Baathists “pervade” ISIS; weren’t they supposed to be secularists?

According to the Washington Post, former members of Iraq’s Baathist army play a “pervasive role” in ISIS. This is true, says the Post’s Liz Sly, not only in Iraq but also in Syria.

ISIS evolved from al Qaeda in Iraq. It was well known that Baathists played an important role in that outfit. Sly says that the former Baathist officers became even more prominent when ISIS rose from the ashes after the U.S. military defeated al Qaeda in Iraq.

Slay observes that “at first glance, the secularist dogma of Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical Baath Party seems at odds with the Islamic State’s harsh interpretation of the Islamic laws it purports to uphold.” This, of course, was the supposed disconnect that caused many to conclude that Saddam would never collaborate with al Qaeda.

However, as Sly recognizes, this “disconnect” is more theoretical than real. Otherwise, it’s unlikely that former Baathists would be playing a “pervasive role” in ISIS.

The “blame America first” left will counter that the U.S. pushed the Baathists into Islamism. But according to Sly, the Saddam had already moved in that direction before America invaded:

By the time U.S. troops invaded in 2003, Hussein had begun to tilt toward a more religious approach to governance, making the transition from Baathist to Islamist ideology less improbable for some of the disenfranchised Iraqi officers, said Ahmed S. Hashim, a professor who is researching the ties at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

With the launch of the Iraqi dictator’s Faith Campaign in 1994, strict Islamic precepts were introduced. The words “God is Great” were inscribed on the Iraqi flag. Amputations were decreed for theft. Former Baathist officers recall friends who suddenly stopped drinking, started praying and embraced the deeply conservative form of Islam known as Salafism in the years preceding the U.S. invasion.

In other words, those analysts who smugly dismissed the possibility of an alliance between Saddam and radical Islamists based on the alleged secularism of Saddam and his party either didn’t know what they were talking about or were deliberately misleading us.

Sly downplays this part of her story, focusing instead on claims that the Bush administration made a huge mistake by demobilizing the Baathist army. The brutality of the officers in question (in both their Baathist and ISIS incarnations), coupled with the growing affinity between radical Islam and Saddam’s party, suggests that there were good arguments in favor of demobilization. Whether these arguments should have led to de-Baathification on the scale that occurred is another question.

But there is no question that those who pretend Saddam’s regime was the enemy of radical Islamism, ideologically incapable of working with al Qaeda, are indulging in fantasy for the purpose of partisanship.