Just how close are the Ba’athists and ISIS?

The unhealthy focus on the Ba’ath Party being responsible for ISIS is a falsehood.


2017/08/13 Issue: 119 Page: 9


The Arab Weekly
Tallha Abdulrazaq



There is an increas­ingly disturbing trend in the media to indi­rectly whitewash the disastrous Western military intervention­ism that led to the destruction of Iraq as a function­ing country. Rather than come to terms with the undeniable fact that the US-led invasion in 2003 was ethically, morally and even stra­tegically wrong, there has been a concerted attempt to paint the Iraqi Ba’athist regime as an Arab ana­logue to the Nazis.

After the second world war, there was something of a Nazi resistance in Germany for a short time. Participants of the movement, rather theatrically known as the Werewolves, were primarily used as tools of propaganda. Fanatical citizens enamoured by Nazi ideology would continue the fight behind enemy lines as the Allies dismantled the Third Reich.

In Iraq’s case, the resistance against US occupation has been variously mischaracterised as either Ba’athist in nature or based on extremist Sunni ideologies, such as those espoused by terrorist groups, including al- Qaeda. These mischaracterisations have adopted a whole new trend and have created an Iraqi version of the Werewolves — the Islamic State (ISIS).

A common, almost rehearsed refrain repeated by many pundits and analysts is that the Ba’athist regime, once degraded and forced from power, decided to form a dark alliance with extremist Sunnis from al-Qaeda and the result of this unholy marriage was ISIS.

The story goes that figures from the Saddam Hussein regime fell on hard times and sought to reassert power by any means necessary. After fleeing to Syria, ruled by a competing branch of the Ba’ath Party, the Iraqi Ba’athists were put in touch with radical jihadists and formed the nucleus of the ISIS we know today. If true, this would be damning evidence that the Ba’athists were hardly different from the Nazis who seized power to launch a genocidal utopia.

Isn’t it too simplistic, however, to lay the blame for ISIS on power-hungry, angry and genocidal Ba’athists? Is it not too easy to accuse a near voiceless political party of being behind the genesis of one of the most mortifying terrorist threats the world has seen? After all, if the Iraqi Ba’athists were inclined to the kind of horrifying violence ISIS has unleashed over the past few years, why did we not see any signs of this during the many decades that they ruled?

To be certain, the Ba’athists under Saddam were responsible for numerous crimes. They targeted and killed Kurds ruthlessly as draconian collective punishment for separatist Kurdish terrorism. They repressed and suppressed dissenting voices, casting thousands into prisons and torture dungeons and forcing many Iraqis to flee their homes as political refugees all over the world.

However, there has never been any proven link between the Iraqi Ba’ath Party and radical religious organisations. Those intelligence officers who fled to Syria and began associating with the likes of al-Qaeda are not necessarily representative of the Ba’athist political movement. This reductionism conveniently leaves out the fact that, after the fall of Saddam’s regime, the Ba’athists splintered into different groups.

There are now Ba’athists in Iraq, across the Arab world and even in the West. Many of these splinter groups disagree with one another and almost no Ba’athist has come out and adopted ISIS’s ideology. Also, if the Ba’athists were behind ISIS, then why was the Ba’athist Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshabandiya attacked by ISIS in 2014? The group known as JRTN is, of course, led by former senior Saddam aide and Ba’ath Party veteran Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri. Anyone who knows Douri’s history will know that he’s hardly Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

While there are undoubtedly former Ba’athists involved in ISIS on an organisational level, this unhealthy focus on the Ba’ath Party being responsible for ISIS is a falsehood. To understand the origins of ISIS, one need only look to the extremism that the US-led invasion allowed to enter Iraq by creating chaos, unleashing Iranian sectarianism in the country and failing to create a national polity that Iraqis could get behind after their country was shattered in 2003.


Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute in England.


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