Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Fig Leaf Burning!

Why does the President still insist on reforming the Baath Party? A friend of mine asked me not too long ago. He does not seem to be too convinced of the Party ideology, he does seem to be quite aware of the endemic corruption among the rank-and-file on all levels, and he must surely be quite aware of anathematic the very term Baath is to American and international ears at this stage. So, why does he insist on reforming the Baath?

Having giving the matter some thought, for I really didn’t have an answer ready then. I could only think of one thing: the continuing need for a political fig leaf, for a controllable political institution of sorts that can hide underneath it that omnipresent problem whose existence no one wants to openly admit, namely the Sunni-Alawi Divide.

The regime simply needs a political institution behind which it could hide its sectarian face. The Baath Party has played that role for 40 years now, but the members of the regime are not sophisticated enough to conjure up an alternative for it.

Without the Baath, the real nature of the regime will bear its face: a militaristic junta made up of a handful of Alawite generals and their multi-sectarian lackeys, who continue to use their muscle, as they have been doing since 1963, to chip away at the economic control and wealth of the other groups out there, especially, though not exclusively, the Sunnis. Indeed, these generals have been doing that for decades now but without attempting to share the wealth downwards. That is, the majority of the Alawites are excluded from these gains.

This unfair distribution of wealth has created major rift in the Alawite community, a rift that members of the regime are trying to heel at his stage by pointing all fingers at the noticeable growth of Sunni extremism, the ultimate boogeyman for the Alawites in this country.

Giving the state of the collective memory of the groups involved, this strategy could have actually worked and could have temporarily halted the catastrophic fragmentation and implosion of the regime, had it not been for the amazing lack of leadership in the Alawite community. Pretenders are always plentiful, but actual capable credible leaders are not. In the absence of leadership, fear of the Sunni boogeyman, is highly unlikely to prevent the catastrophic collapse of the Baath regime.

The other minority groups who traditionally had plenty to dread the possibility of Sunni rule have grown so tired of Baath corruption and oppression that they are unlikely to support the Baath at this stage, their scare tactics notwithstanding.

Considering the fact that many of these communities are witnessing a revival of their traditional forms of piety, an alliance with conservative Sunnis, even "Islamist" Sunnis, might prove more appealing to them than an alliance with the secular Baath Party, provided they could work out a new millet system of sorts, some formula along the Lebanese model.

If, in time, and for very much the same motivations, enough Alawite religious figures can be lured into an acceptance of such a formula, an alliance of conservative forces will emerge that can pull the rug from underneath the Baath.

Still considering the level of fear and cautiousness that exist in the country, such scenario will not be likely so long as the Baath regime is “in charge.” The regime has to collapse first before such scenarios are enacted. The good news is: the regime will. The bad news: this scenario is not exactly the kind of scenarios a liberal like me would like to see, not to mention live through.

Desires notwithstanding, this seems to be the most likely scenario of all for post-Baath Syria: an implosion, followed by a brief civil war ending up in a rule by an alliance of multi-sectarian conservative and traditional forces. If this sounds very much similar to what is currently taking place in Iraq, well, I have long said that Iraq is in many ways Syria’s Crystal Ball.