Syria between repression and revolution

Yusef Khalil and Lee Sustar analyze the latest phase of the upsurge in Syria.

Syrian security forces confront demonstrators in DaraaSyrian security forces confront demonstrators in Daraa

ARMY CHECKPOINTS, tanks, live ammunition and mass arrests failed stop the spread of Syria's popular revolt to more cities following Friday prayers on May 6, highlighting the widening social base of the uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

But the bloody crackdown by the military that followed the May 6 demonstrations--the most vicious repression yet--will put increasing pressure on an opposition that is a loosely linked series of local uprisings.

Following Friday prayers, protests took place in almost every region of the country, not only coastal cities like Baniyas and Latkaia and the central industrial town of Homs, which had already seen demonstrations, but also northern cities such as Raqqa, Hama and Qamishli. The Syrian army and security forces responded with brute force--as they have repeatedly in the seven-week-old uprising--reportedly killing 65 people, including a 12-year-old boy. The total of those killed in the uprising is estimated at 600 people.

Tanks rolled into Homs during the Friday protests, and the following day, an estimated 30 tanks were deployed in Baniyas, where an activist said that at least six people were killed and 250 arrested in the crackdown.

The operation continued into Sunday, May 8, and was especially heavy in Homs, Mahmoud Merhi, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, told Bloomberg. "The situation is tense," Merhi said. "Communications and power have been cut and tanks are ringing the city. It has not been possible to determine the number of people detained."

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The crackdown was the government's response to what activists dubbed the Week of Breaking the Siege, which culminated in a Friday of Defiance after Muslim prayers. There were calls for demonstrators to gather and march to besieged cities carrying olive branches and humanitarian supplies, as well for sit-ins at city squares.

However, the pressure from the crackdown meant that while the Friday actions were widespread, it wasn't possible for the protests to reach the same size as in previous weeks.

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FACED WITH the relentless protests, Assad's regime is raising the stakes. In the early hours of April 25, the Syrian army was sent into the southern city of Daraa, the epicenter of the popular revolt. Thousands of soldiers--accompanied by tanks and with instructions to shoot to kill--were mobilized against a defenseless population. Hundreds of snipers took positions on rooftops.

The attack on Daraa was designed to set an example to all other cities that dared defy the regime. A similar show of preventive force took place in Baniyas and in Rastan, a town near Homs.

The current wave of repression recalls the Syrian army's attack on the city of Hama in 1982, when the Syrian army--under orders from then-President Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father--destroyed entire neighborhoods and killed at least 10,000 people, with estimates of the dead running as high as 40,000. The regime tried to justify that slaughter by claiming it was necessary to crush an Islamist rebellion.

For the next three decades, the threat of another Hama-style massacre weighed heavily on any subsequent challenge to Assad and his Baath Party.

The pretext for repression in 1982 was an armed uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood. Today, the regime hopes to replay that scenario, claiming to be saving Daraa from armed extremists.

But despite the regime's claims, the people of Daraa aren't guilty of organizing an armed confrontation with the state. Their real crime is that they triggered mass protests in early March when they took to the streets after police arrested and tortured teenagers and boys for writing anti-regime graffiti based on slogans from the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. And they haven't been quiet since.

The Daraa protesters initially appealed for small-scale reforms and more freedoms, but the regime responded with repression, including ordering its forces to open fire with live ammunition. As the protest movement spread to cities and towns across Syria, the repression and the death toll increased, and the demands escalated for the downfall of the regime.

Assad is hoping that a decisive blow against Daraa--and now Homs and Baniyas--will finally crush the will of the Syrian people, no matter the human cost.

In Daraa, phone lines, cell phone coverage, water and electricity were cut off. Despite the regime's attempt to carry out its attack under the cover of a media blackout, news trickled out of the besieged city. Over the course of several days, residents reported indiscriminate shooting and house-to-house searches. Hundreds of people were rounded up in random arrests. Lawyers and political activists were targeted. Men between the ages of 18 and 40 were detained. Tanks opened fire at homes and shelled neighborhoods. The dead and dying lay in the streets, and any attempt to retrieve the bodies or help the injured was met with more gunfire.

This led hundreds of members of the ruling Baath Party in Daraa to resign in protest. Two members of parliament and other officials had already resigned previously. Reports have also emerged of splits in some army units, with soldiers refusing orders to fire on civilians. The extent of this insubordination is yet to be determined, but it would be a significant development.

In a show of defiance, protesters in cities and towns across Syria have continued to come out. Most of them were met with immediate repression by the security forces, and have been subject to military siege as well.

In addition, there has been a marked escalation in sweeping arrests of intellectuals, writers, lawyers and activists. Even localities that had not participated in protests were not spared. The regime seems to be using random detentions to further terrorize the population. Detainees have reported brutal abuses and torture at the hands of the security forces.

But the repression is being met with a fierce determination by the opposition. The fact that Syria's population centers are spread out and that the movement is not based in any one locality has limited the success of the regime's old methods of focusing on one area and arresting the leadership.

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THE SYRIAN regime continues to claim that the unrest is a conspiracy of "traitors" and Sunni Islamist groups. The government maintains that the opposition movement is being manipulated--if not directly controlled--by outside forces.

It does appear that Western powers tried to get involved by taking up the issue at the UN Security Council last week. However, they could not reach agreement on even a press statement. The UN Human Rights Council, meeting later, did pass a resolution to send a mission to Syria to investigate human rights violations. The U.S. and European powers are expected to tighten sanctions.

Why does the UN hesitate in pressuring Syria, in contrast to its endorsement of NATO intervention in Libya? The answer is that both the U.S. and Israel would prefer to see the Assad regime remain in power rather than a popular and democratic government that might succeed it if the rebellion is victorious. While the current Syrian government is technically at war with Israel and supports Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria is careful not to confront Israel directly.

"I prefer the political extremism of Assad over religious extremism," Ayoub Kara, a member of the Israeli parliament from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, told the Christian Science Monitor. "We don't want religious extremism on the border," added Kara, who is a member of the Druze religious minority that exists in Syria as well.

For its part, the U.S. has done almost nothing against Assad's counterrevolution. Even as the regime launched its crackdown in late March, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed the strongman as a "reformer."

Certainly, the U.S. has tried to cultivate a pro-American opposition by spreading money around. Joshua Landis, a liberal U.S. academic expert on Syria, said in an interview with Salon.com:

[W]e know a certain sliver of the opposition very well because there are a number of activists who have been supported by U.S. pro-democracy money for five years now. They've been working away, developing websites and expertise on democratic transformation. They are very liberal, very pro-American--everything that America likes.

But we don't know how big or important that group of liberals is. Civil society in Syria has been so severely restricted. Not as much as it had been in Iraq, but it's not far from that scale. So we don't know how powerful various parties would become if we take a lid off.

Some in the opposition have called for the international community to stop recognizing the Syrian regime as the representative of the Syrian people. In their view, this is a way to isolate the regime and expose its brutality to the world. There are others who are asking for public statements of support to put pressure on the regime to stop its violence. But most importantly, all elements of the opposition in Syria have consistently rejected any direct foreign intervention inside Syria.

According to Al Jazeera's Rula Amin, "They want pressure to be put on the government to end the crackdown, to end the seal to Daraa...but people say that they are better off without any intervention, they are very critical of [the] U.S."

Nevertheless, by continuing its violent crackdown and clear violations of human rights, the Assad regime is providing a huge opening for Western imperial powers to attempt to exploit the situation.

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THE U.S. has imposed sanctions on three Syrian leaders, but excluded Bashar al-Assad. The new sanctions will have little impact in any case, since existing ones ban almost all economic contact between the two countries. Germany, France, and Britain are working on getting the European Union to enforce targeted sanctions as well, which could include asset freezes and travel bans.

Essentially, the U.S. and Israel are walking a tightrope. They want Syria's regional role weakened, but they don't want the collapse of Bashar Al-Assad.

The Syrian regime has guaranteed a de facto peace with Israel along the Golan Heights since 1973. Syria, although formally opposed to U.S. interests in the region, has been susceptible to U.S. pressure (through Saudi Arabian financial support) and is a cornerstone of the Middle East power structure. In 1991, it supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq and was rewarded with a green light for its own continued occupation of Lebanon, which remained under Syrian tutelage until massive protests ousted them in 2005.

The United States prefers a predictable stable dictatorship -- even if it is an occasional obstacle to U.S. hegemony. It fears a successful Syrian revolution that it has no control over. Such a revolution would provide new momentum to the unfolding Arab revolutions and seriously challenge U.S. client regimes in the area.

This is why the U.S. has had a relatively meek response to the events in Syria. The U.S. has a history of strong-arming other countries to pass resolutions in the UN Security Council if it wants to. But the real purpose behind the UN Security Council meeting on Syria appears to be a political show to buy time.

Supporters of the Syrian revolution cannot support any foreign intervention. Even when it is wrapped in "humanitarian" language, the actions of international powers are dictated by their own interests and regional aims. We have seen, time and again, that air strikes and military operations never have the wellbeing of the population, nor the movements' democratic demands, at heart.

Any foreign intervention will give the regime more legitimacy. Furthermore, any opposition force that is seen as an ally of the U.S. will automatically lose any credibility it has with the Syrian people. In fact, when the U.S. State Department had a secret program to fund Syrian opposition groups--spending about $6 million since 2006--no dissidents inside Syria accepted any funds, according to the Washington Post.

Many international and regional powers have interests in the direction of Syria's events. They will inevitably attempt to insert themselves into the process. That was--and is--also true of most major progressive struggles anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, some on the left see the historic U.S. hostility to Syria as A reason to back the regime and endorse its savage crackdown.

But coordination with foreign governments will compromise the mass popular character of the uprising. Any party that is aided by the West will find itself beholden to its patrons. This foreign interference will increase the likelihood of sectarian strife, as tensions become amplified by the foreign competing interests and jockeying for influence.

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SECTARIANISM DOES exist in Syria--but it is not driving the revolution. In fact, it is the regime that has played on sectarian divisions to maintain itself in power for decades.

Syria is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. Sunni Muslims comprise about 74 percent of the population, with minority Muslim groups such as Alawites and Druze making up another 16 percent. About 10 percent of the population is Christian. And while 90 percent of the population is Arab, the Kurds, Armenians and other groups make up about 10 percent of the population.

Since the 1970 coup that brought Hafez al-Assad to power, the Alawite community, an offshoot of Shia Islam, has dominated the key posts in the Syrian government and armed forces. The regime poses as the defenders of Alwaites, Christians, Druze and others against a Sunni majority that, the government claims, is bent on imposing Islamist rule on the rest of the population.

Therefore, any challenge to the regime is cynically used to pull the minorities under the regime's wing, and to justify brutal crackdowns. The reality, however, is that the minorities have in effect been held hostage by the regime. and have not fared any better than any other Syrian under the Baath Party rule.

But the regime has also fostered the rise of a Sunni middle class in order to broaden its social base. As early as the 1980s, Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez, recognized the need for broad support beyond the armed forces. He formed an alliance with the big merchants and industrialists by allowing them to operate and make profits in Syria's state-planned economy. He therefore gave an influential section of the urban Sunnis a stake in the regime.

The Assads have also allowed Sunni Islamists to gain in influence when it suits the regime's interest. As journalist and historian Carsten Wieland wrote:

A leading Syrian opposition figure characterized the Baathist-Islamist relationship as follows: "We get state power; you get society." Not only did this arrangement obviate a domestic threat, it could be presented to the West as evidence that Syria would turn Islamist if the Baathists were to lose the state. During its confrontation with the United States in the mid-2000s, Syria facilitated passage of Islamist militants into Iraq in order to weaken the U.S. occupation and also engage in preemptive self-defense.

Individuals and groups which are motivated by sectarianism have little appeal among the general population of Syria. Nevertheless, the Assad regime is painting the opposition in sectarian colors in order to scare the minority Alawites, Christians and Druze away from the Sunni majority--and to crush the revolution.

But while the highest positions of the regime and the security forces are dominated by Alawites, it is inaccurate to identify the Syrian ruling class with the Alawite sect. Assad's security rests on elite military units--not the general army--which are commanded by close family members.

Alawite intellectuals and activists have also been some of the most vocal critics of the regime. From the days of Hafez al-Assad, a fair share of Alawite opposition members have been imprisoned and persecuted.

Moreover, the ruling class today depends less on those security ties than a web of private capitalist relationships that increasingly involved Sunni business people as well.

In the 1990s, more private investments were encouraged and taxes were decreased on business profits. In 2002 and onwards, more aggressive neoliberal reforms were undertaken, which lifted price controls on commodities, removed subsidies on some staples, and removed tariff barriers.

Unsurprisingly, figures close to the Assad family--like Rami Makhlouf, the president's cousin, who owns Syria's largest phone company, Syriatel--were able to enrich themselves enormously as more and more of the economy was opened to the private sector.

As Anthony Shadid reported in the New York Times, Makhlouf:

penetrated the economy's most lucrative sectors--real estate, transport, banking, insurance, construction and tourism--and his interests run from a five-star hotel in Damascus to duty-free shops at airports and the border. He is the vice chairman and, Syrian analysts say, the real power in Cham Holding, which was set up in 2007 with 73 investors and $360 million, in what seemed an attempt to tether wealthy Sunni businessmen to the government. It has effectively been charged with renovating Syria's aging infrastructure, attracting Arab capital in another network of support for Mr. Assad's rule.

The real danger is not that the revolution will go in a sectarian direction, but that the regime will aggressively push for sectarian violence in a desperate attempt to hold on to power. It is well-known that the Assad regime stoked sectarian violence by fostering some Sunni groups and individuals who have carried out attacks in Iraq and Lebanon--but only as long as that activity was conducted abroad and coincided with the regime's interests.

The fear among Syrians of a sectarian war is very real. In order to win the rest of the Syrian population to its side, the opposition needs to be very clear in its stand against sectarianism. It needs to explain that most Alawites suffered just as much as other Syrians over the last four decades, and that they should not be scapegoated or held responsible for the crimes of the Assad dictatorship.

For this, the people of Syria do not need to wait for a UN Security Council resolution. They have written their own resolutions on banners across the country: "We want Freedom," The Syrian people are one" and "Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Syriacs, we are all Syrian."