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Dr. Josef Olmert Headshot

The Ba'ath Party and the New Syrian Constitution

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The doomed regime of Bashar Assad scheduled a referendum to be held in 10 days time on a proposed new constitution. In the document, the role of the Ba'ath Party as the dominant force in society is downgraded, so that every political party is allowed to compete in parliamentary elections. Has the Messiah finally arrived in Damascus? Not really... the proposed constitution is full of clauses that make a mockery of any expectation for a genuine democratic transformation.

At any rate, Bashar Assad is no longer in control of large parts of his country, the Syrian opposition was quick to deride the entire proposal, and what may have worked a year ago is a complete non-starter after unprecedented atrocities, 7,000+ casualties and so much hatred and scores waiting to be settled in the near future, when the regime will finally collapse. At best, this is an attempt to gain some time -- a diversionary maneuver whose real place is in the dustbin of Syrian history. This dustbin has to be large enough that the Ba'ath party can find a room there as well. The party, that in its heyday could pride itself as the voice of the most comprehensive program of Arab nationalism, has finished its historic role at the time of its accession to power in Syria almost 49 years ago, on March 8th, 1963.

Some explanation is needed here: The Ba'ath party, when led by its historic leaders, the Greek Orthodox Christian Michel Aflaq and the Sunni Salah Bitar, participated in the most democratic elections ever to be held in Syria in September of 1954, and scored only 22 out of the 142 seats contested. Impatient with its chances to come to power through elections, the party pushed for the ill-fated union with Egypt of Abd Al-Nasser in February of 1958. The justification to the move, which was enforced on the Syrian people by a coalition of the party and the military, was that it would lead to the establishment of one Arab state, the no. 1 traditional goal of Arab nationalism.

The union collapsed just three years later in September of 1961, something that signaled the defeat of the messianic vision of Pan-Arabism, and with it the colossal failure of the Ba'ath party, the proud proponent of this very vision. But then came the coup d'etat of March 8th, 1963, and the party came to power, being given another opportunity to realize its own political program. But this was not to happen. The clique of officers and some intellectuals who took over the country ruled under the name of the Ba'ath, but in reality were a new party, daubed as the "Neo-Ba'ath," a coalition of minorities representing sectarian, rather than national, pan-Arab Interests. The Alawites, Druze, Isma'illi and some poor Sunnis from remote provincial areas wanted a revolution in Syria, one that will finally allow them to extricate themselves from the sectarian ghetto where they traditionally were in a Sunni-dominated society.

Here was the beginning of an historic paradox, some may say, an aberration. The party pretending to be an all-inclusive, pan-Arab movement became a mechanism of oppression in the service of minorities. This is why the takeover in 1963, and the subsequent bloody coup of February 23rd, 1966, and the peaceful "correction movement," of November 1970, which finally solidified the Assad-Alawite dictatorship, were no more than stepping stones towards the establishment of a sectarian regime. The name Ba'ath was used in order to gain political legitimacy for a regime, which has always been a military dictatorship, devoid of any popular support among the Sunni majority.

Not coincidentally, the personal fate of the two historic leaders, Aflaq and Bitar, symbolize the tragedy of the Ba'ath party. The later was murdered by the Hafiz Assad regime, the former ended up as a guest of the Ba'ath government of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, the traditional rival of the Assad Ba'ath in Syria. After Aflaq's death, the Iraqis told the Arab nation that the prophet of pan-Arabism converted to Islam... so much for Arab nationalism based on ethnicity, language and history, rather than religion. And so much for the historic role of the Ba'ath party in Syria, a role characterized by repression, bloodshed and sectarianism. Very few Syrians have really been loyal to the Ba'ath party -- the Assad version -- and so no new constitutional gimmicks of Bashar Assad regarding the future role of the party will do the trick for him, his regime and the Syrian Ba'ath party. The die for them was already cast.