The revolt in Syria began in March 2011, in the wake of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. So far at least 8,000 people have died, largely from regime violence as peaceful protesters came out onto the streets to demand freedom.
The pace of the killings is increasing as armed opposition grows, the rebellion spreads and the regime becomes more desperate. According to the the Local Coordination Committees opposition network, since 4 February almost 700 people have been killed, including more than 400 in Homs.
Syria’s rulers are willing to do anything it takes to stay in power: destroying residential neighbourhoods with tank fire; cutting off electricity, water and medical supplies to whole towns for weeks; over 400 children have been killed, 600 people have died under torture (figure from Avaaz quoted in the New York Times, 5 January).
Syria, a country of 23 million, is nominally secular. Its regime claims to be socialist. In reality it is a backward and corrupt police state with many political-structural similarities to the Eastern European Stalinist states.
The rule of the Ba’ath Party rests on the Alawi, a Shia sect and a ten per cent minority in Syria. It is a sectarian state. Although Syria is formally a republic, the leading family, the Assads, behave like monarchs. The current ruler, Bashar al-Assad, came to power after his thuggish father, Hafez, died in 2000.
Assad’s justifications for his recent actions — that he is confronting “armed gangs” and “terrorists” organised by outside powers — are believed by almost no-one. Assad still has some bases of support among Alawites and Christians, people who are scared of the Sunni majority taking revenge on them.
Assad is also still able to use state largesse to buy support — 30% of all jobs are in the state sector. Pro-Assad demonstrations are combined with the closure of public buildings and colleges as the workers are turned out to march for their president.
As the rebellion has spread the Syrian economy has contracted rapidly.
The currency has declined (by a third against the dollar), unemployment has increased (estimated at 30-45%), tourism has collapsed, shortages are widespread (especially cooking oil and heating oil). In Aleppo, the commercial centre and biggest city, power cuts last between two and five hours per day. The west continues to hope that Aleppo’s Sunni merchants will turn against the regime (some are apparently funding medical supplies for the opposition, as they look to the future).
The EU and US have implemented a boycott of Syrian oil (the government estimates a $2 billion loss from sanctions on oil since September). Travel bans are in place against scores of regime leaders.
Following a failed peace agreement and an observer mission to the country, many Arab states have now withdrawn their ambassadors and are boycotting Syrian financial institutions. They are now proposing a “peacekeeping mission”to Syria, which the Syrians have rejected.
The big western powers’ diplomatic activity has been stymied by Russia and China’s vetoing of motions condemning Syria at the UN.
The aim of all these initiatives has been to get Bashar Assad to step aside, stabilise the situation, allow a relatively peaceful transition, and the continued unity of Syria. The EU, US, Israel and Arab states all fear chaos, even the break up of the state through inter-communal civil war, of a type similar to that experienced by Lebanon in the 70s and 80s.
There are two significant opposition fronts. The largest front, the Syrian National Council (SNC), includes the increasingly influential Syrian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as secular oppositionists and Kurds.
The SNC is based in Turkey. It has been given recognition by states including the US and France. The SNC’s formal position is to oppose sectarianism and favour a democratic transition.
The other anti-Assad alliance is more secular and leftish. The National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change is based inside the country and includes Kurdish nationalist parties.
After the summer of 2011 significant numbers from the armed forces began to mutiny or desert. At first many escaped to Lebanon or Turkey, or went into hiding. Later they became better organised. The Free Syrian Army (FSA), also based in Turkey, now claims 40,000 organised fighters. The FSA is, in fact, a loose banner behind which many local militias organise often without any outside control. The FSA is only lightly armed and is out-gunned by the army.
The FSA also says it is against sectarianism and that the Alawites will not face reprisals after Assad is deposed.
The political opposition is currently seen by the US and others as too divided, and the military opposition too weak relative to the state, to provide an immediate threat to Assad’s rule.
But in the last two months the opposition has begun to take control of whole towns.
In late 2011, some towns and villages in Idlib province in north west Syria were taken by the opposition; Zabadani fell in January following fierce fighting; suburbs of Damascus such as Saqba, and the satellite town of Douma were under opposition control in late January.
The bloody fight in Homs is an attempt by the state to take back two thirds of the city.
However, short of some spectacular loss of nerve at the centre of the regime, or new political shift, the state will not collapse. Although its army, with over 200,000 troops, looks more formidable than it actually is (many troops are badly armed and unreliable) key units and the officer corps back the regime. Aleppo, the commercial hub, is still firmly in regime hands.
Democracy in Syria might be a long way off. There are signs that Assad’s stubborn defence of his dictatorship is leading to a communal polarisation. In towns like Homs Alawites and Sunnis find it dangerous to leave their own areas as society breaks down along communal lines. It may be the case that the uprising for liberty degenerates. One possibility is inter-ethnic civil war, another — and not necessarily opposed possibility — is the coming to power of the Syrian Muslim Brothers.
The British “Marxists” (SWP, Counterfire and others) who obsess about (western) imperialism at the expense of any consideration of why they oppose imperialism and what they are positively in favour of allow themselves to be conscripted into the defence of a disgusting regime.
These organisations even oppose criticism of Bashar Assad’s brutality (see last week’s Solidarity). Although Stop the War raves about the remote possibility of full-scale western war against Syria, they do nothing to oppose the imperialist powers that are actually standing in the way of Syrian democracy (Iran and Russia), or to stop the actual war currently taking place (that of the Ba’athist state against the Syrian people).
Russia has used its diplomatic weight to shield Assad, much to the delight of Counterfire/Stop the War’s Lindsey German who celebrates their “right” to do so.
And Iran is very active inside Syria. In January Qassim Suleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force, visited Damascus. Iran probably has some hundreds of “advisors” in the country, advocating the brutal tactics they have tested back at home.
The New York Times reports three recent instances of Iranians being abducted in Syria. Most recently the FSA kidnapped five Iranians claiming they were military advisors.
Clerical-fascist Iran, with its malign, regional-imperialist influence in Lebanon, western Afghanistan, Gaza, and Iraq, is seeking to maintain Assad in power for its own foreign policy reasons. The replacement of Assad with a Syrian democracy would also be a blow against theocratic rule in Iran itself.
The US and EU have actually done relatively little to force Assad out. They consider themselves caught between a rock and a hard place: disliking the present, but fearing the future.
That may change — increased turmoil inside Syria may force them to move. The Gulf states, led by the Saudis (who have their own Sunni-sectarian motivation and a desire to see their regional competitor, Iran, defeated), may start seriously arming the opposition. Canvassing has begun for a northern Iraq-style “safe haven” in the north of Syria, policed by Turkey (which seems willing) and backed by the US and EU (who are not yet convinced).
Workers’ Liberty supports the brave uprising against Assad’s state and advocates democracy, free speech and association, secularism, workers’ and women’s rights. We oppose Islamism.
Workers’ Liberty opposes the break-up of Syria through sectarian strife. We recognise the right, however, of the oppressed Kurdish minority in the north east of Syria to self-determination.
We oppose those powers — Iran and others — which are backing the Syrian regime. We condemn the idiot “left” in Britain which is effectively doing the same.
We radically distrust the motives and calculations of the US and other western powers, and do not make naive calls on them to sort out the situation in Syria.
But the internal opponents of the Syrian state have a right to ask for help from outside. Only “leftists” who have utterly lost sight of what they started out to do in politics would try to prevent US, British or other outside support for the Syrian rebels. We will not oppose moves by outside powers to provide military aid or a “safe haven” for the uprising.
For liberty and democracy!