Ba’athism can be viewed from two different perspectives: firstly by its objective virtues, and secondly by its opposition.
Ba’athism, as a political theory, combines Arab nationalism with socialist ideas, high quality secular education, a mixed economy, and a strong central government that oversees a secular society in which all religions are treated equally and worship is freely allowed.
It was a philosophy adopted by several post-colonial Arab states. With the exception of a few occasions where Ba’athists argued over whether or not to pursue Nasserist Pan-Arabism, modern Ba’ath parties concentrate on a single state, although many still see Pan-Arabism as a noble ideal. This especially became the case after the Ba’athist party split in 1966 in Syria, where many of the new militant Syrian Ba’athists expelled the old guard, who fled to Iraq.
Iraq and Syria became enemies thereon, and relations between the two countries never fully recovered.
Young Syria was fraught with war and political instability. The joint Arab war against Israel in 1948 led to a military coup in Syria in 1949, followed by another coup in 1954. It was only when President Nasser formed the United Arab Republic in 1958, a country comprising Syria and Egypt, that Syria finally achieved some peace and stability. But shortly after, in 1961 and largely due to Syrian officials feeling dissatisfied that the majority of senior positions in the UAR being held by Egyptians, the union between Syria and Egypt was dissolved, leading once again to political instability in Syria.
However the March revolution of 1963 was the turning point in Syrian domestic affairs, as it set the precedent for the current Ba’athist model of governance led by Bashar al-Assad.
Syrians see 1963 as a huge step in introducing modernity to the country. Women were allowed access to higher secular education, big infrastructure projects were introduced as well as mass literacy programs. It is worth noting that one of the leading figures of the Syrian Ba’athist party was Orthodox Christian Michel Aflaq who many consider to be the Father of Ba’athism.
Life for Syrians continued to improve when moderate Ba’athist and strong leader Hafez al-Assad took power in 1970 in what was known as the ‘corrective movement’, establishing thereafter the Syrian Arab Republic. The developments under Hafez al-Assad brought a significant degree of peace and stability in spite of Syria joining in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and policing certain parts of Lebanon during the Lebanese civil war. The Muslim Brotherhood was crushed during this period, making it possible for the Syrian people to live under a secular government. Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father upon Hafez al-Assad’s death in 2000, and continues his father’s legacy of Ba’athism.
For a state that is surrounded by enemies and which has been under attack on all fronts from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Britain, the US, France and Belgium, and which has been under repeated attack from Israel ever since the 1967 Israeli occupation of Golan Heights, it makes sense for Bashar al-Assad’s government to take a tough line towards certain dissident elements, especially those entering the country from outside, who might be foreign agents threatening the safety and security of Syrians.
When looking at current events in Syria from this wider historical perspective, which is the only realistic perspective, it is clear that not only is the current secular Ba’athist model of governance which allows freedom and national sovereignty the optimal solution for Syria, but it is the only practical option delivering peace and prosperity when the only alternative is the Wahhabist theocracy of the Gulf states. Importing that to very different society of Syria would be a guarantee for more instability, destruction and violence.
Syria is a new state, especially when measured by the standards of ancient imperialist powers who for many centuries sought to colonise the Arab world. Liberal north European models of democracy and governance have no relevance in a country still in the process of establishing its national identity, something it has only been over the last four decades.
Indeed, Bashar al-Assad has been a more moderate and tolerant figure than his father was. His government and parliament are comprised of all sects and religions: Alawites, Shi’as, Sunnis, Orthodox Christians and other varieties of Christianity.
While Saddam Hussein’s variant of Ba’athism was more distinctive, corresponding to the various existing factions in Iraq and containing elements of ancient Mesopotamian civilisations adapted to Arab nationalism, Syrian Ba’athism has remained consistent and true to its roots.
Syrians are first and foremost Syrians before identifying as anything else. It is for this reason that Bashar al-Assad’s government has granted equal rights to all, and privileges to none.
The independent Syrian writer Afra’a Dagher puts it thus
I don’t belong to any political party. However the Ba’ath Party led by Bashar al-Assad is the main and best one for most of us; the key point is this party’s priority is about the unification of the whole Arab Nation. Therefore it is careful about the plot of removing the ‘Arab’ feature from the political party as it would present the opportunity for federalization, partition and ultimately destruction of the United State. The other party, the SSNP The Syrian Socialist National Party removed the word ‘Arab’ and seeks only Greater Syria. But then Syria would lose its national identity. I believe in the Ba’ath party principles, which the US and its allies are trying to break apart.
Therefore one can say with confidence that those calling for the overthrow of President Assad and his government are either ignorant of the historical realities and dynamics of the country, or they have a vested interest in destroying the secular, independent Syrian Arab Republic.
Either way, they agitate for the violation of international law.