In their battle to rid themselves of the murderous, corrupt Assad regime, the Syrian people faced a succession of obstacles. Decades of repression had left organizers trying to make up for lost time when the revolt broke out. This was followed by a usurpation of leadership of the movement by various bourgeois forces, from the Muslim Brotherhood to pro-capitalist former regime or military officials, all seeking imperialist aid and intervention while promoting a military “strategy” divorced from and opposed to the needs or capacity of the masses. Now we see increasingly direct intervention by the U.S. and its Saudi, Turkish, Qatari, and other proxies. Yet through all this, mass organizing has continued—whatever the ebbs and flows.
As we go to press, two outcomes look increasingly likely: (1) a “peace” plan brokered by the UN under U.S. direction, which garners Russian and Chinese support by leaving in power much of the old regime, and perhaps even Assad himself, while including some forces from the Syrian National Council/Free Syrian Army “opposition”; (2) stepped-up military aid to the SNC/FSA to deepen and prolong the civil war to the point where an imposed “peace” plan becomes more acceptable to all concerned.
“All concerned,” of course, does not include the grassroots movement that began the revolt, and which still persists. This movement, as throughout the Arab Revolution of the last two years, first took shape through neighborhood-based committees, which repeatedly mobilized in the face of murderous regime attacks.
But there are a number of indications that this movement can—if not soon, then surely over time—develop a program and strategy to oust Assad while keeping the imperialists and their traitorous Syrian flunkies at bay.
Evidence of this includes the continued mobilization at the grassroots level; the roots of the uprising in economic exploitation, and the resulting determination of the country’s workers, peasants, youth, and women to win liberation; and the historic regional potential and implications of the revolt.
In contrast to the overwhelming focus of the mainstream media on the political and military activities of the bourgeois, pro-intervention “opposition,” numerous leftist commentators point to continued activity at the grassroots.
For example, author Phyllis Bennis, associated with the Institute for Policy Studies and United for Peace and Justice, reported on June 28 that “the original non-violent opposition—broad and diverse, secular and faith-based”—is maintaining its opposition to arming of the opposition and to outside military intervention. What’s more, she claimed that street protests “are continuing despite civil war-like conditions. It appears that more public mobilizations … are on the rise again with broadly democratic participation, especially in and around the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo, once known as relative strongholds of regime support.”
Other reports focus on activism by particular sectors. A report dated June 30 from Britain’s MENA Solidarity Network (“The revolutionaries are our children”) described the efforts of women in the town of Zebdani, west of Damascus, who from the beginning of the revolt insisted on being in the forefront of the struggle: “We insisted that women stand in the first line. An argument started with the enthusiastic young men, as everyone wanted to lead the march. But we insisted, and pledged, that we will not allow the security forces to touch our children.”
Said the MENA reporter: “Women are taking an increasing role in the revolution. As well as writing placards and sewing revolution flags, we are rescuing the wounded, caring for the families of the detainees, as well as joining the demonstrations in increasing numbers. The Zebdani women produce a newspaper called Oxygen, which is published every 15 days.
“For the women, the revolution is no longer simply about bringing down of the regime—it is about transforming the whole of our society.”
An article published on June 8 in jadaliyya.com by Layla Al-Zubaidi (“Syria’s Creative Resistance”) pointed to grassroots efforts still ongoing to keep alive the uprising through cultural activities. She described “a wealth of satirical dramas, jokes, chants, graffiti slogans, videos, songs, and dances that have proliferated since Syrians began to rise up against the rule of the Assads.” These activities are to a certain extent a temporary substitute for demonstrations which are met with murderous gunfire, but—as was seen in the profusion of biting humor in Egypt’s squares—are also a permanent and valued part of the revolution.
For decades, wrote Al-Zubaidi, “Syrians would do no more than whisper. … Political jokes were kept within trusted circles and people were forced to bow to the iconography of their leader, a cult celebrated in schools, public spaces, cultural productions and the media. As the uprising evolved, the state media, sticking with the delusional narrative that all protesters are armed terrorists, has lost its grip on most of the public. A powerful counter-culture unlocked minds, drawing on popular tradition and skillfully exploiting the tools of modern communications technology.
One artist was quoted as saying, “It is not the elite artists or intellectuals who form the avant-garde, but the ordinary people. … I consider myself an expert on Syria,” he said, “But suddenly places are springing up out of nowhere and we’re hearing dialects that we never knew about. Now it’s the simple people in the country, whom everyone considered illiterates, who are giving us an education. Look at Kfar Nibl.”
Kfar Nibl, a village in northern Syria, “was entirely unknown until sarcasm and wit put it on the map. Kfar Nibl has become a trademark for the best and funniest slogans, shared and disseminated by activists and fans. When the Arab League monitors arrived in Damascus and took up residence at the Sheraton Hotel, a picture was passed around showing a group of villagers holding a banner that read: ‘The people of Kfar Nibl demand the building of 5-star hotels, so that we can attract the Arab monitors to visit us!’ Security forces invaded the village several times, but the slogans continue.”
“We should safeguard the civic soul of this revolution,” said another artist, “and I believe that women will be the leaders in that.
“He pointed out that it was young women who recently took their protest to the heart of political and business establishments. On April 10, 2012, the day that the ceasefire negotiated through Kofi Annan’s initiative was supposed to come into effect, 34-year-old Rima Dali poured white paint on her red dress in front of the parliament, holding up a sign that read: ‘Stop the killing. We want a homeland for all Syrians.’ A few days later, four young women sprawled like corpses on the floor of Damascino Mall while upper-class shoppers tripped around them.
“As biting dissent has stripped the regime of whatever legitimacy it once enjoyed, he bitterly admits, it is now naked violence and the higher stakes of international politics that keep it standing. He finds wisdom in an entry on a Facebook page: ‘The regime is gone, but how do we get rid of it?’” This is a common refrain in writings and speeches of oppositionists: now that the masses have lost their fear of Assad, the regime has already fallen in their hearts, in their vision of their future: all that remains is to unify and expand the forces needed to remove it physically.
Another opening to make that so comes in the increasing defections from Assad’s army, defections by soldiers whose loyalty will now be contended for by the pro-imperialist opposition and the grassroots movement. The mainstream media constantly points to Washington’s frustration with the inability of the varied local militias who have adopted the rubric “Free Syrian Army” to unite in a disciplined force worthy of the name “army.”
Those divisions can be a leverage point for local committees trying to organize armed elements who are resisting control by the SNC and its masters. The committees can insist that the defectors put their arms under the leadership of the movement, and return to the original role from which many of them sprang—defense of peaceful protests against regime attacks. And what would be more natural than that defectors returning to their hometowns and villages should maintain their arms but use them in defense of their communities?
Heightened exploitation in Assad’s Syria
Phyllis Bennis, cited above, is one of many authors and activists pointing to the continued support for Assad among the country’s bourgeoisie: “Despite his government’s history of brutal repression, Bashar al-Assad still enjoys significant support from parts of Syria’s business elites, especially in Damascus and Aleppo.”
In the same vein, Syrian exile Khalil Habash, member of the Syrian Revolutionary Left (Yassar Thawri Suri), described the policies of exploitation, corruption, and enrichment that have sustained the Assad regime. A melding of military and security officials, grown wealthy from state-owned assets, with a restored wing of the old private bourgeoisie, benefited from successive waves of privatization and neoliberal austerity policies. Such policies, he wrote, have also “satisfied the upper class and foreign investors, especially from the Arab Gulf, by liberalizing the Syrian economy for their benefit and at the expense of the far majority of Syrians hit by inflation and the rising cost of living” (Habash’s May 29 article first appeared at http://www.newsocialist.org; reprinted at http://www.internationalviewpoint.org.).
But these same policies enraged the country’s workers and peasants, its youth suffering the same horrific rates of unemployment as those throughout the region. It is these policies, and the repression needed to enforce them, that eventually ignited the uprising. And with space to organize, the victims of these policies can develop a program to take economic power out of the hands of Assad and his followers, a program that could give renewed and heightened motivation for the grassroots to retake its leading role in the revolution.
Like other radical authors, Habash noted the origins of the revolt in the towns, villages, and neighborhoods most impacted by exploitation and crisis, from rural areas such as Idlib and Deraa to the working-class suburbs of Damascus and Aleppo, areas which all “show the massive involvement of the downtrodden.”
He notes the “successful campaigns of general strikes and civil disobedience in Syria in December 2011 that paralyzed large parts of the country,” campaigns that “showed the activism of the working class and exploited who are indeed the heart of the revolution. This is why the dictatorship has laid off more than 85,000 workers from January 2011 to February 2012, and closed 187 factories.”
As in Egypt, there were massive strikes in the years immediately before the revolution. The degradation of living standards of the majority, coupled with repression, led to visible protests since 2006. “In May 2006,” Habash wrote, “hundreds of workers of the Public Building Company in Damascus held a demonstration that erupted in clashes with security forces. In Homs, clashes broke out between the police and demonstrators protesting against the demolition of homes occupied by poor people. Data from 2007 shows that people living in extreme poverty, defined as those unable to obtain their basic food and non-food needs, rose to 2 million. About 62% of the people living in poverty are from rural areas and live in food insecurity or are vulnerable.
“In 2007, several clashes between the police and demonstrators took place in Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus. In 2008, demonstrations were held by workers in the port of Latakia, and Dhabia and Zabadani near Damascus. In 2009 and 2010, the regime also faced protests, until the beginning of revolution this year. Wealth gaps and inequality had continuously increased these last few years.”
We can be optimistic that, especially with the aid of working-class-based revolutionaries in Egypt and elsewhere in the region, and with solidarity from around the globe, Syria’s own revolutionaries will find a way to articulate the economic grievances of the masses in a way that makes clear to the country’s workers their potential to run society for their own benefit once Assad is ousted and the imperialists kept out. This clarity would fortify their efforts to unify and strengthen the local committees in which workers and the other exploited and oppressed are a majority.
Potential regional solidarity
Finally, there is the potential represented by the Syrian revolution’s regional, indeed global, significance.
This significance is manifested on the one hand by the eagerness of U.S. and European imperialist powers to use the country as a proxy battleground with its competitors in Russia and China. In fact, Syria is just a salient in the line of battle, the point along that line which at the moment is enduring the fiercest fire. The entire region is being fought for.
The awareness of the region’s masses that this is what is at stake reinforces, and is in turn reinforced by, their knowledge that the “anti-imperialist” Assad has every bit as much blood on his hands, and is every bit as much the enemy of his country’s working masses, as any of the other dictators recently overthrown or facing a mass movement seeking his overthrow.
Khalil Habash, cited above on the economic roots of the revolt, also hit the nail on the head concerning its regional implications and potential: “Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was right to say that post-revolution Egypt is a larger threat to Israel than Iran, and this can also be applied to Syria. A free, progressive, democratic and truly independent Egypt and Syria are infinitely more dangerous to the Zionist apartheid state and its occupied territories than the repressive Syrian and Islamic Republic.
“The Syrian revolution is part of the revolutionary process taking place in the Arab world, and should not be separated. The Syrian people are struggling like Egyptians, Tunisians, Bahrainis and other democrats, socialists and anti-imperialists in the region.
“The Syrian people are the true revolutionaries and anti-imperialists, and not the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. It is the Syrian population who welcomed Palestinians, Lebanese and Iraqi refugees when they were attacked and occupied by the imperialist powers such as Israel and the U.S. The victory of the Syrian revolution will open a new resistance front against the imperialist powers, while its defeat will strengthen them.”
But in the meantime, Palestinian refugees living under Assad face the same butchery as their Syrian sisters and brothers; over 150 Palestinians have been killed in attacks by Assad forces, 700 injured, and more than 35,000 detained. This makes the regime’s demagogic use of the Palestine struggle particularly embittering—but also particularly motivating for Palestinians wherever they are to organize solidarity with the Syrian revolution.
This solidarity has in the past been shown in war against corrupt and reactionary regimes—including against that of the Assads. California State University at Stanislaus professor As’ad Abukhalil recently reminded his readers of the counterrevolutionary role of Hafez Al-Assad in 1976, when a chance for the Arab Revolution to take a huge step forward in Lebanon, as Lebanese battled side by side with Palestinians, was crushed by Assad. “The Syrian regime,” he wrote, “intervened to smash a promising revolutionary movement that would have changed the map of the Arab East” (from Al-Akhbar English, reprinted at jadaliyya.com on June 22).
That promise can be realized again, and the chances of its doing so soon are increased by the continuing march of the revolution in Egypt, the steadfast resistance in Yemen and Bahrain, and by the foretaste of the next Intifada seen in the late June-early July days of revolt by Palestinians against their own corrupt “Palestinian Authority” for having invited Israeli Vice Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz (the man responsible for the 2002 massacre in Jenin) to Ramallah for negotiations.
People in the United States have an important part to play, by redoubling efforts to demand that Washington keep its hands off the revolution in Syria and everywhere throughout the region.
> The article above was written by Andrew Pollack, and is reprinted from the July 2012 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.