Syria: Popular revolution or sectarian conflict?

What should be the attitude of the socialist left?

Despite the retreat of the threat of direct imperialist intervention in Syria, the conflict continues. It is necessary to understand the process and what should be the attitude of the socialist and revolutionary left towards this conflict, which has caused 100,000 deaths and displaced 2 million refugees so far.

The Arab Spring and the struggle against Bashar al-Assad

In March 2011, influenced by the revolutionary struggles in Tunisia and Egypt, the Syrian masses entered the fight to overthrow the country’s half-century old dictatorship. The uprising was also connected, as in other places, to social and economic issues, like rising unemployment of 20%, even higher among the youth (half of the population is less than 25 years old) and attacks on public sector salaries, which previously provided a safe job to more than 50% of the population.

The revolt wave took longer to reach Syria, due to Assad’s regime learning from the Tunisian and Egyptian processes, and starting mass arrests of activists right at the beginning of 2012 and brutally repressing even the small family protests which demanded their release. However, this strategy did nothing but postpone for a few weeks the masses entrance onto the scene.

Protests and confrontations with the repressive apparatus of the regime took place in Damascus and spread to other cities like Deraa, which became in the first weeks, the centre of the rebellion. During these first protests, due to Assad’s ultra-repressive and violent strategy, some military figures started deserting to join the demonstrators and police agents refused to shoot.

However, there were no really mass protests in the two main cities: Damascus and Aleppo, resembling what took place in Libya, where the movement also started in smaller towns. The regime still maintained some social support, even if it has been based on fears among the Alawite and Shia minorities (Alawite is Assad’s ethnic group) of what would come out of the downfall of the regime.

Since March 26th 2011, several opposition groups had called for a general strike, which would be decisive, acting as a turning point much like in Tunisia and Egypt, when the worker’s movement entered the scene with mass strike action. But the trade union leadership not only failed to react to the protests and organise the workers in a struggle, but they also stated that “foreign forces are behind the protests”, telling workers to stay at home and “trust the wisdom of the leadership”.

The danger of sectarian conflicts and the tactics “divide and conquer” of al-Assad

Since the beginning of the process, Assad has attacked the demonstrators as being “sectarian, criminals and Islamists”, when their initial demands were clearly political, economic and social. They demanded better quality of life, democratic rights, the overthrow of the dictatorship and Assad himself. However, Syria is a society of many different ethnic and religious communities: 80% are Arabs, next to important minorities like Kurds, Assyrians, Armenians and others. About two thirds of the population is Sunni, while 16% are from other Islamic beliefs (including Assad’s Alawite minority) and 10% Christians. A majority of the population (56%) lives in cities, but a significant part still lives in the countryside, where these type of divisions may play a decisive role.

“Divide and conquer” tactics are not new for Assad who, in the past, had already worked to pit some communities against others. He is now doing it again, playing with the fear of an islamist/jihadist regime. The demonstrators in Deraa were especially attacked as Sunni fundamentalists in order to isolate them from the rest of the population.

The armed conflict escalates.

For eight months, the Syrian people continued to protest, mainly in a peaceful way, desperately trying to bring down Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship. The regime answered with greater brutality. By the end of 2011, the civilian death count was 3,500 people (according to the UN) while other sources claim that in Homs the third largest city alone, there were over 5000 deaths.

It was then that the initially peaceful uprising, turned progressively into an armed conflict. In November, low and medium rank military elements deserted in ever larger numbers and organised themselves in the "Free Syrian Army". More and more weapons entered the country through its many borders, particularly from Iraq and Lebanon. The deserters, still low in numbers, increased in a steady way and were even being joined by rank and file soldiers of Assad’s army. (Guardian 19/11/2011).

Despite the brutal repression carried out by Assad’s army and police, the protests continued, displaying an enormous bravery by the anti-government movement, mainly in the suburbs of Homs. However, that same constant repression and lack of a clear leadership of the opposition movement, based on the worker’s movement and armed with a socialist and class response to the conflict, created ever more elements of division in the population, on the basis of ethnic and religious grounds.

The growing involvement of regional and international powers in the conflict

The Arab League, fearing a regional development initiated by the ’Arab Spring’, condemned the Syrian regime, and expelled it from the League, imposing sanctions. The concerns of these dictatorships and semi-feudal monarchies are not of a humanitarian type, given their past record, including the repression of the mass movements in Bahrain. What they fear is the revolt of their own people, which looks on these movements with sympathy. Besides this, they have their own geopolitical interests in the region, considering Assad’s regime being close to Iran and, as such, a nuisance.

The USA and EU also began to impose economic sanctions on the regime, in particular on the oil sector, which has a serious impact as the USA was Syria’s main economic partner in 2010, accounting for 22.5% of trade. Tourism, another key sector, has been heavily affected, unemployment and poverty are increasing and, in some cases, salaries are not being paid. Economic embargo tactics have the potential to increase sectarianism and isolate a part of the Syrian population who still supports the regime or is undecided. It also potentially increase anti-western feelings which are capitalised on by extremist Islamist forces, in the absence of an united alternative of the working class.

At this point, imperialist powers rejected any kind of military intervention, due to the Syrian situation being even more complex than Libya’s. However, they already began to intervene in the conflict in a more or less indirect way. Like in Libya, they approached the so-called leaders of the opposition movement. “We have kept regular contact with a series of figures in Syrian Opposition for several months now. We are currently intensifying those contacts” stated a spokesperson for the British foreign office. William Hague, foreign affairs Minister, organised a meeting with the leaders of the "Syrian National Council" (capitalist and pro-western opposition movement) in London on November 21st.

The armed struggle develops into a civil war.

At the beginning of 2012, a non-binding resolution was passed at a UN assembly, which supported the appeal of the Arab League for Assad to resign. This resolution was based on another one vetoed by Russia and China in the Security Council, showing the growing pressure from Western powers on the Damascus regime. Assad answered that he would “defeat any external attempt to create chaos in Syria”. He increased the military response, including with heavy military equipment, against the several armed opposition groups, which included an increasing number of ex-soldiers from the Syrian army. The regime bombed entire cities and villages, killing many demonstrators every day, arresting activists and imposing sanctions on whole towns, which, reports say, have no access to gas, electricity, communications and in some cases food. Reports also state that State forces have attacked hospitals and schools.

The armed resistance grew and developed along sectarian lines. Images of brutality, whether by state forces or by “rebel” groups appear on the media and internet every day. Certain warzones were already divided along sectarian and religious lines, such as Homs. The Local Coordination Committees called for demonstrations every Friday, and for these to be peaceful, warning against the growing violence of the opposition movement in certain areas of the country. During 2012, regional and international forces intervened further and further in Syria and reinforced the sectarian and religious character of the conflict. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey support financially and with arms the opposition movements which are pro-western and Islamist, with the tacit support from the US. At the same time, a senior commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard states that there are Iranian troops on the ground supporting Assad.

Since then the conflict has escalated, with more than 100,000 deaths and 2 million refugees. Hezbollah joined the conflict in support of Assad, and there is a growing strength of pro-Al-Qaeda militias and a sectarian violence present in the field of battle. From both sides, there are vicious attacks against the civilian population.

The situation in Syria has a lot in common with Libya where, through Western imperialist intervention, a popular movement transformed itself into a sectarian conflict. A government imposed by the West, the National Transition Council, tries to control through its own militia a country ruined by war, where hundreds of other militias control their own feuds and battle each other, increasing the misery and suffering of masses of workers and poor.

The pressure for a direct intervention by the western imperialism is also growing. It does not happen due to a tremendous domestic opposition to another war in the Middle East, after the failure of Iraq and Afghanistan. But the deal with Russia is fragile and the intervention still remains a possibility in the near future. An intervention, as prior examples have shown, will only bring further death and suffering to workers and poor in Syria and it will be incapable of solving any of the problems, on the contrary, it will intensify them.

The Syrian opposition movement.

The Syrian opposition is composed of a myriad of different groups. They can be divided into two main blocs. The first one is National Coalition of Revolutionary Forces and Syrian Opposition (NCRFSO), a non-elected coalition created in Doha, Qatar, whose main elements are: the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and the National Syrian Council (NSC), which is composed of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Local Coordination Committees. The second bloc is composed by the Al-Nusra front, part of Al-Qaeda and other armed islamist forces.

The first bloc is led by the NSC, formed in 2011 in Istanbul, a pro-capitalist force supported by the West and by the regional opponents of Assad. The main actors in the FSA are deserters from the Syrian armed forces, but it is also made up of other brigades. The importance of the Local Committees is hard to measure, being a network of local groups which initially opposed armed struggle and imperialist intervention, were unable to prevent both and are, as of today, inserted in a pro-West opposition group, which supports imperialist intervention.

The second bloc which plays a growing role in the process are those who commit the biggest atrocities against the Syrian people. They oppose Assad but attack anyone on a ethnic and religious basis and not just Assad’s forces, creating another civil war behind rebel lines. These are among the most reactionary forces at play in the war, which aim to establish a jihadist regime in Syria.

The Left and Syria.

A great deal of debate has arisen within the Left about what the character of this conflict is and what attitude should be taken towards it. The Left forces traditionally linked to communist parties, including the Portuguese Communist Party, support Assad’s version, i.e., that all conflict was since the beginning an imperialist attack against the regime because of its alliance with Iran and its being “anti-imperialist”. This support has historical roots, since the formation of the current regime, led by Bashar al-Assad’s father, which was part of a string of Arab nationalist regimes in the region which came to power in the 60s and 70s. The Syrian Communist Party is part of the Syrian governmental coalition.

These regimes all moved rapidly to the right in subsequent decades, adopting neo-liberalism, in cooperation with the imperialist countries. Remember that Syria’s main commercial partner in 2011 was the USA, and that in 1990, during the first Gulf War against Iraq, the Syrian regime supported the imperialists. Politically, it is a brutal dictatorship, which denies any democratic rights to its people, suppresses any opposition and prevents the creation of independent workers’ organizations.

It was partially the nature of these regimes which triggered the ’Arab Spring’ and Syria was no exception. Assad’s rule cannot offer any solution or perspective of a better life for the workers and the poor in Syria.

On the other side we have a section of the Left, as is the case of the ‘Morenoite’ LIT, to which MAS (Socialist Alternative Movement) belongs, which characterizes the situation as a popular revolution, the most advanced in the world! We think this is a static and mechanical analysis of events, ignoring the true character of the conflict and forces participating in it.

The whole question has the background of what is really happening in Syria. Is it a popular revolution which has evolved into an armed conflict? Or, has a popular movement against the dictatorship degenerated, through direct and indirect intervention from western imperialism and its regional allies, into a sectarian conflict, which risks spreading across all the region?

If initially there was a popular uprising, by the end of 2011 it had transformed itself into an armed conflict along sectarian lines. The LIT adopts a position of “unconditional support to the rebels”. But which rebels are they talking about? The capitalist opposition based in Istanbul and Qatar or the islamist militias?

Besides that, even though it is against the “imperialist intervention”, the LIT calls for all governments to send weapons to the “Syrian rebels”. But that is what many governments in the West and the Gulf states are already doing! But they send them to the forces that best defend their interests and in the way they so choose. Is that not already indirect imperialist intervention? Does this not sow illusions in the role imperialist forces are playing?

By unconditionally supporting the “Syrian rebels”, the LIT assumes a position which paradoxically is the inverse of uncritically pro-Assad positions on the Left which they criticise. This is a version of the Popular Front version, in which a workers’ and class analysis are left aside, in order to support the capitalist and Islamist opposition which has nothing good to offer to the workers and poor in Syria, much the contrary actually, because it also attacks them.

They have even made a parallel with the Spanish Civil War. We think that to draw this parallel is an error, because in Spain there was a revolution (i.e., the entrance of millions of mobilized workers onto the scene to change society) happening and a clearly one progressive side against another reactionary one. What was the attitude of the working masses in Syria in response to the civil war’s escalation? The involvement of the working masses, who live terrified “behind the lines” or have become refugees inside and outside of the country; does not exist and they have suffered the atrocities of a deeply sectarian conflict, perpetrated by both Assad’s and the “rebel” forces.

If someone asks us what is the side we choose, the answer is simple: that of the working class and poor masses! The role of Marxists is to support the creation of independent organizations of the working class and poor, their self-control and defence, fight against Assad’s brutal dictatorship, but without having any illusions in the bourgeois and imperialist military or in the jihadists, who have nothing to offer to the working class, except more death and misery.

What we say:

No to imperialist intervention! Withdraw of all the foreign troops from Syria and the region!

Against all oppression, the people should democratically decide their own destiny!

For the building of united defence committees, to defend the workers and the poor against sectarian attacks from both sides.

For a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly in Syria!

Implementation of democratic and nationality rights for all, acknowledging the right of self-determination of the Kurdish people.

For the building of independent trade unions

Build a worker’s party, with a programme that fights for land rights and socialist programme of public ownership and workers’ control of the key sectors of the economy

For a democratic and socialist confederation of the Middle East and North Africa.

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