Defections from the army are happening on a growing scale, bolstering the ranks of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Ten months after the beginning of the revolution — and despite 6000 martyrs — the popular movement continues, though there are profound political divisions within the opposition.
The attempt to unite the opposition failed after the Syrian National Council (SNC) withdrew from the deal. This came a few days after signing an agreement with the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC) on a common political programme which refused Western military intervention in Syria. Many in the SNC, especially liberals and the Muslim Brotherhood, rejected this agreement because it opposed any foreign military intervention.
Both the SNC and NCCDC have been targets of criticism from Syrians for their constant attacks on each other — and for being more interested in power than in helping the struggle of the popular movement on the ground in practical ways.
A number of other problems can be linked to both groups. The SNC is a group of regime opponents in exile and is dominated by political parties, notably the Muslim Brotherhood and liberals, linked to Western imperialism and their clients in the Gulf, The SNC has called several times for foreign military intervention in Syria. It has also responded favourably to Western imperialists’ demands in declaring that a post-Assad Syria would weaken its ties with Iran and end Syria’s military alliance with Hamas and Hezbollah.
Under the SNC, Syria would have a closer relationship with Gulf countries, which are allied to Western powers, and would only use negotiations to reclaim t he occupied Golan Heights from Israel. The SNC has concentrated on assuring Western powers of its readiness to serve their political interests, in complete contradiction to the interests of the Syrian people, rather than reinforce the popular movement inside the country.
The NCCDC is a group inside the country, gathering together nationalists, leftists and Kurds. It opposes any foreign military intervention, seeing it as an attempt to manipulate the revolution. The NCCDC doesn’t want Syria “to become the victims of a war by proxy,” as it puts it, referring to the regional rivalry between the Gulf states and Iran.
It nevertheless has lost popularity among the Syrian people by not demanding the overthrow of the regime until recently — it instead proposed “dialogue” with the allegedly “moderate” elements of the regime. The NCCDC called for a gradual, scheduled transfer of power.
Why oppose foreign military intervention?
The debate around foreign military intervention is less about its possible implementation in the near future and more about the capacity of the Syrian opposition to protect the revolutionary process in the country from the imperialists. The latter, despite their declarations in favor of the Syrian people, only want to advance their interests and not the ones of the revolution and the Syrian popular movement.
What effect would a foreign military intervention have? Observe Iraq and Afghanistan, both without democracy, social justice or stability. The ongoing human catastrophe in both countries is indescribable.
The Libyan experience has also shown how destructive a foreign military intervention can be. The death toll in Libya when NATO intervened was perhaps 1000-2000 (according to UN estimates). Eight months later it is probably more than ten times that figure. Estimates of the numbers of dead over the last eight months — as NATO leaders vetoed ceasefires and negotiations — range from 10 000 up to 50 000. The National Transitional Council puts the losses at 30 000 dead and 50 000 wounded. Instability in Libya is also a consequence of this foreign intervention.
Foreign military intervention would threaten to put Syria under occupation for years. Again we can refer to the examples of Iraq and Afghanistan, where US forces are still on the ground. In Libya, the new authorities have asked for NATO forces to stay in the country.
The Syrian people do not want to replace an authoritarian regime with a foreign occupation, and this is also true for those struggling throughout the region. No imperialist country will protect them or deliver the democracy and social justice they desire.
Why support the popular movement and revolution in Syria?
The Syrian popular movement has been a mainly peaceful national movement demanding dignity, freedom, social justice, economic opportunities and political reform. The protesters’ main slogans are “one, one, one, the Syrian people are one,” as well as “the people want to overthrow the regime.”
Despite the growing militarization of a section of the Syrian revolution, the struggle has so far been mainly civilian in character, using strikes and demonstrations. The main opposition groups inside the country have actually refused to call for a general militarization of the revolution. They have nevertheless welcomed the role of the FSA in defending peaceful protests against the attacks of regime forces.
For example, the “Strike of Dignity” and civil disobedience campaign, which was launched on December 11, 2011, has been a success. There were massive demonstrations throughout the country, and at least four areas of Damascus and two in Aleppo were occupied by large groups of demonstrators for the first time. The Local Coordination Committees (LCC) claimed that 150 000 people were chanting in front of monitors in the capital, with security forces watching. Strikes happened in cities all over the country, while universities have also witnessed increasing growing numbers of demonstrations. The LCC documented 461 demonstrations on January 6. Recently Aleppo and Damascus have witnessed increasing numbers of demonstrations.
The Syrian opposition has continuously presented a united front against the threat of civil and sectarian war. Slogans such as as “We are all Syrians, we are united” are repeated constantly. In many demonstrations we have seen banners saying “no to sectarianism.” This is a popular and national uprising, bringing together all the communities of Syria.
Myths of the Syrian regime
In addition to being completely undemocratic, Syria is also far from being an anti-imperialist state struggling against the US and Israel, as its rulers claim.
Syria has avoided direct confrontation with Israel for nearly four decades, despite its calculated support to Palestinian and Lebanese resistance groups. With the exception of some air battles in 1982, Israel and Syria have not been in military conflict since 1973. Syria has not responded to direct attacks on its soil that have been widely attributed to Israel, including a 2007 air strike on a suspected nuclear reactor and the assassination of a top Lebanese resistance figure, Imad Moghniye, in 2008. During the Lebanese war in 2006, not one bullet was fired from Syrian territory.
Syria has engaged in many rounds of peace talks. Although these talks have not yielded an agreement, their repeated failure has led to nothing worse than continued chill. Israeli experts say that instability or regime change in Syria could change this long-standing arrangement. Syrian officials have repeatedly declared their readiness to sign a peace agreement with Israel as soon as the occupation of the Golan ends, while saying nothing about broader Palestinian issues. Rami Makhlouf, the cousin of President Bashar Al-Assad, declared in June 2011 that if there is no stability in Syria, there will be no stability in Israel, adding that no one can guarantee what will happen if something happens to the Syrian regime.
We should not forget that it was the regime of Bashar’s father, Hafez Al-Assad, that crushed the Palestinians and progressive movements in Lebanon in 1976, putting an end to their revolution. It also participated in the imperialist war against Iraq in 1991 with the US-led coalition. For the past 30 years the Syrian regime has arrested anyone in the country trying to develop resistance for the liberation of the Golan and Palestine.
The Palestinian refugees of Syria have increasingly been participating in the revolution among their Syrians brothers and sisters. They have suffered from the regime’s repression, with more than 40 martyrs and hundreds arrested by security forces.
It is the Syrian people who have pressured the regime to support resistance in the past. It is the Syrian population who welcomed Palestinian, Lebanese and Iraqi refugees when their countries were attacked and occupied by imperialist powers. A victory for the Syrian Revolution will open a new resistance front against the imperialist powers, while its defeat will strengthen them.
However, this situation may change rapidly if the imperial powers think that the risks involved in overthrowing the Syrian regime are diminishing. The problem with a section of the opposition calling for NATO assistance is that this is precisely the kind of change that will make the NATO powers think they can gamble successfully on overthrowing the regime.
Syria’s so-called anti-imperialist credentials are also undermined by its increasingly neoliberal economic policies. These are based on foreign investment from Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and the abandonment of social policies, notably by progressively cancelling price subsidies, which is leading to growing social inequalities and poverty.
The economic liberalization policies began to be implemented in the early 1990s and have accelerated since Bashar Al-Assad’s arrival in power in 2000. They have not been beneficial to the country’s economy or to society as a whole. On the contrary, they have benefited only a small oligarchy and a few of its clients.
Today, the Syrian popular uprising seals the failure of the regime’s project. The Baath Party regime was popular 30 years ago when it offered social advancement to people in rural areas and to religious minorities. Now the Baath Party is an empty shell. The uprisings in Deraa as well as in other rural areas, historic bastions of the Baath Party and the regime which had not taken part in the insurrections of the 1980s, demonstrate this failure.
The regime is actually the force that has fostered sectarian divisions. It built the army according to sectarian criteria to maintain loyalty. While the majority of the conscript soldiers are Sunni Muslims, reflecting their share of the population, the officer corps is made up predominantly of Alawis.
Nevertheless, this regime is above all a clientelist regime, which — beyond the security service apparatus — finds support among the predominantly Sunni and Christian capitalists in Aleppo and Damascus who have benefited from the neoliberal policies of recent years. The regime has built a network of loyalties with individuals from different communities through various ties, mainly economic. The policies of the regime have benefited a small oligarchy and a few of its clients.
The way forward
Local groups and coordination committees are the effective direct organizational form for the revolution. The political groups should support them and work on coordinating a clear and unified revolutionary strategy. From there we can build a revolutionary coalition gathering majority support.
The popular movement has united the different sections of society and especially the downtrodden of all religious affiliations who have suffered from the authoritarian and neoliberal policies of this clientelist and criminal regime. The Syrian people won’t back down and they will not stop until the regime is overthrown: Victory to the revolution and mercy to our martyrs!
Khalil Habash, a revolutionary socialist of Syrian origin, works with the Syrian revolutionary left group Yassar Thawri.