A stalemate in Syria?

November 3, 2011

Yusef Khalil looks at the balance of forces and political debates in Syria's revolution.

SYRIA'S REVOLUTION against the Bashar al-Assad regime is now in its eighth month, but neither side can claim victory. Though the dictatorship's heavy-handed repression against mass demonstrations has intimidated many people from coming out into the street, large protests continue.

This stalemate, which has taken a heavy toll on the Syrian people--estimates put the number killed at more than 3,000--has brought into question the movement's ability to maintain its momentum and succeed in overthrowing the regime without resorting to arms.

Thousands of defectors from the regular Syrian army have formed themselves into the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and have undertaken military operations to protect civilians from the regime's security forces.

So far, there are no formal ties between the FSA and the civilian organizations of the revolution, such as the Coordinating Committees, the Syrian Revolution General Commission and the Syrian National Council (SNC). Some activists are calling for militarizing the revolution as the only way to defeat the dictatorship, while others fear that resorting to arms will actually put them at a disadvantage against the regime's better-trained and better-equipped military forces.

Protesters marching through the streets of the Syrian city of Homs
Protesters marching through the streets of the Syrian city of Homs

Homs, Syria's third-largest city with more than 1 million inhabitants, has emerged as the scene of intense battles between the regime's army and the military defectors in the FSA. Government forces are engaged in a massive military operation for months, where they have used tanks and heavy machine guns in an unsuccessful attempt to subdue the city.

IT IS in this context that a strike wave started in the southern province of Daraa and spread to other areas. The success of that strike wave led activists in the central city of Homs to call for a strike to protest the government's attacks, and the revolutionaries called upon the rest of the country to observe the action.

This was not the first time that Syrian activists called for a general strike, but previous attempts had failed. However, this time, with the success of the strikes in the south and the expansion of the strike wave, the Coordinating Committees and SNC called for a nationwide general strike on October 26 to coincide with the Arab League delegation's visit to Syria. The Arab League is widely seen as having stood by silently and given the Assad forces time to crush the revolt and massacre the protesters.

The October 26 general strike, according to the Syrian National Council, is seen as a "prelude to bigger more comprehensive strikes leading to large scale civil disobedience capable of overthrowing the regime using the Syrian people's own power. The general strike is a signal that the revolution of dignity and freedom is entering a new phase of struggle, and an expression of continuing peaceful resistance until victory."

The strike in Daraa continued for eight consecutive days, paralyzing the city. The strike only ended when hundreds of soldiers started breaking windows and forcing shops to open under threat of violence.

According to a Reuters report:

The strike illustrated the growing strength of a new young clandestine leadership behind the protests, who residents say have taken local public officials in Daraa by surprise with their organizational skills.

Witnesses said masked youths took to the streets at night hanging posters and writing graffiti on school walls, shops and public buildings in support of the strike and warning businessmen against opening up. "There are many merchants who complained about the closure and said their interests were hurt but had no choice but to heed the calls of the activists with such a strong climate of public opinion in their favor," said Ahmad Aba Zaid, an instructor in a vocational college.

Activists said the strike had emboldened the people of Daraa to expand their defiance beyond daily protests to acts of civil disobedience. "The strike had many meanings. It gave us confidence that if we are able to go that far (then) we are capable of doing much more as long as the street is with us," said an organizer who calls himself Abu Salman.

The general strike was observed in all areas where protests have been taking place, especially in Homs, where most workers stayed home and most shops were closed, and Hama, Idlib, Deir el-Zour, Qamishli, Daraa and its surrounding towns.

"We found that it was time to escalate from demonstrations to strikes within the framework of our peaceful actions, especially since strikes have direct impacts on the regime's economic situation which is its weakest point," a member of the SNC told Al-Sharq al-Awsat. Going on strike does not jeopardize the lives of the activists, continued the paper, and it decreases the number of dead and wounded and makes possible the transition into a stage of civil disobedience.

THE SYRIAN revolution has had many ups and downs. The protesters have come out in huge numbers which slowly waned over time as casualties mounted, only to surge back again recently. The regime is betting that they can break the will of the revolutionaries with sheer force, and that an impasse will erode the confidence and momentum of the protests.

The government is also playing on religious and ethnic differences, pitting Arabs against Kurds and stoking fears among the Alawite Muslim and Christian minorities that the revolution would bring Sunni Muslim fundamentalists to power.

But Assad's divide-and-rule strategy hasn't been able to crush the revolution. As Syrian writer and dissident Yassin Al Haj Saleh puts it:

Our only bet is on the movement of the Syrian street. It has already changed Syria in irrevocable ways. The revolution's movement is in waves--it is not a path of continual expansion without turns.

While the occupation of public spaces by demonstrations and public opposition to the regime remain the basic forms of protest of the Syrian Revolution, it is important to diversify the forms of struggle so we can at some time reach the national general strike. This may require local rehearsals and experiments which display the cause of the revolution and are less costly in human terms. This could lead wider layers of today's silent masses into participating in the revolution.

The economic conditions for a strike wave have been present in Syria for years. As the Assad regime and its close businessmen have adopted free-market, neoliberal policies to open up the Syrian economy to the world market, the standard of living of Syrian workers has plummeted. This despite official figures showing an average economic growth around 5 percent over the last five years.

But while the economy has been privatized, and the corruption, nepotism, mismanagement and obscene wealth of the regime's closest businessmen has been on public display, the official trade unions have not fought back against this exploitation of workers.

As an article published recently in the Syrian Communist Party's weekly explains, the Syrian labor unions:

have been satisfied with criticizing the economic policies, and have done detailed studies about the direction of the economic process and the damages it has caused, but they did not resort to labor strikes or other forms of protest. They have done so based on the principle of "political unionism," which avoids the struggle of the working class and its positive resistance against its exploiters. This has reinforced the power of the owners and capitalists, who have found in the current laws and the current operating principles a barrier which prevents the working class from exercising its legitimate rights.

In fact, the Syrian Communist Party, as an adjunct to the ruling Baath Party, may oppose this barrier to the class struggle rhetorically, but the party has done nothing to fight against it.

The example of the Egyptian Revolution points the way forward for the struggle in Syria. As Egyptian socialist Sameh Naguib points out, years of working class struggle in Egypt prepared the ground for the moment when a strike wave delivered the decisive blow to the Mubarak regime in February.

The Syrian working class does not have the same recent history and years-long experience as their Egyptian brothers and sisters. But in the past few months, Syrian workers have shown that they are just as capable and creative in fighting for their freedom and dignity, while resisting the most severe forms of state repression.

The strikes, both local and general, can show a way out of the current impasse, and may become weekly occurrences. The question now is how to use these strikes effectively as weapons against a violent regime. At the same time, the strikes can become tools to build independent unions and organizations capable of advancing the struggle and uniting the Syrian working class across sectarian and ethnic lines. The future of the Syrian revolution hangs in the balance.

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