remained in power, albeit with some changes along the way, right up to the present day.

Syrian politics were restless, to put it mildly, from independence until 1970, when Hafez al-Assad seized control and made running Syria his family business. To be fair, they’ve continued to be restless under the Assads too, but without the constant turnover at the top that was a feature of the nine different military coups prior to the one that put Assad in charge. A lot of this unrest has to do with the post-World War I French Mandate for Syria, and the steadfast refusal by French colonial authorities to try to create a functioning society out of Syrian remnants of the Ottoman Empire. In particular, the French maintained Syria’s landed elite from imperial times, perpetuating a deeply unequal distribution of wealth in which most of the population were peasants and most of the peasantry was nearly destitute.

It is unsurprising, really, that a movement like Baathism developed in this milieu. The prime mover behind the rise of the Baathist movement was a deep sense of Arab nationalism that reached back to the days immediately after World War I, when Syrians resisted, sometimes violently, the French mandate, and many rejected the notion that the Arab world should be subdivided into multiple states. Arab nationalism gained support during the mandate period, when French authorities broke Syria into pieces—carving off a couple of them (Lebanon and Hatay, which eventually became part of Turkey) permanently.

But the socialist ideas being pushed by Syrian intellectuals like Michel Aflaq and Zaki al-Arsuzi were also very appealing to many Syrians who were unhappy with the inequality they faced. There was a middle class contingent within the Baath movement, but the party also appealed to workers and to the rural peasantry, as well as marginalized minority groups like Druze, Alawites, Shiʿa, and Christians. Mostly, from its founding in 1947 the Baath Party found support within the Syrian military. Syrian soldiers, including mid-level officers, were generally drawn from the middle class or lower rungs of society and therefore resented the obscene levels of wealth the Syrian elite had accumulated. They also resented the Syrian elite over the country’s humiliation in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, which convinced many that the established leadership of the newly independent Syrian state was too corrupt and too incompetent to be trusted with power.

Baathist military officers participated in the first Syrian coup in 1949, which was primarily a response to the 1948 war, and in several subsequent coups. It was the party’s military branch that seems to have most resented the decision by leaders like Aflaq to push for Syria’s 1958 merger with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt into the United Arab Republic. That decision proved to be a serious miscalculation, as Nasser ordered the Baath Party disbanded and basically treated Syria as a new Egyptian province rather than as an equal partner in a new federation. During the UAR’s roughly three year existence, the Syrian Baathist military branch remained active and began to view pan-Arabism with some suspicion, though not yet enough to discard it as one of their movement’s core principles.

By 1962, with the UAR and its experiment in pan-Arab Nasserism gone but not forgotten, the same problems that had plagued Syrian society since the 1940s remained more or less in place. There was still a small socioeconomic elite that hoarded a substantial portion of the country’s wealth, which meant there was still an alienated middle class, a beleaguered peasantry, and a number of frustrated minority groups who were in many cases drawn to Baathism. And of course there were the military officers who were increasingly the driving force in the Baath Party leadership, even after Aflaq reestablished the civilian wing of the party at a congress in May 1962. The military branch of the party no longer trusted Aflaq after the UAR debacle, and Aflaq seems to have been quite wary of the military branch, but they needed each other. Aflaq was still the public face of the movement, but he also had no real path for the party to gain power without the military branch.

The officers, with Aflaq’s grudging assent, began plotting against President Nazim al-Kudsi’s government, planning the steps they believed would be necessary to pull off a successful coup and secure control over the country. They found allies in another cadre of Syrian military officers who were committed Nasserists and wanted to rejoin the UAR. The Nasserists had already attempted a coup of their own in April 1962 but it quickly fizzled out. While their goals weren’t the same, in the immediate term they both wanted the same thing: the ouster of Kudsi and his government. Finally, the Baathist officers took inspiration from the Ramadan Revolution, which showed that Baathism, like Nasserism, could topple governments and take power in its own right.

On March 8, 1963, the coup plotters made their move according to plan. They took over two major military bases near Damascus, Kiswah and Qatana, before entering Damascus itself and seizing control of the government and media outlets. A young-ish Hafez al-Assad led a small unit that captured the Dumayr airbase near Damascus, which surrendered even though Assad himself later admitted that he probably couldn’t have taken the facility by combat with the force he had with him. The coup didn’t escalate into a full scale military conflict, but neither could it have been termed bloodless. Some 820 people were killed during the coup itself and more were executed later. However, Kudsi was not one of them. He was allowed to leave the country and eventually wound up living in Jordan.

The coup plotters set about forming a government, appointing Baath Party higher up Salah al-Din al-Bitar as prime minister and creating a joint military-civilian “National Council for the Revolutionary Command” to assume executive powers. They released from prison one of the leaders of the failed 1962 Nasserist coup, Luʾay al-Atassi, and named him first the head of the council, then president. Several senior leaders of the Baathist military branch, including Muhammad Umran, Amin al-Hafiz, and Salah Jadid, gave themselves hefty promotions—none heftier than Assad’s, which put him in charge of the entire Syrian air force. Things were looking good, until they weren’t.

The NCRC had a fatal flaw built into it from the moment the Baathists reached out to the Nasserist faction for support. In a way they had to do this, because unlike the Iraqi Baath Party the Syrian Baathists in the party’s military command hadn’t done nearly enough to build support for the coup outside of the military. So instead of relying on, say, civilian militias to bolster their ranks, they had to turn to other unhappy elements within the Syrian military. But while the Baathist officers and the Nasserist officers were both unhappy with Kudsi’s government, they didn’t want the same things for Syria’s future. The Nasserists, obviously, wanted a reunion with Nasser’s Egypt, a revival of the UAR. The Baathists, who had seen that movie already and didn’t care for the ending, resisted. When Nasserists and other pro-UAR elements (including some civilian Baathist leaders like Bitar) negotiated a deal to create a federation that included Egypt and Iraq (under Nasser’s overall leadership of course), in April, the Baathists balked and wound up purging dozens of Nasserists and other non-Baathists from the new government.

These tensions culminated in another attempted Nasserist coup, which failed just as the previous one had. Hundreds of people were killed in the attempt and 27 Nasserist officers were executed for their trouble. At this point Atassi resigned as president and was replaced by Baathist officer Amin al-Hafiz. The failed coup represented the last hurrah for Nasserism in Syria and the last gasp for Nasser’s dead UAR. The Egyptian president went on a rhetorical rampage against the Baathists, to little avail. In one of the sadder episodes of his career, Nasser went to his death having steadfastly refused to retire the “United Arab Republic” name. Despite its pretensions of grandeur, the “United Arab Republic” comprised only Egypt until Anwar Sadat finally did away with the concept in 1971.

The Syrian Baathists were now in charge, but they weren’t on the same page. Civilian leaders like Aflaq and Bitar hadn’t particularly supported the coup and actually found themselves regretting the purges that removed Nasserists and independent voices, like army chief of staff Ziad al-Hariri, from the government. They could see that the power within the party had shifted to the military branch and that they were no longer in control of their own movement. The military branch, for its part, still had little respect for and even less trust in Aflaq after he’d led the country into what they considered a disastrous and humiliating subjugation to Nasser’s Egypt. Everybody put on their best face and tried to get along, but eventually these tensions became too great to be suppressed and the Baath Party turned on itself.