At the end of April, the Arab state of Syria was in the grip of a severe crisis, with protests against the government, led by the progressive Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party, in numerous towns and cities, leading to violent clashes between security forces and those whom the government have termed armed insurrectionists backed by foreign powers.
Anti-government forces in Syria, along with their supporters in the western media, have claimed that some 300 people were killed from late March to end April, but these claims are presently impossible to verify and one must always keep in mind the gross exaggeration and hysteria that is intrinsic to all pro-imperialist propaganda when it sets out to demonise a country deemed to be standing in its path, propaganda that is ultimately intended to pave the way to outright armed aggression, as we have seen most recently in Libya. Meanwhile, a number of Syrian troops and police have been killed by armed protestors and, on 24 April, the interior ministry said that a total of 286 policemen had been injured by armed groups since the troubles started.
According to most reports, the present troubles began in earnest in Daraa, a city in south western Syria close to the Jordanian border, when 15 teenagers were arrested for writing anti-government graffiti. Protests followed the arrests and when these turned violent, several people were killed when security forces opened fire. Their funerals, in turn, developed into further protests, which then spread to neighbouring towns.
In a subsequent press conference, on Thursday 24 March, Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to President Bashar al-Assad, said that the president had given strict orders that henceforth demonstrations should not be met with live fire and expressed regret for the loss of life. She said that the people of Daraa were “our sons and our people” and promised an immediate investigation into the events there. President Assad had already dismissed the city’s governor. Shaaban also announced a 30 per cent increase in salaries for government employees and a range of political reforms.
But hopes that this would succeed in ending the protests proved illusory. According to one of the few relatively objective accounts available, the next day, “violent demonstrations broke out in the midland city of Homs, in the coastal city of Latakia, and in Sanamein, near Daraa, where 12 people were killed (10 of them from the Syrian security forces)…
“In Latakia, armed bandits broke into the city, sniping at locals from rooftops, while in Homs, the mob ransacked the Officers’ Club, killing one civilian on duty. The mob smashed car windows, set buses and tires ablaze, and fired at locals indiscriminately.” (‘A golden opportunity for Assad’, Asia Times, 29 March 2011)
Assad offers concessions
Faced with spreading, intensifying and increasingly violent protests, the Assad government, whilst taking measures to suppress disorder and defend the country, has offered a series of reforms, besides those mentioned above. The government has been dismissed and a new one appointed; moves were made to lift the state of emergency in force for the last 48 years and to allow greater scope for peaceful protests (the prime reason for the long-standing state of emergency has been the threat from the Zionist state of Israel, which itself, unremarked by the imperialists has been continuously enforcing a state of emergency since the day of its foundation and indeed before as it simply continued that imposed by the British colonial mandate); constitutional reforms have been pledged, which, if implemented would inevitably decrease the role in public and political life of the Ba’ath Party, along with the other progressive parties that are aligned to it, including the communist party; in retreats from the country’s secularism, a ban on women teachers wearing the niqab was repealed, permission given to establish a religious satellite TV channel and the country’s sole, and recently opened, casino closed; and full citizenship rights were extended to all members of the Kurdish minority, a considerable number of whom had been disenfranchised by an earlier pre-Ba’athist government.
Some of these reforms, such as that related to the Kurdish minority, were clearly long overdue. However, as might have been predicted, those reforms which, whatever the intentions of the government, would objectively serve to weaken the country’s anti-imperialist orientation and its secularism, have served only to embolden the counter-revolution. And they have not served to address some of the real and legitimate grievances of working people in Syria at the moment, which largely relate to dramatic rises in the price of food, which, in turn, has led to hoarding and shortages, as well as a grave water shortage in parts of the country. The Asia Times commented:
“It is hard to avoid the fact that the region of Daraa, where the current round of protests started, is one of the poorest in Syria. According to a recent Jerusalem Post report, ‘The city is home to thousands of displaced people from eastern Syria, where up to a million people have left their homes because of a water crisis over the past six years’.” (‘Water crisis floats Syria unrest’, 29 March 2011)
The water shortage in Syria is further exacerbated by the Israeli occupation, since 1967, of the Golan Heights, which contain a major aquifer.
Syrian communists’ analysis
Analysing the situation in a 25 March meeting of its central committee, the Syrian Communist Party noted that Syria was faced with an imperialist conspiracy, backed by the Arab reactionary regimes, due to its support for anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist resistance movements in the region.
Criticising what it called the “excessive force” used by the security forces in suppressing the original Daraa protest, the party said that reactionary forces are trying to use the real dissatisfaction caused by these events to inflame unrest all over the country, mixing correct slogans for the expansion of democracy with clearly reactionary ones of an “obscurantist, sectarian and provocative character” against the secularism and tolerance “which historically distinguish Syrian society”.
The central committee called for a review of laws and decisions which had promoted economic liberalisation, thereby weakening the position of the state sector and the masses’ living standards in favour of the comprador bourgeoisie, It called for support for agriculture so as to restore and strengthen food security, to reverse the liberalisation of prices, and a range of privatisations, and for a permanent campaign to combat corruption (‘Communiqué on the meeting of the Central Committee of the Syrian Communist Party’).
Earlier, at its 11th congress, held in October 2010, the party had already warned that:
“Not confining themselves to military pressure, the imperialists are trying to achieve the same objective by the economic subjugation of Syria through the imposition of liberalisation, deregulation of the labour market to attract foreign capital, increased privatisation and elimination of the public sector, doing away with the provision of free education and healthcare” (‘Syrian communists uphold the banner of Leninism in the Middle East’, Proletarian, December 2010).
Imperialists target Syria
Syria and Algeria were the only two countries to oppose the imposition of a so-called ‘no fly zone’ over Libya at the Arab League. And imperialism would clearly love to overthrow these last three Arab governments that still adhere to some sort of independent, anti-imperialist orientation, be it in terms of support to resistance movements against imperialism and Zionism, insistence on maintaining overall control over their hydrocarbon resources, support for the independent development of Africa, or strategic partnership with China and Russia.
Writing from Washington, for the Asia Times, Jim Lobe of the Inter Press Service, noted:
“neo-conservative hawks here have set their sights on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who they hope will be the next domino to fall to the so-called ‘Arab spring’.
“In a much-noted op-ed published on Saturday by the Washington Post, Elliot Abrams, who served as former president George W Bush’s top Middle East adviser, called for the administration to take a series of diplomatic and economic measures similar to those taken against Libya before the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (Nato’s) military intervention, to weaken Assad’s hold on power and embolden the opposition.
“He was joined the same day by the Wall Street Journal’s hardline editorial page, that urged Washington to support the opposition ‘in as many ways as possible’.
“‘It’s impossible to know who would succeed Assad if his minority Allawite regime fell, but it’s hard to imagine many that would be worse for US interests,’ the Journal’s editorial board asserted. Its increasingly neo-conservative counterpart at the Washington Post, which last week called Assad ‘an unredeemable thug’, urged the administration to side ‘decisively with those in Syria seeking genuine change’.
“And on Tuesday, a major candidate for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, chimed in with a full-throated endorsement of Abrams’ recommendations and described Assad himself as a ‘killer’…
“Abrams, who exerted a major influence on Bush’s policy toward Syria, has called in particular for the administration to strongly and continuously denounce the regime, withdraw its ambassador, press for international action against Assad, including seeking his indictment by the International Criminal Court, and using Washington’s influence with the new governments in Egypt and Tunisia to persuade the Arab League, which expelled Libya earlier this month, to apply the same sanction to Damascus.” (‘Neo-cons target Assad regime’, 31 March 2011)
On 17 April, the Washington Post, relying on WikiLeaks, revealed important information regarding how US imperialism has long since been funding Syria’s right wing opposition. The paper reported:
“The State Department has secretly financed Syrian political opposition groups and related projects, including a satellite TV channel that beams anti-government programming into the country, according to previously undisclosed diplomatic cables.
“The London-based satellite channel, Barada TV, began broadcasting in April 2009 but has ramped up operations to cover the mass protests in Syria as part of a long-standing campaign to overthrow the country’s autocratic leader, Bashar al-Assad.
“Barada TV is closely affiliated with the Movement for Justice and Development, a London-based network of Syrian exiles. Classified US diplomatic cables show that the State Department has funnelled as much as $6 million to the group since 2006 to operate the satellite channel and finance other activities inside Syria. The channel is named after the Barada River, which courses through the heart of Damascus, the Syrian capital.
“The US money for Syrian opposition figures began flowing under President George W Bush after he effectively froze political ties with Damascus in 2005. The financial backing has continued under President Obama, even as his administration sought to rebuild relations with Assad. In January, the White House posted an ambassador to Damascus for the first time in six years…
“Tamara Wittes, a deputy assistant secretary of state who oversees the democracy and human rights portfolio in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, said the State Department does not endorse political parties or movements.
“‘We back a set of principles,’ she said. ‘There are a lot of organisations in Syria and other countries that are seeking changes from their government. That’s an agenda that we believe in and we’re going to support.’…
“In February 2006, when relations with Damascus were at a nadir, the Bush administration announced that it would award $5 million in grants to ‘accelerate the work of reformers in Syria.’
“But no dissidents inside Syria were willing to take the money, for fear it would lead to their arrest or execution for treason, according to a 2006 cable from the US Embassy, which reported that ‘no bona fide opposition member will be courageous enough to accept funding.’
“Around the same time, Syrian exiles in Europe founded the Movement for Justice and Development. The group, which is banned in Syria, openly advocates for Assad’s removal. US cables describe its leaders as ‘liberal, moderate Islamists’, who are former members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“It is unclear when the group began to receive US funds, but cables show US officials in 2007 raised the idea of helping to start an anti-Assad satellite channel.” (‘US secretly backed Syrian opposition groups, cables released by WikiLeaks show’)
Both the British government and media have, as usual, been eagerly joining in the campaign to destabilise Syria.
Writing on the blog of the US socialist publication, Monthly Review, Joshua Landis, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Associate Professor at the University of Oklahoma, exposed the Guardian newspaper as follows:
“A number of news reports by AFP, the Guardian, and other news agencies and outlets are suggesting that Syrian security forces were responsible for shooting nine Syrian soldiers, who were killed in Banyas on Sunday. Some versions insist that they were shot for refusing orders to shoot at demonstrators.
“Considerable evidence suggests that this is not true and that Western journalists are passing on bad information.
“My wife spoke this morning to one witness who denied the story. He is Colonel Uday Ahmad, brother-in-law of Lt. Col. Yasir Qash’ur, who was shot and killed in Banyas with eight other Syrian soldiers on Sunday, April 10, 2011. Uday Ahmad was sitting in the back seat of the truck which Yasir was driving when he was shot dead on the highway outside Banyas. Uday said that shooting was coming from two directions. One was from the roof of a building facing the highway and another from people hiding behind the cement median of the highway. They jumped up and shot into the two trucks carrying Syrian troops, killing 9. Col. Uday survived…
“The Guardian irresponsibly repeats a false interpretation of the video provided by an informant. This is what the Guardian writes: ‘Footage on YouTube shows an injured soldier saying he was shot in the back by security forces.’
“The video does not ‘support’ the story that the Guardian says it does. The soldier denies that he was ordered to fire on people. Instead, he says he was on his way to Banyas to enforce security. He does not say that he was shot at by government agents or soldiers. In fact he denies it. The interviewer tries to put words in his mouth but the soldier clearly denies the story that the interviewer is trying to make him confess to. In the video, the wounded soldier is surrounded by people who are trying to get him to say that he was shot by a military officer. The soldier says clearly, ‘They [our superiors] told us, ‘Shoot at them IF they shoot at you.’’
“The interviewer tried to get the wounded soldier to say that he had refused orders to shoot at the people when he asked: ‘When you did not shoot at us what happened?’ But the soldier doesn’t understand the question because he has just said that he was not given orders to shoot at the people. The soldier replies, ‘Nothing, the shooting started from all directions.’ The interviewer repeats his question in another way by asking, ‘Why were you shooting at us, we are Muslims?’ The soldier answers him, ‘I am Muslim too.’ The interviewer asks, ‘So why were you going to shoot at us?’ The soldier replies, ‘We did not shoot at people. They shot at us at the bridge.’ (‘Disinformation about Syria in Western Media’, MRZine 14 April 2011)
Such duplicitous venality on the part of the British media naturally meets its match in the standpoint of government. On 24 April, the Foreign Office advised all British citizens to leave Syria. The Independent on Sunday reported:
“In updated travel advice, the Foreign Office said that following the ‘rapid deterioration’ in the security situation Britons should get out while commercial flights were still available.
“‘Given the situation on the ground, it is highly unlikely that the British Embassy would be able to provide a normal consular service in the event of a further breakdown of law and order and increased violent civil disorder,’ it said.
“‘British nationals should therefore plan accordingly.’
“Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned the latest crackdown by the Syrian security forces in which more than 100 anti-government demonstrators were reportedly killed on Friday in the bloodiest day of protests so far.
“‘The Syrian authorities must act quickly and decisively to calm this dangerous situation and can only do so by responding to the legitimate demands of the Syrian people,’ he said.
“‘I advise all British nationals in Syria to leave the country, unless they have a pressing need to remain.’” (‘British nationals urged to leave Syria’)
There is an ominous parallel here with the way in which the UK government told its citizens to leave Libya, even cynically enlisting the help of Colonel Gaddafi’s government with the evacuation, before promptly turning around and imposing a freeze on Libya’s assets and then unleashing Hitlerite armed aggression on the country.
The regional stakes
Imperialism can scarcely afford yet another war in the region, but, considering that Syria’s staunch anti-imperialism and general progressive stance has been a thorn in its side for decades, this cannot be made into grounds for complacency. As Patrick Seale wrote in the Guardian:
“If the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad fails to reassert its authority, and is instead brought down or merely enfeebled by a prolonged period of popular agitation, the geopolitical implications could be considerable. Syria’s allies – the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Shia resistance movement Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Hamas government in Gaza – would all come under pressure. For all three, loss of Syrian support would be painful.
“Israel would no doubt view such a development with great satisfaction. It has long sought to disrupt the Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah-Hamas axis, which has challenged its regional supremacy – even acquiring a certain deterrent capability, intolerable in Israel’s eyes.” (‘If Assad falls, we will see all the region’s alliances unravel’, 11 April 2011)
Also in the Guardian, Simon Tisdall wrote: “Elliott Abrams, Middle East director of the US national security council under Bush, said Assad’s departure was desirable because, if for no other reason, it would be a serious blow to Iran, which is said to use Syrian territory and ports to transport arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza…
“Some Whitehall officials share these sentiments, describing Syria under Assad as a seriously unhelpful regional player, a supporter of terrorism, and a Middle East ‘aircraft carrier for Iran’. Britain and the US should ‘take a risk on revolution’.” (‘The Syrian sell-out’, 22 April 2011)
Timely warning from Chavez
The Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez summed up the situation well and sounded a note of warning that should be heeded by anti-imperialists worldwide when he said:
“Now some supposed political protest movements have begun (in Syria), a few deaths … and now they are accusing the president of killing his people and later the Yankees will come to bomb the people to save them…
“How cynical is the new format the empire has invented, to generate violent conflict, generate blood in a country, to later bombard it, intervene and take over its natural resources and convert it into a colony.” (‘Venezuela’s Chavez: Syria’s leader a humanist’, AP, 26 March 2011)
The working class and anti-war movements must absolutely take note of this timely warning from Comrade Chavez; they must extend their full support to the government of Syria in its efforts to overcome the country’s problems in ways that will serve to strengthen rather than weaken its anti-imperialist and progressive orientation; must oppose all sanctions, pressures and threats, whether from imperialism or its local stooges, be they the Israeli Zionists or the Arab feudals and compradors; and must demand:
Hands off Syria!