This has been a bad publicity week for the Baath Party that ruled Iraq and Syria for much of the past half-century. Consider the two following lead paragraphs from two news stories from the Associated Press Tuesday.The first was datelined Damascus: “After a bloody, weeklong siege in the Syrian capital, residents who stayed behind are facing hourslong lines for gasoline and bread, stinking piles of garbage in the streets and scenes of destruction unimaginable in a city that had long been spared the worst ravages of the country’s uprising. It’s a gruesome turn for the distinguished Middle Eastern city of Damascus, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and a sign that Syria’s civil war appears doomed to escalate.”
The second was datelined Baghdad: “A startling spasm of violence shook more than a dozen Iraqi cities Monday, killing over 100 people in coordinated bombings and shootings and wounding twice as many in the country’s deadliest day in more than two years. The attacks came only days after al-Qaeda announced it would attempt a comeback with a new offensive against Iraq’s weakened government.”
What should we make of the fact that the two countries where the Arab Socialist Baath Party ruled for many decades are now poster children for wrecks of modern Arab statehood that have descended into urban warfare? Syria and Iraq are not only sad places today for the suffering their people endure in conditions of rampant violence. They are sad also for their modern legacy as police states that demeaned their people so grievously that they provoked several popular uprisings the regimes tried to put down with brute force.
But the greater sadness about Syria and Iraq is about how a small circle of vicious, selfish and provincial men took control of two countries that had all the attributes needed to become strong and impressive states – fertile land, plenty of water, talented populations, an urban tradition, a sense of history and identity, natural resources and strategic geography. Syria and Iraq should have been engines of robust national development across the Arab world. Instead, they are a grim warning to the world about how not to go about the business of national development or ideological leadership. Syria and Iraq and their Baathist legacies are an ugly tale of wasted talent, missed opportunities, criminal leadership and unachieved national potential.
It is painful today to look at events in Syria and Iraq and to recall the last four decades, when the prevalent dynamic was that of a clan-based, mafia-like leadership that played on the nationalist and anti-imperialist sentiments of ordinary people in order to amass power and wealth and send their countries on a journey of destruction and violence. This process is still going on, and years of wasteful violence remain ahead of us. It is also possible that the sectarian and geographic fragmentation within both Iraq and Syria could connect with each other and lead to regional tensions and confrontations.
To be fair to both countries, they did not achieve this level of national destruction and incoherence in a vacuum, but rather in the vortex of three great ideological battles that have defined the Arab world for the past half-century: the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Cold War, and the ideological battle within the Arab world between nationalist republics and conservative monarchies. The Iraqi and Syrian Baath Party leaderships were deeply engaged in regional and global confrontations throughout their lifetimes, which is one reason why they performed so poorly at home.
Baathism itself is not necessarily the sole culprit, because it is just another modern political movement that tried to build on popular sentiments that were common in the region when the party was founded in 1947 by Michel Aflaq, Salaheddine Bitar and associates of Zaki Arsuzi. The ideology was attractive to many, for its synthesis of socialism, Arab unity, Arab nationalism and anti-imperialism, later to include anti-Zionism, wrapped in a wider appeal to an Arab renaissance. It could have performed differently, but it did not.
They are also not alone, for other Arab countries have also squandered their own forms of wealth and potential, such as Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Morocco, Sudan, Yemen and others. That also explains why the Arab uprisings of the past 20 months have swept across the region, expressing the various Arab people’s insistence on ending the ugly legacy of incompetent and violent leadership anchored in exaggerated emotionalism and failed development policies.
It is difficult to predict how these uprisings will play themselves out, and where the transforming Arab countries will be in the years ahead. If only one thing could be achieved – replacing the failed tradition of self-imposed family-based, security-minded, non-accountable leaderships with a more participatory and transparent form of governance – the coming Arab generations may have a better chance than the last two generations of achieving their right to a sound, secure future in rational, normal, stable states.
The writer is a columnist at the Lebanon-based Daily Star, where this article was published on July 25, 2012