Few political slogans today sound as hollow as the basic principles of the Syrian baath party “Umma arabiya Wahida Dhat Risala Khalida” (a single Arab nation with an eternal goal) and “Wahda, hurriya, ishtirakiya” (unity, freedom, socialism).
The party was founded in 1940 by two teachers from Damascus -- Michel aflaq and Salah Bitar. Aflaq was a Greek Orthodox Christian and Bitar a Sunni Muslim.
The Arabic word Baath can best be translated as rebirth or renaissance. The party’s ideology has rightly been characterized as a jumble of metaphysical nonsense, but a few main lines can still be discerned.
The doctrine of a single and indivisible Arab nation is central and has its base in the Arab national movement against the Turkish supremacy that emerged in the late 1800s, predominantly led by Christian Lebanese. The betrayal of the Western powers after World war I, when the promises of an independent Arab state were unfulfilled, gave the pan-Arab ideas a firmer footing.
For the founder of the Baath Party, Arab unity was a prerequisite for the solution of the problems of the Arab world and for the recovery of its former glory. Thus, the Baath ideology does not recognize the Arab states that came into existence as a consequence of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Another basic idea was that this unified Arab nation should be secular and characterized by religious tolerance. The definition of an Arab is a person who speaks Arabic, who has lived on Arab land, or “after being assimilated with Arab life considers himself to belong to the Arab nation.”
According to the party’s chief ideologist, Aflaq, the Prophet Muhammad was primarily the founder of the Arab nation and secondarily a religious figure. If the unity the Prophet once created could be restored, the Arabs would be relieved of any disagreements on a religious and class basis. Individual rights and freedoms would be fulfilled even if they always had to be subordinated to the eternal Arab nation’s interests.
Aflaq defined freedom as freedom from political and economic colonialism and the pursuit of “positive neutrality,” which was not synonymous with non-alignment. The socialist camp would, however, have been preferred to the capitalist. Parliamentary democracy of a Western style was rejected for the Arab communities since according to Aflaq it constituted the basis for a bourgeois power apparatus. The socialist camp was, however, a complex concept. In one of his writings, Aflaq notes that “only a thin line separates the fascist view of the chosen few from the socialist vanguard.” The concept of “social nationalism” is also frequent in his ideological writings. Among the writers who Aflaq recommended his followers to study were Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Nietzsche and Nazi theorists, notably Alfred Rosenberg. One of the newly founded party’s first actions was to express support for a German-friendly coup in Baghdad in 1941.
Socialism with religious
foundation doomed to failure
Aflaq claimed that the rich in the West had ignored workers’ rights but that the workers in turn had gone too far in their defiance. Socialism without a religious foundation was doomed to failure. He therefore stressed Islam’s role as a cultural and national inspiration and emphasized “Islam’s revolutionary qualities.” Communism was a destructive force for two reasons. The first was its deceitful socialism that promised the Arab people all they needed while at the same time trying to draw them into another state’s claws. The second was that it had gone too far in terms of nationalization, abolition of property and killed off all individual initiatives. Baath-socialism on the other hand, believed in individual initiative. It did not abolish private property but strove to create high barriers against abuse.
In Aflaq’s Baath-socialism there was therefore no dream of a classless society. The Arab nation was an entity that could not be divided into different classes. The goal would instead be to expand and disseminate private ownership to as many as possible. Small enterprises, in industry, commerce, crafts and agriculture, were the foundation of this socialism. Aflaq differentiated between Western Marxism and Communism (marksiya and shuju ‘iya) and Baathism, which he did not describe as socialist but gave the Arabic name ishtirakiya, a word whose root meaning refers to ownership and can be found in the Arabic word for company -- sharika.
The party was organized underground in a hierarchy of cells, circles and groups. These could have had a geographic area, a business or a profession as a base. The aim was to take over power by infiltrating the army and state apparatus. This happened in Syria in 1963 and in Iraq in 1968, but these seizures of power did not become steps towards the eternal indivisible Arab nation. Instead, the hostility between Syria and Iraq has since been a reliable constant in Arab politics, which ultimately stems from a rivalry and a love-hate relationship that prevailed after the center of the Muslim world in 750 was moved from Umayyad Damascus to Abbasid Baghdad.
The fight of two capitals
The fight between the two capitals over the title “the beating heart of pan-Arabism” had an intensity that matched the propaganda war between Moscow and Beijing when it was at its peak. Syria gave its open support to non-Arab Iran against Iraq in the war in the 1980s and joined the international alliance against Iraq after the occupation of Kuwait in 1991, when Syrian and Iraqi troops ran into direct conflict. Syria also became an American ally in George W. Bush’s war against Saddam Hussein and the crusade against terrorism and evil.
In both states, the Baath ideology faded after its assumption of power. From being an elitist party the Baath Party was transformed from a party that had the power to a power that had a party. In both Syria and Iraq, it became an instrument for minorities who took power by brute force, an Alawi tribe from the mountains on the Syrian Mediterranean coast led by the Assad family and Saddam Hussein’s Sunni family clan from the city of Tikrit in Iraq.
About 2 million or 10 percent of Syria’s population are today members of the party with privileges of various kinds that this implies. Nearly every other Syrian is thus indirectly tied to the party by a family member or relative. For many of them the US’s policy in Iraq is a strong reason to rally around the regime because all party members lost their positions in society, even if they were forced to join the party or became members due to the opportunities it afforded.
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria cannot count on the support of the 10 percent of the population that are Alawi until the very end. He also needs support from broad groups among the 15 percent belonging to other religious minorities, not least the Christians. They have been able to practice their religion freely under the secular system and fear that a change of regime will result in a transformation of the country into a fundamentalist Islamic state.
An important factor for the future development is therefore that not only the divided and fragmented Syrian opposition but also the international community can convince this large segment of the population that their fears of an Iraqi development of politically motivated purges and sectarian violence are unfounded and that their future lies in a Syria without the Assad family and the Baath Party.
If not, the ongoing local civil war will spread throughout Syria with unforeseeable consequences.
*Ingmar Karlsson, former ambassador and author, is a senior fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies Lund University and senior research fellow at the Global Political Trend Center İstanbul Kültür University. This piece was first published in the Swedish weekly political magazine “Fokus” on February 10, 2012.