NOTE: This commentary was written a year ago. It provides a little background to the present situation. As the war is heating up there, and as the Obama administartion, along with its Western European allies, is now going to get involved, we think it is important for all socialists and for the workers’ movement to become more familiar with the situation in Syria. Oaklandsocialist will have a more up-to-date commentary in the coming days.
(June 3, 2012)
A real-life drama is being played out in Syria. Included in this drama are the themes of religious and ethnic rivalries and conflict, as well as the conflicts of all the world major capitalist powers, and several of the minor ones. The one theme lacking real prominence is that of open class struggle with the working class playing an independent role. It is exactly this absence that is causing such immense suffering and threatens a disaster of even greater proportions. But the stage is starting to be set for this force to dramatically mark its entry onto the stage of world history.
Early History and the Alawis
First settled some 6,000 years ago, what is now Syria has been subject to one invasion after another. These included the Phoenicians, Assyrians, Mongols, Persians and Romans. In more recent times, what is now Syria was part of the Ottoman empire and later was a French colony (after WW I). All of these conquering forces left their mark on Syria, one example of which is the Alawi ethnic/religious group. Originally located in the north west mountainous region by the coast, Alawi religious practice, while nominally a wing of the Shia sector of Islam, contains a mixed heritage of Phoenician as well probably as indigenous paganism, Christianity from Roman days and Judaism. Although the Alawites call themselves Moslem, and in some ways are still linked with the Shiites, many Muslims don’t consider them to even be Moslems. Their religious practices include worship of a holy trinity and use of wine in religious ceremonies- similar to the Catholics – as well as worship of the Sun and the moon and tens of thousands of “saints”, which can be seen as a heritage of Phoenician paganism. Nor do they follow Moslem dietary restrictions.
The Alawis – an oppressed nationality
Isolated and economically underdeveloped in their mountain stronghold, the Alawis were long a specially oppressed ethnic group. In the days of the Ottoman empire, for instance, the only Alawis allowed in the cities were servants and young girls were sold to wealthy Sunnis as semi-slaves.
As with the Ottomans before them, the French rule kept the Levant (what is now Syria and Lebanon) in a state of perpetual underdevelopment. The economy rested mainly on agriculture, with cotton as the main cash crop. There was some development of a textile industry alongside of cotton production (as there was in Egypt). In later years, oil was discovered in Syria’s north east region, but this was primarily a heavy, “sour” (high sulphur) crude and Syria had to import light oil to fulfill its energy needs. A capitalist class only developed linked with the Sunni landlord class as well as with some merchants. The Alawis were locked out of this development as were certain other minorities such as the Druze.
The Alawis fortunes were reversed under French colonial rule. The French colonialists sought to balance between the different groups and play a divide-and-conquer strategy. As such, they favored the Alawis, who were and remain just 12% of the entire population, and also as their society was more undeveloped they posed little threat to the French. They were brought into the military, where their numbers came to dominate.
Colonial Revolt and Radical Arab Nationalism
Following WW II, radical nationalist revolts swept the colonial world, from Asia to Africa to the Arab world. Tens of millions rose up. They correctly saw capitalism itself as being at the heart of the colonial repression that had so brutally held them down, being responsible for economic super exploitation as well as one slaughter after another. In what is now Syria, for instance, a Druze rebellion had been put down by the French in 1925 with the slaughter of some 20,000 people. However, the overthrow of capitalism itself in any of those regions required the independent role of the working class through their own organizations. The main organizations towards which the workers and peasants gravitated to fight for their interests were the various communist parties; these were under the control of the Soviet bureaucracy and manipulated for that bureaucracy’s interests.
A key example of this was the regional Communist Parties’ support for the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel. They did so at the behest of the Stalinist bureaucracy, which thought this would be a counter balance to British imperialism in the region. (Up until that point Palestine was a British colony.)
Palestine Communist Party – they supported the founding of the State of Israel.
This was despite the potential for Jewish/Palestinian workers’ unity as shown in the traditions of the dock workers of the port of Haifa. Thus did the Communist Parties sacrifice the interests of the Palestinian people, especially the working class, to the perceived interests of the Soviet bureaucracy.
Alongside of them was the traitorous role of social democracy. The French Socialist Party, for instance, supported French colonialism as did the British Labour Party support British colonialism. In Palestine, what was then the equivalent of Jewish social democracy – Labour Zionism – supported the Jewish capitalist class and the establishment of a racist, Jewish, capitalist state – Israel.
The result was that the Arab working class had nowhere to turn in the development of an organized independent force. Although the unions served this role somewhat, they were and remain limited in the overall political and social role they could play. In much of the former colonial world, therefore, a form of radical, middle class nationalism arose. Led by middle class elements, often intellectuals as well as military leaders, this force took on anti-capitalist rhetoric to reflect the pressure of the works and peasants. Their movements also played a key role in state intervention in their economies.
A prime example of this was the Ba’ath Socialist Party, which was a pan-Arab, radical nationalist party first founded in Syria and then spread to a number of other Arab countries. Ultimately the cause of radical, nominally anti-capitalist Arab nationalism was taken up and led by Nasser in Egypt, who led in the formation of the United Arab Republic – UAR – in 1958.
However, one year later the Alawis in what is now Syria came to fear the domination of the Sunni Arabs and broke away from the UAR, reforming the State of Syria once again. They utilized their domination of the military to control the Syrian state and they increased this domination by purging the military officer caste of non-Alawis. In a series of coups and maneuvers, ultimately an officer of the Syrian air force came to power as the uncontested dictator. His name was Bashar al Assad. As did Nasser in Egypt and Hussein in Iraq, Assad ruled through a combination of repression and state intervention in the economy. His immediate base was the Alawis, of which he was a part. However, he also partially rested on the Syrian peasantry and working class through the state intervention, which controlled basic consumer prices, provided access to education for the poor, etc. The necessity to do so was reinforced by the fact that the Alawis were more or less locked out of the Syrian capitalist/landlord class due to their (the Alawis) historic repression and isolation.
Collapse of Soviet Union and Rise of Neo-Liberalism
In 1989 the Soviet Union started to collapse. This led to a split in the Syrian Communist Party. But more important, it was a major factor in creating the conditions for the uncontested domination of US capitalism on a world scale. One consequence of this was the demise of state intervention and the rise of neo-liberal “reforms”, meaning giving the private corporations more or less complete, unchecked domination over the economy. In country after country neo-liberal “reforms” were carried out, state owned companies were privatized, prices of basic consumer goods were allowed to rise uncontrollably. The top state bureaucrats seized the opportunity to enrich themselves in the process.
Syria was no exception to this. Under Havez al Assad and even more so under his son who followed him upon his death, Basher, the Syrian economy was “reformed”. In the process, the Assad family and its hangers-on vastly enriched themselves while the masses of peasants and workers were impoverished. In addition to the graft and corruption that inevitably accompanied this privatization, for the Assad family there was another factor to consider: They feared a privatization that would increase the economic power of the overwhelmingly Sunni capitalist class. Therefore the privatization had to be kept “within the family.”Their conditions so degenerated that they were forced to spend some 50% of their total income on food alone. One member of the Assad family, Rami Makhlouf, became known as “Mr. Ten Percent” due to the bribes he took.
Thus, while the Assad regime increasingly lost whatever support it may have had amongst a layer of Syrian workers and peasants, it also further alienated the (dominant) Syrian Sunni capitalist class. In addition, as was happening throughout the region, a growing youth population faced massive unemployment. While a tiny upper crust enriched themselves, the majority of Syrians were thrust into greater poverty. This process has been exacerbated by a five year drought in Syria – undoubtedly the result of global climate disruption.
So Syria was ripe for involvement in the “Arab Spring” and protests broke out in Syria starting in 2011. Unfortunately, unlike in Egypt where the working class played a huge role, in Syria the working class was unable to build its own independent organizations, including unions independent of the state-controlled General Federation of (Syrian) Trade Unions. Thus was an opening provided for different world capitalist forces to intervene, and intervene they did.
The Assad regime has long been considered a thorn in the side of Western capitalism, as represented in the region by the State of Israel. A frontline state with Israel, the Assad regime has had several military conflicts with that state — conflicts which resulted in the loss of the Golan Heights to Israeli expansionism. As a state dominated by the Shiite Alawis, it has tended to align itself with the Shia-dominated State of Iran, and has supported Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Various Imperialist Interests
In recent years, Turkish capitalism has tended to increase its regional aspirations. As a result, when protests developed in Syria, the Turkish regime sponsored the growth of the “Free Syrian Army”. Western capitalism has involved itself through its support of the “Syrian National Command.” Even newly elected French president Hollande, who was elected based on a pledge to break with all the policies of Sarkozy, has continued in the French imperialist traditions and involved his regime in the campaign to remove Assad and replace it with a more pliable, pro-Western regime. In addition, the Muslim Brotherhood has increased its role in Syria, probably aligned with the Saudi state. All of these forces have tended to de-politicize the struggle, focusing on the armed struggle instead.
However, the Assad regime continues to receive some support from the Russian and Chinese regimes, in part through their ally, Iran. This has meant that the Syrian state continues to be far better armed than is the opposition, which is also fragmented. In addition, the Assad regime has converted its extremely narrow Alawite-only base into a source of strength as it has experienced few defections of its military leaders compared with the Qadaffi regime in Libya, for instance. Nor can the Alawis afford to lose state power, since an ethnic pogrom against them would likely result. As one Sunni leader, Sheikh Adnan Arur put it, “we shall mince (the Alawis) in meat grinders and feed them to the dogs.” Already the opposition is carrying out other ethnic pogroms, including against the Syrian Christians (as reported by Syrian Catholic organizations). That is just a sign of what is to come should they take power, an event that may be unlikely.
Continued Warfare and Ethnic Slaughter or Workers’ Power?
Along present lines, what seems more likely is continued warfare, a warfare that threatens to engulf Lebanon also. It is for this reason that Assad’s allies and supporters – the Russian and Chinese regimes – are also seeking a compromise of sorts. None of the world’s major powers would benefit from a conflagration in Syria, one that would threaten to engulf Lebanon and who knows where else. In fact, there are even rumors that some forces in Saudi Arabia are seeking some sort of agreement with the Iranian regime to achieve a sort of stability.
The only force that can truly start to resolve this crisis is that of an independent working class. Throughout the Mediterranean region, the working class is rising. After leading the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt, the workers there have since embarked on a strike wave and we are very far from having heard the last of them. Across the Mediterranean, the Greek working class is creating a crisis for capitalism in the entire European Community. In France, the French capitalist class had to be content with replacing Sarkozy with the “pro-growth” Hollande, and he will not so easily continue with the policies of French imperialism as a result of the aroused French working class. In Syria itself, the working class appears still in the thrall of the government-controlled union federation. However, it is impossible to tell how long this will continue, especially as the old social order starts to break down. Even a small independent force in one key country such as Egypt could play a huge role in spreading the workers’ movement throughout the region. On this basis, Western imperialism and its representatives in Syria, the representatives of Turkish and Iranian capitalism/imperialism, as well as those of the Russians, the Chinese and the Iranians and the Muslim fundamentalists such as Hezbullah and the Muslim Brotherhood, would all be decisively set back on their heels.
Given the world capitalist economic crisis and the unstable world political order, the recent stirrings of the working class can rapidly develop a real head of steam and avert a disastrous tragedy in countries like Syria as part of a drive to seize power in its own name and transform society as a whole.