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Syria: Legitimacy and Division

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As the rival imperialist powers manoeuvre to gain an advantage from the mass uprising against Bashar al-Assad's dictatorship, Marcus Halaby examines the regime's strategy and tactics as it struggles, if not for outright victory, then at least to cling on to some vestiges of its power.

One of the historic claims to legitimacy of Ba’athism, as a populist Arab nationalist movement with socialistic pretensions, was that it stood against “asabiyya”, the sectarian, tribal and parochial divisions and identities that plagued the Arab world and stood in the way of the effective formation of modern nations and nation-states.

In its death-throes, however, the Syrian Ba’athist regime of Bashar al-Assad seems determined to revive and give force to every possible division that might weaken the mass movement for his overthrow.

Having abandoned the north-east of the country to its former Kurdish protégés, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Assad’s regime has also gone on to arm conservative Sunni Muslim Arab tribes like the al-Berri clan, whose leader Ali Zeineddin al-Berri was summarily executed alongside three other male members of his family when the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) entered Syria’s biggest city Aleppo at the beginning of August.


Ali Zeineddin, also known as Zeno, was notorious not only for his brutal suppression of opposition protests in Aleppo on the regime’s behalf, but also for smuggling, drug dealing and other illegal activities tolerated by the regime in return. The PKK, for its part, while remaining in the “moderate” opposition body, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC), has engaged in armed clashes of its own with the FSA, sparking accusations that it is playing the same role for the regime in the Kurdish region as that played by pro-regime “shabbiha” militias like Zeno’s.

Elsewhere, the Assad regime continues its previous policy of arming members of the Alawite minority, from which Assad and his inner circle originate, fanning the flames of sectarian civil war to frighten all of Syria’s religious minorities with the prospect of chaos in the event of the regime’s fall. This is being done not only to put off the inevitable and prolong the regime’s weakened hold on power, but also to establish a new political role for its leading figures when power is eventually taken from them.

Ethnic cleansing as a fallback option

It now seems increasingly likely that the Assad regime’s game plan includes the fallback option of a retreat to the mountainous north-west of the country that forms the ancestral homeland of both the Assad family and the Alawite minority, and with it the religiously mixed coastal area around Tartous and Latakia (the country’s fourth-largest city), which the Ansariyah mountains overlook. Combined, this area comprises Syria’s only direct access to the sea, and contains Russia’s only Mediterranean naval base.

The massacres committed by pro-regime Alawite shabbiha at Houla and Qubair in May and June, and the regime’s repeated attacks on and depopulation of Homs, the country’s third-largest city, seem to have served the purpose of drawing a rough line between this “Alawite” region – in which, nonetheless, Alawites do not form a majority, and cannot do so without ethnic cleansing on a horrendous scale – and a landlocked “Sunni” region that can be abandoned to the revolution, with Homs linking the pro-regime littoral to a presumably sympathetic Shi’a populated region around Baalbek and Hermel in Lebanon’s north-east.

A Russian-protected fiefdom

A permanent Alawite mini-state existing under Russia’s military protection would almost certainly lack economic and political viability (or, for that matter, international recognition). It would also be a disaster for the Alawites themselves, who over the course of seventy or eighty years have migrated from their ancestral homeland – where they originally formed a segregated and oppressed community of small and landless peasants – to almost all of Syria’s urban centres, taking up the opportunities for social mobility opened up for them by the secular Ba’ath regime, primarily in the state bureaucracy and in the military.

Alongside the Kurdish north-east and some other parts of the country, Syria’s coastal region might, however, form one of a number of ethno-religious fiefdoms able to resist any new central authority established by the revolution, like those created by the various Muslim, Druze and Christian Maronite militias in Lebanon during that country’s fifteen-year civil war.

Reduced ambitions

There can be no more fitting epitaph for Syrian Ba’athism – that a movement that once spoke of “freedom, unity and socialism” should now find itself with leaders who aspire only to the status of the petty Lebanese warlords who they themselves once patronised, repressed and played off against each other.

The fact that the Assad regime is even considering such reduced ambitions, however, is the result of a series of stunning military victories for the revolution. The most spectacular of these was a bomb explosion in Damascus on 18 July, which killed defence minister Dawoud Rajiha, deputy defence minister (and Assad’s brother-in-law) Assef Shawkat, and assistant vice-president (and former defence minister) Hassan Turkmani.

This was preceded by an armed attack on 27 June on the pro-government television station al-Ikhbariya in Drousha, only 14 kilometres south of Damascus, these events graphically demonstrated what every Syrian had known for weeks – that the Free Army was everywhere, including in the capital, that it had the broad support of a majority of the population, and that only a lack of organisation and heavy weaponry prevented it from simply removing the regime by force of arms.

An armed struggle for control of territory

As if to prove the point, the following week saw a battle for the control of Damascus, with government troops shelling neighbourhoods that had fallen under the control of FSA units that infiltrated the city from the countryside as early as 15 July.

While regime forces claimed to have forced the retreat of the rebels by 23 July, it was not until 4 August that the Free Army was forced to withdraw from its last remaining positions in the capital’s Tadamon district. Even so, only a week later there was fighting between the regime’s forces and the Free Army near the country’s central bank building.

There was a simultaneous attempt to take Aleppo, with the Free Army still holding out in some parts of the city as of 12 August, and the regime using fighter jets against rebel-held districts.

Country effectively divided

The Free Army now controls a swathe of territory between the Ansariyah mountains to the west and Idlib to the east; another between Aleppo to the south and the Turkish border to the north-west, surrounding Idlib from the north and east; and a third along the Lebanese border to the north of Damascus, connecting Zabadani to Yabrud and almost taking in the Damascus satellite town of Douma.

The rebels also control small strips of territory along the Jordanian border either side of Daraa, the birthplace of the uprising; parts of Homs and Hama, the country’s fifth-largest city; Rastan, Qusayr and a number of small towns and villages around Homs; and Deir ez-Zor in the east, with Iraqi officials confirming that the Free Army had taken control of four border crossings from Deir ez-Zor on 20 July.

The regime, by contrast, only really controls the capital and its own coastal stronghold between Tartous and Latakia; Idlib, surrounded on two sides by rebel-held territory; the area around the town of Salamiyah between Homs and Hama; Raqqah and Hasakah in the north (with Hasakah sandwiched between Kurdish-held Qamishli and rebel-held Deir ez-Zor); the Druze region to the east of Deraa around Suwayda; and the desert region around Palmyra, linking Raqqah and Hasakah to Damascus.

Worse still, from the regime’s point of view, its “control” of territory extends only so long as its security forces are physically present, and only as far as they are able to project their capacity for death and destruction. Like the Israeli occupation forces in Palestine, the regime must repeatedly make armed incursions simply to impose its authority.

The “militarisation” of the uprising

It is these latest developments, the so-called “militarisation” of the uprising, that have alarmed many on the international left, with John Rees, Sami Ramadani and Tariq Ali of the UK’s Stop the War Coalition (StWC) concluding that this poses such huge dangers – of a Western imperialist military involvement that has so far failed to materialise – that it forces them to reconsider their attitude towards the Syrian uprising as a whole.

Arguing that the major issue is “whether imperial intervention has any significance in determining the course of the Syrian revolution", John Rees notes that "the more the US and its allies have been prevented from direct military intervention the more they have relied on indirect intervention, and the more they have sought to buy a stake in the government of a post-Assad Syria", and concludes that the "best service we [socialists in the West] can do Syrians is to keep them [the dangers of the revolution being hijacked] from being realised by directing our fire at our own rulers - and by extension those who are playing into their hands among the Syrian opposition".

Where Rees sees the danger of the uprising being hijacked, Tariq Ali claims that it has already happened, and that what is now happening is "a new form of re-colonisation", which has sidelined many of the people "who first rose against the Assad regime", leaving them with the limited choices of the Assad regime or of a regime composed of "sundry Syrians who work for the western intelligence agencies". Instead of backing the revolution, Ali believes that the only way forward is negotiation and discussion, but that "the West is not going to let that happen because they are backing the opposition groups who are against any negotiation".

Our attitude, by contrast, is unequivocal. Any withdrawal of support for the insurgent forces would be a spineless dereliction of duty, the equivalent of desertion under fire. No socialist should be in any doubt that in the armed clashes between the Free Army and the Syrian regime, we should support the victory of the Free Army. It represents the democratic and social aspirations of the insurgent masses, and faces in battle the evaporating remnants of a sick and dying dictatorship.

Certainly, it contains many political currents, it lacks structure and a consistent strategy. But then how could it be otherwise? Under the dictatorship of the Assad family, a consistently revolutionary working-class leadership could only have been built with external assistance from a revolutionary International, able to support and guide the illegal underground work necessary to build the core of a revolutionary workers' party.

Moreover, the arguments around “militarisation” are frequently wide of the mark. The Free Army, if we leave aside a group of army officers far away from the action in Turkey, consists of the 50,000 or so military defectors and armed civilians who are themselves the product of the attempt by the regime to crush a mass movement using a conscript army. Precisely because of the mass character of the movement, the rank and file soldiers could not for long be used to slaughter their own people, and that army soon began to fall apart.

The Syrian army has effectively ceased to function as a result of the uprising, the machinery of conscription is no longer operational. Out of an estimated active personnel of 300,000, the regime is now largely reliant on just 50,000 for any serious fighting; and these are mainly its elite Alawite-dominated divisions like the Republican Guard and the Fourth Armoured Division, both led by the President’s brother Maher al-Assad.

Finally, the moral responsibility for this “militarisation” of the uprising should surely lie with the regime, whose first and only response to any challenge to its rule was one of ferocious violence.

Who will take the power?

Even so, we can recognise that the tasks of the Syrian revolution will not simply come to an end with the military victory of the Free Army – if, indeed, a purely military victory is possible. Amongst the questions that remain unanswered is the question of who will take the power once the Assad regime falls.

The United States, having fallen in behind Russia and China’s preferred outcome of a Yemeni-style negotiated transition, appears to recognise this, with US State Secretary Hillary Clinton endorsing UN and Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan’s call for a “transitional government” that would include regime figures “without blood on their hands” on 30 June. She repeated this formula in the course of a visit to Turkey on 12 August, while expressing concerns (that mirror the Syrian regime’s own propaganda) about the alleged presence of “al-Qaeda militants” amongst the Syrian rebels.

Her verbal militancy extended only to the insistence that Bashar al-Assad himself would have to go. This is a concession that his Russian and Chinese imperialist sponsors will happily make in return for Arab and Western guarantees of their continued interests in the country.

The Syrian National Council (SNC) representing those elements of the bourgeois Syrian opposition in exile (both secular and Islamist) that have looked for support to the Western imperialist powers – and to their Saudi, Qatari and Turkish allies – met in the Qatari capital Doha on 26 July, and appeared to put forward industrialist and former parliamentarian Riad Seif as their candidate to head a “consensus-based” civilian administration.

At the same time, former Republican Guard Brigadier-General Manaf Tlass, who defected from the regime only on 6 July, put himself forward as a possible leader of an Egyptian-style military regime that would prepare the way for elections. He immediately received the backing of the FSA’s General Mustafa Ahmad al-Sheikh, who in January 2012 was one of the first senior military figures to defect. Tlass, whose father was defence minister under Bashar's father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad, was one of the few Sunni Muslims in the regime’s inner circle, and is reportedly Saudi Arabia’s favourite to maintain “stability” in a post-Assad scenario.

Preventing the expropriation of the revolution

Whichever bourgeois faction wins the tug-of-war over the composition of the next government, the danger is that the popular masses, the workers, farmers, students, youth, urban petty bourgeoisie and rural poor, who have sacrificed 20,000 dead in the course of their struggle for elementary democratic rights, will be cheated of the fruits of their victory.

In place of a vicious dictatorship resting on a narrowed social base and exploiting sectarian antagonisms to remain in power, they may well find themselves facing a regime resting upon the legitimacy of a democratic uprising, but whose principal purpose is to restore capitalist order and to act as an accurate reflection of the balance of forces between a declining US imperialism and its up and coming Russian and Chinese rivals.

However, there can be no doubt that, whilst working class revolutionaries must not give an ounce of support to such a regime, the establishment of political, trade union and civil rights by the masses (as in the other countries of the Arab Spring) would be an enormous step forward in terms of creating an arena for the development of the class struggle. Indeed, as long as the revolution is under a leadership that restricts it to pro-capitalist goals, this is the most that can be expected in the immediate aftermath of Assad's downfall.

Nevertheless, the workers and the revolutionary youth must mobilise during the final disintegration of the old regime, and fight both to establish their own leadership of the mass movement, and also against any such bourgeois democratic restrictions on its outcome.

For this purpose, the slogans of revolutionary democracy retain their full force; above all, a sovereign constituent assembly with recallable delegates, control of the election process by workers and revolutionary committees, a popular militia to guard political meetings and polling stations, a media purged of the agents of the old regime and free from domination by the wealthy or by clerical “community leaders”. The Local Coordinating Committees, which have provided a vital grass roots political leadership to the uprising at a local and regional level, could be the starting-point for such a struggle to ensure that the post-Assad transition is not stage-managed by a new elite making its peace with the remnants of the old state apparatus.

After all, it was the failure to fight for and win such demands in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya, that allowed elements of the old regimes there to survive and entrench themselves. There can be no doubt that the various Saudi, Qatari, Turkish, US and EU advisers of any new regime will do all in their power to preserve as much as possible of the old repressive apparatus and, above all, to prevent the self-arming of the popular masses. The scare stories about "Salafists", "al-Qaeda", the possible fate of Syria's Christian minority and the threat of sectarian meltdown now circulating in the Western media all serve the purpose of preparing public opinion in the West for a future intervention - not to overthrow Assad, but to clip the wings of any popular forces that might emerge after him.

What will be critical will be the building of a revolutionary working class party rooted in the struggles of the working masses and pledged to a continuing, that is, proletarian, revolution. Its programme must be based on the fight to realise real democracy for the youth, workers and peasants, a democracy based on delegate councils, and struggling for a workers' and peasants' government, one committed to planned economic development and an advance towards genuine socialism.

For this, the borders of Syria, drawn by the French and British imperialists nearly a century ago, are far too narrow and restricting. The socialist revolution in Syria must set itself the goal of uniting with the workers of the surrounding states, above all with the Egyptian working class, to create a socialist federation of the Middle East. The workers of Europe and the world have an urgent duty to help their brothers and sisters in this struggle.