What began 18 months ago as a popular uprising against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad is on its way to becoming a full-blown civil war that could spread around the region.
Below, we publish a lengthened and updated version of the article by Niall Mulholland written at the beginning of August and published on socialistworld.net for the monthly magazine of the Socialist Party (CWI in England & Wales).
July was the bloodiest month so far in the Syrian conflict, with an estimated 100 deaths a day. Across Syria there are indiscriminate attacks by the Assad regime forces and their militias, bloody sectarian reprisals by the armed opposition, refugee floods and humanitarian disasters. The second city, Aleppo, is the latest focus of fighting between armed opposition forces and the Syrian army. Since the rebels entered Aleppo on 20 July, many residents have fled for Damascus and Turkey.
The battle for Aleppo is important for both sides. Larger than the capital, Damascus, it is the main economic centre, with an important manufacturing sector. Like the rest of Syria, Aleppo is made up of a patchwork of religious and ethnic groups. The rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) advanced on the city trying to capitalise on momentum they believed they made during an assault on Damascus and the bombing of a government intelligence meeting, which killed four generals. The Syrian army is stepping up its offensive on Aleppo. Tragically, workers and the poor are the main victims of the conflict in Aleppo and the other battlegrounds raging across the country.
The March 2011 uprising began as a genuine, popular movement against Bashar al-Assad’s police state, the erosion of social welfare, high levels of poverty and unemployment, and the rule of the rich, corrupt elite. Assad’s dictatorship responded to the wave of mass protests against 40 years of dictatorial rule – widely seen as part of the Arab spring – with vicious repression.
Brutal suppression of demonstrators led some activists to take up arms. The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI, the socialist international organisation to which the Socialist Party is affiliated) advocated democratically run workers’ self-defence committees that could protect communities and cut across sectarian lines. At the same time, the CWI called for this to be linked to a programme demanding the end of the Assad dictatorship and for fundamental democratic, social and economic change.
But, crucially, the mass protests lacked an independent working-class leadership. This is hardly surprising, given that the Syrian working class suffered vicious repression under decades of dictatorship that outlawed genuine workers’ self-organisation. Workers do not yet have strong independent trade unions, let alone a revolutionary party advocating far-reaching democratic, social and economic change. Inspiring and courageous as the mass protests that erupted in March 2011 were, they did not develop the same revolutionary sweep and appeal as the mass movements in Tunisia and Egypt.
Significantly, in both Tunisia and Egypt there was a tradition of workers’ organising themselves in unions and other social organisations prior to the revolutions. A sharp rise in industrial struggles took place in Egypt in the years prior to 2011. Strikes or the threat of general strikes in Tunisia and Egypt left the regimes suspended in mid-air and played a decisive role in overthrowing both Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak.
A united working class cutting across all religious, sectarian and ethnic lines is important in every country in the region. This is especially the case in Syria with its various religious, sectarian and ethnic minorities. Assad has cynically used divide-and-rule policies to stay in power. His army and Shabiha militias carry out heinous massacres to create big divisions between Alawites and Sunnis.
The backbone of the regime is based on the Alawite religious minority but it also draws support from Christians, Druze, and ‘moderate’ Sunni Muslims. Assad has mercilessly exploited the genuine fear of the minorities that victory for the armed, mainly Sunni opposition would see them become persecuted and discriminated against.
Cynically deploying anti-western and anti-imperialist rhetoric, the Assad regime warns that the fate of Iraq – terrible sectarian bloodletting, the destruction of infrastructure and the territorial fracturing of the country – awaits the Syrian people should the armed opposition, with the support of western powers and local reactionary regimes, prevail. Even though the Syrian regime is sorely battered and bruised and probably living on borrowed time, Assad remains in power, unleashing his deadly military arsenal against the armed opposition and innocent civilians of Syria.
THE LACK OF a united working-class alternative meant that religious, sectarian and pro-capitalist oppositionist figures were able to partially fill the political space. Many youth and workers came under the broad umbrella of the FSA but reactionary elements were also involved from the start. As the mass street protests fell back, the FSA grew and armed struggle became the dominant form of resistance, further sidelining the mass movement. Reactionary Gulf regimes, along with Turkey, and with western imperialist backing, intervened with guns and money for the opposition, political strings attached, of course.
The FSA leaders’ aim is to overthrow Assad’s regime but not to replace it with real democracy and prosperity for all. They intend to establish a more pro-western, pro-capitalist regime, which would rule on the basis of a Sunni sectarian-based appeal. For their part, the US, Britain and France have long regarded Assad’s regime as a troublesome obstacle to their imperialist interests in the region. Crucial to their plans is to fundamentally weaken their main foe in the region, Iran.
Tehran is an ally of the Syrian regime. The fall of Assad could also strengthen pro-US Sunni Gulf regimes, while weakening Shia-based Hezbollah in Lebanon and Russian imperialism’s position in the region.
Syria is increasingly the arena for a regional and international proxy war. On the one side is the brutal Assad regime, with its Iranian and Russian backers. On the other, an array of anti-Assad armed opposition forces many of which are bankrolled and aided militarily by Arab states (led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia) and Turkey, with broad western support.
What began as a popular uprising in Syria descended into a civil war, with increasing religious, ethnic and sectarian characteristics. Working people and the poor are paying the greatest price for the failure of the revolt to develop into a powerful, independent movement based on a united working class. The estimated death toll now stands at 20,000. The United Nations (UN) believes that 150,000 people have fled the country, with many more internally displaced.
But the words of concern for the people of Syria from the mouths of western politicians are just so much hypocritical cant. Only a few years ago, George W Bush’s administration sent ‘terrorist suspects’ to Damascus to be tortured by Assad’s thugs. Now, president Barack Obama claims he wants to see the dictatorship replaced with ‘democracy’.
Yet two of the US’s closest allies in the region, the reactionary autocracies of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are busily arming and financing the Syrian rebels. They are not interested in bringing democratic rights to Syria any more than the US or Britain. The Saudi regime represses its own Shia minority, while backing reactionary sectarian Salafists in Syria.
The Turkish government, a member of Nato (the US-dominated military alliance), loudly denounces oppression in Syria. At home, it is suppressing the media and the country’s 20 million Kurds, who are pressing their own demands in both Turkey and Syria. Turkey’s ‘mild’ Islamist president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has also turned up his verbal attacks against the country’s minority Alevis, an historically persecuted off-shoot of Shia Islam, whose number include the leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party.
Assad and the opposition
THE ROLES PLAYED by western powers and reactionary Gulf regimes are no reasons, however, to support the Assad regime. It is not some sort of ‘bulwark’ against imperialism, as some on the left in the region and beyond portray.
A Ba’athist coup in the 1960s saw the majority of the Syrian economy being nationalised, which for a period allowed the regime to take measures that saw a rise in living standards. Nonetheless, this was nothing at all like genuine democratic socialism, or a move towards it, as the brutal, undemocratic character of Assad’s family-dominated regime testified. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Syrian regime opened up the economy to global capitalism. This led to privatisations, welfare and subsidy cuts, mass joblessness and big inequalities, fuelling mass unrest and the March 2011 revolt.
The road to a real alternative to imperialism and Arab despots was displayed during last year’s revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as the early promise of the 2011 Syrian revolt. They showed that it is the mass united movement of working people and youth that can remove despots and their regimes, resist imperialism and fight for real social and political change.
While it may only be a matter of time before Assad falls, the conflict shows no sign of a quick ending. “With or without Bashar al-Assad as its leader, Syria now has all the makings of a grim and drawn out civil war”, warns Vali Nasr, an academic and former advisor to Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. (New York Times, 28 July) While Assad has lost control of parts of Syria and the opposition is buoyed up, claiming the regime’s power is seriously eroding, the conflict is likely to become protracted. The high-profile defection of some military and diplomatic figures, including Riad Hijab, the recently appointed prime minister, has given the impression of a regime in slow-motion collapse. Yet Assad shows no sign of standing down.
To date, Assad has shown he has the military power and enough support in Syria, including from many Sunni business people, to keep fighting. But, although it appears unlikely at the moment, the possibility that Assad could be ousted by a palace coup cannot be ruled out. While the opposition has made some ground and is now reportedly using heavy weaponry, it is divided “among some 100 groups without clear political leadership”, according to Vali Nasr.
Moreover, the reactionary character of the largely Sunni-based, pro-big business Syrian National Council, which is linked to the FSA and its Sunni-elite Gulf backers, means that many of Syria’s Alawite, Christian and Kurdish minorities, as well as some Sunnis, fear what would follow Assad’s overthrow. The summary execution of unarmed pro-regime fighters by opposition militias in Aleppo, widely viewed on YouTube, will only deepen the fears of Syria’s minorities.
Jihadist organisations are establishing a foothold in the east of the country, including the al-Qaida group, Jabhat a Nusra (Solidarity Front). Foreign jihadists have entered Syria from Turkey, the Caucasus, Bangladesh and the Gulf Arab states, which is helping to stir up divisions within the opposition leadership.
Many of these fighters are battle-hardened veterans of the conflict in Iraq during US occupation. The jihadists in Iraq are, in turn, emboldened by events in neighbouring Syria. The al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq killed hundreds in July alone.
EVEN IF ASSAD decided to leave office or was removed by his own ruling clique, his military machine, dominated by the Alawite minority, and its allied Shabiha militias, could fight on. These forces could hold out in the Alawite heartland, forming a breakaway ‘Alawite state’ along the Syrian coast. If a new Alawite state was declared it could see other minorities “land grabbing”, warns Jordan’s King Abdullah. This could have a catastrophic copy-cat effect in the region. Syria’s oppressed Kurds have already claimed ‘liberated’ towns in the north, near the Turkish and Iraqi borders.
Syria could face the terrible prospect of breaking up into ethnic enclaves, like the former Yugoslavia, bitterly fighting over territory for years. This would resemble a re-run of Lebanon’s civil war (which lasted from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, costing up to 200,000 lives) but on a greater scale. An added horror would be the current regime’s chemical and biological weapons being deployed.
A sectarian conflagration would most likely embroil other countries in the region. Turkey, Iran, Israel and the Gulf states could be drawn into the maelstrom. The Syrian army has already shelled Lebanese villages. Fighting between Sunni and pro-Assad Alawites in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli and other areas has left scores dead. While the main political forces in Lebanon want to avoid an escalation of Sunni and Shia clashes, regular shootings and kidnappings in Beirut have raised fears of a slide towards sectarian conflict. The situation is becoming dangerously polarised along sectarian lines. A recent poll showed that 94% of Lebanon’s Sunni’s are hostile to Hezbollah, while 94% of Shias support it.
The Shia-based Hezbollah, an ally of the Assad regime, is the main force in the Lebanese ‘power-sharing’ government. But the largely Sunni opposition, based around the ‘March 14’ coalition, is encouraged by the Sunni-dominated revolt in Syria. They hope that Assad’s fall will deal a serious blow to Hezbollah, changing the balance of power in Lebanon. This could lead to the collapse of the power-sharing government, triggering wider conflict.
The turmoil in Syria is making the situation in Lebanon and across the region so combustible that any number of factors or events could trigger wider conflict: a Turkish military incursion into Syria’s north eastern areas controlled by Kurdish groups, for instance, or even a serious escalation of US and Israeli aggression towards Irans over its alleged nuclear arms programme.
As war rages in Syria and threatens to spread over the region, the so-called ‘international community’ stands completely exposed as impotent. The UN is incapable of acting as an ‘honest broker’ in the crisis. It cannot prevent atrocities against civilians or resolve armed conflicts in the interests of working people. The organisation is beholden to the world’s major powers, particularly the UN Security Council members, which are deeply divided over Syria.
The UN’s impotence was underlined with the resignation of Kofi Annan, the UN and Arab League special envoy, on 2 August. Russia and China have voted against US, British and French-sponsored anti-Assad resolutions. Despite the rhetoric, the US and Russia positions have nothing to do with the plight of the Syrian people. It is all to do with the interests of their respective ruling classes and those of their closest allies.
Russia regards Assad’s regime as a crucial ally in the region. The Kremlin and Beijing are resolutely opposed to any western military intervention, particularly after the bitter experience of last year’s Libyan conflict. While some US, British and French politicians have mooted the idea of western military action against Assad’s regime or enforcing a no-fly zone – as recently posed by US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton – last year’s Nato attacks in Libya cannot be simply repeated in this context.
Syria has a much larger population than Libya and the regime has at its disposal a much more powerful and better trained and equipped military. A Nato bombing campaign would have to overcome Syria’s extensive air defence system, while a land invasion would require large-scale military forces. Western troops would face being intractably bogged down in hostile urban areas.
These steps would risk an internationalisation of the conflict, particularly as such western action would be widely seen in the Arab world as strengthening the regional position of Israel.
WHILE THE US is reportedly concerned about the Syrian opposition – the White House remains ‘haunted’ by memories of the catastrophic fallout from its backing of the Mujahadeen during the 1980s war in Afghanistan – the western powers are concentrating on supporting and aiding the FSA and other armed oppositionists. They do this primarily by enforcing sanctions against Damascus and by giving Gulf states the green light to arm and fund the opposition and for Turkey to provide logistical support.
The White House is also taking direct, covert action to support Assad’s armed opponents. According to press reports, Obama signed a secret order earlier this year authorising US support for the armed opposition, including the deployment of the CIA and other US agencies. Tory foreign secretary William Hague recently confirmed that Britain is also giving covert support to anti-Assad forces.
But as well as the considerable political embarrassment felt by Washington, London and Paris over their association with jihadist and al-Qaida elements among the Syrian opposition, the western powers are also scrambling to keep their influence with the various armed rebels.
The western powers have concluded that attempts to form a unified opposition around the exile-led Syrian National Council, which has little influence on events inside Syria, has failed. Clinton’s recent visit to Turkey was intended to increase US and Turkish co-operation to bring the internal Syrian opposition more under their control. The US and other western powers hope such actions will eventually see the downfall of Assad. However, some pro-western commentators warn that Assad’s fall would be a Pyrrhic victory. It would just be the beginning of even greater conflict in Syria and the region.
They counsel the White House to work towards a ‘transitional plan’, to create a post-Assad power-sharing arrangement that ‘all sides’ can agree on. This would entail a UN ‘peace-keeping’ force. To reach such an agreement would mean involving Russia and Iran, Vali Nasr believes, who may come to see the writing on the wall for Assad.
Even if such a scenario was eventually cobbled together after much more bloodshed and destruction, it would not bring democracy, stability or prosperity for Syria. It would see the imposition of a western military-dominated regime, involving reactionary pro-capitalist and sectarian-based forces. It would be no answer to the needs of the Syrian masses and working class.
THE WORKING PEOPLE and poor in Syria face a desperate situation and the real danger of being engulfed in ethnic and sectarian warfare. Socialists everywhere must do all they can to help the workers of Syria to build class unity to resist and overcome these divisions.
In the current situation, these are herculean tasks. Yet there is no other way to successfully unite the masses to overthrow the brutal Assad regime, to oppose the meddling of local reactionary states and imperialism, and to win real democratic rights and fundamental social and economic change.
Despite their terrible plight, the Syrian masses are not alone. Their fate is inextricably linked to the ongoing revolutionary movements in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere throughout North Africa and the Middle East. There have been 18 months of revolution and counter-revolution and the process is far from over.
In Tunisia and Egypt, the conservative Islamist, pro-market parties, Ennahda (Resistance) and the Muslim Brotherhood, were able to come to power, exploiting the lack of revolutionary parties to fulfil the demands and aspirations of the masses. This was despite the fact that neither party played a key role in their countries’ revolutionary movements that overthrew Ben Ali and Mubarak.
But already both the Ennahda regime in Tunisia and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed Mursi, are confronted with growing class opposition. After weeks of strikes, protests and workplace occupations, a general strike was called by Tunisia’s trade union federation, the UGTT, on 14 August. This was in protest against joblessness and poor water and electricity resources and also for democratic rights. Furthermore, it was used to show mass opposition to the Ennahda party’s proposed attacks on the rights of women.
While Egypt’s new president moved quickly to replace top generals and strengthen his powers, Mursi also faces a wave of protests across the country over electricity and water shortages. This follows weeks of strikes and workplace occupations, as workers struggle to improve pay and conditions. Egyptian workers are not waiting for the new government to improve their lives. They are building their own organisations and taking independent action. This is the model to follow!
By practically and politically linking up the class interests of workers in Syria, Egypt, Tunisia and throughout the region, workers’ mass organisations, such as independent trade unions and new mass parties, can be built.
By basing itself on a united workers’ programme with socialist policies for fundamental change – democratic workers’ control and management of the economy to transform living conditions, creating jobs with a living wage, free quality education, health and housing and so on – such a movement would inspire workers and youth across the region to unite to kick out the tyrants and imperialism. This would lead to a struggle for a voluntary and equal socialist confederation of the Middle East, in which the rights of all minorities would be guaranteed.