The upheaval in Syria is an enormously difficult subject for Western outsiders to get a handle on. One of the reasons for this is the sheer number of different interests jostling for position and power, from both within and outside the country. Let us start with the regime itself. Can you give us a brief history of where the Al-Assad family came from and the direction they have taken the country since they came to power in 1970?
Following the magnificent peoples’ uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, toppling two entrenched dictators, there developed a tendency not to closely examine the nature of the various forces competing for political power both within the opposition movements and the Arab regimes. Events in Libya and NATO’s intervention there have alerted most people to the dangers of hijacking the peoples’ struggle for freedom by reactionary forces. A brief look at the nature of the Syrian regime and its changing role in the region is crucial in trying to understand the current conflict and the reactionary forces’ success in hijacking the people’s struggle for radical change.
Syria has been run by a ruthless, corrupt regime. Syrian left activists have been on the receiving end of severe repression since Hafiz Assad’s coup in 1970. It was after that coup that Henry Kissinger described Syria as “a factor for stability,” despite Soviet military backing for the regime. Hafiz Assad’s regime, funded by the Saudi medieval dictators, played a leading role in the 1970’s and early 80’s in weakening the Palestinian resistance. During the 1975-6 civil war in Lebanon Syrian troops sided with pro- Israeli Phalange and other extreme right wing forces. The regime, in return for US promises over the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights and Saudi petro-dollars, also backed the 1991 US-led war over Kuwait.
The Syrian forces’ presence in Lebanon had the full support of the US and Saudi rulers and the tacit support of Israel. It was only after Syria’s gradual foreign policy shift and reversal of roles from enemies to allies of the Palestinian and Lebanese resistance movements that the US and Saudi rulers shifted their stance. They pursued an aggressive campaign to force a Syrian withdrawal (1985) from Lebanon, particularly after the 2003 occupation of Iraq. US forces even killed some Syrian soldiers on the Iraqi-Syrian borders.
In relation to the media coverage today, it is important to note that, before Syria’s shift the media were silent about the repressive nature of the regime. This is similar to the their silence towards repression by a variety of ruthless dictatorial allies. Today they talk of Sunni Saudi rulers opposed to Alawite-Shia in Syria, but back then, the media did not bother highlighting the fact that the Wahabi-Sunni Saudi rulers were bankrolling the Syrian regime nor did they push their sectarian poison. A similar sectarian coverage unfolded in relation to Saudi-Iranian relations after the 1979 Iranian revolution and the overthrow of the Shah, a favourite US ally.
The opposition to the Syrian regime was not confined to the left, but included the Moslem Brotherhood, who led a popular revolt in 1982 in their stronghold of Hama. The regime crushed the uprising by bombarding the City and killing thousands of people. Nevertheless, Arab nationalism has for a century or more been Syria’s main ideological current, developed in the struggle against Ottoman rule and, much more deeply, against French colonial rule. Syria won its independence from France in 1946.
The Brotherhood today are backed by the Qatari and Saudi dictators, but the media rarely dwell on the irony of these dictators championing democracy in Syria while crushing any opposition to their rule and sending their troops to help crush the people’s uprising in Bahrain.
In 1967 Syria was invaded and a strategic part of its territory, the Golan Heights, was occupied by Israel. Since then, successive regimes legitimised their rule partly by working for or at least appearing to be actively trying to liberate Syria from occupation. However, US promises of rewarding Syria by forcing Israel to pull out of the occupied lands came to nothing despite Syria’s compliant policies.
Concurrently with the failure of the US to deliver on its promises, a number of factors changed Syria’s role. These include the rise of Iran as a formidable anti-US anti-Israeli power, the Palestinian uprisings, the unstoppable rise of the Lebanese resistance, led by Hizbullah, leading to the liberation of southern Lebanon from occupation and defeat of Israeli-Saudi-US backed forces, the arrival of hostile US forces along Syria’s borders with Iraq, and the rise of Iraqi resistance and defeat of US forces in Iraq.
The Syrian armed forces and security apparatus, with its multi-layer pyramids of informers, form the backbone of the regime’s control over Syrian society. Much is made of the sectarian nature of the Syrian regime and its reliance on the Alawite communities. I think this is highly exaggerated and ignores the much wider circles of support that the regime has acquired, whether this support is active, passive or of the `better devil you know’ type.
The powerful, mostly Sunni, merchant classes of Syria, particularly in Damascus and Aleppo, have close links with the regime. Indeed, the US-led economic sanctions are partly directed at this merchant class to force it to shift its stance. Sections of the middle and upper middle classes also tacitly support the regime. Syria’s religious minorities, including Christians who form 10% of the population, are fearful of the Moslem Brotherhood’s social and cultural agenda for Syria. They too would rather have the secular regime than a state dominated by a Saud-Qatari backed Brotherhood. Importantly, the Kurdish minority are also fearful of the influence of Turkey on the Muslim Brotherhood and the fact that the Syrian Free Army is headquartered in Turkey, which has a horrific record of killing over 20,000 Kurdish people in Turkey. Millions of women also fear the social programme of the Brotherhood.
In the context of the current conflict, the poor, the unemployed and students who were supportive of the initial, largely spontaneous protest movement are now much more reticent, partly due to regime repression but primarily because of their opposition to the NATO-Saudi-Qatari meddling and the militarisation of the sections of the opposition, particularly the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the Free Syrian Army which are dominated by the Brotherhood.
You describe the recent protest movement as ‘largely spontaneous’. This doesn’t mean obviously that grievances weren’t building up over a long period of time, however it does suggest a lack of strong long term organisations of resistance – as was the case in countries like Egypt and Tunisia for example.
Left and progressive opposition to the Syrian regime has been going on for decades, particularly after the 1970 Hafiz Assad coup, which ousted the `left’ faction led by Salah Jedid. That faction backed the Palestinian resistance movements based in Jordan against the military onslaught launched by King Hussein’s armed forces in September 1970.
Hafiz Assad, who was minister of Defence before the coup, instantly appeased the US and Saudi rulers by siding with King Hussein and starting a crack-down on all left forces in the country.
The left in Syria was for much of the 20th century mostly organised by the Syrian Communist Party. Founded in 1924, the party was subjected to varying degrees of state repression. Since the 1970’s the more militant factions within the party and other left organisations and figures have suffered imprisonment, torture and exile. However, the party leadership’s docile stance towards more militant forms of struggle within Syria, Palestine and Lebanon, and servile support for the Soviet Union’s Middle East policies gradually turned it into a party of sections of the intelligentsia rather than a genuine working class party.
Perhaps the latter would have appealed to wider society with a socialist programme that also reflected Syria’s neo- colonial status and being part of the wider struggle in the area against imperialism and Zionism. As it happened the political vacuum was filled by the Islamic and nationalist movements, including the Baath party, who champion the Syrian, Palestinian and wider Arab nationalist causes. A similar process happened in Algeria where Marxists initially advocated the line of the French CP declaring that Algeria would be free once France became socialist!
In the context of the current conflict, all the left forces in Syria supported the initial protest marches that followed the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. The marches, which started in Deraa on the border with Jordan, were also supported by the Moslem Brotherhood. The demands of the protest marches were focused on issues relating to corruption, unemployment and democratic rights. Though large scale marches were held across many cities it was significant that no such marches took place in Syria’s largest two cities, Damascus and Aleppo, where more than half of Syria’s population reside.
It was also noticeable that the more NATO intervened and militarised the protest movement in Libya the smaller mass peaceful protests became in Syria. The marchers shrunk from hundreds to tens of thousands and to thousands and less.
Obviously, regime brutality was a factor, but I don’t think that fear played the biggest role. I think the main reason is that most of the democratic opposition in Syria is also staunchly anti-imperialist and naturally fearful of NATO and Israeli plans for Syria. Events in Libya and, above all, the bloodbaths in and destruction of neighbouring Iraq by the US-led forces and the terrorist gangs, played the leading role in making most of the Syrian democratic secular opposition fearful of the consequences of the escalating conflict. They could not fail to notice that while Iraq burned Syria itself became home to a million Iraqi refugees.
On the other hand, the leadership of the Moslem Brotherhood and opposition leaders based in Istanbul, Paris and London have effectively utilised the publicity they enjoyed on all Arab state-controlled media, particularly the Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera. Events have also shown that years of planning had gone into the funding and arming of parts of the Syrian opposition.
Having lost Bin Ali and Mubarak in quick succession, US, Saudi, Qatari and Turkish attention turned to Syria. The massive uprising in Bahrain, headquarters of the US fifth fleet, also sharpened their sense of danger and fear of the people’s uprisings. Saudi and other Gulf sheikdoms sent in their forces to help King Hamad crush the uprising, which is still active.
Sami Ramadani is a senior lecturer in sociology at London Metropolitan University and has been an active participant in campaign’s against Saddam’s regime and anti-imperialist struggles for many years. In an in-depth interview, he spoke to Samuel Grove about the dynamics of the conflict in Syria, arguing that democratic resistance to Assad’s brutal regime has been eclipsed by reactionary forces, backed by Western and Gulf states, with potentially momentous implications for the Middle East.