Syrian Political Parties and the Shaping of a Country

Published by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in March of 2018, Pages of the History of Syrian Political Parties in the Twentieth Century by historian Abdullah Hanna gives readers an insight to the social milieu which gave rise to the various political parties that shaped the modern political history of Syria.


In his first chapter, Hanna explains to readers the socio-economic background which shaped political discourse in the Arab East and the backdrop for the rise of political parties in Syria. Hanna’s work also takes in the influence of both pre-Islamic and post-Islamic traditions in Syria, as well as foreign—particularly, Western—influence, which came in the shape both of capitalism and socialism alongside late Ottoman reforms and how these changed political life in Syria.

A second chapter devoted to studying political parties in Ottoman Syria also takes in pre-modern forms of organization, such as Sufi tarikas as well as the latter political societies which typified Ottoman political life between 1908 and the First World War. Hanna’s second chapter also took in the social/class backgrounds which defined Syrian politics before 1918. In a third chapter, Hanna gives special attention to leading Islamist and Islamist revivalist figures who made common cause with other political leaders in Syria and who contributed to the battle against tyranny in Syria and for the advancement of the country beginning in the late Ottoman era. Hanna traces the rise of many contemporary groups in Syria to this period, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, a group now pivotal in the country’s politics.


The Formation of Syrian Political Parties

Hanna’s fourth chapter looks at the milestone period between 1918 and 1920, which examines how formal political parties sprouted up in Syria on the eve of the French Mandate and during the short-lived period of a Syrian monarchy. It was also an era when France worked hard to entrench the power of its own enterprises over the economies of both Lebanon and Syria. The same chapter also offers an overview of how tribal and confessional loyalties in Greater Syria served to undermine collective national identity throughout the colonial period.

The actual formation of Syrian political parties was the topic of chapter six, with the author concentrating on two separate case studies: the rebellion led by Ibrahim Hananu, later a leader of the National Bloc; and the clan-based politics in the “bourgeoisie” town of Deir ez Zor, a mercantilist haven in which Syria’s earliest formal political parties took root.

In his survey of Syrian political parties during the French Mandate, in the sixth chapter, Hanna offers an overview of the Independence Party, the Syrian Union, and the Executive Committee of the Syrian-Palestinian Congress as well as the Syrian People’s Party led by Abdulrahman Shahbandar as well as the National Work League. A seventh chapter is given over to studying three other political parties: the the National Party, which represented the interests of leading landowners and major merchants in Damascus; the People’s Party of Aleppo, which represented the business interests of that city as well as French-educated university graduates; and the Arab Liberation Movement.

Arab Nationalists, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Baath

Hanna devotes the eighth chapter to studying the Syrian Social National Party (SSNP) and its charismatic founder, Anton Saade. The author explains the historical development of the SSNP as a feature of the Syrian political landscape and Saade’s ambitions for political authority. Saade’s group never made major inroads in the traditional Sunni Muslim communities of Syria, something which Hanna attributes to his adamant secularism and opposition to Islamist-influenced wider “Arab nationalism”.

Hanna’s ninth chapter is titled “The Muslim Brotherhood” but in fact allows the author to explore the various strands of Islamist Revivalist (or “Salafist”) thought, as well as groups which sought to highlight a “rationalist” trend within the Islamic religion. It’s only at chapter 10 that Hanna turns his attention to the Baath Party founded by Michel Aflaq, Salah Al Bitar and Jalal Al Sayyed. Hanna uses biographies of some of the founding figures of the Baath in Syria to illustrate how the movement was influenced both by triumphant German nationalists who had succeeded in unifying a wide and diverse set of states into one country, as well as the influence of Marxists in pushing the Baath towards socialism.

Of Parties and Republics

In chapter 11, Hanna explores the Arab Socialist Party, formed as a movement for agrarian reform and the disbanding of feudalism which grew out of a grassroots movement in Hama in the 1940s. The Arab Socialist Party was in fact led by enlightened religious reformers, such as Sheikh Ahmad Sabouni, Sheikh Abdelqader Udai and Sheikh Saad Al Jabi. By chapter 12, Hanna turns his attention to the Syrian Communist Party, a group committed to progressive and internationalist ideals. Hanna charts the course of the Communist Party of Syria under the leadership of Khaled Bekdache, and focuses on two critical junctures in the party’s history: Bekdache’s stated backing for the Soviet stance in support of the partition of Palestine; and the Party’s stance towards the United Arab Republic. By Chapter 13, Hanna moves on to discuss the personal biographies of a number of leading Syrian politicians, including Abdulrahman Shahbandar, Jamal Attasi and Badreddine Al Subaie. Chapter 14 is given over to studying “The Three Republics” of Syria, which charts the country’s path from post-independence, to the United Arab Republic under Egypt’s Nasser and finally the Baath-led state under Hafez Al Assad.

Party Life

By Chapter 15, Hanna takes in the factors behind the eclipse of formal political parties—other than the Baath—in Syria. Hanna explores in close detail the difficulties surrounding the administration of the public sector, as well as the contribution of oil revenues to the destabilization of the political order across the Middle East as a whole. Around the same time, Syria, like the rest of the region, was dealing with the defeat of 1967 and the concomitant rise of political Islam, a consequence of the failure of the previously dominant leftist and Arab nationalist blocs to liberate Palestine. In the following chapter, Hanna goes on to chart the rise of totalitarian politics in Syria, with an emphasis on a number of individuals directly effected by changes to political life in Syria.

In chapters 17 and 18, Hanna focuses on the roles of the Communist Party and other secularist factions under Baath rule. He looks closely at how the Community Party’s sometime alliance with the Baath within a ruling troika had led to a series of internal divisions within the group.

Political Islam and Revolution

The final four chapters of Hanna’s book are given over to studying political Islam as a social phenomenon as well as their contribution to the revolution which shook Damascus beginning in 2011. Chapter 19 looks closely at how the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood navigated the difficulties of survival under a Baath-led regime (in which it was banned). Hanna explains how, with the Baath reaping the benefits of popular agrarian reforms and the nationalization of large economic enterprises, the Brotherhood was driven to increasing extremism and open militarization against the regime. Chapter 20 explores how political Islamism in Syria benefited from the rise of an Islamist grassroots across the entire Arab region at the junction between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. By chapter 21, the author turns his attention to a specific social trend which emerged in 1990s Syria and was closely interrelated with political Islam there: the hijab. The growing prominence of the veiling of women proved a flashpoint for battling political groups in Syria and beyond and represented the tensions which existed between Islamist and modernist-enlightenment intellectual trends in the Arab region. Finally, in the closing chapter, Hanna depicts the popular movements which eventually erupted into a revolution against the Damascus regime as a continuation of the same political developments which shaped the Syrian political landscape in the second half of the twentieth century.

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