[From A World to Win News Service]
August 6, 2012 – The Syrian people’s movement is being assaulted from two sides. The tragic irony is that even as it has spread far more widely in geographic and social terms than ever before, the initiative is passing into the hands of the people’s enemies. Forces that first opposed the relatively spontaneous rebellion and sought a deal with the Bashar al-Assad regime are seeking to kill all that was best about the rebellion and impose a new reactionary order.
The U.S. and its other Western and Arab state allies label Assad a criminal “killing his own people”, and that is the truth. At the same time, while the Nato-Arab monarchy axis is not bombing and strafing Syrian neighbourhoods right now, they are no less ruthless and criminal than Assad in seeking to impose their will and interests on the Syrian people.
The movement to topple Assad erupted in March 2011 and was initially based among the lower middle classes, especially unemployed educated youth, labourers and other rural immigrants. It broke out in the provincial towns and surrounding villages in areas that had become centres of poverty, in contrast to Damascus, Allepo and the coastal cities where the country’s wealth and the regime’s repressive forces were more concentrated (See AWTWNS 110516 and 120214, and the reports by the International Crisis Group, an organization that seeks to provide Western government policy-makers with reliable information). Inevitably marked by contradictory ideas and goals since the beginning, the rebellion has morphed repeatedly.
Especially after the regime began all-out assaults of the armed forces on rebel neighbourhoods and towns, the movement spread quickly and widely. Middle class and other elements who had been neutral or even pro-Assad began to actively oppose the regime – most dramatically when merchants closed down the Damascus markets (souks) after the Houla massacre last May. Refugees streaming into Allepo and Damascus from places like Homs, where the Syrian army cleared the entire neighbourhood of Baba Amro that had been a stronghold of the rebellion, have been another factor in spreading the revolt. Both are examples of how repression has spread the resistance.
The back-and-forth dynamic between revolt and repression soon reached a point where the street movement found itself at an impasse. But as the relatively spontaneous mass rallies and marches and other forms of protest began to give way to more organized armed conflict in the face of the regime’s escalating violence, something different began to come into being.
Many people may have been satisfied that the movement had no clear goal other than the downfall of Assad, but the militarization of the conflict inevitably brought broader and more fundamental questions to the fore. Warfare’s complexity and required level of organization and leadership means that its aims must be defined – questions of strategy, tactics, how to fight and where to obtain weapons and other supplies can only be answered in relation to the war’s political goals.
Some people argue that because the popular movement was unable to overthrow the regime without arms, it had no choice but to accept weapons from wherever it could get them. But those weapons and other forms of support have not been neutral. Above all, they have been meant to serve the political goals of the U.S., although other reactionary states and interests are also involved.
One of the great advantages of the people’s movement, and one reason why the imperialists and their partners opposed it, is that at first these foreign interests had little way to intervene in Syria.
The Syrian National Council, whose leadership is backed by and dependent on the American, French and British ruling classes (see “The Syrian opposition: who’s doing the talking?”Guardian, 12 July 2012) reflected their attitude toward the mass movement: when the cry went up, “The people want the fall of the regime,” the SNC tried to use the rebellion to force the regime into a power-sharing compromise. Fortunately, at that point, the SNC was unable to play a major role inside the country, even though the Western powers declared it the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
But this situation is changing.
The so-called Free Syrian Army arose alongside the mass movement as soldiers deserted their units and went back to their villages and neighbourhoods, where they were joined by local youth in a myriad of autonomous or loosely coordinated fighting groups. But to the extent that it is cohering into a real army, it is being sculpted into an instrument designed to replace one reactionary regime with another, and specifically to bring Syria under the heel of the U.S. and its partners.
The Western powers want to build the Free Syrian Army as the armed wing of the SNC.
There’s little secret about how they are going about it, although what has been publicly stated is probably only the tip of a reactionary iceberg. As The New York Times has reported on several occasions, on 21 June and most recently 4 August, the CIA has set up shop in Turkey,
“vetting [Syrian] fighters, receiving them and working with [U.S.] State Department officials trying to unify the fighters with political leaders inside and outside the country.”
Turkey is also playing a major role in shaping the FSA – politically, above all, as well as organizationally – working through its contacts with present and former leaders of the armed forces of Syria, until recently a Turkish ally. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are supplying weapons and huge amounts of money as well. Intelligence officers from the former Middle Eastern colonial powers France and Britain, with their contacts and skills, are also said to be involved in deciding who gets what.
American sanctions prohibit most financial transfers to Syria, but the Obama government has authorized the sending of money by the Syrian Support Group, a self-proclaimed channel for aid to the FSA. The U.S. government claims that it is only “coordinating” the arming of FSA by other countries. Publicly admitted U.S. funding includes communications equipment, medical supplies and other “humanitarian aid”. But the real nature of all of this is revealed by who is in charge of this programme, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who worked on planning the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. According to the NYT and other reports, the Pentagon and State Department are working on the details about how to run “post-Assad Syria”.
The Western powers have produced a perfect storm of cynicism, hypocrisy and lies. They have violated their own embargoes on arms to Syria – passed to force Russia to accept an embargo on its own shipments to the regime – and sought to explain this away with the argument that since the U.S. and its allies represent “democracy”, whatever they do is automatically “humanitarian”. While complaining that Russia is trying to use the UN Security Council to protect the Assad regime in its own interests, the U.S., UK and France have sought to force the UNSC to adopt a Chapter VII resolution that would open the door to further military intervention, just as the U.S. used the UN sanctions against the Saddam Hussein regime to justify the invasion by its “coalition of the willing” even after it failed to get UNSC backing.
Russia has been backing Syria not because this is a case of one “enemy of democracy” backing another, as has been asserted, or even mainly because of economic and military interests, but most importantly because it does not want to find itself forced out in the cold as the U.S. moves to sweep away the challenges to its domination of the region. Russia has long-standing, deep ties with the Syrian regime, its officer corps, bureaucracy and a section of the country’s educated elite. But Russia harbours no loyalty to Assad. Even as Russia and the U.S. have conducted an intense rivalry over Syria, the governments of both countries have sought some sort of “Yemen solution” that would remove Bashar and some of his circle but leave the military and the state apparatus as a whole intact.
If this has been to no avail, at least so far, part of the explanation may be that neither of these imperialist powers has been able to exert the influence in Syria to pull it off. Another factor may be that while so far the regime has been mainly under Russian influence with some shared interest with the U.S., Washington might not be in the mood to envisage sharing Syria with the roles reversed.
False claims of “anti-imperialism”
At the same time, Bashar Assad’s claims to anti-imperialist credentials do not withstand the evidence. While depending on Russia, a monopoly capitalist country whose economic and military “aid” is no more neutral than that of its imperialist rivals, under Assad’s reign Syria has been more fully opened to the world capitalist market and imperialist capital in general. This greatly aggravated the regional inequalities and economic desperation that helped fuel the revolt.
Further, even though Israel has occupied and colonized Syria’s Golan Heights for almost 40 years, and while the regime has drawn legitimacy from its so-called “steadfastness” against Israel, the Zionists and the West often valued Hafaz Assad and his son Bashar for their role in repressing Palestinians. After all, the Western powers and Israel were happy to let Syria occupy Lebanon as long as it protected Israel’s borders.
The fact that the Western imperialists deliberately overlooked evidence of Syrian involvement in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafael Hariri in 2005 seems to indicate that they did not want, at that point, even a political confrontation with the regime.
Now that things have changed, it’s disgusting to hear the U.S. assistant warmonger-in-chief Hillary Clinton rant about the atrocities the Assad regime has inflicted on Syrians, especially since if you missed the introduction to her list (torture, artillery and tank bombardment of whole neighbourhoods, etc.) you might have thought she was talking about what the U.S. did to prisoners in Abu Ghraib, the city of Falluja and other American acts in Iraq.
Nor, when condemning Assad’s security services for torture, did she mention the U.S.’s outsourcing of torture to those same services – the most infamous example being the case of the Syrian-born Canadian Maher Arar, kidnapped while in transit at a New York airport by American security officers and shipped to Syria, along with a list of questions, with reports sent back to Washington. (New Yorker, 15 February 2005)
In pursuit of their reactionary interests, the U.S. and its partners, especially Saudi Arabia, an Islamic fundamentalist regime if ever there was one, have also contributed to making a truth out of what before was Bashar Assad’s lie: that the movement against the regime was dominated by Islamic fundamentalists. The steep rise of Islamist influence within the movement that arose almost a year and a half ago is another change in the situation, although it did not happen overnight.
From the beginning, people chanted “Only God, Syria and freedom and nothing else” (reversing the regime slogan, “Only God, Syria and Bashar and nothing else”, which was felt to equate Assad’s status with that of Allah).
But while spontaneous and organized religious belief was always present and there were always different currents, the people’s movement as a whole did not aim at instituting a religious regime, and there has been a pronounced popular demand for unity irrespective of religion.
Now it seems that as fighting groups coalesce into larger formations, for instance, the newly formed city-wide FSA command in Allepo, currently the main battlefront, many feel that they have to allow the avowed Salafists (a Sunni fundamentalist movement) to predominate, because they have the most money and best arms. At the same time, the Salafist black flag also has a broader pragmatic attraction. It seeks to rally forces against the Middle East’s most secular regime on a sectarian basis that both attracts foreign funding and is not without appeal and a social base in a country where communitarian identities are deeply rooted and Islam has gained strength.
This complex situation was well illustrated by Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab, who, when he split from the regime proclaimed, “From today, I am a soldier in this holy revolution” – the point being no matter his service to the regime in the face of the popular rebellion and his complicity in crimes against the people, he is betting that his Sunni origins and proclaimed piety will allow him to switch sides with impunity – as long as the sides are defined by religion. The Syrian National Council, for its part, not only has increasingly come under Islamic influence but also has waved the green banner of Islam (although not specifically the black banner of Salafism) as a way to gather the influence among the people that it has lacked.
The sectarian civil war that the regime falsely accused the mass movement of seeking has become a real danger. While the American ruling class cares nothing about the consequences of such a war for the people, and has been running that risk in full knowledge of what it would mean, the very measures that the U.S. and its partners are taking to bring Syria under their control could possibly make the country and perhaps much of the region spin out of anyone’s control. Certainly, the U.S. knows that Islamic fundamentalism is not without danger for their interests. This is an indication of just how much Washington feels is at stake, not only for Syria but for American regional dominance and all that means for world dominance.
A sectarian civil war would be as bad an outcome for the popular rebellion as anyone could imagine.
For the regime, this might be the only way out, and it has repeatedly seemed that the regime was seeking to provoke such a development, since it could allow the Assad inner circle to present itself as the only hope for survival for the Alawites, Christians, Shias, Druze, secularists and others. The International Crisis Group 1 August report claims that if the Sunni religion is made the dividing line, the country could be cut in half. While accepting Salafi dominance might seem like the only way for rebel forces to force out the regime, it actually makes it much more difficult to unite the majority of Syrians against the regime. For instance, many and perhaps most Alawites, an historically oppressed community, have far more in common with other oppressed and exploited Syrians than Assad and his Alawite inner circle, henchmen and hirelings.
These developments spit in the face of what the rebellion has tried to stand for. Not so much at the beginning, but not long after, voices began shouting, “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to their graves”, but this has often been drowned out by many others chanting, “Syria is a country for all”, “One, one, one, Syria is one”. These slogans in favour of the people’s unity continued to ring out in the upsurge of demonstrations starting in May and the major protest in the streets of Damascus on 6 August.
The movement has always been shot through by contradictory currents, but it seems to have been marked by a sense of a Syrian national revival, a humiliated and oppressed people regaining their dignity through their own political awakening and courageous actions, a feeling of solidarity among the people against a common enemy and a combination of individual creativity and willingness to sacrifice personal interests. It has been said that Syrian political and cultural life has never been so lively and so enriched by broad participation. Now, while some people are delirious at what they consider the prospect of victory against the regime, others are beset by gloom, angry about the thwarting of their aspirations for the future of their country and its people.
Never has the popular slogan “The Syrian people know what road to take” been so obviously wrong. It turns out that the people’s enemies are very clear on where they want to go and how to get there. They have used all their powers to try and turn a just struggle into its opposite. They have also been able to benefit from the pull of spontaneity, the contradictory thinking among different sections of the people and the way people feel that they have to choose among the only options they feel open to them. If at least some people do not have a clear and scientifically-based vision of a different kind of society and are not able to advance in fighting to implement a plan to bring it into being, then the options are limited to those presented by oppressors and would-be oppressors and their powerful backers.
This is true on the local level – if there is no real alternative, sectarian conflict has a logic that can overpower people’s desire to bring it to a halt. And it’s true of Syria as a whole, whose people can only be united in a struggle to free the nation from the grip of competing reactionary interests, and finally fully stand up as part of fighting to free the whole world.