Socialists and the Syrian Revolution
The Syrian revolution 2011 was a genuine people’s uprising: one that was crushed by the al-Assad regime; a corrupt neo-liberal clique backed by Russian imperialism; and Iranian clerico-military oligarchy. The intervention of the US and its Saudi and Gulf allies also undermined the revolution and bolstered reactionary fundamentalist forces. Socialists support the Syrian masses in their struggle against all of these oppressive forces.
Timeline of the Syrian Revolution 2011
2000: Bashar al-Assad inherits family-run dictatorship from father, Hafez al-Assad.
2000-2011: Under Bashar, regime modifies the state-capitalist system with neo-liberal reforms – largely to benefit family and crony-capitalist class. Withdrawal of subsidies, drought etc. leads to exodus of impoverished peasants into cities.
March 2011: Inspired by Arab Spring revolutions, mass peaceful protests demanding democratic reform and end to repression sweep across Syria.
May 2011: Regime launches massive military attacks to crush peaceful protests.
July 2011: Defecting troops form Free Syrian Army to resist regime attacks. Local Coordinating Committees establish popular democratic control across Syria.
2012-2013: Conflict escalates into full scale civil war with rebels taking control of large parts of the country. Regime abandons north-east to left-wing Kurdish PYD and encourages sectarianisation of conflict. Foreign intervention begins with Iran and Hezbollah supporting regime, Saudi’s and Gulf states arming opposition jihadi groups.
2014: Creation of ISIS caliphate in northern Iraq and eastern Syria. US intervention focused on supporting Kurdish PYD to defeat ISIS.
2015: Russian military intervention turns tide of civil war in favour of regime. Secular rebels and democratic local councils squeezed between jihadis and regime.
2016-2021: Turkish military interventions creates buffer zone of pro-Turkish/jihad militias on northern border. Regime gradually restores control over much of Syria, displacement of half of Syria’s population.
What is the principled socialist position on the Syrian revolution?
To understand the Syrian revolution 2011, it is necessary to understand the al-Assad regime. It is based on a narrow ruling clique made up of the al-Assad family and its cronies, a section of the Sunni bourgeoisie, with a support base in the Alawite minority (the Alawites are a heterodox religious community based in the coastal regions of Syria, Lebanon and Turkey, regarded by fundamentalist Muslims as heretics).
Under the original dictator, Hafez al-Assad the regime could be characterised as state capitalist as it combined severe repression with some degree of social protection. Hafez’s son, Bashar al-Assad, opted for full-scale neo-liberal policies and basically since then Syria has experienced a corrupt carve-up of the country’s resources and assets by the family and its cronies, often working with multi-nationals (as long as there was a big cut for the cronies).
The regime, though formally secular, has always been at its core sectarian, with its base in the Alawite community: this made it inherently unstable since the majority of the Syrian population were Sunni Muslims. Far from being anti-imperialist, despite the rhetoric, the regime cooperated with American imperialism during the first Iraq war, was developing cooperation with Saudi Arabia before the revolution, and had a tacit non-aggression understanding with Israel.
Revolution or proxy war?
Rarely does one come across a full-on defence of the al-Assad regime from leftists, rather the argument is put thus: “Yes, the regime is bad, but they are fighting against worse, the jihadis and western imperialist intervention”. This narrative only makes sense, however, if you leave out the Syrian masses and their revolution.
Like all of the mass rebellions of the Arab Spring, the original 2011 uprising in Syria resulted from the huge hardships caused by Al-Assad-imposed neo-liberalism, as well as a simple desire to be rid of a corrupt unrepresentative regime. This is the crux of the whole conflict: it began as a peaceful revolution by Syrian people of all religions. With their overthrow imminent, the ruling clique tried to supress the uprising with indiscriminate violence. As one eyewitness from Daraa put it: “Many people were slaughtered. They just ran over them with the tanks. Walking home from school to my mother’s home that day, blood ran in the streets”. This then precipitated an armed uprising as people scrambled to defend themselves, the armed element mainly coming from the defection of rank-and-file troops.
Now facing a popular uprising that was taking on an increasingly armed character, the regime saw its salvation in unleashing sectarian conflict, which it did by a number of means, including the release of a large tranche of jihadi prisoners. This gave a huge boost to jihadi forces who gradually replaced the secular rebels in many areas, with the Saudis and Gulf states happily pouncing on the opportunity to get a slice of the action by backing various jihadist factions, as did Turkey. The popular revolt continued, mainly in the form of local popular councils but now facing devastating violence and repression from both the regime and the jihadis. Finally, with the regime looking increasingly shaky, the Iranians and then the Russians intervened to save it. Ironically today the Saudis and Gulf states are moving towards reconciliation with the regime, eyeing up the profits to be made from “reconstruction”.
Some accounts of the revolution cast the Syrian masses as dupes from the beginning, pawns in an imperialist intervention to overthrow Assad but the facts, as outlined above, show the opposite. As soon as the regime’s power began to recede, people all over Syria set up organs of popular power, with little initial formal input from parties or armed groups in that process: it was a grassroots-based democratic revolution. The Syrian writer Leila al-Shami has compared these popular institutions to the Paris Commune: “as people took up arms and forced the state to retreat from their communities, Syrians engaged in remarkable experiments in autonomous self-organisation despite the brutality of the counter-revolution unleashed upon them”. The regime, and later the jihadis, always supressed these grassroots institutions when they won back control but the fact that the revolution was defeated does not make it any less of a people’s revolution, no more than the defeat of the Paris Commune negates the nature of that popular revolution.
A popular revolution was transformed into a vicious war against its own people by the regime, leading to outside intervention. In terms of financing, arming, training etc. the primary imperialist intervention in Syria has been by Russia. Put simply, without its air power the regime would have been defeated. On the ground, Iran and its fundamentalist proxies from Iraq, as well as Hezbollah, also played a key role in rescuing a regime that was on its last legs.
US intervention, though real, was unfocussed and ineffective. This was largely because the American state didn’t really have clear aims: what they feared most of all was the vacuum that would be left if the regime collapsed and a victory for the popular revolution or for jihadi forces hostile to America. Its ideal scenario was a compromise between the regime and conservative elements of the opposition, with al-Assad himself gone. The arms and training US provided for some elements of the opposition had minimal effect because the Americans were scared of the weapons getting into the hands of jihadists who would turn them on US forces. Ironically, the only decisive intervention by the US was to back the left-wing Kurdish PYD forces in their war with ISIS: American weaponry and airpower was an important factor in the Kurdish victory over ISIS in the north east. This was because the key US goal was the defeat of ISIS, not the overthrow of the regime. One can’t blame the Kurdish forces for taking help from anywhere they could, but the US dropped them like hot potatoes once ISIS was defeated, allowing the Turks to invade the border areas.
The geopolitical context of the Syrian revolution 2011
Some leftists tend to take a “geopolitical” view of conflicts happening throughout the world. This “geopolitical” view is a version of what was called “campism” during the Cold War. This was a view that socialists had to side with the Soviet Union because, imperfect as it was, it was the only opponent of US imperialism and capitalism. So, the details of class struggle on the ground did not really matter: everything was a struggle between the USSR vs USA. This led some leftists to support the military suppression of workers in Poland or the brutal pro-Soviet military regime in Ethiopia in its war against the national liberation movements of Tigray and Eritrea etc.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, “campism” has evolved as there are now a number of contending imperialist and regional powers in the world – US, Russia, China, the EU etc. – but the basic view is the same you “pick sides” on the basis of who seems to be opposed to US imperialism. So, in any conflict one’s position is decided not by the interests of the worker and peasants in the conflict but simply by the interests of the great powers. If the US, even rhetorically, seems to adopt a certain position then, by default, the opposite position must be correct. Ironically, this is also the position of far-rightists, many of whom see Russia as a new nationalistic world power that acts as a counter to “decadent” liberal democracy, leading parties such as the BNP and the Front National to strongly support the Al-Assad regime.
“Geo-political” leftists see the world in terms of the relative merits of competing powers but internationalist socialists like Independent Left see the world in terms of the struggles of oppressed and exploited classes and peoples constantly striving for social, economic and political freedom. Yes, the ground on which these struggles happen are also the playing fields of the great powers which makes things complicated but the fundamental socialist principle is “always with the oppressed”. The complicated nature of the conflict should not be an excuse to declare a plague on all houses: as the Syrian leftist Yassin al-Haj Saleh has stated, “And it is indeed complicated (the Syrian conflict). But this should be a call to know better, a challenge to old simplistic approaches, rather than a cause for disidentification and apathy, as it has mostly been.”
Mass Slaughter in the Syrian Revolution
In raw human terms the Syrian conflict has been an immense tragedy and the facts about responsibility are straight-forward: the overwhelming number of civilian casualties in the conflict have been caused by the Al-Assad regime and its allies. That regime is responsible for mass murder on a huge scale: the total number of civilian deaths stands at somewhere around 200,000 and the regime and its allies are responsible for somewhere in the order of 80% to 90% of those casualties, mainly due to indiscriminate bombing and shelling of civilian districts, as well as the murder of huge numbers in the regime’s prisons. The facts on the ground are clear, this regime has engaged in unprecedented slaughter of its own people. For socialists, the only principled position possible is to oppose such mass crimes against the people.
Chemical weapons attacks during the Syrian conflict have been the focus of much discussion. According to the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, which was set up by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate breaches of human rights in the conflict, there have been around 40 chemical attacks in Syria since the start of the conflict (approximately 33 carried out by the regime and the rest of unknown). Of course, the vast majority of the tens of thousands of civilians killed by the regime have been murdered by barrel bombing, shelling, aerial bombing, torture etc. so the numbers killed by chemical attacks are relatively small. Although few would question the regime’s capability, some ask why would it carry out such attacks? It carried out these attacks for the same reason it shot down thousands of peaceful protesters at the beginning of the revolution, the same reason it shelled and bombed civilian neighbourhoods routinely: to cow the population into surrender and to drive away as many as possible thereby changing the demographic make-up of Syria.
Next Spring? Can the Syrian Revolution be renewed?
We have a revolution there. Curse it or mourn it. It is there, in the rocks, in the graves, in the earth and above in the air. On the wall of a graveyard, we once wrote: “We are alive, we will keep going, and the dream will be realized”. Take whatever is left of us and keep on dreaming.
For now, the Syrian revolution has been defeated: half the population has fled the country and most of the core areas are in regime hands, shored up by Russia and Iran. But there are many factors that could fracture such an unstable regime: a crisis in one of its sponsor states, a breach between them etc. The Arab Spring should be seen as part of a long process in a similar way to the great upsurge of European democratic revolutions in 1848. The revolutions of that era were defeated by a combination of internal and external reactionary interventions, leading to decades of imperialist consolidation but the revolutions of 1848 also laid the foundations for modern socialist and democratic revolutions. Despite the terrible defeats of the great revolutionary upsurge, the forces of reaction and oppression had only bought themselves time. Time may yet run out for al-Assad and his corrupt contemporaries throughout the region, as once again the sparks of rebellion turn to firestorms of revolution in Syria.