Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

The Baathist Revival

Posted in Iraq by Dan on August 28, 2009
The Baathist Party is more organized than people think, thanks to the Syrian safe-haven

The Baathist Party is more organized than people think, thanks to the Syrian safe-haven

While I imagine that everyone is sick and tired of news dealing with violence in and around Baghdad, Middle Eastern enthusiasts may take interest in some new information that was just recently acquired by Iraq’s security forces.  According to the Iraqi military, last week’s bombing that claimed the lives of over 101 people near government buildings in Baghdad was orchestrated by a former supporter of Iraq’s Baath Party.  Of course, this is the same Baath Party that held onto power during the reign of Saddam Hussein, which lasted from 1979 until his ousting by American forces in 2003.

At first glance, Wisam Ali Khazim Ibrahim’s confession on Iraqi-television (the man who perpetuated the attacks) seems normal, considering that Mr. Ibrahim has lost the high social status often given to Baath Party loyalists during the authoritarian tenure of Saddam.  Yet, while such a conclusion is tempting to buy into, it neglects to discuss the still resilient structure of the Baath Party in Middle Eastern politics.  After all, the same man who planned last Wednesday’s twin bombings also spoke of a coordinated and unified Baath Party in neighboring Syria.

According to reports from the Associated Press, “Ibrahim said the operation was ordered a month ago by a Baath Party operative in Syria in a bid ‘to destabilize the regime.’”  In all of the developments that have taken place in the last few months regarding Iraq’s domestic security, this could be the most politically explosive remark of them all.  The reason is both clear and undeniable:  Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is the most powerful politician within Damascus’ Baathist establishment.  Although history has proven that Syrian Baathists and Iraqi Baathists have been skeptical of each other’s motives- most notably when Saddam Hussein was still Iraq’s supreme authority- the fact that both appear to be casting aside their ideological differences is a cause for concern.

Perhaps more destabilizing to the region is Mr. Assad’s continued role as an antagonistic head-of-state, made all the more apparent with his extensive connections to Islamic proxies.  Those that were reluctant to label Syria as a safe-haven for terrorists and insurgents can now caste aside their doubts; intelligence from a number of sources are all rightly concluding that sympathizers of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Saddam are all able to plan coordinated-strikes against Iraq without any condemnation from Mr. Assad himself.

Ibrahim’s confession is all the more interesting when one considers Nouri al-Maliki’s most updated meeting with Bashar Assad.  Just one day prior to the truck bombings in Baghdad, a frustrated Maliki demanded Assad’s compliance and partnership; namely by making it more difficult for Sunni insurgents to cross the Syrian border into Northern Iraq.  As is apparent from last week’s act of terrorism, such requests have been ignored.  Are we to truly believe that similar calls for constructive assistance will be accepted by Assad’s regime, given his track-record and his personal relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran?

Was Syria fully behind last Wednesday’s Bagdad massacre, in the hopes that the Shia-led government in Iraq would collapse under the weight of public outrage?  It would be extremely difficult to provide evidence for this assertion.  However, this does not rule out other aspects of Damascus’ questionable behavior.  Syria, through its refusal to beef up security along its shared border with Iraq, could very well be cheering for Maliki’s incapacitation.  We must remember that a weak Iraqi state incapable of delivering basic security for its population plays right into Assad’s hands.  Such violence, however dismal for Iraq’s internal situation, allows Assad and his cronies to frighten the Syrian electorate into submission.  A violent-prone Iraq is absolutely necessary for Bashar’s survival as Syria’s primary strongman, for such a weak neighbor allows him to sustain the belief that he is personally responsible for keeping Iraq’s anarchy away from the heart of Syrian life.  While a stretch, it may be perfectly acceptable to link Assad with past (and present) bombings inside Baghdad…wherever they may strike in the capital city.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-Information from Sameer N. Yacoub of the Associated Press contributed to this blog.

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