For a mass movement of workers and the poor to defeat Assad’s regime and imperialism!
On 16 February, a non-binding resolution was adopted by the UN General Assembly backing the Arab League’s call on Syria’s President Assad to resign. It was based on an earlier resolution in the Security Council that was vetoed by Russia and China, on 31 January, which called on the United Nations Security Council to send “peacekeepers” to Syria to intervene in escalating fighting between the Syrian government and opposition and on Assad to transfer power. Russia said the resolution opens the way for civil war in Syria. Assad’s regime states that it will “defeat any foreign attempt to create chaos in Syria”.
But in the last weeks, the regime has been deploying its military and security forces and heavy weapons against opposition groups, which include reportedly armed groups that increasingly incorporate former soldiers from the Syrian army. The regime’s army has bombarded towns, killing scores of protestors every day, detaining activists and reinforcing brutal sanctions on whole towns, reported to be without gas, power, phone or internet connections and many without some items of food. The state forces’ attacks have reportedly targeted homes, schools and hospitals, killing children and women and driving whole families out of their neighbourhoods and into displacement, living in unbearable conditions.
Other reports tell a different story. Some opposition groups are getting armed to defend the protests but are in some cases retaliating to the regime and forming road check points in towns and neighbourhoods. There are reports of kidnappings, intimidations and shops forced to close and to go on strike. People not yet activated by the uprising are reported to be horrified and staying in their homes. Clearly, the Assad regime is exploiting the situation which is developing into an armed conflict and is attempting to subjugate any opposition with the aim of preventing a mass uprising spreading into Damascus. As a result, over 5,000 have been killed, excluding serving soldiers but including defectors. It is estimated that around 2,000 serving military personnel may have died as well.
For 11 months now, Assad’s regime has been unleashing its military forces to try to crush the uprising but has failed to reverse events. The brutal Assad dictator has deployed tanks and armoured personnel carriers in towns and cities where protests have been consistently calling for his removal, including Deraa, Homs, Hama, Idlib and suburbs of Damascus. In addition to the thousands killed and injured, tens of thousands are reported to be detained and tortured or missing, among them women and children.
The uprising started in Deraa 11 months ago and spread as a mass protest movement against the corruption of the ruling elite. Most slogans were, at the beginning, about the deteriorating and unbearable social and economic conditions faced by workers and the urban and rural poor. Inspired by the revolutions sweeping the entire region, the protests soon evolved into a revolutionary uprising by workers and youth heroically standing up to the monstrous state machine’s live bullets and mass detentions. Demands escalated to calling for the removal of Assad’s regime and the corrupt and repressive rule of his clan.
The Syrian uprising developed as the West was opening up to and establishing ties with the regime and as a result of swift neo-liberal measures in the economy that led to the collapse of the Syrian industrial and agricultural sectors and the impoverishment of the working class. The uprising is partly an outcome of a process of the looting the country’s wealth. The impoverishment of the working class and increasing unemployment affecting a large number of youth and rural poor are a result of Assad’s neo-liberal policies intertwined with his clan’s corruption and dominance over the economy.
But despite attempts by the opposition to organise strike action and defence committees, recent reports from Syria show that the struggle is developing into an armed conflict between various anti-regime groups with different characteristics, and state forces. This development, which can pose serious dangers, is due to the absence of a mass workers’ alternative to Assad that is capable of appealing to and organising workers and the poor across Syria and making a class appeal to the rank and file of the armed forces to split the army along class lines. A mass socialist party is the only force able to unite the masses and challenge to take power from the rotten Syrian capitalist class.
Brutal regime and increasing bloodshed
Today, horrendous images of killings of men, women and children (some of which is seen on YouTube) from Homs, Idlib, Hama, and suburbs of Damascus, do not only consist of footage of protesters attacked or shot by the security forces, but also of armed groups defending their areas from brutal attacks at the hands of the monstrously repressive regime. Pictures increasingly feature killings of armed men and of random bombings by the state forces of areas and towns, some already divided along sectarian and confessional lines, such as Homs. Human rights groups monitoring the daily toll of deaths, injuries and arrests now confirm that this is a growing trend, also evident from the names on the casualty lists.
Horrific reports have been emerging lately about some cases of particularly savage sectarian killings on both sides – images which the conflict in Iraq embedded in the consciousness of the Arab masses a few years ago. In the last few weeks, the ‘Local Coordinating Committees’ called for demonstrations to be held on Fridays and stressed that they should be peaceful. The Committees issued such calls weekly with warnings about the protest movement becoming infected with the violence implanted by the regime and which has begun to characterize the opposition movement in parts of the country. There have been fears, reported by Syrian activists, that this violence is leading to the bloody chaos that the region has become more wearily familiar with, particularly the Iraqi and Lebanese masses.
Socialists support the right of protestors and revolutionary groups to take up arms in the face of the cold-blooded killing, torture and detention of activists by the brutal Assad regime, which wields overwhelming military strength. But resistance, if it is to be effective and the basis for an alternative government, needs to be based on democratically-elected defence committees of workers and youth and to act as accountable bodies armed to protect the mass protests. The ‘Free Syrian Army’, declaring itself the “defender of the revolution”, and reportedly made up of 25,000 defected soldiers and officers, is reported to be backed by several reactionary Arab states like the Saudi dictatorship and the Qatar autocracy. Recent news reports have shown film footages of Free Syrian Army men as ‘guerilla fighters’ and when interviewed, speaking of being supported by Libyan rebel troops and fighting Hezbollah and Iranian fighters, as well as the Syrian state army. However true or false these reports are, they show the volatility of the situation which is increasingly out of the hands of the regime. This turn in the protest movement shows the danger that the movement is taken out of the hands of activists on the ground and shifted from mass protests into armed fighting by unaccountable militias. As the CWI emphasized in previous articles and statements, only on the basis of a mass independent movement of workers and the poor that breaks with capitalism can the Syrian revolution succeed in truly transforming the lives of the vast majority.
This also means having no trust in either the imperialist powers or the regional autocratic dictatorships. Despite all their fine words about defending the Syrian people, powers like the US and Britain kept silent when Israel attacked Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009 and made only very mild criticism of the Bahraini and Saudi brutal suppression of last year’s protest movement in Bahrain or about the current crackdown against protesters marking one year since the Bahrain protests. The Arab League is anything but a group of democratic and ‘neutral’ regimes and is in no position to preach about democratic rights.
Right wing Islamist groups
The Arab satellite TV news channels, most of which are funded by the despotic regimes, rarely report about the role of far right Islamist groups in Syria, such as the Salafists, who have been funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as seen also in Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq. The role of Takfiri groups in Syria is exaggerated by the regime [Takfiris are regarded as violent offshoots of the Salafi movement and Sunni Islamist groups used the concept previously to justify attacks on Shias] but they do seek to sow divisions along sectarian and confessional lines. In recent weeks, there have been reports and interviews from towns like Homs stating that children from one community were expelled or excluded from their local schools for sectarian reasons, of groups of people fleeing from one part of the country to another out of fear of bloody sectarian revenge, and of civilian buses carrying inter-city travellers or government employees being ambushed and passengers either freed or killed depending on what sect they belong to. The killings have been described as particularly savage and horrifying.
Some opposition activists say that they have temporarily withdrawn from the protest movement, fearing a drift towards, and in protest at, potential civil and sectarian war. The regime is largely and correctly blamed for this development, having repressed and massacred political Islamists in the past and therefore enhanced their role amongst some of the most oppressed. The political Islamists have also received the funding and backing of the Sunni elite in the region. These developments lead many Syrians to fear what might come after Assad, if the regime is overthrown. But the deterioration in the situation is also a reflection of the failure of the opposition to raise social and economic demands alongside the democratic issues and to build a mass movement of workers and the poor with an alternative workers’ programme around which working people and the poor can unite. Such a movement would reject imperialist intervention and stand united against the whole corrupt and repressive Syrian capitalist class, the pro-Assad sections and the big business backed “opposition leaders” in exile. This approach would appeal on a class basis to most soldiers in the army to join the uprising and carry out a revolution that would transform the lives of most Syrians, including workers in uniform.
Many analysts have commented on Syria reaching a “new crossroads”, with US forces withdrawing from Iraq meaning changes are taking place in the region. Some have pointed to the US, Europe, and their Arab clients as acting in collaboration with various parts of the Syrian opposition to remove Assad. Part of these plans is the most prominent group in the opposition, the Syrian National Council (SNC), with dissident figures like Ghalioun holding an SNC leadership position and pushing for a plan of action similar to the NATO intervention in Libya. Of course, considering the dangers or the consequences, Western powers and most Arab states are not yet willing to comply with all these calls.
However, while it is true that Western powers are less interested in attacking Syria because of its demographic complexities and the potential consequences of the fall-out of a military intervention and because it does not have Libya’s oil resources, it is clearly proving to be in the interests of the Arab oil states and imperialism to isolate the Iranian regime by weakening Assad’s rule. An illustration of the pressure felt by the Syrian regime, as a result of the determined mass opposition movement on the ground and of the effects of sanctions on the economy, is the announcement by Assad of a ‘constitutional referendum’ called on 26 February and elections thereafter. This may be a ploy by the regime to attempt to incorporate sections of the Western-backed opposition groups into government. This would, of course, be at the cost of the protestors whose living conditions will not see a fundamental change. However, a military intervention still cannot be ruled out considering the ruling elite around Assad will be resistant to giving away their position, power, wealth and influence to Qatari and Syrian businessmen in exile. After all, Qatar has announced that it is not only offering to fund a military intervention in Syria but to also fund “reconstruction” in its aftermath. This is because, at the regional level, alongside their enormous wealth, Syria is a strategic prize for oligarchs.
However, given that the experience of the Lebanese civil war is far more applicable to Syria than the experiences of Libya or Yemen, with the two neighbouring countries similar sectarian divisions and political alignments, any military intervention by the US-European Western alliance in league with the Gulf States and Turkey would risk destabilizing the whole region. Moreover, such an intervention would be, in the long term if not the short term, rejected by the masses of the region that have a bitter experience of imperialism. In addition to this, the oil states of the Gulf have to consider the demographic balance of their own populations and the fact that their regimes are also unstable, with the Gulf masses increasingly inspired by the revolutions in the Arab region. However, this does not mean that other forms of a foreign-sponsored conflict in Syria will not take place, such as the arming and backing of some opposition groups to carry out a military overthrow of Assad’s regime, as is already reported to be happening.
In the meantime, economic and financial sanctions are used by the UN and Arab League to not only target the regime and its institutions and leaders, but to target the Syrian capitalist class, who appear largely still prepared to back the regime but will not be indefinitely and not at any cost. At this stage, it is small businesses and the working class paying the price of these sanctions, as big businesses and state companies are making workers pay for the crisis, through higher prices for goods and lay-offs. Moreover, the support that Assad’s regime is currently receiving from Iran, Russia, China, and to a certain degree Lebanon and Iraq, have been partially mitigating the effect of the sanctions in the short term. Iran has been sending a message that it is able to seal off strategic trade routes that would slow the international economy to a standstill and paralyse commercial activity between East and West, if sanctions against it continue. And the Iranian government signed a free trade agreement with Syria in December and bought half of Syria’s agricultural production for the year, confirming its support for the regime.
However, over the last two months alone, prices in Syria have gone up by an average of 25%, power cuts have reached 12 hours a day and the Syrian currency has plummeted by about 15%. And with the oil and tourism industries affected, the Finance Minister, Al Shaar, has spoken of the government’s “responsibility” towards “ordinary citizens” and the “return to domestic production” and “self-sufficiency” (taking some protectionist measures). But Syrian industry has been unable to compete with foreign goods and a number of factories have already closed down and workers were laid off. In addition, Turkish capitalist interests are at stake if the region faces a blockade, with about 160,000 trucks entering Syria each year from Turkey, most of which continue on to Gulf or neighbouring countries. Turkey exports to Syria three times what it imports from the country. Searching for short term solutions to make up the losses to big business in Syria, there have already been talks about Syria looking for other solutions, such as “developing a shared market with Iraq”.
Turkey and the Gulf states are seeking to establish powerful footholds inside Syria, as they did in Libya, so as to be able to influence the country’s future and undermine its regional influence. It is no coincidence that the US, Europe and their Arab clients want Israel to maintain a low profile so that its involvement does not discredit the regime’s “enemies”. We saw the same spectacle in Lebanon after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. But the same problem could recur. If the combination of opposition and external military, security and economic pressure fails to bring down the regime, Israel could, with US backing, be re-visited and asked to revert to a war-waging role. But this course of action would be highly problematic, as the Syrian regime would use the nationalism as a pole of support and portray itself as leading the resistance against Israel. A military intervention into Syria could quickly spiral out of control and into a regional war, partly as result of Hezbollah’s fear of facing a ‘blockade’ and Iran’s fear of more isolation. The UN Security Council is aware of this dilemma and might well play a role similar to the one it played in Yemen, thus supporting the ‘Arab initiative’ (bringing down the regime but preserving the system).
However, none of this is detracting attention from Assad’s state terror and from the killing of protesters and arresting of tens of thousands. The regime understands that nobody can overlook or excuse this, or act as though the killings, arrests, and torture never happened. Therefore, any ‘reform process’ on behalf of the regime will need to incorporate opposition leaders to participate in discussing and formulating ‘reforms’. What happens in Syria remains to be seen but if the underlying conditions which were behind the start of this uprising are to fundamentally change, it is up to the working class to get organized independently and move into the mass opposition struggle as a class, utilizing its methods of mass struggle, including the general strike and mass insurrection, as we saw in Tunisia and Egypt last year, to sweep aside the Assad regime and the entire rotten capitalist class in Syria.
Balancing between “reform” and reaction
Since coming to power in 2000, Assad has been trying to balance between limited “reform” and ruthless military crackdown. By “reform” is meant the releasing of some political prisoners and allowing the setting up of so-called independent newspapers. For a limited time, Assad even allowed “democratic” intellectuals to hold public meetings, but these were soon banned as arrests and harassment became the preferred way for the regime to suppress opposition. Human rights groups say there are today over 50,000 detainees, in addition to the thousands of political prisoners already in Syrian jails.
At the start of the uprising last year, promises of ‘reform’ were made but did not materialize. The regime stated that it is “premature” to talk about constitutional changes which would end the ruling Baath Party being the “leader of the state and society” ahead of the 2014 presidential election.
But Assad’s fear of the movement growing has led him to issue a number of general amnesties for prisoners, including those accused of political “crimes”. This shows the pressure from the uprising that his regime has failed to suppress despite the use of massive military force. These offers have been rejected by the opposition as just another plot by the regime to gain time. Syrian state television said the amnesty covered, “all members of political movements,” including the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, which led an armed uprising against Assad’s father in 1982. Membership in the party is punishable by death.
The release of political prisoners has been a key demand of the opposition. The first offer came as members of the Syrian opposition gathered in Turkey for a conference in summer 2011, as part of a series of reforms – including lifting a 40-year-old state of emergency and granting citizenship to stateless Kurds in eastern Syria – aimed at addressing the grievances of Kurdish protesters. But this move was seen as too-little-too-late by the masses; hundreds of protesters had already been killed, and the protestors raised their demands from “reform” to “toppling the regime”.
The Syrian opposition
The Syrian uprising was reported last December to have come to a “stalemate”. The pact between the two umbrella opposition organisations had broken down. The Syrian National Council (SNC) – calling for foreign intervention – and the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria (NCB) – opposed to foreign intervention, while factions within it express openness to dialogue with the regime.
The “opposition” in exile, having announced four months into the protests the creation of a “transitional council” to “lead the struggle against the regime”, was founded during a three-day conference in Turkey, privately funded by Syrian and Arab big businesses, including the Sanqar brothers’ luxury car distributors based in Damascus, the UAE-based satellite channel Orient TV, which had its Damascus office closed down after it was forcefully bought out by Assad’s cousin, Makhlouf.
The former and exiled former Syrian vice president, Khaddam, who went on Israeli state television speaking of a plan for military action against Syria, stated with confidence that the Syrian regime will be toppled and that NATO would be involved in some sort of military intervention. Khaddam was in a previous opposition coalition called, the ‘National Salvation Front’ (Jabhat Al Khoulas Al Watani) along with the Muslim Brotherhood. This led to other political groups, including the former communists and nationalists in another coalition, the ‘Damascus Declaration (Ealan Dimashk)’, to denounce Khaddam for his corrupt personal history and to call the Brotherhood opportunistic. Nevertheless, the two coalitions have agreed to joint efforts in an opposition front against the Assad regime. This indicates that none of these parties and coalitions actually has a real social base of support or the ability to appeal to the masses of workers and youth protesting in Syrian streets.
The traditional opposition inside Syria, other than the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists, is mainly remnants of the so-called “Left” parties, which were either intellectuals detached from Syrian workers or allied to the regime. The latter, being tainted by their past links with the regime while claiming to be “socialist”, do not appeal to the protesting youth and workers in the streets today.
Role of Muslim Brotherhood
Like many other “opponents” of the regime, the Brotherhood and Salafists initially played a limited role in the protests. Many of the protests began around mosques initially, as these were the only “gatherings” that the government did not disperse, and religious texts the only “opinions” the government cannot suppress.
Rather than Islamist slogans, chants that have been raised in the mosques called for unity of the Syrian people and for freedom. On a number of protests since the 27 May 2011, handmade banners declared: “We’re not Salafists!”, “We’re not armed groups!”, “We’re the youth of free Syria!” and “Where’s the media?”
It is the struggle for better living standards and for the freedom to organise and fight for better conditions which appeals to the masses of Syrian workers and youth. This is the real dynamic behind an increasing number of protestors overcoming their fear of the government and taking to the streets, and is behind the regime being on the defensive. But while the Muslim Brotherhood might appeal to a section in Syrian society, they cannot appeal to the masses on a class basis. The Brotherhood’s impact in the protests is limited on the ground (although it is exaggerated by the mass media). Nevertheless the role of the Brotherhood exacerbates the fears of the 10% Christian population of an Islamic movement driving them out of Syria, as occurred in Iraq. The Brotherhood leaders aim to play a role in the Western-backed opposition, as well as in future possible elections, following the example of the Brotherhood in Egypt.
The Assad regime has taken a conscious step of playing on sectarian and religious divisions in the name of defending the “secular” tradition of Syrian society. They hope this can counter the Syria working class moving into decisive action against the regime.
Syrian capitalism in crisis
In recent years, the Baath Party moved towards embracing a free market economy, which already in Syria has seen combining competition and private ‘initiatives’ in the corrupt and under-funded public sector, the role of the state receding and the rise of new monopolies. The quality of goods and services went down, jobs were lost and living standards have declined. With local courts corrupt and run under the control of the Baathist party leaders, an appalling bureaucracy developed and the so-called economic “reforms” meant the grabbing of economic power by and for the benefit of the rich and powerful, in almost all cases related to the Assad family.
Economic neo-liberalism in Syria, just like in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, meant that the same state bureaucracy that arose as a result of a military coup became the corrupt capitalist class now facing growing social and political protests. In cities like Dara’a and Latakia, protests started against the feared and hated big property owner, and Assad’s cousin, Makhlouf. He controls the country’s cell phone network and more than anyone else represents the intertwining of power and wealth in Syria.
This protest movement has its roots in the worsening economic conditions facing workers and the poor across Syria, starting with the question of land property along Syria’s borders. Most land owners along the borders are not allowed to sell or even invest in their land, making it hard for poor peasants and small farmers to make a living other than trading in the black market and smuggling goods across the borders. Most young men are forced to commute into big cities in search for work which is only available to a small number and for low wages.
This has also led to a crisis in housing. Families cannot afford to buy properties built by construction companies and are not allowed to expand and build additional floors onto their homes. In Daraa, one of the first protest banners read: “Don’t lift the emergency law, lift the limit on floors”. On the way from Damascus to Deraa, the class make up of the towns can be defined based on status of homes. Hundreds of thousands of families are living in poor housing, facing mass unemployment and poverty. In Syria, it is common to meet young people working in restaurants who hold a degree. Youth unemployment is on the increase and like all other Arab countries neo-liberal capitalism has failed many new generations. The young make up around 60% of the total population of Syria.
The market economy in Syria has also meant that among others, Chinese and Turkish big businesses – mainly furniture factories and agriculture industries – are driving carpenters and small farmers out of business. Shops and small firms have been closing down, with many workers, mainly youth, forced into the cities in search for a living. In addition to this, high taxation is being imposed on the remaining small businesses making it even harder to for most family businesses to be sustained. With crumbling public services and social cuts, gaps have widened between rich and poor and big cities and small towns. Adding to this, corruption has become rife, at all levels of society.
The Syrian ruling elite is fundamentally detached from everyday issues facing the majority of Syrians, in particular the workers and the poor. Those big businesses interests now trying to organize themselves in the opposition will only serve their own class interests, exploiting protestors who have put their lives at risk fighting for a better future for their children.
The need to appeal to the workers in uniform
Syrian capitalism leans on a 500,000 strong army, not counting the security forces and intelligence officers. With a third of the population living under the poverty line and a new generation of youth facing mass unemployment, many working class youth turn to the army and state forces as a means of making a living for themselves and their families. Syrian capitalism is failing a whole generation with registered unemployment at 25% and youth being forced to enter the army ranks with very low salaries. Bribery and corruption among the ranks of the army is common and is a result of the corruption rife in the public sector, as a whole. Since the 27 May 2011 protests, with slogans calling upon the army to join the protests, thousands of soldiers and officers have defected and joined the opposition.
This shows there is the basis for a class appeal to these ‘workers in uniform’, in whose class interests it is to get organised with the working class and poor brothers and sisters, to topple the regime. If this call was adopted by the broad layers of workers in society, combined with mass action, including strikes, the Assad regime and the big business clans would be brought down. Such a development would, as in the Egyptian revolution, pose the need for the creation of a government of workers’ and poor representatives to achieve both real democratic rights and the use of the country’s resources in the interests of the mass of the population.
The right to self-determination
A further vital question in Syria is the position of the Kurds and the calls to establish ‘Kurdistan’. Socialists call for full and genuine equal rights to all nationalities and oppressed religious minorities and for an end to all forms of national or religious discrimination and persecution. We also support the right of self determination for the Kurds.
In an attempt to sideline the Kurdish masses in Syria from the opposition movement, Assad made a concession on the 7 April 2011, granting citizenship to more than a hundred thousand Kurds. But Kurdish protestors kept joining the protests against the regime, and chanted “The Kurdish cause is not citizenship but freedom!”
Kurdish communities in Syria face daily oppression and have been discriminated against by the Syria state as long as the pan-Arab Baathists have ruled. The Kurdish masses are prohibited from practicing their own culture and speaking their native language. Kurds make up 10% of the population in Syria (more than 2 million), concentrated along the Syrian-Iraqi and the Turkish-Syria borders. Over 300,000 of them are deprived of Syrian nationality, with no right to work in the public sector, to enter certain higher education courses, to own property, to marry Syrian nationals or to travel.
In the 1970s, regime policies aimed at isolating the Kurds in an enclave away from Syria’s borders included moving Arab tribes into the Kurdish border trading areas and forcing Kurdish families off their land and out of their livelihoods. The incoming tribes became known among the Kurdish communities as the “Arab settlers”. This regime policy was also aimed at isolating the Kurds in Syria from those in Turkey and Iraq, to undermine the potential unity among Kurds across borders, struggling for a movement demanding self-determination.
Like many Kurds in Turkey, Iran and Iraq, Kurdish Syrians see their national question solved with an ‘independent Kurdistan’. These national aspirations were exploited by US imperialism in Iraq with the false promise of an independent ‘Kurdish zone’ which, in reality, led to the creation of a Kurdish bureaucratic ruling class ruling a territory in Iraq and mainly interested in making deals with oil corporations and sharing power in Iraq. Pan-Arab nationalists use this example to describe these aspirations as ‘separatist’, but do not see that denying the right to self-determination to the Kurdish masses actually hinders the struggle against oppression and imperialism.
Accepting the Kurdish peoples’ right to self-determination does not rule out joint struggle with the Arab masses and the other oppressed people’s of the region. The Kurdish workers and the poor have common interests with the Syrian masses and there is the potential for a united movement along class lines. This would challenge the ruling classes in the region, whether Syrian, Turkish or the nascent Kurdish national bourgeoisie who have turned its back on the Kurdish masses in the drive for money and power. The conditions facing Kurdish workers and youth are the same conditions facing all workers and youth in the region and are a result of local and global capitalism’s exploitation or human labour and natural resources.
Assad’s anti-imperialist rhetoric
Western imperialism has been meddling in Syria and the Middle East for decades, and is only prepared to back protestors if the interests of its big businesses are met. Previous Western allies, like Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, were only abandoned by US and French imperialism when imperialist strategic interests and big companies’ profits were threatened by mass opposition protests and the working class. The ruling classes, in the region and globally, are all prepared to ally with, or oppose, Assad’s regime, all depending on their own economic and geo-strategic interests. This is, in fact, part of the counter-revolution in the region, waged by the local and regional elites and by the intervention of Western powers.
However, as a result of Syria’s foreign policy traditionally being against the interests of US imperialism and the failure of the regime to make a ‘peace deal’ with Israel, the Syrian regime probably enjoys wider support than did Saleh, Gaddafi, Mubarak or Ben Ali. Knowing this, Assad relied on the security forces to suppress and isolate the protests, by promising to respond to protestors’ demands and recognising the popular longing for freedom and equality.
Although the working masses have not yet moved into the arena of mass struggle as an organised class, Assad’s support has been declining. A recent indication of this is the pro-Assad demonstrations where, despite the pro-Syria media claiming they have been several millions strong, have only involved tens of thousands, at the most, and were mobilised by the regime and mainly in the heart of Syrian capital. Clearly, the majority in Syria are not prepared to willingly support Assad. But neither are they confident about risking their lives and to take to the streets facing live bullets when the only alternative on offer by the “opposition” leaders is one which is backed by reactionary Gulf states and Western and big business interests.
Assad is aware of the mood of the masses and has attempted to balance between promising ‘reform’ for the future, while leaning on his long used “anti-imperialist” rhetoric and calling the uprising “a conspiracy" and denouncing the armed groups opposing him as “terrorists”. In a previous attempt to try to win over the not yet mobilised masses, Assad called on the people to distinguish between protesters who have “legitimate demands” and “saboteurs” who have “fundamentalist ways of thinking” and who use “destruction” to “spread chaos under the name of freedom."
It is true that the opposition leaders are not to be trusted, as they have imperialist backing and big business interests, and therefore an anti-worker agenda and while some protestors are taking up armed struggle – to defend themselves and the protesters from the brutal bloody killings at the hands of the state forces – and are thus unfortunately fighting on behalf of the masses in individual armed action against the security forces rather than appealing to workers and the poor to get organised in democratically elected defence committees, the Assad regime is only using this argument to create and widen divisions in the movement and among the masses. It is using its armed thugs to create chaos and to whip up more fear, especially among the minority Christian and Allawite communities.
Russia has opposed a UN resolution sanctioning Assad’s regime because of its interests in preserving economic ties and trade with Syria. Syria is the only ally of Russia in the Middle East and is the biggest consumer of Russian weapons in the region. Russian capitalism fears a change of the Syrian regime against its interests. If a new Western-backed regime was installed, there would be a shift in the weapons industry to the West and big losses to the Russian arms industry.
While the Russian administration has expressed its regret that the Syrian regime was late in calling for ‘dialogue’ it has opposed US and EU interference in Syria. The Kremlin refers to Libya as the “first station” facing such imperialist interventions, Syria the second and Iran the third. Russia blamed the delay in reform in Syria on “foreign backed” factions in the opposition (as if Russian capitalism, and Stalinism before it, has not long backed the repressive and corrupt regime of the Assad clan!).
Deterioration of social and economic conditions
Syrian working people have been facing deteriorating conditions, such as fuel shortages and inflation. The working and middle classes are starting to feel an economic squeeze due to the country’s ongoing political crisis, leading to shortages in a number of essential items, including diesel fuel. As demand for hearting fuel increased during the winter season and some Syrian workers unable to afford fuel costs have to find ‘alternative’ ways to stay warm.
Moreover, the rise in prices of basic foods has been coupled with stagnation in consumption. International sanctions against Syria have not harmed the regime as much as they have working people. The regime has taken anti-worker measures to deal with the sanctions, such as shortening working hours, decreasing salaries, freezing expenses, mass layoffs of those mainly working in the tourism industry, with only partial compensation, while reassuring the Syrian people that all the problems of shortages are being resolved.
Damascus residents find that diesel is sold to them for higher prices than those officially set by the government, which had taken a decision at the beginning of the protest movement to lower the price of diesel as part of its “reform package”. There has been a gradual increase in food prices despite most foodstuffs being produced inside Syria. Sales of new cars have plummeted sharply despite the government decision to ban imports. Furthermore, the economic crisis was particularly aggravated by the decision taken by some big banks to stop financing customers’ car purchases.
The sanctions, if they are fully implemented and include a ban on Syrian exports, could lead to an economic disaster, hitting the domestic industrial sector hardest. Companies would sack workers first, as a way to overcome the deficits that could result in Syria’s free trade pact with neighbouring countries, such as Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan – Syria’s main trading partners.
However, the construction sector in Syria has benefited from the political crisis. In the absence of regime control, construction is booming in many areas that previously faced housing crises, especially in slums where multi-level buildings were constructed in record time. The construction boom has led to an increase in demand for construction materials, and consequently a hike in prices, translating into increased profits for the building sector. Under capitalism, everything possible, including revolutions, is exploited for profits for the rich.
The need to move against Syrian capitalism
Syrian capitalism is unwilling and incapable of carrying out the social and economic reforms which would improve the conditions of the masses, and which have been behind the protests initially in Deraa and other areas across Syria. Moreover, if real democratic rights are granted to the masses in Syria, protests would quickly grow and spread, and not just the Syrian regime would risk being toppled, but all businesses and corrupt leaders would be made accountable.
Similar to Lebanon, if the Syrian ruling elite sees a workers’ revolt coming, it will use its remaining weapon of sectarianism to divide and rule. Syrian workers need to unite in their demands for jobs, homes and services but the rich will not want to share the cake with the poor. Under huge pressure from the masses and working class, regimes can be forced to make concession and reforms, to try to save the regime and system, as a whole. But any reforms given by a pro-capitalist government, including by a future post-Assad regime, will be limited and the ruling class will always attempt to take back these reforms if they can.
If workers’ social and economic conditions are to be improved under the current regime, it would mean the Assad clan, which is the main power in the Syrian regime, being forced to eat into their enormous wealth. Just like Lebanese capitalism under a pro-Hezbollah government cannot ‘afford’ lasting pro-worker reforms, Assad cannot either. To stay in power, the regime may try to entice the bourgeois “opposition” or sections of it, into a re-configured Syrian regime. The ruling class in Syria, and the regional despots and imperialism, fear most of all the Syrian working class getting organised and moving into revolutionary struggle. The forces of reaction would go to war, civil or regional, as a way to divide the working class and to preserve capitalism.
The fight for democratic rights and to end corruption is the fight for workers’ democracy!
The war which both Assad’s regime and the ruling classes worldwide most fear is a class war, waged by the working and poor masses against the corrupt and repressive ruling and capitalist classes. An independent workers’ movement would not only fight for democratic rights, which are essential in the Middle East, but also organise mass action and strikes to challenge the power of the Syrian ruling elite and capitalism. By taking Syrian industries and Syrian capital into public hands, under workers’ democratic control and management, the working masses and poor of Syria, of all religious and national backgrounds, can start to determine their futures, based on need not profit.
A workers’ and poor peasants’ representative government would break with capitalism. This would start to lay the basis of a genuine socialist society, which has nothing in common with the former one-party, bureaucratic and dictatorial Stalinist states in the former USSR and Eastern Europe or their autocratic allies in the Middle East, like the Assad-clan Syrian regime.
A revolution of workers and the poor in Syria would act as a mighty inspiration to workers and the poor across the Middle East and the region. Such a revolution would appeal to workers from all ethnic and religious backgrounds to carry out their own revolutions and get rid of their own corrupt and exploitative leaders, and to fight for workers’ unity and for real self-determination. United mass workers’ movements, linking up across borders to challenge local capitalism, would force imperialism out of the region, and appeal to workers’ internationally to fight for a socialist world.
The CWI in Lebanon and internationally calls:
For the building of mass workers’ committees in all the communities and workplaces, as the basis for an independent workers’ movement
For the immediate formation of independent and democratically elected workers’ defence committees, under democratic control, to defend protests, homes, neighbourhoods and workplaces from the brutal Assad state machine
For the escalation of workers’ protests and strikes and to build for a general strike and workplace occupations
For a class appeal to rank and file soldiers to organise against the army tops and join the protestors. For trade union rights for the rank and file soldiers
For the defeat of Syrian capitalism and Western imperialism in Syria and the Middle East by an independent united working class movement
For a mass workers’ movement against the rule of the Assad clan and big capital
Massive public funding into services and renationalization of the main industries under democratic workers’ control and management
An end to privatisation and cuts in social services – for workers’ democratic control and management of the economy to improve living conditions, create jobs with a living wage for all, free quality education and health for all
The establishment of a mass workers’ party, with independent socialist policies
The ousting of Assad’s regime and for a class appeal to all workers in the region to spread the revolution, to kick out tyrants, to defeat capitalism and imperialism in the region, to put an end to the Israeli occupation and oppression of Palestinians, and for the defeat of Israeli capitalism through the workers’ unity and collective mass struggles
The right to self-determination of the Kurdish masses and their liberation from Syrian, Turkish, Iranian and Iraqi capitalism
A socialist Syria, as part of a voluntary and equal socialist confederation of the Middle East