A recent Guardian article “Russian military presence in Syria” (23 December 2012) undermines Seamus Milne’s analysis in his “Intervention in Syria” (Comment – 19 December 2012) in which he only looks at intervention by the US, Britain and France in support of the opposition Syrian National Coalition. He argues that “the only way out of an increasingly grim conflict is a negotiated settlement, with regional and international backing”, a process which would allow the Assad regime to stay in place. He is not the only one on the left in Britain to approach this tragedy in such a manner. Lindsey German, convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, concludes in a recent statement “anyone who cares about human rights in the region should see their main aim as stopping western imperialism on its march again”, but is silent as to whether Bashar al-Assad should go.
It is no surprise that the USA, Britain and France want to ensure that the outcome of this tragedy is the establishment of a new regime which suits their interests. But this is also the case of Russia and Iran who are supporting Bashar al-Assad. The two-year long civil war started as a peaceful popular uprising against the brutal dictatorship of the Assad regime, but the opposition has been forced to take up arms to defend itself.
Socialists should be in solidarity with the movement for democracy against Bashar al-Assad, demand the ending of all foreign intervention, not just that of western countries, as well as the departure of the Assad regime, so as to allow the people of Syria to freely and independently determine their own future.
As the second anniversary approaches of the uprising against the Assad regime in Syria, so do the warnings against western military intervention in support of the opposition. With neither side able to inflict a significant blow against the other, the prospect is that of a continuation of the tragedy of a civil war.
The movement which started as a peaceful protest for democracy against the Assad dictatorship, has now escalated into a militarised civil war as the regime refuses to make any concessions and escalates the repression. It all started in the town of Daraa on the 6 March 2011 when young boys were arrested and tortured for writing the slogan “the people want to overthrow the regime” on walls across the city. Shortly after this outrage, demonstrations were held in cities across Syria, demanding the release of political prisoners, the abolition of Syria’s 48-year emergency law, more freedoms, and an end to pervasive government corruption. These were severely repressed by the Syrian army who shot at and killed the unarmed protesters.
The assault over the last two years by Syrian military forces on demonstrators and towns that support the opposition have left at least 50,000 dead and made 500,000 into refugees. Reports abound of human rights violations and war crimes on both sides. But with its superior equipment and organisation, and its long history of repression, the vast majority have been committed by the Syrian army, security forces and their allied militias. Since the 1970 when the then defence minister Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, came to power in coup, repression and torture of opponents has been a feature of the regime. The most notorious incident being in 1982 when tens of thousands were killed in the city of Hama by the army in order to quell an “Islamist” uprising.
The uprising for democracy in Syria is part of the same movement which swept through the Middle east and North Africa following the immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunis on 17 December 2010. Just like in Syria, the main demands were for democracy, against corruption and against the poverty caused by the neo-liberal economic reforms. The movement against the Assad regime has been forced into a phase where military actions are taking place instead of mass popular demonstrations. But it should still be considered as a movement for democracy to be supported, while being critical of the methods and programme of the Syrian National Council, the Free Syrian Army, and other opposition forces, including abuses they have committed as reported by Human Rights Watch.
The violent repression by the Assad regime of the mass peaceful protests in the early phases of the movement forced upon opposition activists the need to take arms to defend themselves. Large areas of the countryside are under the control of the opposition, and the Syrian army is unable to dislodge them from many towns such as Aleppo where fighting has been taking place for nearly a year. The city of Douma, north of Damascus with a population of 300,000, has cleared regime forces out of the area and established a democratically elected administration. The only way that the armed units of the opposition could maintain such a position is by having extensive support from the population who provide them with shelter and food.
The regime forces have been unable to inflict a significant military defeat against the opposition despite having superior equipment including tanks, artillery, planes and helicopter gunships. The armed opposition groups rely on small arms and rocket propelled grenades obtained in raids, from defectors or by being purchased, and with the odd tank or missile captured from the army. Reports of extensive supplies of sophisticated weapons from Western countries or Gulf states have not been confirmed by events in the battlefield.
The unfolding of events in Syria poses a big problem for the imperialist countries, such as the USA, Great Britain and France, who have had a historical interest in the area. Assad father and son, like Mubarak and Ben Ali, have been convenient allies over the last decades. While having part of Syria, the Golan heights, occupied by Israel since 1967 and giving refuge to 120,00 Palestinians, the regime has never threatened any action to upset the status-quo in the Middle East. The widespread opposition to Bashar Al-Assad means that imperialism can no longer do business with his regime.
Despite calls from the Syrian National Council (SNC) for western military intervention, such a course of action is fraught with dangers for the USA, Britain and France. These countries are certainly threatening intervention should Assad use chemical weapons. But Syria is a well-armed country with up-to-date air defences provided by Russia, and it would not be possible to impose a no-fly zone as in Libya. Military intervention would open up uncontrollable events in the Middle East as Syria is supported not just by Russia, but also by Iran and Iraq. Furthermore Russia may be reluctant to let Bashar al-Assad go as it has its only military base outside of the former Soviet Union at the port of Tartus.
The opposition forces are not reliable or strong enough allies for imperialism. The Syrian National Council (SNC) is a group of regime opponents in exile and is dominated by political parties, notably the Muslim Brotherhood and liberals, linked to Western imperialism and their clients in the Gulf. The SNC has called several times for foreign military intervention in Syria. This is not a popular option in the opposition as Syrians remember the consequences of imperialist intervention in neighbouring Iraq, as their country had to accommodate over 1.5million refugees. Western military intervention would also stop the defections from the Syrian army and would provide an opportunity for al-Assad to appeal for national unity in defence of the country and confirm his claim that the opposition is a foreign conspiracy. These defections are beginning to be a significant factor in the uprising. Over a dozen generals have gone over to the opposition, including in December the chief of the military police.
There are other groups present in Syria which are fighting against the regime, including the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (a group inside the country, gathering together nationalists, left-wingers and Kurds), and the Watan Coalition of around 17 left-wing political organisations, including the Syrian Revolutionary Left. At a local level inside the country, the main organizers of demonstrations, civil disobedience and strikes are the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), a grassroots activist networks helping organize and document protests, the General Commission of the Syrian Revolution, Communist Co-ordination Committees and other local youth committees. There has been a long of history of left and communist organisations in Syria, some now active in the opposition such as the Revolutionary Left Current. These are the real forces of resistance have been the main targets of the regime since the beginning of the uprising.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is more a label behind which a series of independent armed groups operate and which is attempting to rally the armed groups behind a unified command. Although many armed groups are organised on “religious” lines, for many, but not all, this is due to the social origins of the fighters for whom religious practice is common, rather than these groups adopting a religious fundamentalist political orientation. It also ignores the fact that the opposition, including the fighters, is not just Sunni but also Alawite and Christian. But since the outbreak of civil war, the regime has stoked up communalism and religious sectarianism to create divisions in the opposition and frighten off support.
Victory is possible
As the uprising approaches its second anniversary, the sacrifices, tenacity and widespread nature of the opposition has put Bashar al-Assad in weak position. He is unable to defeat the opposition, defections continue and his control of cities and the countryside is tenuous. Victory against Assad is possible, but the opposition has to continue to be on a mass popular and democratic basis with the armed units acting in a supportive and defensive role, as it is not possible for it to defeat militarily the 300,000 Syrian army. Winning over the army’s rank and file conscript soldiers is a key aspect of weakening the regime. To continue to convince defectors to join the uprising, the opposition has to be pluralistic by welcoming every opponent of the dictatorship, regardless of their religious or ethnic origin. Areas and cities freed from regime control should organise on a democratic basis such as in Douma. To defeat al-Assad just like Mubarak and Ben Ali, the opposition has to appeal to every Syrian opposed to the dictatorship by fighting for democracy, against corruption and against the poverty caused by the neo-liberal economic reforms.
The left outside of Syria needs to give its solidarity to the opposition and campaign against all foreign intervention. This of course should not prevent us from being critical when sections of the opposition call for western intervention or commits abuses. But anyone concerned about human rights, should welcome the victory of the opposition and the downfall of Bashar al-Assad. We must oppose all foreign intervention, not just that of the USA, Britain and France, but also that of Russia, Iran and the Gulf states – countries not known for their respect of human rights. That is the only way to ensure that it is the people of Syria themselves who should determine independently and freely their own future. The toppling of the Assad regime by the democracy movement would bring about a much deeper change in the state and society in Syria than it did in Egypt or Tunisia, as it would also be a defeat for the army and the corrupt elites. It would give confidence to the democracy movement in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries to continue their fight for deeper changes. A victory for the Syrian uprising will open a new front of popular resistance against the imperialist powers in the Middle East.
Militarization, military intervention and the absence of strategy
Contribution to meeting of Syrian opposition; Monday 21 November 2011, by Gilbert Achcar, http://internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article2384
Syria: Open letter to the British Stop the War Coalition, or real solidarity is needed! Khalil Habash, 24 May 2012; http://www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?article27276
One Year After the Beginning of the Revolution, Thursday 12 April 2012, by Khalil Habash; http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article2573
Nature, rôle et place de la résistance armée en Syrie, July 2012, Khalil Habash, http://www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?article27275
Intervention in Syria risks blowback and regional war, Seumas Milne, The Guardian, Wednesday 19 December 2012; http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/19/intervention-syria-al-qaida-blowback
Who’s in the Syria driving seat as the US and NATO prepare for military intervention? 14 December 2012, Lindsey German; http://www.stopwar.org.uk/index.php/syria/2123-who-is-in-the-driving-seat-as-we-reach-the-endgame-in-syria
Free Duma – popular councils and democracy from below, Wednesday 26 December 2012, “Front Line”, organ of the Revolutionary Left Current, October-November 2012; http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article2840
Foundation of the Dera’a section of the Revolutionary Left Current, Wednesday 26 December 2012; http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article2841