The following is based on a presentation at the International Communist Forum in London last month (February 2017). ICF is organised by the British Marxist workers’ group Workers Fight, which is aligned with the French revolutionary movement Lutte Ouvriere. This is part of our efforts to make available to readers several different viewpoints on the conflict in Syria.
It is almost exactly 6 years since the wave of protests of the Arab Spring spread to Syria, in February 2011. Within only a few months of these protests, the confrontation between the protesters and the Syrian dictatorship turned into a bloody civil war, which remains as rife and brutal as ever today.
These six years of bloodshed have already claimed nearly half a million casualties and forced an estimated 4.5 million Syrians to seek shelter outside the country around 20% of the population. As to the state of the country, most of us have seen TV footage of Aleppo when it was recently retaken by government forces: it is a ghost town, covered in rubble. Some buildings still appear to be standing upright, but, on a closer look, most have been hollowed out by the blasts of many explosions. In fact many of Syria’s small and bigger towns have suffered the same treatment. As to the country’s infrastructure it has either been destroyed or else, it is falling apart for lack of maintenance.
In other words, the same tragedy which took place in Iraq as a result of the country’s invasion by the imperialist powers is being played out again in Syria, but this time, without even the need for a military occupation: the on-going power struggle between the regime’s military apparatus and the country’s fundamentalist militias, is responsible for most of these deaths, destruction and misery.
But this is not to say that, unlike what happened in Iraq, the imperialist powers bear no responsibility for the on-going social and political catastrophe which is unfolding in Syria. Quite the opposite. It was their regional order and their manoeuvres to maintain this order, which, over many decades, have paved the way for this catastrophe. Just as, over the recent period, it was the imperialist powers’ attempts to preserve their increasingly corrupt order at all costs, which finally resulted in this war.
Colonial origins after WW1
To better understand today’s situation, it is first necessary to go back some time into the past.
Before the final collapse of the 600-year old Ottoman Empire, at the end of WW1, most of the Middle East was free of borders. Only Persia-Iran, British-occupied Egypt and the small enclave of Mount Lebanon had defined boundaries.
As for “Syria”, it was the name for the entire region between the peninsulas of Anatolia (i.e., Turkey) and Sinai in Egypt a region incorporating today’s Lebanon, Israel and Jordan, countries which hadn’t yet been drawn on the imperialists’ world map.
Syria’s borders, like those of its neighbours, were only to be defined after WW1, and as a function of the balance of forces between the British and French states, when they shared out the territory of the defeated Ottoman Empire between them.
Of course, the only objective of the British and French governments was to get the largest possible share of the Middle-Eastern cake for their respective capitalists. And as far as they were concerned the interests of the many different peoples affected by their carve-up were irrelevant. As a result, they stoked a powder-keg, which exploded shortly afterwards and which has carried on exploding over and over again, right up until today.
Already in 1916, even before the end of WW1, Britain and France with the agreement of the Russian Czar had done a secret deal to partition the Ottoman empire between them. Known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, it was first published by the Bolsheviks when they seized power in Russia in 1917. Britain was to have the coastal strip between the sea and the river Jordan, known as Palestine, including the ports of Haifa and Acre and the whole eastern area of what is now Jordan and Iraq. France would have part of south eastern Turkey, and what is now northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and Russia was to get Constantinople, the Black Sea straights and Armenia.
But this was not to be. The politicisation of many Arab intellectuals in this period had led a surge in nationalism and during the war, this threatened to turn into an Arab rebellion across the region, which would entirely subvert the imperialists’ post-war plan. The British had already sent the famed “Lawrence of Arabia” to foment a rebellion among southern Arabs against the Ottomans, using the Bedouin army of Emir Faisal, the son of the Sharif of Mecca. Now, he was encouraged to lead his army into Damascus to take over control of the main centre of Arab nationalist agitation. So in October 1918, Faisal’s Arab troops, supported by General Lawrence, entered Damascus signalling the formal end of the Ottoman Empire. Of course, Faisal was not told about the secret Anglo-French agreement.
In June 1919, elections were held for a Syrian National Congress, which included Palestinian delegates and by March the next year Emir Faisal was proclaimed King of Syria “in its natural boundaries” from the Taurus Mountains in Turkey to the Sinai desert in Egypt. But at the San Remo conference one year later, the French and British declared their mandates over the same territory. Faisal’s newly-created Arab kingdom was split up between them placing Syria and Lebanon under a French Mandate and the territory south of this including Palestine under British mandate.
To enforce this, French troops were sent to occupy Damascus and Faisal had to flee abroad. France declared a separate Greater Lebanon in which the Maronite Christian minority was granted privileged status. Meanwhile Syria was divided into 5 autonomous regions designed to whip up sectarian and provincial rivalries. Thus the Druze, Alawite and Turkish minorities were each awarded a separate region, while two other regions were set up around Damascus and Aleppo, the country’s two largest towns.
Britain was mandated to control Palestine and the territory to the east of the Jordan river, renamed Trans-Jordan, as well as the territory that became Iraq. This mandate was a legal instrument, not a geographical territory. But it paved the way for the future emergence of four artificial states: Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. And it made possible the later ablation of Palestine, creating a new state of Israel and the injustice of today’s Swiss cheese-like Palestinian enclaves in the Gaza Strip and on the West Bank of the Jordan river.
Like all borders drawn by the imperialist powers to suit their needs, those dividing the Middle East took no account of the interests or aspirations of its population. Due to its position as a passage between Europe, Asia and Africa, a large variety of national, ethnic and religious groups lived in the region. The new artificial borders created by imperialism cut across most of these groups.
Some, like the Kurds, found themselves split between four countries (Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria). National minorities like the Armenians and religious minorities like the Druze, Alawites and Christians, were ghettoised in the new countries. And in every country, the Sunni-Shia divide cut across the Muslim majority population in various proportions. For all these groups, which had more or less managed to coexist within a large regional entity, united under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, the new artificial borders became a source of new tensions.
To consolidate their rule over the Middle East and keep the poor masses under control, the imperialist powers relied on the most reactionary forces. They reinforced the rule of the old feudal landowning classes, blocking social progress and economic development in the region for many decades to come. Britain, in particular, brought to power monarchies which were all the more pliable to its needs as they had no social base nor legitimacy in their own countries.
France, on the other hand, as mentioned before, resorted to a divide and rule policy, fanning tensions between religious minorities.
The French began their rule by sentencing 21 nationalist leaders to death on 1 August 1920. The nationalist activist and future president of an independent Syria, Shukri al Quwatli, managed to flee to Cairo. There, he helped to get finance for the so-called Great Syrian Revolt in 1926. This revolt was sparked by the contemptuous treatment by the French colonials of the Druze minority and turned into a full scale rebellion across the country. By 1927, after bringing in 50,000 troops from Morocco and Senegal, the French had suppressed the revolt. They had killed 6,000 rebels and left over 100,000 people homeless. Two years of war had left the cities of Damascus, Homs and Hama in ruins. The leaders of the rebellion were all sentenced to death.
Over the next decade the French allowed elections to a parliament, but refused to grant Syria political autonomy a decision which only served to antagonise the growing nationalist movement even more.
De Gaulle dispatched with British help
It took the chaos of WW2 to bring Syria its independence. In 1941, the joint forces of the British and General De Gaulle’s British-based “Free French Army”, took over control of Syria from Marshall Pétain’s pro-German French government. Thereafter, De Gaulle encouraged the nationalists to declare independence from Pétain’s France which they did on 29th September 1941, thereby becoming the first country in the Middle East to do so. It was 2 years later, in 1943, that Shukri al Quwatli was elected as Syria’s first President.
But, of course, De Gaulle’s real agenda was just to buy the Syrian nationalists’ support against Pétain’s regime. And, in fact, from then on, he tried to force a treaty on Syria to ensure that the country would remain under French domination after the war.
The British, and obviously the Syrians themselves, opposed this. So in April 1945, 8 months after the end of the war in France, De Gaulle, who was now presiding over the French postwar government, sent more troops to Syria to force the issue. Meanwhile, the massacre of thousands of pro-independence demonstrators by the French air force, in the Algerian town of Setif, on 8th May, showed the Syrians what might happen to them if they didn’t comply with de Gaulle’s diktats. And, in fact, at the end of that month, De Gaulle ordered French troops to start shelling Damascus.
But now the British intervened. General Paget, commander of the British forces in the Middle East told De Gaulle that he would face a confrontation with the British if he did not withdraw. In the weeks that followed the Syrian nationalists took their revenge and scores of French citizens were massacred, while French companies and institutions in the Syrian capital were looted and destroyed. The British stood by without lifting a finger. De Gaulle was convinced that Britain was carrying out a nefarious plan to push France out of the region in order to take its place. He was right.
It was only in 2008 that the full story of Britain’s attempted take-over of Syria in May 1945 came to light, when archived documents were found showing how the British envoy in Syria, Terence Shone, promised to “protect” President al-Quwatli just as Damascus was being shelled by the French army. Al-Quwatli, in return, was meant to agree to the establishment of a Greater Syria – meaning a unification with Trans-Jordan and Palestine (then under British control), the granting of oil concessions, preferential political, economic and financial status for Britain, and effectively handing over control of the Syrian army to the British.
As part of this deal, Britain undertook to defend Syrian independence and most significantly, to put a stop to Zionist ambitions for an independent state in Palestine. The idea was, that at a later stage, Greater Syria would federate with Iraq, making a British-dominated entity which would coincide with but pre-empt the aspirations of Pan-Arabism.
This never happened, however partly because al-Quwatli never intended to go that far in his co-operation, but mainly because France and the US countered Britain’s imperialist ambitions by offering their support to the Zionist movement De Gaulle having been quoted as saying “the Jews in Palestine are the only ones who can kick the British out of the Middle East.”
Nevertheless, eventually the French had to give up Syria. The last French troops left the country in 1946.
Syria under Pan-Arabism
By 1954, the region was experiencing a strong wave of “Pan-Arabism” inspired by Nasser, Egypt’s new president. Nasser had won considerable credit by overthrowing Britain’s puppet Egyptian monarch and forcing British troops to leave the Suez canal. His proposal to set up a United Arab Republic (UAR) with the aim of unifying the Arab world, generated enthusiastic support, including in Syria. In 1958, Shukri al-Quwatli, serving as elected president for the third time, was bypassed by Syria’s already powerful military bureaucracy, which independently proceeded with the unification of Syria and Egypt. The UAR came into being, al-Quwatli stood down and Nasser became head of state.
Nasser immediately demanded the dissolution and banning of all the Syrian political parties, including pan-Arabist parties supportive of the UAR. The Syrian Communist party was thus banned, but its activists nevertheless carried on supporting what they described as Nasser’s “progressive” policies from inside Syria’s jails.
Nasser also banned the Arab Socialist Baath Party. This party had been established in Syria in 1947, by Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar, two intellectuals trained in French universities. It had a secular, Pan-Arabic agenda, promoting a degree of state intervention in the economy, but condemning anything deemed to be “imported from the West”, including Communist ideas and parliamentary democracy! This merely reflected the deep fear of its petty-bourgeois base in front of the exploited masses. Rather than rely on broad support among the poor, to gain power, the Baath favoured infiltrating the top circles of the state apparatus, in order to seize it.
The Baath was to spread to other Middle Eastern countries, with varying degrees of success, and with the active encouragement of the CIA, because of its anti-Communism. However, it was only ever successful in taking power in Syria and in Iraq, under Saddam Hussein.
In Syria, it did not take long for Nasser’s centralist policies to upset the Syrian ruling class. The Syrian bourgeoisie objected to his nationalisation plans, while the top officers of the Syrian army resented being treated as junior partners. So much so, that in 1961, a faction of the Syrian army staged a military coup, withdrawing Syria from the UAR. Among the forces behind this coup was the Baath.
Over the following 9 years, the Baath staged another three military coups, wiping out all rival forces in the state apparatus. These coups expressed a power struggle going on within the Baath Party itself. As a result, its civilian wing was sidelined. Eventually, the last one of these coups, in November 1970, inaugurated the rule of the military faction led by the then Defence minister, colonel Hafez al-Assad which he was to call ominously, the “Corrective Movement”.
The Baath – the era of Hafez al-Assad
Al-Assad had relied on two causes of discontent in order to win power. One was the discredit of the previous regime because of Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day war which led to Israel’s occupation of Syria’s Golan Heights. The other was the growing restlessness of the Syrian bourgeoisie, right down to the bazaar traders none of whom had approved of the large-scale nationalisations carried out since the mid-1960s.
Al-Assad’s “Corrective Movement” once in power, began by easing import controls on consumer goods and announcing measures designed to help small and medium-sized companies, like easier credit and drastic limitations on trade-union rights. More generally, after 1970, state intervention in the economy was reduced, with one exception, though a massive programme of investment in land irrigation which was partly designed to boost food production, but was at least as much to create a solid base of support for the regime among the rural population.
But the most important changes at this point concerned the reorganisation of the state machinery and its institutions. A large array of organisations was set up, covering just about every possible area of social and professional activity, all under the direct control of the Baath central leadership. Workers in unions, youth, women, lawyers, doctors, footballers, folk dancers, etc., were all “offered” membership of one of these organisations! In theory, it was not compulsory, but failing to join was frowned upon and could have “consequences”…
The final result of this reorganisation was a maze of intertwined corporatist pyramids, with al-Assad himself standing on top, holding all the levers of power. Being both Secretary-General of the Baath Command and head of state (after being “elected” president in a plebiscite, in March 1971), he was able to control every appointment to any position in the country. This complex maze was designed to be watched over by the regime’s secret service which had learnt its tricks, including its methods of torture, from the former French occupiers.
Of course, on paper, the country was run by a government and a parliament and political parties were allowed. However the government was not accountable to the parliament, but to al-Assad himself. The only legal political parties were those which agreed to join the Baath-led National Progressive Front (NPF). Their activity was strictly curtailed and they mostly did not even have their own press. Although independent “non-political” candidates were allowed to stand in elections, the system ensured that the NPF always had a 2/3 majority in Parliament, and the Baath itself, half of all the seats. In effect this country was a military dictatorship.
A number of parties split over the issue of joining the National Progressive Front, and in particular, the Syrian Communist Party. So one faction joined, but the other, known today as the Syrian Democratic People’s Party, remained outside, operating underground. At first it gave critical support to the Baath regime, but as soon as it explicitly opposed it, its members were ruthlessly repressed.
By 1975, al-Assad’s regime was facing a social explosion on its doorstep, in Lebanon, where the weak pro-Israeli Christian-dominated government was unable to contain growing discontent. Lebanese peasants who had been chased off their land by Israeli bombings in south Lebanon had joined Palestinian refugees in their camps. Social unrest among the Lebanese working class was encouraged by the presence of over 150,000 radicalised Palestinian refugees, many of whom were armed. This volatile situation was a serious threat to both the Lebanese and the Syrian regime.
In April that year the far-right Christian Phalangist militia launched an offensive aimed at crushing this rising mobilisation, with weapons provided by Israel and the USA. Their first target was the Palestinian refugee camps. But the forces of the Palestinians and their Lebanese allies successfully drove them back and, in fact, managed to take control of most of the country, with the exception of a small Christian enclave north of Beirut.
For Hafez al-Assad, a victory for these Palestinian-Lebanese progressive forces was a major threat to his own power. After all, there were over 100,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria among whom this rebellion could spread, not to mention the impoverished Syrian masses. So al-Assad sent Syrian troops into Lebanon in June 1976. They shelled the Palestinian camps and pushed the Palestinian-progressive forces into the south of the country and West Beirut. By doing so, al-Assad paved the way for the later destruction of Palestinian forces by Israel. This offensive was completed during the full-scale invasion staged by Israel in 1982, the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacres and the Palestinian leadership’s withdrawal to Tunis.
Throughout this process, as well as later, between 1987 and 2001, Syrian troops were to remain in Lebanon to reinforce its state apparatus against the population.
With this policy, the Syrian regime was, of course, protecting its own short-term interests. But it was also demonstrating its ability to play the role of a regional power, willing to maintain the status quo in the Middle-East and capable of delivering the goods when Israel could not take the risk of intervening directly itself, for fear of causing a general conflagration across the Arab world.
This was certainly a godsend for the imperialist powers, whether or not there was any public admission of it on their part. After all, if the Syrian “pit bull” was to remain effective in protecting the imperialist status quo in the Middle East, it was best kept on a long leash, with its “anti-imperialist” credentials intact!
The Muslim Brotherhood against the Baath
By the time of the Syrian intervention in Lebanon, al-Assad’s regime had wiped out all nationalist and left opposition in Syria. However, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB) came to occupy the resulting political space, initially with a campaign against the regime’s secular orientation.
Not that al-Assad was all that secular himself. He had even replaced the secular presidential oath with the traditional “I swear by Allah the Great”, and made it a requirement for the head of state to be a Muslim. But the Muslim Brotherhood was aiming at political power, not just concessions to religious bigotry. After the shock caused among the Syrian population by al-Assad’s first intervention against the Palestinians in Lebanon, the SMB leaders felt that the time had come to go on the offensive. They launched a wave of terrorist attacks. Rather than attack the regime head on, their tactic was to target the Alawite minority to which al-Assad belonged a minority formed by the followers of a particular brand of Shia Islam, representing just over 10% of the country’s population. The SMB’s policy was to widen the split between Shia and Sunni, in the context of a predominantly Sunni population.
Over the following 6 years, a bloody tit-for-tat guerilla war ensued between the regime’s security forces and Syrian Muslim Brotherhood commandos, with the population caught in the middle. In March 1979, the Brotherhood, having successfully infiltrated the military, managed to kill around 200 army cadets in the military academy in Aleppo. The climax of its offensive was a wholesale uprising in the country’s second and fifth largest towns, Aleppo and Hama, in 1982. The regime retaliated with heavy shelling of both cities, killing maybe 15,000 people. Thousands of suspected Brotherhood supporters were arrested.
That same year, a law was passed making membership of the Brotherhood a capital offence. In the subsequent repression, hundreds of Islamic activists were executed. Brotherhood cadres went into exile while, on the ground, the organisation was virtually wiped out. However, it produced a number of small, clandestine, “radical” spin-offs, which were responsible for occasional terrorist attacks over the following two decades.
The rivalry between the Syrian and Iraqi Baath Commands was so intense that Hafez al-Assad had always blamed the Iraqi regime for arming the Brotherhood. So when the Iraq-Iran war broke out in 1984, he sided against Iraq. When the first Gulf war broke out in 1991 he similarly sided with the anti-Iraq alliance and even sent troops, thus improving his image with the USA. Shortly afterwards, he cemented relations with Iran’s president Rafsanjani and Lebanon’s Hezbollah quite obviously demonstrating to the US that he was open to acting as a power-broker in the region…
The 1990s saw some liberalisation: for instance, in 1992 Assad abolished the death penalty. However, at the same time, he opened the state sector further to privatisation and enacted new legislation to favour private sector investment.
Bashar al-Assad and the “Damascus Spring”
Hafez al-Assad died in June 2000 after 30 years in power. The son who had been destined to succeed him Basel trained at the Soviet Military Academy and a rising star in the army’s ranks, had been killed in a car accident in 1994. So it fell to Bashar, a British-trained consultant ophthalmologist, who was then working at Moorfields Eye Hospital, to return to Damascus and step into his father’s shoes. He was duly elected President by referendum in which he ran unopposed. In fact he was destined to act as a mere figurehead for the regime.
However, the advent of Bashar was hailed as heralding further “liberalisation”, and the western media spoke of a “Damascus Spring”. For roughly 14 months, intellectuals, artists, “independent” politicians and “enlightened” businessmen, organised petitions, discussion circles and forums, in order to initiate a “national debate” on the future of Syrian society. They demanded an end to the state of emergency which was still in place 30 years after Hafez al-Assad’s coup. This “civil society movement”, asked respectfully of the regime that it takes steps to transform itself gradually into a “normal” democracy, fully open to the world market. Civil rights activist Michel Kilo, explained that in Syria there was “no bourgeoisie and no mass working class”, and that, therefore, “any political project to confront the present regime should arise from the middle classes”.
It was true that the small Syrian bourgeoisie’s existence was totally parasitic on the Baath Party state machinery: 80% of the non-oil industry and trade was privately-owned by then, but about two-thirds of all capital investment was still funded by the state. Besides, the top echelons of this bourgeoisie coincided with those of the institutions of the state, up to and including Baath party ministers so it was unlikely that they would saw off the branch they sat on.
But the “working class” certainly existed. Out of a total population of 20m before the current war, around 3 million worked in manufacturing, mining, transport and construction, and another one million as agricultural labourers. Another 5 million were mostly unemployed. This was a substantial mass of workers! However the “civil society movement” chose to negotiate reforms with the regime itself and failed. Starting from August 2001, a wave of arrests and trials ended the “Damascus Spring” and its forums. The Syrian petty-bourgeoisie had failed to convince the strong men of the Baath, including the Syrian capitalists among them, that they would have anything to gain by loosening the stranglehold of the regime.
The ossified regime, with Bashar al-Assad at its head, was nevertheless wooed by the US, with Blair in its trail. At the peak of the arrests of civil activists in 2001, Tony Blair was holding court with Bashar in a plush hotel in the capital discussing business opportunities in Syria’s newly-expanded private sector.
But by now, the material situation of the population was already deteriorating. The short-lived improvement resulting from the rise of oil production in the 1980s, had long since ended. The 5% or so of the state income resulting from oil production was soaked up by the country’s rising debt. By 2011/2 an estimated 25% of the population was unemployed, three-quarters of whom were under 25.
So it was not surprising that finally Syria saw the same kind of protests which had heralded the Arab Spring starting in Tunisia in December 2010 and spreading throughout the Arab world.
The ripples of the Arab Spring reach Syria
The Syrian wave of protests can be traced back to a small demonstration held in the northern town of Al-Hasakah, in February 2011, following the self-immolation of a local young man, Hasan Ali Akleh. In the weeks that followed, protests spread to all the country’s main towns. Initially, the protests had been mostly over “dignity”. But in response to the regime’s repression, the protesters soon went on to call for the fall if not the death of Bashar al-Assad. After a few weeks, al-Assad tried to defuse the discontent by promising political reforms. But it was too little too late. After Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya, the Syrian regime joined the already long list of dictatorships which were being shaken by the storm of protests in the region.
However, there were major differences in the way the protests unfolded in Syria. They spread more slowly than in Egypt and Tunisia. And the protesters never managed to impose themselves over the repressive forces anywhere in the country’s main cities. There was nothing like Egypt’s Tahrir Square in Syria. Nor did the Syrian protesters manage to establish a safe haven for themselves, as their Libyan counterparts did in Benghazi. Their attempt to do just that, around the western town of Homs, was quickly broken by the regime. In fact the regime’s repression was far more devastating in Syria than elsewhere.
That being said, one may wonder how the large-scale, mostly peaceful protests which shook Syria finally produced one of the most bloody civil wars ever seen in the Middle-East? A convenient answer to this question, which has been peddled ever since by western governments and the media, has been to put the whole blame on the regime’s brutality. But it is just far too convenient to be the full answer.
Obviously, the mindless repression, sniper shootings, massive arrests and torture carried out by Assad’s security apparatus did play a major role in this mutation. After four months of relentless protests and bloody repression, many protesters came to see no option but to arm themselves in self-defence. And quite naturally, they turned towards those groups and organisations which could provide them with the weapons they needed or, at least, claimed that they would.
Choosing this course of action was understandable, but it had a built-in logic. By arming themselves in self-defence, the protesters could only expect a full-scale confrontation with Assad’s repressive machinery. To confront a regime which would be fighting for its survival, the protesters needed to prepare an armed insurrection. But then this raised a number of questions. Beyond getting rid of Assad’s regime, what were to be the objectives of this insurrection? What policy would be needed in order to achieve these objectives? In particular, how were the protesters to shift the balance of forces in their favour, against a well-trained, well-organised and heavily armed, state machinery?
There lay the real problem. In order to defeat Assad, the protesters needed a policy which would have allowed them to win over to their side at least a part of the army, together with a sizeable section of the regime’s social base which, despite the repression, was still quite large.
But who could offer them such a policy? Assad’s long-standing strategy in dealing with political opponents had been to either crush them, forcing them underground or into exile, or else, when it was possible, to co-opt them into his ruling National Progressive Front, thereby compromising and discrediting them. And the result was a gaping political vacuum on the left of the political spectrum.
Of course, over the years, the Syrian Communist Party’s participation in Assad’s ruling coalition had caused many splits within this party. But most of these splinter groups no longer had any substantial presence in Syria itself and were largely unknown to the young protesters. The only exception among them is now known as the People’s Will Party, since it was eventually allowed to legally register in 2012, after over a decade of underground existence. But, although a number of its activists had been killed by the police during the protests, this party still insisted on the need to use the ballot box in order to change anything a stance which was bound to repel rather than attract most of the protesters.
The so-called “progressive” nationalist tradition of the previous decades didn’t have much to offer either. Its main representative, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (or SSNP) was actually a right-wing party which had been somewhat fascinated in the 1930s by the European fascist regimes of the time. The SSNP, which was also active in a number of other Middle Eastern countries, claimed anti-imperialist credentials for its stance in favour of the establishment of a Greater Syria which was to cover the whole of the historical Fertile Crescent, including Syria, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Cyprus, Iraq and Kuwait. In any case, although it had never been part of Assad’s ruling coalition, the SSNP took part in the organisation of counter-demonstrations against the Arab Spring protests and in support of the regime thereby completely discrediting itself in the eyes of the protesters.
As to the various political groups which had emerged from the ranks of the protesters themselves, they lacked any kind of experience, had no political tradition to guide them and were mostly made of well-meaning students who had no links with, let alone influence among, the Syrian proletariat, the only force which would have had the capacity to bring about some real change.
This situation gave the Islamic currents a unique opportunity to fill the political vacuum. Quite early on, these currents had already been the most visible and vocal forces involved in the protests. Those of these currents which appeared most determined to fight Assad the so-called “radical” Islamists started to attract many anti-Assad protesters.
So much so, that by February 2012, only a few months after the emergence of the first armed groups, the American journalist Nir Rosen, who was covering the situation in Syria for Al Jazeera, noted: ?All the fighters I met were Sunni Muslims and most were pious (..) Many fighters were not religious before the uprising, but now pray and are inspired by Islam”.
However, these “radical” Islamist currents were also the most reactionary, representing one fundamentalist Islamic sect or another. These groups were not interested in the least in winning the support of the Syrian population as a whole against the regime. They were sectarian organisations in the strictest sense of the word. Their aim was to build a base of support for themselves by whipping up religious prejudices and mobilising one section of the population against all the others. In fact, as the subsequent months and years were to show, with only very few exceptions, their only ambition was to cut out a fiefdom of their own no matter how small in which they would be able to impose their own brutal rule over the population.
In a country like Syria, whose historical divisions had been more or less overcome after over half a century of relative secularism, the fact that these reactionary forces were able to occupy the forefront of the political scene could only be a recipe for political chaos and social disaster. And it was.
The US leaders and regime change in Syria
However, initially at least, the Islamist groups did not have the weapons they had promised to their new recruits. Unlike in countries like Libya, where whole army units deserted with their equipment, providing weapons to radical Islamist groups, no such thing happened in Syria. Although the western media made a lot of noise around the defection of a few high-ranking officers who fled the country, on the whole, the army remained firmly behind Assad.
So in order to arm themselves, the radical Islamists had to find some help from outside Syria. And if they were able to do this, it was only because, behind the scenes, other far more powerful forces had chosen to fan the flames of civil war in Syria for their own reasons.
The most powerful among these forces was, obviously, US imperialism. The US leaders had managed to contain the popular protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. In all three countries, they had used their long-standing links with the top layers of the army in order to get rid of dictators who had proved no longer able to keep their populations under control. In all three cases, the army general staff had organised an orderly regime change, avoiding any power vacuum and, therefore, depriving the protesters of any opportunity to take their fate into their own hands.
In Libya, however, things had got out of hand. Following the rebellion of entire army regiments against Gaddafi, US president Obama had expected the regime to fall apart. But it hadn’t.
After the political disaster of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the US was reluctant to “put boots on the ground”. So, they got the UN to endorse an international bombing campaign against Libya, under the pretext of enforcing a no-fly zone which was supposedly designed to prevent Gaddafi from using his air force against the uprising. What followed is well-known. On October 20th, NATO aircraft bombed a convoy in which Gaddafi was travelling with 200 of his officials and elite guards. The attack was coordinated with the Misrata fundamentalist militia which shot Gaddafi dead, before torturing and killing most of his men. This was how the US leaders eventually managed to operate regime change in Libya, by physically eliminating a dictator who had proved far too unreliable to their taste. Although, in the end, far from bringing back any sort of stability in Libya, they managed to spark off a bloody civil war, which has split the country ever since. And the fact that the population has gone through hell as a result, is not their problem.
In Syria, however, at the start of the civil war in 2011, Obama, was faced with a far more complicated situation, which involved contradictory requirements.
Just as in the case of Gaddafi, US government was determined to grab any opportunity to get rid of the Assad regime once and for all if at all possible. Indeed, just like Gaddafi, Assad was seen by the US as yet another dictator who needed to be cut down to size not for doing what he did to his population, but for showing too much independence to their liking.
After all, although the Cold War had been over for a whole decade, the Syrian regime’s long-standing links with Russia, dating back almost 40 years, made it look very suspicious to the US leaders. Syria still hosted three Russian satellite reception centres. Even more importantly, Russia’s only naval base outside its territory was (and is) still located at Tartus, the strategic harbour on Syria’s Mediterranean coast.
What’s more, the Syrian regime was a long-standing ally of the Iranian state, which was still, at the time, the USA’s arch-enemy in the region. Moreover, Assad had been a long-standing sponsor of the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, which the US considered both as an Iranian proxy and a potential threat to Israel.
So, yes, the US and imperialist leaders had many reasons to mistrust the Syrian regime. But at the same time, they had to recognise that on several occasions, this regime had proved willing to protect and even enforce, their regional imperialist order whether by intervening militarily in the 15-year long Lebanese civil war, from the 1970s onwards, or by supporting the US-led “war on terror” after 9/11, for instance. For the US to eliminate Assad was, therefore, taking the risk of losing a useful regional auxiliary.
Besides, Syria’s strategic position presented the US leaders with significant potential problems: the south-west of Syria borders the Palestinian powder-keg, and Syria hosted a huge population of Palestinian refugees; likewise, in the east, Syria shares a 375-mile long border with Iraq, a country which had remained unstable, despite Obama’s withdrawal of most US troops at the end of 2011. For all these reasons, destabilising Syria was bound to threaten the stability of the whole region.
Finally, given the bitter memory left by the war in Iraq among the American population, putting US boots on the ground in Syria was out of the question for Obama. And a bombing operation, as in Libya, was considered too dangerous, due to Syria’s strategic position. So, for the following four years (2011-2015), US policy was to test the resistance of Assad’s regime to the limit, hoping that it would somehow collapse without causing a conflagration across the region. And they found local auxiliaries to implement their policy behind the scenes.
Imperialism’s regional proxies
There has been no shortage of local players, all close allies of the US, willing to act as proxies for imperialism in handling the Syrian crisis.
Among them, Saudi Arabia and its satellite Gulf states, especially Qatar, had their own axes to grind, due to their regional rivalry with Iran. In their view and regardless of any other considerations, depriving Iran of its most powerful ally in the region, was an objective which was well worth pursuing.
Already, long before the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia had been openly backing Syria’s banned Salafi fundamentalist groups. For years, the Saudi royals provided these groups’ best known spokesman, Sheikh Adnan al Arur, with a safe haven and even a radio station from which he had been broadcasting his sectarian views and hate diatribes for instance, blaming Syria’s Alawites for the crimes of Assad’s regime, and calling for their physical elimination. As to the tiny oil state of Qatar, it has been a long-standing backer of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East and, more specifically in Syria.
It was therefore quite logical for the Syrian Islamist groups to turn to Saudi Arabia and Qatar for funding and weapons and for these countries to oblige. But given their close links with the US and, in the case of Qatar, with Britain and France it is very unlikely that they would have offered any substantial support to the Syrian Islamists, especially in terms of weapons, without being given an explicit go-ahead by their imperialist minders. And since, in this instance, they were in the business of undermining Assad’s regime, they certainly did get this go-ahead.
Some time later, another regional heavyweight, Turkey, was to join the fray, but for a very different reason. So far, unlike Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, Turkey had maintained relatively good relations with Assad, as part of Erdogan’s “good neighbour” policy. Of course, there were also vested interests behind this policy. The expansion of privatisation under Assad had offered profitable business opportunities and the Turkish capitalist class had been keen to take its share, regardless of any western sanctions against Syria.
However, almost immediately after the Syrian civil war began, Erdogan was confronted with a problem in Kurdistan. Apparently Assad calculated very early on that nationalist militias would not represent a major threat for his regime, in so far as their ambition was limited to taking over control of a relatively marginal part of the country. In any case, the fact is that Assad chose to withdraw his troops from the Kurdish areas, along Syria’s northern border with Turkey, in order to concentrate their fire power on the regions where the Sunni fundamentalist insurgency was developing.
This allowed the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (or YPG) the militia of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (or PYD) to fill the vacuum left by Assad’s troops and take over control of large parts of Syrian Kurdistan. In and of itself, this development represented a threat for the Turkish regime, because the emergence of a semi-autonomous Syrian Kurdistan, coming after the partial autonomy gained by Iraqi Kurdistan, gave considerably more credit to the Kurdish nationalists’ demand for a unified, independent Kurdistan. What made matters even worse was that, unlike Iraqi Kurdistan, which was deeply divided between rival nationalist factions, Syrian Kurdistan was likely to come under the sole control of the PYD, which was closely associated with the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (or PKK), Erdogan’s arch-enemy.
Predictably, in Turkey itself, these developments propelled the Kurdish question back to the top of the political agenda. Erdogan started looking for ways to undermine the consolidation of the Kurdish nationalists’ rule in Syria. This was to lead the Turkish regime to fund and arm some of the Islamic fundamentalist militias involved in the Syrian civil war, or at least to allow them to use its territory as a logistical base, including Daesh.
The truth is, that by arming the growing number of Syrian anti-Assad warlords, the imperialist powers’ regional proxies did their dirty work for them, much in the same way as Pakistan had done during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, when it armed the fundamentalist Afghan resistance on behalf of the CIA.
The imperialist powers’ search for an alternative to Assad
Meanwhile, the imperialist powers were looking for an alternative to Assad’s regime. This alternative needed to be able to unite under its authority the growing numbers of anti-Assad militias. It needed to be a credible partner in future negotiations and to be able, eventually, to take the reigns of power from Assad without allowing a political vacuum to develop. But above all, it needed to be a pliable regime, respectful of the imperialist order and willing to protect the profits of western multinationals against their own people.
As the catastrophic experience of Iraq had demonstrated, in order to operate some form of smooth regime change, a sizeable section of the state machinery, in particular in the military and repressive apparatus, had to switch sides. The problem for the imperialist leaders was that they had no trustworthy contacts among the leading circles of the Syrian state machinery if only because most of Syria’s military strong men had been trained in Moscow rather than in western military academies. And the same was true of the country’s top civil servants.
Nevertheless, during the first four years of the civil war, the imperialist powers remained adamant that Assad should be excluded from any future political settlement. This was illustrated by the revelations made on the BBC, in March 2016, by Andrew Mitchell, Cameron’s first Secretary of State for International Development. Talking about the UN’s initial attempts at a peace plan in Syria, in 2012, Mitchell declared: “Kofi Annan, the former UN General Secretary, came forward with his plan. He said that since Assad was part of the problem, by definition, he had to be part of the solution, and therefore he should be included in negotiations. And that was vetoed by the Americans and, alas, by the British Government too.” Shortly after, Kofi Annan resigned quietly from his mission, without a word of explanation in the media.
Over the next period, the imperialist powers put all their energy into cobbling together some form of alternative to Assad. Out of these efforts emerged two fanciful bodies. One was the so-called Free Syrian Army (or FSA) which was supposed to bring together all anti-Assad armed forces under a central command in exile. The other was the Syrian National Council, which was presented as the political mouthpiece of these forces and, therefore, some kind of alternative government in waiting, ready to take over from Assad.
However, behind the grandiose sounding names of these bodies and the hype produced by the media around them, they didn’t really amount to very much. For instance, The National, a newspaper based in the United Arab Emirates which was supportive of the Syrian opposition, described the FSA leadership as follows: “A former colonel in the Syrian air force who defected in July 2011, Mr Al Assaad, is the Turkey-based self-declared leader of the FSA… He estimates his army strength at 50,000, but most analysts say it is much smaller”. But then, the same paper went on to admit that Al Assaad’s leadership had come under some dispute, as another, higher-ranking defected officer is now claiming to lead the rebels’ military council”.
This was not, however, the end of the FSA fairy tale. By March 2013, there were no fewer than 9 self-proclaimed “external central commands of the Free Syrian Army”, some backed by Turkey, others by Saudi Arabia and at least one, directly endorsed by the CIA. The comedy just turned into farce. The insignificance and discredit of these rival “FSA leaderships” is such that most of the armed militias in Syria have stopped using the FSA’s official logo on their banners.
As to the so-called Syrian National Council, it was formed, with Turkey’s backing, from a motley group of political exiles many of whom only represented themselves and, in any case, had no links with Syria itself. However, within 8 months of its formation, this Council collapsed due to its ongoing internal bickering and lack of credibility.
In November 2012, another body took over. This time, it was launched in Qatar, with the backing of Saudi Arabia. Significantly, it was chaired by a former Damascus Imam and was dominated by individuals close to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Within a few weeks this National Coalition was officially recognised by the imperialist powers as the only representative of the Syrian people. Since then it has been invited to many rounds of negotiations. But its refusal to meet face to face with any representative of the Syrian government has turned these meetings into futile exercises. Nevertheless the cynical farce goes on and these politicians are allowed to speak on behalf of the millions of Syrians caught in the cross-fire between the imperialist powers, the Assad government and the country’s militias.
The rule of the militias, on the back of the population
Despite all the efforts of the western governments, there has never been such a thing as an anti-Assad “army” on the ground in Syria, let alone one which was willing to recognise the authority of any of the western-based self-proclaimed FSA leaderships.
Roughly the armed opposition comprised into three main strands. First came the militias organising ethnic or religious minorities Kurdish, Druze, Turkmen, Christian, Assyrian, Alawite, etc. They were usually better organised. But they operated only in their own traditional territory, on the basis of an agenda which paid little attention to what was going on elsewhere. However, some of these militias were to change sides later and offer to cooperate with the regime in response to the threat of the larger fundamentalist militias, especially after the rise of Daesh, from 2014 onwards.
Second came these larger Islamic fundamentalist militias, several dozen of them. They all had more or less the same sectarian, bigoted agenda imposing Sharia law on the population of the areas under their control, enslaving women and physically eliminating all potential opposition. But only a handful of them operated on any kind of significant scale.
Third, there was a galaxy of local armed groups probably several thousands of them each defending its own tiny territory against whoever else. Some of these groups had emerged as self-defence groups in a village, an urban district or on a tribal basis. Others had been formed by businessmen or landowners, seeking to defend their property. Most used some sort of Islamic reference to legitimise their activities.
What the militias in the last two categories had in common was their failure to recognise any kind of authority. Occasionally they joined ranks with others in an attempt to coordinate their actions, but these alliances never lasted, due to bitter rivalries developing between their leaders. Not only did these alliances keep collapsing but the former allies tended to settle their differences at gunpoint.
With time, from being self-defence groups, many of these militias have become the private armies of some warlord. This process is nothing new. The same evolution took place in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, resulting in a devastating civil war between the various anti-Soviet militias after the occupation ended. Likewise, just as in Afghanistan, and more recently in Iraq, the activities of many Syrian militias have increasingly mutated into outright gangsterism on the back of the population.
In fact, it was not for nothing that the British Ministry of Defence warned Cameron against using his claim that 70,000 “moderate” opposition fighters needed the RAF’s protection against Assad. The truth is that these 70,000 “moderate” fighters only exist in the fairy tales peddled by Western politicians, but certainly not on the ground, in Syria!
The rise of Daesh and its consequences
We will not, once again, go into the emergence and meteoric rise of Daesh. Let us just recall briefly that the core members of Daesh came originally from Iraq, fleeing the brutal repression meted out by the US troops against the population of Anbar province, following the fall of its capital, Fallujah. Once in Syria, these core members started recruiting among the Iraqi youth living in refugee camps, while helping to revive the Syrian fundamentalist groups which had been driven underground by the Syrian regime’s repression.
Following the collapse of the Arab Spring protest wave, they helped to bring together a number of Salafi factions. The resulting organisation came to be known as Jabhat al-Nusra (or the “Support Front”). It declared allegiance to al-Qaeda and quickly developed into the largest anti-Assad militia outside Kurdistan.
It should be pointed out that al-Nusra’s success was not just of its own making. This militia benefited from a generous supply of funds and weapons from all the regional sponsors of Islamic fundamentalism, from Saudi Arabia to Turkey, but also from the US, as was shown by a series of reports published later by the Washington Post. Ironically, even after it was listed by the US administration and the UN as a terrorist organisation, al-Nusra was still considered by the western-sponsored FSA leadership in exile as its most successful affiliate!
Eventually, in 2013, Daesh split from al-Nusra. The reasons for this split were never spelt out clearly. It was certainly not over the ideology promoted by the two groups, nor over their methods which remained identical. As far as one can make out, the split was primarily due to personal rivalries within the leadership of al-Nusra.
After several months of bloody armed confrontations, the two groups went their own separate ways. Daesh expanded its territory both into Iraq and into Syria, while al-Nusra stuck to Syria, eventually taking over part of Aleppo, the country’s second largest town. Meanwhile both militias carried on getting their funding and supplies from the same sources as before. This was illustrated, in particular, in January 2014 when the Turkish government was caught red-handed by its own border police. A huge convoy of trucks which was on its way to Syria was stopped near the Turkish border: it was carrying a thousand mortar shells, 50,000 bullets for machine guns and 30,000 heavy artillery shells no less! According to the evidence produced by the Turkish press, these supplies were meant to be delivered to al-Nusra. Around the same time, it became an open secret that Turkey was turning a blind eye to a large-scale smuggling operation into Turkey which was organised by Daesh, using the gasoline and kerosene produced by the refineries it had taken over in Syria.
As to the imperialist powers, they went on supplying and funding the Syrian militias. Except that, instead of relying on a fictitious FSA to play the role of intermediary which it could not possibly do anyway they set up their own training and supply facilities in Jordan and Turkey, entirely manned by secret service agents and military personnel from the US, Britain and France.
Russia, Iran towards a new division of labour in the region
The massive bombing campaign launched by Russia from September 2015, was certainly a game-changer in the Syrian conflict. And this was not just to the benefit of the Syrian regime, but to the benefit of the imperialist powers as well.
Of course, this was precisely what the media’s damning reports condemning the Russian air force for failing to target Daesh, were trying to conceal. By implication, these reports and the many statements issued by the western governments along similar lines, were trying to portray Putin as the “bad guy” who was seeking to protect Russia’s own particular interests and those of his “mate” Assad, by shedding the blood of innocent civilians and opposition fighters. By the same token, they were intimating that the imperialist leaders had no responsibility in Putin’s intervention, nor any advantage to gain out of it.
But what a pack of lies this was! Of course, no-one would dispute the fact that Putin is a “bad guy” or that he is quite capable of killing people just for the sake of defending Russia’s interests in the region. Sure! But isn’t that exactly what the US, Britain, France, etc., have been doing for quite some time already, with their bombing campaigns in Iraq, Libya and Syria? Not to mention the past wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, or Vietnam! In such matters, the imperialist leaders can hardly claim the high moral ground against Putin!
Moreover, while Russia clearly has specific interests to protect in Syria, due to its long-standing relationship with Assad’s regime, it would be totally ridiculous to imagine Putin organising such an intervention off his own bat, without consulting the US leaders and agreeing a strategy with them.
After all, what was the reality of the situation in Syria when the Russian intervention started? For almost five years, the imperialist leaders stood on the sidelines, watching the Syrian population being butchered by both the regime and the fundamentalist militias. All along, they had been supplying these militias with weapons or funds and whether they did it directly or indirectly through their regional stooges, makes no difference in this respect. And what was the purpose of this exercise if not to weaken Assad’s regime while monitoring its capacity to resist?
But they were now facing the consequences of their waiting game. First, there was the series of terrorist attacks in Europe even though they were nothing compared to the daily reality faced by the Syrian and Iraqi populations. And then there was the refugee crisis a direct consequence of the wars in the Middle-East which caused major problems for European governments. However, there was still no sign that Assad’s regime was anywhere near collapsing.
As a result, the imperialist powers could wait no longer. Something had to be done in order to prevent the situation from deteriorating any further. And this necessarily meant going back to Kofi Annan’s 2012 plan and making sure that Assad was somehow included in a final political settlement. The only problem was that, in the meantime, in Syria and, in fact, other Middle-Eastern countries such as Iraq, Libya and a few others the fundamentalist militias had got completely out of hand, thanks to the funds and weapons supplied by the imperialist powers and their regional stooges. So much so, that there could not be any political stability in the region as long as these militias were not eradicated. And this was where Putin came in to do the imperialist powers’ dirty work for them!
In fact, Putin is not the only one to have been called in, to sort out the imperialist leaders’ mess. They have also called on Iran. Indeed, without the military support provided by Iranian troops and pro-Iranian Shia militias in Iraq, Baghdad might well have been overrun by Daesh and, in any case, there would have been no chance in hell of the Iraqi government retaking Ramadi or Mosul.
Of course, the situation in Syria is somewhat different from that in Iraq, where the imperialist powers are in the business of protecting the regime, rather than trying to destabilise it. Nevertheless, in so far as they now seem to have concluded that they need Assad’s involvement in a future political settlement, they have welcomed Iran’s help in Syria. Iranian elite troops and experts and thousands of Hezbollah fighters have joined government forces as was seen during the operation to retake East Aleppo.
In other words, since 2015, the imperialist powers have been resorting to a new form of division of labour in the Middle East, in which both Russia and Iran have been asked to play an active role in restoring some stability in the region. Whether this division of labour will remain a permanent feature in the future is another question. But for the time being, it is a necessity for the imperialist powers if only because they cannot fully rely on their traditional regional allies. One thing is certain, however: their aim is unchanged – to preserve their imperialist order in the Middle-East, against its population.
But by now, over a century after the western colonisation of the Middle-East, the price being paid by its population for this imperialist order has become so unbearable and causes so much despair, that it fuels in parallel the recruitment drives of sadistic fundamentalist warlords, and the flight of millions out of the region in the hope of finding a safe haven, somewhere.
This situation is intolerable. Of course, the capitalist system has long ceased to be capable of offering any sort of progress to mankind. But today, it is, on the contrary, turning the clock back decades, or even centuries, into the past for entire sections of the planet’s population. There can be only one solution to this – the entire system, their whole imperialist “order”, needs very urgently to be overthrown.