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Massacre in Syria – but the people remain defiant

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The Syrian regime continues its crackdown on opposition forces, but the demonstrations and protests are continuing. How can President Assad be removed from power? By Marcus Halaby

Anyone looking for evidence that what is happening in Syria is a revolution will not find it difficult to get hold of it. The masses have broken the barrier of fear and no longer want to live in the old way. Every Friday, people pour out onto the streets across the country, apparently oblivious to the risk of death or injury at the hands of snipers or soldiers. Five months of lethal force have failed to break their spirit. While the causes of their discontent had built up over decades, it was the revolutions in Tunisia, Libya and especially Egypt that set the scene for their independent action. For Syrians in particular, long accustomed to seeing themselves as being in the vanguard of Arab progress, to be seen to be lagging behind the “pro-imperialist” Egyptians in the sphere of democratic rights and freedoms, was a situation that simply could not last.

Members of the “mukhabarat” – Syria’s not-so-secret secret police – in their ubiquitous leather jackets, sunglasses and dress pants can still be seen everywhere, listening in on conversations and watching people’s daily goings-on. But people no longer feel intimidated by them – the prospect of arrest, imprisonment and likely torture for making comments critical of the regime in public no longer deters them from speaking their minds to each other. This is the real “national dialogue” that is taking place – not one between the regime and a selected part of the opposition, but amongst Syria’s citizens about the future of their country.

Equally, the ruling class is no longer able to live in the old way – the Ba’ath regime’s repeated promises of reforms and its attempts to manipulate a meaningless “national dialogue” are a sign of this, just as its decade-long turn to neo-liberalism (supported by private investment from oil-rich Arab Gulf states like Qatar) has undermined its old social base in the poor and middle peasantry. Like Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, the Syrian Ba’ath regime now rests primarily on crony-capitalist kleptocrats and a pacified middle class disturbed by the threat of “disorder” – only with a system of rule built during the Cold War for a very different purpose. The regime itself claims to have rejected the so-called “security solution” (that is, simple repression) as a way out of the crisis, even as it continues to implement it in practice.

Added to this, there is the effect of the global economic crisis, on Syria, and on the Arab world in general. The “safety-valve” of emigration – to nearby Lebanon, or to Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Arab states – has no longer been able to function as before in removing from sight the most obvious signs of deepening inequality. It is no accident that the uprising started in Daraa, once a stronghold of the Ba’ath party (in its heyday as a party of the peasantry and urban lower middle class), and long since neglected by it. One of the poorest regions of the country, it has in the past few years been the recipient of a flood of internal migrants from Syria’s north-east, the site of a man-made environmental catastrophe exacerbated by the turn to neo-liberalism.

On the other hand, the army has not yet split, and the regime has not yet fallen – although there are reports that the garrison in Al-Bukamal, a small town on the Iraqi border (and the site of a murderous US raid in October 2008), went over to the side of the protesters in mid-July, and there have been many desertions by individuals or small groups of soldiers elsewhere.

An optimist might conclude that Syria’s regime will sooner or later be overthrown – and Qatar-based academic Salman Shaikh, interviewed by CNN, has said that the regime’s actions “are symptoms of an irreversible slow-motion collapse”. The Syrian uprising’s own resilience is itself grounds for optimism – as is the rejection of sectarianism and foreign intervention by the vast majority of the domestic Syrian opposition.

But no revolutionary moment lasts forever. If the movement on the streets does not go forward, then brute force – and the regime’s own managed self-transformation – will inflict a defeat on the movement that may set back the prospects for democracy in Syria by decades.

The reasons for the current stalemate involve Syria’s own peculiarities. Egypt’s ruling class was able to sacrifice Mubarak, in the knowledge that the new military regime would continue to defend its property and its relationship with the United States. In Syria, the regime’s upper echelons and hangers-on are so tightly enmeshed – by kinship, patronage, and sectarian solidarity (in the case of its Alawi component), by corruption and by their shared responsibility for bloody repression – that it would take much more than simply the removal of Bashar al-Assad to placate the people on the streets and re-establish a precarious “stability”.

Obstcales to the revolution

Egypt’s top brass, fearing the consequences of the army’s fraternisation with the crowds in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, made it clear to Mubarak that he had to go – especially once the misgivings of the United States to his continued rule became known. In Syria, the armed forces are structured in such a way that any officer even thinking of making a coup would need an impossibly large number of confidants – and the hostility of the United States is seen a source of regime legitimacy.

In Egypt, the regime was able to recruit gangs of “baltagiya” (“thugs”) to attack protesters. Rumours abounded that policemen out of uniform had given criminals and the homeless 100 Egyptian pounds (the equivalent of 10 British pounds) and a free meal at KFC to risk their lives for Hosni Mubarak. But their recruitment took place haphazardly and at the last minute – and their morale was quickly broken by the mass resistance of the revolutionary people.

In Syria, by contrast, the “shabeeha” (“ghosts”) – the popular name for the shadowy pro-regime gangs and unofficial militias – have been in existence for years, making their money primarily in smuggling, corruption and other criminal activities. Their cohesion is increased by the fact that they have been recruited overwhelmingly from the once-oppressed Alawi minority, fearing the prospect of communal revenge in the event of the regime’s downfall.

In Egypt, the voices – arising mainly from the middle class – calling for the country to show confidence in the military government’s promises of reform and elections, had to wait until after Mubarak’s removal before they could gain a real hearing. They would find new allies in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, angling for a junior role in the next government.

In Syria, these voices have been heard from day one, and the Brotherhood exists only in exile, or in the imaginations of regime propagandists. Journalist and editor Sami Moubayed argued two weeks into the uprising in March that Assad deserved “the benefit of the doubt” in implementing reforms, although he has since predicted that rising unemployment in Aleppo and Damascus could bring Syria’s two largest cities decisively onto the side of the revolution.

Canada-based Syrian blogger Camille Otrakji argued that while the revolt “had a legitimate spark”, nevertheless “80 per cent of the Syrian people” would support the regime if it lifted censorship, permitted opposition parties and limited the role of the mukhabarat. Speaking to the opposition, he said: “Thank you very much for your courage. You did a valuable service by giving the regime a ‘cold shower’. But now we’ve had enough of the protests and we want to go back to work.”

The initial reaction to the uprising of world-renowned Syrian poet Adonis was to lecture his people on the evils of religion and the virtues of “secularism”, as if this, rather than democratic rights, was the real question at stake.

Underlying all of this is the caution and fear of that part of Syria’s middle class that has seen its living standards rise under Bashar’s neo-liberalism, and for whom “secularism” serves as a shibboleth separating them from the unwashed masses, much as “socialism” did for aspiring bureaucrats in the East European Stalinist states. While in Egypt, the illusion could exist that the “whole people” had been with the revolution, in Syria, naked class divisions have been visible right from the outset.

Moreover, the regime has been able to mobilize counter-demonstrations of its own, some of them quite large. While many of those attending have been “coerced” through various means (especially in the case of state employees given time off work and pressured to attend), not all have. Author Robin Yassin-Kassab has characterized them as being attended by people who “fear the future, or are in denial concerning the regime’s crimes, or support the regime’s crimes because of their personal corruption or their sectarian or class prejudices”.

These demonstrations – practically by definition – have had nothing like the popular character of the anti-regime protests. They have involved displays of the most vulgar sort of apolitical “patriotism” – lighting up the night sky in Damascus with fireworks when other people were mourning their dead, parading a 2.3km long Syrian flag through several cities, and swearing oaths of loyalty to the president in a faintly laughable attempt to create a cult of personality around a leader with the personality of a chartered accountant.

All the same, they have allowed the regime to frame its narrative – that “violent protest” is unnecessary, that reform is on its way, that the alternative is Iraq-style chaos and civil war, that “armed gangs” are acting as the tool of foreign conspiracies against the nation and so forth.

The regional situation, with the defeat of the Bahraini uprising and the shackles placed on the Libyan revolution by NATO intervention, makes it all the more urgent that the Syrian revolution should advance to the next stage. To this may be added the serious risk of a counter-revolution in Egypt, with the Brotherhood and its Salafist allies responding to mass mobilisations in favour of a “second revolution” by staging large demonstrations of their own, raising calls for Sharia law and an Islamic state for the first time since the overthrow of Mubarak.

On the other hand, the prospect of a Palestinian declaration of independence in the autumn, and the emergence of a mass social movement in Israel against poverty living conditions that may well paralyse the Zionist state’s response to it, could just as easily put Syria at centre stage.

The Syrian uprising has pitted the poorest and most oppressed layers of Syrian society against its most privileged and complacent layers. It has been their almost inexhaustible capacity for self-sacrifice that has forced the regime onto the defensive, and won concessions in weeks that were unavailable under forty years of dictatorship. But to win, the uprising needs to go beyond heroism, and make use of the only power in society capable of breaking the deadlock: the collective social power of the working class.

If the movement can turn to the working class and the urban poor, if it can win them to the struggle decisively through including necessary social demands alongside the political, and if it can really develop a clear democratic programme, fighting for a constituent assembly and full democratic rights, then the regime’s days will be numbered. Within such a movement the working class can put itself at the head, and fight for to make the revolution permanent through destroying the capitalist rot at the heart of Syrian society. This will ensure the movement does not end up in defeat as the Green movement did in Iran in 2009.

Should this happen, Syria will once again become the fulcrum of Arab revolution, and raise the prospect of further movements for liberation – of Lebanon from its system of political sectarianism, of Iraq from foreign occupation and division, and of the Palestinian people from the continued colonisation of their country.

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