Salah al-Din al-Bitar

Salah al-Din al-Bitar

Infobox_Prime Minister
name = Salah ad-Din al-Bitar
صلاح الدين البيطار

imagesize =
order = Prime Minister of Syria
president =
deputy =
term_start = March 9 1963
term_end = November 12 1963
predecessor = Khalid al-Azm
successor = Amin al-Hafiz
term_start2 = May 13 1964
term_end2 = October 3 1964
predecessor2 = Amin al-Hafez
successor2 = Amin al-Hafiz
term_start3 = January 1 1966
term_end3 = February 23 1966
predecessor3 = Yusuf Zuaiyin
successor3 = Yusuf Zuaiyin
birth_date = 1912
birth_place = Damascus, Syria
death_date = 21 July, 1980 (aged 68)
death_place = Paris, France
spouse =
party = ASBP
religion = Islam

Salah ad-Din al-Bitar ( _ar. صلاح الدين البيطار) (born Damascus 1912, died Paris 21 July 1980), was a Syrian politician who, with Michel Aflaq, founded the Arab Ba'th Party in the early 1940s. During their student days in Paris in the early 1930s, the two worked together to formulate a doctrine that combined aspects of nationalism and socialism. Al-Bitar later served as prime minister in several early Ba'thist governments in Syria, but became alienated from the party as it grew more radical, and in 1966 fled the country. He lived most of the rest of his life in Europe, and remained politically active until he was assassinated by unknown persons in 1980.

Origins and youth

Historian Hanna Batatu records that Salah ad-Din al-Bitar was born in the Midan area of Damascus in 1912, the son of a reasonably well-off Sunni Muslim grain merchant. His family were religious and many of his recent ancestors had been ulama and preachers in the district's mosques. Al-Bitar thus grew up in a conservative family atmosphere, and attended a Muslim elementary school before receiving his secondary education in Maktab Anbar. He was also exposed to the political vicissitudes of the time, as Midan played a leading role in the Great Syrian Revolution of 1925 against the French, who were then the mandatory power in Syria. The district was heavily bombarded with considerable loss of life and physical damage. [Batatu, pp. 724-725.]

Higher education

Al-Bitar traveled to France in 1929 to study in the Sorbonne. There he became acquainted with Michel Aflaq, like him the son of a Midan grain merchant, albeit from a Christian Orthodox family. The two were greatly interested in the political and intellectual movements of the time, and began applying the nationalist and Marxist thought they encountered to the situation of their homeland. [Batatu, pp. 725-726.] Al-Bitar returned to Syria in 1934, and took up an appointment teaching physics and mathematics at the "Tajhiz al-Ula", where Aflaq was already a teacher.

Political activity

Early political activity

In the course of the next two years, al-Bitar and Aflaq along with some other associates edited for a period a review entitled "al-Tali`a" (the vanguard). According to historian Hanna Batatu, this displayed more concern with social issues than with the national question, and the political orientation of the two young activists was closer to the Syrian Communist Party than to any of the other groups on the political scene in Damascus. They would become disillusioned with the Communists in 1936, after the Popular Front government came to power in France; although the French Communist Party was now part of the government, the colonial power's approach to its subject nations was not appreciably different. The Syrian party's stance in these circumstances did not impress the young nationalist activists.

In 1939, Aflaq and al-Bitar began to attract a small following of students, and in 1941, the pair issued leaflets agitating against French rule, using the title "al-ihyaa' al-'arabi" - "the Arab Resurrection". Their first use of the name "al-ba'th al-'arabi", which has the same meaning, came some time later; it had already been adopted by Zaki al-Arsuzi, a nationalist activist from Iskandarun province in north-western Syria who had come to Damascus in the wake of his native area's annexation by Turkey.

On 24 October 1942 both al-Bitar and Aflaq resigned from their teaching positions, now determined to devote their full efforts to the political struggle. They slowly gained supporters, and in 1945 the first elected Bureau of the Arab Ba'th Movement was formed, including both of them. The following year, the organisation gained a substantial number of new members when most of the former supporters of Zaki al-Arsuzi, led by Wahib al-Ghanim, joined it. [This section is based on the account in Batatu, pp. 726-727. ]

On the leadership of the Ba'th Party

In 1947 the first party congress was held in Damascus, and al-Bitar was elected secretary general. Aflaq took the pre-eminent position of "'amid", sometimes translated as "doyen"; under the constitution adopted at the congress, this made him effective leader of the party, with sweeping powers within the organization.

In 1952 Syria's military dictator, Adib al-Shishakli, banned all political parties. Al-Bitar took refuge in neighboring Lebanon, along with Aflaq. There they came into contact with Akram al-Hawrani, a far more seasoned politician who had recently established the Arab Socialist Party and boasted a considerable following among the peasantry of the Hama region in central Syria as well as a valuable foothold in the military officer corps. The three politicians agreed to unite their parties, and co-operated in the overthrow of al-Shishakli in 1954, following which a congress ratified the merger of the two parties into the Arab Socialist Ba'th Party. The rules and constitution of al-Bitar and Aflaq's party were adopted unchanged. All three were elected to the party's new National Command, along with a supporter of al-Hawrani.

Power politics in Syria, 1954 - 1963

Following the overthrow of al-Shishakli, Syria held its first democratic elections in five years. Al-Bitar was elected as a deputy for Damascus, defeating the secretary general of the Syrian Social National Party, one of the Ba'th's bitterest ideological enemies. He became Minister for Foreign Affairs in 1956 and held the post until 1958. Along with other Ba'thists, he agitated in favour of the unification of Syria with Nasser's Egypt, and when unification took place in 1958 he became Minister for Guidance of the new United Arab Republic (UAR). Like many of the other Syrian politicians who had initially supported unification, he found the experience disenchanting, and resigned his position the following year.

When a right-wing coup in Syria put an end to the UAR, al-Bitar was one of sixteen prominent politicians to sign a declaration in support of the secession. Al-Hawrani also signed, but al-Bitar was still known as a Ba'thist whereas al-Hawrani's secessionist position was well-known. Much of the party's base was outraged by al-Bitar's action, although he quickly retracted his signature. The Ba'th splintered in the aftermath of the secession, with a large part of its base turning to Nasserism. Al-Bitar remained close to Aflaq, who retained the party leadership with a pro-reunification line, albeit a more cautious one than that of the Nasserists or the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM), and indeed a more cautious one than much of the party's membership wished for.

In government with the radical Ba'th

In 1963, a military coup by pro-reunification officers removed the secessionist regime from power. The officers included many Ba'thists, but also initially Nasserists and other elements. They established a National Revolutionary Command Council (NCRC) as the supreme organ of power in the land, and this body offered al-Bitar the position of prime minister at the head of a coalition cabinet made up of the various pro-reunification forces. Al-Bitar took up the appointment, and was later appointed to the NCRC as well.

However, the military Ba'thists who had taken control were not in tune with Aflaq and al-Bitar. They were of a younger generation, and a more radical disposition, traits they shared with an increasingly influential element of the civilian party membership in both Syria and Iraq. Later that year, the radical elements gained control of the party at the Sixth National Party Congress. The Congress approved a far-left programme evidently inspired by Soviet socialism, and condemned what it termed "ideological notability" inside the party - an implicit attack on Aflaq and al-Bitar. The latter resigned the premiership, which passed to a military Ba'thist, Amin Hafiz. Al-Bitar was restored to the position the following year when the ruling group decided to adopt a more conciliatory approach following massive riots in Hama, which the army had had to suppress with notable loss of life. [Seale, p. 94.] However, he was clearly not in any sense in charge of Syria - rather, he was acting as the face of a regime with which he was ideologically and personally out of sympathy.

Downfall, exile and death

On 23 February 1966 the Ba'th's secret military committee decided that the time had come to take power into its own hands. Members of the party's other factions fled; al-Bitar was captured and detained, along with other members of the party's historic leadership, in a government guest house. [Seale, p. 102] When the new rulers launched a purge in August that year, al-Bitar managed to make his escape and flee to Beirut. [Seale, p. 111.] In 1969 a court condemned him to death in absentia. He was pardoned the following year by Hafiz al-Asad after the latter came to power. However, despite a brief return to Damascus he was not reconciled with al-Asad, and in 1978, after a meeting with him ended without agreement, he launched a press campaign against the Syrian president from his exile in Paris, attacking him in a new magazine which he entitled "al-ihyaa' al-'arabi" in an echo of the name he and Aflaq had first adopted almost forty years earlier. He was also rumored to be in contact with Syrian opposition figures in Baghdad. [Seale, p. 360.]

On 21 July 1980 Salah ad-Din al-Bitar was shot dead in Paris. The identity of his killers was never discovered.


* "Al-Baath wal Watan Al-Arabi" [Arabic, with French translation] ("The Baath and the Arab Homeland"), Qasim Sallam, Paris, EMA, 1980. ISBN 2-86584-003-4
* "Al-Baath wa-Lubnân" [Arabic only] ("The Baath and Lebanon"), NY Firzli, Beirut, Dar-al-Tali'a Books, 1973
* "The Iraq-Iran Conflict", NY Firzli, Paris, EMA, 1981. ISBN 2-86584-002-6
*"History of Syria Including Lebanon and Palestine, Vol. 2" Hitti Philip K. (2002) (ISBN 1-931956-61-8)



* "Asad: the struggle for the Middle East", Patrick Seale, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1990. ISBN 0-520-06976-5
* "The Old Social Classes and New Revolutionary Movements of Iraq", Hanna Batatu, al-Saqi Books, London, 2000. ISBN 0-86356-520-4

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