4. The Nusayris Rise to Political Power

3. The Nusayris Under the French Mandate
December 10, 2015
5. The Nusayris Religious System: The Concept of God
December 10, 2015

BACK⇒ Return to Table of contents


The Nusayris

Rise to Political Power


How did the downtrodden Nusayris rise to become masters of post-independence Syria? They did so through two channels: the army and the Baath Party. Their rise to pre-eminence in both was slow but sure: not the result of a master plan but rather of the conjunction of a variety of circumstances, including political developments and economic conditions in the post war period, and the structure of the Nusayri community, which was based on the premises of regionalism and sectarianism. In the late 1950s, high-ranking Nusayri officers in the army realised that circumstances in Syria were favourable to a Nusayri takeover. By the mid-1960s, the Nusayris had gained control of both the army and the Baath Party, steps culminating in their rise to national power in November 1970.


The association of the Nusayris with the army dates back to the mandate period, when the French troops created the Troupe Spéciales du Levant, made up predominantly of Nusayri recruits.[1] The French government was aware of the importance of these Nusayri recruits in implementing a policy of “divide and rule”; it sued them to quell Arab nationalist insurrections and to encourage political regionalism and division among the various minorities, isolating the Nusayris especially.[2] The Troupe Spéciales remained after the French departed in 1946. However, they only numbered seven thousand men, and within two years this number had already dwindled to twenty-five hundred. Thus, their existence alone cannot explain the present Nusayri dominance of Syria, as Hanna Batatu contends.[3] The formation of the Troupes Spéciales was, however, the beginning that later opened the doors for the Nusayris’ rise to power.


This climb to prominence in Syria was slow and hard. In the early years after independence, the economic conditions suffered by the Nusayri peasants were deplorable. Abdul Latif al Yunus, a prominent Nusayri author and statesman, states that after World War I, some Nusayris in the mountains regions were forced to sell their daughters to wealthy townspeople as domestic servants because they could not support them at home.[4] Sheer poverty (the average daily income of the Syrian peasants in 1938 was a meagre sum of twenty two piasters much lower than per capita daily income of fifty piasters) also forced the Nusayri peasants to enrol their sons in the army in large numbers. This high rate of Nusayri enrolment was due to the fact that the majority of poor Nusayri peasants could not afford to pay the badal, a sum of money paid to the government in lieu of army services,. Wealthy town people who paid the badal (ranging from five hundred Syrian liras in 1964 to three thousand liras and even up to five thousand liras recently) were exempted from military service. Many Syrian Sunnis, mostly Arab nationalists, were among them, shunning military service because of their antagonism to French imperialism.[5] The poor Nusayri peasants who could not afford to pay, however, could not escape conscription.[6] Moreover, as noted in the preceding chapter, many Nusayris were sympathetic to the French, regarding them as bulwark against absorption into Muslim state.


Joining the army did more than merely remove extra mouths to feed from Nusayri homes; it gave Nusayri sons opportunities that they could not have found in civilian life. Nusayri secondary school graduates for example, were able to further their education by joining the military academy, which otherwise they could not have afforded. Before their assignments as commissioned or non-commissioned officers, these Nusayris in town encouraged relatives and friends from their villages and towns to join the military.[7]


Political instability in post-independence Syria also played a part in allowing Nusayri dominance of the military. The period from 1946 to 1949 was relatively quiet internally, so the Syrian government used the interlude to try to solve some of the nation’s disturbing domestic problems. In an effort to assure the territorial and demographic integrity of all Syrians, regardless of their race or creed, and to establish some kind of uniformity within the framework of Syrian and Arab nationalism, as well as to dampen or at least contain the Nusayri ambition of separation, which had been fostered by the French authorities, the government reduced and finally abolished communal representation of minorities (especially the Nusayris) in the parliament, and abrogated certain judicial rights that the French authorities had granted to the Nusayris in personal status cases.[8] The free election conducted in 1947 was only a false signal that Syria was on the way of becoming a democratic state. On 30 March 1949, Syria was rocked by the coup of General Husni al Za’im (d. 1949), which not only shattered the hopes of any further democratisation, but set a precedent hitherto unknown in the Middle East, the emergence of military as “the real source of power,” a precedent that would culminate in the present military regime of Hafiz al Asad.[9]


Two more coups followed in the same year, one headed by Colonel Sami al Hinnawi on 14 August and another just four months later, on 19 December led by Colonel Adib al Shishakli, who ousted al Hinnawi and remained Syria’s military Dictator until he in turn was overthrown by yet another coup four years later, on 25 February 1954.[10] All three of these men were Sunnis and after each gained power, a number of dissenting officers, mainly Sunnis who had participated in earlier coups were either purged, transferred to less sensitive positions, or forced to retire. Such “house cleanings” left Nusayri officers in important commanding positions. By the 1970s, all army strike units were effectively controlled by Nusayri personnel.[11] Thereafter, Nusayri officers dominated the Syrian army and a great number of key positions in the Syrian government.[12]


In the light of the above factors, the Nusayris’ military dominance was real but not too obvious. In fact, when, on 22 April 1955, Adnan al Maliki, the Deputy Chief of staff, was assassinated by the Nusayri Sergeant, Hamid al Sarraj, found to his astonishment that almost 65 percent of the non-commissioned officers were Nusayris.[13] This indicates that by the mid-1950s, the Nusayris had dominated the officer corps, paving their way to their ultimate control of the armed forces. This Nusayri officer has another source of leverage, too; from 1955 on they were members of the Baath party and in control of the military section within that party.


After independence, Syria’s political parties — especially the Baath, the Hizb al Qawmi al Suri, SSNP (Syrian Social National Party), the Communist Party, and al Ikhwan al Muslimun (the Muslim Brother-hood) competed for the alliance of the Syrian youth, that is, the high school and college students. Although high school students in the mandate period were politicised, after independence they gained unprecedented freedom to participate in political life of their country by joining the political parties.[14]


The Nusayri youth were particularly attracted to the Baath Party and SSNP because of their religious minority status. The Muslim Brotherhood did not appeal to them because of its strict Sunni Muslim orientation, and Communist party did not attract them because of its anti-religious ideology.[15] Both the SSNP and the Baath were active in recruiting members in the Nusayri area of Latakia, the former party in the late 1930s and latter after its formation Salah al Din Bitar, a Sunni Muslim, and Michel Aflaq, a Rum Orthodox Christian, in 1944.[16]


By the 1950s, equal numbers of Nusayris from both parties had joined the officer corps, but with elimination of the SSNP by the Syrian government in the 1950s Nusayri membership — by civilians and officers — in the Baath Party dramatically increased, especially in the Latakia area. Although there is no strong evidence that religious or communal factors provided any impetus for the political or ideological commitments of the Nusayris, they were, in the words of Van Dusen, a “latent factor in the political equation.”[17]


With the elimination of the SSNP, the Baath Party found itself competing with others, including the Arab Socialist Party of Akram al Hawrani, from Hama, and especially the Syrian Communist Party of Khalid Bagdash, a Kurd from Damascus. As the struggle between the Baath and the Communist parties intensified, the Baath leaders became suspicious of the ambitions of the Communist Party, which was making political gains and securing advantages.


Baath leaders were especially alarmed at the possibility that the Communist might win a decisive victory in the municipal and parliamentary elections projected for November 1957, and the summer of 1958, which would give them control of the government. Fearing that a showdown with the Communists might end in failure, the Baath leaders decided that the only way to beat their opponents and foil their plan of government takeover was union with Egypt.[18]


Although it is argued that the nation union with Egypt was the result of a military coup mastermind by Col. Abdul Hamid al Sarraj; with the full understanding of Egyptian leaders, the fact remains that it was the Baath leaders, Bitar and Aflaq, who argued the Syrian army officers to negotiate a union with Cairo, the union of Syria and Egypt was finally announced on 1 February 1958, and the United Arab Republic (UAR) was born. Ironically, the Baath Party, which had been instrumental in achieving the union with Egypt, was dissolved together with other parties as a condition set by Egyptian President Nasser for proposed union. Nasser was interested in using this union to further his ambitions as a leader of the Arab world, to consolidate his power at home, and to weaken the power of his rivals in the Arab countries. Nasser became disenchanted with the Baath Party, and disassociated himself from it.[19]


The Nusayris, especially the army officers who were members of the Baath Party, were not enthusiastic about the union of Syria with Egypt. This union was an embodiment of Arab nationalism, which aspires to bring all Arabs into one nation, sharing a common destiny and united under one leadership. Traditionally, the Nusayris, as a minority group, were separatists who suspected the Syrian Sunni majority and feared that a union with Syria will cause them to lose their identity and their minority status. Now that Syria was united with Egypt, the Nusayri officers were even more apprehensive that the Nusayri community would be totally overwhelmed by the Sunni majority. Of course, the Nusayri officers were well aware of the pro-Arab ideology of the Baath Party, which they considered to be a veil hiding a feeling of Islamic and the Arab nationalistic superiority. They realised that with this ideology, the Baath Party will eventually rise to power in Syria. For this reason the Nusayris joined this party, which began to regroup after the dissolution of Syria’s union with Egypt in September, 1961, calculating that, despite occasional setbacks, the time would come when they could use the party to promote their sectarian interest.[20]


These officers were also aware of the depressed economic conditions in the Nusayri territory, especially the Latakia area, where a few wealthy landlords from large Syrian cities controlled the land. They were scared that immigrant farmers from Egypt might compete with or even dislodge Nusayri farmers. Their fears were compounded by rumours that the Ghab irrigation project might be turned over to Egyptian peasants. The Nusayri Baathists were especially concerned about the minority status of their own people, who formed about 10 percent of Syria’s population, but would be overwhelmed by the combined majority of Syrians and Egyptians.[21] They hoped therefore, that through the Baath Party, they could fight for and achieve social equality, better economic conditions, and more human dignity for their people, still an oppressed, impoverished, and despised minority.[22] Finally, like civilians and non-Nusayri army officers in the Baath, the Nusayri officers believed that the Baath leaders, Bitar and Aflaq, had accepted the union with Egypt without consulting them and with no guarantees.[23] Motivated by foregoing concerns, some Nusayri officers, Hafiz al Asad, Salah Jadid, and Muhammad Umran, and Druze officer, Hamad Ubaid, who were stationed in Cairo in 1959 during the union with Egypt, formed a clandestine military committee within the Baath Party, without forming party leaders.[24] This committee assured the Nusayris’ dominance in the office corps, while their control of the military section of the Baath Party afforded the right to decide who would be admitted to the military academies, together with the power to appoint, dismiss, and transfer the personnel of all the army units to suit their purpose.[25] Moreover, because of their dominance in the officer corps, the Nusayris had by 1963 assured for themselves control of all the armed forces.


The Nusayri forces who formed a military committee within the Baath Party could not have acted solely as Baathists; rather, they acted first as Nusayris. If they had been acting as loyal members of the Baath Party, why did they keep the committee secret from the party leaders? In fact, they did agree with the civilian members of the party who criticised Bitar and Aflaq for failing to ask guarantees in Syria’s union with Egypt; as a result, they called for the reorganisation of the party. If this was the case, their decision to keep their committee secret from the party leadership had a purpose: it is almost certain that the officers were acting not as Baathists, but as Nusayris, with the intent of using the Baath party and the armed forces to rise to power in Syria. The formation of the military committee was the beginning of the plan for a future takeover of the 1950s, the communal consciousness of the Nusayris was not overriding in their struggle for power, and that only after the Baathist coup of 1963 did sectarianism appear in the struggle for power among the Baathists, including the Nusayris.[26]


The formation by the Nusayri officers of the secret military committee in 1959 in Cairo, followed by their attendance at a Nusayri meeting in 1960, however, is strong evidence that the Nusayri officers in the late 1950s were acting in full consciousness of communal solidarity and sectarianism. After their formation of this committee, the Nusayri officers, Hafiz al Asad, Salah Jadid, Muhammad Umran, and Muhammad Nabhan, attended a meeting called by Nusayri leaders in 1960 in Qardaha, the native village of al Asad. The main purpose of this meeting was to study ways of assisting Nusayri officers to join the Baath Party, in order to increase their membership in that party.[27] It was decided at the meeting that Muhammad Umran should be granted the rank of bab (door), the highest degree in the Nusayri religion. Umran was also entrusted with devising plans for military organisation and ways and means of distributing these plans to the national organisation, to be exploited for Nusayri purposes. It was also agreed that Umran should remain at least outwardly within the group of Unionists, that is, those who supported the union with Egypt. Those at the meetings resolved to entice the Druze and Ismaili army officers to cooperate with the Nusayri officers; to grant the Nusayri officer Izzat Jadid the high religious rank of naqib; to confirming another Nusayri officer, Ibrahim Makhus, in the religious rank of his father; and finally, to alert the Nusayri sheikhs and notables to call on all Nusayri young men, encouraging them to enlist in the army and cooperate with one another.[28]


The union between Syria and Egypt was short lived, lasting only two years and eight months. The Syrians resented their country having become a political and economic appendage, serving the interests of Egypt. In all but name, Syria was an Egyptian colony. Matters came to a head when the army affected a coup’detat on 28 September 1961 and the union with Egypt (UAR) collapsed, much to the shock of President Nasser. Power now lay in the hands of the Supreme Arab Revolutionary Command of the armed forces. The proclamation of the provincial constitution on 12 November 1961, the election of an assembly on 14 December and the formation of a Syrian cabinet on 1 April 1962, gave a false impression that the country was establishing a stable, constitutional life. This was not the case and Syria was plagued by the political manoeuvring of many groups, namely, the Nasserites, Baathists, Secessionists, Unionists, and Communists. The Baathists, whose party in Syria had been officially dissolved, began to regroup and organise themselves. The Nusayri members of the party were especially active in reorganising the party in the Latakia area.[29] The Nusayri officers who formed the secret military committee within the Baath Party, once more became active in both the party and the armed forces.[30]


The period between the collapse of the UAR on 28 September 1961 and the coup of 8 March 1963 was plagued by incessant plots and intrigues fomented by the various political factions in Syria. A coalition of Nasserites, Baathists, Arab nationalists, and the Socialists Unionists prepared for the coup. The Baathists and the Nasserites, the strongest and better organised of the groups, chose Ziyad al Hariri, a compulsive, ambitious, power-hungry army colonel to carry out the coup. Of all these groups, the Baathists emerged as the strongest, and they controlled the cabinet. Although the Secretary General of the Baath Party, Munif al Razzaz, attempts to portray the coup as the work of the military and not of the civilian organisation of the Baath Party, he admits that the military committee of the party acted independently, as though it were a separate Baath Party, a stance which later created a rift between the party and the Baathist officers within it. In fact, the Baathists received most of the credit for the coup, and their power was manifested in their control of the national council of the revolutionary command and the cabinet. The Baathists’ collaboration with the Nasserites was short-lived; they soon began their purge of the Nasserites. Their clashes with chief of staff Ziyad al Hariri also intensified, and he was likewise purged in July 1963.[31] The Baathists had now gained full control of Syria.


Although prominent Nusayri officers like Hafiz al Asad, Salah Jadid, and Muhammad Umran did not play a role in the coup of 8 March 1963, shortly after the coup they were recalled and placed in important positions in the high command of the armed forces. Al Asad was promoted from lieutenant-colonel to general and became commander of the air force. Salah Jadid became head of the Officers’ Affairs Bureau and the personnel branch of the central headquarters where he had the authority to control the appointments, transfers, and dismissal of officers. Hamad Ubaid (a Druze) was given charge of the Fifth Armoured Brigade, and Muhammad Umran became the commander of the Seventieth Tank Regiment, south of Damascus.


A few non-Nusayri officers filled important positions, too. A Druze, Salim Hatum, was made commander of the commando battalions; a Sunni, Ahmed Suwaidani, became head of military intelligence, and an Ismaili, Abdul Karim al Jundi, head of the artillery. It should be remembered that some of the Nusayri officers promoted were members of the military committee within the Baath Party; through their positions on that committee, they were able to purge disloyal offices and fill the vacancies with loyal Nusayris or non-Nusayri officers, mostly Druzes and Ismailis , who now formed the majority of the Baath Party membership. It is estimated that seven hundred officers of various ranks were purged after the coup, their positions filled by Nusayri officers.[32]


After occupying their new military positions, the Nusayri officers began to claim that, more than any other officers, they were responsible for upholding the new government and that they were the guardians of the Baath Party. The party, which had been dissolved officially in Syria since the union with Egypt in 1958, was trying to reorganise itself after the coup of March 1963, but was hindered by many internal problems. The Nusayri officers and members of the military committee took advantage of these problems to facilitate the admission of men of their own sect as members of both the military and civilian organisations within the party, especially the former. Such tactics resulted in Nusayri control of many important positions in army brigades stationed near Damascus and unlimited military support to the civilian organisation of the Latakia branch of the Baath Party, which was predominantly Nusayri, to the neglect of other branches of the party.[33]


Evidence indicates that after the coup of March 1963, some prominent Nusayri members of the Baath Party were determined to increase Nusayri membership in order to gain ultimate control of the party. The party’s organisational bureau founded after the coup and controlled by the Nusayris, admitted unqualified Nusayris and loyal non-Nusayris as active members of the party.[34] Thus, a number of blocs emerged within the Baath Party, whose members were more bound by sectarianism and regionalism than by the party’s ideology of Arab socialism. Although the Nusayri members of the party were not enchanted with Arab socialism, which transcended their narrow sectarianism, they welcomed it as an ideology that will emancipate their people, who for centuries had been exploited by wealthy Sunni landholders from the cities of the interior.[35] As Munif al Razzaz, former secretary of the Baath Party explains, to the Nusayri and Druze rural minorities, socialism was a revenge on the Sunni city dwellers, intended to impoverish the Sunni majority and reduce them to the village level of the Nusayris and Druzes. For this reason the Nusayri army officers applied, in a radical manner, the socialism imposed by the party, in order to satisfy their sectarian spirit of revenge.[36] It should also be noted in this context that in their determination to overcome obstacles in their plan to control the party, the Nusayri officers planted their own Baathists in the different military organisation and had them report on the plans and movements of their opponents.[37]


The major rivals of the Nusayri officers were the pro-Nasser groups hoping to restore the union with Egypt. On 18 July 1963, a group of Nasserites officers, led by the Sunni officer, Jasim Alwan, attempted to overthrow the government. The coup failed, thanks to the Nusayri officer Muhammad Nabhan, who pretended to join the pro-Nasserites, but secretly reported their intentions and plans for the coup to his Nusayri colleagues.[38] The Nusayri officers took advantage of the failure of the coup to purge more than four hundred pro-Nasserite officers,[39] while sending others to the Syrian-Israel front. They also stationed Nusayri officers of different ranks in strategic positions around the capital, Damascus. Furthermore, they made every effort to admit a great number of the Nusayris to the military academy, the National Guard, and the Intelligent Department, and to different sections of the Baath Party.[40]


The coup of 18 July 1963, was a triumph of the Baathists over their Nasserite rivals. This triumph intensified the conflict between the regional command of the party, chosen by the Baath chapter, and the national command, which represented the party in different Arab countries. Another source of trouble was the failure of the party to define its relations with the military organisation, especially the military section within the party. The Nusayri officers, together with Druze and Ismaili officers, who after 1963 outnumbered the Sunni officers, had interest radically different from those of the national command of the party. The Baathists officers, most particularly the Nusayri officers, formed a privileged class, occupying sensitive positions in the army and the government.[41] There was evident conflict between the Baathist strongman, General Amin Hafiz (a Sunni), now the official head of state, and the Nusayri Colonel Muhammad Umran, commander of the Seventieth Tank Regiment. Hafiz advocated an end to the Baath isolation in Syria and reconciliation with other political groups, while Umran was of the opinion that the Baath alone should rule Syria, while retaining friendship with Nasser.[42]


To show how serious the Nusayri officers in the Baath Party were in planning to assume power in Syria, a meeting was held at Hims, shortly after the abortive Nasserite coup of 18 July1963, attended by a great number of Nusayri dignitaries and the Nusayri officers, including Hafiz al Asad, Izzat Jadid, Muhammad Umran, and Ibrahim Makhus. After discussing the role played by Muhammad Nabhan in foiling the Nasserite coup, the conferees made the following decision:

  1. Muhammad Nabhan was promoted to the rank of Najib (a Nusayri religious rank) for his active role in aborting the Nasserite coup of 18 July 1963.
  2. The degree of al Wishah al Babi al Aqdas (most holy door decoration), one of the Nusayris’ secret high religious degrees, and was conferred on Muhammad Umran, and he was advised to continue his activity among the Nasserites.
  3. The present plan of admitting more educated Nusayris to the Baath and facilitating their admission through the party to the military academies and armed forces was to be studied. Nusayri notables were advised to call on Nusayri young men to encourage them to enlist in armed forces.
  4. Plans were made for the future establishment of a Nusayri state with the city of Hims as its capital.
  5. The high religious degree of Muqaddam was conferred on Salah Jadid, and he was entrusted responsibility of leading and directing the Nusayri elements in the army.
  6. Relocating of the Nusayris from the villages of the cities of the interior, especially Hims, Latakia, and Tartus, was to be continued.
  7. Hafiz al Asad was granted the Nusayri religious rank of Najib.
  8. The Nusayri religious rank of Makhtus was granted to Izzat Jadid and Ali Hamad.
  9. The Druze and the Ismaili elements on the army were to be eliminated and replaced with the Nusayris.
  10. Ibrahim Makhus was entrusted with the civil and political leadership, and would be prepared to become the prime minister of the future Nusayri state.[43]


These decisions obviously reveal the determination of the Nusayri officers to assume power with the of the Nusayri notables. To achieve this goal, the Nusayri officers continued to create Nusayri blocs within the armed forces and to offer tremendous support to the Nusayri Major General Salah Jadid, who now occupied the sensitive position chief of staff of the Syrian army. He was accused by General Hafiz, who had become Prime Minister on 4 October 1964, of promoting sectarianism among the Nusayri officers and building a Nusayri bloc within Baath Party. Hafiz also told that he could not keep his position as Chief of Staff simultaneously with his other position as a member of the presidium (President’s Council). Jadid gave up his position as Chief of Staff, and in 1965 he was excluded from the presidium, but continued to wield great authority in the regional command of the Baath Party. Hafiz and Lieutenant Colonel Ahmed Suwaidani, director of military intelligent, accused General Muhammad Umran of promoting sectarianism in the army. They were ostensibly supported by Jadid and Hafiz al Asad, to dispel any suspicion of Nusayri sectarian activity in the army, athough, like Umran, both Jadid and al Asad relied heavily on their Nusayri officer colleagues to protect their positions in the armed forces.[44]


Amin Hafiz’s accusation that Salah Jadid and other Nusayri officers created Nusayri blocs in the army is true. In fact, by the mid-1960s, sectarianism in Syria had become a serious problem. Although Sami al Jundi, an Ismaili who later became a Syrian ambassador to Paris, voices the opinion that Salah Jadid was not sectarian, he seems to contradict himself when he states that Jadid was “responsible for sectarianism. He organised and relied on it and transformed it into a ‘party’ lurking behind the Baath Party.”[45]


But nothing reveals more the sectarianism of Salah Jadid than the following dialogue between Jadid and Sami al Jundi:

  • Jadid: How should we treat the question of sectarianism?
  • Al Jundi: By revolutionary measures.
  • Jadid: How?
  • Al Jundi: Sectarianism has become a political problem, and it is becoming more complicated day after day. It will also become social problems which will expose the country to danger. I prefer that you return to the project begun by the former Alawi generation.
  • Jadid: What project?
  • Al Jundi: The project of publishing your secret books [of the Nusayri sect] in order that other denominations will not suspect you to maintain that you are a sect [cult]. You should tackle the problem [of sectarianism] right at the roots, and I am confident that there is nothing in your books which you are afraid to publish… therefore, you should not leave other people the opportunity to doubt your intentions [of Nusayri sectarianism]. It [sectarianism] has become dangerous to you [the Nusayris] and to the country.
  • Jadid: If we do this [publishing the Nusayri secret books], the mashayikh (religious leaders) will crush us.
  • Al Jundi: You are a revolutionary, and yet fear the masha’ikh? How could we then fight imperialism while cowing to religious leaders?


According to al Jundi, Jadid then fell silent and sank deep in thought. Al Jundi goes on to say that his dissatisfaction with the government — that is, with Salah Jadid and the Nusayris in key positions in the government began at this time. He later learned and even paid them religious taxes.[46]


The conflict between Amin Hafiz and Salah Jadid was, in fact, an old one that began when the Baath Party reconstituted a year after Syria’s union with Egypt collapsed in 1961. The newly reconstituted party was divided into two rival groups, the “old guard” including men like Aflaq, Bitar, and Hafiz, and the “regionalists,” mostly Nusayri officers like Salah Jadid, Hafiz al Asad, and Muhammad Umran, who, as previously stated, formed a party within the Baath Party. By 1965, Hafiz was fully aware of the power of the Nusayri and Druze officers within the army, and he intended to stem that power. The result was fierce conflict between the “old guard” and the “regionalists” that ultimately led to the coup in 1966.[47]


What intensified the struggle between Jadid and Hafiz was that Jadid was also able to win allegiance of a number of minority officers, like the Druzes Salim Hatum and Hamad Ubaid, and the Ismailis Ahmed al Mir and Abdul Karim al Jundi. With these and other minority officers in his camp, Jadid attained a stronger position from which to challenge the Baath Party and government. Tabitha Petran writes that the military committee, which had gained great experience in clandestine activities, was able to withhold political power of the Nasserites and the army, and enable its own Nusayri members to challenge the leadership of the Baath Party, which they had always opposed. Thus, when the Baath Party leadership decided it was time to solidify the principles and objectives of the party, prohibit the military organisation from making political policy, and establish closer relations with Egypt and Iraq, the Nusayri officers, led by Jadid, opposed these measures on the grounds that the experimental union of Syria and Egypt had been a failure, and that domestic conditions in Syria should be the party’s priority. The Nusayri officers seem to have won this round against the party leadership, and Jadid continued to purge a great number of Muslim Sunni officers in 1965, replacing them with Nusayris and other minorities.[48]


The Baathist strongman Amin Hafiz was aware of the growing power of the Nusayri officers and their challenge to the party and government, and increasingly feared them; finally, he decided to curtail this power. On 19 December 1965, the Baath Party leadership announced the dissolution of the Syrian regional leadership of the party. In an official announcement addressed at the armed forces, this leadership criticised the fact that [Sunni] Baathist had been purged, declaring that it will protect them and that it will never allow anyone [the Nusayri officers] to control army units and to convert them into sectarian military blocs. The national leadership of the party also declared that it was against sectarianism, tribal blocs, and allegiance to individuals.[49]


Amin Hafiz took another step to curtail the power of the Nusayri officers. He asked Salah al Din Bitar to form government in which labour unions, teachers, students, and farmers will be represented. Bitar failed because of the opposition of the Nusayri officers, who convinced prominent minority officers that the Baath national leadership intends to curb their military activities. The fierce struggle for power between Amin Hafiz and Salah Jadid took a turn for the worse when Hafiz accused Jadid of forming a new Nusayri bloc within the army. The result was the bloody and savage coup of 23 February 1966, when military units around Damascus, staffed mostly by Nusayri officers entered the city and, after four hours of battle in which Amin Hafiz was wounded in the leg, toppled Hafiz’s government and with it, the “old guard” of the Baath party.[50]


Michel Aflaq and Bitar, the founders of the Baath Party, fled the country, branded as traitors to the party. The “regionalists” and the sectarians had finally triumphed, and the long-cherished objective of the rural minority groups — the Nusayris, Druzes, and Ismailis — to reduce the authority of the socialists Sunnis had been achieved. The government was in the hands of a new Baath Party, dominated by the Nusayris, who occupied the most sensitive positions in the new regime. Now that they were in the seat of power, these Nusayri officers had to play subtle political game to give the impression that the coup was not sectarian but a Baathist coup, intended to serve the interest of all Syria’s political groups. In the meantime, they were consolidating their power for the final elimination of their non-Nusayri rivals and takeover of the government.[51]


It is true that on 25 December 1966, several Sunnis took key positions: Nur al Din al Atasi, a member of a Provisional Regional Command, was appointed head of state and secretary general of the Baath Party; Yusuf Zuayyin became prime minister, and Ahmed Suwaidani, formerly the military intelligent chief, was promoted to the rank of Major General and became chief of stuff. But the sensitive power positions in the new Baath regime were filled by Nusayris. Hafiz al Asad was appointed defence minister, and DR. Ibrahim Makhus became foreign minister, for example. The Nusayri Salah Jadid, who had engineered the coup, assumed no official position in the government, seeming content to occupy the post assistant secretary general of the Baath Party. However, he also occupied a highly sensitive position in the provincial party command that gives him power to appoint and dismiss head of state and the cabinet. Why did Jadid avoid assuming the position of head of state, offering it instead to the Sunni al Atasi? It may have been to disarm potential opposition from non-Nusayri groups, who criticised the coup as a Nusayri scheme meant to serve Nusayri objectives. This is why, as A. R. Kelidar observes, Jadid formed a coalition of radicals who represented different political groups.[52]


After the coup of 1966, the new Baath Party, now controlled by Nusayri strongmen, began systematically to purge and arrest Sunni Muslims, Druzes, and Ismailis in the party and the army. According to Munif al Razzaz, former secretary general of the Baath Party, the rule of violence of the new Baath regime had no equal in the history of Syria. More than ninety officers who had disapproved of the way the regime was conducting affairs were transferred, pensioned, sacked, or arrested.[53]


At the beginning of 1967, a number of Muslim officers were accused of the coup engineered by the Syrian national leadership of the Baath Party and were court-martialled. Other prominent Sunni Muslims, especially in the Hawran district, resigned their offices and membership in the party, in protest against the control of the party’s administration and the armed forces by the Nusayris. Three cabinet ministers threatened to resign for the same reason.


After the 1967 Arab-Israel war, many prominent civilian Muslim Baathists who had occupied key positions were dismissed from the party.[54] Meantime, quarrels and disagreement between Lt. General Hafiz al Asad and the Sunni Chief of stuff reached a high pitch, and on 15 February 1968, Suwaidani was released from his position.


The fate of Druze officers was no better than that of their Sunni colleagues. When, after the 1966 coup, Hafiz al Asad was appointed the defence minister, the Druze Hamad Ubaid became dissatisfied with the new regime. He had expected to become defence minister because he had been minister in the Zuayyin cabinet before its resignation on 22 January 1965, because he was staunch supporter of Salah Jadid, and especially because he had helped put down the resistance against the coup in Aleppo. Ubaid was also disappointed when he was merely reappointed a member of the regional leadership of the new Baath Party. In March 1966, he was discharged from the army, and in May he attempted the coup against the regime, but the coup failed, and Ubaid and his collaborators were arrested.[55]


The fate of another prominent Druze officer, Salim Hatum, was even worse than that of Ubaid. Hatum played a major role in the February 1966 coup, personally attacking the residence of Amin Hafiz, but when he received no reward, he turned against the new regime that he had helped bring to power. As distrust and hostility between Hatum and the regime intensified, Hatum, supported by Aflaq and Bitar, attempted a coup on 8 September 1966, against radical Baath regime. This coup also failed, and Hatum and one of his collaborators, Talal Abu Asali, escaped to Jordan, where they were given asylum. Although Jordan and Saudi Arabia were accused of supporting the plot and the editor of al Ahram of Cairo implicated the CIA in the plot, it is certain that Hatum’s attempted coup was the result of the conflict between the Nusayris, who were in control of the Syrian government, and the Druzes and Sunnis who were hounded by the Nusayris.[56]


While in Jordan, Hatum called a press conference at which he stated that the spirit of sectarianism had ignobly spread in Syria, especially in the Syrian army. He went on to say that the rulers in Damascus had endeavoured to get rid of those who disagreed with their policies and replace them with their own supporters, with the result that key positions in the state were filled by Nusayris. Hatum estimated that the proportion of the Nusayris to other groups in the army was 5 to 1.[57]


On September 1966, Hatum issued a communiqué condemning the ruling clique in Damascus for its intention of establishing an opportunistic regime und the slogan, “One Nusayri state with an eternal message.” In this state, Sa’id Hatum, the Amid [a Nusayri religious rank] Salah Jadid and Nur al Anwar [the light of lights, another Nusayri religious rank] Ibrahim Makhus, would shine. Hatum remained in Jordan until the Arab-Israeli war broke out in June 1967, when he returned to Syria, placing himself under the Druze leader Sultan Pasha al Atrash, who had fought the French in 1925. Hatum then offered his services in the Syrian army. He was arrested by the new Baath leaders and sent to Damascus, where he was accused of plotting to overthrow the government. He was summarily tried and executed on 26 June 1967.[58]


Following Hatum’s abortive coup, the Nusayri-controlled government forced out many Druze officers, Fahd al Sha’ir, who had formed a secret military organisation that refused admission to Nusayri officers. Not even the group of the Nusayri Muhammad Umran was admitted, because Umran was not trusted by the Nusayri officers like Hafiz al Asad. Many Druze officers were forced to leave the country. Furthermore, the activity of the Baath Party in the Druze area was hampered to the point that the Druze leader, Sultan Pasha al Atrash, sent a cable to the government in Damascus, criticising the policy of the Nusayri sectaries.[59] The criticism of al Atrash was to no avail, and the Nusayri controlled government continued to purge undesirable elements from the army and the party.


The Nusayris’ design to take over the government was further manifested by several secret meetings, especially that of Jubb al Jarrah on 30 January 1968. In this meeting it was decided to abolish the teaching of the Islamic and Christian religions in the schools. Another meeting convened at Sabbura on 14 April 1968, and a third at Damascus on 3 May of the same year. A fourth meeting, held at the home of Hafiz al Asad, was attended by Salah Jadid, Ibrahim, and many other prominent Nusayris.[60] The plans of the Nusayris did not go unnoticed. The Beirut-based magazine al Sayyad had sent one of its reporters to the Nusayri area in March 1966. In an article entitled, “The Alawites Today Rule Syria,” the reporter said that the Alawis now openly ruled Syria after years of hiding behind the Baath Party. According to the reporter, Salah Jadid told Amin Hafiz that the loyalty of the Alawi bloc to the then current regime in Syria was guaranteed. In other words, such loyalty was essential to the existence of the Baath regime. The reporter concluded that Amin Hafiz and the rest of the non-Nusayri Baathists had swallowed the bitter truth that finally the Alawis had come forward and were now ruling Syria.[61]


In fact, there is evidence that the Nusayris in the government, especially Hafiz al Asad, who occupied the sensitive position of defence minister, handed over the Golan Heights to the Israelis in the Arab-Israeli War of 1967. According to the periodical al Hawadith, two weeks before the outbreak of this war, Syrian Ambassador to the French Sami al Jundi, was instructed by his government to meet with the Israeli foreign minister, Abba Eban, in Paris. Al Jundi says that he met with Eban for an hour and a half and made full recording of the meeting. Al Jundi goes on to say that Eban told him: “The Israel forces will not go beyond Qunaytira, even though the road to Damascus will be open.”[62] In fact al Hawadith, in a 1968 article entitled “al Mu’amarah al Jahannamiyyah” (The Hellish Conspiracy) states that the Syrian government affirmed the secret meeting between al Jundi and Eban. Al Hawadith further states that prior to the Israeli attack, the Syrian government had disarmed the non-Alawi units of the army. This action, says al Hawadith, would ultimately allow the Alawis to achieve the takeover of the government.[63] On 1 May 1979, Anwar Sadat, then president of Egypt, affirmed that shortly before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the Syrian authorities removed the mines from the Golan Heights, and that the Syrian government executed an officer who had announced the fall of the Golan Heights before they even fell to the Israelis.[64]


The author was told by the late Syrian Orthodox patriarch Yaqub III (d. 1980), who lived in Damascus, that he had been personally told by the Syrian minister of health that he was in the town of Qunaytirah when he heard Radio Damascus proclaim that the Golan Heights had fallen to the Israelis. The minister telephoned Damascus to tell authorities that he was in Qunaytirah, and there was no sign of Israeli soldiers in the area. Nevertheless, the minister was told that the Qunaytirah has already fallen.


The purpose of handing over Golan Heights to Israel was to find in Israel a socialist ally who sympathised with Syrian Alawi socialism. Nothing reveals this purpose more than the words of the former Jordanian Prime Minister, Sa’d Jumuah, in his Al Mu’amarah wa Marakat al Misr (The Conspiracy and Battle of Destiny). Jumuah states at noon on 5 June 1967, the ambassador of a great country (he does not name it) in Damascus contacted a responsible figure in the Syrian government and invited him in his home to discuss “an urgent matter.” At the meeting, the ambassador related to the prominent Syrian text of a telegram he had received from his government, confirming that the Israeli air force had totally destroyed the Egyptian air force and that the outcome of the war between the Arabs and Israel was obvious.


The telegram also emphasised that Israel did not intend to attack the Syrian regime, and that for all intents and purposes, Israel was a “socialist” country which sympathised with the Baath’s socialism in Syria. Therefore, it was in the interests of Syria and the Baath Party to carry on only token fighting to ensure their safety. The Syrian official immediately relayed this message to his colleagues in the national and regional commands of the Baath Party. He returned to inform the ambassador of the acceptance by the party, the government, and the national and regional commands of the telegram.[65]


Jumuah laments the reluctance of the Syrian air force to enter the war on the pretext that it was not ready for combat. He asserts that the “ruling gang” in Damascus suffered from a deadly complex which he calls the “Abdul Nasser complex.” What Jumuah meant is that the rulers of Syria feared the personality of and popularity of the Egyptian president as an Arab national leader. They thought that once the Egyptian forces were totally destroyed by the Israelis, President Nasser would fall and they, as the apostles of the socialist left, would fill the resulting political vacuum and become the sole leader of the Arab world.


The Syrian leaders also thought that with Nasser out of the way, they would free themselves from the bonds of Arab nationalism and establish in Syria a sectarian (Nusayri) state, which would live in peace with Israel. However, concludes Jumuah, “the sectarian conspiracies against Arabism and religion [Islam] can no more be hidden.[66] From this statement we learn that Jumuah has accused the Syrian rulers of sectarian conspiracy and antagonism toward Islam and Arabism. The shadow of this accusation still hangs over the present Syrian regime and the Nusayri leaders in power.


The incident of the Golan Heights weakened Syria politically, but gave greater strength to the Nusayri-controlled army and specifically to Hafiz al Asad. The Nusayri strike forces became so powerful that by 1970, Hafiz al Asad was able to purge his enemies and assume full control of government. It is true that there was struggle for power within the Nusayri community, especially between al Asad and Salah Jadid, but this struggle was essentially between two ambitious individuals each attempting to consolidate his local base of support in order to enhance his position and project himself as a national leader.[67] The outcome of this struggle was the triumph of Hafiz al Asad, who had all the armed forces behind him.


On 13 November 1970, al Asad overthrew the government and ordered the arrests of Salah Jadid and President Nur al Din al Atasi, who fled the country. On 22 February 1971, al Asad became the first Nusayri President of Syria. Thus the Nusayris, who once would have been content to have autonomy in their own area, now were in control of Syria. This control has a very significant political implication. The Nusayri community, which suffered discrimination, ridicule, rejection, and economic deprivation at the hands of the Sunni Syrian majority, has evolved from a “backward religious community to a nationally emancipated population group in a position of dominance.”[68] Today the Syrian government and army, and indeed Syria’s destiny, are in the hands of Nusayris.[69]


NEXT⇒ The Nusayris Religious System: The Concept of God

[1] Batatu, “Social Roots of Syria’s Ruling Group.” 341.

[2] Archives du Ministère, file 419, 1940, document 2619 dated 4 October 1935. This document contains the letter of the French minister of war to the French foreign minister. Cf. Petran, Syria: A Morden History, 62; Van Dam, The Struggle for Power in Syria, 18; Gubser, “The Alawites of Syria.” 40.

[3] Batatu, “Social Roots of Syria’s Ruling Group.” 341.

[4] Ibid., 334; and al Yunus, Thawrat al Sheikh Salih al Ali, 178.

[5] Batatu, “Social Roots of Syria’s Ruling Group.” 334, 342; and Gubser, “The Alawites of Syria,” 40.

[6] Batatu, “Social Roots of Syria’s Ruling Group.” 342; and Gubser, “The Alawites of Syria,” 40.

[7] Gubser, “Aliwites of Syria,” 40; Gordon H. Torrey, “Aspects of the Political Elite in Syria,” in Political Elite in the Middle East, ed. George Lenczowaski (Washington, D.C.: The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1975), 157; Van Dam, The Struggle of Power in Syria, 41; Micheal Van Dusen, “Political Integration and Regionalism in Syria,” The Middle East Journal 26, no. 2 (Spring, 1972): 133-34; and al Din, al Nusayriyyah, 164-65.

[8] Gubser, “The Alawites of Syria,” 39-40; and Moshe Maoz, “Attempts at Creating a Political Community in Modern Syria,” The Middle East Journal 26, no. 4 (Autumn 1972); 399; and idem “The Emergence of Modern Syria,” in Syria under Asad, ed. Moshe Maoz and Anver Yanuv (New York: St. Martin’s, 1986), 22-34.

[9] Umar F. Abdullah, The Islamic Struggle in Syria (Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1983), 50. For a concise account of the political process in Syria 1945-70 see R. Hrair Dekmeian, Islam in Revolution: Fundamentalism in the Arab World. (Syracuse: Syracuse, University Press, 1985), 110-12.

[10] For these coups of 1949, see Alford Carleton, “The Syrian Coups d’Etat of 1949,” The Middle East Journal, 4 no. 1 (January 1950): 1-11; George M. Haddad, Revolution and Military Rule in the Middle East: The Arab States (New York: Robert Speller & Son, 1971), 2:195-204; Petran Syria A Morden History, 96-98; Richard F. Nyrop, ed., Syria: A Country Study (Washington D.C.: American University Foreign Area Studies, 1979), 29.

[11] Haddad, Revolution and Military Rule, 2:204-15; Gubser, “The Alawites of Syria,” 40; Van Dam, The Struggle for Power in Syria, 41-42.

[12] A.R Kelidar, “Religion and State in Syria,” Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society 41, (New Series, vol. 5, part 1) (February 1974): 17.

[13] Batatu, “Social Roots of Syria’s Ruling Group.” 341.

[14] Van Dusen, “Integration Regionalism in Syria,” 126.

[15] Gubser, “The Alawites of Syria,” 41.

[16] Petran , Syria: A Modern History 74 and 89-92; Nyrop, Syria: A Country Study, 162-63; John F.Devlin, The Baath Party: A History from its Origin to 1966, (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1976), 162-63; and Van Dusen, “Integration and Regionalism in Syria,” 134.

[17] Van Dusen, “Integration Regionalism in Syria,” 134.

[18] Petran , Syria: A Modern History, 106 and 111-20; Haddad, Revolution and Military Rule, 2:231 and 233; Devlin , The Baath Party, 65-73; and Abdullah, The Islamic Struggle in Syria, 52.

[19] Haddad, Revolution of Military Rule, 2:237-38.

[20] Van Dam, The Struggle for Power in Syria, 32; and al Din, al Nusayriyyah, 183.

[21] Gubser, “The Alawites of Syria,” 41.

[22] Van Dusen, “Integration Regionalism in Syria,” 132-133.

[23] Haddad, Revolutionary and Military Rule,

[24] Ibid., Petran, Syria: A Modern History, 146 and 171; Batatu, “Social Roots of Syria’s Ruling Group,” 343; and Abdullah, The Islamic Struggle in Syria, 56; Bernard Vernier, Armée et Politique au Moyen Orient (Paris: Payot, 1966), 144; and al Din, al Nusayriyyah, 166-67.

[25] Petran , Syria: A Modern History, 146 and 171; Batatu, “Social Roots of Syria’s Ruling Group,” 343; and Abdullah, The Islamic Struggle in Syria, 56.

[26] Haddad, Revolution of Military Rule, 2:321; Gubser, “The Alawites of Syria,” 42-43; and Batatu, “Social Roots of Syria’s Rule Group.” 343.

[27] Micheal Hudson, Arab Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), 64, where the author states that not until the 1960s that the Alawite political identity became a factor in Syrian politics. Cf. al Hariri, al Alawiyyun al Nusayriyyun, 234-35.

[28] Al Hariri, al Alawiyyun al Nusayriyyun, 234-35.

[29] Avraham Ben-Tzur, “The Neo Bath Party in Syria,” New Outlook 12, no. 1 (January 1969): 27.

[30] Gubser, “The Alawites of Syria,” 42 and van Dam, The Struggle for Power in Syria, 41-42.

[31] Munif al Razzaz, al Tajribah al Murra (Beirut: Dar Ghandur, 1967), 86-90; Haddad, Revolution and Military Rule, 11, 2:309-12, 391-94; Itamar Rabinovich, Syria under the Ba’th 1963-1966 (Tel Aviv: Israel Universities Press, 1977) 43-74; and H. Hrair Dekmejian, Islam in Revolution: Fundamentalism in the Arab World (Syracuse University Press, 1985), 111.

[32] Van Dam, The Struggle of Power in Syria, 43; Petran, Syria: A Moderm History, 171; Abdullah, The Islamic Struggle in Syria, 58; al Din, al Nusayriyyah, 167-68.


[33] Van Dam, The Struggle of Power in Syria, 43; Petran, Syria: A Modern History, 171; and al Din, al Nusayriyyah, 168.

[34] Petran, Syria: A Modern History, 171.

[35] Van Dam, The Struggle of Power in Syria, 36.

[36] Al Razzaz, al Tajribah al Murrah, 62-64, 94-96; and Haddad, Revolution and Military Rule, 2:190-91.

[37] Batatu, “Social Roots of Syria’s Ruling Group,” 343. For this coup see Haddad, Revolution and Military Rule, 2:312-19

[38] Van Dam, The Struggle of Power in Syria, 40; and Petran, Syria: A Modern History, 170.

[39] Al Hariri, al Alawiyyin al Nusayriyyin,. 325.

[40] Van Dam, The Struggle of Power in Syria, 51-53.

[41] Al Razzaz, al Tajribah al Murrah, 62-64, 94-96; and Haddad, Revolution and Military Rule, 2:320-23.

[42] Haddad, Revolution and Military Rule, 2:322-23.

[43] Al Hariri, al Alawiyyin al Nusayriyyin,. 235-36. Al Hariri states that he was able to classified materials on the decisions of several Nusayri meetings including the one under discussion, but he gives no information on how he received such classified information.

[44] Haddad, Revolution and Military Rule, 2:342-51; and Rabinovich, Syria Under the Ba’th, 160-64, 180-83; Van Dam, The Struggle for Power in Syria, 54-56.

[45] Sami al Jundi, al Ba’th (Beirut: Dar al Nahar, 1969), 144.

[46] Ibid., 144-45.

[47] Petran, Syria: A Modern History, 239-48; Devlin, The Baath Party, 181 and 303; Nyrop, Syria: A Country Study, 33-34; Abdullah, The Islamic Struggle in Syria, 53-54 Rabinovich, Syria Under the Ba’th Party, 195-204.

[48] Petran, Syria: A Modern History, 167, 169; and Batatu, “Social Roots of Syria’s Ruling Group,” 343.

[49] Van Dam, Struggle for Power in Syria, 60; and al Din, al Nusayriyyah, 173-74.

[50] Petran, Syria: A Modern History, 239-48; Devlin, The Ba’th Party, 281-303; Haddad, Revolution and Military Rule, 2:352-58; and Van Dam, Struggle for Power in Syria, 60-62.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Kelidar, “Religion and State in Syria,” 17.

[53] Al Razzaz, al Tajribah al Murrah, 200-4; and Haddad, Revolution of Military Rule, 360.

[54] Van Dam, Struggle for Power in Syria, 78.

[55] Ibid., 69-70; and Haddad, Revolution and Military Rule, 362-64.

[56] Van Dam, Struggle for Power in Syria, 67-70; and Haddad, Revolution and Military Rule, 2:362-64.

[57] Van Dam, Struggle for Power in Syria, 75.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Haddad, Revolution and Military Rule, 2:364.

[60] Al Hariri, al Alawiyyun al Nusayriyyun, 236-37.

[61] Ibid., 236; and al Sayyad, no. 1123 (24 March 1966), 18-21.

[62] Al Hawadith, no. 518 (14 October 1966) and no. 608, (5 July 1968), no. 610 (19 July 1968) and no. 614 (8 August 1968); and al Hariri, al Alawiyyun al Nusayriyyun, 237-39.

[63] Al Hawadith, no. 614 (16 August 1968).

[64] Al Hariri, al Alawiyyun al Nusayriyyun, 238.

[65] Sa’d Jumuah, al Mu’amarah wa Ma’rakat al Masir (Beirut: Dar al Katib al Arabi, 1968), 109-10; and al Amin, al Nusayriyyun (al Alawiyyun), (Beirut: Dar al Fikr, n.d.), 31-32.

[66] Jumuah, al Mu’amarah, 191-94.

[67] Van Dam, Struggle for Power in Syria, 83-84; and Gubser, “The Alawites of Syria,” 37.

[68] Van Dam, Struggle for Power in Syria, 88.

[69] Batatu,, “Social Roots of Syria’s Ruling Group,” 331-33.

Back to top