The first and foremost thing that must be said is that the people of Syria, who have resisted an utterly vicious military repression of their aspirations for nearly a year, are some of the bravest people on the planet. Day after day the government of the Assad dynasty find new levels of depravity in their attempt to brutalize and torture the democratic aspirations of their population into submission. We are witnessing both the heights and the depths to which human nature can sink.
For that reason I have absolutely no sympathy with those who attempt to excuse the actions of the regime on the grounds of supposed anti-imperialism. This is a vicious and bloody police state that is fighting for its life, not some progressive bastion - any more than was Libya - it deserves to have no tears shed for it.
That doesn't imply, however, that it isn't a complex situation. Sadly, the Syrian regime is not the only vicious and anti-democratic regime in the world. The United States comes to mind. After all, they arm the thoroughly backward, religiously justified police state of the Saudi monarchy. They benefit from the sectarian and repressive Bahraini monarchy next door. They have financed the Egyptian military's repressive apparatus since the 1970s. And that doesn't even include the millions of people whose deaths can be directly and indirectly laid at the feet of the US government (that's right, I wrote millions - Iraq, Indonesia in 1965, El Salvador, Chile, the Philippines, et al). And a number of equally (or more) vicious, anti-democratic regimes have their fingers in the Syrian pie in a way that is no so very different from Libya.
As I've noted more than once, the Arab revolutions in the first instance threw the USA and its allies in Europe and the Middle East, on the back foot. Their core clients were thrown onto the backfoot and for a moment it looked like the USA would even lose Bahrain, home to the extremely strategic 5th Fleet. But counter-revolution, like rust, never sleeps and, as Mao said, in crisis there is opportunity. With the uprising in Libya, the Americans, Europeans and the Gulf Cooperation Council - which composes Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain, Oman, UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait and was fresh from crushing the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain - moved to intervene in the Arab revolution. The idea was clearly two or threefold. 1) Steer the revolution in a "moderate", pro-capitalist and pro-western (cough, cough, Israel) direction. 2) Eliminate regimes that were not fully in the pocket of the Americans and the Saudis/GCC. And 3) do some damage to the ambitions and strategic interests of other imperialist powers, in particular China and Russia.
Libya may have been the first stop on this traveling road show but it most certainly isn't the last. And now Syria is becoming the next target and battleground for inter-imperialist rivalry. This is, of course, very dangerous for the region and the Syrian people. None of the big players give a damn about democracy or self-determination. The Russians spent more than a decade slaughtering Chechens who were foolish enough to think that they deserved independence because it's a democratic right - not to mention the Russian government's penchant for internal repression and fixing elections. The Chinese? Tiananmen Square, anyone? Actually, China makes no pretence about having any support for democratic rights - the Chinese people "aren't ready" for democracy. Turkey has, of course, also made noises of support for the anti-Assad movement in Syria but their concerns for democracy can't be taken seriously either, with their continued denial of the rights of their Kurdish population, including a recent deadly bombing raid on Kurd civilians - and a counter-insurgency in the 90s that destroyed something like 40,000 villages.
The involvement of these opposing players with their regional ambitions - I haven't even discussed Iran, which remains in the crosshairs of the west - is making the struggle for democracy more difficult. It is making it more, not less, likely that Syria will descend into civil war. For those of us who live in the Europe and North America, our first responsibility is to oppose all attempts by our governments to intervene in the Syrian conflict. They are not here or anywhere interested in the human and democratic rights of the population.
Within Syria itself the scene on the ground is very complicated. There is much talk in the press about divisions within the opposition but how much that is reflected on the ground inside Syria is unclear and how much of it is a cynical attempt to get the more radical and grassroots Local Coordination Committees to line-up with the pro-imperialist, emigre-based Syrian National Council (SNC) is unclear. The existence of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) also further complicates matters. On the one hand its existence is a positive sign of the disintegration of the Syrian state's repressive apparatus. On the other it risks becoming a substitute for a mass movement and causing a descent into civil war, which will be much more convenient for the imperialists of each side to back. It doesn't help that the FSA leadership has itself lined up with the SNC. Like in Libya, the FSA could easily end up acting as the foot soldiers for a NATO military operation.
At present the movement seems to have, against tremendous odds, retained its mass, popular character with strikes, sit-ins and other forms of civil disobedience and popular mobilization. It is, in many ways, now a game of wills - who can withstand the pressure exerted by the other longer. The Syrian state is a "deep state", which, like many other dictatorships in the region, has utilized clientelism, sectarianism, tribal and ethnic rivalries to sustain its power base. Undermining those deeply embedded relations of clientelism and fear was never going to happen overnight and was unlikely to ever happen without bloodshed, given the vicious nature of the regime. But the momentum seems to be in the direction of the disintegration of the Syrian regime, as the movement has now firmly taken hold in the capital, Damascus. What the movement needs most at the moment, it seems, is time to finish the job free of the meddling of outside interlocutors whose interests are anything but democracy and justice.