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Taking sides in Syria

Feature by Taking sides in Syria, July August 2011

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were major reversals for the US and Israel. But Nato intervention in Libya's popular rebellion has raised the possibility that imperialism could hijack the revolutions. Simon Assaf asks, can Syria's uprising avoid falling into the hands of the West?

Syria has long been a thorn in imperialism's side. The Baathist regime has given crucial support to the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance movements who depend on Syria for their survival. So those who found themselves on the same side over the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia have suddenly found sharp disagreement over the movement for change in Syria.

At the heart of this disagreement is Syria's opposition to imperialism and the dangers of a revolution finding itself at the mercy of the Western powers. What attitude should revolutionaries take towards the Syrian movement, and how should we assess a regime that, although the victim of imperialism, has unleashed harsh repression on those who have from the onset demanded modest reforms?

The modern Syrian state was born out of the first sustained Arab rebellion against the carve-up of the Middle East by Britain and France following the First World War. The original Anglo-French plan was to divide Syria into a patchwork of states too weak to resist colonial rule. The southern regions, now Israel/Palestine and Jordan, were handed over to Britain, while the northern regions were to be divided into Christian, Alawi and Druze states (part of the many religious communities in geographic Syria).

In 1925 a popular rebellion that began in the Druze regions of Syria quickly encompassed the whole of the country, giving birth to an Arab nationalist movement that checked French plans. Although France succeeded in creating "Christian Lebanon" - a sectarian state that included areas with large Muslim populations - it failed in the rest of Syria.

Contradictions

The Syrian national movement succeeded in ending French rule, but this movement also reflected the contradictions inside Syrian society. The leadership of the national movement was an alliance of feudal lords who had recently gained ownership of communal village lands, and a merchant class that found its markets destroyed by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire - the former rulers of geographic Syria. At its base were peasants, craftsmen, workers and the urban poor who saw independence as a chance to transform the country.

Following formal independence in 1944 a class struggle erupted and the movement from below coalesced around Communist, socialist and radical Arab nationalist parties. The Baath party emerged as the dominant force after forging an alliance with the socialist movement among the peasantry, with some support among the industrial workers. The ongoing crisis opened up a space for small groups of military officers - drawn mainly from the marginalised Alawi community - to take power.

The new rulers broke the hold of the feudal lords and merchant classes, then muzzled and eventually crushed the popular movement. The new regime aligned with the Soviet Union and the country was put on the path of "socialist development" - in effect a version of state capitalism. This period came to an abrupt end in 1967 when Israel seized the Golan Heights, just 50 miles from Damascus, in its lightening Six Day War.

The shock of 1967 destroyed the credibility of the regime and eventually triggered a coup inside the army, headed by Hafez al-Assad and drawn mainly from among the Alawi community. Now on a permanent war footing, Syria, along with other Arab countries, was alight with the rise of a popular resistance to imperialism, epitomised by the emergence of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. This wave of popular resistance reached its peak in 1973 when Syria and Egypt launched an offensive that almost succeeded in recapturing territory lost to Israel in 1967.

The failure of this war would have profound consequences on both countries. The strategic union between Syria and Egypt came to an end in 1978 when Anwar Sadat, then Egyptian president, signed a separate peace with Israel. With Egypt now neutralised, Syria faced Israel alone. Isolated, the regime sought to use the popular resistance as a lever in negotiations for the return of the Golan Heights. Inside Syria this resulted in a gradual smothering of the popular resistance.

Prompted by the US, Assad sent troops into Lebanon in 1976 to crush the popular rebellion sweeping the country at the time. The occupation of Lebanon, packaged as a peace- keeping mission, destroyed the Lebanese national movement. The reward for "saving Lebanon" was supposed to be a new initiative over the Golan. But Assad's hopes for an "honourable deal" came to nothing.

Assad reacted with wild rhetoric about "liberation and revolution" while his forces continued to strengthen their grip over Syria and Lebanon - reaching its height with the crushing of an uprising in the Syrian city of Hama in 1982, and a protracted siege of Sabra and Shatilla Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut in 1984. Despite this, Assad never abandoned his strategy of a separate peace. But with Egypt out of the picture, Israel saw no reason to cut a deal over the Golan Heights. Assad again attempted to realign Syria with imperialism by sending troops to fight alongside US and its allies in the 1990-91 Gulf War. But once again US promises to look again at the Golan question proved an illusion.

Red line

When Hafez al-Assad died in June 2000 he was succeeded by his son Bashar Assad. Bashar never abandoned the strategy of compromise, or the "red line" of the Golan Heights. Bashar's first act was an attempt to initiate a programme of economic and political reforms - the so-called Syrian Spring - that he hoped could revive the economy and release some of the discontent that built up during his father's reign.

Central to these reforms were neoliberal policies designed to "open up" the economy. Hardliners within the regime put an end to the political reforms, but the economic reforms moved apace. These reforms ended economic guarantees - such as the subsidy on bread - that had secured some degree of social peace.

These reforms, far from safeguarding the stability of the regime, plunged many already poor Syrians into destitution. As with Egypt and Tunisia, neoliberal policies undermined what little hold the regimes had over their population. Meanwhile a small layer of businessmen close to the ruling circle amassed vast fortunes.

The deteriorating economy, rampant corruption, nepotism and harsh repression left the country tinder dry. Then came the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. For many Arabs these revolutions were clear-cut and uncomplicated. Both Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt were strong allies of imperialism. These revolutions could be seen as a continuation of the struggle for national liberation.

The Syrian opposition now found it had the space to push forward a series of initially modest demands. The main demands were to relaunch the stalled political reforms and the end of the state of emergency. Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, where the demands for "the end of the regime" were heard on the first day of protests, in Syria this slogan emerged only after the bloody suppression of demonstrations in the southern city of Deraa.

Both the Syrian and Libyan uprisings have brought into sharp relief the relationship between the Arab Spring and imperialism. Western intervention in Libya has become a clear reminder that the Middle East cannot avoid the question of imperialism.

Mubarak conjured up phantoms about "Western agents" behind the revolution that toppled him. But with Syria the boundary between these phantoms and real Western plots are blurred. Bashar Assad is not wrong to point to the fact that "external forces" are attempting to destabilise the country - it has been the stated policy of Saudi Arabia and the West for years.

The Syrian uprising is now seen through the prism of the Nato campaign in Libya. Nato's intervention has raised the real possibility of an incremental ratcheting up of military threats against Syria - not because the West is sympathetic to the demands of the popular movement, but as part of a strategy of isolating the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance.

In the months preceding the outbreak of the revolutions, Israel had been signalling a new war on Lebanon. This ever-present danger has created fears that the only winner in the Syrian revolution will be imperialism. This can be seen by the call from Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah for Syrians to support Bashar's regime.

Nasrallah's backing for Bashar Assad was widely interpreted as a sectarian Shia Muslim alignment with the Alawi-dominated government in Syria. But Hizbollah's position has to be seen more as a reflection of its assessment of the balance of forces with regard to imperialism than some expression of sectarianism (the Alawis are an offshoot of Shia Islam).

Nasrallah's speech caused deep distress and confusion inside the Syrian opposition, some of whom reacted by burning Hizbollah flags (along with Russian and Chinese flags). The images of flag burning created suspicion among Lebanese who, after 30 years of direct experience of the "Syrian security regime", had been sympathetic to the movement.

The West would like a managed transition to a compliant Syrian government. It fears above all a destabilised state that could open the way for the emergence of an armed anti-Israeli resistance reigniting a border conflict that has been quiet for 30 years. The recent mass protest along the 1967 frontier by Palestinian refugees was a potent reminder of this potential. Israel, although hostile to Syria, could depend on the Baathist regime to keep the frontier quiet. Thus criticism of Bashar is more muted in Tel Aviv.

But what Nasrallah, and others, have failed to appreciate is that it is far from inevitable that the Syrian opposition movement will simply become a plaything of the West. The unity of the opposition, and its constant appeals against sectarian and ethnic divisions, points to the real potential for there to develop a popular movement for change independent of the West.

Working class

Up until now this movement has, despite its bravery, been unable to achieve a breakthrough. In Tunisia and Egypt the working class played a decisive role at key stages of their revolutions. There have been few, if any, strikes in Syria beyond the city-wide protest strikes by merchants and shopkeepers. The movement has still to reach the scale, or intensity, of Egypt or Tunisia.

This weakness, and the continuing menace of imperialism, can turn this movement from one that represents genuine desires for change, into one that could become aligned with Saudi Arabia and the West. But this uprising began in Deraa, the frontier city along the 1967 border with Israel. Deraa is home to many of the Syrians who were expelled from their lands by the Israeli occupation. The slogan that they chanted at Syrian security forces was, "Cowards of Golan, heroes of repression".

The future direction of this movement depends on it spreading to the key cities of Damascus and Aleppo, and keeping in check the sectarian gangs and Western-backed "opposition groups". This is a popular movement with real demands, and over the next period it has to struggle to maintain this independence. The alternative is the kind of disaster that the West has inflicted on Libya, and the end of any genuine movement for change in Syria.


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