Syria after the uprisings: the political economy of state resilience

Syria After the Uprisings: the political economy of state resilience
By Joseph Daher
Pluto Press, London, 2019

Reviewed by Chris Slee

January 13, 2020 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — This book is a comprehensive account of the rebellion against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. In it, Joseph Daher explains the reasons for the rebellion, which began in 2011 as a response to political repression, corruption, economic inequality and poverty, and why it has failed to overthrow Assad.

The book provides a brief historical background of the country. After Syria gained independence from France in 1946, there was a rise of leftist and nationalist sentiment. In 1963, military officers belonging to the Baath Party, an Arab nationalist organisation, led a coup and began to implement what Daher calls "populist" economic policies. These included land reform and nationalisation of some capitalist enterprises.

However, in 1970 defence minister Hafez al-Assad seized power in an intra-party coup. He repressed all dissent, whether nationalist, leftist, liberal or Islamist. He also began a gradual process of reversing progressive reforms and privatising the economy.

Daher describes the Assad regime as "patrimonial", meaning that power was concentrated in the hands of "one family and its clique". (Page xi)

The regime also had a sectarian aspect. The Assad family were members of the Alawi religious minority, and appointed other Alawis to many key positions.

But this should not be oversimplified. Some business people, religious leaders and army officers belonging to the Sunni religious majority also benefited from, and politically supported, the Assad regime. Most Alawis remained poor.

In 2000, Hafez al-Assad died and was replaced by his son Bashar al-Assad. Initially, there was some relaxation of repression. People began holding discussion forums and there were calls for an end to martial law and freedom for political prisoners. Kurds protested against discrimination, while women campaigned for their rights.

However these movements were soon met with new waves of repression.

Meanwhile neoliberal economic policies were deepened. There was a gradual privatisation of schools and healthcare. Foreign investment and private banks were encouraged. Inequality, poverty and unemployment grew. State farms were privatised, with the main beneficiaries being "a class of entrepreneurs and investors close to the regime". (p.25)

There was a "mafia-style process of regime-led privatisation" (p.26), as relatives and associates of Assad enriched themselves. An example was Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of Bashar al-Assad and the richest man in Syria, whose empire includes telecommunications, oil and gas, construction, banks, airlines and retail.

Discontent grew. Daher summarises the reasons:

The absence of democracy and the growing impoverishment of large parts of Syrian society, in a climate of corruption and increasing social inequalities, prepared the ground for the popular insurrection, which thus needed no more than a spark. (p.37)

The spark came from events in other Arab countries. Daher says:

Uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere inspired large segments of the Syrian population to take to the streets with similar demands for freedom and dignity (in other words, democracy, social justice, and equality). (p.281)

Initially the movement was peaceful, and the language of the protestors was in most cases democratic and inclusive of ethnic and religious minorities.

But this peaceful movement was met with violent repression. In response, protestors increasingly took up arms, and were joined by deserters from the Assad regime's army. The armed resistance became known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), although it was never a unified force. There were numerous local armed groups that acted independently.

Facing the overwhelming military power of the Assad regime, the poorly armed rebels sought outside assistance. They got aid from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as private sources in the Gulf. But this aid came with strings attached.

The religiously conservative Gulf donors favoured groups that had an Islamic fundamentalist ideology. Daher says:

This situation not only generally strengthened Salafist factions, but it pushed other armed opposition groups and fighters to join these religious fundamentalist brigades in order to be provided with essential weapons and ammunition. (p.67)

This contributed to "a process of Islamisation of the uprising". (p.66)

This alienated religious minorities and many other people from the uprising. Referring to "the various Islamic fundamentalist and jihadist movements", Daher says: "Their sectarian propaganda and open endorsement of violence against minorities had scared away segments of the population who did not identify or agree with this ideology" (p.146)

During the early stages of the protest movement, people of all religions had participated, including Alawis. But the repression of peaceful protest, and the growth of armed Islamist groups, made such participation much more difficult. As a result, very few minority members joined the armed struggle: the rebels were overwhelmingly Sunni.

The Assad regime deliberately instigated sectarian violence in some parts of the country. Daher says:

The spread of sectarianism was a key part of undermining the inclusive message of the uprising. Massacres were committed by pro-regime militias and/or Shabihas [paramilitary groups], mostly with Alawi backgrounds in some specific areas, targeting poor Sunni villages and popular neighborhoods in mixed regions... (p.91)

Some rebel groups have also carried out sectarian violence:

Islamic fundamentalist and jihadist movements (such as the IS [Islamic State], Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and Jaysh al-Islam) have also engaged in sectarian massacres and demographic changes in some regions, although not to a similar level. (p.98)

The rise of reactionary religious groups weakened support for the uprising. These groups "repelled not only many religious and ethnic minorities but also sectors of the Arab Sunni populations", according to Daher. (p.112)

There were numerous protests against the authoritarian practices of these groups in areas they controlled. These protests were repressed, and democracy activists were imprisoned, tortured and murdered. Daher gives an example from the town of Douma, which was controlled by Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam):

In December 2013, important figures of the protest movement and of the democratic aspirations of the uprising, Razan Zaytouneh, Wael Hamadeh, Samira Khalil and Nazem Hammadi, were kidnapped from their workplace, the Centre for Documentation of Violations in Douma, by armed, masked men. Jaysh al-Islam was widely believed to be behind their kidnapping and subsequent assassination. (p.136)

Daher describes the "reactionary Islamic fundamentalist and jihadist forces" as "the second wing of the counterrevolution after the Assad regime". (p.13)

Kurdish struggle

Another problem was the hostility of much of the rebel movement to the Kurdish struggle.

There was a history of "political, economic and cultural discrimination" against the Kurds in Syria (p.151-152). The Kurdish language was severely restricted. In 1962, 120,000 Kurds were deprived of Syrian citizenship.

The Assad regime continued these discriminatory policies. Those campaigning for Kurdish rights were repressed.

Despite this, Hafez al-Assad allowed Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group fighting for the rights of Turkey's Kurds to stay in Syria for several years. At the time there was conflict between Syria and Turkey over other issues.

But in 1998, after Syrian-Turkish relations had improved, Ocalan was expelled and many PKK supporters were imprisoned.

Syrian Kurds who supported the PKK formed the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in 2003. Like other Kurdish groups, they were subject to severe repression.

In 2011, the protests that began in Arab areas of Syria quickly spread to Kurdish areas. According to Daher, "demonstrators called for freedom and brotherhood between Arabs and Kurds". (p.151-152)

The regime made concessions, freeing some Kurdish political prisoners and granting citizenship to some of the Kurds who had been denied it. But protests continued. Local coordinating committees were formed in Kurdish areas, and cooperated with similar bodies elsewhere in Syria.

But such cooperation declined in 2012. Daher says:

A number of Kurdish activists and committees initially welcomed the establishment of the FSA.  However, they grew increasingly at odds with it following the foreign aid and sponsorship that some FSA groups received from foreign powers, Turkey in particular, and their increasingly religious extremist practices and hostile attitudes towards Kurdish political demands and symbols. Similarly, there were complaints that many Arab activists had either tacitly supported or engaged in anti-Kurdish rhetoric since the beginning of the uprising... As one Kurdish activist from Aleppo put it, seeing Arab revolutionaries treat them like the regime pushed them increasingly toward the PYD. (p.153).

The PYD had for some time been distrustful of the rebel movement, because of its links to Turkey and the growing influence of Islamic fundamentalism.

The Syrian National Council was established in Istanbul in October 2011 as an umbrella organisation for the opposition. The Kurdish National Congress, an alliance of Syrian Kurdish groups (not including the PYD), had discussions with the SNC about the possibility of uniting. However, the SNC rejected the KNC's demands, such as recognition of Kurds as a nation within Syria, and federalism in a post-Assad Syria. "This resulted in the withdrawal of the KNC from unity talks with the SNC, after which they accused Turkey of excessively influencing the SNC's policy", says Daher. (p.159)

This experience showed that the PYD's distrust of the SNC had been justified, and resulted in increased support for the PYD.

The PYD and Rojava self-administration

In July 2012 the PYD took control of three predominantly Kurdish areas in northern Syria, known collectively as Rojava. Assad's troops withdrew, except for a small presence in two cities.

Daher claims that the regime's withdrawal was "probably the result of a tacit agreement with the PYD". (p.161)

But in fact the withdrawal was a result of popular pressure. The PYD mobilised the population to demand the withdrawal of Assad's army and crowds of local people, backed up by armed fighters, surrounded army bases. (This is documented in the book Revolution in Rojava by Michael Knapp, Anja Flach and Ercan Ayboga)

The PYD spoke of themselves as a "third current", distinct from both the Assad regime and the chauvinist and Islamist opposition. It established armed forces, the YPG (Peoples Protection Units) and YPJ (Women's Protection Units), to defend Rojava against any attacks.

In subsequent years the YPG/YPJ were involved in some armed clashes with the regime, but much more severe conflict with some rebel groups.

On the other hand, there was cooperation between the YPG/YPJ and some FSA groups to fight IS. This led to the formation of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in 2015.

After the PYD took control of Rojava, there were attacks on Kurdish towns by reactionary rebel groups. This caused many Kurds who had previously been critical of the PYD to work with it in fighting these attacks.

Daher quotes Kurdish activist Shiyar Youssef:

Even those most critical of the PYD started to see it as the 'lesser of two evils' following the attacks of FSA, Islamist and jihadist forces against Kurdish-populated areas. I know many Kurdish activists in Qamishli, Amuda, and other areas who, before these developments, used to organise demonstrations and write against the PYD, but have now suddenly started volunteering in the ranks of the YPG to fight against the Islamists because if they won, they would impose their rule and their values that are alien to the local population. (p162-163)

Daher acknowledges that gains have been made in Rojava under the leadership of the PYD - particularly in the area of women's liberation:

PYD-governed areas were hailed for their inclusion and participation of women in all sectors of society, including the military struggle, the secularisation of laws and institutions, and to some extent, the integration and participation of various ethnic and religious minorities. (p.186)

But he claims that the PYD is repressive towards dissent. He speaks of "the authoritarian practices of PYD forces against rival Kurdish political actors and activists from other communities". (p.186)

It is true that the PYD has at times carried out repressive measures against opposition parties, but this to be expected in a society at war and under siege. Attacks by Turkish-backed groups began immediately after the Rojava revolution. Turkey imposed an economic blockade against Rojava, as did some reactionary rebel groups. (p.167) The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the government of the Kurdish region of Iraq, which had close economic and political ties with Turkey, also periodically closed its border with Rojava, cutting off supplies.

The repressive measures taken by the Rojava administration against some opposition groups (mainly those aligned with the KRG) can be compared with the repression in Russia following the 1917 revolution, and in Cuba following the 1959 revolution. A society under siege is unlikely to be a model of democracy.

The fact that repressive measures were a response to the pressures of a hostile environment, rather than indicating a desire to create a dictatorial regime, is shown by the moves towards democracy when pressures eased up a bit. In late 2017, after IS had been driven out of much of northeastern Syria, local council elections were held.

The first round of elections, for the leaders of local communes, was held in September. The second round, for representatives to town, city and regional councils, was held in December.

Daher reports that in the second round: "The elections included 21 parties that represented Kurds, Arabs, Christians and Assyrians from Rojava, with more than 12,000 candidates".  (p.188)

However Daher reports that "the third and final round [of the elections] was to be held in January 2018, but it was postponed and has still not occurred". (p.180) He fails to mention the reason for the postponement: Turkey was preparing to invade Afrin, which it did in January 2018. (Daher mentions the invasion elsewhere in the book, but does not link it to the postponement of the elections).

The inability to hold the third round of the elections due to the impending Turkish invasion is an example of how democracy was limited by objective conditions.

Foreign intervention

Various foreign powers have intervened in the Syrian civil war. Russia, Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah intervened in support of the Assad regime. Turkey and the Gulf states aided the rebels, but favoured the most reactionary among them.

The United States gave some aid to rebel groups, but did not want to see the regime overthrown. Rather it wanted to bring about the replacement of Assad by others within the ruling elite. Daher summarises US policy as follows:

The regime must be maintained with only superficial changes and integrating opposition actors linked to Western nations, Turkey and Gulf monarchies... (p.210)

But even this limited aim was soon abandoned. After IS captured large areas of Syria and Iraq, including the city of Mosul, in 2014, the US focused on fighting it. This led it to an alliance with the SDF, who were also fighting IS. However, the US never supported the political goals of the Rojava revolution.

Turkey also abandoned the idea of overthrowing Assad, but for a different reason. Turkey was hostile to the Rojava revolution (which had begun spreading beyond Rojava), and worried about the growing strength of the SDF. Turkish troops entered northern Syria at Jarablus in August 2016 to block futher advances by the SDF, and then invaded Afrin in January 2018. In October 2019 (too late for inclusion in this book) they invaded northeastern Syria. Turkish troops were accompanied by former rebel fighters.

The future

Daher says:

Although the war is not finished and some territories were still outside the domination of the regime at the beginning of 2019, the regime's survival and maintenance was nearly achieved, despite being significantly weakened and having important internal contradictions. (p.ix)

Assad seems to have won the war, due to two main factors: aid from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah; and the flaws of the rebels themselves, particularly the chauvinism and religious bigotry that alienated ethnic and religious minorities.

Daher says that "the conditions that led to the uprisings are still present", and "new explosions of popular anger are to be expected". (p.294) The problem, in his view, continues to be the lack of a "viable, organised opposition".