Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February

Ahram Weekly

Score-settling histories

Hazem Saghieh, Al-Baath Al-Suri: Tarikh Mujaz (The Syrian Baath: A Concise History), Beirut: Al Saqi, 2012, pp176

Al-Ahram Weekly

The greatest weakness of The Syrian Baath: A Concise History, is that it is not so much an account of the political and geopolitical intrigues that shaped modern Syria as an attempt to settle scores with the Syrian regime over its conduct in Lebanon.
This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Hazem Saghiyeh’s work or politics. Saghiyeh, a Lebanese columnist and public intellectual, is a staunch partisan of the anti-Syrian, anti-Hizbullah 14 March Coalition. While he remains a respected author and commentator, his detractors have criticised him for his defense of so-called “moderate” Arab policies in such outlets as Al-Hayat, among others.
The Syrian Baath does an adequate job compiling a basic timeline of the party’s early years – who served on which committee, the names and dates of defectors, conspirators and coups – all in keeping with what one might reasonably expect from a “concise history”. In this regard, the book could be considered a useful overview for anyone not interested in the social and political conditions that led to the rise of the Baath Party, its ideology and structure, or the psychology of its leadership.
But the unique historical moment at which a small group of minority intellectuals and army officers were able to ride Sunni pan-Arabism to the heights of absolute power remains inadequately explored.
Saghiyeh does not engage in a detailed discussion of Baathist ideology beyond acknowledging that socialism played a role, nor does he seriously consider the possibility that Baathist policies regarding land reform, education and infrastructure might have appealed to rural Syrians and helped build the base which kept an Alawi-dominated ruling clique in power.
Major formative events in the evolution of the Syrian Baath, such as the break with the Iraqi Baath, the Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973, and the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, all receive relatively little attention compared to Syria’s intervention in Lebanon and internal Lebanese conflicts in which Syria was implicated. When Saghiyeh does address domestic Syrian politics, it is to recount well-known power struggles between the regime’s founding figures, and, later, within the Assad family itself.
By the time Syrian troops enter Lebanon, Saghiyeh has ceased to differentiate between the Baath Party and Hafez Al-Assad. To the degree that this is accurate — the Baath party became synonymous with the government, which was, in turn, merely an extension of Assad — it seems to ignore the fact that the party did exist and survive, at least as a function of the regime.
The true history of the Baath Party as a vast network for surveillance, recruitment and patronage, including a map of exactly where and how it overlapped with the intelligence services and the military, would have made for a compelling book. The party played a key role in the establishment and administration of militant youth organisations, and student, worker, and peasant unions that are still active, albeit weaker under Bashar Al-Assad than they were under his father.
Baathist values continue to be taught in every school throughout Syria, as well as in the armed forces. Even some political prisoners are subjected to sessions of tawjih siyasi or political orientation. The party also functions as an important mechanism for upward mobility among its constituents; anecdotally, anyone who has lived in Syria can give examples of individuals who were able to advance professionally or politically by joining the party.  
When it comes to Lebanon, however, the history of the Baath Party and Saghiyeh’s account of it part ways, never to meet again; what started out as a tidy if somewhat shallow refresher on the history of the Syrian regime devolves into a familiar litany of accusations. Here, Saghiyeh abandons any pretense of objectivity, sarcastically invoking Baathist slogans of “unity” while referring to Hizbullah alternately as a bomb and a mine.
Saghiyeh makes no secret of his resentment against the regime. Rather than using the introduction to expound on his research methods or structural approach, he shares his earliest recollections of Syria before comparing these fond memories to childhood games one grows out of.
“It is none other than the Baath [party] itself which complicated the issue: by insulting Syria, its people, and us as Lebanese, it forced us to grow up and kill this past, and often, this killing takes the form of a rock [to the head] or the stab of a knife,” he writes, invoking both violence and visceral hate. “And what is worse,” he continues, “is that many have come to love Syria, not innocently, as we loved Syria,” but as “slaves and hypocrites.”
And yet The Syrian Baath offers few, if any, insights into how the Baath Party and its ideology contributed to the pressure building inside Syria, which would find an outlet in the uprising of March, 2011. Saghiyeh does touch briefly on the weakening of the Baath Party as a patronage network and the widening of the wealth gap following the clumsy implementation of Bashar Al-Assad’s “social market economy,” a liberalisation programme that enriched his relatives and the urban elite at the expense of large swathes of the country. But Saghiyeh has, by now, deviated so far from his stated premise that his abrupt return to it seems forced:
“Because [the regime] has unleashed so much wind, the storm is expected to be severe; the Syrians will learn politics under very harsh conditions. This storm will sweep away this curse of the Arab Socialist Baath Party, which has caused consecutive national disasters and been the cover for so many lies.”

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