Ba'athism in Iraq-Syria: out of time

The influential nationalist-modernist ideology once attracted religious-sectarian support. Today that process is over, as the latter forces reclaim their older identities.

Hazem Saghieh
25 July 2014

The current events in Iraq and Syria are usually reported with little reference to the political  ideology that dominated the regimes there for decades and shaped the political life of these societies, namely Ba'athism. An examination of how the use of this ideology has developed in more recent times may reveal something about the present crisis in these states.

This might start with the notion that the doctrine of the Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party went through an important transition in its later stages. Ba'athism had developed its influence in the 1950s and 1960s, before becoming the ruling party and then (after many splits and coups) the vehicle of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Hafez al-Assad in Syria. Ba'ath ideology had been once been associated with Arab nationalism and modernism, which were projected by the agencies (including media) under its control. Under pressure of political change, it then became an ideology "borrowed" by, even "leased" to, particular sects, provinces and communities according to their need.

Today, another transition is underway. These groups have long been disabused of their illusions and are now returning to their older selves after the flirtation with the Ba'ath. This also means exposing themselves to the world in their naked form, free of all embellishments. At last they are again mere sects and provinces, nothing more.

Before and after 1979

In the 1950s and 1960s, many in Syria and Iraq were persuaded of - or deceived by - the Ba'ath's modernist-nationalist claims. In part because the Ba'ath identified itself with the post-independence expansion of the middle class, including in public administration, the army, and the commodified economy. The Ba'ath found significant support in these areas. But the modernism of the time was superficial, for behind it were other forces with sectarian identities that they were, however, too ashamed to declare. 

In a climate dominated by pan-Arabism, some Iraqi Shi'ites who belonged to religious and aristocratic families embraced the Ba'ath. The Ba'ath had two attractions for them. They could use it to express their sense of superiority over Iranian Shi'ism, on the grounds that Islam is an Arab religion; and they saw the Ba'ath as an instrument to repel the extension of Communist Party influence to central-southern Iraq.

A later change of circumstances made such considerations redundant. The Ayatollah Khomeini-led revolution in Iran in January 1979 was a turning-point. By then, the Communists who had once been influential in Iraq were no longer a threat. Iraq's ruling Ba'ath party and the army (which was traditionally Sunni-led) had since 1963 been seeking marginalise the civilian Shi'ites in the Ba'ath and its state apparatus..The Iranian events had led the Iraqi Shi'ites to move towards identification with Iranian Shi'ism. But the remaining Shi'ite Ba'athists then suffered a great ordeal when, later in 1979, Saddam Hussein crushed the “conspiracy of deviant comrades” against him, most of whom were Shi'ites.

This shows how interlinked Ba'athism and sectarianism could be, behind the principled rhetoric. Many Iraqi Sunnis had been drawn to the Ba'ath before it took power, and even more afterwards when the party had many benefits to offer. But even in its earlier days, the party co-founded by Michel Aflaq had engaged some traditional Iraqi Sunni whims and prejudices: hostility to the “Persians”, feelings of superiority to the Kurds in the north, opposition to communism. Their desire to strengthen bonds with Syrian Sunnis in Deir al-Zour and surrounding areas, with whom Iraqi Sunnis had kinship ties and cross-border interests, was also a factor. 

With the Ba'ath there was no need for radical Sunni groups, which is why the Muslim Brotherhood did not become a significant force in Iraq. But in the 1960s, the Ba'ath did have to compete with Nasserism for the hearts and minds of the “Sunni street”, and it proved competent to a certain extent. This struggle also reflected a long-standing Iraqi ambition to outrival Egypt for Arab leadership, which other Sunni leaders had either failed or did not want to accomplish (the latter was the case with the brothers Abdul Rahman and Abdul Salam Arif, who ruled Iraq from 1963-68.)

When the Ba'ath split in 1966, the Iraqi Ba'ath was in opposition. The split proved useful for the Sunni Iraqis who supported the Ba'ath, for it brought them freedom from a leadership historically controlled by Syrians. This was especially welcome, since Damascus was now Alawi-dominated, and conservative Sunni Ba'athists in Iraq loathed the "leftist" drivel of the Syrian Ba'athist military. 

The fate of Ba'athism

Today, in the era of proud micro-identities, Iraqi Sunnism has taken back the identity that was leased to the Ba'ath. The latter, with all its capabilities and offerings, and its fearsome leader Saddam Hussein, is no longer in power. The surviving member of its high elite, Izzat al-Douri - who was one of Saddam’s two deputies - has established the Naqshbandi Army, while many of Saddam’s former officers have become commanders in the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The situation in Syria may differ in details, such as that the Ba'ath are still formally in power. But it resembles Iraq in many of its broad features. In Syria too, for example, the rural minorities have taken back the identities that were leased to the Ba'ath; they now find the security services and the pro-regime militias a sort of haven and a more honest representative of their interests; and for them the ''defence of minorities'' and alliances between them is a truer ideology than the ''unity of the great Arab homeland.''

In the time of sectarian revanchism, the room for poetic nationalist bromides of the kind formulated by Michel Aflaq in 1947 has gone. The latest change clarifies the past as well as the present. The "leasing" of Ba'athism is over, for Ba'athism itself is no more.

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