Document:The Syrian Protest Movement and its Historical Context
- 1 Oppose any form of imperialist intervention in Syria!
- 1.1 Analysis of Syrian protest movement and its historical context
Oppose any form of imperialist intervention in Syria!
Analysis of Syrian protest movement and its historical context
Those were the words of John Bolton, then Undersecretary of State for Arms Control. Echoing the sentiments of other U.S. leaders, Bolton made the threatening statement on April 10, 2003, the day after the fall of Baghdad at the hands of the occupiers of Iraq — the United States and its allies.
At the time, overjoyed by their successful overthrow of the Ba’ath regime in Iraq, U.S. policymakers were already planning the next stage of their aim to “redraw the map of the Middle East.” Their target was every country in the region, and elsewhere, whose state exercised some level of independence from Washington and Wall Street’s dictates.
Of course, this redrawing of the map did not materialize. Through their resistance to occupation, the Iraqi people forced the imperialists to shelve their most aggressive plans of successive invasions. Had Iraqi resistance not halted the U.S. war machine, Syria may well have been next.
A brief look at Syria’s history
For centuries, Syria was a province of the Ottoman Empire. With the dismantlement of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the victorious imperialist powers divided up the Middle East amongst themselves. The British took Palestine, Jordan and Iraq while the French acquired Lebanon and Syria.
Following the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks renounced Tsarist Russia’s colonial ambitions and published the secret Sykes-Picot Treaty, which contained the details of the inter-imperialist deal between Britain, France and Russia on how to divide the Middle East.
The quick collapse of France in 1940 at the start of World War II led to the British occupation of Lebanon and Syria. In 1946, Syria achieved formal independence. French imperialism retained great influence after World War II, especially in Lebanon, but the United States gradually displaced them and the British as the leading power in the region.
In 1963, the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party took power in Syria. The Ba’ath Party, which also took power in Iraq the same year, had been founded in Syria in 1947 but established branches in different Arab countries. Under the motto of "Unity, Liberty, Socialism," Ba’athism represented a left tendency of the Arab nationalist movement.
By the mid-1960s, the left wing of the Ba’ath under the leadership of Salah Jadid had defeated rightist forces within the party. Jadid launched the widespread nationalization of industry and agriculture and extensive social programs to benefit the workers and peasants.
With imperialist patronage, Israel had grown into a highly militarized state; it launched a lightning strike against its Arab neighbors in 1967. In six days, it defeated Egypt, Syria and Jordan, conquering the West Bank, Gaza, the Sinai Peninsula and Syria’s Golan Heights, which it occupies to this day.
Military defeat dealt a heavy blow to the nationalist leaders of Syria and Egypt and weakened the more leftist and radical forces within both regimes. In the case of Egypt, this led to the ascension of a pro-imperialist regime after Nasser’s death in 1970. In Syria, Jadid was defeated by Hafez al-Assad in 1971. Unlike Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, Assad was no pro-imperialist leader. But during his years in office, while maintaining a socialist program in name, Assad moved toward a more centrist, bourgeois-nationalist program. Following his death in 2000, the elder Assad was succeeded by his son, Bashar al-Assad, the current president.
Character of Syrian regime
Since the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the division of the Middle East among imperialist powers, states in the Middle East have been predominantly authoritarian and undemocratic in form. The imperialists installed right-wing, reactionary feudal elements to rule over the different countries, the borders of which were determined on the basis of imperialist interests. These were obviously not ideal conditions for the growth of bourgeois-democratic rights.
Even in countries that broke free from imperialist domination – such as Syria, Libya and Iran following the 1979 revolution –the threat of invasion and overthrow were not exactly conducive to the expansion of democratic rights. As a result, most regimes in the region, whether independent or client, have not made significant advances towards bourgeois-democratic forms of government—parliaments, elections and so on. Severe state repression has been the norm, not the exception.
In fact, contrary to the U.S. propaganda about promoting democracy and human rights, the most backwards and most repressive states have not been the independent states but U.S. client ones. To observe this fact, one only needs to look at countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, where royal families rule and there is not even a pretense of elections and parliaments.
From a Marxist perspective, the basic function of the state is class repression. As Lenin put it, “The state is a special organization of force: it is an organization of violence for the suppression of some class.” This is true whether the repression comes in softer forms, when the state’s rule is not threatened, or when the repression comes in harsh and violent forms, when the state is attempting to survive a mortal threat. The key question is the class character of the forces lined up for and against the state.
Syria’s regime can be characterized as bourgeois-nationalist, which means that it stands for the country’s independence, but is organized along capitalist lines.
Historically, the main cause of underdevelopment in oppressed countries has been the colonial plunder of their resources. By standing for the country’s independence and stopping imperialism from extracting its resources, the national bourgeoisie can facilitate development—a development that would not have been possible had the resources disappeared into the hands of imperialist capital. But bourgeois national forces are, at the same time, reactionary insofar as they stand against the political ascension of the working class. To the extent such nationalism is built on cross-class ethnic unity, they often take a chauvinist approach towards internal minorities as well.
The Syrian state’s primary function, like all states, is to repress political and economic challenges to its ruling class. Its police forces have developed a reputation among many sectors of the Syrian population for brutality.
Independent, but contradictory, foreign policy
In foreign policy, the Assads have been far from consistent in taking anti-imperialist positions. This is not an uncommon feature among bourgeois-nationalist regimes, particularly over a long period of time.
In the 1970s, a bloody civil war was raging in Lebanon, Syria’s neighbor and historically part of Greater Syria. After years of fighting, progressive forces, led by the Lebanese National Movement, were on the verge of victory. In April 1976, the Syrian army entered Lebanon with the backing of the United States, blocking the victory of the progressive forces. While opposed to Israel and imperialist domination, the Syrian national bourgeoisie was also fearful of a revolutionary victory in Lebanon spreading throughout the region. Syria also participated in the first imperialist invasion of Iraq in 1991. The Ba’ath Party had split years earlier and there was deep animosity between the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein and Syria.
While siding with counter-revolution in Lebanon and imperialism in Iraq, Syria has generally remained an independent state. Syria under the elder Assad signed a defense treaty with the Soviet Union. The country was not opened up to large-scale Western capitalist penetration. In the post-Soviet era, the U.S. government aimed to replace all remaining independent states in the Middle East with client governments; this is why Syria was targeted for regime change.
After the 1982 U.S.-backed Israeli invasion of Lebanon, U.S. forces waged war against the growing Lebanese resistance movement. Syria supported that movement. In 1983, after the explosion of a truck bomb killed 241 U.S. troops, the United States ended its direct military involvement in Lebanon. Now a growing resistance movement, supported by Syria, fought the Israeli invaders. In 2000, after 18 years of struggle, the Lebanese resistance succeeded in expelling the Israelis from nearly all of the country’s territory. In this case, Syria’s support was vital to the success of Lebanese resistance.
In recent years, Syria has supported the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, which was responsible for driving the Israelis out of Lebanon in 2000. Hezbollah was the main force resisting the Israeli bombing and occupation of Lebanon in 2006, which resulted in Israel being forced to pull back after inflicting much death and indiscriminate destruction on the Lebanese people.
Syria has supported Hamas and other Palestinian resistance forces. Many Palestinian organizations maintain their headquarters in Syria, including the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Syria has established close relations with Iran, another regime in the crosshairs of imperialist powers. Prior to the current upheavals, the Obama administration had been working hard to weaken those relations. On April 22, President Obama accused Syria of “seeking Iranian assistance in repressing Syria's citizens.”
In 2006, following the assassination of Rafik Hariri, former premier of Lebanon, there was an intense imperialist campaign blaming Syria for the assassination. With the adoption of UN resolution 1559, Syria was forced to fully withdraw from Lebanon. The purpose of the anti-Syrian campaign was to force Syria out and open the way for pro-imperialist forces to gain the upper hand in the Lebanese political scene. It did not quite work out that way, with Hezbollah gaining immense popularity for resisting the 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon. Having served their political purpose at the time, the “investigations” have since exonerated Syria and are now pointing to Hezbollah as responsible for Hariri’s assassination.
In September 2007, Israel bombed the banks of the Euphrates River in Syria. The claim was made that the target was a nascent Syrian nuclear facility.
Recent uprisings (Spring 2011)
The recent uprising started with a demonstration in Damascus on March 16. Much larger demonstrations took place in the southern city of Daraa in subsequent days, including on March 20, when demonstrators set fire to the headquarters of the Ba’ath Party. On March 25, there were thousands of demonstrators in Hama, site of 1982 demonstrations led by the Muslim Brotherhood where the security forces violently put down the protests, killing thousands of people.
As the demonstrations have grown in size and intensity over the past month, Assad’s government has made several concessions to stem the tide of growing protests. On March 25, Assad fired Daraa’s regional governor, Faisal Kalthoum. On April 19, the government passed a bill lifting emergency rule, which Assad ratified. The law had been in place since the Ba’ath Party took power in 1963, and justified as part of Syria’s long-standing formal state of war with Israel.
Numbers vary widely and remain unconfirmed, but Western media have reported as many as 350 people killed since March. There is no question that the Syrian state is violently repressing the demonstrations.
It is not clear, however, to what extent the opposition is armed. From videos posted on the Internet, and other media reports, many protests appear to be unarmed.
While the demonstrators claim that the state is engaging in indiscriminate killing, the state claims that protesters have been carrying weapons and firing on police. Syrian state television reported on April 10 that nine policemen were killed in an ambush in the port city of Barias.
An Al Jazeera journalist reported from one march: “It seems as though pretty much everyone down here in the southern part of the country is now carrying weapons." The report continued, “It is unclear who was firing at whom, that's part of the confusion."
Nor is it clear to what extent the demonstrators represent the sentiments of the Syrian people as a whole. While the opposition has mobilized large parts of the population in demonstrations across the country, the Syrian regime also has its base of support. Business Week reported on March 29: “State-run television showed live footage of hundreds of thousands pouring onto the main streets of Damascus, Aleppo, Hama and al-Hassakah today.”
There have also been reports of clashes between supporters of the government and the opposition. Syrian state television has claimed that the security forces are responding to clashes between the protesters and supporters of the government.
In his March 30 speech, President Assad asserted that: “Security forces were given clear orders not to injure any Syrians,” and called those responsible for the bloodshed to be held accountable. In a speech two weeks later, he called all those who had fallen “martyrs” for Syria, before outlining the serious problems that must be tackled: poverty, joblessness, corruption, and unresponsive state institutions.
Clearly there are contrasting positions within the Syrian political establishment and state. The language of promoting reform, dialogue and conciliation with the protesters has been accompanied with stern calls for stability and security, labeling the protesters as extremist and foreign-inspired.
There are two Syrian communist parties that are part of the National Progressive Front, the coalition of political organizations that accept the leading role of the Ba’ath Party in the Syrian government, and are allowed to operate above ground. The Communist Party (Bakdash), historically close to the Ba’athists, praised the government’s announced reforms, while criticizing the excessive use of force and the state media’s portrayal of these events. It warned that reactionary forces are seeking to “exploit the deplorable incidents” by mixing in “retrograde, obscurantist and provocatively sectarian” slogans.
Likewise, the Communist Party (Unified) has called for a “political solution based on dialogue, to reject violence and counter-violence” that only benefits “the enemies who are promoting the American and Zionist project in the region, as well as the forces who do not want the process of reform to deepen.” Both parties have called for national unity, further political reforms and for the government to reverse its policies of economic de-nationalization, which have weakened the public sector and “worsened the living conditions of the masses.” It is likely that these sentiments are a reflection of a current within the Ba'ath Party as well.
Various trends of the Syrian opposition
The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia have thrown into question all established authorities in the Arab world and unleashed political forces everywhere that see this as a golden opportunity to make their bid for power. This does not mean each one of these forces is progressive.
It is not possible at this point to weigh the relative strength, or politically characterize, all the various trends within the Syrian opposition movement. The current protest movement appears to have begun with a spontaneous protest against an incident of police brutality in a working-class Damascus neighborhood. It undoubtedly includes many thousands who simply a desire a society free of poverty and state repression. But it has also included sectarian religious forces who want to overthrow the country’s secular orientation, and have chanted “Alawis to the coffins, Christians to Beirut.” The Alawis are a religious minority group—about 12 percent of the population—to which many of the leading Ba’ath officials belong.
The opposition also undoubtedly includes pro-imperialist groupings. On April 17, the Washington Post reported on the millions of dollars that the United States has spent on funding the opposition in Syria. Based on leaked documents exposed by WikiLeaks, the Post reported that between 2005 and 2009, the United States had funneled $6 million to a London-based exile group named Movement for Justice and Development. The group operated a satellite channel, Barada, that has been airing programming against the Syrian regime since 2009. “Several U.S. diplomatic cables from the embassy in Damascus reveal that the Syrian exiles received money from a State Department program called the Middle East Partnership Initiative.”
U.S. policymakers are keenly aware of the need to identify the political character of the opposition. That is why, even after years of attempting to overthrow the Syrian regime, the United States and its imperialist allies have not taken the same approach towards Syria that they did on Libya. If the Muslim Brotherhood or another force not under imperialist control emerges as the leader of the opposition movement in Syria, the United States is unlikely to provide material assistance to the opposition.
If, on the other hand, forces like the London-based pro-Western Movement for Justice and Development take on the leadership role, then the United States is likely to go beyond the threat of sanctions and intervene more directly. Of course, the ability of the imperialists to fund, organize and broadcast propaganda can have a significant impact on which forces take the leadership of the opposition.
Lessons of Libya
Progressive forces in the United States and around the world should learn the lesson of the recent experience of Libya. Immediately after the beginning of the protest movement in Libya, a demonization campaign started against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. People were led to believe the narrative of “people versus Gaddafi,” the assumption being made that the regime had no social base whatsoever. The leaders of the opposition in Benghazi were assumed to be the genuine representatives of a revolutionary movement.
Most progressive forces got caught up in the demonization to the point that when the Party for Socialism and Liberation and others pointed out the need to analyze the character of the opposition, we were often attacked and ridiculed.
It did not take long for the balance of forces on the ground to change, with Gaddafi and his supporters regaining their footing and starting to retake the country from the armed opposition. The so-called “revolutionary” leadership unanimously called for direct military intervention. Libya joined the list of countries where imperialists are directly intervening, this time with the invitation of an opposition force with some base of support.
Today, Libya is bombed daily by U.S., French and British fighter jets and drones. The opposition is receiving funds, arms, training and military advice from the same imperialist forces responsible for the colonization of the region for the last century. No matter how the crisis concludes, the people of Libya and the region have suffered a significant setback as a result of another imperialist intervention.
All progressive forces that sided with the opposition helped set the stage for imperialist intervention and now share the responsibility for the violation of the sovereignty of yet another state in the Middle East/North Africa. They are left either supporting an imperialist military intervention outright, or taking the contradictory position of opposing imperialist military intervention while defending the opposition—an opposition whose defining characteristic is urging more and more U.S., French and British bombings.
As a starting point of an analysis of Syria, it is important to point out that the Syrian state is different in character from Egypt and Tunisia, where imperialist countries propped up governments against the wishes of the vast majority of the population. There are profound differences between the Syrian regime and that of Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain and other Middle Eastern countries to which the uprisings have spread. Because of its independent nature, the Syrian state has been targeted for regime change by imperialist powers, not propped up by them.
The number one task of revolutionary and progressive forces in the United States is to oppose all forms of imperialist intervention in Syria and elsewhere. We have to uphold the right of self-determination of oppressed peoples. Obviously the form of government is very important to the people of Syria, but they alone can determine their destiny. Western intervention in Syria is not well-intentioned—it has the goal of subjugating the people and capturing its markets and resources. And, intentions aside, Western intervention will not result in a democratic gain. A glance at U.S. client regimes in the Middle East, and their consistent attempts to stop the Egyptian revolution, confirms this assessment.
If the purpose of a premature and unconditional support for opposition in Syria is to get the word out about the Syrian regime’s repression, it is unnecessary for progressive forces to do that. The business media is already doing that, and they have an audience of hundreds of millions. But if the purpose of support is to provide some assistance to the promotion of real democracy and social justice, then that support must be based on a clear understanding of the character of the opposition, its political demands and its approach to the most pressing political issues, including its position towards independence from or reliance upon imperialist powers.
On April 25, the White House announced that President Obama was considering “targeted sanctions” against Syria, and is pressing for sanctions and other actions against Syria at the UN Security Council. Although we are not at that point yet, there is a real danger of a direct military assault on Syria by the U.S. military, NATO or any combination of imperialist forces. As revolutionaries in the United States, our main tasks are to expose the imperialist character of our ruling class’s propaganda towards Syria, oppose sanctions, and struggle against another military intervention. The future of Syria is to be decided by the Syrian people, not by imperialist vultures. U.S. hands off Syria!