Iraq: January 7, 2005

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Iraqi government officials, including the head of intelligence, are making a lot of noise about Syrian support for the anti-government forces. It's never been a secret that most of the anti-government activity was organized and funded by Iraqi Baath Party members. But the two main branches of the Baath Party have controlled both Iraq and Syria for nearly forty years. The Arabic word baath  means resurrection or renaissance. The party had its origins in the desire of Syrian secular Arab nationalists to break with the medieval past and create a new form of government for Arab countries.  The Baath Party was officially founded in 1947 and sought to create a secular and socialist culture in Arab countries. The Baath Party only caught on in Syria and, in 1954, Iraq. The Baath Party platform caught on, and in February, 1963, Baath took control in Iraq, and a month later in Syria. In Syria, Hafez al-Assad originally led the party. His son runs it, and Syria, today. In Iraq, Baath had trouble holding on to power. But by the late 1960s, Baath was in full control, and Saddam Hussein was running the party. That created a problem, however, as both Assad and Hussein insisted that their branch of the party was running the Baath movement. The two men could not agree on who was in charge, and became bitter enemies. For example, Syria sent troops to join the coalition assembled to oust Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, and has long supported any Iraqis that opposed Saddam (and Hussein returned the favor.) 

But when Saddam was deposed in 2003, many senior Iraqi Baath Party members fled to Syria, and made peace with the Syrian branch of the party. This put the Syrian Baath Party in a tough position. Bashir Assad took over in Syria when his father died in 2000. Bashir was not groomed to run the country, but instead trained as a doctor. However, his older brother died in an accident, and it was up to Bashir to keep things together.   This is not an easy job. Syria does not have Iraq's oil wealth, and the Syrian Baath Party is run by an even smaller minority (Alawite Moslems, 12 percent of the population) than was the case in Iraq (where Baath was run by Sunni Moslems, who were 20 percent of the population.) Worse yet, Al Qaeda considers Alawites just as heretical, and worthy of death, as the Shiites. To further complicate this situation, Syria has long been an ally of Shia Iran, mainly because Iran was a longtime enemy of  Iraq. 

The Syrian Baath party is in a very difficult situation. They became corrupt, as did the Iraqi Baath party, and turned into a police state. While not as brutal as Saddam's Baath, the Syrians were more effective. The elder Assad was not as eager to invade his neighbors (except for several failed attempts against Israel.) The Syrian Baath Party is thus less hated by Syrians than the Iraqi Baath Party was by Iraqis. But Syria is also full of unhappy citizens who would welcome a more honest and effective government. But like Arabs everywhere, most Syrians are either unwilling or unable to do the deed. And now the Syrian Baath Party sees, as its deadliest enemy, a democratic government in Iraq. Such an development could inspire Syrians to get rid of the Baath Party. Face it, being a dictator is like having a tiger-by-the-tail. It's tough to hold on, but letting go is fatal. So the Syrian Baath Party supports the remaining Iraqi Baath Party in their struggle to regain power in Iraq. But this is a dangerous game, especially as it becomes more and more difficult to deny Syrian support for Iraqi Baath violence inside Iraq. The Syrians try to have it both ways, by insisting that there is no support for Iraqi Baath, while having Syrian police and border guards look the other way as the Iraqis move money and people through Syrian into Iraq.

The Syrian Baath party also has things like loyalty (to fellow Baath members in Iraq) and greed (all that Iraqi oil money they are now getting) to worry about. They can't just tell the Iraqi Baath Party members to go away, despite American demands that they do just that. And then there is fear. A democratic Iraq will be an anti-Baath Iraq. Syria's only friend in the neighborhood is Iran. But even there, it is the minority of Islamic conservatives that dominate Iran, that supports Syria. The majority of Iranians see Syria as another oppressive police state, and an Arab one of that. Most Iranians have an ancient disdain for Arabs in general. 

Syria, under the Baath Party, has no friends and few prospects. It cannot, or will not, turn on the Iraqi Baath Party, and, as a police state, certainly doesn't want a democracy next door. But Syria gains nothing by admitting any of this. It comes down to how long Iraq, and the coalition forces, will tolerate the lies. 

 

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