|In the past 50 years, three Arab leaders attempted to unite their country into a single state|
Angered by the French mandate that allowed Turkey to annex his home city in Syria, Zaki al-Arsuzi left Antioch for Damascus in the late 1930s.
Once there he started to actively promote his ideals of pan-Arabism as the only way for Arabs to rid themselves of foreign colonialism.
His ideas found favour within Damascus’s active political scene, in particular with Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar, who led a small study group called the Movement of Arab Revival.
After the French withdrew from Syria, Aflaq, al-Arsuzi and al-Bitar managed to get their newly-formed Baath (Renaissance) organisation officially licensed as a party.
The party’s constitution was adopted at its first congress on April 7, 1947 and upheld the belief that unity was a means to revive the Arab world’s erstwhile glory and bring an end to foreign colonialism and Arab aristocracy.
Merging of ideals
In 1953, the volatile Syrian political scene drove the Baath Party to merge with the Syrian Socialist Party of Akram al-Hurani, acquiring a new name – the Arab Socialist Baath party.
Driven by a passion to form one greater Arab nation, the party – led by Aflaq – played a major role in helping Syria and Egypt amalgamate into a United Arab Republic (UAR) in 1958 with Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser as the president of the newly established state.
The Baath party hoped that the pan-Arabist Nasser would give it the upper hand in Syria‘s politics, but the Egyptian leader did not favour the Baathists.
Iraq‘s wing of Baath Party assumed power on February 8, 1963 in a coup led by general Abd al-Salam Aref. One month later Syrian Baathists managed to depose the secessionist government of Nadhim al-Qudsi and assume power.
But almost immediately, the two branches differed over the application of nearly identical ideologies, bewildering many observers who had hoped for a final pan-Arab framework.
In 1963, Aref dissolved the Baath Party. However the party recaptured power in a 1968 coup led by general Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr and Saddam Hussein. In Syria, a coup led by the Baathist Air Force commander, Hafez al-Assad brought the party to power in 1970.
In 1979, both countries attempted to unite and subsequently revive the UAR model of 1958. The attempt failed with both accusing each other that it tried to use the initiative for espionage. A complete falling out between Iraq and Syria followed.
The much-vaunted slogans of the Baathists which voiced the need for unity and common interests never crystalised, leaving some disillusioned that yet another Arab nationalist intiative had crumbled.
Tension between Iraq and Syria seemed to never end and at several points during the 1970s and 80s both countries came dangerously close to war.
While the Baath Party retains national branches in many Arab countries, it has never been able to assume the level of power seen in Iraq and Syria.
The Baath party is still the sole ruling party in Syria, but in Iraq, the Baathists were purged from power in 2003 when the US-led invasion deposed the government led by Saddam Hussein and dissolved the party.
A De-Baathification committee was established to uproot party members in Iraq and prohibit Baathists from assuming roles in the new government and army. The law under which the committee operated for four years was relaxed in early 2008.
The Baathists in both countries are credited with initiating a surge in the economy, education and health care services, but critics say Iraq and Syria both clamped down on freedom of speech and ruled out any political power-sharing framework.
In Iraq, the Baathists under Saddam were blamed for violating their committments to defend Arab land by quietly abiding by the invasion of another country – Kuwait.
In Syria, critics say the Baathist government of Hafez al-Assad failed to uphold the Arab ideals by siding with non-Arab Iran during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq.