While One Ba’athist Regime Perishes, the Other Adapts
The border between Iraq and Syria is a southwestern extension of the Iraq-Turkish border and appears much like the border between North and South Dakota: wide open with nobody around.
The Syrian government consists of a group of thugs cut from the same bolt as Saddam’s henchmen. Ostensibly, they are another branch of the Ba’ath Arab Socialist Party, but in practice, like in Iraq, where the party and the government form a cult of personality focused on Saddam Hussein, in Syria it is Bashar al-Assad, son of the fabled late dictator Hafez al-Assad who was listed by Forbes Magazine as the eighth-richest person in the world, worth $2.3 billion – an impressive accomplishment in a state where the economy is nationalized.
Most Americans have come to understand that an Islamic country does not recognize any difference between church and state, but sees them as elements of a unified system of rule. This unified rule is governed by the Shari’ah, which is analogous to codified law in Western society. The Shari’ah consists of the Qur’an, which Muslims believe was revealed by Allah to Mohammad during the 7th century, the Sunnah, which records the Prophet Mohammad’s life, and a constantly evolving collection of Fatwas or rulings that deal with every aspect of Islamic life from ideology to practical daily matters. Taken together, the Qur’an and Sunnah form the basis for Islamic jurisprudence, very much like our Constitution forms the basis for our secular laws.
Ba’athism originally offered freedom from Western colonialism and Arab unity under the banner of socialism. It was the brainchild of two expatriate Arabs living in France in the 1930s. A Greek Orthodox Christian, Michael Aflaq, was the main ideologue of Ba’athism, and Salah al-Din Bitar, who was a Damascus Muslim, was a practical politician who later become prime minister of an independent Ba’athist Syria.
In contrast to then-currently popular Marxism, the early Ba’athist movement was based on classless racial unity. Early Ba’athist ideas contained a heavy dose of fascism, with nationalized industry and a centralized economy serving the needs of the nation. As such, it opposed both Marxism and Western capitalism.
In 1941, Rashid Ali al-Kailani conducted an army coup against the pro-British Iraqi monarchy and requested help from Nazi Germany. Al-Kailani was an Arab nationalist who was strongly pro-Axis. Damascus was a Vichy French colony at the time of the Baghdad coup, and the Ba’ath Party founders who had moved there from France immediately organized public demonstrations in support of Al-Kailani.
Following World War II, the Ba’athist Party emerged as the leading secular party of Arab unity. Like Islam, it offered a coherent ideology, but young Arabs saw it as a modern replacement for the tired ideas of ancient Islam with its tyrannical Mullahs and arbitrary rules and restrictions on behavior.
Ba’athism offered Arab youth tight, internal discipline that contrasted sharply with the corruption-ridden loose nature of many Arab civil institutions. It was a rigidly organized hierarchy of small cells. Members, who were expected to devote their lives to the party, passed through four stages before being granted full membership: supporter, sympathizer, nominee and trainee. Both Iraq and Syria require potential members to pass a series of tests at each level, so that full members of Saddam’s and al-Assad’s Ba’athist organizationz are the most hardened and fanatical of their supporters. Currently, there are about 40,000 full-fledged Iraqi Ba’athists with about two million in the pipeline; the Syrian Ba’athists have similar numbers.
Recently, Saddam extended this principle by establishing the Fedayeen Saddam, the irregular guerrilla force that has been engaging allied troops. The Fedayeen consists of teenage members or novices eager to move up in the Ba’ath hierarchy ladder, very reminiscent of the Hitler Youth movement in Nazi Germany
In 1947 the Ba’athists set up a single party under a National Command out of Syria, with a Regional Command located in each Arab country. The Iraqi branch was established in 1954. There followed a series of bloody coups in both Syria and Iraq, culminating with the Ba’athists taking control in Syria in 1963, and in Iraq in 1968.
Once in power, both the Syrian and Iraqi versions of Ba’athism underwent dramatic changes, but in different directions. The Syrians have retained their secularism, and have been moving away from the precepts of national socialism that formed the original foundation of Ba’athism. Under the stern control of strongman Bashar al-Assad, Syria is moving towards a market-driven economy despite its current label as a supporter of terrorism.
Iraq, on the other hand, has shown a growing embrace of Islam, with all that implies.
In both countries, the internal corruption so characteristic of this region of the world has taken full control of daily government operations. The only way to accomplish any action requiring participation of the bureaucracy is to arrive with a pocketful of money.
Recent reports about military equipment moving from Syria to Baghdad are not surprising given the close ties between these two regimes, and the fact that Syria sees Baghdad as the only other viable secular Arab state with Ba’athist roots. Syria has a vested interest in keeping a Ba’athist Iraq alive and well. From Syria ’s point of view, if Iraq falls to the coalition forces, whatever replaces it will be largely Islamic in character.
Despite its saber-rattling in response to American pressure to stop the shipments, Syria is unlikely to risk wholesale coalition retaliation against these shipments. As the only remaining Ba’athist beachhead in an otherwise Islamist world, Syria is more interested in retaining its own integrity than in supporting a failing Iraqi regime that has been turning towards Islam anyway.
The dream of the founders, Aflaq and Bitar, for a unified secular Arab world has vanished into the morass of the present-day Middle East. The Ba’athist Party in Palestine and Jordan has been liquidated by Islamic interests. Iraq is about to change dramatically following the final coalition victory. And Syria remains Ba’athist in name only, since it replaced the original Ba’athist reformers in 1966 with a nationalist government, and now moves towards a market-based economy as it integrates itself into the modern world.
And the founders themselves?
Michael Aflaq became an adviser to Hussein, but was soon sidelined as that dictatorship mutated into the fascist horror that enslaves Iraq today. He died in Baghdad in 1989, a bitterly disappointed man.
Deposed Prime Minister Salah al-Din Bitar eventually left the corrupt Syrian regime in disgust in the mid-1960s for exile in Paris . The Syrian secret service assassinated him in 1980.
Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor