An enthusiastic crowd of over 60 recently gathered at the University of Toronto for a discussion on the threat of imperialism to bomb Syria. Many students expressed an interest in this, as well as the roots of the current situation in the county. We are publishing notes of the main presentation from the discussion, outlining the historical role played by imperialism in undermining the interests of the Syrian masses, the different sides currently embroiled in the conflict, and how the revolutionary movement against the Assad regime ended up being hijacked by reactionary elements.
A 17th-century Dutch philosopher, by the name of Spinoza, has a famous saying that goes like this: "I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them." There has been never a time like now when Syrians, and all of those who have been following the situation in Syria, badly need not to laugh, not to weep, but to understand.
It is understandable that there are a lot of intense feelings surrounding the situation we are about to discuss, the human tragedy that has hit this country immensely, and the frustration, the anger, and the sadness is even more immense. It is now estimated that more than 100,000 people have been killed, over 4 million have been displaced, and nearly half of the nation is in need of humanitarian assistance. This is not to mention all of the detained and the disappeared.
All of this is extremely overwhelming. People are desperately looking for solutions everywhere and anywhere, and it is easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to the situation, to support this side or that side without thinking the situation through, while what is really necessary is first and foremost to understand and have answers for what is happening.
Before we begin, the first fact that we need to establish is that in March 2011, a revolution started in Syria. It involved hundreds of thousands, millions, of people, and was a truly heroic uprising, especially by the youth, against a very brutal regime, and it was immediately faced with live bullets, mass arrests, torture, in short, very heavy repression.
The movement from its onset raised slogans of democracy, freedom, justice, equality for all Syrians, just like all other Arab revolutions did, but then the question is, how did we get from that to where we are now? I am going to get back to that in the course of the discussion.
But first of all, we are gathered today because we are opposed to direct imperialist intervention in Syria in the form of US aggression (and I say direct because there has been a lot of indirect intervention from many sides).
Syrians are very distrustful of western imperialism, there is not a single example in our history where western imperialism stood but totally hostile to the interest of our people, and how far do I need to go back in history to prove my point?
We can go as far back as just before the First World War, in 1915-16, when there was an Arab leader in the Hijaz region (Saudi Arabia today) called the Shareif Hussain, and the infamous Hussain-McMahon correspondence in which the British promised this leader an Arab state if he sided with them in war against the Ottoman Empire. We all know what happened afterwards: the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 in which French and English imperialism divided the Middle East amongst themselves, and the Balfour Declaration of 1917 promising the Zionist movement a state in Palestine.
The French colonized Syria after defeating King Faisal and the first modern Arab state with its capital in Damascus, after which the French tried endlessly to divide Syria into many smaller states on a sectarian basis.
How about the endless conspiracies to undermine the sovereignty of Syria in the 1950s involving the western imperialist powers and their puppet Arab kingdoms, or how about the support to the Zionist state in every endeavour and war (1948, 1967, 1973), the invasion of Lebanon by the US marines in the 1980s, the first Iraq war in the 1990s, the second Iraq war, attempting to topple the Syria government after the Hariri assassination in 2005? I think I've proven my case.
Now let's go back to the question: how did we get from the original uprising of March 2011 to the current situation? Or perhaps a better question is: why is Assad still in power after more than two years of struggle?
The mass protests took place every Friday, and every Friday they were getting bigger and spreading to new villages, towns, and cities. Then came the army defectors, genuine fighters who linked with the mass movement refusing to fire on their own people. They protected the demonstrations, and even took control of some towns, and this was before they made links to foreign powers.
But then, it seemed like the movement hit a brick wall. I would say this was around the winter of 2012, that was the peak of the movement. A town called Zabadani near Damascus fell to the revolutionaries, and fighting reached Damascus airport, the regime seemed very weak and shaky, but there was a problem, a big one, where we were patiently waiting for the mass movement to reach the two biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, that was crucial for the revolution to advance because the movement there was much smaller than the rest of the country, it was big in the suburbs and slums, and the towns in the surrounding countryside. However, we waited and waited and nothing happened. This was, in my opinion, a decisive blow to the revolution.
I think it is very important to look at the different political and social forces that moved against the regime and what role each one played. There are a couple of characteristics that the revolutionary movement had from the beginning, I see them as limitations that played an important role in its downfall:
- It was largely based in the Sunni Muslim areas, being unable to attract the religious and ethnic minorities in any significant numbers.
- Its class nature and outlook was dominated by the youth and the middle class as opposed to the working class... what do we mean by this?
This needs to be contrasted with the events in Egypt or Tunisia. In an article that appeared on Marxist.com on Jan. 14, 2011, just before the fall of Ben Ali, the authors described the role of the working class in the revolution.
“Local and regional branches of the UGTT have taken the initiative to call strikes. The mass rallies have been like virtual occupations of cities
“Some sections of the union, like the teachers, the health workers and postal workers had already played an important role in pushing the UGTT into action. Journalists’ unions and the lawyers’ associations have also been in the forefront of the struggle. But now the wider layers of the workers’ movement have moved into action. Demonstrations like the ones in the rebellious workers’ city of Sfax or in Kassarine mark the active entry of the workers onto the scene.
“Already last Sunday, January 9, the UGTT local affiliate in Sfax issued a call for a regional general strike. With only a few exceptions (hospitals and many bakeries that stayed open to help the people in struggle), the strike saw a 100% turnout. In Sfax 30,000 workers and youths demonstrated on the streets. In Jenduba on January 12, there were 12,000 people demonstrating in a city of 30,000 inhabitants.
“The local branches of the UGTT have become the centre of gravity of the resistance against the dictatorship. Mass meetings are held there, and the offices are used to organize many activities.”
This shows the enormous weight and power that the working class holds. The workers have the power to shut down production, transportation, services, etc. The labor movement played a decisive role in the Tunisian revolution, which culminated in a general strike that completely paralyzed the state, and caused Ben Ali to flee for his life.
We saw a similar process in Egypt, where strikes reached a peak prior to Mubarak stepping down, in Mahala, Suez, etc. But we never saw this in Syria where the response to calls for a national strike were limited to people closing their shops and such. The working class never really entered the struggle, this was a great weakness, and it allowed the regime to function normally and use its repressive state machine unhindered.
How about the political opposition? It is a mishmash of conservative Islamic forces, some middle-class intellectual liberal, some left-leaning types, but the majority that is represented in the SNC, and who have been inviting imperialist intervention in Syria, are either the Syrian MBs [Muslim Brotherhood] or their allies, added to them some bureaucrats who defected from the side of the regime, and they are all on the payroll of western governments. But why do these people oppose the regime?
Back in the 1960s, the Muslim Brotherhood was crushed by the likes of Nasser in Egypt, but this is a secondary fact to why the MB is so opposed to the regime. Even more so in Syria than in Egypt was when Nasser, and later Al-Ba'ath in Syria, expropriated the land from a rotten and reactionary feudal aristocracy, and nationalized banks and industry and put it in the hands of the state.
This is the main reason why these people hate the Syrian regime so much, it has nothing to do with the aspirations of the masses and in fact it runs counter to them; these people want their property and power back, they are manoeuvring like rabid dogs for this sole reason, and the leadership of the FSA is not much different, though they don't come from aristocratic families, they are also in the hands of imperialism; not a single one of them is a genuine revolutionary.
Going back to the current situation, we need to settle a question before we proceed: is what is happening in Syria, today and now, a revolution? I am going to quote from some media reports on what is happening on both sides of the conflicts.
This is from an article in the New York Times, titled "Arms Lift to Syrian Rebels Expands, With Aid form the C.I.A.", dated March 24th:
"With help from the C.I.A., Arab governments and Turkey have sharply increased their military aid to Syria’s opposition fighters in recent months, expanding a secret airlift of arms and equipment for the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, according to air traffic data, interviews with officials in several countries and the accounts of rebel commanders.
“The airlift, which began on a small scale in early 2012 and continued intermittently through last fall, expanded into a steady and much heavier flow late last year, the data shows. It has grown to include more than 160 military cargo flights by Jordanian, Saudi and Qatari military-style cargo planes landing at Esenboga Airport near Ankara, and, to a lesser degree, at other Turkish and Jordanian airports.
“As it evolved, the airlift correlated with shifts in the war within Syria, as rebels drove Syria’s army from territory by the middle of last year.
“‘A conservative estimate of the payload of these flights would be 3,500 tons of military equipment,’ said Hugh Griffiths, of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, who monitors illicit arms transfers.
“‘The intensity and frequency of these flights,’ he added, are ‘suggestive of a well-planned and coordinated clandestine military logistics operation’.”
In an article that appeared in the Financial Times on May 16th, titled "Qatar Bankrolls Syrian Revolt with Cash and Arms", we read the following:
"The gas-rich state of Qatar has spent as much as $3bn over the past two years supporting the rebellion in Syria, far exceeding any other government, but is now being nudged aside by Saudi Arabia as the prime source of arms to rebels.
"The small state with a gargantuan appetite is the biggest donor to the political opposition, providing generous refugee packages to defectors (one estimate puts it at $50,000 a year for a defector and his family) and has provided vast amounts of humanitarian support."
These numbers are very big and suggest major indirect imperialist intervention in Syria. As a matter of fact, $3bn is almost equal to the defence budget of Syria for two years!
In another article that appeared in the Financial Times on June 21st, titled "Saudi Arabia Increases Supply of Arms to Syria Rebels", we see the real motives of the Gulf state in supporting the rebels, and also a glimpse of the kind of foreign support that the regime is getting:
“‘Saudi Arabia will not allow an Iranian victory in Syria,’ Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi analyst close to decision-making circles, wrote recently. ‘Saudi Arabia has to do something now, even if it will do it alone. The goal now must be toppling Bashar, even if the US is not involved. If Saudi Arabia leads the way, Sunni tribes and other countries, including France, will eventually join.’
“Riyadh has become increasingly alarmed after the Lebanese Shia militant group Hizbollah played a critical role in defeating Syrian rebels in the central town of Qusair earlier this month, prompting the Syrian regime to promise an offensive to retake full control over the biggest city, Aleppo.
“The senior French official said Syrian regime forces had been boosted by ‘several thousand’ Hizbollah troops from Lebanon who were not just involved in the recent recapture of Qusair but were also present in the Damascus suburbs, and were being moved to Aleppo and the south.
“He said there was ‘no doubt’ that ‘several hundred’ Iraqi Shia fighters were also involved, as well as Iranian advisers, and added that rebels were losing ground in the south and there was real anxiety about the situation in the Damascus suburbs
“‘Time is pressing. We need to move rapidly to give the means to the FSA to prevent them being overtaken by the regime.’”
Other reports talk about the increasing role and power of Jihadists, as many as 6,000 of which are thought to be foreigners, and of a power struggle that is being waged between them and other armed groups. However, the dividing lines are not clear as all of these groups cooperate and work together; reports put the numbers of the rebels at more than 100,000, distributed among 1,000 to 1,200 groups! This suggests extreme fragmentation of the rebel forces and an inevitable friction, which we predicted early on, give, the different sources of funding behind them.
The Economist put out an article on August 10th titled, "Bullets and bank accounts", which describes the financial difficulties of the Syrian regime, in which we read:
"Yet most analysts reckon the regime cannot be toppled by economic hardship alone. The declining value of Syria’s currency has been painful for the government but not fatal. Foreign reserves of $18-billion before the war are mostly gone, but enough for three months’ imports remains, says a former economic insider. Crucially, the regime is able to count on its allies, chiefly Iran and Russia, to help finance imports and fighting. Iran recently agreed to provide $3.6-billion in credit lines, oil, and medicine. Even without such help, the regimes in Zimbabwe and Iraq survived squeezes as their citizens struggled to make ends meet."
This shows the major role that Iran is playing in the conflict, on the side of the regime this time, which matches the role of Saudi Arabia. As mentioned before, this support is not limited to money and arms but involves militias from Lebanon and Iraq. Haaretz published an article on June 5th titled "Thousands of Hezbollah troops fighting, hundreds killed in Syria, study confirms", from which we will quote:
"The Israeli research centre also reports that Hezbollah helps train regime forces in guerrilla warfare, urban warfare, explosives and sniping. The Shi'ite group also carries out intelligence and border security, and operates against members of the Syrian opposition living in Lebanon.
“In addition, Hezbollah is training militias in the event the Assad regime is overthrown. The Israel Defence Forces' intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, told the Herzliya Conference in March that these militias numbered 50,000 people.
“The Meir Amit Centre says this ‘popular army’ may have as many as 150,000 fighters who could ‘give Iran and Hezbollah a foothold in the areas populated by Shi'ites and Alawites, making them important factors in the internal Syrian arena in the post-Bashar Assad era.’”
The previous quotes show that what is happening in Syria is no longer a revolution but a proxy civil war between two imperialist camps, a sectarian one pitting Shia'as and Alawites against Sunni and vice versa. The Syrian opposition and Free Syrian Army (FSA) leadership seem unable to talk about anything but the Iranian/Shi'a invasion and takeover of Syria; this is not the language of revolution but of dirty sectarianism. How about the Gulf money and the Jihadist fighters that are being brought into the country?
The original revolutionaries have been pushed to one side, and there are many examples of this, of both activists and original FSA defectors being arrested or killed, and those who raise criticism get attacked verbally and physically. These are identical methods and ways of thinking to those of the Assad thugs, and you can see people already protesting against this in those areas under the control of the rebels as in Aleppo and Raqqa.
So why was the US preparing to intervene? It is clear from the development of the last few months, especially since the fall of Qusair, that the rebels are losing – or not winning to say the least – and that based on the previous figures they have no chance of toppling Assad militarily on their own, plus they are quite divided amongst themselves.
I think the latest developments explain the actual motives behind the proposed US strike, which doesn't have much to do with the chemical attack, and has everything to do with the fact that the groups that the US are supporting are losing the war, both to the regime, and to the Jihadists. I believe there are divisions between the US and Saudi Arabia over who to support in Syria, and the Americans want to assert their role as a world power.
The Daily Telegraph published an article on May 23rd titled, "Is Bashar al-Assad winning the civil war in Syria?" The article explains how the regime has improved its situation in the recent months and how that is due greatly to a new spirit among its fighters as well as new recruits, who see a more legitimate purpose for their fight in repelling the forces of extremism. The growing role of Islamic extremists among the rebels has actually served to strengthen Assad and legitimize his actions:
"Now Mr. Assad is fighting back, to despairing rebel admission. Those same analysts suggest he could be in a position to deal an ultimately fatal blow. Even before the current battle for Qusayr on the Lebanese border, he was making small but strategic gains around Damascus, and in the centre of the country."
The German intelligence agency BND, which last year was predicting the regime's imminent collapse, now believes Mr. Assad could regain the entire south by the end of the year, according to a report leaked to Der Spiegel. Other Western powers appear to think in similar terms.
Here the regime not only has support from Iranian advisers and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, but it does seem to be also for the first time matching the rebels' willingness to fight. The number of defections has declined, and both sides talk of there being a new spirit in Assad's men.
Now the government has created a 60,000-strong volunteer group, the National Defence Force, that can match rebel tactics and fight street by street.
Until the NDF was created, the regime would "retake" a district by sending tanks down the main streets, snapping photographs, and then withdrawing again, leaving the rebels to move back in. Now a combination of urban warfare training, and a greater inculcation with "patriotic values”, is making a difference. "We are not fighting for Assad," the man said. "The country comes first. He is the best in the world but we still don't fight for him, we fight for the country. Those people want to take us back to the dark ages."
But how did America get involved in this in the first place? Western imperialism and its allies only put their full weight into Syria after arming the FSA, during that peak period of the revolution I talked about, in the winter of 2012. It seemed to them that Assad was going to fall and they figured that they should ride the wave. They had already created the SNC as their political agent but now they understood that the politicians of the SNC had no control over the movement, and that they needed to bring the armed groups under their wing. Up to that point they more or less rejected the armed struggle (Hilary Clinton explicitly rejected it). However, they then did a 180-degree turn and agreed to support it, obviously for the sole reason of hijacking the movement.
The situation turned out differently to what they had thought. Assad survived and they were dragged into the civil war and entered into indirect confrontation with Russian and Iranian imperialist interests in the region. It is not a situation where they could simply retreat, but at the same time they do not trust the Islamist groups. The imperialists have explicitly said that any bombing campaign was not intended to overthrow the regime but only to punish it. This is indicative of what they think of the rebels, and that the strike would only be to save their face and to prop up their agents in the battle, so that the balance on the ground could be restored and the regime be forced to a negotiated settlement suitable to the interests of the USA.
So, why did the movement go down?
- The masses in the big cities were not prepared for the movement, they were taken by surprise, and preferred to stay on the sidelines. Generally, living conditions in the big urban centres have been much better than they are in the countryside and in smaller cities in recent years.
- There was no working-class movement in Syria like in Egypt and the working class found itself completely paralyzed and didn't react.
- The question of national and religions minorities is of prime importance and cannot be taken lightly; these groups need a credible leadership they can trust to move.
- All of the previous could have been overcome had we had a revolutionary leadership representing the interests of the working masses and independent of imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism. The leadership we have is clearly a treacherous one, they are in the hands of imperialism, they are apologetic to Islamic fundamentalism, they have no political or social/economic programme with which to attract the working classes, on the contrary it is the exact opposite. Look at the chaos in the areas under the control of the opposition, they have nothing positive to offer and they have caused many people to reject the revolution. There is the enemy from without but there is also the enemy from within. Everything that Assad accused the revolution of doing they actually went ahead and did. It is amazing!
How do we oppose the war? By militant action at home while asserting our rejection of the Assad regime. The weakness of US imperialism in this period of capitalist crisis, the general opposition towards another war, led to Obama backing off from his initial plans. A few years ago, Bush invaded Iraq without caring for anyone, but the situation has fundamentally changed now.
The only way to win this battle is to build a revolutionary organization that can organize and win the trust of the masses. We believe that is only possible on the basis of the ideas of socialism and by an overthrow of the capitalist system which is at the root of all exploitation and inequality, of all hatred and violence among different ethnic and religious groups, and the very motivation for imperialist aspirations. If we look around us we see the economic, political, and moral crisis capitalism finds itself in worldwide. Capitalism promotes a barbarous dog-eat-dog ideology, and is completely morally bankrupt and rotten to the core.
So we invite you to discuss with us, read our analysis. You might think to yourself that I am not a Marxist or communist, but you don't need to be for us to start discussing and working together. It is urgent that we build this revolutionary organization so that a tragedy, like the one in Syria, never repeats itself again.