With the NATO victory in Libya, the regional Arab revolt faces a turning point. In our last issue we explained that Egypt was the key to the fate of that revolt, because of the weight of its working class, that class’s militancy and state of mobilization, and new political projects in its ranks.
Now NATO has boots and suits on the ground in Libya. We will all look carefully for any signs of grassroots resistance to the dictates of NATO and its corporate/bank sponsors. Imperialism’s victory in Libya threatens to reverse the forward motion that Egypt and Tunisia have provided for months. Resisting that backward trend depends in part on continuing and heightened efforts by Egyptian workers.
But in the short term, the pivot on which the direction of the Arab uprisings will revolve is events in Syria and Palestine, and in particular, on the ability of grassroots forces among Syrians and Palestinians to maintain leadership of their movements.
On Aug. 28, the Washington Post and New York Times both printed articles quoting ruling-class politicians and advisors speculating on whether events in Libya will lead to a similar intervention in Syria. The consensus seems to be that such an intervention isn’t practical—for now—given the different politics of the country, its tighter enmeshing in regional affairs (rivalries and alliances with Turkey and Iran, for instance), as well as the absence of a clear voice in the anti-regime opposition for such meddling.
But the imperialists are desperately looking for bourgeois opposition figures willing to call for intervention—and, as in all the other Arab revolts, the U.S. is encouraging its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, etc.) to encourage Muslim Brotherhood and salafi involvement in the uprising so as to have more pliable clients should Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fall.
The Post claimed to have found evidence of growing support for intervention among Syrians, alleging that “protesters in recent days have carried banners calling for a no-fly zone over Syria akin to the one that facilitated the Libyan revolt. ‘We want any [intervention] that stops the killing,’ said one banner held by protesters in the beleaguered town of Homs.” We cannot yet determine if such incidents really occurred or are the product of wishful thinking by the Post’s editors.
The same day The Times also claimed to have detected a pro-intervention shift in mood. “For now at least, the administration and its allies in the Libya action have stopped far short of threatening military force in Syria. Still, the officials argue that creating the broadest possible diplomatic pressure … could ultimately have an effect and, if Mr. Assad continues his violent crackdown on dissenters, lay the foundation for more aggressive action.”
Yet a senior U.S. official admitted to The New York Times reporter that “the Syrian opposition doesn’t want foreign military forces.” But, said The Times, “things could always escalate. ‘There’s no appetite to engage in military action in Syria,’ Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group said. But, he added, ‘If 30,000 people were killed there, that would be a different story.’”
As was the case in Yemen, Libya, and Egypt, opposition figures have been meeting outside Syria to draw up programs for a post-Assad regime, and have even met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But as in those other countries, the movement’s leadership in the streets has rejected such attempts to speak in the masses’ name.
And fortunately, that movement in the streets is maintaining its opposition to intervention. On Aug. 29 the Local Coordinating Committees in Syria posted a statement on their Facebook page criticizing calls for foreign intervention made by more conservative elements in the Syrian opposition after the taking of Tripoli by NATO. The LCCs wrote: “While we understand the motivation to take up arms or call for military intervention, we specifically reject this position as we find it unacceptable politically, nationally, and ethically. Militarizing the revolution would minimize popular support and participation. … the Revolution is intended to ensure the independence and unity of Syria, its people, and its society.”
It’s unclear if the statement’s rejection of armed resistance is a defensive formulation made by organizers who want to put the onus for eventual battle on the regime, or if they really believe the revolution can triumph without a resort to arms. But the most important thing for now is their explicit rejection of imperialist intervention.
Class forces in the Syrian revolution
Like most players in the Syrian rebellion, the LCCs have generally limited themselves to calling for political reform, democratic elections, a revised constitution, etc. A clearly delineated social program addressing the very inequality and exploitation that helped spark the revolt has yet to be produced.
But what is key is that all accounts depict the LCCs as a widespread, genuinely grassroots phenomenon, in which thousands of youth have initiated, organized, and coordinated protests in every major city and town in the country. That mass base is providing countless venues for daily discussions of the country’s politics, which provides opportunities to forge just such a desperately needed social program.
It is clear that the masses will continue their heroic, persistent mobilizations despite knowing that each time they march, some will fall victim to the bullets and batons of Bashar’s military and thugs. A similar heroism has been seen in Yemen, where hundreds of thousands are still mobilizing repeatedly in the face of similar atrocities.
But this cannot go on forever. The masses know if they give up now, retaliation and repression by the Syrian regime will ensue on a horrific scale. On the other hand, the regime is weak enough that it can only mount counterassaults against one or two cities at a time. But the LCCs have also not yet been able to launch protests of significant size in more than a handful of places on the same day.
What, then, would rouse sufficient numbers all across the country to put an end to the regime? In Egypt, in the last two days of the revolt before Mubarak’s fall, workers began to go on strike en masse. At the same time cracks in the army and signs of rank-and-file soldier revolt were beginning to appear. That was the turning point—just as worker strikes and military revolts were the turning point in ousting the Shah of Iran in 1979, another regime which appeared, after months of murderous repression of huge demonstrations, to be invincible.
The numbers protesting in Syria have been almost unbelievably impressive given the toll exacted. Of course, it’s not just a question of numbers, but also of politics. Assad gave backhanded acknowledgment of this when announcing new subsidies on fuel and food, and increased government salaries, to try to quiet protesters.
From the opposite direction, the LCCs will have to make clear to those workers and peasants still hesitating to join the revolution that their material lot will be concretely improved with the regime’s ouster. Once they are convinced of that, they, as workers did in Egypt and Iran, will not only flood the streets but will begin themselves to take over the workplaces and government edifices where their exploiters and oppressors currently sit. And in dialogue with their brothers in the army, they will turn a rivulet of defections into a floodtide of mutiny.
Several Syrian activists and journalists have noted the role of such class issues and forces in the revolution. In his column “’The Syrian “Colloquial’: The Uprising of the Working Society,” Yassin Al Haj Saleh wrote: “The uprising is fighting, in very cruel conditions, a class of special interests and their supporters from other classes. … The uprising has brought together, for the first time in Syria’s contemporary history, a multitude that was despised and isolated from public life, together with the most vital and faithful sectors of youth and intellectuals from the educated middle class. As for the owners of Mercedes and Four Wheel Drives, the great majority of their ranks are with the regime.” (The column appeared in the Lebanese magazine Al-Adab and was translated by jadaliyya.com.)
“The Syrian uprising has a class-related character that is perhaps more prominent than what has emerged in other Arab uprisings. It erupted during the largest process of privatizing public wealth to benefit a corrupt elite with intimate ties to the ruling cabal. The uprising has consciously targeted those corrupt elements. … It spread in the towns and municipalities that have suffered marginalization, unemployment and poverty more than other places.”
“The uprising,” he concludes, “is the rebellion of working society, par excellence, against the society of power and privilege.” But that fact must find open political expression, argued Hassan Khaled Chatila, a member of the Syrian Communist Action Party, in a May interview with A World to Win News Service. He noted that “conditions [in Syria] 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.”
Chatila argued that to avoid either a military coup which would bring another Assad-type figure to power, or a descent into civil war along religious and ethnic lines, it is necessary “to mobilize millions of Syrians,” and to do so “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.”
The key question, Chatila concludes, is “will the March 15 revolutionary process continue and give birth to a new left and new leadership? … [T]he important thing is not to launch a revolution but to continue it, as the Bolsheviks quickly learned.”
Unfortunately, a completely different class perspective on the revolt’s prospects is expressed by Burhan Ghalyoun, the most widely quoted leader of the opposition inside Syria (as opposed to those living outside the country). He said in an interview reprinted in jadaliyya.com that he believes what will be decisive for the revolt is the coming over of “businessmen, professionals, manufacturers, and economists”—sectors that are seeking “stability.”
And while he rejects foreign military intervention, he has misplaced hope in a regional conference of governments such as Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt to mediate a solution.
An “anti-imperialist camp”?
Meanwhile, the waves of disgust with the Assad regime are mounting higher—and not just from his lying former allies in Washington, Paris, and London, but among fighters for liberation around the world, including from some among those who previously held illusions about Assad’s “anti-imperialist” credentials.
One crucial moment in the expansion of this consciousness was the regime’s Aug. 14 shelling of the port city of Latakia. Among the targets was a Palestinian refugee camp, leading to the desperate flight of thousands. This provoked an angry column by British MP and Palestine solidarity activist George Galloway denouncing the hypocrisy of a regime that claims to be a leader of the “resistance [to Israel] camp.”
Similar denunciations of Assad’s supposed pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist and anti-U.S. credentials came from As’ad Abu Khalil: “It seems that the Syrian army does not mind being used against a civilian population, while being trained to avoid any contact with Israel.” Abu Khalil noted that “the Assad regime’s calculations were never about liberating Palestine or about empowering resistance against Israel,” describing the “Machiavellian” record of twists and turns, and outright surrenders, motivated by its own desire to stay in power.
Similarly, in a February 2005 interview with International Viewpoint, Syrian Trotskyist Monif Mulhem noted that the regime “is incapable by its nature of resisting U.S. imperialism, exactly as Saddam’s regime was incapable. “On the contrary, the regime is even our greatest weakness in the anti-imperialist struggle. The absence of democratic liberties weakens terribly our capacity to respond.”
Reflecting this consciousness—one far in advance of those who promote illusions in Assad’s “anti-imperialist” credentials—is the common chant among Syrian protesters denouncing Assad as a coward, and asking why his guns are trained on Syrians and Palestinians while Israel occupies Syria’s Golan Heights and murders civilians in Gaza.
If the Syrian uprising can stay mass-based and independent, it could also have an important impact in deepening and radicalizing the regional character of the revolts. For instance, after a demonstration in Beirut in support of the Syrian uprising was attacked by pro-Assad thugs, Bassem Chit, a member of Lebanon’s Socialist Forum/Al-Mountada Alishtiraki, wrote in International Viewpoint that “the revolutionary left, along with some independent activists, have been pushing since the outbreak of the Tunisian revolution to create a political space that gathers popular support to the Arab revolutions as a whole, and pushing to look at this revolutionary wave as a process, that engages the whole of Arab masses…
“We call on all progressive and revolutionary currents to heighten the level of support to the Arab masses in their struggle for freedom, and especially in Syria, as it is one of the hardest knots in this revolutionary wave, and to stand united against the interference of Western powers in these revolutions, and to show that the only real ally for these uprisings and revolutions are the world masses and not Western ruling classes.”
>The article above was written by Andrew Pollack, and first appeared in the September 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.