Syria: So Many Deaths, So Many Illusions to be Shattered

The Revolt

Since March Syria has been the scene of mass murder. More than 1300 people, including young children, are dead (compared with the 800 deaths that were required before the Army’s removal of Mubarak in Egypt) and as we write another 70 died in Hama and other places after another Friday of protest. The response of the “international community” has been noticeable by it feebleness. Syria has for decades been designated a “state sponsor of terrorism” by the United States and is already under a sanctions regime but there has been no US call for the Assad regime to go. Significantly no UN resolution against Syria has been tabled, no attempt to intervene militarily as in Libya and only feeble verbal condemnation by Obama et al.. It is clear that the tragedy for the Syrian demonstrators is that there are no petrodollars or oil supplies at issue. And it is clear that the West or Israel would not necessarily welcome “regime change” in Syria since this would throw the Middle East into even more turmoil than ever. The Assad regime supported by its imperialist allies in Iran [who have sent advisers on how to deal with street unrest - something they have long experience of], and Russia and China, has been allowed a free hand to brutally suppress all the demonstrations since March. This harks back to another episode in recent Syrian history.

In February 1982 the Muslim Brotherhood organised a rising of 5000 armed men against the current Assad’s father, Hafez, in the town of Hama. The result was that the Army surrounded the town, cut off the water, electricity and telecommunication lines and began to bombard it. Not a single person could escape and it is reported that even supporters of the regime were killed by the Army. As many as 20,000 people may have died in that massacre. The message was clear and understood. Any resistance would be dealt with without mercy. Since then, until this March there have only been intellectual voices raised in protest at the corruption of the regime and the stagnation of the economy. The current risings in different places broke out when the regime arrested a dozen children for putting up anti-regime graffiti in Daraa.

However the inspiration for the present “uprisings” obviously comes from the examples of Tunisia and Egypt, and elsewhere in the Arab world. As elsewhere those taking part are largely the young, unemployed or casual workers as well as those elements of the middle class who have received a university education but at least 20% of whom are unemployed. Like their counterparts elsewhere (including the richer capitalist countries) they have no hope of a future. They cannot marry or find meaningful paid work and most live off their parents. The industrial working class as a whole has not yet joined in to a wide degree, nor on class terms, but only as individuals in the demonstrations. Like other revolts of “the Arab Spring” the main demands are for an end to the current ruling caste’s rule and the introduction of “democracy”. They are principally demanding that Article 8 of the Constitution which designates “the Arab Socialist Baath Party” as the leadership of the state, alongside an undefined “nationalist and progressive front” be rescinded and the Assad regime be overthrown. The main slogan in every demonstration has been simply for an end to the Assad regime. The revolt though is not as cohesive as in Tunisia and Egypt and up to now amounts to separate movements in this or that town or village.

A Little on its Origins

At first sight the regime looks to be in a perilous position. After all it is based on uniquely Syrian Muslim minority the Nusayri (1) which took the name Alawites on the insistence of the French colonialists who promoted them after 1919. France was “mandated” to run Syria and Lebanon, also snatched from the Ottomans by the Treaty of Sevres at the end of the First World War. This was supposed to be until the Syrians (who had never existed as a nation) were “able to govern themselves” as it was patronisingly expressed in imperialist circles at the time. The Alawites are a bizarre set of Muslims (no condemnation of alcohol, no observance of many tenets of basic Islamic worship [like not going to the mosque] and honouring Christian saints being the most unorthodox). They are usually mistakenly called Shiites since they also profess allegiance to Ali, the 4th Caliph revered by all Shia, but in Syria they are a minority of less than 7% (no-one knows exactly since Syrian censuses avoid religious denomination issues) in a country made up of minorities both religious and secular, including Kurds, Druze Muslims and Christians but which has a huge (estimated at 75%) Sunni majority. Under the French, the Alawites, along with other minorities, for the first time enjoyed subsidies, legal rights and lower taxes than their Sunni counterparts and were promoted as counterweights to the pro-Ottoman Sunnis. They particularly thrived in the Army. As the Alawites were mainly rural peasants they found the Army a useful means of social mobility and because after 1946 they could not pay the exemption tax more Alawis were in the Army at every level than their numbers in society would merit. This was something the Sunnis, who once again dominated Syria after the French mandate expired in 1946, overlooked. They weeded the Alawites out of the government, business, the legal profession and civil services but not the armed forces. The Alawites (who are themselves divided into 4 rival clans) found a unifying vehicles in the Ba’ath (Renaissance) Party (founded 1947). With its secular and “Arab socialist” ideology it divided the Sunnis but appealed to most Alawites. It did not end their rivalries but became a vehicle for them to rise to power. After a series of military coups the Ba’ath party was in power by 1963 and in 1970 the bloodless coup of the then Defence Minister Hafez al-Assad (father of current President Bashar al-Assad), not only established Ba’athist power, but also unified the Alawite clans. This has been the rock on which the regime has rested giving favours to other religious minorities, and some carefully selected Sunnis, in order to maintain a wide enough power base.

The regime has faced a number of crises (the murder of Lebanon President Hariri and the subsequent Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, the Hama incident described above etc) but the biggest crisis the regime has faced so far has been the death of Hafez al-Assad in 2000. This led to the accession of the trainee eye doctor Bashar al-Assad. Bashar had to give up his chosen career when his elder brother Basil died in 1994. After that he was hastily drafted into the Army achieving rapid promotion to Colonel. When his father finally died the Constitution was changed (he was 34 and previously you had to be 40 to become President) to allow him to slide into office. All this was so that the Ba-athist old guard, the Alawite elite and especially the Assad family could continue to hold things together. Whilst his uncles cousins and younger brother control military intelligence, business is dominated by his mother’s family, the Makhloufs (in fact so dominant are they that the standard ironic reference in Syria is to the country as “Makhloufistan”). Needless to say corruption operates as it did in Egypt and Tunisia at every level of the state and the intelligence services are everywhere.

Jisr al-Sughour

As Syria does not lack international friends (unlike Ghaddafi) the Assad regime is not in such a desperate situation. Its weakness may lie in the fact that thought the elite troops in the Syrian Army are Alawite (amounting to some 200,000) the conscripts are Sunnis (300,000). In the current repression the main perpetrators have been other minority troops (Kurds, Druze etc.) (2) but the situation in Jisr al-Sughour suggests that the first cracks in the military may be appearing. Information is scanty and unverified but with the Government claiming that 120 members of the security forces were killed there the suggestion is that these were in revolt at the actions of the Government. This cannot be confirmed but the next episode in the bloodbath is already being prepared. As we write 30,000 Government troops have surrounded the town and have burned the crops in the fields around it. All those who can have fled, either to Turkey, where the Red Crescent have set up camps (with Turkish troops preventing international press access), or to Syrian coastal towns. Some have suggested that the town is already a ghost town with only those “too poor” to leave left behind. Electricity and water have been cut off in advance of the expected onslaught by Government troops. It smells of Hama in 1982.

So far this is a situation in which a largely unarmed civilian movement demands “democratic rights” whilst the “democratic” world watches on without raising a finger. It not only demonstrates the bestiality of the Assad regime but also the bankruptcy of the decaying social system that is modern capitalism. And the tragedy is that those people, like those in the rest of the Arab world, who are demonstrating and dying for “democracy” will have to learn to their own great hurt and chagrin that the cult of capitalist democracy is the best means for their further vicious exploitation (albeit in more “civilised” garb). No-one and no words can persuade them of anything else. They will have to learn it through their own bitter experience - that is, if they are allowed to …


(1) After Ibn Nusayri, the sect’s founder in the ninth century.

(2) Although reports are contradictory. Since no foreign journalists are allowed in the country many of their factual statements have to be taken as provisional. Some report that most of the repression has been carried out by the 4th Armoured Division headed by the President’s younger brother, Maher.


It seems that as Jock states that the working class of Syria and the rest of the middle east will be used to die for democracy of a particular weak form capitalist democracy. The only problem is that in the modern context the bourgeosie is unable to provide for capitalist democracy in the so called western sense due to the depth of the economic crisis. So the tragedy is that workers are going to die for one thing and that is to ensure that another bourgesie clique can exploit them just as visciously as the old regime. After all in Egypt the old regime remains in place as brutal as it was under Mubarak.

It's this tragedy that needs to be broken but that will take time and a lot more bloodshed.

Agreed. The continued ongoing struggles in Tunisia and Egypt with the political apparatus of the former dictators is evidence of the problem you highlight. What is not yet coming to the fore is a clear class alternative (although the continuing strikes in Egypt for example may yet provide the basis for one in the future.


Fabio, an Italian comrade who is more knowledgeable about the Middle East sent the following comment on the article which I have translated to add to the discussion.

The article on Syria is good, the historical part on the Alawites, which is correct, is perhaps bit too long. I would add a couple of words extra on why Western imperialism has not moved against Assad. Europe and the USA have not taken action in order not to provoke the reactions of Russia, China and Iran. This is in contrast with what is happening in Yemen where Iran and Saudi Arabia, aided by the USA, are in conflict over whether Saleh remains in power. The political balance of power on the Arabian peninsula (oil, but not just oil) is a lot more important than what is going on in Syria. I would then have concluded with a brief word on the tribal wars in Libya, as well as Yemen and Syria. It is true that the civil wars in these countries have the appearance of tribal wars in a struggle for power but it has to be said that these are the real and proper bourgeois factions who fight amongst themselves by using the lever of the old tribal structure. These bourgeois fight over new economic interests (very often for the revenue from oil sales) making use of the old social structures which are to a certain degree still operating. Its not the old Arab Middle Ages which is coming back but modern imperialism which uses the old structures to reach its objectives within the existing social framework and some remnants of tribalism


as not native English speaker I have a confusion about meaning of this sentence:

It is clear that the tragedy for the Syrian demonstrators is that there are no petrodollars or oil supplies at issue.

It seems to me that if there would be an oil "western" world would help? I hope this is not real meaning...


It not only demonstrates the bestiality of the Assad regime but also the bankruptcy of the decaying social system that is modern capitalism.

Does it mean capitalism before it became "modern" was good for the proletariat? What is the exact reason to put there the word "modern"?

These are two things which I would like to clarify before my Czech translation is finished.

Thank you.

Throughout the history Western Imperialism intervention has always been dictated by economic interests so I would agree that if Syria had oil reserves then there would have been military intervention. However this intervention isn't about helping the working class and poorer rural workers or even the middle classes it's about securing economic interests for Imperialism. The intervention in Libya has nothing to do with protecting the civilian population while it has everything to do with putting in place a regime which would be more aneable to western imperialist interests.

I think it's difficult to say whether capitalism has ever been good for the proletariat. After all the birth of capitalism in countries such as Britain was accompanied by a huge amount of suffering. While in colonial countries such as India the development of capitalism entailed huge amounts of suffering. What was progressive however was that by developing the productive forces it laid the foundations for a communist society. Unfortunately due to the failure of the revolutionary wave of 1917 this potential was never realised. We now have the problem that capitalism in it's modern form is decadent and can only offer not only increasing levels of human suffering on a global scale but also threatens humanity with ecological catastrophy. It's this change into a decaying system from a system that was progessive which means that it's useful to place the term modern in such a context.

David The sentence you quote "It is clear that the tragedy for the Syrian demonstrators is that there are no petrodollars or oil supplies at issue." is meant to be ironic. It refers to the fact that the excuse for bombing Libya (is to defend civilians but we all know the real reason is the importnace of Libyan "sweet" crude oil in the world market. In Syria the regime is carrying out a monstrously barbarous attack against innocent civilians but all we have are mild condemnations from the West and the Arab League. On the second sentence "It not only demonstrates the bestiality of the Assad regime but also the bankruptcy of the decaying social system that is modern capitalism." There is no big significance in the word "modern" here (we could have written "today's capitalism". But we do think (with Marx) that capitalism was once progressive (despite its horrors) in laying the material basis for a classless society. Dave explains this well above. Today that has not been the case since capitalism entered its period of imperialism. Capitalism is not only a fetter on a more effective form of production but its accumulation of profits depend on the actual deaths of millions of proletarians in imperialist wars.