Revolution #265, April 8, 2012

Background: The U.S., Syria, and the Anti-Assad Uprising

The year-long anti-regime uprising in Syria began in March 2011 with a "Day of Dignity" protest in the capital Damascus demanding the release of political prisoners and a “Day of Rage” action in the southern city of Deraa. There, a number of protesters were shot dead, sparking a wave of revulsion and mass protests against the blood-soaked tyranny of President Bashar al-Assad . Since then, the regime has attempted to violently crush the opposition. At this writing, resistance to the Assad regime is continuing in different ways, and the future of the uprising and Assad’s rule remains in play.

Different social faultlines fueled this revolt. Syria, like other Arab countries, has experienced a demographic explosion, with birth rates rising rapidly and youth making up an increasing percentage of the population. These youth face a future without enough jobs, poor education, and without basic freedoms to speak out, organize, or assemble. Under Assad’s tightly controlled and highly centralized police state, the middle class has been suffocated politically and economically—as Assad and his closest supporters monopolized the mainlines of Syria’s imperialist-dominated economy.

There are also religious and national differences at play. The French and British colonialists established Syria (as well as Lebanon and Iraq) on confessional (religious) lines in the aftermath of World War 1. Since then, the core of the regime has been drawn mainly from among Alawi (a branch of Shia Islam) clans, who make up some 12 percent of Syria’s population, with a base of support among Christian forces, who comprise another 10 percent. Sunnis, the bulk of Syria’s population, are held down and disadvantaged. (There are some 47 different religious and ethnic groups within Syria, including Kurds, Druze, Armenian, Bedouin, and Turkomen communities.)

Salameh Kaileh, a Palestinian Marxist living in Syria told A World to Win News Service that the uprising was sparked by middle class forces in the countryside, but now involves all social classes in smaller provincial cities, including the merchants and local capitalists. The uprising has mainly been rooted among the Sunni majority and the Kurds. From the start, reactionary Islamist currents have been a significant component of the uprising, while a revolutionary communist pole has been absent. (Syria’s revisionist and reformist “left” has largely—and shamefully—supported the Assad regime.) (“Syria, No to Assad, no to foreign intervention!,” A World To Win News Service, February 13, 2012)

The principal forces that have emerged to contend for leadership of the uprising at this point are all reactionaries: They include the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood (The New York Times reported protesters in Homs were chanting “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the grave”), the “Free Syrian Army,” made up largely of former members of Assad’s military and security apparatus, and the “Syrian National Council,” made up of pro-Western bourgeois exile forces. All three have called for U.S.-led intervention in the conflict. Different regional powers—including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are also actively in involved in aiding and shaping Syria’s opposition. (“Syria’s Sectarian Fears Keep Region on Edge,” New York Times, February 28)

The U.S. and the Assad Regime: A Record of Conflict and Collaboration

U.S. antagonism to the Assad regime is not driven by its brutality. In fact, the regime’s brutality has made it an asset to the U.S. and Israel in certain ways. Under the Bush “war on terror,” Syria was among the countries to which captured suspects were “renditioned” to be tortured. In the case of Syria this took place under the “reformer” Bashar who’d taken over after his father, Hafez al-Assad, died in 2000. The regime’s 1982 massacre of some 10,000 people in Homs to suppress an Islamist uprising did not generate calls for the regime’s overthrow or a refusal to deal with it.

“[T]he Syrian regime has at times supported U.S. foreign policy goals in the region,” Professor Stephen Zunes writes, “such as suppressing Palestinian and leftist forces in Lebanon in the mid- to late 1970s, contributing troops to the U.S.-led ‘Desert Shield’ operation in 1990 following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, supporting a coup against a pro-Saddam Lebanese prime minister that same year, providing intelligence and other support against al-Qaeda and other extremists, supporting tough anti-Iraq resolutions while on the UN Security Council, and becoming a destination for ‘extraordinary rendition’ of suspected Islamist radicals captured by the United States.” (“Military Intervention in Syria is a Bad Idea,” Foreign Policy in Focus, March 30)

At the same time, the U.S. posture toward Syria has been marked by sharp tensions and antagonisms. Hafez al-Assad came to power in a military coup in 1970. His Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party was a reactionary nationalist organization, linked with and similar to Iraq’s Ba’ath Party headed by Saddam Hussein. Under Assad, Syria sought an expanded role in the regional and global capitalist orders, without fundamentally challenging either, in part through building ties with the imperialist Soviet Union. So the U.S. sought to weaken and contain the Assad regime as part of preventing Soviet inroads into the region, and because its interests—and Israel’s—often clashed sharply with Syria’s, for instance in Lebanon.

“Overall, however, the U.S.-Syrian relationship has been marked by enormous hostility,” Zunes notes. “The United States has backed the right-wing Israeli government in its illegal occupation and colonization of southwestern Syria, which Israel invaded in June of 1967, despite offers by the Syrian government to recognize Israel and provide security guarantees in return for a full Israeli withdrawal. Indeed, in 2007, the United States effectively blocked Israel from resuming negotiations with Syria. U.S. Navy jets repeatedly attacked Syrian positions in Lebanon during 1983-84 and U.S. army commandoes attacked a border village in eastern Syria in 2008, killing a number of civilians. The United States imposed draconian sanctions on the country in 2003, refusing to lift them until Syria unilaterally halted development of certain kinds of weapons systems already possessed by such U.S. allies as Israel, Egypt, and Turkey.”

The year before, in 2002, the Bush regime considered Syria in the category of countries associated with its “axis of evil,” and slated it for regime change (with Undersecretary of State John Bolton claiming that Syria was acquiring weapons of mass destruction). But the unexpected difficulties and turbulence the imperialists encountered first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan derailed those immediate ambitions. The U.S. has continued—in changing circumstances, and with different tactics—to fight to maintain its grip on the region, even as it recognized that some of the forms of that control (for example, the make up of the Egyptian regime) might have to shift.

“The U.S. followed an often ambiguous policy toward Syria for many years, working to isolate and weaken the regime while also recognizing its importance in preserving the status quo in the region at times when that has been a prime American goal. Bashar al-Assad's father Hafez crushed the revolutionary Palestinian movement then centred in Lebanon in the 1970s, enforced peace with Israel despite the Zionist occupation of Syria's Golan Heights since 1967, and supported the US during the 1991 invasion of Iraq.” (“Syria, No to Assad, no to foreign intervention!”, A World to Win News Service, February 13 2012)

Even with these conflicts, Syria under Assad was considered a “linchpin of the old security order in the Middle East,” as The New York Times (Feb 25)* recently put it. This is one reason the Obama administration has moved so cautiously and so far refrained from open military intervention. Diplomatic relations were warming somewhat in recent years, and the U.S. refrained from calling for the end of Assad’s rule until five months into the current uprising.

However, the continuation of the uprising, the violence of Assad’s crackdown, and especially the U.S.’s increased necessity to confront, weaken, even take down the Islamic Republic of Iran has pushed the U.S. toward a more aggressive stance and stepped up intervention of various kinds against Assad’s rule.

* “Syrian Conflict Poses the Risk of Wider Strife,” New York Times, February 25, [back]

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