A turning point in Syria?

May 31, 2012

Yusef Khalil looks at the dynamics of the Syrian revolutionary movement--and the regime's effort to drown the resistance in blood.

THE LATEST massacre in Syria--which killed more than 100 men, women and children in their homes in the city of Houla--is only the latest of the horrors that Syrians have been living through after they dared rise up against the 40-year dictatorship of the Assad family.

The question for the movement now is how to withstand the increasingly brutal repression and take the struggle forward.

The slaughter in Houla led to an international outcry, and the UN Security Council condemned the killings. Several Western countries expelled Syrian diplomats in protest, and advocates of U.S. and European military intervention seized the moment to call for air strikes against Syria. Yet despite the terrible human toll, international intervention in Syria will not make things better. The Syrian people do have the power to liberate themselves--and only they can do so.

To understand the road to the Houla massacre, it's useful to step back and look at the course of the struggle.

THE SYRIAN Revolution has been going on for 14 months, with large demonstrations in every part of the country, and entire cities falling out of the regime's control, only to be attacked and taken back by the armed forces. The Syrian military has used heavy weapons, tanks, bombs and artillery to destroy entire civilian neighborhoods. Estimates put the dead at more than 12,000, with 40,000 wounded. Tens of thousands have been detained or disappeared, and hundreds of thousands displaced.

The bodies of civilians massacred in the city of Houla
The bodies of civilians massacred in the city of Houla

Despite the enormous toll, the Syrian people have not backed down. As soon as one area is subdued by the regime, another erupts. But what began as mostly unarmed demonstrations has, in response to the intense government repression, turned to arms to defend the protests from the military and the regime's thugs.

In response, more and more soldiers began to defect from the regular army because they were no longer willing to shoot down their own people. The armed opposition started to organize itself under different names: the Free Syria Army, independent groups and individual brigades. These fighters increasingly clashed with government forces. This shifted the focus of the revolution from mass protests to armed struggle.

Meanwhile, groups claiming to represent the Syrian Revolution appeared on the international scene. The best known is the Syrian National Council (SNC) formed by Syrian exiles, and heavily favored by the West. The SNC focused on establishing connections with other countries (most notably, the U.S. and European nations) to get them to support the revolution and put pressure on the regime by imposing travel restrictions on Syrian officials and economic sanctions.

The SNC also called for some sort of foreign intervention to help the beleaguered Syrian people. SNC leaders have variously called for humanitarian intervention, international protection, humanitarian corridors, safe areas, no-fly zones and all kinds of others names that, in reality, come down to one thing: a military attack by outside powers on Syria.

At first, Western powers turned a blind eye to the Syrian regime's atrocities, concluding that a stable Assad regime was in the best interests of Israel, the U.S. and Europe. But as the struggle has continued, they started looking for ways to at least appear to be supporting the Syrian revolution. They held international conferences; formed the Friends of Syria; discussed arming and funding the rebels; slapped economic sanctions on the regime; and tried to pass resolutions at the UN Security Council.

There seemed to be an international consensus that something needed to be done about Syria, but then Russia and China stepped in, and vetoed any UN Security Council resolutions that are too harsh on the regime. For their part, the U.S. and the main European countries remain reluctant to conduct a Libya-type military intervention, which would have to be far bigger and bloodier given Syria's more powerful armed forces and the country's dense population.

Rather than intervene directly, the U.S. has allowed Saudi Arabia and Qatar to support armed struggle carried out by Islamist groups. Meanwhile, another U.S. ally, Turkey, allows the Free Syrian Army and other armed groups to operate from its territory--but so far has refused to provide heavy weapons and or other key resources. As a result, Russia has emerged as the key player among the imperial powers.

BUT THE world's governments aren't the only ones that are split on the Syrian Revolution. The "Arab street," the left and progressives also have different views.

The two dominant points of view can be summarized as follows:

1) The Syrian people have bravely stood up to the Assad dictatorship, but have not been able to overthrow it, so the world has a responsibility to protect them. Yes, the U.S. and NATO have not always played a positive role, but in this case, they are the only ones that can save the Syrian people. If your support for the Syrian revolution means anything, then you need to support foreign intervention.

2) The U.S. has always wanted regime change in Syria, because the Syrian regime is allied with Iran and has stood up to Israel and to U.S. imperialism. The U.S. is behind much of the unrest in Syria, and is funding or arming groups to destabilize the regime--therefore, this revolution is not genuine. Anything that weakens Syria will weaken anti-imperialism in the Middle East, and will allow the U.S. a freer hand in the region. We should oppose foreign intervention and also oppose the Syrian revolution.

Both of these positions are wrong. They both underestimate or ignore the power of the Syrian people to change their own conditions. They fail to understand the internal dynamics in Syrian society and how the regime has accommodated imperialism at the expense of the Syrian people. And, of course, the U.S. is not the pro-democracy force it says it is.

To understand that, we need to take a look at U.S. imperial plans in the Middle East.

Despite being forced to pull out of Iraq after a horrific war and occupation, the U.S. intends to remain the dominant power in the region. A new U.S. Department of Defense document, "Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership," makes that clear. In 2009, Gen. David Petraeus, then head of U.S. Central Command, explained in Senate testimony that the Middle East is critical to the U.S. because the area "encompasses the world's most energy-rich region, with the Arabian Gulf region and Central Asia together accounting for at least 64 percent of the world's petroleum reserves, 34 percent of its crude oil production, and 46 percent of its natural gas reserves."

The Arab Spring last year destabilized U.S. plans for the Middle East. Millions of Arabs suddenly came out in massive demonstrations and participated in actions to overthrow dictatorships. They showed the world that they are sick and tired of living under tyrants, but also that ordinary working people--through their organization, their creativity and their solidarity- -have the power to paralyze the strongest security state and chop off its head.

The Arab revolutions started in Tunisia and forced out a U.S.-allied dictator. It then spread to other countries in a matter of weeks--most importantly, to Egypt, where the people overthrew dictator Hosni Mubarak, a pillar of American policy in the Middle East for the last 30 years. Everybody was amazed at the outpouring of humanity into the streets as every repressive measure by the regime was met with more determination, more organizing and greater numbers by the Egyptian people. It literally seemed that anything was possible.

After Tunisia and Egypt, the revolutions spread to Bahrain (an American ally and home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet), sections of Saudi Arabia (another U.S. ally), Yemen (still another U.S. ally) and other countries. It was crushed in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain with U.S. approval, but the existing balance of power had already started to fall apart.

The U.S. tried to counter this trend by intervening militarily in Libya to reassert its role in the region and roll back the idea that ordinary people can act on their own. Essentially, the U.S. hijacked that revolution.

When the Arab Spring hit Syria, the U.S. also tried to cultivate relationships with sections of the Syrian opposition, like the SNC, and to derail the struggle to its advantage. But Russia and China also moved in to protect their own imperialist interests in the region.

Russia is the main supplier of arms to Syria, which hosts Russia's only naval base on the Mediterranean Sea. Russia is also protecting its own role as the dominant supplier of natural gas to Eastern Europe. Russia doesn't want alternate energy routes going through a future U.S.-friendly Syria. Thus, Russia has led the international effort to block any UN Security Council resolutions that are too harsh on the Syrian regime.

Russia could have successfully vetoed those resolutions alone. But it is noteworthy that China also exercised its veto twice in matter of weeks, despite using that power just six times in the last 40 years. This was a clear message from Russia and China to the U.S.: "You'd better share this pie, or we'll fight over it. You're not going to take it alone."

Another strong supporter of the Assad regime is the Iranian regime, which has continued to supply the Syrian security forces with weapons and expert advice. Iran, after all, also has its own regional interests in a conflict with the U.S.-backed and American-armed Gulf monarchies. And Washington is frustrated that Iran has become the dominant foreign player in Iraq, following the pullout of U.S. troops. So a big part of U.S. policy in the Middle East is to contain Iran and even threaten war over its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons.

All this explains why the U.S. and other imperial powers are trying to shape the outcome of the Syrian revolution to suit their own interests. But that doesn't mean that the Assad regime is anti-imperialist.

THE SYRIAN state, under both Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez, has accommodated with imperialism at the expense of the Syrian people and has negatively impacted the anti-imperialist struggle in the Arab world.

A number of leftists buy into the claim that since Bashar--like his father before him--positioned Syria as the "fortress of resistance" against Israel and the U.S., then the regime is justified in crushing any internal opposition.

To be sure, Syria has refused to sign a peace treaty with Israel unless the occupied Golan Heights are returned. Syria has also given support to Lebanese and Palestinian resistance movements against Israel. And Assad positioned Syria in an alliance with Iran as an obstacle to some U.S. and Israeli interests in the region.

Yet the Syrian regime only supports resistance against Israel from outside Syria's borders. It doesn't allow any arms smuggling or attacks against Israel directly from Syria. Even when it does support anti-Israel forces, the Syrian government demands a monopoly on the resistance. In Lebanon during the 1970s and 1980s, for example, the Syrian regime marginalized and sometimes violently repressed any resistance groups that were outside its control.

The Syrian state even joined the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. It was rewarded handsomely: the U.S. gave Syria the green light to occupy Lebanon, where it remained for a decade and a half until massive protests forced the Syrian military out in 2005. The Syrian regime also cooperated with the U.S. "war on terror" after the September 11 attacks. The most infamous example is the torture of Syrian citizen Maher Arar after the U.S. handed him over to the Syrian authorities as part of its rendition program.

The Syrian regime's accommodation with imperialism also extends to the economic front, when it turned sharply towards neoliberal economic policy in the last decade.

These policies removed state subsidies on certain staples, lifted price controls on basic commodities and allowed investment capital to flow in. The result was skyrocketing prices, with inflation rising by 10 percent per year. Wages didn't keep up, and the working class was impoverished.

At the same time, the removal of tariffs on imported goods destroyed local industries. Less attention was paid to agriculture, and following a severe drought, there was a big migration of poor peasants into city slums. Poverty rates shot up to 40 percent, with unemployment above 20 percent. Government services like health care and education were cut.

Where did all the money go? To the "anti-imperialist" Assad family and the ruling elite who had absolute control over the political system. The family and its cronies partnered with foreign companies to plunder Syria. It did such a great job that the World Bank and International Monetary Fund were quite pleased with the privatization and cuts to subsidies and social services.

THIS SOCIAL crisis explains the persistence of the Syrian revolution, and why people will not go back to their old way of living. This isn't just a political struggle against a dictator. The whole system didn't work for the majority of Syrians. The workers, the poor, the unemployed and the farmers see the call for democracy as a means for them to improve their lives.

The areas where the revolution started and spread are working-class and poor neighborhoods. It is these neighborhoods that the regime's security forces have been pummeling. It is these neighborhoods that have refused to back down.

But the revolution has run into serious problems. There is a growing realization among sections of the population that the armed struggle has overshadowed the street protests and civil disobedience that has been continuing across Syria, but not reported about in the media.

In some ways, the armed resistance to the regime is taking on a life of its own, sometimes in contradiction to the aims of the revolution. The fighters often operate without a political strategy that ties them to the coordinating committees--the neighborhood-based groups that organize the street protests and function as the heart of the revolution.

At the same time, the counterrevolutionary Gulf monarchies like Saudi Arabia are arming sectarian Sunni Muslims groups that have no links to the revolutionary forces. The Saudis see this effort as part of their regional competition with Iran.

The deeper problem is that a military confrontation with the revolutionaries is actually what the regime wants, because the Syrian state has the odds on its side in that area.

This isn't to say that all armed struggle in Syria is wrong-headed. When arms first appeared in the revolution, it was to protect the demonstrations. But somewhere along the line, arms started being used offensively, taking the initiative away from the street. This led us down a dead end, which in turn emboldened government forces to be more and more brutal.

The armed opposition has now alienated a lot of the people who started the Syrian revolution, and their voices were drowned out. There is a recognition of this among the revolutionaries, who also realize that guns are now a fact that can't be wished away.

Further, Western military intervention, called for by some in the SNC, will necessarily mean more civilian deaths, not fewer. No country is going to put planes in the air if they can be shot down. So U.S. and/or European planes would first bomb missile sites and radar installations, as well as the command-and-control networks in Syrian cities, which means a large number of civilian casualties.

Under this scenario, a popular revolution would turn into a full-blown war. Ironically, the regime would gain legitimacy because it would be fighting a true foreign invasion. Such a conflict would last longer than the intervention in Libya, as it draws in other international powers, all the while sapping power away from the revolution.

BESIDES DEBATING whether to call for foreign intervention, the Syrian left is also discussing strategies to reach out and organize more people into open opposition.

Syria is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. The ruling family is Alawite, a minority sect of Islam, and has made sure to place other Alawites in all-important positions in the government and armed forces. The government is also playing on these religious and ethnic differences to pit Arabs against Syrian Kurds, and to scare Alawite and Christian minorities into believing that the revolution would bring Sunni Muslim fundamentalists to power. More recently, the regime has painted the whole revolution as the work of Sunni terrorists--and the regime's repression is designed to whip up sectarian hatred.

This is why many Syrian revolutionaries are raising their voices to reach out to all the minorities--members of which are active in the revolution--to assure them that they will not be blamed for what a small ruling elite has done in their name. These minorities have a place in a future Syria. The revolution cannot win without the participation of minorities and other hesitant layers of the population.

As noted earlier, the revolution is centered in the working class and impoverished areas of Syria. Workers have borne the brunt of the regime's economic policies before the revolution. Now, they are the backbone of the revolution--and their determination is the reason that it hasn't been crushed yet. This shared experience and common struggle can cut across sectarian and ethnic lines, and provide the unity necessary to defeat the regime.

The regime, of course, doesn't allow any independent workers' organizations. Yet even the "official" opposition, the SNC, avoids "divisive" discussions about the economy, because it actually agrees with the regime's economic policy and wants to continue it. The SNC is afraid of unleashing the power of the working class, because it fears it won't be able to control workers after the revolution.

But you can't separate the democratic struggle from the struggle for social justice. You can't overthrow the regime without bringing maximum power to bear against it. The lesson of the Egyptian Revolution, where a working-class strike wave delivered the decisive blow to the Mubarak regime last year, is key for Syria.

In fact, in the past few months, Syrian workers have engaged in sporadic strikes and showed that they are just as capable and creative in fighting for their freedom and dignity, while resisting the most severe forms of state repression. These strikes can show a way out of the current impasse. They can become tools to build independent unions and organizations capable of advancing the struggle and uniting the Syrian working class.

Other important revolutionary forms of organization that have evolved are the popular councils that run some cities and towns in Syria in the absence of the state bureaucracy. The future of the Syrian revolution depends on these popular councils, local coordinating committees and working class organizations regaining control and leadership of their revolution from those who have led it down the path of foreign intervention or collaboration with this or that imperial power.

The revolution will be won by Syrians themselves or it won't be won at all.

This article was based on a recent presentation given at a meeting in New York City.

Further Reading

From the archives