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From The Socialist newspaper, 29 June 2011

Syria: Regime steps up repression... but opposition continues to grow

Judy Beishon

Eyewitness reports of horrific brutality have been emerging from Syria. In and around the northern city of Jisr al-Shughour, the Syrian army has pursued a 'scorched earth' policy, evicting whole villages and destroying crops and livestock. Tanks and helicopters have been used to slaughter civilians in the north and elsewhere and there are many reports of torture.

Around 200 people were killed in Jisr al Shughour, a mainly Sunni Muslim town. This death toll included 120 soldiers, who residents say were killed by special military forces for refusing to shoot unarmed civilians. In the city Homs, a defector from the army said that Syrian government snipers shot at troops to force them to fire on unarmed protesters.

Over 12,000 refugees have fled to Turkey, where conditions in makeshift camps are so bad that some risked their lives by returning to Syria. Refugees have also fled to Lebanon.

It has been estimated that 1,600 civilians have been killed so far and 10,000 arrested since the protests started three months ago.

Opposition

Ruthless though the repression from president Assad's regime is, it is failing to wipe out the opposition movement - which was inspired by the 'Arab Spring' uprisings and has had no national leaders. It has ebbed and flowed, but overall has been gradually growing, appearing in some form or other in virtually all of Syria's provinces.

It began as isolated protests against police brutality but more demands have been raised as the regime has responded with increased repression.

Grassroots activists such as those in the 'Local Coordination Committees' are now not just calling for an end to the military crackdown but also the resignation of the president and a transition to a pluralist democracy - "a civil state that belongs to all Syrians and not to an individual, family or party". They reject any dialogue that will simply buy the regime time to manoeuvre.

"The people want to overthrow the regime" has become a chant on demonstrations. On the day that Assad made his last public speech - 20 June - there were angry reactions and opposition demonstrations in 19 Syrian cities, including in Damascus, with crowds chanting "liar!".

Some opposition demonstrations have been large, such as 100,000 on a funeral march in Hama on Friday 3 June. There are also reports of many small, innovative protests, such as sit-ins in private homes that are videoed and put on the internet and night-time protests, as well as the regular protests on Fridays based on gatherings at the mosques.

Protesters have chanted slogans such as "Syria is one", showing the mainly non-sectarian approach. People from all groups in society have been involved in the movement, but Sunni Muslims form the largest part - being 75% of the population, and because their Friday prayers are used as a basis for many of the mass protests.

However danger of division is present. The terrible savagery of Assad's armed forces, dominated at leadership level by the Alawite minority (an offshoot of Shia Islam), is leading to some religious and ethnic based reaction from Sunnis - especially in rural areas. There are also signs of attempts to whip up sectarian division by state provocateurs and by small groups of right-wing political Islamists.

Autocratic regime

For 41 years Hafez Assad and then his son Bashar have led a repressive, one-party, secular regime. Top military and security jobs go to Alawites and yet Alawites make up less than 10% of the 22 million population. They also have a disproportionate role in big business, although to help maintain the privileged position of the elite, Assad has over time courted support from the top layer of Sunni and Christian businessmen by conceding to some of their interests.

The Syrian population encompasses numerous religions, including Sunni and Shia Muslims, Alawites, Christians and Druze. Nationalities and ethnicities include Assyrians, Kurds, Palestinian refugees, Turkmen and Armenians. Although the Alawites dominate, they are not themselves homogenous - tensions exist between rival groups.

In his 20 June speech, Assad blamed foreign powers and 'criminals' for the violence and made promises which few people believed, such as moving towards multi-party democracy, countering corruption, reducing the role of the Baath party and making army leaders more accountable.

In April his government removed the 48-year long 'state of emergency' but this was a meaningless gesture, as the interior minister said at the same time that demonstrations would not be tolerated.

Knowing that he cannot destroy every city in the way that his father did in Hama in 1982 - when up to 40,000 Sunni Muslims were massacred, Assad is trying to wave a 'carrot' while using a certain sustained level of 'stick'.

But for how long the army will be a reliable tool for him is a key question, as although there are no high level desertions reported yet, there have been numerous rank and file multiple defections - and the bulk of the army at that level is Sunni. For the opposition movement to issue appeals for support to the ordinary soldiers will be crucial as its struggles develop.

At this stage, one factor helping to keep the army intact and retain its prospects for preserving capitalist law and order when Assad is eventually removed, is that the regime tries to use elite or paramilitary forces for its worst deeds, such as the notorious 'Fourth Division' headed by the president's brother, and the paramilitary Shabiha gangs.

Regime's support

Assad still has significant 'support' from sections of the population, especially in the two big cities Damascus and Aleppo where half of the country's population lives. The central areas of these cities have not yet become focal points of the opposition movement, though there have been protest demonstrations in both cities. There have also been large pro-Assad rallies, aided by the state but not without real supporters.

This situation in the main urban areas is not surprising, as the opposition movement is only a few months old and is without any programme or leadership at this stage that can convince the mass of the population that it offers a viable alternative. Confidence in an alternative path is especially important with the prospect of arrest, torture and possible death facing opposition activists.

Also, a programme that can unite working class people and succeed against the regime is essential to counter the great fear that exists in the population of a degeneration into war, having seen what has happened in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and previously in Lebanon.

It is also the case that despite high levels of poverty and the lack of democratic rights, Assad has not been quite as universally hated as Mubarak was in Egypt or Ben Ali in Tunisia, partly because he has stood up to the imperialist powers to a certain extent, including their protégée Israel.

All these factors could enable Assad to hold onto power for longer, but the opposition movement is increasingly showing that it will not be silenced by fear and that a long term return to the previous forced calm is very unlikely. And possible at any stage is an unstoppable escalation of the movement, forcing the president out, as happened in Egypt and Tunisia. Certainly, huge anger is growing in Syria as a direct result of police and army brutality and Assad's lack of willingness to make real concessions.

And underlying the anger is financial insecurity - unemployment is high, as is inflation; and oil production is dwindling. The economy is suffering extra problems as a result of the present violence - both from investment being hit and tourism reduced. Assad himself referred in his latest speech to the danger of economic collapse. As the economy worsens further, more and more people will feel compelled to move into active opposition to the regime as it proves unable to provide decent living standards.

Imperialist powers

Reeling from accusations that they are trying to remove Gaddafi in Libya but are leaving autocrats like Assad alone, the western imperialist powers are continuing and in some cases increasing sanctions on Syria. But following on from their strategy of trying to bring Syria more under their influence and away from Iran's, it has not suited their interests to call on Assad to go - rather just to 'reform or step aside'.

Rightly, there is strong hostility amongst opposition activists in Syria to the idea of western military intervention. Such intervention would not be in the interests of the workers and poor in that country.

However, military intervention is not being seriously considered by the western ruling classes for a number of reasons, including that Nato is overstretched in Afghanistan and Libya; intervention would be more complicated than in Libya which has large areas of desert and a much clearer geographical divide between the regime's and opposition's forces; and the chances of it escalating into a regional war would be much higher - Syria being in a key geopolitical position, having borders with Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. Journalist Martin Fletcher writing in the Times, remarked: "Syria has 'quagmire' written all over it".

Russia and China have interests in, and links with Syria and are blocking attempts to pass a UN resolution condemning Syrian repression. Iran also is very concerned about the Syrian investments of Iranians as well as the prospect of losing an important regional ally.

But there has been some speculation over whether Turkish forces could intervene, on the pretext of establishing a 'safe-haven' in Syria near the Turkish border.

What alternative?

When Assad is eventually forced out of office, there are plenty of pro-capitalist Syrian 'figureheads' abroad hoping to step into power and others will emerge on the domestic scene. The army leadership would also be keen to at least maintain their position or become arbitrators, as has happened in Egypt.

To avoid one undemocratic, exploitative regime simply being replaced by another, a working class led movement needs to be built that can put forward a socialist alternative, and a strategy for achieving it.

This would require the building of non-sectarian, democratically elected committees of workers and the poor in every workplace and community. They would need to link together at regional and national level to organise general strike and other action to remove the present regime and lay the basis for a socialist government of workers and the poor.

Such a government could use the country's major industries and resources to provide decent living standards for everyone, and could guarantee full democratic rights to all sections of society. It would need to coordinate with similar governments in neighbouring countries, as part of a socialist confederation of the region.


The article carried in The Socialist issue 677 was a shorter version extracted from the above text.

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