The Ba‘ath Party (also spelled Baath or Ba‘th; Arabic اﻟﺒﻌﺚ) is the name of both the former ruling party of Iraq, headed by Saddam Hussein, and of the current ruling party of Syria. After Saddam's regime was deposed in the 2003 Iraq war, the party was banned by American occupation forces in June, 2003. Its main ideological objectives are secularism, socialism, and pan-Arab unionism, expressed by the party motto; "Wahdah, Hurriyah, Ishtirrakiyah" (Unity, Freedom, Socialism). By 'Unity,' pan-Arab unity is understood, and by 'Freedom,' freedom from Western interests.
Both parties originate in the Ba‘ath movement, an Arab political movement which started in the early 20th century with Syrian nationalists like Michel ‘Aflaq and the more republican wing of Iraqi soldiers under British, and later Hashemite services. Two other major proponents of early Ba‘athist ideology, Zaki al-Arsuzi and Salah al-Din al-Bitar, like Michel Aflaq, were middle-class educators, whose political thought had been influenced by Western education. The Ba‘ath Arab Socialist Party, to give it its formal name, was officially founded at the first party congress, held in Damascus, April 7, 1947.
It was formed in opposition to both French rule and the older generation of Syrian Arab nationalists, mixing Pan-Arab unity and Arab nationalism as its foundation. Its [constitution] is a blend of neo-Marxist socialism and nationalism. They opposed the influence of Europe in their country's affairs, and used Nationalism and the notion of unifying the Arab world as a platform. Ba‘ath always claimed to be speaking for the entire Arab nation and the progress of the masses, though it was extremely exclusive, factional and often relying on nationalist radicals in the militaries. Its influence spread to other Arab countries 1954-58, and branches were established in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon.
Ba‘ath is Arabic for 'rebirth'. Comparable to many fascist groups, 'moral and cultural deterioration' have been consistently emphasized by Ba‘athists, and especially associated with 'outsiders', which in the Arab world means Western interests, and local Jews and Christians, considered to be their agents or dupes. The emphasis on cultural and ideological purity has resulted in party purges, those instigated by Saddam Hussein being accompanied by bloodshed.
Ba‘athist party structure was from the beginning based on the party cell or circle, composed of three to seven members, which constitutes the basic organisational unit of the party. Cells functioned at the neighborhood or village level, where members would meet to discuss and execute party directivesintroduced from above. Since individual cells had little contact with one another, party loyalties could be vigorously enforced from the top down. As the U.S. and its allies discovered in Iraq in 2003, cell organization also made the party highly resilient.
A party division comprised two to seven cells, controlled by a division commander. Such Ba‘athist cells were spread throughout the bureaucracy and the military, where they functioned as the party’s watchdog, an effective form of covert surveillance within a public administration.
A party section, which comprised of two to five divisions, functioned at the level of a large city quarter, a town, or a rural district.
The branch came at the top of the section, and was composed of at least two sections which operated at the provincial level.
The party congress, which combined all the branches, was responsible for electing the regional command as the core of the party leadership and top decision-making mechanism.
The national command of the Ba‘ath Party, ranked on top of the regional command. It was the highest policy-making and coordinating council for the Ba‘ath movement throughout the Arab world at large.
In Iraq the Ba‘athists first came to power in the coup of Feb., 1963, when Abdul-Salem Arif became president. Interference from the Syrian Ba‘athists and disputes between the moderates and extremists, culminating in an attempted coup by the latter in Nov., 1963, served to discredit the extremists. However, the moderates continued to play a major role in the succeeding governments. In July, 1968, a bloodless coup brought to power the Ba‘athist general Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr. Wranglings within the party continued, and the government periodically purged its dissident members. Saddam Hussein eventually succeeded al-Bakr, ruling [Iraq] despot-style for several decades.
In 1963 a military coup restored the Ba‘ath to power in Syria, which promptly began a course of large-scale nationalization. From 1963 the Ba‘ath was the only legal Syrian political party, but factionalism and splintering within the party led to a succession of governments and new constitutions. In 1966 a military [junta] representing the more radical elements in the party displaced the more moderate wing in power, purging from the party its original founders, Michel Aflaq and Bitar.
After that, it split into 2 factions; the "progressive" faction, led by Nureddin Atassi, which gave priority to the firm establishment of a one-party state and to neo-Marxist economic reform, and the so-called nationalist group, led by Gen. Hafez al-Assad. Assad's following was less doctrinaire about socialism, favoring a militant posture on the Arab union and hostility toward Israel. Despite constant maneuvering and government changes, the two factions remained in an uneasy coalition of power until 1970, when, in another coup, Assad succeeded in ousting Atassi as prime minister. Assad, one of the longest-ruling leaders of the contemporary Middle East, and the Ba‘athist party remained at Syria's political helm until 2000, when he was succeeded by [Bashar al Assad], his son.
Iraqi and Syrian Ba‘athism today are widely different and partially opposing, though they didn't split until later. The Ba‘athists imitate the Italian and Spanish fascists. Under Assad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, both nations are said to have moved away from Ba‘athist principles.
In June 2003, the US-led Occupation forces of Iraq banned the Ba‘ath party. Some criticize the additional step of the US banning all members of the Ba‘ath party from the new government that will be formed, as well as public schools and colleges, which will have the consequence of having a lot of people will be cut out. Scores of teachers have been dismissed, causing widespread but unreported protests and demonstrations at schools and universities. Under the previous rulership of the Ba‘ath party, one could not reach a very high position or promotion unless one became a member. Similiar to George Orwell's 1984, membership in "the party" was an important means to advance. (There was also a similiarity in how Iraq fought Iran like it was "the Devil," and then following the end of the war, the US became the new enemy, not unlike the endless war between Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia of 1984.)
The movement split into several factions after 1958 and again 1966. In Iraq, the Ba‘ath Party took control briefly 1963 and again from 1968 although its support there has always been limited. The rise of Saddam Hussein to become president of Iraq (from 1979) was due less to the popularity of the Ba‘ath Party itself than to the exploitation and manipulation of an existing ideology by Hussein for his own purposes.