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Iraq-Syria: The Battles of Baathists

June 15, 1986|G. H. Jansen | G. H. Jansen specializes in Middle East politics

NICOSIA, Cypress — King Hussein, acting as Middle East mediator, is going to find it far more difficult arrange an enduring reconciliation between Syria and Iraq than it has been to effect a rapprochement between himself and his old antagonist, President Hafez Assad of Syria.

At first glance it looks easy. Both Syria and Iraq are ruled by wings of the Arab Baath socialist party. By contrast, there are really fundamental and unchangeable divisions between a conservative monarchy like Hussein's Jordan and a militant, socialist republic like Assad's Syria. But precisely out of Syria-Iraq similarity comes the rub: If Britain and the United States are divided by a common language, the two Baathist regimes are divided--not united--by a common loyalty to an ideology they interpret quite differently, so differently that for them Baath is not really "the same" party.

These differences--and the ferocious intra-family feudings they have aroused--grew in part because of conflicts of national interest between Iraq and Syria, but mainly because Baathist ideology, as laid down by its Syrian founders Michel Aflak and Salah Bitar, is as cloudy and rhetorical as the party's slogan, "unity, freedom, socialism".

Iraqi-Syrian hostility dates back 23 years, to the Baathists seizure of power in both countries. The two new regimes proposed unity among Syria, Iraq and President Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt. The attempt failed when Iraq wanted a tight, organized unification while Syria preferred something looser, less informal.

The real break came in 1966, when a clique of military officers in Damascus gained power within the party, power they still hold. Since the coup had been provoked by the attempts of Aflak and Bitar to curb military power in the party, the two leaders exiled themselves from Syria, never to return. The Baathists were then split, between the ruling military regime and the founders' followers. Aflak wound up in Iraq as head of what is called "the historic Baath"; Bitar was murdered by Syrians in Paris.

Battles about the same issue--civilian versus military control of the Baath party--caused the breakdown of the next attempt at unity in 1978, when President Assad of Syria visited Iraq. The Iraqis insisted that the party in Syria had to be transformed into a regular, structured political organization, as in Iraq. But such transformation would never be permitted by Syrian officers, who use the party as a facade for a monopoly of power. Hostility only increased in 1979, when the Iraqis claimed that Syrian Baathists were responsible for an attempted coup in Baghdad.

Then it was no surprise, when the Iran-Iraq war broke out the following year, that Arab Syria sided with Persian Iran against Arab Iraq.

Last year, the Arab League called on Syria and Iraq to resolve nearly a quarter-century of mutual hostility. The scheduled meeting between Iraqi and Syrian foreign ministers on Friday will be the third round of talks in the current reconciliation attempt. The first meeting, in the fall of 1985, foundered at the level of intelligence officers. The Iraqis were both amazed and amused when the Syrians proposed immediate, unconditional unity between the two regimes. The second meeting, under Soviet pressure, was held in March, 1986; the Syrians repeated their proposal for complete unity or nothing.

The third meeting, following Hussein's mediation efforts, will succeed only if it sets a modest target. The king and Assad have achieved a sort of rapprochement--not at all a reconciliation since they differ on many important issues--because they have one major goal uniting them: the common desire to be rid of the Palestine Liberation Organization under the leadership of Yasser Arafat. More, both leaders would like to end mutual abuse and subversion. If the Syrians and Iraqis are prepared to settle for such modest progress, then the king could succeed in bringing them together at an Arab summit conference.

Hussein is almost desperate for such a summit; without an Iraqi-Syrian rapprochement, it cannot happen. The king is not mediating out of idealistic devotion to Arab unity; he hopes an Arab summit will reverse a 1974 decision, in Rabat, that named the PLO as the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinians. Instead, Hussein wants a mandate to be the Palestinians' new spokesman in any future peace talks.

That looks to be a vain hope, not least because Iraq has become a firm supporter of the PLO and Arafat. Though sudden changes of policy are common in this part of the world, few if any Arab governments would be prepared to dump the PLO while it retains a hold on the loyalty of Palestinian and Arab people.

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