Ten years into a civil war with no clear political solution in sight, intense international sanctions, and large swaths of territory still outside the government’s reach, the Syrian regime is attempting to consolidate political control and create a semblance of normalcy through the mechanisms of the state. This includes leaning onto one of its key pillars, the ruling party that has governed since March 1963.
After nearly 60 years in power, the Arab Socialist Baath Party is steadily entering into the 2020s. The Arabic word, Baath, means renaissance or resurrection. Assad’s political party is now in the midst of a full-fledged campaign to resurrect itself.
Assad’s political party is now in the midst of a full-fledged campaign to resurrect itself.
The party is often overlooked in the wider scope of the Syrian regime’s dismal political scene and has long been derided as an aging institution. With a loss of focus on its ideology of Pan-Arabism, the secular regime’s relationship with theocratic Iran, relentless accusations of sectarianism, rampant corruption, and cronyism, the Baath party is now at a critical juncture.
Serving the People
The country’s Baathists consist largely of the Syrian elite, such as journalists, doctors, lawyers, educators, businesspeople, bureaucrats, skilled workers, and security personnel. They view the party as a modern, statist organization that aims to protect the nation and lead it out of the conflict and into the future. Other authoritarian governments are celebrated as a model for how to manage society and protect Syria’s interests.
In a video posted on December 1, Assistant Secretary-General of the Baath Party Hilal Hilal hailed the history of cooperation with Russia, along with the United Russia Party. In June, Hilal also marked the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party at the Chinese embassy in Damascus.
“Where are you O’ Arabs?” was a signature chant of the 2011 uprising, exposing “the flawed narrative that Arab unity can ever be achieved, and that ‘Arabs’ are not a monolithic and homogeneous entity as was evident in the past ten years with various countries competing to topple each other’s regimes, impose friendly governments, and all follow their own respective national security objectives underpinned by the statehood of these nations,” Samy Akil, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s Centre for Arab & Islamic Studies, told Inside Arabia.
The party places an emphasis on cultivating the next generation of Baathists, even amongst the very young.
The party places an emphasis on cultivating the next generation of Baathists, even amongst the very young. At an event in September, Hilal visited a party-administered school, illustrating how the party is indoctrinating children to idolize Bashar al-Assad as the country’s leader. However, the party’s relevance today is less about ideology and more about its role in public spaces to shore up support for the regime.
The ruling party is even used to mobilize as an emergency response team. In October 2020, the party posted messages on social media urging Baath members and the public to help combat the forest fires in the coastal region. The wildfires destroyed nearly 60,000 acres of land in the area.
Akil noted that “The Baath party serves less of an ideological role today and is now more of a pseudo-service providing bureaucratic state entity that manages the daily affairs of public service employees and civil servants. This was not always the case, however, it became so out of necessity over time, particularly after the outbreak of the Syrian Revolution in 2011.” Most notable is how the party sought to play a role during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Syria, many people refrain from wearing masks and are largely unconcerned about COVID-19. Wearing masks in public is typically regarded as a sign that the mask-wearers themselves are sick. The United Nations and China have sought to provide assistance and vaccines but the public remains deeply skeptical about vaccines and mistrust of the governance is high.
Initially, the regime sought to deny there was any sign of the virus in the country. As the pandemic became more pronounced, the Syrian government began relying on the Baathist organizations as an institution for tackling the public health crisis.
This trend is especially acute in the southern city of Daraa, the birthplace of the 2011 Syrian Revolution. The Baath has become more active in fostering community engagement and delivering public health services due to the deterioration of the country’s healthcare infrastructure.
Abdullah al-Jabassini, a researcher specializing in wartime and post-war southern Syria at the European University Institute, told Inside Arabia that the Baath Party has been active in honoring the role of teachers, students, and children with special needs, as well as supervising child vaccination. He noted that Baathist officials also deliver lectures to students on the party’s leading role in society and participate in the release of detainees.
The party has even found success in the enlistment of young people who are interested in doing their part to help Syria combat the spread of the virus.
“Remarkably, when COVID-19 arrived in Syria in March 2020, local response initiatives have been used by the Baath Party and its organization as a tool for political recruitment and a strategy to revive their leading role in society,” Jabassini explained. “The Baath Party and the Revolutionary Youth Union (RYU) have intervened in local initiatives to recruit youth forces and gain party popularity among the younger generation.” He added that in return for material rewards, RYU members were deployed to help service public bakeries, monitor markets to control prices, organize civilian queues, and sanitize government premises.
The regime is using the party to re-enter the areas that were once held by the various armed opposition forces.
Jabassini noted that the Baath Party Division Secretary in Daraa, Hussein al-Refaie, has taken on a much more visible public role than the previous governors. The regime is using the party to re-enter the areas that were once held by the various armed opposition forces. It will help the government seem capable of restoring essential services by making its presence felt by the local population.
Nevertheless, the reconciliation agreements brokered by Russia in recent years have not been successful in pacifying the southern region. The risks remain high for Baath officials as they endeavor to fully expand in the territory.
“What limits the Baath Party’s activities and influence is mainly the security chaos prevailing in Daraa. In particular, the spread of assassinations that, on many occasions, targeted senior Baath members. For as long as the security chaos remains in Daraa, the Baath’s activities and influence will be limited to the areas in which the state enjoys firm security control,” Jabassini said.
Despite the poor security situation, the party still endeavors to find glory and solace. For example, a senior Baathist, Salwan al-Jundi, was killed in Nawa city in Daraa Province in April 2020. A party social media post linked his death to an RYU suicide attack against the Israeli forces in Lebanon in November 1985, 35 years earlier, to highlight the party’s history of martyrdom and sacrifices.
With the conflict in Syria still unresolved and amid the ever-presence of violence, the Baath party looks to persevere by transforming into a civil entity working to improve public health, youth, and community service. The last two years brought about new opportunities for the Baath to move past the conflict and into the public sphere during a time of intense hardship. How the party defines its identity and finds a new purpose and meaning will inform the likelihood of stability and overall trajectory of the Assad regime’s future.