The confrontation between the Syrian police state and the popular movement is now in a decisive phase. Either the regime manages to use sufficient violence and terror to force the demonstrators off the streets, or the inability to do so fatally wounds it.
There are two preconditions for a step forward for the mass movement. Firstly, a continued willingness — despite the obscene, murderous violence of Syria’s rulers — to come out onto the streets and risk a massacre. Secondly, a serious split in the Syrian state machine.
The protest which began six weeks ago in the southern town of Deraa has cost over 500 lives, with hundreds more arrested. As Solidarity goes to press the town of 200,000 people is surrounded by Syrian military, tanks are in the streets and snipers on rooftops, bodies lie uncollected and decomposing, while water, telephones and electricity have been cut. Regime thugs are rounding up dissidents, and if the people on their lists can not be found, relatives are seized instead.
This is a disgusting regime.
During the first phase of the protests President Bashar Assad disappeared from view and seemed locked in internal debates about how to respond. Belatedly he offered some concessions. Political prisoners were released — mainly Islamists — and Kurds. Around 160,000 Kurds, mainly living in the north east, who had been denied Syrian citizenship, were promised Syrian documents. Assad seems to have been in negotiations with moderate Islamists and he may have promised them a legal political party.
These moves were designed to prevent the Kurds and Islamists joining the movement.
Assad also promised the abolition of the hated Emergency Laws, in place since 1963. However the concessions were too little, too late, and the movement continued to swell and spread across the country.
Politically — rather than geographically — Syria stands between Libya and Egypt/Tunisia.
In Egypt, despite its authoritarian rulers, significant opposition forces existed and organised. The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood is a mass movement; workers organised strikes and their own committees, despite persecution.
Moreover, in Egypt, when the army decided President Mubarak had become a liability they were able to sweep him aside — easily, and without disruption of the state’s functioning.
The UGTT union federation existed under Ben Ali in Tunisia, and quickly became an organising focus for the rising opposition.
In contrast, in totalitarian Libya, no opposition was tolerated, leaving the rebel movement without experienced political leaders (beyond those who defected) or established networks. Moreover the Libyan state is the highly personalised creation of a maverick, Qaddafi. Qaddafi has chopped up the security services and special units of the army, kept key units under the control of his family and deliberately run down the army to prevent the threat of a coup.
In Syria the state has more ideological coherence than Libya. The Syrian Baathist Party is a solid political entity and the regime has some real support. At the start of the mass opposition movement marches in support of the regime were not simply manufactured from above.
As the repression has increased, there have been at least 200 resignations from the Baath party, mainly from the area around Deraa, and including two MPs.
The regime’s case against the mass movement has relied on two main themes: they say that the rebellion is the creation of “outside agitators” and Islamist terrorists; and they warn against fitna, an Arabic word meaning sectarian division.
In the past few days Syrian television has been screening people “confessing” that they belong to terrorist groups, and that they had been given money and weapons from various sources in Deraa, including the imam of the Omari mosque, one of the organising centres for the opposition.
The possibility of sectarian strife is not simply a concoction. The regime’s central figures are from a dissident Shia sect, the Alawites, who make up around a tenth of the population. Other groups include Kurds, Druze and Christians, with a majority, at around three quarters of the total, who are Sunni Muslims. However, Rime Allaf, from the Chatham House think-tank claims, “Fears of sectarian strife are massively overblown. No one is claiming that the sects love each other, but there is no history of sectarian strife in Syria and no appetite for it now.”
Demonstrators, aware that the regime is attempting to divide and rule, have raised the chant, “One! One! One! Syrians are One!” The Economist considers the biggest division is “between the haves and the have-nots”, commenting that, “most Syrians are practising Muslims, but the young people who have predominated in the crowds are connected more by the internet than by religion.”
Over the last two weeks there have been reports that several dozen army and security personnel have been killed. The probability is that some have been shot dead for refusing to fire on demonstrators.
In particular the Sunday Times (1 May) reports that 300 (probably largely conscript) soldiers from the Fifth Division had defected to the protesters. These soldiers have fought against the elite Fourth Division in Deraa. The Fourth Division is commanded by Bashar Assad’s younger brother, Maher. Activists blame Maher for previous killings in the town. When 25 peaceful protesters were shot down on 8 April, the crowds chanted, “Hey Maher, you coward, take your dogs to the Golan [the close-by area occupied by Israel]!”
Maher has been a focus for new US sanctions.
Maher is so powerful some reports suggest he actually runs policy, behind the scenes. Other key figures are either members of Assad’s family, or are related by marriage.
Rami Makhlouf, Bashar’s cousin, is also part of the inner circle. Makhlouf is a billionaire capitalist who owns oil, property and telecoms companies. Makhlouf has also been the subject of US sanctions for “public corruption” and is a hated symbol of regime cronyism. His brother Hafez Makhlouf is head of the secret police, the Mukhabarat.
Behind the ruling clique stands a layer of rich tycoons known as the “sons of power” — very rich businessmen who are mostly from military families who were close to Bashar’s father, Hafez Assad.
The regime began based narrowly on Alawites, but broadened out. It also has the loyalty of Sunni capitalists in Damascus and Syria’s second city, Aleppo. And various Christian and Druze figures hold high offices.
Moreover the Alawite community is not homogeneous. It is divided by sect and tribe — and some have done a lot better than others. It is significant that the Alawite centre around the costal town of Latakia has taken a leading role in the opposition.
Because the Syrian state has effectively repressed opponents there has been little recent open opposition to Assad. After Bashar Assad came to power, succeeding his father, in 2000, there had been hopes that the repression would ease. A “Damascus Spring” was choked off in 2001, and a second period of relative openness in 2005 was also short-lived.
In 2005 a group of secular Syrians, Islamists, and Kurds signed the Damascus Declaration. The text called for “peaceful regime change in Syria [aiming to] establish a national democratic regime … and peaceful political reform based on dialogue.”
Some of the groups involved in the Damascus Declaration have set up the new National Initiative for Change. The new movement includes a new layer of younger activists, including young women. Their latest statement declares, "Syria is at a crossroads… the best option is for the leadership of the regime to lead a transition to democracy that would safeguard the nation from falling into a period of violence, chaos and civil war.”
The various exile organisations, based in Washington, Paris, and the Islamist Movement for Justice and Development in London, are small and seem to have little purchase inside the country. The Muslim Brotherhood, which was destroyed by the regime in 1982, has only just released a statement saying it supports the opposition movement. Its leader, living in London, Muhammad Riad Shaqfa, says he does not want to see an Islamist state.
Almost all the Arab governments have been silent about the clampdown in Syria. They fear a similar wave of protest at home.
Turkey, however, has a 500 mile common border with Syria, and fears a wave of refugees (especially Kurds). Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has called on Assad to use “maximum self-restraint.”
The US and EU states are implementing new sanctions. International TUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow has demanded an end to the repression: “It is time that the Syrian authorities respect fundamental rights and freedoms, including the right to form and join genuine trade unions to represent their interests. The Assad regime must immediately stop its violent repression.” Such a show of solidarity is a start, but much more is needed.