• Future movement requires building an independent, united working-class movement, committed to socialist transformation of society, in order to succeed

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Ross Saunders, Socialist Party national committee

Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has succeeded, for now, in defeating the revolutionary uprising and subsequent armed rebellion that has swept over the country since the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011.

Rebels and civilians are being pulververised in the northern Idlib province, which borders Turkey and the Kurdish north-east, by Assad’s forces, massively bolstered by Russia and Iran. This is repeating the pattern in the rest of the country, including Syria’s main cities, where the Assad regime has crushed the uprising at a terrible cost in human life.

The population has fallen by almost a quarter, with 570,000 dead and 7.6 million in refugee camps, mainly in Turkey and Lebanon. Another quarter have been internally displaced, and much of the country’s basic infrastructure has been devastated. More will die as a result of poverty and disease in the next few years.

But the regime is far from secure. Assad has demonstrated the weak base of support for his regime, which lost control of over two-thirds of the country at the height of the uprising, and the Ba’athist dictatorship he led hung by a thread.

All of the factors which drove mass protest are still present in Syria, and now on an even greater scale. The movement which erupted in 2011 was fuelled by anger at the regime’s repression under the so-called ‘Emergency Law’ – kept in place for 43 years – and the terrible poverty and inequality over which Assad presides.

Unemployment in 2011 was at 20% for the general population and higher for the youth. At one time, a majority of Syrians worked in the public sector, but privatisation cut jobs and pushed down wages at the same time as subsidies for basic goods were reduced, leading to huge price rises in some cases: in December 2008, for example, the price of diesel increased by 375% overnight!

No wonder Syrians rose up as a wave of protest swept north Africa and the Middle East in 2011. The first protests were small, and Assad boasted that Syria was “immune” to the Arab Spring. But the regime’s strategy of arresting en masse known activists could not hold back the tide forever and, in early March 2011, when teenage protesters were arrested and tortured in the southern city of Dara’a, the streets erupted as people lost their fear of the regime.

By the end of March, thousands were marching in most of Syria’s cities, including Damascus and Aleppo.

Regime response

The regime responded brutally. But despite the state terrorism, the Local Coordination Committee, the protest-organising network that sprang up was still, in August, opposing calls for protestors to arm themselves for purposes of defence.

Alongside the violence, the regime offered concessions to try and buy off the movement with a few crumbs, but nothing could stem the flood.

Syria is a complex mix of different ethnic and religious communities. At the outset, demonstrators chanted “One Syria!” in opposition to attempts by the regime to divide the movement along sectarian lines. There was anger throughout the Syrian working class and the rest of the poor masses, including in the minority Druze, Shia and Christian communities, and in the Alawite community elevated by Assad’s regime and French imperialism before it.

The rage at the corruption and exploitation by the elite could have been harnessed to win over every section of the working class in Syria to a united movement. Graffiti denouncing Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of Assad who owns telecoms company SyriaTel, appeared all over the country. Neighbouring Lebanon, with similar ethnic and religious divides, saw a united movement last year that spanned all communities.

The civil war in Syria showed the need for a programme to unite in action workers and poor from all communities. Without this Assad, and also jihadists, were able to divide and rule.

Rival groups claimed the political leadership of the movement and many were in hock to Western imperialism. One, the Syrian National Committee, antagonised Kurds in Syria through its links to the Turkish state where Kurds are being brutally repressed. These puppet ‘governments-in-waiting’ confined themselves to demanding a liberal form of capitalism that left unanswered the demands of Syrian workers, and the working class failed to win the leadership of the movement.

The calls for ‘strikes’ were answered mainly by shopkeepers, not by workers, including in the powerful oil industry. The leaders of Syria’s yellow trade unions denounced the protests as the result of “foreign influence” and the Syrian Communist Party remained part of Assad’s cabinet.

Minority communities hesitated to join the revolt, especially after the Free Syria Army collapsed and, from 2013, militias based more exclusively on single communities became dominant. Assad managed to hang onto key urban centres like Damascus where minorities are more concentrated, playing on fear that his downfall would mean repression by the Sunni Arab majority.

His job was made easy as Islamists in the al-Nusra front – an affiliate of al-Qa’ida – and Islamic State came to dominate much of the country.

Kurds, who are the majority in the north of Syria, were alienated from the movement in the rest of the country by the links between rebels and the Turkish state. Kurds took the opportunity though, as Assad was tied down in the south and east of the country, to set up their own de-facto autonomous federal state.

Many sought to run it on democratic lines but accepting support from US imperialism, which began its bombing campaign in September of 2014 against Isis.

Role of imperialism

The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI, see below right) warned at the time that imperialism could not be trusted to defend ordinary people of any community in the region.

Trump proved us right in spectacular fashion when, once Isis was territorially defeated, he abruptly announced the USA was withdrawing from Syria, giving the green light to Turkey to invade.

Kurds are now caught between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, whose army has reportedly captured 80 Kurdish villages within Syria, and Assad who has forced his way back into a “buffer zone” of territory within the Kurdish area, and plans to go further once Idlib is pacified.

Erdogan is replacing the 400,000 Kurds forced to flee their homes with Sunni Arab refugees in order to try and frustrate Kurdish aspirations for their own state.

Assad’s counterrevolution has largely been possible because of his wholesale reliance on Iranian-backed militias, including the Lebanese Hizbollah movement, and on Russian air power.

The quid pro quo of this arrangement has been to massively expand Iran and Russia’s geopolitical influence in the region. It was this expansion that prompted the Trump administration to carry out the recent assassination of the head of Iran’s Quds special forces, general Qassem Sulameini.

Revolution has been defeated in Syria, but there is no going back to 2011 for Assad or anyone in the region. 2019 saw powerful mass movements in Algeria, Sudan, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt – which will at a certain stage find an echo in Syria, Turkey and other countries in the region. Assad, and the rotten capitalist system he defends, should beware.

Our programme:

  • Working class solidarity and mass protests around the world to oppose the Turkish army’s bloody invasion of Syria.
  • Organise workers’ boycotts and strikes against the weapons trade to Turkey.
  • Build multi-ethnic defence militias, democratically run, to resist Turkish army attacks.
  • No trust in regional and imperialist powers, who have only ever betrayed the masses in the region.
  • Build powerful independent workers’ organisations, including trade unions and mass workers’ parties, on a socialist programme, in Syria, Turkey and across the region
  • Link the Kurds’ struggle with Turkish workers resisting Erdogan’s anti-working class policies and Syrians opposed to Assad.
  • Full cultural and national rights for Kurds, including the right to self-determination.
  • Overthrow capitalism! For a socialist federation of the Middle East and Turkey, on a voluntary and equal basis, to bring lasting peace and a transformation of living standards. Realising such an aspiration requires constructing a revolutionary socialist party rooted in a united working class.