At the time of writing, an estimated 12,000 people have paid with their lives for voicing their opposition to Bashar al-Assad's rule in Syria and there is no indication that the bloodshed is likely to end any time soon.
The origins of the Syrian wave of protests can be traced back to a small demonstration held in the northern town of Al-Hasakah, in February 2011, following the self-immolation of a local young man, Hasan Ali Akleh. In the weeks that followed, protests spread to all the country's main towns. After a few weeks, Bashar al-Assad tried to defuse the discontent by promising reforms. But it was too little too late. After Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya, the Syrian regime joined the already long list of dictatorships which were being shaken by the whirlwind of protests in the region.
However, there were major differences in the way the wave of protests unfolded in Syria. It spread more slowly than in Egypt and Tunisia. Unlike what happened in these two countries, the protesters never succeeded in imposing their presence over the repressive forces anywhere in the country's main cities. There was nothing like Egypt's Tahrir Square in Syria. Nor did the Syrian protesters manage to establish a safe haven for themselves, as their Libyan counterparts did around Benghazi. Their attempt to do just that around the north-western town of Homs was relatively easily foiled by the regime.
Above all, the regime's repression was far more effective and devastating in Syria than elsewhere. The state apparatus also proved more cohesive. Unlike what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, there was no attempt by the top circles of the army or special forces to position themselves as possible arbiters between the regime and the protesters. Nor did top-ranking military or regime officials defect to the opposition, as was the case in Libya - the only high-ranking Syrian defector, Abdo Hussameldin, who finally made up his mind after a full year of protest, only held the junior post of deputy oil minister.
But then, the Syrian regime's dignitaries are certainly not encouraged to jump ship by the obvious reluctance of the imperialist governments to do anything that might cause Bashar al-Assad's regime to weaken too much. Russia's and China's veto on the UN Security Council was clearly more a convenient pretext than the real reason for such a restraint, which stood in stark contrast to the policy of the imperialist powers towards the other regional dictatorships, over which they had never bothered to consult Russia nor China.
In Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, it was the long arm of western imperialism which caused - or, at least, accelerated - the downfall of the ruling dictators. Using their long-standing links with the military, the imperialist powers got the army to take over control, thereby ensuring the continuity of state power after the demise of the regime. In Libya, deprived of having such a possibility, the imperialist countries chose to resort to military aggression in order to propel into power a motley crowd of defectors from the regime and army, regional strong men and Islamic radicals - although whether this will prevent the country from collapsing into chaos remains to be seen.
As regards Syria, however, the only step taken so far by the imperialist powers has been a UN Security Council resolution, finally adopted unanimously on 14 April. Although duly hailed as a "victory for democracy" by the western media, all it contains is the decision to send a few dozen "observers" (this number could be increased to 350) to monitor a so-called "ceasefire" in Syria, agreed by the regime and the opposition as part of Kofi Annan's 6-point "peace plan" - even though everyone knows that this ceasefire had been broken from the very outset! So much for all the tears shed over the past months, by the Camerons and Obamas of this world over the bloodshed in Syria! But, of course, who would believe that they ever gave a toss for protesters' lives anywhere in the world?
The fact is that the situation in Syria is presenting the imperialist powers with a difficult problem. Some circles in the imperialist capitals would probably also like to see "regime change" in Syria, in order to get rid of a dictatorship which has become too entrenched to be pliable enough. The problem of the imperialist powers, however, is that this may come at a cost for their regional order, which they just cannot afford.
Imperialism's legacy in Syria
Both today's situation inside Syria and the problems it presents for imperialism, are rooted in the history of the region and, more specifically, in the powder keg created by British and French imperialisms when they shared out the spoils of the defeated Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I.
It was at that time that the Middle East was shaped more or less in its present form - first secretly, by the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, and then, officially, at the 1920 San Remo conference. This paved the way for the future emergence of a series of artificial states - Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq - while paving the way for the later partition of Palestine between the state of Israel and today's Palestinian homelands. The southern border of Turkey was drawn in its present shape by bureaucrats in London and Paris, with a later alteration, conceded by France in 1928, which reduced even further Syria's access to the Mediterranean.
Like all borders drawn by the imperialist powers to suit their needs, those dividing the Middle East took no account of the interests or aspirations of its population. Due to its position as a passage-way between Europe, Asia and Africa, this region included a large variety of national, ethnic and religious groups and the new artificial borders created by imperialism cut across most of these groups.
Some lost the possibility of carrying out their traditional activities. Others, like the Kurds, found themselves split between four countries (Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria). National minorities like the Armenians and religious minorities like the Druzes, Allawites and Christians, were spread out across most or all of the new countries. In each one of them, the Sunni-Shia divide cut across the Muslim majority in various proportions. For all these groups, which had more or less managed to coexist within a large regional entity united under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, these artificial borders became a source of new tensions.
To consolidate their rule over the Middle East and keep the poor masses under control, the imperialist powers relied on the most reactionary forces. Britain, in particular, brought to power monarchies which were all the more pliable to its needs as they had no social base or legitimacy in their own countries. France, on the other hand, resorted to a divide and rule policy, fanning tensions between religious minorities. In Syria, they set up separate states for the Alawites in the north and for the Druze in the south, while they gave the Lebanese Christian minority a privileged status under their rule. Both powers reinforced the rule of the old feudal landowning classes, thereby blocking any possibility of social progress or economic development in the region for many decades to come.
Syria was typical of the patchwork produced by the post-World War I imperialist carving up of the Middle East. Today, 85% of its population are Arabs, with a large 9% minority of Kurds concentrated in the north, and several small ethnic groups (Turkmen, Armenians, Assyrians) scattered in various parts of the country. From a religious point of view, 74% of the population are Muslim Sunni, 12% are Shia (including the Alawites and other Shia-related sects), 10% Christians and 4% Druze. In addition, past regional conflicts have brought into Syria around 2 million refugees - half-a-million from Palestine and 1.5 million from Iraq.
In other words, Syria includes within its borders a sizeable representation of every single ethnic, national and religious group present in the Middle East. This, together with its location, right at the heart of the region, and the borders it shares with five of the region's countries, means that it holds a strategic position - both in terms of its capacity to police the region and in terms of the threat it can represent for the region's stability.
And this is precisely what makes the situation in Syria particularly thorny for imperialism today.
From independence to Baath rule
It took a quarter of a century, the combined pressure of British and US imperialism, and the dire state of its army after World War II, for French imperialism to finally renounce its colonial stranglehold over Syria and Lebanon. The last French troops left Syria in 1946.
The only legacy left by the French occupation was an overinflated military machine and the subsequent eight years saw a long series of military coups and counter-coups through which rival factions of the army establishment fought to control the limited resources of the Syrian state.
However, by the end of this period, in 1954, the region had already been taken by storm by the wave of Pan-Arabism" represented by Nasser, Egypt's new president. Nasser had won considerable credit by overthrowing the puppet Egyptian monarch and forcing British troops to leave the Suez canal. His proposal to set up a United Arab Republic (UAR) with the ultimate aim of unifying the Arab world, generated a lot of support, including in Syria. Eventually, in 1958, the then civilian regime led by the veteran nationalist leader Shukri al-Quwatli, got Syria to join the new UAR.
The quid pro quo demanded by Nasseer for joining the UAR, however, was the dissolution and banning of all the Syrian political parties which had come out in the open over the previous years. And this, ironically, included a number of parties which had been staunch supporters of the setting up of the UAR.
The Syrian Communist party, for instance, which was then reaching the peak of its influence, carried on supporting what it described as Nasser's "progressive" policies from inside the jails where its activists were locked up - thereby leaving its supporters and the exploited masses without any political perspective.
On the other side of the political spectrum, another banned party was the Arab Socialist Baath Party (or Baath for short, "Baath" meaning "renaissance"). It had been formally established in Syria, in 1947, by two intellectuals trained in French universities. It boasted a secular, Pan-Arabic agenda. Its "socialist" phraseology was mostly confined to promoting a degree of state intervention in the economy, while at the same time, condemning anything deemed to be "imported from the West", including communist ideas and parliamentary democracy. It expressed the deep fear of its petty-bourgeois base in front of the exploited masses, by seeking to infiltrate the top circles of the state apparatus in order to seize political power rather than relying on mass agitation.
The Baath was to spread to other Middle Eastern countries, with varying degree of success, with the more or less active encouragement of the CIA, due to its vocal anti-communism. However, it was only successful in taking power in Syria (under Hafez al-Assad) and in Iraq (under Saddam Hussein). In passing, it is worth noting that, in both countries, once these leaders got into power, their Pan-Arabic agenda was soon replaced with a policy aimed merely at becoming regional strong men.
In Syria, it did not take long for Nasser's centralist policies to upset the Syrian ruling class. The Syrian bourgeoisie objected to his nationalisation plans, while the high spheres of the Syrian army resented being treated as junior partners. So much so that, in 1961, a faction of the Syrian army staged a military coup, in order to withdraw Syria from the UAR. Among the forces behind this coup was the Baath.
Over the following nine years, the Baath was involved in another three military coups, through which the party wiped out all potential rival forces in the state apparatus. As the top military hierarchy was becoming increasingly dominated by the Baath, these coups also became the expression of the power struggle going on within the Baath itself, resulting, among other things, in its civilian wing being pushed to the sidelines. Eventually, the last one of these coups, in November 1970, inaugurated the rule of the faction led by the then Defence minister, colonel Hafez al-Assad - which he was to call the "Corrective Movement".
Hafez al-Assad's era
All previous Baath-led coups had resulted in a turn of the screw of some sort and so did al-Assad's "Corrective Movement". But compared to its predecessors, it led to a far more systematic and comprehensive reorganisation of state power, while resorting to far more pragmatic policies.
To back up his bid for political power, Assad had relied heavily on two causes of discontent. One was the discredit resulting from Israel's victory in the 1967 Six-Day war and its subsequent occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights. And the other was the growing restlessness of the Syrian bourgeoisie, right down to the bazaar traders following the large-scale nationalisations carried out since the mid-1960s.
Al-Assad's "Corrective Movement" started off, therefore, by easing import controls on consumer goods and announcing measures designed to help small and medium companies - in particular with easier finance and drastic limitations on trade-union rights. More generally, after 1970, state intervention in the economy was to be reduced in stages, to the point where it is now limited to a relatively small strategic sector.
But the most important changes at this point, concerned the reorganisation of the state machinery and its institutions. A large array of organisations was set up, covering just about every possible area of social and professional activity, all under the direct control of the Baath central leadership. Everyone - youth, women, workers (the unions were swallowed into the new system), lawyers, doctors, footballers, folk dancers, etc... - was "offered" membership of one or another of these organisations, to help organise one's life! In theory, membership was not compulsory, but failing to join these organisations - or the Baath party, for that matter - was certainly frowned upon and could have unpredictable consequences.
The final result of this reorganisation was a maze of intertwined corporatist pyramids, with al-Assad himself standing on top of the edifice, holding all the levers of power in his hands. Being both Secretary-General of the Baath Command and head of state (after being "elected" president in a plebiscite, in March 1971), he was able to control every appointment to any substantial position in the country.
Of course, this maze was designed to be watched over by the regime's secret services. The Syrian repressive machinery had a long tradition in this respect, having learnt all the tricks in the book from the French occupiers, including the systematic use of torture, and having refined them through decades of military dictatorship. But al-Assad's regime perfected this machinery by turning the countless party officials who ran the vast network of its organisations into informants. This did not stop the blossoming of illegal trafficking at every level, including the highest. But it did stifle any public expression of dissent, which was its only purpose.
On paper, the country was run by a government and a parliament and political parties were allowed. However the government was not accountable to the parliament, but to al-Assad himself. The only legal parties were those which agreed to join the Baath-led National Progressive Front (NPF), whose bodies were appointed by the Baath's Command. They had to endorse the main line of Baath policy, abstain from having any activity in the army and among students and, for most of al-Assad's period, were not even allowed to have their own press. NPF affiliates were able to stand candidates for Parliament - but only as part of the slates selected by the NPF leadership. Although independent "non-political" candidates were allowed to stand, de facto, the system ensured that the NPF always had a 2/3 majority in Parliament, and the Baath itself, a 5O% majority.
Of course, agreeing to jump through al-Assad's hoops by joining the NPF amounted to endorsing his policies. A number of parties split over this issue, in particular the Syrian Communist Party. While one faction joined the NPF, the other (known today as the Syrian Democratic People's Party) remained outside, operating underground, at first giving its critical support to the Baath regime, and then opposing it explicitly - which resulted in its members being ruthlessly repressed.
Regional strong man
No matter how repressive the Baath state machinery was, however, it was not designed to stop the explosion of the Palestinian powder keg which was threatening to take place next door, in Lebanon. Other means had to be used.
Since 1972, the weak pro-Israeli Christian-dominated Lebanese government had proved unable to contain the rising tide of discontent among the population. Lebanese peasants who had been chased off their land by Israeli bombings in south Lebanon had joined Palestinian refugees in their camps. Social unrest among the Lebanese working class was encouraged by the presence of over 150,000 radicalised Palestinian refugees, many of whom were armed. The sense of collective strength that was building up among the masses as a result of the massive joint marches organised by the Lebanese National Movement and a number of radical Palestinian groups, was threatening to bring them to realise that they had common interests which went beyond the narrow nationalism of many of their leaders.
In April 1975, after months of intensive military training using weapons provided by Israel and the imperialist powers, the far-right Christian Phalangist militia launched an offensive aimed at crushing this rising mobilisation and protecting the existing order. Their first targets were the Palestinian refugee camps. However, during the first few months of civil war, the so-called "Palestino-Progressive" alliance successfully drove back the Phalangist forces, to the point of taking control of most of the country, with the exception of the Christian enclave north of Beirut.
For Hafez al-Assad, however, the prospect of a victory for the Palestino-Progressive forces represented a major threat to his own power. There were over 100,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria and such a victory, was bound to generate a dangerous sense of confidence among them and, through them, among the Syrian masses. So, after having offered his services as mediator, al-Assad decided to intervene directly to prevent a victory by the Palestino-Progressive camp. Syrian troops entered Lebanon in June 1976. They shelled the Palestinian camps and pushed the Palestino-Progressive forces into the south of the country and West Beirut. By doing so, al-Assad effectively paved the way for the later destruction of PLO forces by Israel, which was completed during a full-scale invasion staged in 1982, with the PLO's withdrawal to Tunis. Throughout this process, as well as later, between 1982 and 2001, Syrian troops were to remain in Lebanon to reinforce its state apparatus against the population.
With this policy, the Syrian regime was, of course, protecting its own short-term interests. But it was also demonstrating - to whoever this may concern, particularly imperialism - its ability to play the role of a regional power, willing to maintain the status quo in the Middle-East and capable of delivering the goods when Israel could not take the risk of intervening directly itself, for fear of causing a general conflagration across the Arab world.
From a regime located as it was, at the very heart of the Middle-East, this was certainly a godsend for the imperialist powers - whether or not there was any public admission of this on their part. After all, if the Syrian pitbull was to remain effective in protecting the imperialist status quo in the Middle East, it was best kept on a long leash, with its "anti-imperialist" credentials intact!
The Muslim Brotherhood against the Baath
In fact, al-Assad already had a chequered history regarding the Palestinian question. After all, it was he who, as Defence minister, had refused to use the Syrian air force as back-up for the tank squadron sent to defend the Palestinians at the time of the Black September massacre, in Jordan.
So, al-Assad's policy in Lebanon should not have come as surprise. But, given the regime's relentless anti-Israeli, pro-Palestinian rhetoric, it appeared as a watershed and generated considerable anger - to the extent that some of the affiliates of the regime's tame National Progressive Front split over the issue, with sizeable factions choosing to go underground rather than be seen supporting such a policy.
By the time of the Syrian intervention in Lebanon, the regime had wiped out all nationalist and left opposition in Syria. The resulting political space was entirely occupied by the religious far-right of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB) which was using the network of mosques to campaign against the regime's secular orientation.
Not that al-Assad took this orientation all that seriously. In fact, he had built the image of a "good Muslim", showing himself in mosques, fasting during Ramadan, etc.. He had replaced the secular presidential oath with the traditional "I swear by Allah the Great", while making it a constitutional requirement for the head of state to be a Muslim. Then, in October 1973, al-Assad had described the Yom Kippur war as a "jihad" - a "holy war" - against the "enemies of Islam".
But the SMB was aiming at political power, not just concessions to religious bigotry. Following the shock caused by the Syrian intervention in Lebanon, its leaders felt that the time had come to go on the offensive. They launched a wave of terrorist attacks. Its target was not so much the regime itself than the Alawite minority, which was accused of taking Syria hostage (al-Assad himself hailing from an Alawite background). Apart from fanning sectarian tensions, this policy had the considerable advantage of building on the traditional Sunni-Shia schism in a Sunni-dominated country, while keeping off the hook the SMB backers among the Sunni capitalists and feudal landlords who were making fat profits out of cooperating with the Baath regime.
Over the following six years, a bloody tit-for-tat ensued between the regime's security forces and SMB commandos, with the population caught in the middle - paying with its blood for the terrorist policies of the SMB and often caught in the net of the state's blind repression. In March 1979, the SMB killed dozens (estimates went between 60 and 200) of army cadets in a terrorist attack against the military academy in Aleppo, which was clearly an inside job - thereby showing that the SMB had established a foothold within the army itself. The climax of the SMB's offensive was finally reached in 1982, with a wholesale uprising in the country's second and fifth largest towns - Aleppo and Hama. The regime retaliated with heavy shelling of both cities, killing between 6 and 15,000 depending on whose estimates. Thousands of suspected SMB supporters were arrested.
That same year a law was passed making membership of the SMB a capital offence. In the subsequent repression, hundreds of Islamic activists were executed. The SMB cadres went into exile in Europe while, on the ground, the organisation was virtually wiped out. However, it produced a number of small, clandestine, "radical" spin-offs, which appear to have been responsible for occasional terrorist attacks taking place in Syria over the subsequent two decades.
Bashar al-Assad and the "Damascus Spring"
Following Hafez al-Assad's death, in June 2000, his son Bashar took over, opening an era which many many western commentators hailed at the time as one of "liberalisation" of the regime.
But, in fact, the "liberalisation" in question merely announced another stage in the process of opening up the Syrian economy to western multinationals' looting - a process which had began long before, under Bashar's father. But helping western multinationals and their Syrian capitalist partners to line their pockets on the backs of the population did not imply any kind of political "liberalisation" of the regime - far from it, as the subsequent months were to show.
What came to be known later as the "Damascus Spring" was to last, in fact, 14 months starting from May 2000. It consisted in a flurry of activity among intellectuals, artists, "independent" politicians and "enlightened" businessmen, who set out to organise petitions, discussion circles and forums of every description designed to initiate a "national debate" on the future of Syrian society.
Apart from demanding an end to the state of emergency, still in place 30 years after Hafez al-Assad's coup, this "civil society movement", as it called itself, demanded respectfully of the regime that it should take steps to transform itself gradually into a "normal" bourgeois democracy, fully open to the world market. There was nothing very radical in this movement, neither in terms of its demands, nor in terms of the means it used to back them up. In particular, it never made any attempt to seek the support of the population, and there were never any mass mobilisations behind it even remotely comparable to the recent protests.
The social nature of this "civil society movement" was made very clear by its own leaders. For instance, the civil rights activist Michel Kilo, explained that in Syria there was "no bourgeoisie and no mass working class", and that, therefore, "any political project to confront the present regime should arise from the middle classes".
That the small Syrian bourgeoisie could not be relied upon to challenge the regime was certainly true. After all its existence was totally parasitic on the state machinery of the Baath, so much so that, while around 80% of the non-oil industry and trade was privately-owned by then, about two-thirds of all capital investment were still funded by the state, one way or another! Besides, the top echelons of this bourgeoisie coincided with those of the institutions of the state, up to and including Baath party ministers. How could such a bourgeoisie be expected to saw off the branch on which it was sitting so comfortably, at least as long as it did not have solid guarantees of being able to jump back into its position and preserve its profits, in the event of regime change?
But "no mass working class" to speak of, when an estimated 25% of the population was living below the poverty line, 20% were unemployed, around 3 million worked in manufacturing, mining, transport and construction, and another one million as agricultural waged labourers? Of course there was a "mass working class" which, in addition, was surrounded by more millions of urban poor. But seeking to represent the interests of this working class and, more generally, of the poor masses of Syria - which would have been necessary to win over their support - was not what Michel Kilo and his friends in the "civil society movement" had set out to do. This was quite simply a social choice to leave the working class and poor out of the picture, in order to stitch up some sort of political settlement between the regime and the petty-bourgeoisie - which would leave the social basis of the regime intact.
Of course, this did not work. Starting from August 2001, a wave of arrests and trials ended the "Damascus Spring" and its forums. Ironically, given the references made by the "civil society movement" to western "Human Rights values", one of the most prominent among these trials took place on 31st October 2001, just as Blair was holding a joint press conference with Bashar al-Assad at the Damascus Sheraton Hotel, on the "war on terror". In any case, the Syrian petty-bourgeoisie had obviously failed to convince the strong men of the Baath, including the Syrian capitalists among them, that they would have anything to gain by loosening the stranglehold of the regime.
Background and social basis of the uprising
Like in all the Middle-Eastern and North-African countries affected by the wave of protests, the brutality of the regime's repression has been the main factor in bolstering the mobilisation of the Syrian protesters, so that Bashar al-Assad's departure (if not his execution) became the main and only common demand of the protests.
However, in Syria like in all the other countries concerned, the economic situation appears to have been, initially, an important, if not a decisive factor, in getting protesters to take to the streets.
Over the decade of Bashar al-Assad's rule, the material situation of the population has deteriorated and this deterioration has been further accelerated by the world crisis. The short-lived improvement resulting from the rise of oil production in the 1980s, had already disappeared by the time Bashar came to power and the 25% or so of the state income resulting from oil production was soon soaked up by the country's rising debt.
Before the protests started, an estimated 25% of the population was unemployed, of which three-quarters were under 25. And much like in the other countries affected by the wave of protests, the youth who were initially at the forefront of the movement in Syria, were part of an educated petty-bourgeoisie which saw no prospect for itself, for lack of employment opportunities in which they would have been able to use their education to gain a decent salary - at least, not without having the right connections within the machinery of the regime and/or the ruling party.
Overall, 30% of Syrian nationals were living below the poverty line, while inflation was running in double-digits. And the presence of nearly 2 million refugees, including 1.2 million from Iraq, was adding to the general level of poverty. What proportion of this impoverished population has taken part in the protests is impossible to say. But, unlike what happened in Egypt or Tunisia, there have been no reported industrial unrest since the beginning of the protests. The "stay-outs" declared from above in some towns like Homs, which applied to everyone including shopkeepers, can hardly be described as strikes. Nor was there any report of social demands formulated in the protests - again, contrary to what happened in Egypt or Tunisia, where such demands were always present, even if they were not the main objectives of the protesters.
In fact, one may wonder why it is that, although an estimated 50% of the population - including a large part of its poorest urban layers - live in Damascus and Aleppo, the country's two largest towns, neither has been a hotbed of protest. Repression on its own cannot be the only explanation, since it has failed to stem the protests elsewhere.
It may be worth noting that, if it were not for the 30% of all jobs are provided by the state - even though wages are generally so low that public employees often have to find an additional occasional job to make ends meet - the level of unemployment would just be unbearable. And it may well be the case that, as a result, a whole section of the working class employed in the public sector sees the regime as some kind of protection for its livelihood, no matter how inadequate it may be. Their fear of the future may be compounded by what is happening, for instance, in Egypt, where all the political forces which have come to the fore following the downfall of Mubarak, advocate a drastic "trimming down" of the public sector in order to make more space for private profiteers. And the absence of any perspective explicitly offered to these workers by the protest movement in this respect, can only fuel their fears.
It is therefore quite possible that a section of the poor population remains, if not loyal to the regime, at least passive regarding the protest movement - or even suspicious of it - for fear of having to pay a heavy price if it is successful.
The Alawite minority - comprising just over 2 million people - may be another section of the population which remains aloof from the protests. But certainly not because, as the western media claims, it is a "privileged minority", which is the main pillar of the regime and is desperately clinging to power and to its "privileges".
In fact, the reality is far more complex. While al-Assad himself and a section of the regime's top-ranking figures hail from an Alawite background, a recent report by the International Crisis Group pointed out: "the regime in effect took the Alawite minority hostage, linking its fate to its own. It did so deliberately and cynically, not least in order to ensure the loyalty of the security services which, far from being a privileged, praetorian elite corps, are predominantly composed of underpaid and overworked Alawites hailing from villages the regime has left in a state of abject underdevelopment".
In late 2011, the American journalist Nir Rosen - who provided months of comprehensive coverage of the protests until the beginning of 2012 and cannot be suspected of any sympathy for the Baath regime - described the Alawite district of Ish al Warwar, in the capital city of Damascus, as follows: It "is steep, above the city, and has poor services(..) The slum's half-finished houses seem to be randomly scattered one on top of one another like a Brazilian favela(..) The 70,000 residents have only one elementary school - so overcrowded most children study in Birzeh instead [a nearby Sunni district]. Ish al Warwar also shares a clinic with Birzeh(..) Most residents are Alawites from rural areas who moved to the capital for work(..). People made their own streets, contributing both supplies and labour".
Clearly, the Alawites are not the "privileged minority" which is made out! And if a section of the Alawite minority supports the regime, it is not for the sake of defending any kind of "privilege", but possibly for fear of retribution, as a result of the attempts by some political forces operating among the protesters, to fuel anti-Alawite feeling, with... the help of the western media!
Islamic forces, sectarianism and the protesters
It is obviously impossible to have an accurate image of the nature of the political forces operating on the ground in Syria. But there are some trends visible in the protests, which can be traced in the numerous reports available and these trends show both a religious radicalisation among the protesters and, connected to this, a parallel rise of sectarianism against all minorities, particularly against the Alawites.
During the decade of Bashar al-Assad's rule, both the "liberalisation" of the economy and its increasing difficulties resulted in a weakening of the social provisions of the state. To avoid social problems, but also to accommodate Sunni clerics, Islamic charities were allowed to play an increasing social role - and, by the same token, the mosques were able to increase their audience. This turned the mosques into natural meeting places for the protest movement to rally around, just as in all other Arab countries, but it also allowed Muslim clerics and Islamic groups to be in a position to take the leadership of the protests, or at least to have some influence over them, right from the beginning.
In February this year, Nir Rosen described the evolution of the opposition as follows: "All the fighters I met were Sunni Muslims and most were pious (..) Many fighters were not religious before the uprising, but now pray and are inspired by Islam". He noted that the same general trend applied to the protesters themselves, among whom a majority were "religious conservatives". This was reflected, in particular, in the fact that "women are playing a rather limited role in the uprising" although "there are women's demonstrations or a crowd of women at the back of protests chanting along". Reporting on a demonstration in Damascus, Rosen noted: "A cluster of about twenty women in full black burqas - entirely covering their faces - stood a safe distance behind. Most of the men were against any kind of demonstration by women at all". It is clearly more than any Islam which is "inspiring" many of the protesters, it is its most reactionary form.
Rosen noted at the same time that in most protests the name of an exiled Salafi cleric, Sheikh Adnan al Arur, who is based in Saudi Arabia, was saluted by protesters. Among other things, Arur is famous for having warned "Alawites who participate in the repression that they would be chopped and that their flesh would be fed to dogs". This, together with the memory of the Muslim Brotherhood's anti-Alawite terrorist campaign three decades ago and the rising number of sectarian clashes in Homs, in which Sunnis have attacked Alawite areas, is an ominous sign of what may be in store.
In fact, this sectarianism may also be a factor which deters members of some of Syria's many minorities, and not just Alawites, from joining the protests, regardless of what they may feel about the regime.
Rosen's assessment of the situation in February was not optimistic: "Already in several areas you can hear demonstrators chanting for a declaration of jihad, chanting about Muslims and infidels, referring to the Quran more and more (..) The longer the conflict drags on, the more likely it is to evolve into a battle of Sunni militia fighting Alawite militia.... I believe a civil war is inevitable".
Added to this is the wave of devastating terrorist attacks which has hit government and public sector targets in Damascus and Aleppo, since the beginning of the year, each time claiming over 20 lives. Spokesmen for the opposition have blamed these attacks on the Baath security forces, accusing them of trying to substantiate the regime's derisory claim that al-Qaeda is the real force behind the protest movement. Maybe so. Or maybe the culprit is one of the many secret services, from the Middle East or from the West, which might consider that this may be a "clever" tactic to destabilise the regime. Or else, and just as likely, this may be the work of one or another of the clandestine Islamic groups which, since the 1980s, have been carrying out occasional terrorist attacks against the regime. Whichever is the case, these terrorist attacks are only adding to the threats against the population.
A fractious opposition
We do not know much about the opposition's organisation on the ground. In some towns, local committees seem to have been set up to coordinate the protests and organise the provision of relief for those who have been injured and the families of the deceased. In addition, in the case of Homs at least, armed units have been formed under the authority of the local committee, mostly to protect protesters against snipers, and some degree of coordination seems to exist with committees in the smaller neighbouring towns.
But are these committees representative of the protesters? Do the protesters exercise any form of democratic control over them? Or, on the contrary, have these committees been set up by local strong men and imposed on the protesters from above, therefore representing an obstacle to the future development of the movement, even if they really represent the present aspirations of the protesters? We have no answers to these important questions.
As regards the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which has been so often portrayed by the western media as the armed vanguard of the movement, the information available is just as patchy. Officially, the FSA has a central command in exile. According to The National, a United Arab Emirates daily whose editorial line is favourable to the Syrian opposition: "A former colonel in the Syrian air force who defected in July 2011, Mr Al Assaad, is the Turkey-based self-declared leader of the FSA. (...) He estimates his army strength at 50,000, but most analysts say it is much smaller". But then, the same paper goes on to admit that Al Assaad's "leadership has come under some dispute, as another, higher-ranking defected officer is now claiming to lead the rebels' military council".
So the FSA does not really have a central command after all, neither in exile, nor in Syria apparently. In fact, Nir Rosen's reports and his numerous interviews with FSA fighters seem to show that the FSA is anything but an army. Nor does it have a central command on the ground, nor significant equipment, and contrary to what happened in Libya, those FSA fighters who have deserted from the conscript Syrian army did so in small numbers or individually and, in most cases, without taking their individual weapons - let alone heavier weaponry. In fact, the FSA seems more like a collection of armed groups, formed locally on an adhoc basis, using whatever weapons and funding is available to buy them. In short, it appears to be a smaller version of the collection of militias which have been responsible for a lot of the in-fighting in Libya since the end of the western bombings. And it is not difficult to imagine what role such a collection of armed groups could play in causing a civil war to develop, if and when rivalries within the opposition and sectarian strife begin to take precedence over the present objective of bringing the Baath regime down.
Regarding the now internationally recognised organ of the opposition, the Syrian National Council (SNC), the only thing that seems to be clear about it, is that it does not have many links, and therefore not much influence, within the country itself. In most cases, its members left the country several decades ago and their parties have long disappeared in Syria. But judging from the extremely glossy website set up by the SNC, it seems to consider it extremely urgent to organise the setting up of a "Syrian Business Council (which) represents a coalition of a wide range of business men and women who decided to take a firm stand against the Assad regime and offer a strong commitment to secure financial stability for a safe transition out of this regime". No doubt the protesters falling under al-Assad's bullets will appreciate!
However, there is one area in which this SNC seems to reflect some of the trends developing on the ground in Syria - sectarianism. While the SNC has failed to manage to come to any agreement with the group which brings together the main Kurdish parties, it has also refused to include representatives of several parties representing ethnic minorities. Nor did the SNC even bother to disown Maamun Homsi, a prominent exiled opposition figure and former independent Syrian MP, when he stated at the end of 2011: "After today, you despicable Alawites, either you disassociate yourselves from Assad, or Syria will be your graveyard. Enough with your killing of Sunnis, we will not be silent after today. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and the initiator is the aggressor. After today, there will be no more minorities."
Already, just 8 months after it was formed, the SNC has produced another two "national"' councils, each claiming to be more representative than the other two and each boasting of having the only real links within the country. Which one tells the truth is anybody's guess. One thing that these splits have revealed, however, is the resentment caused by the dominant role played by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in collecting and redistributing foreign funding to SNC members. Since, in bourgeois politics, who has money has power, this means that the SMB is also in a position to play a leading political role in the SNC - the very body which, according to western governments, is supposed to restore "democracy" in Syria!
Imperialism's tight rope
Right from the beginning, the SNC was a fabrication of the imperialist powers cobbled up from political exiles who had long settled in London, Paris or New-York. But it appeared more like a fallback solution. For a long time, all western leaders, and more specifically Obama, had been remarkably discreet in their condemnation of al-Assad's repression. It seemed that, even after the setting up of the SNC, they were still hoping that the protest movement would die down and that the reforms announced by al-Assad would result in some sort of compromise which would present some advantages for them without the need for a messy "regime change". In short, they wanted to have their cake and eat it.
After all, the imperialist powers had many reasons to be satisfied with the existence of the Syrian Baath regime. Apart from their intervention in Lebanon, the al-Assad father and son had, on several occasions, lent a helping hand to maintain the imperialist order. After all, hadn't they supported imperialism in the first Gulf War and, formally at least, in the "war on terror". True, Syria had maintained close links with forces which, from an imperialist point of view, were "objectionable" - Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian militias Hamas and Islamic Jihad - but by doing so, the Syrian regime had been able to have a certain amount of control over these forces, while its aim had always been to defend the regional status quo and to be recognised by imperialism as a regional power capable of playing this role. As to Syria's link with Iran, it did not represent a real threat for the imperialist powers, in so far as it had never turned Syria into a regional instrument of Iran's policy. So, there were many reasons for the imperialist powers to prefer the existing regime to remain in Syria.
However, by the end of last year, when it turned out that the regime was proving unable to crush the protests, the SNC "solution" acquired more prominence. Indeed, the imperialist leaders are well aware of the risks outlined above by Nir Rosen - that the present protests end up mutating into a protracted civil war that might affect not just Syria, but overspill into some or all of the neighbouring countries with which the Syrian population has close links, thereby threatening to destabilise the whole region. If events took that course, "regime change" would be the only possibility to maintain the regional order and it had to be prepared for.
The problem for the imperialist powers then became somewhat similar to that in Libya - to facilitate the formation of a ready-made state machinery capable of filling the power vacuum that would appear if and when the Baath dictatorship collapsed. The difficulty was that, unlike in Libya, the Baath state machinery did not start collapsing, no army units joined the protesters fully armed, nor did high-ranking cadres of the army or the regime flock to the opposition's side. The replacement state machinery had to be built virtually from scratch, and no matter how much the importance of the FSA was blown out of proportion on paper, it did not make for an army capable of policing the population. So, even if the imperialist governments had been able to launch a bombing operation of the Libyan type, the problem of the power vacuum would still have been unresolved.
Moreover, if such a bombing operation proved possible in Libya, a semi-desert country in North Africa, is it conceivable in a relatively highly-populated country, inhabited by a population which spans over the porous borders of its five neighbouring countries, right at the heart of a region which remains one of the world's most highly volatile? Wouldn't such an intervention by the imperialist powers, especially at a time when the scars caused by the occupation of Iraq are still open, create the risk of regional conflagration? Which is probably why, the imperialist powers seem to be trying now to get the Arab states and Turkey to take responsibility for handling the Syrian crisis, the organisation of the FSA and, possibly, any military intervention that might be required.
Of course, in all these calculations, neither the interests of the Syrian protesters, nor those of the Syrian masses in general, carry any weight. The only concern of the imperialist powers is to keep a regional status quo, which guarantees both their access to the oil reserves of the Middle East and the profits of the oil multinationals. To this end they only need wardens capable of keeping the lid on the despair of impoverished populations.
If the poor masses of the Middle East want another future, they will have to build it, by getting rid of the sectarian religious demagogues who are trying to drive them centuries into the past, and by raising the banner of social change, against the imperialist looters and against their own exploiters - across the whole region!