Iraq-Syria: roots of disintegration

Iraq's fragmentation and Syria's implosion are the long-term outcome of the follies of their Ba'athist and other Arab nationalist leaders.

Hazem Saghieh
31 July 2014

The map has changed. After the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took over Mosul, and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) annexed Kirkuk to its autonomous region, there are now three Iraqs. And there are many grounds for doubting whether it is possible, through diplomacy or military action, to bring them back together.

But what many do not realise is that the seeds of Iraq’s potential demise were sown inside Iraq (and inside Syria too) long before the events of June-July 2014. Among the internal Iraqi precursors of the country's doom was the Ba'ath party. But earlier figures paved the way: several Iraqi generations were mis-educated by the Arab nationalist ideologue Satei al-Husari, for instance, and the quasi-fascist youth organisations led by brothers Naji and Saeb Shawkat also exerted influence.

There were yet other precursors. King Ghazi (1912-39) had delusions about making Iraq an “Arab Piedmont” able to repeat the experience of Italian unification. Those responsible for the oppression of Assyrians, Kurds, and Shi'ites; the coups led by Bakr Sidqi in 1936 and Rashid Ali al-Geylani in 1941 (and the farhud that the latter coup and its repercussions brought down on Iraqi Jews) bear their share of responsibility. All these individuals and events were the backdrop from which the Iraqi Ba'athists would draw inspiration. The Ba'ath made systematic use of all these elements, binding them into its own ideological fabric.

To be sure, the Baathists and their Arab nationalist predecessors shared an ideological line: rejection of the Sykes-Picot agreement that “partitioned the Arab nation.” In fact, all the developments in the region after 1918  show that the colonial engineering of the Orient was actually more unitary than that reality could bear. The European mandate (British and French) annexed part of Kurdistan to Arab Iraq, planted deep African territories into Arab Sudan, forced Christians and Muslims to live together in Lebanon, and bowed to the demands of the Syrian national movement to create one state instead of five as had been planned.

In time, the tyrannical Ba'ath regimes took care of the rest. Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria from 1970-2000, neglected the Syrian interior as he sought to emulate the imperialist model - in the form of a powerful regional role, military interventions, and bargaining cards with the west in Lebanon. In Iraq, Assad's fellow Ba'athist (and often rival) Saddam Hussein did the same.

Saddam's Iraq fought three major wars, in addition to continuous campaigns against the Kurds, and smaller conflicts (mostly of a covert and terroristic type) in league with Syria and the PLO. These culminated in Saddam’s epic delusion of grandeur: as the cold war was ending, he saw fit to replace the Soviet Union as the main challenger to the international political and financial order. The swallowing of Kuwait in 1990 was the epitome of this folly. 

Saddam and Hafez al-Assad always prioritised Iraq and Syria's exterior to their interior, justifying this by nationalist and anti-imperialist ideology. In the process they betrayed their own supposed principles. For instance, Assad fought against his Palestinian and Lebanese “allies” in 1976, and sided with the Americans against his Iraqi “brethren” in 1990-91. Likewise, the Iraqi Ba'ath, through its army in Jordan, allowed the Jordanian forces to strike the Palestinian “brethren” in 1970, and made territorial and political concessions to the Shah's “reactionary” regime in Iran in the mid-1970s in order to crush the Kurdish uprising. Then, when Iran's revolution brought an Islamic regime to power in 1979, the Iraqi Ba'ath regime invaded Iran and fought a bitter eight-year war on behalf of “American imperialism and Arab reactionary regimes”.

The imperial model

In both Syria and Iraq, the Ba'ath was enabled to undertake this task by the party's core ingredients: control of a regime based on minorities within the society, combined with an inflated nationalist ideology it claimed had majority support. In either case, ideological mobilisation and extreme rhetoric were used to bludgeon people into confromity and dodge difficult questions about the Ba'athists' own legitimacy. 

The result of this external focus and iron domestic rule was permanent tension. The minority-based, military-security nature of the Ba'athist regimes generated constant crises which their nationalist ideology created pathways to help them circumvent. But as the call for Arab unity lost all meaning and vitality, and turned into a bromide, pan-Arabism was left only with a utilitarian purpose that served the effort to mimic the imperialist model and its associated security apparatuses.

The so-called “national-liberation movement” in the Arab Mashreq in fact had a particular connotation: namely, the takeover by the two larger Ba'athist and military entities, Iraq and Syria, of the sovereignty and decision-making of the non-Ba'athist, non-military entities of Lebanon and Jordan (as well as of the Palestinians, as a people and a cause). Jordan, Lebanon, and the Palestinians had the ancillary purpose of being made both the raw material of the Ba'athists' quasi-imperialist policy and the “markets” where the Ba'athists' products were offloaded.

In this context, the policies pursued in Syria and Iraq under Bashar al-Assad and Nouri al-Maliki - before the most recent explosions - appear transitional. In both cases, foreign policy remained a priority, but the stresses of civil conflict and the difficulty of replicating the tyranny of their predecessors required them to look inward and concentrate on survival.

Al-Maliki ended up giving away his country to Iran, then demanding that Tehran and Washington rescue him. Bashar al-Assad had beaten al-Maliki in the race to make his country a satellite of Iran, before asking Tehran and Moscow to rescue him. (The former was a departure from the previous alliance with Iran under his father Hafez, where the two countries were equals).
The obsessive desire of Iraq and Syria's leaders to inflate their regional power, and the trivial ideological pretexts used to justify this, ended up destroying two entire countries. In this longer-term perspective, ISIS is the latest manifestation of a decades-old rot.

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