Syria: Reaction on both sides of the divide!

As fighting has spread into the two main Syrian cities of Damascus and Aleppo, generally speaking, the mass movement has greatly ebbed in the last few months giving way to a guerrilla-like armed struggle lead by the militias of the Free Syrian Army. So, where is Syria going and what is the revolution, or, quite arguably, what remains of the revolution, going to produce?

Weakness of the revolution

In a series of previous articles, we have explained the reasons that have made the Syrian revolution very protracted and bloody and allowed the regime to cling to power for a long period of time. We numerate these reasons below, but the reader can consult our older articles for further explanations:

1. The Syrian revolution, mainly a movement of the youth initially, erupted under the influence of the wider Arab revolution. However, a significant section of Syrian society, especially in the urban centres, was taken by surprise by the revolutionary movement. Had Syria not been influenced by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, it would most likely have taken a few more years for the revolutionary movement to erupt on its own.

2. The Syrian working class has been crushed and atomized for decades. Most importantly, the Syrian working class did not, and still does not, have independent organizations of its own that it can use to express its class interests and play a leading role in the struggles that are taking place. This is of decisive importance. The mass strike action taken by the Egyptian and Tunisian working classes paralyzed the state and tipped the balance in favour of the masses. This did not happen in Syria. For the most part, while mass demonstrations took place in many parts of the country, factories, power stations, railways, telecommunications, airports, sea ports, government offices, etc. all remained functioning normally, giving the regime a high degree of stability and reliable access to the resources it needed to brutally put down the masses in revolt.

3. Syria is a very diverse country with big religious and ethnic minorities and a very heterogeneous social structure. The core of the Syrian regime is mainly based on the Alawite minority. The regime has secured the support of the majority of Alawites, Christians, Druze, and liberal Sunni Muslims by successfully exploiting their fears of the ascendance of an Islamic fundamentalist regime that would oppress them, marginalise them, or put limits on their social freedoms and lifestyle. It should be noted that many elements among those fighting the regime have been raising religious slogans, demands, and using a religious language which has very conveniently played into the hands of the propaganda machine of the regime.

4. Syria is located in a very politically sensitive region and borders Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, and Turkey. It has become the place in which opposing interests in the region are being played, Sunni Arab monarchies on one side against Iranian-backed Shia, which in turn reflect the opposing interests of Russia-China and the US in the region, with also Turkey and France seeking to promote their own interests. Also, after the experience of the US occupation and devastation of Iraq in 2003, many Syrians are quite fearful of imperialist meddling in the affairs of their country and the catastrophic results this may have. The regime successfully banked on these fears to draw support from among a wide layer of the population from all religious and social backgrounds.

5. All of the previously mentioned factors could have been cut across, and the Syrian masses from all religious and ethnic backgrounds could have been united behind the banner of the revolution, had there existed a genuine revolutionary leadership with a clear economic, social, and political programme, i.e. a clear socialist class programme, that could have appealed to all working people in Syria.

6. The official Syrian opposition represented by the Syrian National Council is far from being that leadership. It is precisely the opposite. The SNC is linked to rich businessmen who aspire to replace the Assad regime and have absolutely no interest in common with the struggling masses. In fact, their interests are opposed to those of the poor masses. The SNC is in fact a direct tool of US imperialism, being based abroad and funded by imperialism, with no real links to the opposition on the ground. Most harmful has been the continuous appeal of the SNC (and the tops of the FSA for that matter) for imperialist intervention in Syria which has only damaged the image of the revolution and served to turn away many layers of Syrian society and push them into the arms of the Assad regime. Many Syrians could have been otherwise won over to the revolution with a different and correct leadership, slogans and demands.

The struggle continues

Back in December of 2011 we published an article named Syria: Assad regime beginning to crack as revolution moves to higher level in which we put forward the following analysis:

The Syrian revolution is unfolding in particular conditions, without independent trade unions, and without a revolutionary party that can guide the revolution and carry out the tasks necessary to achieve victory. The pressures of revolution do not wait for the right outlet; they have broken out and expressed themselves through the Free Army. This is, at the moment, the only mass organization in the Syrian revolution. Through the lack of an alternative, it also becomes the leading organization in the revolution. This means, in the current conditions, all the questions of the revolution will express themselves in this organization.

Questions abound about the nature of the Free Syrian Army, is it truly a body of genuine revolutionary soldiers, the armed militia of the revolution? Is it dominated by extreme Islamist elements, or could it be a mere tool in the hands of imperialist powers? Any serious observer of its development could not fail to realize that the Free Syrian Army is neither an Islamist militia nor an agent of foreign powers: the truth is that its nature has not been decided yet.

The developments of the last few months have confirmed our analysis. The FSA has been growing in size, strength, and popularity. It has become the focal point of the struggle against the Assad regime. However, this does not tell the whole story. This development has come at the expense of the mass movement. It is very clear that mass participation has been on the decline, leaving the struggle to be carried out by the FSA. For example, the uprising in many of the neighbourhoods in Damascus was mainly a FSA operation and was not accompanied by a general mass movement. We have seen the same thing happening in Aleppo in recent days. In fact, in Damascus, the regime was extremely weak at one point and a sufficiently large showing of the masses could have lead to its collapse. But this did not happen. The mass movement has largely disappeared and what remains of it is becoming an appendage of the FSA. This is a big step backwards and a reactionary development. Also, we have to ask ourselves the same important question we asked back in December of 2011: What is the nature of the FSA? Is it only made up of revolutionary forces or are there are other elements within it that have different agendas?

It is no secret that reactionary forces, such as the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as wealthy private funders, have been funnelling millions of dollars and arms to some militias that make up the FSA. Turkey also hosts military training camps for the FSA, with the clear aim of pushing its own agenda within Syria. France is also playing a big role in promoting the reactionary forces that have emerged among the militias. Here France is attempting to win back the sphere of influence it had lost in the region, and this explains its heavy involvement. The US, after burning its fingers in Iraq and Afghanistan, has no desire to be sucked into another war, although it has openly admitted helping some of the militias.

The question is: who is getting this aid? Is it being distributed to all the fighting militias? This is far from being the case. In fact, many FSA fighters have often complained about the lack of resources and arms and expressed their frustration at other fighting groups who refuse to share resources with them. Who are these groups that are getting foreign aid and what is their agenda? It is very important to be clear on this: these groups are rabid reactionary forces, no different from the Assad forces. They advocate a fundamentalist ideology and defend the interests of those who fund them, i.e. of those that have interests directly opposite to those of the Syrian masses. They are the forces of the counter-revolution, that while fighting the regime, are working to undermine what is left of the genuine revolution.

The reality of the situation is this: the FSA contains thousands of honest revolutionary fighters, the sons and daughters of Syrian workers, farmers and the poor of the urban population. They are often linked to the local coordination committees and revolutionary councils. But the FSA also has a reactionary wing that has access to foreign resources and has been growing by the day at the expense of the revolutionary wing. The ebbing of the mass movement has served to greatly undermine and isolate the revolutionaries and has creating a dangerous vacuum that is being filled by reactionary and opportunist forces.

In the absence of any clear alternative and the shift towards armed struggle, it is clear that those groups which are better organised, more disciplined and above all, have better access to weapons, communications, logistics and funding, are taking a leading role. And these are the more conservative, reactionary and sectarian based groups around the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists and even Al-Qaeda linked organisations. These are benefiting from funding and support from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other sources. Help and support comes with political strings attached.

The previously described situation shows a general process that has been going on inside and outside the FSA: that is the degeneration of the revolutionary movement. This can be seen not only from quantitative signs, such as the decline of the participation of the masses in revolutionary activities, but also from qualitative signs. Many of the slogans that are being raised today are radically different, and indeed reactionary, from those we saw at the beginning of the revolution. For example, in the early days we heard the slogan "one, one, one, the Syrian people are one" and now we have "we are coming, we are coming Allah". This is no detail! And it is definitely not one that is encouraging religious minorities and liberal Muslims to join the revolution; if anything, it is pushing them away!

The regime was successful in using massacres to provoke strong anti-Alawite sentiments among big sections of the Sunni population and further push the movement along sectarian lines. This is no minor issue and it is being exploited by the most reactionary elements to raise an openly anti-Alawite banner, and to put forward slogans that can never capture the majority of the masses. Slogans such as "defend our religion... defend the Sunni Muslims... this is Jihad against the infidels... the Alawites are infidels and enemies of Islam, etc." do nothing but divide the population and push a section towards the regime.

Where is Syria heading?

It is very hard to predict how a very complicated situation like Syria is going to end. It is clear that the Assad regime is going to eventually collapse. It is rotting from within, as the latest defection to the “revolution” by Assad’s prime minister reveals. As in Libya, as it becomes ever clearer that although the regime is well armed its days are numbered more and more elements from within the regime are looking to their own future. The fact that such elements can go over to the so-called “revolution” shows how reactionary the situation has become on both sides of the divide. These elements are not jumping ship to support the revolution, but precisely for the opposite reasons. They are preparing themselves for the future, where they will help to undermine what little is left of the revolution even further.

This explains why a collapse of the regime would not necessarily mean a victory for the revolution. On the contrary, it seems that the revolutionary movement is already on its way to being defeated as it has been losing control to forces it cannot control. This is not to say that this process could not be reversed, but in the last period, this has been the tendency. This needs to be stated boldly to the genuine Syrian revolutionaries and the youth.

However, the analysis cannot stop here as there can be different variants in the final outcome. The regime, which has tried to entrench the conflict as a sectarian one from the very beginning, could withdraw to the coastal area where it enjoys the support of the Alawites and wage a long drawn out civil war from there, and even try to establish a de facto mini-state. This is entirely possible given the fact that thousands upon thousands of Alawite militiamen will still exist armed to the teeth even if the regime is kicked out of Damascus. Countries like Iran and Russia are prepared to support such militias. On the other hand, countries such as the USA, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are ready to continue supporting militias that are loyal to them. A protracted civil war scenario would effectively isolate any progressive elements in the equation. This would lead to a Lebanese civil war scenario and mean a complete catastrophe for Syria and the Syrian people.

A further element in the equation is the Kurdish situation. Seeing that it could no longer control the Kurdish areas, the regime seems to have withdrawn in favour of PKK-sponsored armed groups. This is something that Turkey cannot allow, at the risk of encouraging the Kurdish insurgents within Turkey itself. In this way the Assad regime achieves two aims, one, to remove the Kurdish areas (which it can no longer control) from a united opposition front, and two, to further present the conflict as one of resistance against foreign intervention (in this case from Turkey).

The Alawites, and perhaps the Christians and other minorities, will fight on the side of Assad as reactionary Islamic elements become dominant amongst the “rebels” and put forward an Islamic religious and anti-Alawite platform. What is needed is for the Syrian workers and youth to unite both against Assad and against the reactionary fundamentalist elements that are starting to flourish under the name of the FSA. This is the only way of winning over the rank and file and ordinary Alawites to the side of the revolution. But as the reactionary elements are now clearly coming to the fore, this scenario is the least likely to develop. The lack of a revolutionary socialist party capable of uniting the working people across the different ethnic and religious divides is what explains the present impasse.

Even if a sectarian civil war is avoided, the best that Syrians can hope for in the next period is a fractured country like Libya. There is no credible political leadership with a revolutionary programme that can unite the masses behind it. Opportunist elements are appearing and going to appear even more at all levels and claim leadership positions. The masses are very tired and unlikely to put up a fight against opportunism at first. The different militias of the FSA, now united against Assad, will start competing with each other over power and influence after his downfall. We should have no illusions that once Assad is overthrown all the problems of working people in Syria will be solved; least of all should we lead Syrian revolutionaries and youth into believing in this. The regime which could come to power after the overthrow of Assad could be even more reactionary and brutal than Assad’s.

Where do the Marxists stand?

Marxists do not work in the abstract and do not believe in such a thing as a black and white situation. Our analysis of a situation is only a guide to action, in fact, an attempt to guide ourselves towards correct action. Where do the Marxists then stand on this very complicated situation that has developed in Syria, on the FSA, on the role of the revolutionaries and the youth?

The militias of the FSA, the local coordination committees, the revolutionary councils, etc, are all improvisations of the revolutionary masses and soldiers. Some of them have come under the domination of reactionary elements. Others probably still retain the original democratic, popular, non-sectarian character of the revolutionary uprising.

The main weakness of the revolutionary movement, which has allowed these reactionary elements to come to the fore and play into the hands of the regime, is first and foremost political. The impasse that the movement found itself in and which led to an increasingly military dynamic could have been broken on the basis of a genuine revolutionary program, combining democratic with social and economic demands, which would have appealed to the Syrian masses across the sectarian divide, thus undermining decisively the social basis of support for the regime.

A revolutionary war cannot be reduced to the question of weapons, but it is first and foremost a question of the political program of the revolution. Many times throughout history revolutionary forces with inferior technical and material means have defeated stronger and better armed armies and state apparatuses, when they have been armed with a program that was able to split those armies and state apparatuses along class lines.

From our point of view, therefore, this is the first question which needs to be addressed. What are we fighting for? It is not enough to say that we are for the overthrow of the Assad regime, as to large sections of the population it is not a matter of indifference what replaces it, particularly if the implication is that of a religious based dictatorship. The perspective of replacing the Assad family for the Muslim Brotherhood aligned businessmen will not be appealing to workers and revolutionary youth, particularly those who consider themselves secular or who are not Sunni. The idea that the Assad regime will be replaced by one which is a US protectorate like in Iraq or Afghanistan or one which is backed by Turkey or Saudi Arabia will rightly repel many Syrians who are fiercely proud of their national independence and anti-imperialist traditions.

The task of Marxists is to patiently explain the need for a socialist program, the only one which can link the genuine democratic aspirations of the people with their social and economic demands. Genuine revolutionaries must organize themselves as an independent faction and put forward their ideas forcefully and collectively. We believe that the only way the revolutionary forces can defeat reaction is if they put forward the following:

  • Not a religious struggle, but a struggle of the working masses. Not a holy "Jihad" but a revolution of the masses.

  • Defend the original ideas of the revolution. Democracy, freedom, social justice, and respect and equality of all are the principles for which thousands of revolutionaries have sacrificed their lives.

  • Defeating the Assad regime means also expropriating the wealth which has been stolen by his family and putting the Syrian economy under democratic control of the working people.

  • No illusions in the imperialist powers. Against imperialist meddling in Syria – USA, France, Russia, Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia hands off Syria. Only the Syrian people can free themselves.

  • Armed bodies should be put under the political control of the revolutionary councils at all levels.

  • ALL revolutionary councils and FSA militias must be strictly democratic. One person, one vote. Defend complete freedom of debate and discussion inside the organizations of the revolution. Nothing is to be imposed undemocratically on the will of the majority.

  • Beware of opportunist elements from the tops of the regime and Western backed “opposition” councils. All decisions to be taken by democratic councils representing those involved in the struggle on the ground.

  • Build committees in all workplaces so that the working class can emerge as a force within the revolution. By coordinating these committees at local and national level, the basis would then be prepared for the formation of a government representing the interests of the working people and the poor of Syria. Without this, the leadership will be taken by reactionary forces that will be totally incapable of solving the real burning social problems of the working people.