The revolt in Syria: Its roots and prospects

This interview with Hassan Khaled Chatila was conducted and first published by the A World to Win News Service. Chatila was born in Damascus in 1944 and holds a doctorate in political philosophy from the University of Paris, a city where he has lived as a refugee for many years. He is a member of the Syrian Communist Action Party, founded in 1975. AWTWNS condensed and edited this material while trying to faithfully represent his views, which are his own.

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By Hassan Khaled Chatila

May 9, 2011 -- A World to Win News Service, via the Kasama Project -- The movement that began on March 15, 2011, in Syria is spontaneous. It is a reflexive reaction to all the suffering felt by the masses of people -- physically, spiritually and in daily life. Those conditions created a spontaneous consciousness that can’t go higher without the intervention of a political party that represents the working class and brings the masses a materialist understanding of the situation as translated into a political program.

I accuse the entire Syrian left of having consciously or unconsciously become an integral part of the power structure. Its position is to seek an end to the crisis through a dialogue with the regime, which is also the position of the regime itself. The Syrian left has lived a twilight existence for eight years, paralysed and isolated from the masses of people. Now they put out leaflets expressing solidarity with the movement, but they still advocate political dialogue with the regime to achieve gradual and peaceful reform.

The movement, which I’d call a popular movement for a Syrian revolution, has sought the overthrow of [President] Bashar al-Assad since it first began in the southern city of Daraa when [two teenagers were arrested for painting a slogan on the walls] that has been the main one at every demonstration ever since: “The people want to topple the regime!”].

This movement is like the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt in that it is spontaneous, with the difference that in Tunisia , for example, an organised political elite and the trade unions took part from the beginning, and human rights and other civil society organisations with international connections were involved in both countries. In Syria , the trade unions are part of the state apparatus (the left and other organisations are forbidden to work in them), and the repression has been much more fierce. Any Syrian contacting organisations abroad on the internet risks a trial before a special tribunal for “communicating with the enemy”and years in prison. The kinds of political currents like the “We’ve had enough!” movement that influenced Egyptian intellectuals and even workers have not existed in Syria. Intellectuals with any revolutionary inclinations have spent at least 15 years in prison.

Main actors

The revolt is not generalised across the country and society. It is more like a series of neighbourhood uprisings than a centralised revolution. The main actors so far have been educated youth and unemployed youth seeking access to modernity.

Industrial workers take part as individuals, but many of the people in the streets are what I would call lumpen proletariat, people who are unemployed or without regular jobs, who have to live as best they can. They work a few days here and there, mainly in services for the bourgeoisie, as maids, porters, doormen, etc. They have no social security or other benefits. The other component of this movement comes from the lower middle class, especially young unemployed university graduates. About 20 per cent of young graduates are unemployed. They can’t get married because they have to live with their parents, due to both unemployment and the severe housing shortage.

There is a mix of boys and girls together in the street; the participation of women is welcomed. You can see on Facebook how creative they are, inventing new revolutionary methods in literature, media and organisation. The median age of the protesters is about 30, whereas among the political parties and civil society members it’s probably about 50.

These youth do not put forward social demands; they think that political democracy and liberty can solve all the problems they face in their daily lives. Their main specific goal, in addition to toppling Assad, is to change the constitution. They especially want to get rid of Article 8, which designates “the Arab Socialist Baath Party” as the leadership of the state, along with an undefined “nationalist and progressive front”. The latter means the two historic communist parties and the Nasserite (Pan-Arab) and nationalist parties federated with the Baath Party, although they no longer have much influence.

This movement has not been able to seriously threaten the regime’s existence. As I’ll explain, there is a real danger that it could be aborted by a military coup, which might get rid of Assad but not change the power structure, or a civil war along religious and ethnic lines. To mobilise millions of Syrians, the revolt would have to put forward not just demands for political democracy but also social demands that could win over people far more broadly.

Somewhere between 25 per cent of the people, according to UN figures, and 50 per cent according to the opposition economist Aref Dalila, live below the poverty line. Even though the Syrian economy is much stronger than that of Tunisia , for example, the middle classes have become a minority. The accumulation of capital in the hands of new sectors of the bourgeoisie with the privatisation of state enterprises and the freeing of the market under Bashar and his father Hafez fractured the middle classes. Part of the middle class has been able to accumulate capital, while others who used to live well enough now find their lives similar to those of the wage-earning classes who make up the majority of the population. A civil service employee or army officer needs to work two or three jobs to satisfy the needs of their family, which is likely to include some unemployed members. For example, they might teach by day and drive a taxi by night.

The price of meat and fruit has skyrocketed. Now prices in Syria are the same as in France. People who live by their own labour haven’t tasted meat for years. Even the fava beans that make up the national dish have become too expensive for salaried workers. People eat a lot of chickpeas and especially bread. Radishes. Olives. Onions. And a few other vegetables, rice and bulgar (for tabbouleh), which is the basic meal of both the salaried classes and the lumpen.

Unlike Egypt and Tunisia , few people in Syria make their living from tourism. Security agents follow foreign tourists around, making tourism unattractive, despite the country’s many ancient heritage sites.

Syria could be self-sufficient in agriculture, but it’s not. Like in Egypt , the best wheat and cotton is exported and the state imports poor quality cotton and blacken wheat.

Peasants are for the revolt because the rural bourgeoisie and big landlords are allied with the regime economically, although not necessarily politically. The agrarian reform redistributed feudal land to small peasants but they can’t get the aid they need, like credit, tractors and purchasing organisations. They are constantly threatened by drought and their dependence on former feudals for credit. They often work for former feudals either as wage workers or as sharecroppers or renters. Proof of peasant sympathy with the revolution is that people in the small cities and the outskirts of larger cities went into the streets long before the big city centres.

In Damascus and Allepo, the country’s two biggest cities where the industrial workers are concentrated, the demonstrations have been confined to a few university faculties, such as the medical and science students who staged a sit-in in the capital. The chambers of commerce and industry in those two cities have played a very negative role.

The biggest demonstrations have been in cities such as Daraa and villages like Nawa and Zalkhab. Daraa has remained a main focal point. It’s a bastion of the movement because it’s a bastion of poverty. The people are mostly small peasants or masons. During the Syrian intervention in Lebanon, many masons went to work in construction for the Lebanese bourgeoisie and the Gulf oil rich. Since Syria was forced to withdraw, Syrian workers, especially the masons of Daraa, have had to come home. There’s no work for them in Syria because there’s so little construction – the regime restricts the real estate market in order to keep prices low. So these unemployed masons are one important reason why Daraa has played the role that it has.

Daraa is the capital of the Hauran region, where many villages are in revolt. This is a major wheat producing area, but the land is volcanic and therefore peasants tend to be very poor. Other Syrians make fun of these people as good workers but stupid, willing to work for nothing. Because of poverty, the educational level is very low. People have to go to work very young. Generally, they’re not very represented in the government.

Role of the Kurds

Many of the peasants in this region were originally from the Kurdish area in the northeast. When the big dam on the Euphrates river was built in the 1970s, the government moved them out and gave the better land there to Arab peasants. The regime sought to build an “Arab belt” around the dam to reduce the possibility of a Kurdish nationalist movement there. So many of the small peasants in the Hauran have suffered twice over, once robbed and repressed by the so-called Arab nationalists and again exploited as peasants and masons.

That’s why this city was among the first to revolt. There is the common factor that poverty in the region has made people very brave and used to a hard life. Syria has enormous regional disparities. The wealthy live and spend like in France. Now the protests have also become focused in Homs, near the Lebanese border, and Baniyas, a northern coastal city. Both cities have been encircled by the military. These two cities are important because they are connected to the majority Sunni regions and the heavily Alawite coast. (About 80 per cent of Syrians are Sunni Muslims; the rest are Alawite Muslims and Christians.)

The power structure is based on the Alawite clans and the Alawite ethnicity in general, although not exclusively. Alawites dominate the government, army and security apparatuses. Bashar Assad is trying to turn the situation into a civil war between the Sunnis, Alawites and Christians, and the [majority of the Syrian] left says it has to support the regime because of this danger. Both underline the threat of foreign intervention in such a situation. But the movement in the streets very clearly and consciously calls for Syrian unity, including in the Kurdish areas of the northeast.

Bashar’s slogan is "God, Syria and Bashar, that’s all we need!” The revolt turns this around by saying, “God, Syria and liberty, that’s all we need!” and “United, united, united, the Syrian people are united!” The regime uses religion to legitimise itself, putting Bashar up with god. As in Egypt, some Syrians use the reference to god to say that Bashar is not the highest authority. Among Arabs, a reference to Allah is not necessarily religious, but it can be. The youth in the revolt are very aware of this. They added the word “liberty” to distinguish themselves from the fundamentalists. Early on, at a demonstration at a major mosque, the fundamentalists chanted “Allahu Akbar” while the youth chanted, ” Liberty , liberty, liberty!” The youth also add a fourth slogan: “The Syrian people won’t accept humiliation!”, referring to both the regime and the imperialist domination of the Arab world.

The historic background of the revolt in Syria and elsewhere in the Arab world is the humiliation suffered by these peoples by imperialist aggression such as the first Gulf war (1991) that kicked Iraq's Saddam Hussein’s army out of Kuwait [Assad's father was allied with George W. Bush's father in that war], the occupation of Iraq and the Israeli massacres in Gaza. All this demonstrated that the Syrian power structure, just like the other Arab regimes, had no real strategy for national liberation despite its nationalist rhetoric.

Of course, the explosion in Syria was very influenced by Tunisia and Egypt, but the movement in Iran after the 2009 elections was very important. I believe that the Iranian uprising heralded the Arab movements.

The birth and development of modern Syrian society

When you apply a materialist analysis, you can see that there are two bourgeoisies in Syria, the bureaucratic bourgeoisie (the apparatchiks) and the traditional merchant bourgeoisie. The bureaucratic bourgeoisie arose with Hafez al-Assad’s seizure of power in 1970. People used the expression “Mr Ten Percent” to refer to the big chiefs of the military and intelligence services who got a 10 per cent commission for every contract between the state and foreign investors or for giving the traditional bourgeoisie permission for a project. Over time “Mr Ten Percent’” became everyone in the ruling apparatus, with the resulting accumulation of finance capital in the hands of the apparatchiks. When Assad’s son Bashar took over in 2000, the apparatchiks began to invest the capital they had accumulated, in the international and Syrian market.

The Bashar regime’s economic reforms began to free the market and encourage the growth of the private sector. This actually made the bureaucratic bourgeoisie that had emerged from the middle classes richer. It also produced a split in the middle class. One part became very rich and the other lost its previous advantages. The Baath [Renaissance] Party didn’t eliminate the traditional bourgeoisie when it came to power. The dominant mode of production was and remained capitalist and dependent on imperialism. The bureaucratic bourgeoisie falsely tried to describe what it created as a “social mode of production” – in other words, not capitalist but not socialist in the Marxist sense either.

When the Baathists came to power in the 1963 coup they nationalised big and medium industry and put the leadership of these enterprises in the hands of their own apparatchiks. The Baath Party only had 500 members at the time of the coup. Later it opened doors to all sorts of opportunists. After the rupture between Nasser’s Egypt and the Syrian Baath Party in 1961 [when Syria decided against merging with Egypt as Nasser had proposed], many Syrians joined Nasserite currents. Once the Baathists took power, thanks to the military, little by little they crushed all the other parties and established a single party system. There was no constitution, just rule by force. Between 1963 and 1970, when Assad took over in another military coup, the private sector quickly joined the bureaucratic bourgeoisie. The apparatchiks needed market capitalists to run the economy. This was a very prosperous period for real estate and import/export trade.

Assad’s coup in 1970 established the first consolidated Syrian state [after decades of political instability due to rival power centres – previous to Syria 's independence from France, the country did not exist in its present form]. The market bourgeoisie became an organic ally of the comprador-bureaucratic bourgeoisie (I say comprador because they were people who had represented multinational companies). So both bourgeoisies prospered under Hafez Assad. He wanted to construct a constitutional state with a strong military presence on the international scene. His dream was to unite the Bilab al-cham [Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan, sometimes incorrectly called the Levant in English] under his leadership. Just before his coup, in 1968, he tried to claim that the Baath Party was Marxist and hypocritically promised support for the Palestinians.

But actually, Assad, who was a general and defence minister when Israel occupied Syria's Golan heights in 1967, stopped all aid to the Palestinians. He even allowed the massacre of Palestinians in northern Jordan – the Syrian army just stood back and watched during Black September [in 1970, when Jordan 's King Hussein tried to drown the Palestinian movement in that country in blood]. A month later he made his coup and imprisoned all the leftist, self-described more or less “Marxist” leadership of the Baath Party.

The constitution gave the president of the republic supreme power. He could declare a state of emergency, impose a curfew, hold special tribunals and establish a “Tribunal of Supreme State Security”. He could dissolve the people’s assembly whenever he wanted to and rule by decree during that period. All of the constitution’s articles guaranteeing individual and social freedoms – for instance, to form civic organisations and demonstrate – were overridden by General Assad’s special powers. This state of exception has existed since 1970 without interruption, although the left has had freedom of criticism and discussion, especially during certain periods.

The market bourgeoisie enjoyed a period of great prosperity in terms of capital accumulation, thanks to its alliance with the bureaucratic bourgeoisie. In 1975 the Syrian army went into Lebanon. The US and Israel agreed to this intervention so that the Syrian army could put an end to the Lebanese and Palestinian national movements. This enlarged the Syrian market for capital and labour. At the same time, the Gulf petrodollar countries – basically happy with Syrian intervention in Lebanon – give Assad a great deal of aid. He used much of it to consolidate a welfare state and employ hundreds of thousands of functionaries in useless tasks, and to reinforce the security apparatuses, which also had hundreds of thousands of employees.

Nothing could be done outside the generalised system of corruption. For example, to get a birth certificate from city hall you have to pay a $15 bribe. If you’re arrested you have to pay $150 to get out, or at least $10 if you didn’t do anything. A merchant would have a general as his protector, and you couldn’t try to get an import licence to compete with him or you’d go to jail for “corruption”.

The judicial system was thoroughly corrupt as well, and the people lost all respect for it. The legislature became an “assembly for applauding the regime”, as people put it. The executive power was transformed into an administration of corruption.

The old Baathist “Arab socialist” ideology gave way to the ideology of naked violence. The regime ruled not in the name of law but through naked force.

The globalisation of the Syrian economy began with Bashar in the early 2000s, a decade after the fall of of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the so-called socialist camp [that Syria was allied with]. Syria wasn’t spared economically or politically by the changes the world was undergoing. Bashar became closer to the EU, seeking a free trade zone with it, like Tunisia and Morocco. And he tried to get closer to the US, with some success at first.

But he inherited from his father the concept that Syria's strength internationally depends on its alliances. Since the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979, these alliances were with Iran and Hezbollah, and then Hamas. Both Assad the father and Assad the son were Machiavellian in that all alliances are temporary and never strategic. They depend on regional and international conditions. Bashar Assad, who started secret negotiations with Israel and also negotiated with it semi-openly through Turkey, was ready to sell out Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas in return for a guarantee from the international powers led by the US that his regime would remain in power.

In a recent interview, Rami Maklouf [described by the May 11 New York Times as Syria's most powerful businessperson, a cousin and close ally of Assad] warned that Israel's security depends on Syria's security – in other words, the security of Bashar and his own security in the face of mass hatred (people call Syria Makloufistan). Ever since Israel occupied the Golan Heights in the 1967 war, and still occupied after the 1973 war, Syria has never engaged in a single armed clash with Israel or even fired a single bullet at Israel. When Israel bombarded Syrian's nuclear site the regime did not riposte. Israel has some confidence in Bashar and his clique.

France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy has also tried to pull Bashar closer. He offered to have the ENA [ France 's most elite school, where top state leaders are trained] modernise Syrian state administration.

Two years ago Bashar liberalised the banking sector and allowed foreign banks to invest in Syria, and foreign companies to invest through the intermediary of banks. Within the power structure there is a strong feeling that political reform is needed to provide better conditions for capital accumulation and a legal structure for the prosperity of capitalism. Even among the apparatchiks there is a tendency to seek a liberalisation of the economic and social situation through the rule of law and a new constitution. The 1973 constitution is widely recognised as no good any more.

The US and European Union have been trying to encourage Bashar to make economic reforms in line with neoliberal globalisation and to make gradual openings in terms of law and democratic rights. And for the last decade that’s what the political parties also demanded.

Note that while the US and its allies originally tried to bring charges against Syria at the international tribunal investigating the 2005 killing of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, now Hezbollah alone is being blamed. And while the US has imposed sanctions on people around Assad, the president himself has not been targeted.

This is how Syria ‘s social-economic formation is linked to imperialist globalisation. The two can’t be separated.

Where is the revolt headed?

The situation in Syria is far from generalised civil disobedience, principally because of the almost complete absence of slogans putting forward social and economic demands, notably the struggle against hunger, poverty and unemployment. Such slogans could come to the forefront alongside calls for democracy only in a broad democratic united front in which the left played an important role. But in Syria there is neither such a front nor a left.

The Friday of Defiance on May 6 was the high point in the movement so far, there were about 10,000 demonstrators across the country. These protests were scattered, decentralised and spontaneous. And ferociously repressed by the security forces. There have been about 800 dead in the two months since the revolt began, and about 8000 people have been disappeared or detained. The political class, including the Syrian left, calls this movement an “uprising”. They don’t use the word revolution. These parties are reformist but their thinking is not so different from what the regime itself wants – a gradual and negotiated reform. So far there has been no agreement between the regime and the opposition because the regime says there can be no negotiations until the revolt stops, while the opposition calls for the release of political prisoners and negotiations now. But the masses of people don’t want to hear about dialogue and so on. They are in the streets because what they want is change that doesn’t come from within the power structure but goes against it.

There are several possible scenarios. One is that the revolutionary mass movement can give rise to a new left that can centralise and broaden the movement. Another is that political Islam may take over the movement and divert it towards a religious civil war. About five weeks after the revolt arose, small groups of people began chanting, “The Alawites to their graves, the Christians to Beirut .” The failure of the left to break with the regime provides favourable conditions for the fundamentalists. It is also possible that the movement could be successfully repressed and the Bashar regime consolidated, or that a military coup replace the present political leadership with one unencumbered by an alliance with Iran and Hezbollah. Even if the popular uprising turns into a revolution, it would still face the danger of a US-sponsored coup or intervention.

Islamic fundamentalism

Before the Baathists came to power in 1963, political Islam was very marginal. It had only a handful of representatives in parliament. In the 1956 partial elections between a Baathist and a well-known Muslim Brotherhood leader, the Baathists won overwhelmingly. Syrians mocked the Muslim Brothers and the clergy.

The Muslim Brotherhood has always played a role against democracy and the national liberation revolution. For example, in 1980 it rose in arms to establish a Muslim regime, at a moment when workers, intellectuals and others were beginning to organise independently of the regime and a civil society was emerging for the first time in Syria . The regime used this revolt as an excuse to suppress everyone. At Hama, the Muslim Brotherhood stronghold, 5000 armed men rose up. The regime encircled and destroyed the town and killed 25,000 people in two days. Not a fly could escape. It was like Daraa today. Sunni Muslims, Christians and communists alike were killed, and even Baathists. The army shot everything that moved.

Now the Muslim Brotherhood is divided into two main currents. One changed its name and has some ties with the regime and seeks negotiations. The other has kept the original name and goals. After the Hama massacre Assad made membership in the Brotherhood punishable by death. It exists mainly abroad and has little political strength among the people. Syrians in general, left and right alike, including Sunnis, have no confidence in it.

But even so, given the total and repeated failure of Syria's leftist parties (nationalist, socialist and democrats), and the fall of “real socialism” [the Soviet bloc, with which Syria was somewhat aligned] and the aggression against Iraq , Afghanistan and the Palestinians, Syrian society seeks an ideology. The one closest at hand is Islam in the broadest sense of the term, including both progressive liberals and fanatics. In this context a small group could once again, with Saudi aid, put forward Islam as the political solution. The people are oppressed in the name of secularism and modernity, by a regime that represents only savage exploitation of the majority of people. Wearing hijab [head covering for women] has become generalised during Bashar’s reign, as a way for people to distinguish themselves from a so-called secular and modernising regime, along with prayer, observing religious holidays and pilgrimage to Mecca .

Facts in the streets show the absence of a religious movement as such. Even those who are most devout don’t seek a religious regime but want democracy and liberty. Even the Muslim Brotherhood has appealed for a civil state. But there are small groups of Salafis [who call for a return to Islam as they believe it was practiced in its earliest days]. They would represent no danger if political society openly took part in the revolution and demanded the fall of the regime. But otherwise, there is the risk of encouraging religious sectarianism and turning the revolt against Alawite Muslims and Christians.

A complex geopolitical knot

Syria represents a more complex geopolitical knot than some countries. Isolating Iran is a central goal for the petrodollar regimes headed by Saudi Arabia. Over the last 30 years the Saudis have given many billions of dollars to encourage the spread of a fundamentalism similar to their Wahabi Islam. To these ends Saudi Arabia seeks to turn Sunnis against Shias in Iraq and Lebanon and would like to lead Syria to a regime change.

A last complication: “Effendi” Erdogan [referring to the Turkish prime minister by a name used by the Ottomans who ruled the region before the French] is being encouraged by the United States and Israel to play a role that could be a diplomatic bother for Israel and make it look like he was distancing himself from Israel. A rapprochement between Syria and Turkey (and the US ) could reduce Syria's need to depend on Iran as a kind of base area against Israel . In this complex geopolitical knot, everyone involved – the US , the Saudis, Turkey and Israel – all have an interest in regime change in Syria, so as to isolate Iran, get rid of Hezbollah and make Turkey the leading force in the region.

But the wind could go either way. One way is that the unfolding of events could favour imperialist geopolitical interests. The other is that events could make their plans fail – if the revolutionary process continues, and political society takes part in the Syrian revolt, and if these processes in Egypt and Tunisia continue and are not aborted by the army.

The most important question is the following: whatever happens – a civil war, foreign intervention, a coup, Bashar being able to carry out reforms – will the March 15 revolutionary process continue and give birth to a new left and new leadership?

Whatever the present movement may achieve, it could be usurped by the military and the bourgeoisie. As of today,  May 13, that process is continuing in the streets of Egypt, Tunisia and Syria, and today’s demonstrations are also emphasising support for Palestine. So the important thing is not to launch a revolution but to continue it, as the Bolsheviks quickly learned.