On 2 January the United Nations reported that the war between the Assad dictatorship and opposition groups in Syria has cost a minimum of 60,000 lives since March 2011.
It is getting worse. Over the last five months, deaths have been running at over 5,000 a month.
Bashar al-Assad, whose family has ruled the country with an iron hand since 1970, responded with a speech on 6 January dismissing all opposition as “enemies” of Syria and “criminals”.
“The conflict is one between the homeland and its enemies, between the people and killers... Western powers [have taken] an opportunity to transfer as many terrorists as possible to Syria...
“They are the enemies of the people; and the enemies of the people are the enemies of God; and the enemies of God will be burnt by hellfire on the day of judgment...”
In case God is slow off the mark, Assad’s bombers are doing the job now. A current tactic of the regime is to cede territory to the opposition, withdraw its troops from the area, and then bomb the area to make it unliveable.
23 million people used to live in the country. Two million are now internally displaced. About 400,000 have fled the country, mostly to Jordan or Turkey.
The UN estimates that a million people inside the country depend on UN food supplies. Unemployment and inflation have soared. Basic goods are scarce. When a petrol station was bombed early in January, seventy people died — because at every petrol station there is an enormous queue for fuel.
The regime: has lost almost all of its army and air force bases in the north-west of the country. The regime has deliberately withdraw from the Kurdish-populated north-east of Syria, and ceded it to Kurdish militias. Much of the sparsely-populated east of the country has been taken over by Islamist militias.
The regime has mostly fallen back on the big cities, and even there it is bombing the suburbs.
The state, a heavily militarised one since the Ba’th party first took power in 1963, is evolving towards being just the best armed of the militias in a country dominated by a patchwork of warlords and militias.
The Ba’thists have some strength. They are getting support from Iran and from Russia. Syria’s Alawite [dissident Shia Muslim] minority (about 10%) has rallied to the regime for fear of reprisals from the mostly Sunni Muslim opposition groups. The regime is now arming Christian and Druze militias in Damascus. It seems that many of Syria’s Christians (10% of the population) and Druze (3%) are also rallying to the regime.
Things have been going badly on the opposition side too, and it is no longer possible, even with all qualifications and reservations, for socialists to rally to the side of the opposition, and look to an opposition victory as the way out.
The rebellion began in March 2011 with street demonstrations mostly expressing a non-sectarian, secular, and democratic impulse.
But initiative and power in the anti-Assad movement has increasingly passed into the hands of Sunni-Islamist militias funded by Saudi Arabia or Qatar, or led by jihadists from outside the country who have entered Syria to join the conflict.
There are more and more reports, and credible ones, of sectarian violence by the opposition militias, or of them fighting between themselves, not over political principles but over the economic spoils of war.
The opposition’s political front outside Syria used to be the Syrian National Council, effectively a vehicle for the Muslim Brotherhood, which, however, appears still to be relatively weak inside the country relative to the Salafists and the Al Qaeda types. A new external front has now been set up, with the Brotherhood the main force within it but including more other groups, and it has been recognised by France and other states. But it has little grip on the militias inside the country.
The opposition militias are hostile to the Kurds, whether from Arab nationalism or from Islamist dislike for the relatively secular Kurds.
Syria is moving towards a plight like that of Iraq in 2006-7, with effective power in the hands of a patchwork of competing and sometimes hotly sectarian militias, only without the element of semi-stability and “holding the ring” provided by the US military in Iraq.
Despite agitation on the left about the prospects of a US or NATO armed intervention in Syria, nothing substantial of that sort is likely. On the contrary, the US has so far worked hard to try to stop Turkey, for example, intervening, and to restrict the flow of weapons paid for by Saudi or Qatari money to the Islamist militias inside Syria.
The US’s stated position is that it will only intervene if Assad uses chemical weapons against his own people.
Actually, that formula is a cover for what the US is really worried about: Islamist militias getting chemical weapons. In that event, the US might bomb, but it is very unlikely to invade.
As the Turkish socialist group Marksist Tutum put it in an article we published in Solidarity 259 (3 October 2012), sober assessment of the degeneration of the opposition “surely does not at all mean that the present Ba’th regime is the lesser evil or that it must be supported. Nor is it a call for sympathy for it.
“We know that there is such a mood on a rather wide section of the left, although it is not overtly stated. One should not fall into this trap. The correct attitude is to defend an independent line of struggle against both the reactionary Ba’th regime and other reactionary bourgeois forces that may replace it”.
Socially, there is the basis for such a third camp. Although Syria has a very large layer of artisans, independent handicraft workers, small proprietors, traders, shopkeepers, officials, and so on, it also has an industrial working class. And when the mass of opposition opinion was able to express itself, in the early demonstrations, it was mainly secular, non-sectarian, and democratic.
There may be small groups within the opposition of a democratic and working-class character. They are the people with the key to the future. But Syria’s working class has been atomised and suppressed by the Ba’thist dictatorship for generations. If those democratic and working-class groups exist, we don’t know about them.
A deal in which a section of the Ba’thist apparatus gets rid of Assad and bargains with a section of the opposition, with Turkey as broker and guarantor, is unlikely in any near future. If it should happen, socialists could give no political endorsement or credit-in-advance to such a deal. It would install, at best, a softened dictatorship; and the deal might well have a side-clause for collaboration between the Syrian forces and Turkey in an assault on the Kurds.
At the same time, it would be wrong to denounce such a deal, or call for action to disrupt it, in a way that indicated that outright victory for some alliance of the currently-powerful opposition militias would be preferable.
Even a repressive bourgeois peace would be less inimical for the development of a democratic and working-class third camp in Syria than continued civil war or a sectarian Islamist militia victory.
The Kurds in the Syrian civil war
The areas commonly defined as Kurdistan are in Eastern Turkey, Northern Iraq, North Western Iran and Western Syria. Kurds face repression in all these states.
Approximately two million Kurds live in Syria, in a population of 22.5 million. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its international affiliates have long fought an armed and often brutal war against the Syrian government (as well as those of Iraq and Turkey). The Syrian Ba’ath regime of both Bashar Al-Assad and his father Hafez Al-Assad suppressed both Kurdish cultural identity and their rights and citizenship status in Syria.
The Kurdish language is not taught in schools or recognised as an official language.
Harassment, arrests, and restrictions on work have been common. Early in the current conflict, Assad offered 100,000 Kurds citizenship as “Syrian Arabs”, but many others have no formal status in Syria.
In 2004 tensions flared at a football match between Kurdish and Iraqi fans. Chants in support of George W Bush and the newly established Kurdistan Regional Government were followed by the toppling of a statue of Hafez Al-Assad. The Iraqi supporters had displayed pictures of Saddam Hussein and chanted anti-Kurdish slogans during the match. The Kurdish protestors met with severe government repression; hundreds were detained or killed.
The event, known as the Qamishli Massacre (Qamishli is one of the largest of the Kurdish dominated regions), led to thousands of Kurds fleeing to Iraqi Kurdistan and a huge refugee crisis for the newly established Iraqi Kurdish Government.
Further demonstrations were then curtailed and suppressed by the Assad government. That led to a politicisation of Kurdish youth against both the regime and the older Kurdish political leaders who had accommodated to the Ba’athist Government.
The organisations of the Kurdish minority, while hostile to Assad, have been cautious in directly opposing the regime during the revolution. They have played a contradictory role, with some backing Assad and a small minority joining the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army (FSA).
During the 35 years of stable Ba’ath party rule, Syria had an increasingly tense relationship with the Turkish government.
In part this was due to Assad’s tactical decision to harbour the leadership and training camps of the PKK at a time when it was carrying out numerous bombings and attacks in Turkey.
Whilst the Syrian government’s stance towards the PKK would become more hostile — in 1999 they deported the founder and leader of the party Abdullah Öcalan, who was then captured, and remains imprisoned in Turkey — the Syrian camps enabled the PKK to recruit.
After the Syrian civil war began the Turkish Government gave backing to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Syrian National Council (SNC) in the hope that the toppling of Assad would provide a government which could assist Turkey in destroying the PKK and be sympathetic to the continued suppression of Kurdish national identity.
This was met a hostile reaction from the leadership of several Kurdish parties in Syria, who feared a Muslim Brotherhood backed government in Syria which would carry out further state suppression.
The Kurdish National Council (KNC), a coalition of most of the Syria-based Kurdish parties, withdrew from a conference in Istanbul coordinated by the Syrian National Council (SNC) (now a part of the National Coalition of the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces). The SNC had refused to include anything about the Kurdish minority in a draft manifesto.
The largest Syrian Kurdish Party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has both stayed outside the KNC and has strong organisational links to the PKK has been accused by the KNC of being an enforcer for Assad, and of harassing other Kurdish activists who reject the more conciliatory stance they have taken to the government.
Demonstrations have been banned in areas under the control of the PYD — most of the largest Kurdish towns and settlements. Pitched battles with both the army and the FSA have been fought to maintain PYD control, although the government has now largely withdrawn from the area.
The PYD has an uneasy alliance with the KNC for the defence of the Kurdish regions. They have formed a coalition, the Supreme Kurdish Committee. Formally the KNC and PYD govern the Kurdish regions jointly until elections can be held; however, allegations continue that the PYD has enforced its rule, and is flying the PKK flag on administrative buildings. The PYD’s links to the PKK give it a strong armed wing. It is now better armed then much of the FSA. The administration of these areas by the PYD has been described by eone of their leaders as a “de facto truce” between the government and the Kurds.
“The security forces are overstretched over Syria’s Arab provinces to face demonstrators, and cannot afford the opening of a second front in Syrian Kurdistan.
“On our side, we need the army to stay away. Our party is busy establishing organizations, committees, able to take over from the Ba’ath administration the moment the regime collapses.”
Whilst the majority of Kurds are Muslims, Kurdish nationalism is almost exclusively secular in character or associated with pre-Islamic religious belief. Secularism is an important basis for the distrust of many Kurds towards the FSA and other Syrian Arab rebels.
For their part, Islamist militias and breakaways from the FSA are largely hostile to the Kurds who want to assume control over their regions and are now largely free of direct government intervention. This has lead to increasingly strained relationships between the FSA and the Kurdish areas. Many of the Kurdish areas contain oil fields which the Syrian Arab opposition groups would like to get access to.
In November and December last year there were sporadic clashes between Islamist forces and the PYD and around 200 Kurds and rebels have been killed in these attacks.
The PYD has also had conflict with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, which has given support to the Syrian rebels. The KRG is keen to establish influence in Syria. It has attempted to crack down on the smuggling of weapons over the border, as it does not want to appear to be encouraging attacks within Turkey by the PKK or PYD.
A PYD press release from August of 2012 declares that;
“This liberated Kurdish region could serve as a safe haven and starting point for all Syrian revolutionaries to liberate all of Syria, therefore this democratic establishment should be considered as a contributor to building a free, democratic, plural and united Syria.
“This peaceful establishment should not be considered as a threat to the regional and global stability but as a constructive contribution to democracy, peace and stability in the region. The Kurds are not separatist and have never had separatist intentions. This is to declare that our goal is to democratically self-govern our regions within the geopolitical borders of the Syrian Republic. Our mission is to play our part in building the future of Syria.”
The actual intentions of the PYD seem to be different. The PYD and their co-thinkers in the PKK are Stalinoid nationalist parties who are manoeuvering somewhere between the rebels, the KNC, Assad and the KRG in Iraq.