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Remembering the 1966 Syrian coup d'état

Members of a Syrian military band hold a poster showing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (L) and his late father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad during a parade marking the anniversary of the Baath party in Damascus on April 7, 2011 [AFP via Getty Images]
Members of a Syrian military band hold a poster showing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (L) and his late father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad during a parade marking the anniversary of the Baath party in Damascus on April 7, 2011 [AFP via Getty Images]

In late February 1966, a faction of the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party in Syria ousted the old leadership in a coup. The new leadership of young socialist Ba'athists included Hafez Al-Assad, who would eventually rise to power in the so-called corrective revolution of 1970.

What: Overthrow of the government of the Syrian Arab Republic

Where: Syria

When: 21-23 February 1966

Background

Towards the end of 1965, Syrian politics was characterised by two distinct factions of the Ba'ath Party. One was made up of the National Command, the ruling elite of the Syrian branch of the party. The other consisted of a combination of the party's Military Committee and Regional Command, including future Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad. The two Ba'athist groups had come to power together in 1963 by overthrowing the then President, Nazim Al-Qudsi in a coup.

In the years that followed, the factions increasingly grew apart as the economy worsened and faith in the country's leadership waned. At this point, Assad and the leader of the regionalist faction, Salah Jadid, started planning a military takeover of the entire Ba'ath Party. However, their former ally Muhammad Umran broke ranks and informed the National Command of the plot.

Once the conspirators were outed, Jadid forced Umran into exile and attempted to assume power in Syria. However, the National Command managed to resist the marginalisation of its civilian government by replacing its leader with a relatively political-unknown. The outsider attempted to regain control of the spiralling situation by ordering the dissolution of the Regional Command and recalling Umran from exile to serve as defence minister.

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What happened?

Back in Damascus, Umran ordered the transfer of three senior military Regional Command supporters in an effort to sideline the powerful faction. In response, Jadid staged a crisis, telling Umran on 21 February that fighting between officers stationed on the front lines had broken out and that guns had been used. The news forced Umran, former Prime Minister Amin Al-Hafiz and the chief of staff, to rush to the Golan Heights to prevent the "mutiny", not knowing that it was a hoax. When the group returned to Damascus on 23 February, Jadid made his move and attacked Hafiz's private residence with a squadron of tanks.

The attack took place at 5 am, only two hours after the exhausted party had returned from the Israeli front, resulted in a shootout in which two of Hafiz's children were injured. Despite a valiant defence, Hafiz's forces surrendered after they ran out of ammunition. Jadid was able to take power.

There was resistance to the coup from outside Damascus and Jadid was forced to send troops to Homs to quell a budding uprising. Latakia, Deir Ez-Zor and Aleppo also yielded brief resistance movements which were crushed by the military.

What happened next?

Jadid was quick to establish his authority by purging the military of officers loyal to Umran and placing them in Damascus's Mezze Prison alongside the former defence minister. Syria's new leader then appointed Hafez Al-Assad as minister of defence, despite his open lack of support for the coup.

Assad slowly gained full control over the Syrian military as Jadid focussed on stabilising the country and its brittle economy. Relinquishing control of the military to Assad has been seen widely as Jadid's biggest mistake, leading to his overthrow in the so-called "corrective revolution" of 1970.

Throughout his four-year rule, Jadid, although he was the undisputed ruler of Syria, remained Assistant Secretary of the Regional Command. He never took the official title of Prime Minister or President.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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