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SYRIA - Baathists Fear Extinction.

When Assad convened the 10th Baath Party Congress in Damascus on June 6-9, he promised to loosen the party's monopoly on power to encourage greater political participation among the country's disaffected population. But Assad's concession was less a sign of generosity than a reflection of just how weak and isolated the nearly 60-year-old party had become. Since the US invasion of Iraq put an end to the only other Baathist regime in the region, Syria's Baath Party has been forced to cast aside what little remained of the trans-nationalist Arab ideals which gave birth to the movement seven decades ago in favour of a far more modest domestic agenda of political and economic reform.

In his opening address to the congress, Assad vowed rotelike, as Baath Party leaders always do these days to continue to pursue Arab "unity, freedom and socialism" among the Arab peoples. But his delivery made it clear that bringing together the Arab world was no longer a pressing concern. This was a far cry from the tone of the first Baath Party Congress, held in Damascus on April 7, 1947. The fervent ideology of pan-Arabism then ruled the day and the main goal was nothing less than creation of a single Arab super-state.

Pan-Arabism, which by then had emerged as a response to Western colonial domination in the Middle East, had sought to reassert Arab power through an appeal for ethnic unity across political and territorial boundaries. It found its first formal expression in the creation of the Arab League in 1945, which gave a single voice to newly independent Arab states after World War II. But the primary channel through which pan-Arabism spread was unquestionably the Baath Party.

Baath is Arabic for renaissance. It was precisely as a reawakening of the Arab spirit that the movement's ideology was conceived in the 1930s by Syrian activists and political philosophers such as Michel Aflaq and Zaki Al-Arsuzi. The Baath preached a revolutionary mixture of Arab nationalism and secular socialism which appealed to Syria's intellectuals and university students, many of whom had become disillusioned with the other great movement of political unity in the Middle East, pan-Islamism.

After the catastrophic defeat of Arab forces in Palestine in 1948, the Baath Party's ideals began spreading through the rest of the Middle East: Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Yemen all drew heavily from the Baath's pan-Arabist ideology. In Iraq, the movement found especially fertile ground. Iraq's Baath Party, established in 1954, was instrumental in the revolution which put an end to British control of Iraq in 1958.

Almost immediately upon coming to power in 1963, Iraq's Baathists - particularly the younger generation led by Saddam Hussain - rejected straightforward pan-Arabism in favour of a distinctly Iraqi nationalism which looked not to Arabia but to ancient Mesopotamia for its symbols of cultural and ethnic unity. By the time Saddam became the sole ruler in mid-1979, Baathism in Iraq had become little more than an instrument of Sunni Arab domination and political oppression over Iraq's Shiite Arabs and Kurds. Saddam's regime permanently severed the Iraqi and Syrian Baathists.

While Syria's Baath Party flourished under President Hafez Al-Assad, who from 1970 succeeded in implementing the party's socialist principles in nearly every sector of society while remaining nominally faithful to its pan-Arabist roots, the Baath Party in Iraq was ruthlessly purged of its old guard and replaced with members of Saddam's family and tribe. The invasion and occupation of Iraq dissolved that country's Baath Party, a move which had drastic consequences. Unemployed and disgruntled party loyalists, particularly those in the purged Iraqi military, quickly formed the core of a rapidly metastasising insurgency. According to US military estimates, nearly four-fifths of insurgent attacks in Iraq can be attributed to these Baathist loyalists.

More recently it was suggested that Baathist violence had spread even further, as officials in Iran blamed groups "close" to Iraq's Baathists for a series of pre-election bombings. Attention has since turned back to Syria's Baath Party.

A new generation of Baath leaders in Syria has been struggling to redefine traditional Baathism as an ideology of nationalism, patriotism and even democracy. Many of these so-called neo-Baathists initially looked to Bashar Al-Assad to lead the party reforms. But despite increasing international and domestic pressure, Assad has taken very limited steps towards reform.

According to Reza Aslan, author of "No God but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam", "many Syrians confidently predict an eventual voluntary "de-Baathification" of Syria, "one which would match the forced de-Baathification of Iraq. Whether this will happen under the younger Assad's rule, however, remains to be seen".
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Publication:APS Diplomat Fate of the Arabian Peninsula
Geographic Code:7SYRI
Date:Jul 4, 2005
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