Search the Site:
search tips / sitemap
Click for Related Articles

The Syrian-Iraqi Baath party and its Nazi beginnings

Ruling party learned from Nazis


THE chances of a lightning-quick war in Iraq evaporated with the unexpected determination and guerrilla tactics of the Baath Party militia. Trapped between a civilian population which viscerally hates them, and the advancing allies, it was predictable the petty bureaucrats and young thugs behind Saddam's totalitarian rule would fight it out. But who are the members of the Baath Party?

In Arabic, baath means renaissance or resurrection. The Baath Arab Socialist Party, to give the organisation its formal title, is the original secular Arab nationalist movement, founded in Damascus in the 1940s to combat Western colonial rule. But since then, the Baath Party has undergone many chameleon-like twists in belief and purpose. Even the young men in Iraq who today claim its discredited banner might be surprised at the party's real origins.

Those beginnings lie thousands of miles to the west, in the leafy streets and pavement cafes of the left bank of the Seine in Paris.

Here, in the 1930s, the two founders of the Baath Party were educated at the Sorbonne University. They were middle-class Arabs from the then French colony of Syria.

Michael Aflaq was a Greek Orthodox Christian and would become the main ideologue of Baathism, preaching freedom from Western colonialism, Arab unity and socialism. And Salah al-Din Bitar, born of a Muslim family in Damascus, would be the practical politician, later becoming prime minister of an independent Syria.

Back home in French Syria, they became teachers by day and political intriguers by night. Early Baathist ideas were strongly fringed with fascism, as you might expect from a group of men whose ideas were formed in France in the turbulent Thirties.

The movement was based on classless racial unity, hence the strong anti-Marxism, and on national socialism in the scientific sense of the word, such as nationalised industry and an autarkic economy serving the needs of the nation. Hence, the antipathy towards Western capitalism.

But the rise of German fascism also played a role. Many in the Arab world saw Hitler as an ally. In 1941, the Arab world was electrified by a pro-Axis coup in Baghdad. At that time, Iraq was nominally independent but Britain maintained a strong military presence. An Arab nationalist by the name of Rashid Ali al-Kailani organised an army coup against the pro-British Iraqi monarchy and requested help from Nazi Germany. In Damascus, then a Vichy French colony, the Baath Party founders immediately organised public demonstrations in support of Rashid Ali.

After the Second World War, the Baathists emerged as the leadership of Arab nationalism for two reasons. First, they were the only force with a coherent ideology. Second, the existing Arab political elites were blamed for the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Nor was Islam a competitor. For the Western-educated founders of Baathism, Islam smacked of backwardness. For the nascent Islamic fundamentalists, the Baathists were substituting Arabism for the much wider historic conquests of Muslim civilisation. But it was that pan-Arab nationalism that appealed to discontented Arab youth in the Fifties and Sixties.

Baathism had something else to offer these youths: its tight, disciplined internal organisation which - at any rate, before the party became corrupt - stood in sharp contrast to the ramshackle nature of many Arab civil institutions.

Like the Nazi and Communist parties, the Baath is organised through small cells in a rigid hierarchy. Members are expected to devote their life to the party. In Iraq, would-be members pass through four stages even before becoming a full member: supporter, sympathiser, nominee and trainee. Currently, there are about two million Iraqis in these categories. The system requires passing successfully a series of tests, so full members of Saddam's Baathist organisation are the most hardened and fanatical of his supporters.

With war looming, Saddam has extended this principle with the establishment of Fedayeen Saddam, many of whom have been in action against allied troops. The Fedayeen consists of teenage level members or novices eager to move up in the Baath hierarchy ladder. In this respect, they are very reminiscent of the Hitler Youth.

It is estimated that there are about 40,000 full members of the Baath Party in Iraq. Each is assigned to an autonomous cell. A cell consists of three to five members, only one of whom would have a link to the next level of operation. This limits the ability to penetrate the organisation from without. This structure was born of the original clandestine and illegal life of the Baathists before they came to power.

In 1947, the Baath Party was set up as a single party covering all the Arab counties, under a National Command (actually a pan-national body). In each Arab nation, a Regional Command - ostensibly the leadership of the local Baath Party - was created. The Iraqi branch of the Baath party was established in 1954. In the post-war period, the restored Iraqi monarchy was stoutly pro-Western, but it was overthrown in a military coup in 1958.

The new Iraqi strongman was Abdel Karim Qassim. He disappointed pan-Arabists like the Baath by rejecting joining a United Arab Republic with Syria and Egypt.

As a counterweight to the Baath, Qassim allied with the Iraqi Communist Party (the strongest in the Middle East).

On 8 February, 1963, the Baath Party staged a bloody coup against Qassim, killing thousands of communists. Many believe that the CIA was involved in the coup as a way of destroying communist influence in the region. Ali Saleh Al-Sa'adi, the Baath Party secretary general, said: "We came to power on a CIA train."

The Baath would not remain in power long. In November of 1963, there was an army counter-coup. But the humiliation of the Arab leaderships in the Seven Day War with Israel in 1967 finally gave the Baathists their moment, and the movement definitively seized power in 1968. The Syrian Baath had already grabbed power in 1963.

Once in power, the nature of Baathism changed. Both in Syria and Iraq, economic and military necessity required an alliance with the Soviet Union, eroding the old anti-communism. The attractions of power resulted in personal corruption.

The late President Hafez al-Assad of Syria was listed by Forbes Magazine as the eighth-richest person in the world, worth $2.3 billion - an impressive accomplishment in a state where the economy is nationalised.

The biggest change was the transformation of the party into the machinery of government. As in the old Soviet Union with the Bolshevik Party, the lines between party, state and military became totally blurred and internal democracy was eroded. That paved the way for dictatorship and the cult of personality in the shape of Saddam Hussein.

Saddam added a twist not seen in Syria, and much against the original spirit of Baathism. Religious sentiment is taking over from the secularism that once defined Iraqi Baathism. Saddam's government has increasingly turned to Islam in its desperate search for legitimacy, playing down the Arab nationalism that once served as its ideology.

What of the Baath Party in other Arab countries? National rivalries mean pan-Arabism is dead and the supra-national Baath Party structure is now an obsolete shell. The Baathists in Palestine and Jordan have been liquidated. In Syria, power is now in the hands of Hafez al-Assad's son, who - despite his anti-Western rhetoric - has purged the old party hierarchy and is quietly moving Syria towards a market economy.

And what of the founding members of the Baath movement? Michael Aflaq became an adviser to Saddam but was soon sidelined as the dictatorship mutated. He died a disappointed man in Baghdad in 1989.

Salah al-Din Bitar broke with the corrupt Syrian regime and went into exile in Paris where, long ago, the Baathist dream was born. There he was assassinated in 1980, most probably by the Syrian secret service.


This page was produced by Joseph E. Katz
Middle Eastern Political and Religious History Analyst 
Brooklyn, New York 
E-mail to a friend

Source: The Scotsman Sat 29 Mar 2003

Stark truth about Mideast history
Get Joan Peters' milestone book on origins of the Arab-Jewish conflict


Portions Copyright © 1984 Joan Peters, Portions Copyright © 2001 Joseph Katz
All Rights Reserved