Ba’athism has no founding moment, but rather grew out of the writings of three Arab nationalist thinkers in the early 20th Century who founded their own individual movements that later coalesced into a unified, pan-Arab nationalist movement. Michel Aflaq of Iraq and a Greek Orthodox Christian, Zaki al-Arsuzi of Syria and Salah al-Din al-Bitar of Syria and a Sunni Muslim who worked with al-Arsuzi to found the Syrian Ba’ath Party.
Their ideas emerged in the context of both Ottoman and European occupation of Arab lands and synthesized with the emerging forces of 20th Century ideologies of Fascism and Socialism. It was the first wave of Third World liberation movements that would overtake the European empires in the later half of the 20th Century, however unlike the African movements, Ba’athism emerged with one of the most coherent and effective ideologies.
Ba’athism is often greatly misunderstood by many commentators in the West, who often believe that anything that is from the Middle East, must automatically something jihadist related. Yet Ba’athism seeks to transcend the purely Islamist view of history and theology. Ba’athism, or al-ba’ath in Arabic means “resurrection” or “renaissance” and the movement was seeking to establish ethnic Arab liberation against the foreign Turkic and European forces that were alien to the Arab lands and bring about a revival of the great Arab culture. Prior to World War I, the Ottoman Empire was the center of the Islamic caliphate and strictly speaking a theocracy, that Arab nationalists, were opposed to.
Therefore, Ba’athism and the Ba’ath Party sought to bring unity and revival to all forms of Arab history and identity which includes the Christian heritage of Arabs that existed before the advent of Islam.
It well known that many Ba’athist thinkers and leaders, such as Saddam Hussein, were influenced by the Nazis and National Socialist thought, yet Ba’athism should not be confused with National Socialism. Other than certain economic ideas and a mutual hatred of the Jews, the two ideologies are actually quite different. Whereas Nazism sought to empower the Aryan race in order to expand outward and take away from the undeserving and inferior, Ba’athism was the inverse of National Socialism in that it sought to use nationalism as a means of liberation from external forces.
The motto of Ba’athism is “Unity, Liberty, Socialism” which contains many of the ideological components of leftism, which was not uncommon among anti-colonial movements, yet it retained the “trappings” of Fascism. Unity of the Arab peoples, liberation from foreign occupation and anti-capitalism in the form of not being trapped in the Western economic-financial matrix was the objective.
Ba’athism though, as in almost every ideological movement, could not be satisfied with only one brand. Since the 1960s, the movement has been split between Syrian and Iraqi factions. First split came in 1966 when the military of Syria launched a coup against the civilian control of Aflak and Bitar and the debate then became about structural organization. The Iraqis demanded that the Syrians form their party as it was originally intended, to be ruled by civilians to keep the Baath Party populist in nature. There were then subsequent attempts at reconciliation, especially under Saddam’s Iraq, but nothing ever came of attempts at reunion.
Gamel Abdal Naser of Egypt was viewed as a unifying figure thanks to his role in the Suez Crisis and bringing about the short-lived existence of the United Arab Republic (UAR) of Egypt and Syria (1958-1961) that was supposed to include Iraq, however the UAR was viewed as a strategic threat to Jordan, and Jordan sought to unite Iraq and Jordan together against the UAR.
In Iraq, a massive political schism between the Hashemite royalists, who were loyal to British rule and influence, came into conflict against Saddam Hussein and the Ba’athists. Later Saddam Hussein, working in connection with the CIA, launched a coup against the monarchy and established Iraq as a Ba’athist state.
Over time, Iraqi Ba’athism under Saddam adopted a much for right-wing tone, of vehement anti-Communism, mainly in its never ending war against the Kurds who were largely Communist-based. It is at this moment that the Iraqi Ba’athists began working with the CIA and Saddam eventually getting his chemical weapons from the US government that he used against the Kurds and Iranians. In contrast were the Syrians who viewed themselves as staying more true to the orthodox creed of pan-Arabism and socialism, in contrast to Iraq’s Iraqi-first Arab socialist views.
Further exacerbating the tensions between Syrian and Iraqi Ba’athism was Saddam’s purges of the Iraqi Ba’athist Party of any orthodox sympathizers and anyone opposed to his rule and Iraqi-first Ba’athism. This then culminated in the final split, when the Iran-Iraq War began in 1979, Syria sided with jihadist Iran against Saddam Hussein and this relationship was never repaired, even to the point of Syria participating in the 1991 war against Saddam Hussein and not opposing the second US war against Saddam Hussein in 2003.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein, the removal of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt all that remains is what is left of Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. Though Assad has proven to be far more resilient against the Western backed insurgency than was originally thought possible, the insurgency is still far from over, and if Assad does win, his regime will never return to its original level of power and influence.