Aflaq, symbol of Iraq and Syria’s shared past
The blue-domed memorial Saddam Hussein built in Baghdad to honour Baath party founder Michel Aflaq, a Syrian Christian who started the movement that dominated Iraq for decades and governs Syria today, has been turned into a shopping centre for U.S. soldiers.
Aflaq’s tomb, sitting at the centre of a vault adorned with Koranic verses and Arabesque designs, has been boarded up to make way for a barber shop, a store selling kitschy Iraq souvenirs, a pirate DVD vendor and a ring of other stores.
The new mall at Aflaq’s tomb, located on what is now a U.S. military base in central Baghdad, has thus sealed off a powerful symbol of the deep, and often strained, shared history between Iraq and Syria, one which is being tested in a new feud between Baghdad and Damascus.
Last month, Syria and Iraq recalled their ambassadors after Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki accused Syria of sheltering mebbers of the Iraqi Baath party whom he blames for backing attacks that killed around 100 people in Baghdad last month.
The Aug. 19 bombings marked a U-turn in the slow improvement of relations between Iraq and Syria, which for decades had stunted diplomatic relations. Since 2003, they have been at odds over U.S. and Iraqi accusations that Damascus has allowed foreign insurgents to stream across its border into Iraq.
Damascus refused Maliki’s demand that Syria turn over Iraqi Baathists believed to be behind the August attacks and accused Iraq of being ungrateful for its efforts to care for hundreds of thousands of Iraqi war refugees now living in Syria.
But Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must be unnerved by Maliki’s request at the United Nations for a formal inquiry into the attacks.
Shining a global spotlight on Syria for a second time – in addition to the U.N. tribunal into the death of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri – must be an uncomfortable prospect for Assad’s secretive, controlling regime.
The Iraq-Syria squabble also underscores the difficulties that Maliki, and Iraq generally, are having in dealing with powerful elements from the Iraqi Baath party, many living in Syria and Jordan, ahead of an election next year and beyond.
The United States has been pushing Maliki to bring a wider spectrum of Iraqis into efforts to reconcile the country, and has even held unilateral talks with former Baath party members who might one day try to take part in the political process.
But Maliki, a member of Iraq’s Shi’ite Arab majority marginalised under Saddam’s Sunni Arab-led regime, spent decades fighting the Baath party – at least in part from exile in Syria – and it will be hard for Sunnis or Shi’ites to easily forget the sectarian crimes of the last six years.
Which brings us back to Aflaq. Born in Damascus in 1910, Aflaq was educated in Paris before he helped found the Baath party in the 1940s, hoping to wed Arab culture with modern, secularist politics and a rejection of western imperialism.
The Baath party took over in Damascus in 1963, but Aflaq later fled to Baghdad and aligned himself with the rival Iraqi branch of the party. Saddam gave Aflaq, his ideological compass during 24 years in power, a place of honour in Iraq and named him the party’s general secretary. In 1989, Aflaq died in Paris – Saddam claimed he was secretly converted to Islam before his death – and he was buried in Baghdad.
During that time, Syria and Iraq spied on and used political dissidents as leverage against each other. What the two countries may share most now is the need to climb down from their latest neighbourly crisis. Assad’s government is reaching out to the West and Washington, under President Barack Obama, is seeking to engage Damascus for the first time in eight years.
Maliki, meanwhile, is facing pushback on his tough Syria stance from senior officials who could well turn out to be rivals in January’s national elections.
Struggling to stamp out a weakened but active insurgency, Maliki may also not want to risk anything that will further deteriorate security and undermine his main selling point – improved security – when voters go to the polls in January.