Syria’s history has always been intertwined with that of imperialism. Until 1918 it was a part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. At the end of World War I, as part of an imperialist carve-up of the former empire, Syria was taken from Turkey and given to France as a colony, as a “mandate”. The Syrians won independence in 1945, but the country was highly unstable, at first. Military coups and a brief union with Egypt, in the United Arab Republic, which was terminated by another military coup in 1961, led by the Ba’ath Party, was followed by a period of relative stability. The new regime nationalised basic industries and introduced economic planning. The economy began to surge ahead in the following decades, but it was an economy planned bureaucratically from above, modelled on the Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe. Power was in the hands of a privileged Ba’ath party elite, and there was little or no democratic control by the workers or peasants. Political power became hereditary through one family. Hafez al-Assad, who was in office from 1970 to 2000, handed power to his son, Bashar al-Assad in 2000, who is the current president.
Things changed radically after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Syrian elite followed the path of the new Russian capitalist state, and moved rapidly to undo the reforms of the 1960s, which included with privatisation and reduction of government subsidies. It also led to a massive influx of foreign investment, including by the new capitalist Russia, which became the main supplier of arms. In the short run this led to a new economic boom, but one which only benefited what was now a wealthy ruling class still led by Bashir al-Assad. But meanwhile, as in all capitalist societies, unemployment and poverty were growing and inequality was soaring.
Civil war and the Arab Spring
The civil war which erupted in 2011 made things even worse. According to a UN-backed report, 80% of people live in poverty. The Syrian Centre for Policy Research reported that “almost three million Syrians have lost their jobs during the conflict… and unemployment surged from 14.9% in 2011 to 57.7% at the end of 2014… Just over 4 in 5 Syrians now live in poverty and 30% of the population have descended into abject poverty where households struggle to meet the basic food needs to sustain bare life.”
Rising discontent exploded to the surface during the Arab Spring in 2012, when similar uprisings were erupting throughout the Arab states. People’s councils were established in many areas which could have formed the basis for a new democratic society. It was, however, a short-lived movement. The regime cracked down ruthlessly, killing an estimated 9000 people. The main resistance force, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) took up an armed struggle, but with limited success, mainly because of its failure to link up with the class struggles of the workers and poor communities, particularly those in the countryside.
Increasingly it was supplanted by the right-wing Syrian National Council (SNC), which was financed by the USA and Nato, in effect an agent for these imperialist powers, which became increasingly involved in the conflict. Both the FSA and SNC have, in turn, been overshadowed by the rise of the Islamic State (IS), a sectarian, reactionary and feudal Sunni Muslim organisation which achieved major victories, with horrific consequences for the people in the areas they have occupied. As well as targeting the Assad regime it is challenging Shia Muslims and the Kurdish community, and simultaneously waging war against the US-backed Iraq government.
The death and destruction in the civil war has been made even more appalling by the interventions of the US and its allies, first through proxy groups like the SNC, but increasingly through direct bombing attacks. They spent billions of dollars to build up the Islamist opposition to Assad, and now the monster have created has become a liability. The result is even worse chaos and bloodshed. At the same time more and more other imperialist powers are getting involved.
Turkey, while supporting the interventions by NATO, of which it is a member, has its own concerns about their militant Kurdish minority. In Syria the Kurds are the only force to have achieved any victories over ISIS. The Turkish regime of Recep Tayyip Erdogan fear that the Syrian Kurds could spread across the border, in support of the Kurdish nationalist PKK forces in Turkey. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are believed to be backing ISIS, while Iran has sent 15 000 troops to support the Syrian regime.
Russia, in an alliance with the Assad regime and Iran, is now bombing IS bases, and allegedly those of other, less reactionary, anti-regime groupings. As well as its economic interests within Syria, the Russians have to secure access to their Mediterranean naval base. The Russians are, also, concerned about the likely impact of IS victories on their own Muslim population. Muslims make up 14% of the Russian population, and they have fought bloody battles against Moscow, especially in Chechnya, where the Russians brutally suppressed resistance.
The interests of the Syrian people are, thus, completely subordinated to those of these competing imperialist forces, which are solely concerned with their own strategic interests, which sometimes coincide with those of the other imperialists in the region and sometimes diverge.
It is surely no coincidence that the recent launch of Russian air attacks, and the relatively subdued reaction to this by the US, followed a meeting between Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin. After the meeting, Obama has told the UN general assembly that “the United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict”.
This suggests a tacit agreement to collaborate, even if only temporarily, possibly because of the US’s own humiliating failure to dislodge either Assad or IS, and the collapse of proxy groups they were backing.
The starting point of any solution must be to condemn all of these imperialist powers. There are alarming echoes of the situation in Europe in 1914, when imperialist powers were fighting against each other, which led to the slaughter of World War 1. At the time, all the European social democratic parties, except the Russian Bolsheviks, abandoned their anti-war rhetoric and commitment to “workers of the world unite”, and supported their own “more progressive” national ruling classes, hiding behind narrow national chauvinism about “defending the national interest, and our motherland”.
Today in Syria the USA and its NATO allies, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia are all imperialist, capitalist states interested only in protecting their strategic and economic interests. It is a fundamental error, in principle and strategically, to support supposedly “more progressive” capitalist powers. It is also a problem to support the Syrian Communist Party and its international partners like the South African Communist Party, and the Communist Party of Britain (CPB). These communists uncritically, support the Assad dictatorship, and the Russian military forces, by claiming that they are there “at the invitation of the Damascus government, which has every right to issue such an invitation as the internationally recognised political authority in Syria”
The Assad dictatorship has no legitimacy in Syria. Through sham elections, it has presided over a counter-revolutionary programme of capitalist restoration, privatisation and capitulation to international monopoly capitalism. It brutally suppressed those who joined the Arab Spring movement, and is equally responsible for the 11 million Syrians fleeing the country.
Socialists can never support such a regime, and even less support imperialist powers that are exploiting the crisis for their own interests. The only forces who can restore peace and stability are the Syrian working class and the rural peasantry, and their allies and the workers and peasants of the entire Middle East, through a mass movement with a socialist programme. This will not be easy, given the devastation inflicted by the war, as was well summed by an article in Socialist Appeal on 1 October 2015:
“The forces of the Syrian revolution have long been killed, subdued or otherwise crushed by the imperialist vultures of the region. Their mistake, for which they have to pay heavily, was to try to keep the struggle within the confines of capitalism and to call for the assistance of US imperialism…
Within capitalism however, there are no solutions to the crisis of the Middle East. While Russia might fight Islamic fundamentalism in Syria, it will do so in defence of class society and of capitalist exploitation.
The only forces who have the interests of the masses at heart are the masses themselves. On a capitalist basis none of the problems of the masses will be solved. Only through a regional revolutionary struggle against capitalism, can the barbarism of sectarianism, poverty and misery be discarded from the region.”
The world socialist forces of all types have the duty to unity behind the genuine struggles of the Syrian working class and rural populations. DM