Syria’s road from French colony (er, I mean “protectorate” or whatever) to the mess it is today was littered with coups d’état: three in 1949, one each in 1951, 1954, 1961, 1963, and 1966, and finally the 1970 Corrective Movement that brought Hafez al-Assad to power. I’m probably missing a couple somewhere along the way. Through it all, Syria transitioned from democracy to military dictatorship, to leftist military dictatorship, to union with Egypt, to disunion with Egypt, to Baʿathist military dictatorship, to Syrian Baʿathist military dictatorship, and at last to Assad family fiefdom.
In terms of regional significance, the 1966 coup is arguably more important than the others, because it was this coup that led to the splintering of the once pan-Arab Baʿath Party into its two regional branches, in Syria and Iraq. If you ever wondered (and of course you did), back in the days when Saddam Hussein was still with us, why Syria and Iraq were both governed by “the Baʿath Party” but never got along with one another, the 1966 Syrian coup was the reason why.
The original Baʿath Party was the ideological offspring of three Syrian intellectuals: Michel Aflaq (d. 1989), Zaki al-Arsuzi (d. 1968), and Salah al-Din al-Bitar (d. 1980). Without going into the biographies of all three of them, the important thing to understand here is that they never all worked together–Aflaq and Bitar were close allies, but Aflaq and Arsuzi seem to have had a mutual loathing for each other even though Arsuzi did influence Aflaq’s thinking.
Arsuzi on the one hand, and Aflaq and Bitar on the other, formed competing “Arab Baʿath Parties” in the 1940s. Arsuzi’s was formed first, and he seems to have suspected that Aflaq was some sort of Western stooge whose job was to usurp his movement. It was Aflaq’s party (Bitar was Engels to Aflaq’s Marx, if you will, so when I talk about Aflaq doing something you can assume that Bitar was working with him) that survived and became what we think of today as “the Baʿath Party.”
Both Arsuzi’s and Aflaq’s parties were rooted in very similar ideologies: a merger of pan-Arabism (traditionally a conservative response to European encroachment), left-wing revolutionary socialism, and a kind of “liberty” that would be “protected” by the unelected Baʿathist regime because that somehow made sense to people. This mix wasn’t all that dissimilar to Nasserism, which is probably why Syrian Baʿathists were eager to unite with Nasser’s Egypt as part of the short-lived (1958-1961) United Arab Republic. That union collapsed not over ideological disputes, but because Gamal Abdel Nasser sidelined the Syrian Baʿathists (along with everybody else from the Syrian government), the better to dominate the union himself. He actually ordered the Baʿath Party to dissolve, which was definitely not what party leaders were expecting.
The UAR affair caused some fracturing within the Baʿath Party, between those (they’re often called “regionalists” or “Neo-Baʿathists,” though the latter is a little more complicated) who began to put Syrian nationalism ahead of pan-Arabism (“pan-Arabism” in the UAR basically meant that Nasser ran everything), and those, like Aflaq, who still believed in the idea of Arab unity even while they acknowledged that Nasser’s control of the UAR was problematic. Essentially, this was a division between Baʿathists who went along with (even if they didn’t like it) Nasser’s order to dissolve the party and those who kept their local Baʿath branches active in spite of Nasser. Regionalists also seem to have been influenced by Marxism-Leninism to a greater degree than Aflaq–while Aflaq was also clearly somewhat influenced by Lenin in particular, in his conception of a vanguard party leading the way to revolution, he was adamant that he was no communist.
After the UAR dissolved, Aflaq reformed the Baʿath Party, and he ran its National Command, which oversaw the party’s two regional commands (in Syria and Iraq). At this point, its ideology really began to take root among the Syrian military establishment, though it was the regionalist flavor that really caught on rather than Aflaq’s Baʿath Classic formulation. The 1963 coup was led by Baʿathist elements in the Syrian military, along with Nasserists who were hoping that a new Baʿathist government might try to rejoin the UAR (Egypt retained the UAR’s name, keeping the flame alive, until after Nasser’s death). Bitar became prime minister in the post-1963 order, so Aflaq clearly still had influence, but things were heading toward a breaking point. The real power in the state now rested with the military leaders of the 1963 coup, who were mostly regionalists: army chief of staff Salah Jadid, new defense minister Muhammad Umran (who was more sympathetic to Aflaq than the other two), and rising star (and Arsuzi fan) Hafez al-Assad.
As an aside, while all of this stuff was going on in Syria, the Baʿath Party had been making steady political gains in neighboring Iraq. They had worked with Iraqi general Abd al-Karim Qasim in executing the 1958 coup that overthrew the Hashemite monarchy and put Qasim in charge of a new Iraqi republic. Baʿathists, along with the Iraqi military, overthrew Qasim in February 1963, but then were themselves taken out of the equation by Nasserists in the military later that year. The Iraqi Baʿath branch was undergoing the same metamorphosis as the Syrian branch, from part of an international party to independent national party to one man’s personal entourage (in Iraq’s case, replace Assad with Saddam Hussein). It wasn’t until 1968 that the Iraqi Baʿathists managed to get back into power, and by then the split between the Syrian and Iraqi Baʿath parties had already solidified.
Anyway, back to Syria. Aflaq and Bitar began to lose prestige as the Syrian economy struggled (wealthy Syrians who were freaked out about the regionalists’ Communist leanings were moving their assets out of the country, even though Bitar’s government tried to implement a fairly soft brand of socialism). Jadid and Assad began to plot a military takeover of the whole Baʿathist organization (and therefore of the government). Umran broke with them and warned the civilian government of their plans, but Jadid was able to force him into exile. Civilian regionalists, who were completely fed up with Aflaq’s moderation by this point, wholeheartedly backed Jadid’s power play. The party’s Syrian Regional Command, with Jadid as its nominal #2 (though in reality he was running the show), appropriated unto itself the power to govern Syria. Aflaq rejected this marginalization of his National Command, and consequently he was removed from his leadership of that organization in April 1965 and replaced by a relative outsider to Syrian politics, Munif al-Razzaz.
Razzaz tried to stifle the growing independence of the Syrian Regional Command, but Jadid’s position was simply too strong. In late 1965 Razzaz actually ordered the dissolution of the Regional Command, put Bitar back in office as prime minister, and recalled Umran from exile to serve as defense minister. Jadid then staged a crisis; he had the Syrian officer in charge of units on the Golan Heights report that some kind of mutiny was underway, which forced Umran and Syrian President Amin al-Hafiz to rush there to prevent a catastrophe that could risk war with Israel. Jadid made his move shortly after they returned to Damascus, distracted and exhausted. There was some scattered armed resistance throughout the country, but ultimately Jadid had little trouble taking total control over Syria.
Aflaq was now on the outside looking in, and his old pal Arsuzi actually enjoyed a brief resurgence, becoming the new Syrian Baʿath Party’s chief ideologue until his death in 1968 (today it’s Arsuzi, not Aflaq, who is celebrated as the founder of the Baʿathist movement inside Syria). Aflaq latched on to the Iraqi Baʿath Party, though while the Iraqi party formally held to Aflaq’s original vision, in practice it too was moving away from that grand pan-Arab design. It’s at this point that the term “Neo-Baʿathist” really becomes relevant, and although it has connotations of nationalism and communism vs. Aflaq’s pan-Arabism and socialism, what it really signifies is that the Baʿath Party, in both Syria and Iraq, simply became an ideological fig leaf for military dictatorship. Jadid, though he never took an office higher than #2 in the Syrian Baʿath Party, ran the country for over four years, during which time he steadily lost power to Assad. In 1970, he was thrown in prison when Assad finally decided to seize power for himself, and he spent over two decades there before he died in 1993.