Ba'ath party (bä´äth), Arab political party, in Syria and in Iraq. Its main ideological objectives are secularism, socialism, and pan-Arab unionism. Founded in Damascus in 1941 and reformed, with the name Ba'ath, in the early 1950s, it rapidly achieved political power in Syria.
In 1958—with one of its founders, Salah al-Din Bitar, as foreign minister—it led Syria into the ill-fated United Arab Republic (UAR) with Egypt. The Ba'athists, like most other Syrians, quickly came to resent Egyptian domination, and the Ba'athist members of the union government resigned in Dec., 1959. Syria withdrew from the UAR in 1961.
In 1963 a military coup restored the Ba'ath to power in Syria, and it embarked on a course of large-scale nationalization. From 1963 the Ba'ath was the only legal Syrian political party, but factionalism and intraparty splintering led to a succession of governments and new constitutions. In 1966 a military junta representing the more radical elements in the party displaced the more moderate wing in power, purging from the party its original founders, Michel Aflaq and Bitar.
Subsequently the main line of division was drawn between the so-called progressive faction, led by Nureddin Atassi, which gave priority to the firm establishment of a one-party state and to neo-Marxist economic reform, and the so-called nationalist group, led by Gen. Hafez al-Assad. Assad's following was less doctrinaire about socialism, favoring a militant posture on the Arab union and hostility toward Israel. Despite constant maneuvering and government changes, the two factions remained in an uneasy coalition of power until 1970, when, in another coup, Assad succeeded in ousting Atassi as prime minister. Assad, one of the longest-ruling leaders of the contemporary Middle East, and the Ba'athist party remained at Syria's political helm until 2000, when he was succeeded by Bashar al-Assad, his son.
In Iraq the Ba'athists first came to power in the coup of Feb., 1963, when Abd al-Salem Arif became president. Interference from the Syrian Ba'athists and disputes between the moderates and extremists, culminating in an attempted coup by the latter in Nov., 1963, served to discredit the extremists. However, the moderates continued to play a major role in the succeeding governments. In July, 1968, a bloodless coup brought to power the Ba'athist general Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr. Wranglings within the party continued, and the government periodically purged its dissident members. Saddam Hussein, who succeeded al-Bakr in 1979, remained the titular leader of the Iraqi party until his execution in 2006. After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the party was outlawed and tens of thousands of higher ranking members of the party were barred from government jobs, an action that helped fuel the Sunni Arab insurgency.
From their inceptions the Ba'athist regimes of Syria and Iraq were often been diametrically opposed. Under Hafez al-Assad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, both nations moved away from Ba'athist principles, although the ruling parties retained the Ba'ath name.
See M. Khadduri, Socialist Iraq (1978); D. Roberts, The Ba'ath & the Creation of Modern Syria (1987); R. Hinnebusch, Authoritarian Power and State Formation in Ba'thist Syria (1989); J. Sassoon, Saddam Hussain's Ba'ath Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime (2011). See also bibliography under Iraq and Syria.