Though Ba’athism barely remains, it had a number of successes before collapsing.
First, it succeeded in liberating the Arab lands from Western occupation, for the most part. While Saudi Arabia remains a proxy of the Americans and Palestine is occupied by Israel, Arab nationalists largely succeeded in kicking the French out of Syria and Lebanon, and the British out of Iraq and Egypt.
Secondly, Ba’athism suffocated Salafism, Wahabism and other forms of jihadism in the Middle East. It was not until the Iranian Revolution that jihadism finally had a base to operate out of.
Thirdly, Ba’athism developed Arab societies that were on the path to industrialization and modern infrastructures and economies that were not agrarian, thereby launching the Arab world into the modern global economy.
Lastly, Ba’athism assisted in the preservation of Christianity in the Middle East. If Saddam Hussein or Hosni Mubarak were still in power, the slaughter of Christians in Iraq, Syria and Egypt would not be occurring. Ba’athism provided an ideological framework in the Middle East for Christians to coexist with Arab Muslims and also took away an impetus for Saddam or Mubarak to harass or persecute Christians. For Saddam, Assad and Mubarak, retaining control was the primary goal, and jihadists who caused strife by attacking Christians were made examples of.
Ba’athism failed to properly articulate the distinction between socialism and Marxism. Michel Aflaq rejected Communism and Marx’s dialectical materialism, yet that was never enough to stop the peasant orientation of the Syrian revolution and what became Syrian Ba’athism. Furthermore, the natural alliance of the Ba’athists in the beginning to draw close to the Soviet Union against the West and the US backed Persian Shah of Iran inevitably drew the Ba’athists to become more engrained in their ideological socialism, even if it was not prudent. Hence Saddam’s move to the right, working with the CIA in order to fight Kurdish Communists, Iranian jihadists and export petroleum to the West, cannot be condemned, as ultimately, a pan-Arab vision that unites around something as abstract as Socialism was doomed to failure from the beginning. Whether it was demagoguery, the realities of economics, or simply different visions of Ba’athism, ultimately its disunity was exacerbated by the various jihadist and secularist forces of Iran, Saudi Arabia and the West, that eventually turned in on the Ba’athists.
Ba’athism’s demise was due to its failure to fully unify the Arab identity and to stave off Israeli and American influence and attacks. Once Egypt was at peace with Israel and Syria and Iraq were irreconcilable, Ba’athism simply became a means for Mubarak, Assad and Saddam to retain power in their fading regimes, as Saudi Arabia and Iran began exporting various forms of jihadist thought that has now all but replaced Ba’athism.
The West determined that Ba’athism had to go. Though Fascism and crypto-Fascist movements served the West well in the post-Cold War world though such leaders as Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, General Suharto in Indonesia, and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the post-Cold War supremacy of American liberalism demanded that all ideologies, states, entities, and forces that were not liberal must be destroyed and brought into the uni-polar new world order of American-liberal hegemony.
Though Russia is the center point of this new war by liberalism on everything else, the Middle East became the flashpoint of this conflict as the new world order needed to bring the Islamic world to heel, secure the energy resources, and isolate Russia. This is what the Syrian Civil War is about. The US instigating an insurgency against President Assad to remove him. It also explains why Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Kaddafi of Libya had to be removed. They were anti-jihadist, but they were also for forming an alternative regional order that would have stood against Western liberalism. Saddam Hussein was no doubt one of the best leaders in the Middle East for establishing regional stability and making Iraq the main counterweight to the jihadist-controlled nations of Saudi Arabia and Iran, yet his fall was ultimately his own undoing. Simply put, he should never have invaded Kuwait.
The absolute massacre of the Iraqi military in 1991 at the hands of the highly advanced US military was the final death knell in the heart of Ba’athism. It also consequently was the trumpet sounding the need for jihadism to replace nationalism as the ideological guiding force of the Arab world. This is why many of the Ba’athists who fought for Saddam or served in his government later joined the jihadist insurgency against the Americans or have even joined ISIS.
All ideologies need a tribal/national core to operate from and once that core is removed, the ideology will wither and die without the needed financial and political support along with the geographic legitimacy.
Looking back, Saddam should have found ways to build a new economic-military axis with Assad, the PLO, Mubarak and Kaddafi in order to begin providing for a secure network that could hopefully peaceably resist the influence and take over of the West. However, this probably would have proven futile. The West would have eventually succeeded in launching the Arab Spring or some sort of color revolution against Ba’athism because by 1991, Ba’athism was already bankrupt, financially, political and even spiritually. Ba’athism only existed by 1991 inside the personality cults of Saddam, Assad and Mubarak. It no longer served a realistic purpose in the world.
Islamism is providing a better means of resistance to modernity/liberalism, because it is explicitly anti-modern. Ba’athism, though very identitarian and even fascistic, was still operating in a modernist paradigm. It still believed in social progress, the benefits of socialism, and that there is such a thing as utopia that can be built upon an artificial idea. ISIS, Revolutionary Iran and orthodox Islam reject all of this and only believe in their own version of “the Kingdom of Heaven” which is transcendent in nature. Ba’athism ultimately copies liberalism, in refusing to assert a dominant religious creed and thereby denying itself access to the supernatural. Obviously Islam, especially Sunni Islam prevailed in applying Ba’athist ideology, yet if you are going to be a Muslim, you might as well be the best Muslim possible. Plus one day you are going to die and is it worth the risk of being a loyal servant of Allah, or a pure nationalist who is cozy with kafirs?
Christine Helms, a scholar on Arab nationalism wrote on the decline of Ba’athism that…
“Declaring Arab nationalism “bankrupt,” the political “disinherited” are not rationalizing the failure of Arabism, dissociating its ideology from graceless excesses of its proponents, or reformulating it. Alternative solutions are not contemplated. They [the youth] have simply opted for the political paradigm at the other end of the political spectrum with which they are familiar–Islam.”
Ba’athism existed in the fight for ethnic liberation but once that liberation was achieved, the Arab world found it much more convicting and even internally liberating to get back to the creed of Muhammad, rather than Aflaq. With Socialism discredited in the USSR’s collapse, and no longer being able to financially and militarily support the Ba’athist regimes, the paradigm of Ba’athism eventually collapsed just like Maoism, Marxism-Leninism and eventually will liberalism because it failed to meet its objectives and the internal needs of the masses it was supposed to be appealing to. Eventually being pan-Arab is just as silly as being pan-white.
There are too many sub-cultures and cliques that people adhere too. The rivalries between Christians, Sunnis and Shiites is too powerful to put aside in the face of ancient rivalries that go back to the 600s. Pan-Arabism was ultimately just as futile as advocating for the global proletariat and the Jews were simply not enough motivation for Arabs to unite against, just as Capitalists were not a convicting enough force for Russians, Chinese, Koreans and Germans to remain in lockstep with one another. Ba’athism, in its defeat, much like Communism’s ultimately leads us back to the focal point of 21st Century anti-liberalism, which is in Eurasianism’s traditionalist orientation, that the locality and organic tribe are what matter. The Chinese and Vietnamese of the 1970s might both have been peasant societies, and Communist, yet they were ultimately more loyal to their respective national loyalties than to the higher ideology. Same is true for the Arabs, who live in nations that are even more artificially constructed than perhaps the United States is.
As well, there are and were massive demographic changes in Arab society that hindered the continued existence of Ba’athism. As noted geostrategist Robert Kaplan has observed in his book The Coming Anarchy, “Seventy percent of the Arab population has been born since 1970—youths with little historical memory of anticolonial independence struggles, postcolonial attempts at nation-building, or any of the Arab-Israeli wars.” Therefore as jihadism rises against Americanization and American military involvement in the region, and Ba’athism failed in its regional objective, Ba’athism ceases to mean anything solid to the young Arab.
As ISIS rampages though the Middle East, it will only be defeated by an awkward coalition of pro-Western monarchies such as Jordan, working in tandem with Hezbollah, what’s left of Assad’s Syria and jihadist Iran that ultimately competing with ISIS over who gets to be the top jihadist dog. Hence, even if Assad wins, Ba’athism is still irrelevant and defeated. If Assad wins, Ba’athism will never be able to be exported outside of Syria and if it does live, it will be transformed into an ideology that serves to keep the Syrian state united, rather than unifying the greater Arab world, which is now more or less under the occupation of pro-Western puppets or jihadist regimes.