As the brutal regime of President Bashar Assad desperately tries to cling to power, a massive humanitarian crisis is engulfing the Syrian people. An estimated 23,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011, with the state being responsible for most of the deaths.
Over a quarter of a million people have fled the country, mainly to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. A further 1.2 million are internally displaced. The UN states that 2.5 million are in need of food and other aid.
The various rebel groups organised behind the front of the Free Syrian Army have been gaining ground in the north west of the country. Assad’s forces have been unable to disloge rebel fighters from Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.
The fragmentation at the top of the regime continues to indicate the extreme pressure they are under. On 18 July, four of Assad’s key security officials were assassinated. Prime minister Riyadh Hijab escaped and join the opposition on 6 August.
The Syrian capitalist class is mainly Sunni, and concentrated in Aleppo. That elite had accepted minority, sectarian Alawite rule (the Alawites are a 10% minority) on the understanding that its business interests will be protected. The elite is now caught in a bind: on the one hand the current government has failed to smash the rebellion and the economy is going to hell; on the other they are scared about the FSA, made up of the Sunni poor from outlying villages.
US academic Josh Landis notes: “The [Sunni business people] look out at the countryside and think: What if these people win? Are they going to respect capitalism? Are they going to preserve our wealth? Or are they going to come by and say, ‘Oh, you’ve been a collaborator for 40 years, and we’re going to take everything you own’? The [elite] don’t know.”
In the Kurdish north east of Syria the state has abdicated, allowing the Kurdish militias of the PKK to take control. The Turks have fought a long, bloody war against the PKK and are alarmed that it is regrouping in Syria.
The content of the rebellion remains as it was: a mass popular upsurge against Assad’s police state which is essentially both democratic and plebeian. The revolt has had the active sympathy of the Sunni Muslim workers and poor since its beginning; now the movement probably has majority support in the Christian, Palestinian and the Druze populations.
Nevertheless, some reactionary elements have appeared within the forces of the rebels. First, there has been a growth of independent, salafist Islamist militias, backed and funded from outside Syria. Second, there has been drift within the main body of the organised opposition towards both a more (Sunni Muslim) religious and a sectarian (Arab and anti-Alawite) stance. One chant heard in Hama is, “The Alawi in the coffin, and the Christian to Beirut.”
Western powers are casting about for a reliable “partner” in a post-Assad Syria. One figure being touted is former regime insider and recent defector, Manaf Tlas. Of course such a person — a rich, ex-General in the Republican Guards, who for twenty years was a personal friend of the Assads — is hardly likely to be warmly welcomed by those actually fighting the regime.
Although it has been squeezed hard by EU sanctions, the Syrian state continues to receive military, economic and diplomatic support from Iran, Russia and China. US officials are insisting they will not provide arms to Syria’s anti-Assad forces or push for a no-fly zone over rebel-controlled areas. The Americans has been very active in attempting to stop weapons getting to people who might later turn them on the US. The Saudi state’s reaction to the “Arab Spring” has been two-fold: preventing pro-democracy movements doing damage to its own reactionary interests; and ensuring that Iran does not benefit from any changes to the regional balance of power.
The rebels need to avoid becoming the pawns of any of the competing imperialist and sub-imperialist powers. Socialists must support and promote those elements of the resistance that are secularist, democratic and pro-workers’ and pro-women’s rights.