What's at stake in Syria?

Lee Sustar looks at the prospects for the Syrian revolution as the West tries to crack the regime of Bashar al-Assad through economic and political pressure.

Syrian armed forces march toward protesters in Homs (AFP)Syrian armed forces march toward protesters in Homs (AFP)

HAMMERED BY repression, the Syrian revolution is at an impasse, and the U.S. and Europe are intervening in the hopes of shaping an outcome to suit their imperialist agenda for the Middle East.

An estimated 5,000 people have been killed by state forces in Syria since the uprising began in February, with many thousands more have been imprisoned and tortured. But anyone who thinks that Washington has the human rights of the Syrian people at heart should recall that in the opening weeks of the uprising nine months ago, the U.S. kept quiet as President Bashar al-Assad's forces tried to crush the initial protest movement in the town of Daraa. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described Assad as a "reformer," and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair John Kerry, who developed a close relationship with Assad in recent years, argued for giving the president a chance.

Neighboring Israel--which for decades has portrayed Syria as a major threat--has likewise lobbied the U.S. to keep Assad in place, in the interests of "stability" in the Middle East. On the surface, Israel talks about the Syrian regime as if it is an enemy in league with Iran. But Assad is still the safest option. If the regime changes or the democratic movement gains a concrete foothold in Syria, Israel doesn't know what to expect.

As the massacres continued and the revolutionary movement spread, the U.S. concluded that Assad's days were numbered and shifted toward a perspective of regime change. The West was also encouraged by the outcome of the Libyan uprising, which was hijacked thanks to NATO bombs, military "advisers" and former collaborators with the regime of Muammar el-Qaddafi.

Imperialist policymakers are therefore debating how to calibrate their intervention in Syria. An Iraq-type invasion is off the table for obvious military, political and economic reasons. But the State Department, European foreign ministries and military brass worry that even a Libya-style bombing campaign could fragment Syria, causing the kind of all-out civil war seen in neighboring Lebanon.

Their aim, therefore, is to oust the Assad regime while keeping the state intact.

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AS A result, the West is for now mostly limiting its intervention to sanctions and political support for the opposition. While NATO member Turkey allowed the establishment of a base for the Free Syrian Army--composed of defectors from the Syrian military--there is little evidence that these fighters have been given weapons and training of the sort provided to Libyan rebel forces.

Thus, the focus of the intervention has been sanctions. The Western powers--working through Turkey and the Arab League--are hoping for a military coup that would oust Bashar al-Assad and leave Syria's repressive security apparatus intact.

Burhan Ghalioun, the leader of Syrian National Council (SNC)--the umbrella opposition group with close ties to the West--says he wants the same thing: "We want to distinguish between the regime and the state in Syria. There will not be chaos like in Libya. We still have powerful military institutions that we want to preserve."

The SNC leader says he is against a Libya-style intervention and wants Syrians to make their own revolution. But he explicitly calls for the UN to authorize a partial no-fly zone to protect refugees and give the opposition a free territory in which to organize:

We're asking them [the international community] to assess every possible option to create and enforce a safe area in Syria and to stop the atrocities being committed in Syrian towns. We are seeking a partial no-fly zone: covering a limited area, just over one piece of territory. We don't want the complete destruction of Syria's air defenses.

The apparent model for the SNC is the no-fly zone imposed over Iraqi Kurdistan by the U.S. and Britain in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. Leading figures in the SNC are circulating a document prepared by a British international security think tank outlining how such a "safe area" could be imposed by Western powers.

Ghalioun's views aren't necessarily held by all elements in the SNC, which contains both former regime elements and more left-of-center forces. But it is Ghalioun who is being elevated by imperialism as a key figure.

Meanwhile, there are differences within the imperialist coalition that the U.S. is trying to exploit.

For its part, Turkey wants to avoid an all-out war or NATO air strikes, which could result in a refugee crisis on its borders. It also wants to reassert itself in Syria, a territory of the old Turkish Ottoman Empire. This would give Turkey, which is increasingly assertive in Middle East politics, wider influence in the Arab world.

The intervention of the Arab League is also divided. The organization's highly publicized delegation to Syria included representatives from Gulf states who act as Washington's proxies along with figures like a former Sudanese military figure accused of war crimes who is more likely to be sympathetic with Assad than U.S. objectives.

But in general, the Arab League delegation was intended not to stop or tlo expose repression of the revolution, but to provide reconnaissance for imperialism--to search for a ruling-class alternative to Assad. The message: Ditch Assad, and you can keep your state security apparatus and economic privileges, much as the capitalists and military brass in Egypt are attempting to do in the post-Mubarak era.

The offer may yet tempt some Syrian general or politician looking to save their skins in a post-Assad regime. But for now, the Egypt option looks risky for the Syrian ruling class. The military junta running Egypt is having difficulty in navigating its transition to even a highly limited democracy, and the problems of such a move in Syria are at least as great. Given the tight networks at the core of the Syrian ruling class, there is no telling where an anti-Assad purge would end--and it could easily get out of control and lead to the unraveling of the state.

This is why Assad's forces were willing to shoot down protesters who took to the streets to make contact with Arab League observers. Whatever the intention of the individual delegates, they effectively acted as target spotters for the regime. Numerous videos posted by revolutionary activists showed the monitors did nothing as the repression took place, either because they were unable or unwilling to do anything.

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WHILE THE West has been unable to oust Assad, neither has the revolutionary movement been successful.

For more than 40 years, the Baath Party regime has played on religious and ethnic divisions to consolidate its rule. Many of the leading military and political figures have been from the minority Alawite Muslim sect.

The state has, in turn, posed as a protector of minorities--Alawites, as well as Christians and Druze, against the Sunni Muslim majority. This was the stated justification for the 1981 massacre in Hama.

Kurds, however, were systematically discriminated against, including the denial of citizenship rights for some 300,000 people--until the regime offered a change in policiy in an unsuccessful effort to pull Kurds away from the revolutionary movement.

It is an oversimplification, however, to characterize the state as an "Alawite" regime. Assad has ruled in collaboration with a network of Sunni business interests, and this relationship has been reorganized by neoliberal market-oriented reforms that have restructured some industries traditionally dominated by the state. Assad has also presided over the restructuring of some industries traditionally dominated by established merchants. The sons of the regime elites have been using their family political connections to encroach on the businesses of the traditional merchants.

At the same time, there are many Christians opposed to the regime and far from all Alawites support it. Many Alawites oppose it because they feel the Assad family has taken actions in their names that they don't want to be associated with--and that they didn't benefit from.

With the prospect of a revolutionary movement that cut across religious and ethnic lines, the regime tried to reassert its role as the protector of minorities--most recently pointing to bombings in the capital of Damascus as the work of al-Qaeda and Sunni fundamentalists. Revolutionary activists claim that the regime itself planted the bombs as a pretext for further repression.

Whatever the source of the attack, it's clear that Assad and the regime have concluded that driving the struggle into civil war is its best hope for getting the ruling class, the military elite and minority populations to stick with them.

The problem for the regime, however, is that it lacks sufficiently loyal troops to carry out a simultaneous crackdown across the country. Therefore, it is trying to demoralize the movement with military onslaughts in targeted cities, while using snipers and thugs to terrorize protesters elsewhere.

Under this pressure, it has been difficult for the Local Coordination Committees--the revolutionary organizations on the ground--to put forward a clear political alternative independent of the increasingly pro-intervention SNC. The Syrian left is small and weak, divided between pro-regime organizations and small revolutionary groups that were forced to operate underground due to state repression.

The unions, moreover, have been traditionally dominated by the state. For this reason, as well as the divides along ethnic, religious, tribal and regional lines, the working class has not entered the fray independently.

While workers in key industrial enterprises may have participated in protests, their revolutionary activism hasn't come to the workplaces in a consistent way or at all. That is very different in Egypt, where last year's revolution was preceded by years of working-class activism, strikes and the struggle for unions free of state control.

There have been general strikes in several cities, but these have been civic strikes, with workplaces shut down alongside small shops in a cross-class show of protest. Demonstrations have been few in the capital of Damascus and the commercial hub of Aleppo, not only because of greater political pressure, but because business figures and the middle class have hesitated to break with the regime. There is also a concentrated crackdown in both cities, with snipers posted atop practically every major building.

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AN ADVANCE for the revolution depends on whether left-wing currents within the Local Coordination Committees can mobilize for working-class action that can hit the regime hard economically--as Egyptian workers did in finally forcing the ouster of Hosni Mubarak.

Organizing such action in the context of repression and incipient civil war will be enormously difficult, of course. But unless the social power of workers is brought to bear, the regime will try to wear down the popular mobilizations with killings, arrests, torture and economic hardship. In such a war of attrition, the Syrian state has key advantages.

What next? The situation is highly unstable and unpredictable. The regime could split because of economic pressure and its inability to crush the revolt. Or the state could mobilize for an all-out civil war in a bid to hold onto power. Imperialist intervention could allow Assad to try to claim the mantle of nationalism and win support for continued rule.

But openings for a new revolutionary upsurge remain. The Syrian state will not be defeated by the Free Syrian Army in a military confrontation, but through mass defections in the armed forces that could neutralize the repression in key areas and open the way for a new revolutionary upsurge. The revolutionaries who have courageously organized against ferocious repression could take the struggle into the factories and gather forces that could paralyze the regime.

Such a turn to the working class is the perspective for the genuine revolutionary transformation of Syria--not the alliance with imperialism proposed by the SNC's Ghalioun.

Mais Jasser and Yusef Khalil contributed to this article.