The Syrian regime’s counter-offensive is especially centred on using the army to crush the current centre of revolt, Deraa, a southern city of less than 80,000. Given the regime’s history, it is possible that it will employ the same brutally unleashed in Hama in 1982 when up to 20,000 were killed as a Muslim Brotherhood-inspired uprising was crushed. In this way, the Assad clique would hope to intimate the rest of the country but, unlike in 1982, now the mood of revolt is far more widespread and it would be very difficult for the regime to get away with such a massacre. Even if the regime suppresses the current protests, this will not guarantee its continued rule.
However, unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, in January and February, the mass protests in Syria have not, so far, significantly developed in either Damascus, the capital where over 10% of Syria’s 22 million people live, or Aleppo, the largest city of about 2.5 million. In this regard, there are some similarities with Libya, where the largest mass protests in February and March did not take place in its biggest city, the capital Tripoli. It seems that the Syrian regime, like that of Gaddafi, still has some basis of support or, more likely, is sustained by a fear of what would follow its downfall.
The small size of protests in Syria’s two biggest cities has allowed the regime to try to seize the initiative back from the protestors. The Assad regime clearly hopes to crush the unfolding revolution by stamping brutally on protests.
‘Divide and rule’ policies
At the same time, the Syrian government’s ‘divide and rule’ policies share some features with Bahrain, where the Sunni Muslim, pro-Western elite’s rule especially oppresses the Shi’ite Muslim majority. In Syria, the ruling Assad family come from the minority Alawites and relies upon Alawite-dominated units of the security services to fight the protests. The president’s younger brother commands the army’s Fourth Armored Division, while a brother-in-law is an intelligence chief.
This has produced a potentially explosive situation in a country with significant national and religious minorities. About 80% of Syria’s population are Arabs, alongside large minorities of Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians, Armenians and others. On top of these ethnic groupings, there are also religious divides, with about three-quarters of the population Sunni Muslim, 16% other Muslim denominations (including Alawite, Druze) and 10% Christian. While a majority of Syrians, 56%, live in urban areas, a significant minority still live in rural areas where national and religious differences can play a big role.
The regime has frequently sought to gain support by balancing between the different national and religious groups. Many Christian leaders are seen as close to the Assad regime and are fearful of its overthrow, particularly if an Islamist movement came to power. In the midst of the current repression, Bishop Philoxenos Mattias, a spokesman for the Syriac Orthodox Church, used his Easter address to praise Assad for the “safety and security he was bringing to Syria”.
At this time, the major imperialist countries are caught in a dilemma. They are desperate to put a firewall around the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East to prevent more Western-friendly regimes being overthrown. One of their reasons for the intervention in Libya is to stop insurrectionary movements from below in other countries, while also trying to seize advantage of the Libyan situation to install a more reliable ally in power there. To a certain extent, they are debating whether to pursue a similar strategy in Syria, but Syria is not the same as Libya.
While Libya has far more significant oil reserves than Syria it is in a less important strategic, geo-political position. Syria is in a pivotal position in the Middle East, bordering onto key countries like Israel, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. As well as being fearful of what type of regime could come to power in Syria, imperialism also fears the possibility of the country’s breakup and the destabilising consequences that would have regionally.
These fears were summed by Thomas Friedman recently in the New York Times: “In the Arab world, almost all these countries are Yugoslavia-like assemblages of ethnic, religious and tribal groups put together by colonial powers — except Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, which have big homogeneous majorities. So when you take the lid off these countries, you potentially unleash not civil society but civil war” (12 April, 2011). Significantly, Friedman ended this article with the words, “Prepare for Yugoslavias”, in other words, ethnic and religious wars.
Of course, as a pro-capitalist commentator, it does not even entry Friedman’s head that there is a force, other than brutal dictatorships, that can prevent ethnic or religious conflicts, let alone offer a way out of the current crisis. While supporters of capitalism see no alternative to their system, the working class has the potential to mobilise and unite in struggle the mass of the population to fight against repression and for democratic rights and a better future.
Already this year, the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt offered a glimpse of this alternative force, the working class, in action. The signs that the working class was moving collectively into revolutionary action provoked the Tunisian and Egyptian elites to sacrifice Ben Ali and Mubarak, respectively, in an attempt to hold onto power.
Urgent need for independent workers’ forces
As already seen in the other Middle Eastern revolutions, the urgent need in Syria is for the working masses and youth to establish their own independent forces and organisations. Neighbourhood committees and councils in the factories should be immediately organised, to give a voice and organisation to the masses, while defending the revolution. A clear call for the formation of democratically elected and run committees in all workplaces, communities and amongst the military rank and file, would get a wide response. However, events in Syria, like those in Libya, are showing the limitations of purely spontaneous movements. With no independent workers’ party to help give strategy and direction to the uprising, there is the danger that the regime will be able to retain power.
To undermine the Assad clique, and to ensure that they are not similar replaced by another group of gangsters, an organised movement with a clear action programme offering an end to repression by a corrupt elite, 20% unemployment and domination by imperialism, is necessary. The Assad regime is attempting to rally nationalist and anti-imperialist opinion by claiming that Saudi Arabia, Israel and others are involved in “foreign plots”, alongside Islamic fundamentalists, are fuelling the revolt. Genuine mass organisations of working people could offer a real alternative to the regime, showing that its revolutionary overthrow would not, if it was led by the working class, lead to imperialism tightening its grip on Syria. Democratic structures built from below could co-ordinate the removal of the old regime, maintain order and supplies and, most importantly, be the basis for a government of workers’ and poor representatives. Such a government would block reaction, defend democratic rights and start to meet the economic and social needs of the mass of Syrians.
Without such a movement, there is the danger that the Assad regime may be able to, at least, temporarily retain its grip on power.
UN intervention? – Lessons of Libya
If this was to take place some may look to the United Nations or other outside powers to act against the regime. This, however, would be a serious mistake. As is now being seen in Libya, any intervention by the UN, NATO or the world’s other main powers would aim at stifling real revolutionary change and ensure a pro-imperialist regime.
The big imperialist powers’ actions, or inactions, over the past few months should serve as a warning to anyone thinking of support their intervention. They have done nothing about the situation in Bahrain (their close ally) where, proportionally, the numbers of protesters killed were similar to those slain in the first weeks in Syria. In Egypt, the imperialist powers only dumped Mubarak when they had to. Less than three weeks before Mubarak fell, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was, at a 25th January press conference, praising his rule: “Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people”.
A combination of independent self-organisation of Syrian working people and appeals to the rest of Syrian population, especially the armed forces’ rank and file, is the only basis upon which the Assad regime can be overthrown in the working masses’ interests.
To ensure a clean break with the regime, a government representing the mass of Syrians – a workers’ and poor peoples’ government – is urgently required. Such a government would guarantee immediate and free elections and take urgent measures to improve living standards.
Socialists call for a revolutionary democratic constituent assembly and for a majority workers’ and rural workers’ government that, on the basis of a democratically controlled, publicly-owned economy, would use Syria’s resources in the interests of the majority of the population.
This is the only way to win long lasting full democratic rights, including the right to assemble, to strike and to organise democratic independent trade unions. Such a transformation would ensure a living minimum wage, guaranteed jobs and decent homes, education and health, for all.
An independent movement of working people and youth, struggling to implement this type of socialist programme, can cut across tribal and regional divisions and, as in Tunisia and Egypt, unite the mass of the population against the Assad regime, while blocking any imperialist attempts to hijack the revolution. A revolutionary movement, on this basis, would be attractive across the region. A genuinely democratic socialist Syria would inspire similar revolutions in other countries that would lay the foundations for a socialist confederation of the region, on an equal and voluntary basis.