BEIRUT, Lebanon – Syria's ruling Baath party is watching with concern as U.S. forces break up the Iraqi Baathists, their long-estranged cousins in Arab politics and the power base of Saddam Hussein's government.
U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of coalition forces that led the Iraq war, issued a statement Sunday saying that Saddam's Baath party (search), which ruled Iraq for 35 years, "is dissolved."
His order came a month after U.S. troops took Baghdad and toppled Saddam's regime, which had extended the reach of the Sunni-dominated party, formally known as the Arab Baath Socialist Party.
The unseating of the party next door has been unnerving for the Syrians to watch, though the two rival wings have been bitter adversaries for years.
"This is illegal. In principle and according to international law, an occupation force does not have the right to dissolve a country's political organizations," said Mehdi Dakhlallah, editor in chief of the Syrian state-run Baath newspaper.
The Arab Socialist Baath Party was founded as a secular, nationalist party in Syria (search) in the 1940s by a small group of French-educated intellectuals. The party spread quickly around the Middle East, promoting Arab superiority and unity in the face of Western imperialism.
Syria's branch of the party broke with the Iraqi Baath in 1966 amid political infighting.
Both parties built authoritarian regimes that brutally crushed opponents in their countries. But Syria has given limited rein to an opposition and rights groups since Bashar Assad (search) succeeded his late father Hafez Assad as president in 2000. Iraq under Saddam did not take such steps.
The two countries have also differed in foreign policy. During the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, Syria supported Iran and was the only Arab country to do so. Syria also joined the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq in the Gulf war of 1991.
Still, the United States has been suspicious of collusion between the two Baath regimes.
During the latest Iraq war, U.S. officials accused Syria of harboring fleeing members of the Iraqi Baath party and sending military equipment to Iraq.
Syria denied the charges and later sealed its border with Iraq. But the tone and seriousness of the accusations sparked fears that the country might be next on the U.S. administration's list of countries where it would like to see the government toppled.
Perhaps feeling the winds of change, Syria — which the United States also accuses of sponsoring terrorism — has been trying to soften its authoritarian image in recent months.
Parliamentary elections in March saw the election of many new faces and a record number of women. Although the Baath continued to dominate the controlled electoral process, the polls reflected a significant shift in Syria's rigid political landscape and took place in a climate where, for once, opposition supporters could voice criticism of the establishment.
Around 1.5 million of Syria's 18.5 million people are members of the Baath party.
Last month, Syria changed its military-style school uniforms, opting for light pink and blue instead of the khaki outfits children had worn for decades. The Syrian government also authorized private banking in the country and awarded licenses to three foreign banks to operate in Syria.
"The Baath party in Syria realizes the shifting strategic situation in the region," said Haitham Kilani, a retired Syrian general and former diplomat.
"There will have to be some adjustments, but the party will remain committed to its constants: [Arab] unity, freedom and socialism," he said.
Old talk of reforming the Baath party has recently gained some momentum.
In a daring editorial last month, Dakhlallah, the Baath daily editor-in-chief, called for reforms and criticism.
Fadel Ansari, a member of the Iraqi opposition who has been living in Syria since 1968, said it was "natural" for the U.S. to dissolve the Iraqi Baath party, "whose name had become tantamount to a curse" in Iraq. But he emphasized the three decade-old division between it and the Syrian party.
"The Syrian and Iraqi Baath parties may share the same slogans but they do not share the same practices," he said.