How long can the regime keep its grip?

December 10, 2012

Yusef Khalil analyzes the latest developments in the Syrian regime's war on the resistance--and the meaning of a newly declared leadership body for the opposition.

THE WAR in Syria has taken a catastrophic toll, but the start of December brought the threat of worse to come. Amid allegations that Bashar al-Assad's regime was prepared to use chemical weapons to escalate its barbaric assault on opponents, the U.S. reportedly positioned warships off the country's Mediterranean coast in preparation for possible military intervention.

Even without these threats materializing, Syria has been plunged into a nightmare. The death toll from nearly two years of government repression and civil war is estimated at 40,000, and more than a million injured or displaced.

Assad's regime is still trying to crush the Syrian people's uprising that began in 2011, unleashing massive firepower, high-altitude air raids and dropping barrel bombs filled with TNT on top of people's homes. Taking a lesson from the U.S. and Israel, Assad's air force is reportedly using cluster and phosphorous bombs to defeat the resistance.

Fighting continues in the poor and working-class suburbs surrounding the capital of Damascus, with rebels reportedly in control of large areas, but also enduring counter-attacks in the form of constant bombardment.

A family living near Homs mourns a loved one killed in the bombing
A family living near Homs mourns a loved one killed in the bombing

Living conditions for ordinary Syrians have become more and more unbearable--everything from food to clean water to electricity is in short supply. One major complaint is the lack of bread, with people standing in line for hours at bakeries, which have therefore become targets of the regime's relentless bombings. There are also reports of Assad's forces burning wheat fields as they withdrew from areas around Aleppo, Syria's largest city and a longtime front in the fighting between the military and rebels.

One symbol of how far the Assad regime has gone down the road of plunging the whole of society into chaos and violence is that Syria's Palestinian population--whose cause the regime has used historically to justify its hold on power--has not been spared from the repression.

Recent assaults on Palestinian camps--where grassroots sentiment has been with the rebellion, against the opposition of the regime's ally, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command--have added to a long history of bloodshed perpetrated by the Israeli army, Lebanese militias, Jordanian troops and, of course, Syrian forces under the reign of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father.

BUT THE Syrian people are not simply victims of the regime's violence. Like their brothers and sisters rising up in other rebellions of the Arab Spring--and the Palestinians before them and to this day--Syrians have shown a determination to take a stand in every way they can. Civic strikes and demonstrations, even in Damascus, have been a recurring theme of the popular resistance.

This has been accompanied by a nationwide armed resistance, operating loosely under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which has made major advances in recent weeks.

The FSA's successes aren't due to a new influx of foreign arms, as the regime claims and the international media sometimes report--but rather its ability, because of widespread support, to open multiple fronts, coordinate actions with other provinces and adopt guerilla-style tactics. Over time, the revolutionary fighters have worn down a much better equipped adversary.

For example, the FSA was recently able to overrun the huge 46th Regiment base near Aleppo, where the resistance has endured indiscriminate bombing by the regime, but has heroically held its ground. Forces loyal to the dictatorship had been using the base's artillery, rockets and tanks to terrorize nearby towns and villages.

The FSA laid siege to the base for two months and successfully blocked supplies from reaching it by ground. The government had to resort to airdrops to get food to its forces, but it ultimately proved incapable of holding the base. The FSA was able to capture a significant amount of weapons and military supplies from the base, including shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, which are believed to have been used to shoot down the regime's warplanes.

The strategy of targeting bases and airports is the revolution's response to one deadly advantage for Assad's forces: the continuing ability to rain down massive destruction from the skies with impunity.

The aim of the rebel strategy is simultaneously to deny the use of these bases to launch air attacks; to prevent supplies and military assistance from arriving from other countries; and to capture medium and heavy weapons to use against the regime. In several instances, the air force has bombed both FSA fighters and its own loyalist troops in a desperate attempt to prevent the bases from being captured.

Air force regiments and air bases on the outskirts of Damascus have also fallen to the rebels, and the FSA is now pushing toward Damascus International Airport. The rebels have advised civilians to stay clear and declared the airport a military zone since it is being used to resupply the regime with weapons and ammunition, as well as a stationing ground for troops.

The Damascus suburbs, where revolutionaries have considerable support, have been under constant bombardment for the last three months as the regime tries to form a perimeter around the capital city. Damascus, the seat of power, is too important to lose and is now locked down with a heavy armed presence and proliferation of checkpoints. The constant buzz of warplanes and explosions is the new normal.

The revolutionaries aren't looking for a repeat of this summer's Operation Damascus Volcano, the ill-fated previous attempt to take the capital which was turned back after a ferocious counter-attack by the regime. Instead, they are engaging in a guerrilla-style war of attrition to weaken and demoralize government forces.

Despite the regime's weakness, it still has some critical strengths that have allowed it to survive for so long in the face of a mass revolt. Chief among those is the direct support it is receiving from Russia, China, and Iran. Second, it has a solid inner circle that sees itself locked in an existential struggle and is therefore willing to deploy utmost brutality without hesitation.

The same cannot be said about the armed forces. Its personnel hail from all over Syria and have relatives and friends active in the revolution. The regime has tried to overcome this problem in three ways: first, the use of overwhelming artillery and air power from a long range, so the effects of the bombing is hidden from those perpetrating it; second, using shabeeha paramilitary gangs instead of regular army troops; and third, deploying its most loyal troops, the Republican Guard and the Fourth Armored Division, when it's necessary to use the military. Comprised of career soldiers with the best training and equipment, they have been kept close to Damascus in preparation for the final battle.

UNDERSTANDING THE dynamics of repression and resistance within Syria is important to analyzing the international developments unfolding in relation to them.

Syrian opposition forces recently formed a new umbrella group called the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. The Coalition says it will act as a provisional government--and is preparing a transitional government for the assumption of power after the fall of the Assad dictatorship.

It is also seeking international recognition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people and the release of the Assad regime's frozen assets abroad. Gulf states, along with Turkey, Britain, Italy and France have already officially recognized it. The U.S. has expressed enthusiastic support, but stopped short of formal diplomatic recognition.

Leaders of the National Coalition say they want to maintain the structure of the Syrian state and institutions while transitioning to democracy and dismantling the security apparatus--aims that will be quite compatible with those of the Western countries that have recognized it.

Meanwhile, the immediate tasks it has set for itself are humanitarian aid to Syrians displaced both internally and externally, as well as a unified military command under the political direction of the National Coalition. It wants any and all military aid to go through its channels, rather than directly to the armed groups on the ground.

The previous attempt at establishing an internationally recognized opposition body was the Syrian National Council (SNC), dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. It is now widely acknowledged as a failure that was unable to overcome its internal divisions nor operate in an open, democratic and transparent manner. Most importantly, the SNC was not representative of the popular uprising and its actual forces on the ground, and by orienting itself toward an outside solution, it didn't give political expression to the revolution.

The SNC's inability to gain leadership of the revolution frustrated its Western backers, who have no interest in seeing a successful Syrian Revolution progress beyond their interests and influence. Various countries then attempted to bypass the SNC, testing the grounds for direct relations with different groups inside Syria.

The Gulf monarchies, despite paying lip service to the SNC, were already weakening it by favoring and arming select groups inside the country. As a result, some ultra-conservative Islamist jihadi groups have come to play an outsized role in Syria's armed resistance, even though they are at odds with the generalized sentiment driving the rebellion that Syrians should live in a free democratic society based on mutual respect for all religions and ethnicities.

IN CONTRAST to the SNC, the National Coalition does in fact include representation from forces inside Syria. Among its members are figures with credibility among the resistance, such as Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, former imam of the Umayyad Mosque; prominent dissident and businessman Riad Seif; and respected female activist Suhair Atassi, all of whom have served time in Assad's prisons.

But despite the involvement of such veteran dissidents, the National Coalition is being used as a vehicle for former Assad officials as well as imperialist forces determined to put their own stamp on a new Syria.

For example, the discredited SNC was promised a third of the seats in the National Coalition, even though the SNC had opposed its formation. And according to insiders, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has become a dominant force within the National Coalition, just as it was in the SNC. The Brotherhood's proposal to lead a transitional government is none other than Riyad Farid Hijab, a defector from the regime who was Assad's prime minister until August of this year--some 18 months into the revolution.

All of this raises a number of big questions: If the SNC didn't represent the revolution on the ground, how is the National Coalition different? What effective voice will internal revolutionary and opposition forces have inside the Coalition? What negotiations and agreements are taking place and what promises are being made for the Coalition to win the international recognition it has? What is its strategy for victory and how does that fit with the popular goals of the revolution? Is there a commitment to social and economic justice? Will the Coalition bow to the U.S. and European agenda for a post-Assad Syria?

These are important questions, especially since the National Coalition has claimed for itself the authority to create a provisional government, and then a transitional government after the fall of the regime.

The Coalition reportedly hopes to take over military command of the Free Syrian Army and the armed resistance by using its close relations with the Gulf to funnel and control arms and supplies. According to a recent issue of The Leftist, published by the Coalition of the Syrian Left, foreign powers are happy with the regime's destruction of Syria's infrastructure:

After the fall of the regime, Western imperial nations are ready to pounce on its prey by drowning the country in conditional loans, under the pretext of reconstruction, in return for enforcing neoliberal economic policies. That is, to keep the previous policies of economic theft in place, and widen the class gap between rich and poor by increasing poverty and exploitation. This requires an alternative government, beholden to imperialism, to rubber-stamp these policies.

Indeed, the National Coalition is already said to be working on a "vision of a dynamic, free-market Syrian economy" to plan for an "economic recovery" that would guarantee Western and regional economic interests.

The recognition of the National Coalition comes at a time of increased victories for the revolutionary forces over the Assad dictatorship. International and regional powers see the tide shifting in favor of the revolution, and they fear an outcome that is outside their influence--so they are looking for openings with the Coalition.

Like the SNC before it, however, the National Coalition is enjoying initial support from the Syrian street. Whether voices from inside Syria will actually be heard remains to be seen. It is important to remember--and the SNC certainly does--that internal legitimacy can be granted, then withdrawn, if a self-declared leadership body fails to meet the expectations of the revolutionary masses.

WHAT IS happening in Syria is a popular revolution. Some voices on the U.S. left reject this, claiming that the resistance is a puppet of Western imperialism--but they are blinded by their support for the murderous Assad dictatorship and their own alliances with some of the international governments that remain its allies, such as Iran.

Others argue that there is not a class content to the uprising. This is also wrong.

The impoverishment and oppression of the Syrian working classes was, in fact, a joint project of the Assad regime and the Syrian bourgeoisie, out to enrich itself. Together, they oversaw the acceleration of neoliberal economic policies over the past decade, which led to large parts of the economy being given away to the private sector. Syria was opened up to foreign imports that devastated national industries. Agriculture, long a cornerstone of subsistence for Syrians, was effectively killed with resulting rises in the cost of fuel and animal feed, throwing millions off the land and into urban slums.

Syria's bourgeoisie was only able to implement this neoliberal agenda because of the iron rule of the regime and its network of security organs that kept the working class weak and its organizations neutered--thus guaranteeing a "protest-free" climate as Syria's economy was opened up to the world market.

As the Coalition of the Syrian Left argues, the popular demands for work, a living wage, education, health care, farming assistance, the right to protest, protection from security forces and so on may sound simple, but are actually the basis of the revolution--and accomplishing them will require changing the entire socio-economic structure of Syria, not just changing some figures at the top or the shape of state authority.

These demands may not be accompanied by working class self-activity at the present time. But Syrians are not facing a "normal" situation. They are facing a militarized conflict against a dictatorship that has crushed working class organizations and cloaks itself in leftist rhetoric to protect its profits and accumulation of wealth.

The task of genuine socialists is to stand with the Syrian Revolution as it shakes off this historical muck and--along with the rest of the Arab Revolutions--opens up a new era of social struggle.

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