From a spontaneous demonstration of 1500 ending with the interior minister himself apologizing to the crowd in Damascus, to thousands in Daraa facing live shots by security forces, to protests in the Kurdish areas: Syria is on the verge of boiling over into revolution.
The mukhabarrat (state security police) are working overtime in an effort to put out the flames before the regime is engulfed, and the reaction of the state shows that the threat is very real: more than 300 have been arrested and 4 were shot dead in Daraa on Friday. On Sunday, the Ba’ath party headquarters, the courthouse and other government buildings were burned by protesters in that city, in protests demanding the release of schoolchildren who were arrested for graffiti calling for the overthrow of the regime.
Damascus: “The Syrian people will not be humiliated!”
At 11.30amon February 17, a young man, Imad Nasseb, was in a car driven by his brother Ala’a, on the way to their shop nearby in Souq Al-Hamidiyeh. They came to a traffic light that had not been working for several days, and a traffic officer was directing the flow with his baton. He waved them forward, and they went on, only to be stopped by another traffic officer. Caught between conflicting orders, they stopped immediately where they were: on the crosswalk. At which point he asked them why they stopped, and then told his brother, “move, fast, you [...]”. The Syrian newspaper Al-Watan’s interview [link:http://www.alwatanonline.com/local_news.php?id=5472] with Imad censored the police officer’s words, but the meaning is clear. The youth asked the officer why he was insulting them, and his response to Ala’a was: “you still haven’t gone, you [...]?” When they began to argue about his attitude, the officer made a veiled threat about their seatbelts not being on, which is a real joke considering that drivers wearing seatbelts are about as common as respectful police officers in Damascus. They told him, ticket us, but don’t humiliate us, and went on to complain to his superior around the corner.
He saw them, and immediately stormed towards them. Ignoring an order from his major to go back to his post, he said “what, you’re going to complain?... Might as well punch me, because this won’t get you anything”. Ala’a told him he wasn’t even worth a punch. The officer took out his baton and smacked him with it. He was quickly joined by two others when Imad jumped in to help him. Soon both were lying on the ground being beaten by three police officers. They dragged them to a corner and continued pummelling them.
On a normal day that would have been the beginning of a very bad trip for Ala’a and Imad, the Syrian youth who refused to be humiliated. But on this day, something very different happened. Their screams drew a crowd. Hundreds gathered. Eventually the crowd dragged the youth out of the hands of the police. Here the police major they had tried to complain to began telling them he was going to ticket them for blocking traffic, as their car was left unattended in a no parking zone. When he saw that Ala’a had blood gushing from his swollen eye, he went back on that and offered to pluck his own eye out if anything happened to it. He promised the two that if they went in the car with them to the police station, they would investigate the officers involved.
People in the crowd warned them not to go, telling them if they did they would be beaten further. In a reflection of the situation that was building up, the major negotiated with the people, telling them anyone who wanted to come to be sure they would not be mistreated was welcome to, but only two should come.
At that moment, the police from the Hamidiyeh department arrived, and five officers walked up and immediately began beating the brothers with batons. According to Imad, the major hit the officers and tried to defend them. The crowd jumped in and attacked the officers. As the chaos spread, the major took the brothers out, and, according to Imad’s account, they went with him to enter a building in the neighbourhood for safety. Whether safety for the brothers from the police, or for the police from the crowd, we cannot know. Whatever the intentions of the major, the crowd took it as a sign that they had been taken to be beaten. The crowd had now grown to more than 1500. They gathered in front of the doors to the building, and demanded that they be released.
The major called the head of the Hamidiyeh police department, who arrived and apologized to the brothers. Following him came the chief of police of Damascus, who talked to the brothers and, according to Imad, was “very polite”. When their father arrived, the chief called the interior minister himself, and the minister spoke to their father and asked about their well-being, and invited him to come to his office with the two of them. Again, with the utmost politeness.
The chief, and their father, appealed to the crowd to go home, but the people demanded that the minister come himself. And he did, within minutes. To chants of “the Syrian people will not be humiliated!” the mighty interior minister had been summoned from his office, was thronged by the crowd and had to address them in the streets.
He asked, “what is this, a protest?”, a clear threat, considering the state of emergency which has been in force since 1963. To which some of those gathered laughed and said “oh, no, no, we swear, this is not a protest, not a protest”. But no matter, he said the brothers were being released, and a full investigation would be held into the repression that had occurred that day.
This was a small event. But in Syria, this is a historic moment. The news of this showdown, and small victory, spread. The video shows the importance of this first victory, even to those who may not be able to understand Arabic. The man in the video, who arrives in a car at the end, is the minister of the interior. [link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qDHLsU-ik_Y]
But this was only a beginning. For the whole of the past week, protests have broken out in Damascus, called by a facebook group which previously had had little luck in drawing out more than a handful. The ice was broken, and now the protests have grown, with one of the main slogans being borrowed directly from the demonstration in defence of Imad and Ala’a: “The Syrian people will not be humiliated!”, along with slogans against corruption and repression.
The attitude of the police officer in Hamidiyeh – dismissive, superior, disrespectful towards the Syrian people, and extremely violent when challenged – is not an exceptional case. It is reflective of the general outlook of an entire layer of bureaucrats, civil servants, police officers and other officials who have grown fat off of the Syrian people for decades. The rot reaches high and low in the Syrian state. Everywhere in Syria, from the border, to waiting in lines to apply for an identity card, the interaction between the Syrian people and the state is regulated by the same rules: “rashwah wa wastah” – bribes and connections. To access your medical files, you need to put a little stack of pounds in the hands of the clerk. Trying to get government housing? Pounds. Renewing your passport? Pounds.
Even the lowliest clerk thinks himself a Napoleon Bonaparte, deserving respect... and pounds... from his fellow citizens. And he walks with his chin up, and he expects that Syrians will fear him when he yells at them, insults and humiliates them, and still pay him his due... in pounds of course. He has the power to beat them, to disappear them, to make calls to his superiors in order to destroy them.
This is the real meaning of the outpouring in Hamidiyeh. The Syrian people have had enough, and when they saw the treatment of these youths, it was a match that ignited that pent up frustration of every insult they had endured at the hands of the authorities. Now that it has been lit, there can be no going back.
Shootings in Daraa
Major events are brewing just 100 km south of Damascus, in the town of Daraa. On March 6th, close to 20 boys under the age of 15 were arrested for spray-painting slogans including “the people want the downfall of the regime” across the town. Their action, inspired by the slogan from Tunisia and Egypt, drew the attention of the authorities.
On Friday, March 18th, a protest for their release, and against the rising cost of living and corruption, was met immediately with live fire. No tear gas, no rubber bullets, nothing but security forces immediately opening fire with live rounds, backed by soldiers arriving by helicopter.
The funeral was held Saturday, outside the city limits. A large crowd gathered, and the mood was angry. Slogans were raised against the Assad family, calling them corrupt. Thousands of mourners cried out “revolution!” People were beaten and tear gas or CS gas was fired, and there were arrests again. Fleeing protesters found the city closed off completely on their way back from the funeral. It remains closed.
Sunday, March 20th, more angry protests erupted in the city, while the government sent a delegation to apologize to the people of Daraa and promise an investigation into the killings. The delegation met some local “opposition notables”, who demanded the resignation of the governor, release of all political prisoners, the arrest of all those involved in the killings, dismantling of the local secret police headquarters and an end to secret police approval requirements for all buying or selling of property.
Considering the spontaneity of the movement, it’s clear these figures are not actually speaking on its behalf. The same day they met with the government delegation, thousands of protesters destroyed a statue of Hafez Al-Assad (former president and father of the current one), stormed and burnt down a Ba’ath party headquarters, a courthouse, a "youth union" and a "revolutionary union" building. They also burned down a Syriatel building, a cell phone network operator owned by the president’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, who has a fortune worth billions of dollars and is considered the most powerful businessman in the country.
The situation is so serious that, in a turn similar to what played out in Damascus, President Bashar Al-Assad has personally ordered the release of the arrested youth, fired the governor and promised an investigation into the police killings in the town. But, just as in Damascus with the Interior Minister, the concessions forced from the President may only be the beginning.
The revolutionary heritage will not be buried
After the Second World War the colonial revolution in the Middle East went furthest in Syria, further than Libya or Egypt. In Syria the revolution liquidated capitalism, but the presence of a mighty Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union ensured that in Syria there would be an imitation proletarian bonapartist regime.
The nationalization of the economy was not carried out by the revolutionary people themselves from below, but by army officers and the Ba’ath party from above. The economy was planned, a massive step forward that allowed Syrians free healthcare, education, and government subsidized housing. The 6 hour working day was introduced, and all these gains cannot be dismissed in the midst of the poverty that existed in the capitalist countries in the Middle East. But it was planned by a bureaucracy which pilfered the public coffers.
The point is that on this basis, the Syrian regime had a certain popularity, which extended beyond its borders. Across the Middle East, the call for a United Arab Republic resonated with the working masses, and the regime had a certain legitimacy with them that escaped their rulers, who were busy working for their masters in Washington. However, the country was run by a vast bureaucracy intertwined with the army. The workers did not control the economy, and the bureaucratic plan could be no substitute for democratic planning. The weight of bureaucratic corruption and waste stifled the economy.
With the collapse of the USSR, the weakness of the economy was further exposed, and just as in China, Vietnam and other Stalinist states, the bureaucracy found it could make quick money from “liberalization”. The introduction of capitalism has done nothing to better the conditions of ordinary Syrians, who continue to be dominated by the same bureaucrats and the military. However, this process has made certain officials filthy rich. Officials with connections, like Rami Makhlouf, have made billions. His company, Syriatel, controls 55% of the mobile phone market, and he even shamefacedly attempted to muscle in on Mercedes, using connections to ban them from importing parts unless they went through one of his other businesses.
The intrigues amongst the thieves have not helped the regime either. There was a time when the biggest defender of the emergency law was Abd-Al-Halim Khaddam, the Vice President at the time, who said those opposed to it were strengthening Israel and threatening national security. He was a very rich man, who owned properties worth millions across Syria, including luxurious restaurants and hotels. He defected to France, selling his properties to Saudi princes and making a fortune while becoming an agent for imperialism. This defender of the regime suddenly became an outspoken “oppositionist” who had concern for “human rights”. Of course, the other side of this was that “suddenly” others in the regime very publicly discovered just how corrupt he was.
Before these protests started, Syrians protested with a gallows humour unparalleled in the Middle East. Everyone knew just how genuine the “shock” of the regime was at this discovery. Just as they knew that when ministers and prime ministers shot themselves... well, as the Syrians say, “they suicided them”.
There is a new capitalist class in Syria, fused with the old Stalinist state, while a million people in the east of the country have been forced to migrate because of five years of water shortage... many of them to Daraa. This is the new Syria, the new Assad, same as the old Assad, only with the corruption celebrated and out in the open.
However, the revolutionary tradition goes deep in Syria. Towns like Deir ez-Zour, which played a leading role in the revolutions, are now the scene of fresh protests once again.
Over the three arches welcoming drivers at the Syrian-Jordanian border near Daraa, once hung the three words which are the slogan of the Ba’ath party: Unity, Freedom and Socialism. Of course, they did not really mean anything for the Ba’ath. But for years now, the word socialism has been missing, fallen, leaving a dark stain where it once stood.
The fight against the regime in Syria is inextricably linked with the confiscation of the property of all of these bureaucrats who have become oligarchs and capitalists. The fight against these gangsters can only be completed by claiming those three words for ourselves.
The bureaucracy has liberated itself of the people, time for the people to liberate themselves of the bureaucracy
Fighting the flames at home, the regime dreads the wildfire in the region
Even before the recent upheaval at home began, the Syrian regime understood the danger the revolutionary wave in the Middle East posed. Youth who attempted to hold vigils supporting the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions while they were unfolding were arrested, despite the fact that those regimes were supposedly “enemies” of Syria in the region.
More recently, secret police outnumbered protesters at a rally against Ghaddafi, in solidarity with the Libyan revolution. When slogans of “only traitors beat their own people” began, referring to Gaddafi, the nervous security forces dispersed the demonstrators... beating them up. On March 10, the Syrian foreign ministry stated that they were monitoring with concern "the tragic developments in the brotherly country of Libya".
Aljazeera reported that a civilian ship loaded with weapons and 500 SUVs was sent from Syria to Libya, and that Syrian forces are fighting alongside Gaddafi. They also reported that Syrian fighter pilots have been shot down by the revolutionaries there. Walid Muallem, Syria’s foreign minister came out publicly supporting Saudi Arabia’s intervention to crush the Bahraini revolution, though again, Saudi Arabia has traditionally been an “enemy”.
The fates of the revolutions in the Middle East are inextricably linked. The fight against Gaddafi is also a fight against Assad and Ahmedinijad. The fight against Abdullah, Saleh and the house of Khalifa, is also a fight against the house of Saud.
This is one revolution. And the Syrian people have behind them a history of a fight to unite the Arab peoples, so manipulatively divided by the imperialists after World War One, one against another. The history of the short-lived United Arab Republic is still taught in Syrian schools, and just as Nasser’s portrait has been resurrected to be carried at demonstrations during the Egyptian revolution, the spirit of the United Arab Republic he founded can be seen amongst the Syrian youth beaten for demonstrating their solidarity with their Egyptian brothers.
Socialists must play their role
The regime, for decades, has kept power behind the pretext of supposed elections to a supposed parliament, where all parties agree to an enforced “coalition” led by the Ba’ath party. In practice the party allocates seats to the others.
Amongst the members of the coalition, termed the “National Progressive Front”, are several parties that deem themselves “socialist”, including two estranged factions of the Syrian Communist Party. The Communist Party has a long history in the country, but squandered much of it by first opposing unity with Egypt, then joining this farce of a coalition and remaining in it even when the government intervened militarily on the side of the Fascist Bashir regime in the Lebanese civil war.
Being part of the coalition is a crime in itself, and accepting the conditions of membership banning all but the Ba’ath from operating amongst the students and the soldiers is an abdication of the responsibility of the party to organize the working masses.
As the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have shown, without a party to represent their interests, the masses will go through a long and painful process of fighting the manoeuvres of the regime, its leftovers and imperialism. The task is to build a genuine party of the workers and youth. We are witnessing the beginnings of the Syrian revolution. Syrian Marxists need to organize; there is no time to lose.