By Asad Ismi
Encouraged by the success of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, many thousands of Syrians have been demonstrating against the dictatorial regime of Bashar al-Assad since mid-March. The protestors are calling for Assad to step down and allow democratic elections. Their demonstrations, however, have been met by brute force by the regime’s army, which has killed at least 2,600 people, according to the United Nations. Close to 10,000 people have been jailed.
The Syrian government, on the other hand, says that 1,400 people have died since the demonstrations began, “half of them security force personnel and half of them ‘rebels’.” Assad claims that the protests are carried out by foreign-sponsored armed groups and rejects the assertion of human rights organizations that most of those killed have been unarmed civilians.
The Assad regime has prevented foreign media and U.N. monitors from entering Syria, so it is difficult to ascertain events there. According to a detailed report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on June 1, 2011, based on 50 interviews conducted inside Syria, “Syrian security forces have killed hundreds of protesters and arbitrarily arrested thousands, subjecting many of them to brutal torture in detention. The security forces… imposed a siege on several towns, depriving the population of basic services. Some of the worst abuses took place in Daraa governorate in southwestern Syria. The nature and scale of abuses… strongly suggest these abuses qualify as crimes against humanity.”
The HRW report is focused on Daraa and points out that “security forces deliberately targeted protesters, who were, in the vast majority of cases, unarmed and posed no threat to the security forces… and, during the siege, people who dared to go out of their houses or to gain access to supplies. In some cases they also shot bystanders, including women and children.“
The report details wide-ranging torture committed by the Assad regime: “Released detainees …said that they, as well as hundreds of others they saw in detention, were subjected to various forms of torture and degrading treatment. The methods of torture included prolonged beatings with sticks, twisted wires, and other devices; electric shocks administered with tasers and electric batons; use of improvised metal and wooden “racks”; and… the rape of a male detainee with a baton.”
The HRW report points out that Daraa residents have also been violent in reaction to the security forces` killings of demonstrators. This included setting fire to the governor’s house and the political security building, and burning Bashar al-Assad’s photo monument. The residents also burnt several vehicles belonging to the security forces. Significantly, “Several witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch also said that protestors had killed members of security forces.”
U.S. President Barack Obama has demanded that Assad resign, and Washington and the European Union have imposed economic sanctions on Syria, including an end to oil imports by the latter. The E.U. is Syria’s biggest trade partner. However, a UN Security Council resolution on Syria proposed by the U.S. and France, was opposed by Russia, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa, which were reacting to the abuse of the UN in the case of Libya where it was used by NATO to overthrow Gaddhafi rather than just to protect civilians.
Russia is Syria’s leading international supporter, and the two countries have extensive economic and military relations. Syria has up to $10 billion in arms contracts with Russia and hosts an important Russian military base. Russia has made clear that it will not be complicit in the Western overthrow of another Middle Eastern government and its replacement by Washington’s puppet, as has occurred in Libya.
There does appear to be official Western involvement in attempts to overthrow the Syrian regime. According to an article by Sahand Avedis (who cites the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar) published on the World Socialist web-site, Lebanese Army investigators have stated that they uncovered a connection between Lebanese arms smugglers taking weapons into Syria “and the political entourage of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who is backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia.” The weapons were 1,000 assault rifles destined for the Syrian city of Baniyas. Avedis explains: “Baniyas is one of a number of cities hit by protests against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian regime has mobilized the Syrian army against these protests, which have been concentrated in majority-Sunni regions of the country, claiming it was trying to repress violent opposition by armed guerrilla movements.”
Avedis adds that Lebanese intelligence has linked the smugglers group to the “March 14 alliance,” a coalition of Lebanese political parties opposed to Syria, whose biggest participant is Saad Hariri’s Al-Mustaqbal (“The Future”) movement. The March 14 Alliance is supported by the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Avedis states that the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television has identified the smugglers as Wassam and Samir Tamim, who have “reportedly confessed to running over 30 arms-smuggling operations from Marina to Baniyas with the assistance of Mohammad Kabbara, a member of the Al-Mustaqbal parliamentary bloc tied to Saudi intelligence. Al-Manar stated that the center of operations was Kabbara’s farm in northern Lebanon, adding that this was also a transit point for Islamist (Salafi) fighters travelling to the Syrian city of Homs.“
The Syrian army has claimed to have detained hundreds of Salafi combatants with Lebanese documents, whose passage to Syria was facilitated by Kabbara. As Avedis puts it, “The discovery of covert arms shipments to Syria by Saudi-backed Lebanese politicians comes amid rising pressure by U.S. imperialism and its Arab proxies on the Syrian regime. Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf monarchies have withdrawn their ambassadors to Syria. Lebanese arms-smuggling revelations lend support to claims that Saudi or U.S. forces are trying to seize on the protests in Sunni-majority regions of Syria to destabilize Assad, and replace him with a regime more directly aligned with the interests of U.S. imperialism.”
There is little doubt that the Middle East Revolution is being subverted by Western imperialism, with Libya being a prime example. Through overt and covert intervention, the U.S., France, and Britain are using the cover of domestic rebellions to overthrow governments they dislike and replace them with puppets. The Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions overthrew Western vassals in quick succession, taking Washington, London, and Paris by surprise. These Western nations have launched a counterattack by fomenting a fake rebellion in Libya to remove Gaddhafi and put CIA agents in power, and are now trying to use the Syrian uprising to do the same to the Assad regime.
Unlike the Libyan case, the Syrian rebellion appears to be genuine and is based on legitimate grievances against a highly repressive dictatorship, which has been in power for 40 years. However, the imperialist hijacking of the Syrian rebellion appears to be well under way.
Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, ruled Syria from 1971 until his death in 2001 when his son took over. Hafez was an air force colonel who ruled as head of the socialist Baath Party and a member of the minority Alawite group, an offshoot of the Shia sect of Islam. Most Syrians are Sunni. Hafez’s dictatorship combined a high degree of repression with a welfare state. The regime was allied with the Soviet Union and Iran (after the Islamic Revolution there) and opposed to Israel. As Iran’s main ally in the Middle East, Syria supports Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine, the two leading anti-Israel groups. In terms of positive features, the regime offered stability, (before it, Syria had been marked by many changes of government), redistribution of wealth, and a secular state where the rights of minorities would be protected. On the negative side, some of these changes would be accomplished by severe repression and all of them by a dictatorial élite.
The narrow class base of the Assads’ rule has been its greatest weakness. The regime is based on an alliance between the military, a section of the Sunni business class, the Baath Party, and the Alawite group. In 40 years, the Assads have not provided the Syrian masses with any means for political participation. Not surprisingly, in recent years, such entrenched élitism has encouraged the regime to embrace neoliberalism that led to massive corruption and nepotism, all of which have undermined redistributive welfare policies and therefore public support for the government.
As Professor Michel Chossudovsky at the University of Ottawa puts it, “There is certainly cause for social unrest and mass protest in Syria: unemployment has increased in recent years, social conditions have deteriorated, particularly since the adoption in 2006 of sweeping economic reforms under International Monetary Fund guidance. The latter include austerity measures, a freeze on wages, deregulation of the financial system, trade reform, and privatization… The populist policy framework of the Baath party has largely been eroded [and] the adoption of IMF ‘economic medicine’ has served to enrich the ruling economic élite.”
Rami Makhlouf, Bashar al-Assad’s first cousin,”controls more than half of Syria’s economy” by some estimates. He is prominent in the telecommunications, oil, real estate, construction, and retail sectors. Makhlouf has been constantly accused of corruption and cronyism, and Syrian protesters have specifically targeted his businesses. Meanwhile, in the countryside, a four-year drought has worsened the inequality generated by neoliberal policies and corruption. The combination of élitism, corruption, inequality and repression has alienated many Syrians from the Assad regime and fomented the current rebellion.
The rebellion, however, is not powerful enough to unseat the Assad regime. It is not even clear that a majority of Syrians back the demonstrators. Neither can the government stop the protests, even after seven months of brutal repression. Some Syrian opposition groups have called for Western military intervention, as in Libya, and are themselves organizing military battalions to do battle with the Syrian army, undoubtedly with Western aid and encouragement. But this just supports the regime’s argument that it is being targeted by foreign-sponsored armed groups. Also, Syria is not Libya, where Gaddhafi deliberately kept the army weak because he was afraid it would overthrow him. The Syrian army is a more formidable force than most militaries in the Middle East. If NATO were to invade Syria, it would most likely become bogged down in a prolonged stalemate, just as the protestors have been, even if they are armed. There actually appears to be no viable political or military solution to the Syrian crisis, at present. What is clear, however, is that Western intervention has only made the situation there worse.
Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, October 2011
Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor’s international affairs correspondent. He has written extensively on U.S. imperialism and the Middle East.