Much confusion exists on the left as to the real nature of the Syrian regime because of what it was in the past. In the 1960s after a Ba’athist coup, the economy was transformed, adopting the model of the Stalinist USSR. Although progressive in terms of the measures carried out, it was never a regime based on workers’ democracy. Power was in the hands of a bureaucratic elite, and in this lay the danger of a reversal of the progressive measures and a return to capitalist relations.
However, the old planned and nationalized economy, despite being bureaucratically controlled, served to develop the economy of Syria and also was reflected in rising living standards for the Syrian masses... for a period.
Prior to this experience there was the short-lived union with Egypt. The union was set up in 1958 and existed until 1961, when Syria seceded. In 1957 Syria had a highly organized Communist Party. However, it was Nasser who told the Syrian government that they needed to get rid of the communists.
In fact Union with Egypt was considered by the Syrian bourgeois as a means of forestalling revolutionary developments at home. There was mass support in Syria for union with Egypt due to the popularity of Nasser, who while being an anti-communist, at the same time pushed forward a programme of nationalizations and many progressive reforms.
Ironically, it was this programme of nationalizations on the part of Nasser that pushed the Syrian capitalists to organise the breakup of the Union between Egypt and Syria as a means of maintaining their rule and their property. On September 28, 1961 army officers carried out a coup and broke from the union. The ensuing instability led in 1963 to the Ba’athist party, based on sections of the military officers in Syria, coming to power through a military coup.
The Rise of the Assad Regime
In January 1965, the Ba’ath Socialist Party government nationalised 106 of the biggest industrial companies and banks. The capitalists attempted to resist and organise counter-revolution. This forced the Ba’ath government to appeal to the workers and peasants for support. In response, thousands of peasants marched on Damascus in support of the government’s measures.
In the process, capitalism was snuffed out and a regime modelled on the Soviet Union was installed. This meant that while the economy was taken over by the state and centrally planned, there was no workers’ control but a bureaucracy standing above the workers and peasants. Initially, this led to significant economic growth, with an expansion of around 80% in the 1960s and of more than 300% in the 1970s.
From 1963 to 1970, a series of inter-military conflicts and assassinations saw the rise of Hafez Al-Assad to power. Thus was established his one-party rule through the Ba’athist Party from 1970 until the present. When Hafez died in 2000, the presidency was passed onto his son, Bashar Al-Assad, who continues to rule. Hafez Al-Assad represented the more conservative wing of the Ba’athist Party, and in fact he put a stop to any further nationalization programme and promised business interests that he would protect their property. Hafez did, however, maintain those industries that had already been nationalized during the first two decades.
The Ba’athist Party, though it describes itself as adhering to Arab Socialism, centred the nationalized industries in the grip of a tiny clique at the top of society. There was not a degree of democratic control of the economy by the workers. The Syrian Ba’athists suppressed any attempt of workers to build independent organisations, and heavily suppressed the communist organisations.
However, the nationalised economy provided important benefits to the masses in terms of employment, access to basic commodities, housing and services. This provided some stability to the Assad regime and also provided a base of support among important sections of the population during the 1960s-1980s. Despite this, immense privileges were given the bureaucratic circles around the ruling mafia-cliques in the regime, a process which began during the 1960s and continued into the era of Assad.
When Hafez Al-Assad took power in 1970, he also relied heavily on exploiting and fomenting sectarian divisions within Syrian society. These divisions had been created and strengthened by the previous Ottoman Empire, and the subsequent French imperialists, in a classical “divide and rule” tactic. However, the nationalised, planned economy and the subsequent economic development provided a degree of stability for a period.
This was not to last, however, as bureaucratic control revealed more and more its limitations. The ensuing instability therefore created the necessity to feed and re-invigorate the sectarian conflict as a means to maintain control. These divisions are primarily between the Alawite religious group and the majority Sunni population, but also with Christian and Kurdish populations in the country.
Al-Assad used his supposed “secularism” as a means of actually inciting ethnic divisions in Syria. He posed himself as a defender of religious minorities against the Sunni majority, allowing him to maintain a base of support among the Alawite and Christian groups who make up a significant portion of the population (today together they are 20% of the population). This sectarian “secularism” was used to repress opposition groups and the Sunni majority. Despite this secular facade, Assad relied heavily on both Christian and Islamic religious leaders to maintain control over the toiling masses.
Bashar Assad’s capitalism and inequality in Syrian society
It was in the early 1990s that the Assad regime began to shift its policy to one of significant liberalization policies to encourage foreign investment into Syria and to expand the private sector. This was particularly accelerated in the 2000s, with the expansion of private banking and businesses. The ruling bureaucratic cliques, presiding over much of the nationalized economy realized that they could increase their plunder by expanding capitalist investment into the country.
This move towards expanding capitalism in Syria occurred in the political context of the fall of the Stalinist regime in the USSR and the restoration of capitalism in the Eastern Bloc (1989-91). Hafez Al-Assad, once an ally of the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia, was left without a major power to lean upon.
The ruling Syrian clique, inspired by the Chinese model of restoring capitalism, began to carry out similar reforms through a programme of privatisations, ending subsidies and opening up to the West and other imperialist countries. The old state bureaucracy, much like in China, has shifted its base from a state owned, planned economy one where parts of the old state owned sector have been privatised in favour of members of the regime itself and the “market” has been allowed to develop. As a result of this economic liberalisation, the gap between Syria’s rich and poor increased massively.
The estimate of the number of Syrians living below the poverty line is anywhere from 33% to 40%, with those in “extreme poverty”, defined as being unable to even meet their most basic needs, standing at around 13%. Unemployment has skyrocketed to 20%, and is much higher among the youth. It is precisely because of this programme of privatisation, cuts to subsidies and cuts to social services that led the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to express themselves as being quite satisfied with the Assad dictatorship. The anger at these gaping inequalities is a significant factor that fuelled the revolution that erupted in 2011.
This economic liberalization flies in direct contradiction to any “progressive” credentials that some supposed leftists attribute to the Assad regime. The opening up of the Syrian market to foreign companies caused the imperialists to flock to Assad. For example Suncorp, the Canadian energy corporation that owns Petro-Canada, has $1.2 billion invested in the extraction of Syrian gas resources. Other significant investors into Syria include Royal Dutch Shell (UK), Total S.A. (France), China National Petroleum Company, Stroytansgaz (Russia) and the Oil and Gas Corporation (India). The Iranian automotive companies, such as the Saipo group, have also invested in car manufacturing factories in Syria. There has also been a massive expansion of private banking with big stakeholders including Kuwaiti and Saudi major banks. Furthermore, Russia also has a significant stake in the country, as Syria provides it with a servicing point for naval bases in its territory and also purchases significant arms from it. Assad’s policy of opening up to foreign corporations directly contradicts the view that he carries out anti-imperialist policies.
Rami Makhlouf is one of the most powerful individuals in Syria and a member of Assad’s close circle. He has a near complete control over foreign investment into the country and owns Syriatel, the largest telecommunications company in the country. According to the Financial Times, he is said to control 60% of the Syrian economy, with business interests in telecommunications, oil and gas, construction, banking, airlines and retail.
The Assad clique has made significant changes to the Syrian economy to expand private ownership. This has made a tiny layer of Syrians immensely wealthy. This obscene inequality was displayed, for example, when the Italian luxury car company, Maserati, launched its range of high-priced vehicles in Damascus in 2010. The sale of luxury cars has in fact skyrocketed in Syria.
Syria has become a capitalist society in which the majority of the economy is in the hands of a mafia clique around the Assad regime. Privatisation has to a degree taken place by transforming members of the regime into owners of important sections of the economy. However, this process of liberalisation has not been fully completed, and there is still an important state sector.
This means that there is a new layer that has gained from the introduction of capitalist relations, and this layer identifies still with the regime. But there is still a layer that benefits from the old state owned sector. The two combined have provided Assad with a certain degree of lingering support. For the vast majority of the population, however, the gains of a previous era have been eliminated.
The result is a Syria where the interests of the majority are neglected while the profits of big business (including that of the imperialists) are protected. Those who insist that the regime of Bashar Al-Assad is anti-imperialist have a terribly delusional view of Syrian society.
Assad’s relationship to Israeli and US imperialism
Hafez Al-Assad first, and later his son and current ruler Bashar, regularly entered into alliances with the Western imperialists. They have played an openly counter-revolutionary role in repressing mass uprisings in Lebanon in league with regional imperialist powers, were open partners with George Bush Sr.’s invasion of Iraq in 1991 and have played a collaborative role in the so-called “War on Terror”. Far from the image that some on the left attribute to Assad as an anti-imperialist, he has been a regional partner with imperialism and has played a destructive role in relation to mass left-wing movements in the region, most notably in Lebanon.
During the Lebanese civil war, from 1975-1990, the Syrian regime and its proxies engaged in a direct offensive to repress the revolutionary left-wing movements, particularly represented by the left-wing Palestinian groups and the Lebanese Communist Party. Assad supported the right-wing Maronite regime and the far-right paramilitary squads that were used to drown the movement in blood.
From the standpoint of the Syrian regime, the mass left-wing movements in a neighbouring country represented a threat that could spread to Syria. Assad also wanted to establish and consolidate his influence in Lebanon. The Syrian military and Syrian-backed local groups directly intervened in the civil war. They also actively encouraged sectarian differences, much as Assad has done at home in Syria. During the mid-to-late 1970s, they were able to repress the Lebanese Communist Party and the Palestinian revolutionary groups. After succeeding in destroying left-wing groups in Lebanon, they turned to destroying the Syrian left groups, including the Communist Labour Party and the Syrian Communist Party.
Throughout the civil war in Lebanon, both Syria and Israel established significant control over the country. Though both Syria and Israel had tense and at times conflicting interests, they united to share power in Lebanon and to drown the revolutionary movements in blood.
This willingness to come into partnership with imperialism was also demonstrated when Hafez Al-Assad made an alliance with George Bush Senior during the invasion of Iraq in 1991 following Saddam’s entry into Kuwait. Syrian troops supported the US-led invasion of Iraq during the Gulf War. The Syrian military forces did not enter into active conflict, instead giving logistical support and providing reserve troops for the invading forces. Over 100,000 Iraqi troops were killed in this imperialist war.
Since the “War on Terror” began in 2001, the Syrian regime has presented itself as a regional ally of the United States. The United States and Canadian governments began to target and observe certain terrorist groups. These efforts included the wider targeting and oppression of people from the Middle East. The Assad regime, with its experience repressing the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, was seen as a useful ally in these efforts.
The case of Mahar Arar, a Canadian-Syrian, who was tortured in Syria is also indicative of the kind of anti-imperialism professed by the Assad regime. In 2003 Mahar Arar, a Canadian citizen, was kidnapped during his vacation travels. It was reported that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), with the assistance of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), suspected him of being involved in terrorist activity. The CIA transported Arar by plane to Syria for interrogation. Arar was detained and tortured for two years until it became clear that he had no connections with any terrorist organizations. In effect, interrogation and torturing of prisoners taken by the CIA and the RCMP was contracted out to Assad’s Syria.
Marxist position on Syrian revolution
The Syrian revolution is a very contradictory process. As in any revolution, millions have entered into political activity for the first time. A year has passed since the movements first began, and the masses have displayed great heroism in the face of Assad’s brutality. The demands that are being raised by the movement, at this stage, are largely of a democratic character.
This fact should not, however, lead one to a distorted view of the revolution. The massive poverty, unemployment and rising cost of living, coupled with the inequality and extravagance displayed by the ruling circles around the regime were the major factors that led to the revolution. At the current stage, the demand for democracy is seen by the masses as a means through which they can improve their living conditions.
The fact that the repression by Assad’s army over the past months has been focused on various working class slum neighbourhoods is indicative of the class composition of the movement. The fact that protesters have attacked assets of the ruling clique, such as Makhlouf’s Syriatel Corporation, displays this burning anger at economic injustice.
Facing collapse, Assad has been desperately trying to make “concessions”. Many of these have been democratic in nature, such as committing to eventually holding elections. It is notable, however, that Assad’s concessions to the revolution have also been of an economic nature, such as wage increases, and Mahlouf’s supposed “exit” from business, with his wealth to be transferred to charity.
These facts display the degree to which democratic demands, in the eyes of the mass of impoverished and working class Syrians are linked to their pressing economic needs. The Assad regime realises this as well. That is why at this point the masses have significant illusions in bourgeois democracy, as was the case in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya as well. They equate democracy with social justice!
The movement has clearly continued to deepen – in spite of the terrible offensive against Homs and other areas. The growing breadth of the movement, which was spreading to Aleppo and Damascus, and the development of the Syrian Free Army have strengthened the resolve of the resistance movement.
The establishment of popular councils where the people have been able to establish control, temporarily replacing the old state regime, is also a significant development. So far, these have only lasted for short periods of time and in limited parts of the country. In spite of this, these are symptomatic of what would be possible with a genuine mass revolutionary leadership.
However, despite this deepening of the movement, there is significant confusion at the present moment. This is due to the fact that the major opposition forces consist of the Muslim Brotherhood and some liberal bourgeois organisations. They control the Syrian National Council (SNC). These people who put themselves forward as so-called “leaders” of the revolution are engaging in regular dealings with the heads of state of Western governments.
This “leadership” has played a very destructive role in the movement. They have not put forward a concrete programme of economic and political demands, and have largely ignored the economic issues that brought the people onto the streets in the first place. That reflects their own bourgeois stance. Many of these elements are also playing Assad’s game of fanning ethnic and sectarian divisions, but from the other side. And as we explained previously, the SNC has also called for foreign intervention in Syria, and has been co-opting the leaders of the Free Syrian Army, who have now also come out in support of “no-fly zones”.
The problem, however, is not that the SNC lacks a political programme. The problem is the nature of that programme. Its political programme is one of bourgeois democracy under US patronage. This is a reactionary programme which repels many in the opposition, as there is an instinctive mistrust of these exile liberal, US-funded careerists, among the supporters of Assad and among many who are actively involved in the revolution against Assad!
Hence, the SNC’s bourgeois political programme, its narrow sectarian outlook and its pro-imperialist position has tremendously weakened the movement. Many layers who would come to the side of the revolution are hesitating at this so-called leadership, which is alienating important sections of Syrian society, and making it easier for Assad to maintain a layer of support.
Put simply, the SNC puts forward no meaningful alternative to the status quo. The failure of leadership has prolonged the revolution and the masses have paid a high cost for this weakness. Indeed, the SNC is putting the entire revolution at risk; in fact it is attempting to push it down the road of counter-revolution.
The experience of the Iraq National Council and Chalabi is one worth pondering over in relation to what is happening in Syria. The Iraq National Council was an agent of the US in Iraq which has now ended up as a prisoner of the fundamentalists of al-Sadr. We must not forget that here was also a revolutionary movement in Iraq, the shoras in the North and the Shia uprising in the South, but they were both crushed by a combination of imperialist intervention, Saddam Hussein’s repression and the manoeuvrings of the Kurdish reactionary parties of Barzani and Talabani.
There is also another element that has to be considered here, and that is that the ruling elites in Saudi Arabia, and particularly in Qatar, also have their own agendas in Syria. They have an interest in seeing the end of the Assad regime as this would weaken Iran. Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have already played an important role in Libya and Tunisia in promoting their local agents there. It is clear that they are already arming and training their own agents within the opposition, preparing for the day after Assad falls. This in fact is what many Syrians fear, that the revolution would lead to forces like the Muslim Brotherhood coming to the fore in Syria also.
This fear is strengthened by the fact that Hamas has now broken with the regime and come out in favour of the revolution, withdrawing all its leading figures from Damascus. This indicates that they too are working to divert the revolution down Islamic fundamentalist lines, something which would weaken the revolution further.
Although the situation is very different, it is reminiscent of the Spanish Civil War, where the revolution – the uprising against Franco – was taken over by bourgeois elements. Once this happened, the social content of the revolution was removed, and all that remained were two bourgeois camps. In fact, in his famous book on the Spanish Civil War, the historian Hugh Thomas has one chapter called “Rising and Revolution” but a later chapter called “The War of Two Counter-Revolutions”. Once the war became solely about defending bourgeois democracy against fascism, without any social content such as demands for the land to be taken from the landlords or the factories to be nationalised, it lost its power to gather the masses as a united force.
In Syria today, there is also a massive vacuum on the left. The once powerful communist movements in Syria have been severely weakened by their failed Stalinist policies. As we have seen, the complete sell-out of the Syrian Communist Party, which has acted as a loyal supporter of the Assad regime and as part of his long-time National Progressive Front, is reflected in their openly counter-revolutionary position at present.
This renders the task of the genuine Marxists more difficult, as they first have to explain why some “communists” are not with the revolution, differentiate themselves from them and then explain the position of genuine Marxism. The Marxists are part of the revolutionary movement in Syria and fight alongside it. At the same time, we patiently explain the pernicious role played by the various bodies assuming leadership over the movement, particularly the SNC. We must put forward a genuinely revolutionary perspective, which would aid the revolution to victory and solve the pressing needs of the Syrian workers, farmers, youth and unemployed.
Oppose foreign intervention!
One thing that must be clearly stated is that the imperialists can play no positive role in Syria. We condemn totally any imperialist meddling in Syrian affairs. Across the Middle East, the role of imperialism has been completely exposed. The brutal occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan has seen hundreds of thousands of civilians perish, while no progress whatsoever has been made in terms of the living standards of the people, democratic reforms, women’s equality or economic growth. Imperialism has left a legacy of warlord-ism, corruption and sectarian conflict, while big corporations have made massive profits from the oil wealth, re-construction and arms manufacturing.
In the revolutionary struggles in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain, the imperialists openly supported the old ruling regimes and gave them military aid. The USA and Canada continues to ship arms and tear gas to the Egyptian military council of General Tantawi. Likewise Saudi Arabia continues to be a major recipient of Western arms while they brutally crushed the revolution in Bahrain.
As has been examined, the Syrian regime is directly tied to Russia and Iran. It has also been a working partner with US and Israeli imperialism. It must be said, however, that at the current moment, it seems that the Western imperialists are very hesitant to intervene directly in Syria. They have limited their activity to condemning the Syrian regime, and promoting their local stooges.
The statement by General Dempsey condemning the Syrian Free Army is indicative of the suspicion with which the West views the revolution. The West will continue to manoeuvre against the revolution through their friends in the Syrian National Council (SNC).
The Syrian people must resolutely condemn these manoeuvres by the imperialists. The interests of the imperialists are irreconcilably antagonistic to the interests of the workers, peasants and youth of the Middle East. The imperialists wish to plunder the resources of the region and find markets for their products. The masses in the region are rising up precisely against this plunder and wealth inequality. The massive confidence and revolutionary consciousness sparked by the Arab Spring directly threatens the interests of the imperialists. We should have no illusions in the counter-revolutionary role they play. We therefore say, “Imperialist hands off Syria! The Syrian people will settle the score with Assad!”
Which way forward for Syria?
The present official “leaders” of the movement have successfully antagonised significant sections of the population that can, and should be won over to the revolution. The revolution has been advancing painfully slowly precisely because sections of society that objectively should be with the revolution have not lined up behind it. The fact is that because of a series of factors – among which the bourgeois nature of the SNC and its collaboration with imperialism – Assad still maintains a degree of support, and has been able to use ethnic divisions to his advantage.
All this emphasizes the importance of decisive leadership that is able put forward a concrete programme of political and economic demands, of both a democratic and socialist nature and thus cut across the sectarian divisions. It is precisely the lack of such a programme that is the greatest weakness of the revolution.
Some of the “leaders” are in fact presenting the revolution in sectarian or religious terms. The presentation of the movement as “Islamic” turns many ethnic and religious minorities away from the movement, as well as a significant section of secular and progressive minded Syrians, particularly those in Aleppo and Damascus. The counter-revolutionary war of the Assad regime is not a war against Islam – it is a war against the Syrian people – but because of the nature of the leaders of the opposition it can be presented as such.
Advancing social and economic demands would prove decisive, and would cut across ethnic and religious divisions. This should include the demand for the re-nationalization of all industries that have been privatized by the Assads, the establishment of workers’ democratic control in the workplace, expropriation of the assets and companies of the Assad clique and re-establishing subsidies for basic goods. The pressing needs for employment, housing and services should be made a priority of the revolution.
Those “leaders” who refuse to raise such economic demands because of their personal economic interests should be removed and replaced by genuine representatives of the revolutionary people. The present leaders will only use the revolution to advance themselves, while maintaining all of the old structures and inequalities intact.
The Syrian people have shown great revolutionary instinct. The examples where they have established popular councils to replace the old state apparatus and co-ordinate social and economic life in the certain cities show the way. The establishment of a revolutionary army, from the ranks of the soldiers and armed civilians, was a massive step forward, but unless this is accompanied with a revolutionary socialist programme the sweep of the revolution remains limited, and it will not be able to bring out the full potential that exists.
This lack of a genuine revolutionary leadership of the movement will result in a protracted struggle that could become very bloody. Indeed the recent events in Homs and other areas are a confirmation of this fact. The current leadership continually calls for “unity” in the face of any criticism. In fact, with the excuse of this so0-called “unity” they attempt to crush any genuine opposition to their attempts to take over and emasculate the revolution. It is they who are dividing the movement through their actions.
A genuine leadership must cut across sectarian divisions, oppose all foreign intervention and advance social and economic demands to solve the pressing needs of the people. Such a leadership, that could unite the different sides of the movement, could win the necessary majority that could end the brutal reign of the Assads once and for all, and establish a genuinely democratic and socialist Syria.