The article below is a reprint of a longer article by Simon Assaf, a British-Lebanese socialist, that will appear in the upcoming issue of the British magazine Socialist Review. It's an excellent overview of the history of Syria from its founding following World War One, up to the present round of resistance. It's also an excellent response to some anti-imperialists who fear that the revolt in Syria could play into the hands of the US, Saudia Arabia and Israel.
The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were hailed as a defining moment in the Arab world. Both revolutions, as well as the ongoing struggles in Yemen and Bahrain, are widely seen as major setbacks for regimes allied to western imperialism, and their downfall marked a massive reversal for the US and Israel.
The uprising in Libya, and Nato intervention in what was a genuine and popular rebellion, raised the possibility that imperialism could not only survive these revolutions, but in some cases emerge stronger, or as strong as before. Although the lines between popular rebellion and western intervention were blurred in Libya, in Syria the consensus over the Arab Spring has broken down. Those who found themselves on the same side over Egypt and Tunisia, have suddenly found sharp disagreement over the movement for change in Syria.
At the heart of this disagreement is Syria's opposition to imperialism and the dangers of the country becoming another failed revolution at the mercy of the western powers. What attitude should revolutionaries take towards the Syrian movement, and how should we assess a regime that, although the victim of imperialism, has unleashed harsh repression on those who have from the onset demanded modest reforms?
Imperialism's long history in Syria
The modern Syrian state was born out of the first sustained Arab rebellion against the carve-up of the Middle East by Britain and France following the First World War. The “Bilad al-Sham”, literally the lands of the north, is a geographical area of Syria that once included Palestine in the south, and Alexandretta in the north (now in Turkey).
The original Anglo-French plan was to divide geographical Syria into a patchwork of states that would be too weak to resist colonial rule. The southern regions, now Palestine and Jordan, were handed over to Britain, while the northern regions were to be divided into Christian, Alawi, Sunni and Druze states (part of the many religious communities in geographic Syria).
In 1925 a popular rebellion that began in the Druze regions of Syria quickly encompassed the whole of the country. The rebellion gave birth to Arab nationalist movement that partially succeeded in stopping French plans. Although France succeeded in creating "Christian Lebanon" — a sectarian state that included areas with large Muslim populations — it failed in the rest of Syria.
The Syrian national movement succeeded in ending French rule, but this movement also reflected the contradictions inside Syrian society. The leadership of the national movement was an alliance of feudal lords who had recently gained ownership of communal village lands, and a merchant class that found its markets destroyed by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire — the former rulers of geographic Syria. At its base were peasants, craftsmen, workers and the urban poor who saw independence as a chance to transform the country.
In the period following formal independence in 1944 the old classes became locked in a struggle with the movement from below that coalesced around Communist, socialist and radical Arab nationalist parties. The Baath party emerged as the dominant force after forging an alliance with a socialist movement among the peasantry, and winning some support among industrial workers.
The new rulers ended the stalemate by breaking the hold of the feudal lords and merchant classes, then muzzling the popular movement. The new regime realigned Syria with Soviet Union and the country was put on the path of "socialist development" — in effect a form of state capitalism. This period came to an abrupt end in 1967 when Israel seized the Golan Heights in its lightening Six Day War. The Israel army was now in command of the strategic heights some 50 miles from the Syrian capital.
The shock of 1967 destroyed the credibility of the regime and eventually triggered a coup by Baathists inside the army, headed by Hafez al-Assad, and drawn mainly from among the marginalised Alawi community. Now on a permanent war footing, Syria, along with other Arab countries, was alight with the rise of a popular resistance to imperialism, epitomised by the emergence of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). This wave of popular resistance reached its peak in 1973 when Syria and Egypt launched an offensive that almost succeeded in recapturing territory lost to Israel in 1967.
The failure of this war would have profound consequences on both countries. The strategic union between Syrian and Egypt came to an end in 1978 when Anwar Sadat, then Egyptian president, signed a separate peace with Israel. With Egypt now neutralised, Syria faced Israel alone. Isolated, the regime sought to use the popular resistance as a lever in negotiations for the return of the Golan Heights. Inside Syria this resulted in a gradual smothering of the popular resistance.
Egypt was not alone in seeking a separate deal with Israel. In 1976, prompted by the US, Assad sent troops into Lebanon to crush the popular rebellion sweeping the country at the time. The occupation of Lebanon, packaged as a peace keeping mission, destroyed the Lebanese national movement. The reward for “saving Lebanon” was to be a new initiative over the Golan. But Assad's hopes for an “honourable deal” came to nought.
Assad reacted with the rhetoric of "liberation and revolution" while his forces continued to strengthen its grip over Syria and Lebanon — reaching its height with the crushing of an uprising in the Syrian city of Hama in 1982, and a protracted siege of Sabra and Chatilla Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut in 1984.
Despite this, Assad never abandoned his strategy of a separate peace. But with Egypt out of the picture, Israel saw no reason to cut a deal over the Golan Heights. Assad again attempted to realign Syria with imperialism by sending troops to fight alongside the US and its allies in the 1990-91 Gulf War. But once again US promises to look at the Golan question proved an illusion.
When Hafez al-Assad died in June 2000 he was succeeded by his son Bashar Assad. Bashar never abandoned the strategy of compromise with imperialism, or the “red line” of the Golan Heights. His first act was an attempt to initiate a program of reforms — the so-called Syrian Spring — that he hoped could revive the economy and release some of the discontent that built up during his father's reign.
Central to these reforms where neo-liberal policies designed to “open up” the economy. Hardliners within the regime put an end to the political reforms, but the economic reforms moved apace. These reforms ended economic guarantees — such as the subsidy on bread — that had secured some degree of social peace.
These reforms, far from safeguarding the stability of the regime, plunged many already poor Syrians into destitution. As with Egypt and Tunisia, neo-liberal policies undermined what little hold the regimes had over their population. Meanwhile a small layer of businessmen close to the ruling circle amassed vast fortunes.
The deteriorating economy, rampant corruption, nepotism and harsh repression left the country tinder dry. Then came the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. For many Arabs these revolutions were clear-cut and uncomplicated. Both Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt were strong allies of imperialism. These revolutions could be seen as a continuation of the struggle for national liberation.
The Syrian opposition now found it had the space to push forward a series of reforms, that at the onset, were modest. The main demands were for the relaunching of the stalled political reforms and an end the state of emergency. Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, where the calls for “the end of the regime” were heard on the first day of protests, in Syria this slogan emerged only after the bloody suppression of demonstrations in the southern city of Deraa.
Imperialism and the Arab revolts
Both the Syrian and Libyan uprisings have brought into sharp relief the relationship of the Arab Spring to imperialism. Western intervention in Libya has become a clear reminder that the Middle East cannot escape the reality of imperialism.
Mubarak could conjure up phantoms of “western agents” behind the revolution that toppled him. But with Syria the boundary between these phantoms and real western plots are blurred. Bashar Assad is not wrong to point to the fact that “external forces” are attempting to destabilise the country — it has been the stated policy of Saudi Arabia and the west for years.
The Syrian uprising is now seen through the prism of the Nato campaign in Libya. Nato's intervention has raised the real possibility of an incremental ratcheting up of military threats against Syria — not because the west is sympathetic to the demands of the popular movement, but as part of a strategy of isolating the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance.
In the months preceding the outbreak of the revolutions, Israel had been signalling a new war on Lebanon. The ever-present danger of this war has created doubts that the only winner in the Syrian revolution will be imperialism. This can be seen by the call from Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, on Syrians to support Bashar's regime.
Nasrallah's backing for Bashar Assad was widely interpreted as a sectarian Shia Muslim alignment with the Alawi dominated government in Syria. But Hezbollah's position has to be seen more as an expression of its assessment of the balance of forces with regard to imperialism, then some expression of sectarianism (the Alawis are an offshoot of Shia Islam).
Nasrallah's speech caused deep distress and confusion inside the Syrian opposition, some of whom reacted by burning Hezbollah flags (along with the Russian and Chinese flags). The images of flag burning created suspicion among Lebanese who, after 30 years of direct experience of the “Syrian security regime”, were sympathetic to the movement.
The west would like a managed transition to a compliant Syrian government — one prepared to abandon the resistance and its claim on the Golan Heights in return for “normalisation”. It fears above all a destabilised state that could open the way for the emergence of an armed anti-Israeli resistance reigniting a border that has been quiet for 30 years. The recent mass protests along the 1967 frontier by Palestinians refugees is a potent reminder of this. Israel, although hostile to Syria, could depend on the Baathist regime to keep the frontier quiet. Thus the criticisms of Bashar are more muted in Tel Aviv.
But what Nasrallah, and others, have failed to appreciate is that it is not certain that the Syrian opposition movement would simply become a plaything of the west. The unity of the opposition, and its constant appeals against sectarian and ethnic divisions, points to the real potential for there to develop a popular movement for change independent of west — and the re-emergence of the popular resistance that was crushed in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Up until now this movement has, despite its bravery, been unable to achieve a breakthrough. In Tunisia and Egypt the organised working class played a decisive role at key stages of their revolutions. There have been few, if any, strikes in Syria beyond the city-wide protest strikes by merchants and shopkeepers. The movement has still to reach the scale, or intensity, of Egypt or Tunisia.
This weakness, and the continuing menace of imperialism, can turn this movement from one that represents genuine desires for change, into one that could become aligned with Saudi Arabia and the west. But this uprising began in Deraa, the frontier city along the 1967 border with Israel. Deraa is home to many of the Syrians who were expelled from their lands by the Israeli occupation. The slogans that they chanted at Syrian security forces were, “Cowards of Golan, heroes of repression”.
The future direction of this movement depends on it spreading to the key cities of Damascus and Aleppo, and keeping in check the sectarian gangs and western-backed “opposition groups”. This is a popular movement with real demands, and over the next period it has to struggle to maintain this independence. The alternative is the kind of disaster that the west has inflicted on Libya, and the end of any genuine movement for change.