A Second Life for the Baath Party
No. 2 2003 April/June

Question: Which Middle East country has been accused
by Washington of providing support to terrorists and developing

Let us provide the reader with some clues: this country has a
reputation for its rather conspicuous antagonism toward Israel, and
has been ruled for several decades under the singularly cruel
authoritarian regime of the pan-Arabic Socialist Baath party.

If your guess is Iraq under Saddam Hussein, you would not be
mistaken. But the country I have in mind is Syria, which also
perfectly fits the above description. At the height of the Iraq
military campaign American leaders began to issue strong warnings
to Damascus. Following the occupation of Baghdad, the rhetoric
intensified. The U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld,
suggested that Saddam Hussein’s associates had found shelter in
Syria. Congressmen Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen,
R-Fla., said they would seek action on legislation authorizing
President Bush to punish Syria through curbs on exports and the
sale of equipment with military use, and restrictions on Syrian
diplomats’ travel in the United States. “Now that Saddam Hussein’s
regime is on the precipice of defeat, it is time for America to get
serious about Syria,” Engel said.

Is this a signal that the Syrian regime may be the next target
in the U.S. crusade against ’the axis of evil?’

“The paradise of the East and a source of bright and shining
beauty, it is an embodiment of all Islamic countries that we have
visited; a bride among the towns that we saw,” Ibn Djubair, an Arab
pilgrim of the 12th century, wrote about Damascus. The town made an
indelible impression on the traveler: “By God! Right are those who
say, ’If the Heaven is on the earth, Damascus is surely in it; if
it is in the sky, Damascus is its twin’.” Describing numerous
shrines of Damascus, Ibn Djubair exclaimed: “The almighty Allah
save it, the abode of Islam!”

Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad represent three historical landmarks
of the Arab East. Iraq, the successor state of ancient Assyria and
Babylon, and the center of the Muslim world in the days of the
Abbassid caliphs, ranks third in an unofficial regional
“hierarchy.” Iraq is preceded by Egypt and Syria – the “head” and
the “heart,” as Arabs refer to them respectively. Egypt has always
been a flagship country among the Arabs, exceeding them in terms of
population, as well as through its economic, military and cultural
potential. Meanwhile, the ideology of pan-Arabism, which aims to
strengthen Arab unity, was founded in Syria.

The pan-Arabic Socialist Baath party first appeared in Damascus
in 1947; the Iraqi branch emerged later. The party mottoes are
“Unity, freedom, socialism” and “A single Arab nation destined to
accomplish an immortal mission.” Its dynamism, centralized
structure and tough discipline were appealing to white-collar
workers, the middle class, and young people. So was its ideological
blend of anti-imperialism, liberation and Arab nationalism which
interweaved itself into the social mission of fighting depravity,
promoting justice, and binding the disunited Arab countries into a
single powerful state.

Initially, Baath enjoyed the reputation of a pan-Arabic party
governed from two regional centers in Syria and Iraq. In 1963, the
Syrian Baath party seized power in a military coup in Damascus. In
1968 a local branch of the international Baath party came to power
in Iraq. This resulted in not just an estrangement between the two
Baath parties, but to an actual upsurge of animosity.

The common ideology did not prevent the Iraqi Baath party
members from labeling their Syrian colleagues “adventurers that
usurped the glorious name of our party.” The latter returned the
criticism in kind.

The confrontation between the two Baath parties was fueled by
two factors. First, since the end of World War II, both Syria and
Iraq have proclaimed themselves the dominant power in the region.
At one time, both countries nourished hopes of unifying the Arab
states, specifically Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, though pursuing
ultimately different agendas: Damascus dreamt of a ’Great Syria,’
while Baghdad proposed to re-establish the glory of the Fertile
Crescent. Secondly, the strained relations between the two national
branches were further aggravated by the mutual dislike between
their respective leaders. It was a pro-Syrian conspiracy, allegedly
organized in Iraq’s Baath party, that Saddam used as a pretext for
launching a purge of fellow party members in 1979, which helped him
gain the presidency of Iraq.

Syria’s Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein of Iraq were both
charismatic leaders who had much in common. They both consolidated
their grip on power in the 1970s, and each coveted the role of the
pan-Arab leadership following the death of Egyptian President Gamal
Abdel Nasser in 1970. And both failed.

The personal dislike between Assad and Hussein partially
accounts for Damascus’ decision to join the U.S.-led coalition
against Iraq, as well as supporting Operation Desert Storm in 1991,
although Syrian troops never actually engaged in military action.
The reputable American orientalist, Fouad Adjami makes the point in
the Foreign Affairs magazine that Egyptian and Syrian participation
in this campaign greatly promoted the cause of the U.S. since
Hussein could no longer “depict the struggle as a standoff between
the haves and the have-nots in the Arab world.” In return, Damascus
reaped substantial economic dividends, but fell short of becoming
Washington’s partner.

Syria has adopted an extremely tough stance toward Israel.
(Unlike Egypt, which has long regained its formerly
Israeli-occupied Sinai Peninsula, Syria is still far from securing
its Golan Heights, which Israel seized following the Six Day War in
1967.) Moreover, Damascus backs the radical Islamic movement
Hezbollah which launches attacks on Israel from Lebanese territory.
Syria’s intractable position has always been a source of contention
by the influential pro-Israeli lobby in the U.S.

The expectations that Bashar, Hafez Assad’s son who succeeded
his deceased father in 2000, would look to the West for support
proved to be wrong. On the contrary, during the latest Iraqi
campaign initiated by Washington Damascus was most firm in its
resolve to side with Iraq (incidentally, Syria was the only Arab
country on the U.N. Security Council during the crisis). On the one
hand, now that Assad Jr. is in office, the shadow of the former
hostility which hung over the past relations between his father and
Saddam Hussein has largely disappeared between the two countries.
On the other hand, the young Syrian president must demonstrate that
he follows in the footsteps of his father who was renowned for his
hardline anti-imperialist policies. Thus, Damascus allowed
irregular forces of volunteers who wished to reinforce the Iraqi
troops to cross its borders unopposed. Moreover, Washington accused
Damascus of providing military assistance to Iraq; U.S. Secretary
of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, alleged that night-vision equipment
was entering Iraqi territory via Syria.

Damascus has grounds to fear a U.S. strike. Although Syria was
not depicted as a member of the ’axis of evil,’ it nevertheless has
found a place on the U.S. State Department’s black list of states
sponsoring terrorism. Almost one year ago, Tom DeLay, the
Republican majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives,
spoke of the necessity of waging war on Saddam Hussein. He provided
eight criteria for pre-emptive military action against any
particular state: sponsorship of terrorism, accumulating weapons of
mass destruction, violating WMD agreements, aggression, attacking
and threatening Israel, domestic murder and terror, religious and
ethnic persecution, thwarting democracy. American observers
immediately counted seven criteria that apply to Syria (with
religious and ethnic persecution excluded), that is, if one bases
his judgment on the official documents issued by the U.S. State
Department and CIA reports on human rights and WMD

Yet, it won’t be easy for the Bush administration to argue the
case to the American public that Syria poses a direct threat to the
U.S. and the wider world. Saddam’s image as a serial aggressor has
been successfully drilled into the American psyche, reinforced by
his two invasions against neighboring countries, rocket shelling of
Israel and the use of poisonous gases against Iraq’s own Kurdish
population. But President Assad of Syria does not remotely approach
the rather abysmal record of Saddam Hussein, therefore should the
campaign spill over into neighboring Syria, it will be very
difficult to justify.

There can be little doubt that Israel will enthusiastically
welcome such a showdown with Syria. But international sympathies
will most assuredly lie with Syria. If the U.S. attacks Syria in
the wake of its Iraqi occupation, this will cause such a tremendous
groundswell of outrage that even most pro-American Mideast
governments will have to distance themselves from the U.S. due to
sheer self-preservation. Furthermore, such an event would undermine
the 50-year long effort of the U.S. to increase its influence in
the region. It will also draw protests from Russia, Damascus’ old
political partner, not to mention the European Union which has
recently recognized Syria as a “new neighbor,” that is, the EU’s
adjoining nation entitled to enjoy special relationship with it.
These considerations lead us to believe that Baghdad will be the
terminal point in the U.S. crusade in the Middle East. Especially
considering that Syria boasts no huge oil reserves.

However, the end of the military campaign does not mean that the
U.S. is giving up its plans to change the Mideast regimes: the
mission of the Iraqi campaign, as described by President Bush, is
to instigate the process of democratic change in the entire region.
Fouad Adjami calls on America’s “spearheading of a reformist
project that seeks to modernize and transform the Arab landscape.
Iraq would be the starting point, and beyond Iraq lies an Arab
political and economic tradition and a culture whose agonies and
failures have been on cruel display.” “Returning their government
to the people of Iraq would signal democratic reformers around the
region that the United States is deeply committed to expanding
freedom,” says DeLay.

Last year, prominent American analysts Ronald Asmus and Kenneth
Pollak came up with a “new transatlantic project:” “We must make an
equally firm commitment to a political strategy that would help
transform the Middle East itself. It would mean changing the nature
of the anti-Western regimes… It would mean a new form of

This goal is utopian since the Arab world knows no democratic
regimes and even its pro-Western ruling elites will not agree to
get involved in this process, as it is sure to cut the ground out
from under their feet. It may be assumed that U.S. policies in the
region will hardly affect Saudi Arabia and Egypt (although calls
for their democratization are becoming more frequently pronounced
in the U.S.), whereas Syria may come under tremendous political

It is noteworthy that from this perspective Syria’s situation is
even worse than that of Iran, an ’axis of evil’ state, which,
according to the U.S., builds up weapons of mass destruction and
lends support to anti-Israeli extremists. However, today the
Iranian regime is going through a unique transformation: the
militant phase of the ’Islamic revolution’ is giving way to a more
moderate and liberal regime personified by President Mohammed
Khatami. Long and sinuous as it may be this process of change shows
a clear ’light at the end of the tunnel,’ some Western politicians
believe. But the American political establishment remains divided
over this issue, therefore, George W. Bush will have to think twice
before replicating the ’Iraqi model’ in Iran.

Meanwhile, no regime changes are yet in sight in Syria. As The
New York Times noted recently, “Syria has proved remarkably
resistant to change.” Even Iran’s theocratic regime, masterminded
by Ayatollah Khomeini, is tolerant enough to allow for a budding
civil society, the freedom of discussion and a relative pluralism.
But the totalitarian regime of the Syrian Baath party forces
everyone to toe the party line, while the people live in fear of an
all-encompassing police surveillance.

With the downfall of the Baath party in Iraq, Syria will be the
only Arab country standing in stiff and uncompromising opposition
to Israel. The Baath ruling party of Syria has every reason to be
worried about its future.