Has Assad Broken with Baathist Ideology?
May 17, 2024 529

Has Assad Broken with Baathist Ideology?

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On May 4, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad delivered a speech to inaugurate a meeting of the expanded Central Committee of the Baath Party. The meeting was being held to conclude an electoral process launched by the regime in late February, which had resulted in an almost complete restructuring of the party’s Central Leadership, which replaced the National Command in place since April 2017.  

Unlike the party’s usual national conferences, the meeting’s program was solely electoral. Party media described Assad’s speech as long and unprogrammed. He did not address the situation in Syria in general or efforts for a negotiated political solution to the civil war, nor the presence of foreign forces in Syria or the economic situation, with the exception of regime-controlled areas.  

The speech covered three main themes: the Baath party itself, the economic situation, and the political situation.  

Party Organization  

•  Assad presented a number of concepts that break with long-held Baathist tenets, and in a break with party customs, he did not engage in debate with his audience. He spoke of a new relationship between party and state, emphasizing that the party’s leadership was moving away from Arab nationalism, a move apparently aimed at appeasing Arab countries engaged in the process of normalization with the Syrian regime.  

He talked about freedoms and the party’s relationship with religion, emphasizing the secular nature of the state. This appeared to be political propaganda aimed at positioning the regime within the global left and in opposition to right-wing or Islamist movements, in order to push forward its normalization with the Western left, which has talked up the need to end the regime’s international isolation.  

•  Assad defended ideological parties, saying they were necessary, in a clear attempt to emphasize the political and ideological nature of his project for governance. He said non-ideological parties were pragmatic but fleeting, and called for a party doctrine based on nationalist, humanist, civilized thought, while criticizing what he described as the party’s nationalist instincts.  

•  The Syrian president criticized the party’s central elections as serving just one constituency. He also floated the possibility of a return to a list system, despite having said in previous speeches that such a system was a cause of corruption within the party. This contradiction demonstrates Assad’s unwillingness to find a solution to corruption within the party.  

•  Assad laid out many of the organizational problems facing the party, without listening to top party figures. His speech did not address solutions, despite the fact he was addressing the most important party meeting in more than a decade. He did not specify any responsibilities, nor did he make any decisions, unlike at previous conferences. He appeared to be manoeuvring to avoid blame in the future for the outcome of any fundamental changes. Rather, he attributed them to the party cadres, increasing his own room for manoeuvre to make decisions or to retract them and blame failures on others.  

The Economic Situation  

Assad gave a long explanation of the market economy and criticized the regime’s old social policies. He also praised the Chinese economic experience of combining a market economy with a communist political system. This may have been an attempt to promote a new economic approach by the regime, departing from the party’s socialist ideology without acknowledging its failures over more than 50 years of one-party rule in which it has failed to achieve any of its main goals.  

Assad also laid out the problems facing the country’s failing public industrial and agricultural sectors. He attributed their failures mainly to corruption and previous policies of compulsory employment, pointing to new policies of employment and government support. These policies may be the precursors to a gradual process of privatization, starting with messaging on the economic losses the public sector has faced, before abandoning public hiring and social policies and moving to privatization. This could be achieved by granting concessions and investment rights within those sectors or by directly selling off fixed assets in order to provide the government with financing that may help it establish partnerships, concession agreements, and investment arrangements with a country such as China, and moving to a market economy—Assad’s new ambition.  

Political Situation  

•  Al-Assad neglected to talk about the political situation in Syria and efforts for a political solution, which he does not treat as attempts at finding a solution, but rather as processes imposed on him from outside. He does not believe in them, and constantly seeks to disrupt them, working to buy time for other tracks and policies that he undertakes in cooperation with his allies.  

•  The speech touched on the war in Gaza, stressing that the regime belongs to and supports the axis of resistance. This is despite the fact that Assad has submitted to Israel’s threats and refrained from responding to Israeli air strikes and ground operations inside the disengagement zone of the occupied Golan Heights.  

•  Assad criticized the Syrian opposition, claiming it had showed a lack of solidarity with Gaza and describing the opposition’s efforts to push the U.S. to pass a law against normalization with the regime as a partnership with the enemies of the axis of resistance. This amounted to a new attempt by Damascus to exploit the Palestinian cause in its propaganda against the opposition, messaging directed at Arab nationalists in order to distract them from the fact the regime has played no real role to support Palestinians in the war. Assad’s facial expressions gave away his happiness at the bill’s failure to pass through Congress, which would have been a major obstacle to efforts to reintegrate the regime globally.  

Bashar al-Assad clings to the Baath Party as the standard-bearer and main pillar of his ruling system, despite the party’s declining role. It provides him with political cover and a network that permeates state institutions, forming and reforming according to his wishes, hiding his totalitarian sectarian system of government behind a leftist veneer, as well as strengthening his control over the country.  

His presence at the Baath central committee’s meeting, and his delivery of a speech devoid of solutions—whether to the party’s issues or the country’s political and economic dilemmas—appears to have been a deliberate strategy. His approach of laying out problems and ideas and making the party and government cadres responsible for the consequences came not from the principle of separation of state and party, but rather a new policy that places Assad in the position of supreme guide leaving implementation and responsibility to the party rank and file. This approach has echoes in the Iranian model of the Supreme Leader, in which the government and the party are responsible for implementation, in contrast to the Syrian constitution and the Baath Party’s regime.  

A New System?  

Assad has undertaken a series of measures of late in a campaign to portray himself as the guide in a process of reform, development, and change in the behavior of the ruling Baath regime in Syria. This is part of a policy with multiple objectives, including meeting the demands of countries normalizing with his regime and adapting them to the demands of its longstanding allies.  

This strategy has also attempted to make fundamental changes to the values and goals of the Baath Party. Assad has neutralized the party’s Arab nationalism by abolishing the national leadership, keeping only a celebration of humanist Arabism in his messaging. He also drew a line under the historic goal of Arab unity, emphasizing Syria’s national situation and local specificities. This distance from Arab nationalism is not entirely new; Assad’s regime has long allied itself with Iran, and aligned with oppressive, totalitarian regimes and fought hard against Syrians’ demands for freedom since 2011.  

It is clear that Assad is seeking to formulate a new economic system that undermines the party’s socialist ideology by relying on the market economy, in an imitation of China’s experience of state capitalism. This could be a prelude to a capitalist experiment based on privatization and the sale of state-owned fixed assets and rights to its natural wealth, in order to secure new financial resources for Assad’s government and strengthen its grip on power.