Explaining the Syrian civil war

Inside Syria:

The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect

In 2011, the Arab revolutions seemed poised to topple dictatorial regimes, challenge the inequalities of neoliberal capitalism, and begin the process of building a whole new order in the Middle East and North Africa. The region’s rulers, backed by local allies and imperial sponsors, responded with counterrevolution. To maintain their power, they manipulated their countries’ religious and ethnic divisions and drowned the uprisings in blood. 

This counterrevolution transformed the dream of the Arab Spring into a nightmare, especially in Iraq and Syria. Out of the cauldron of sectarianism rose the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has conquered large sections of both countries, triggering the United States to launch yet another war to stabilize the region’s existing order.

In his new book Inside Syria, veteran left-wing journalist Reese Erlich examines the history of Syria from its origins in the imperialist division of the Ottoman Empire to the rise of the Assad family dictatorship and the Syrian revolution and counterrevolution today. For those who want to understand the roots of today’s civil war in Syria and Iraq and why Obama’s war will only make a bad situation worse, Erlich’s book is a must-read.

Erlich lays the blame for the Middle East’s crisis at the feet of British, French, and American imperialism. Britain and France fought World War I in part to divide up the Ottoman Empire, which had sided with Germany, and establish their own colonies. 

“The British and to some extent the French,” writes Erlich, 

hoped to use the war as a means to divvy up the Ottoman Empire as well as seize control of German colonies. Not surprisingly, the British Empire and French colonial empire were happy to use Arab nationalism to help defeat their enemy. While paying lip service to Arab independence, however, both powers planned to extend their colonial empire at the expense of the local population.

Britain wanted to control the Suez Canal as the gateway to India, the jewel in its crown. France aimed to protect its investments in the region and trade between the region and Europe, and both powers laid claim to the newly discovered oil supplies there.

The two powers struck a secret deal during the war, the infamous Sykes–Picot Treaty, that Erlich documents “would give Britain control of oil-rich Iraq, along with Palestine and Jordan. The French would get Lebanon and Syria and a strip of southern Turkey called Hatay Province. Neither power cared about how their division would impact the local population.”

Each power pitted leaders, tribes, and sects one against the other. They implanted their own handpicked leaders of each country. Importantly, they denied a state to the Kurdish population, who would become the world’s largest nation without a homeland. Britain further outraged Arab self-determination by backing the Zionists’ colonization of Palestine in the Balfour Declaration. 

Britain and France thus set in motion all the conflicts that plague the region today. After World War II, the United States supplanted these two as the new imperial overlord. It was determined to control the region and its oil reserves in order to dominate the world. It has pursued this aim by backing various Arab autocracies and Israel as client regimes.

Erlich tracks the history of Arab resistance to imperialism. In particular he traces the rise of the Syrian nationalist movement that eventually drove France out of the country in 1946. He argues that “Syrian and Lebanese independence was a stinging defeat for France. It spelled the end of the French empire, presaging later French defeats in Vietnam, Tunisia, and Algeria.” 

In his examination of the development of the Baathist regime in Syria through its brief years of unity with Nasser’s Egypt in the United Arab Republic to the emergence of the Assad dictatorship after Hafez al-Assad’s coup in 1970, Erlich puts to rest many myths promulgated by Assad’s propagandists in the apologist left. The Assad regime, he argues, was never socialist, but a state-capitalist dictatorship. It used the rhetoric of Arab socialism, provided welfare services and nationalized industry, but “workers had few rights and certainly no control of the factories. Syria remained a capitalist country under military domination.”

The Assad regime was also not a principled or consistent ally of the Palestinian liberation struggle. Hafez al-Assad maintained peace with Israel on the Golan Heights, a region captured by Israel from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War; supported the Palestinian surrender at Oslo in 1993; and denied citizenship to approximately 500,000 refugees within Syria’s borders. At best Assad sought to control the Palestinian movement; at worst he was willing to sell it out for the advancement of his family dictatorship.

In addition, Erlich shows that far from the Assad regime opposing imperialism as some claim it to have done, it has been more than happy to collaborate with the great powers, first the Soviet Union, and after that empire’s collapse, even the United States. For example, Hafez al-Assad supported Bush Sr.’s Gulf War in order to get rid of Saddam Hussein, one of Syria’s regional competitors. Assad also allowed Syria to be used as a site in the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program, which involved the abduction and transfer of people to various countries for imprisonment, interrogation, and torture.

Finally, despite proclamations of secularism, the Assad regime is based in Syria’s Alawite minority, which is an offshoot of Shia Islam. It restricted the leadership of the state to this minority, denied Kurds citizenship, and kept Sunnis out of positions of power. The regime’s sectarianism and its suppression of the secular left facilitated the growth of Sunni Islamists as its main opposition. 

Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father in 2000, stoked the fires of revolt against the regime. He imposed a neoliberal program that transformed its state-capitalist economy into crony capitalism. According to Erlich, Assad

sold off some state enterprises. He allowed businessmen to start up corporations such as cell phone companies that would have been state-owned in the past. Assad cleverly raised the hope of western powers that their businesspeople might benefit from the privatization. But it soon became clear that the privatization mainly benefitted Assad family cronies.

Syria’s workers and peasants paid the price for this restructuring. Unemployment skyrocketed to 20 percent and poverty to over 44 percent. Conditions were ripe for revolt against dictatorship and capitalist inequality, as they were throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Inspired by the victorious struggles in Tunisia and Egypt, the Syrian people rose up against Assad. As Erlich notes, “The demonstrations were nonviolent and secular. In the northwestern city of Banyas, protesters tried to attract the generally pro-Assad Alawite religious minority by chanting, ‘Peaceful, peaceful—neither Sunni nor Alawite, we want national unity.’”

Assad responded with superficial reforms. He suspended the 50-year state of emergency and legalized the status of 300,000 Kurds, but the surging movement was not to be bought off. Instead it established local coordinating committees to organize the struggle and begin the process of taking over areas liberated by the movement from regime control.

Frightened of losing control of the country, Assad turned to repression. He ordered his troops to fire on peaceful demonstrations, forcing demonstrators to turn to armed struggle to defend themselves. Erlich argues, “As armed struggle quickly replaced mass demonstrations, political leadership of the uprising also changed. Political Islam came to the fore. The uprising was becoming a civil war.” Assad did his best to cultivate these Islamist sectarian forces in the civil war by releasing scores of Sunni fundamentalists from his jails. As he knew they would, these counterrevolutionaries attacked not only the regime but also the country’s Alawite and Christian minorities. Assad postured as defender of these populations against the Sunni reactionaries.

The sectarianism the United States had unleashed in Iraq and the region then fed into the developing civil war. Sunni states like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar sponsored various Islamists like the Islamic Front. The devout bourgeoisie and clerics also funded forces like al Qaeda’s al-Nusra Front and the emerging new player ISIS, which had been the al Qaeda formation in Iraq. 

Amidst the civil war, Assad has been able to retain power over a section of the country. The crony capitalist ruling class is loyal to him. His predominantly Alawite military and the national defense forces continue to obey the regime. And he maintains a social base in the Alawite and Christian populations. 

But without support from Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and Russia, Assad would have very likely fallen. Iran quickly rallied to support Assad for sectarian and geopolitical reasons. Iran’s leaders aimed to defend their bloc of regional allies that included Syria, Iraq, and Hezbollah against their Sunni rivals Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. Iran along with Hezbollah has poured money, troops, and materiel into Syria to join Assad’s sectarian counterrevolution.

Russia, which has cultivated a relationship with the Assad family dictatorship since the Cold War, wanted to protect its sole military base in the region as well its significant investments and trade relations with Syria. It also feared that Washington was trying to restore its diminished dominance in the region by manipulating the Arab Spring to replace rulers friendly to Russia with American client regimes. It has therefore blocked American resolutions at the UN and funneled aid and weapons to Assad. 

Assad’s regional Sunni opponents, like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, have supported their own Islamist proxies in Syria’s civil war. The US initially backed its own handpicked forces in the Syrian National Congress and the Free Syrian Army with the hope of securing a future client regime in the country. 

But as Sunni fundamentalist forces, especially ISIS, seized much of the country, the United States restricted its support for rebels for fear of any weapons falling into the hands of the Islamists. It even agreed to the deal brokered by Russia for Assad to eliminate his chemical weapon stockpiles to avoid an air war they feared would result in the kind of chaotic disorder that resulted from US air support for the revolt in Libya against dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

The lone bright spot in this horrific situation has been the rise of the Kurdish resistance, which has liberated its oil-rich section of northern Syria. Erlich provides an informative overview of the history of Kurds in the region since the fall of the Ottomans. Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Assad’s Syria have all oppressed the Kurds, denying them citizenship rights and locking them in terrible poverty. 

The Kurds initially did not rally to the Syrian revolution because they did not recognize Syria’s national rights. Their representatives walked out of the Syrian National Congress to protest its definition of the country as an Arab republic. Led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the sister group of Turkey’s Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), they established their own autonomous area called Rojava. In contrast to some romanticized portrayals, Erlich offers a critical history of the PKK and PYD, and their rule in Rojava. He shows how the PKK actually collaborated with the Assad regime for a time, using Syria as a base from which to launch its guerilla war in Turkey. Assad eventually sold the PKK out, driving it from the country and thereby enabling the United States and Turkey to eventually capture and imprison its leader, Abdullah Öcalan.

Afterward, as Erlich writes, “The PKK sought accommodation with the Turkish government and moved to the Right politically . . . calling for Kurdish autonomy, not independence.” Since the PKK and PYD are built around a cult of personality, Öcalan’s orders are followed to the letter. “The PYD,” Erlich adds,

has developed a reputation for sectarianism, putting its own interests ahead of the broader Kurdish movement. The Kurdish National Council, the umbrella Kurdish opposition group, “has accused the PYD of attacking Kurdish demonstrators [and] kidnapping members of other Kurdish opposition parties,” according to a report by the Carnegie Middle East Center. The PYD has also been accused of assassinating leaders of other Kurdish parties.

Nevertheless, Erlich writes, “the PYD and its armed militias presented a disciplined, secular force in a region beset with religious extremism and chaos. The Party gained popular support in Northern Syria as the best among bad alternatives.” 

Inside Syria is essential reading to understand the counterrevolutionary forces that transformed Syria’s revolution into a sectarian civil war. Erlich is clear that imperialism and all of the existing states are part of the problem and that none can offer any viable solution to the crisis. For that reason, he declares, “I oppose all outside interference in Syria, whether from the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or any other country.”

But his own proposal for a diplomatic solution hashed out among the international and regional powers including Syria is unconvincing. Any such solution in Syria will leave in place the neoliberal capitalist order, its ruling class, and their autocratic states, which caused the revolt in the first place. 

As Adam Hanieh’s Lineages of Revolt and Gilbert Achcar’s The People Want prove, the root cause of the crisis in the Middle East is capitalism, all the states in the region, and their imperialist backers. Therefore hope lies not in some diplomatic stitch-up of the existing order, but in renewed revolutionary struggle from below led by new parties that fight against religious, ethnic, and national oppression to unite the region’s laboring masses in a fight for socialism. 

Issue #95

Winter 2014-15

The political economy of low-wage labor

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