Afew weeks before the Israeli-Arab conflict last June, an uncharitable commentator compared the Baath to Samson. Blinded and weakened like the Biblical hero, he wrote, the party in power in Syria was doing its best to pull down the pillars of the temple which would kill it. Samson did not fail in his suicide. He also succeeded in burying his enemy the Philistines. The Baath, however, by no means destroyed the Israelis and their imperialist allies; on the other hand, it emerged very much alive from the ruins of military defeat.

Those who sought—and doubtless still seek—its death were nevertheless numerous. Since last autumn, the Israeli leaders have proclaimed their intention of overthrowing the Damascus régime, made solely responsible for the commando raids on Israeli territory. Since the seizure of power by the Left of the Baath in February 1966, the Americans have shown their disapproval of the Syrian leaders, whose political options seemed to lie mid-way between those of Moscow and Peking. In a talk to the businessmen of Latakia, the American ambassador reassured them with the following words: ‘Do not worry. In the near future there will be major changes in Syria. Free enterprise and democracy will triumph.’footnote1

The British, deprived overnight of important contracts; the oil companies, who were forced to pay higher royalties under threat of nationalization; the conservative régimes of the Arab world, sapped by agitation sponsored by the Baath; not to speak of ‘friendly’ countries such as Iraq, embarrassed by propaganda from Damascus, do not nourish much affection for these left-wing, ‘semi-anarchist’ and ‘romantic’ socialists, whose revolutionary zeal—even if it lacks commensurate means of action—disrupts established order and the status quo.

If the Baath has many enemies, it has also won very few allies. One of the founders of the party recently said to me, somewhat bitterly: ‘The Baath leaders, it must be admitted, have an extraordinary gift for turning even potential friends into allies.’ On the eve of Israeli-Arab hostilities, neutral observers were unanimous in thinking that the Syrian régime had only limited popular support, in spite of the social measures it has taken in favour of the dispossessed classes. It was confronted with the hostility of the mercantile petit-bourgeoisie of the towns, the indifference of a part of the peasantry, restrained criticisms by the working-class, and the distrust of numerous intellectuals. The Muslim Brothers, the followers of the former leadership of the Baath (Michel Aflak, Salah el Bitar and Mounif el Razzaz) and even some small left-wing groupings were plotting against it, while Nasserites and Communists were supporting it almost against their will. The Soviet Union was giving it aid more from necessity than from sympathy.

One might, of course, explain the relative isolation of the Damascus régime at home and abroad in terms of its policies in recent months. Any such explanation, however, risks being superficial if it does not take account of the origins of the party and its leaders, of its past and present ideology, its organization, its activities and its very special role in the Arab world.

The Baath is a very elusive party. It has a number of faces. Its general physiognomy has changed over the years. It has reached its majority, without acquiring the definitive traits of maturity. A quarter of a century of clandestine life has made secretive, and obsessively distrustful. Even in power, it continues to behave more like an occult sect than a political party aspiring to popularity among the Arab masses.

There are very few studies devoted to the Baath. This is what makes the book which Kamel S. Abu Jaber has recently published in the United States such an important contribution.footnote2 The author, an American of Jordanian origin, who is a professor at the University of Tennessee, has made extensive use of Arabic materials and has interviewed leaders of the Baath and observers of the Arab political scene. By talking mainly to Michel Aflak and Salah el Bitar, who are certainly the two best known personalities of the party, but are also the leaders of only one of the three factions which constitute the Baath, he has left the other founders of the party in the shade: Zaki Arsouzi, Wahib el Ghanem, Slimane Issa, Darwiche Zouni, Ali Mohsen, Sedky Ismail and Yousef Chakra who formed the ‘Arab Baath’ in 1940, not to speak of Akram Hourani, leader of an organization which joined the Baath in 1954 and left it again in 1961. To omit these two political currents is necessarily to limit our understanding of the ideology of the Baath and the influences which it underwent.