Syria’s uprising in context

Since the beginning of the unrest in Syria, “the government has said
that while some protesters have legitimate grievances, the uprising is
driven by militant Islamists with foreign backing.” [1] This hardly
squares with the view of Western state officials and media commentators
who say that an authoritarian regime is killing its people and violently
suppressing a largely peaceful movement for democracy.

Who’s right?

There’s no question that there has been a longstanding Islamist
opposition in Syria to Ba’athist rule. The Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party
has been in power since 1963. The party’s roots are in Pan-Arabism,
non-Marxist socialism, and liberation from colonialism, imperialism and
religious sectarianism. Being secular, socialist (though diminishingly
so) and dominated by a heterodox Shiite sect, the Alawi, Syria’s lead
party has held no appeal for the Sunni majority, which has leaned toward
the Muslim Brotherhood.

Neither is there any question that Islamist uprisings have become a
habitual occurrence in Syria. Condemning the Alawi as heretics and
resentful of the Ba’athists’ separation of Islam from the state, the
Muslim Brotherhood organized riots against the government in 1964, 1965,
1967 and 1969.

On coming to power in 1970, Afiz Assad—the current president’s
father– tried to overcome the Sunni opposition by encouraging private
enterprise and weakening the party’s commitment to socialism, and by
opening space for Islam. This, however, did little to mollify the Muslim
Brothers, who organized new riots and called for a Jihad against Assad,
denigrating him as “the enemy of Allah.” His “atheist” government was
to be brought down and Alawi domination of the state ended. By 1977, the
Mujahedeen were engaged in a guerrilla struggle against the Syrian army
and its Soviet advisers, culminating in the 1982 occupation of the city
of Hama. The Syrian army quelled the occupation, killing 20,000 to

In an effort to win the Islamists’ acquiescence, Assad built new
mosques, opened Koranic schools, and relaxed restrictions on Islamic
dress and publications. At the same time, he forged alliances with
pro-Islamic countries and organizations, including Sunni Sudan, Shia
Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. While these measures secured
some degree of calm, Islamists remained a perennial source of
instability and the government was on continual guard against “a
resurgence of Sunni Islamic fundamentalists.” [2]

The United States hasn’t created an opposition, but it has acted to
strengthen it. US funding to the Syrian opposition began flowing under
the Bush administration in 2005 [3] if not earlier. The Bush
administration had dubbed Syria a member of a “junior varsity axis of
evil,” along with Libya and Cuba, and toyed with the idea of making
Syria the next target of its regime change agenda after Iraq. [4]

Around the same time, Syrian exiles in Europe founded the Movement
for Justice and Development, openly calling for the overthrow of the
Ba’athist government. The Movement was one of the key recipients of US
lucre. The leader of the organization, Anas Al-Abdah, is a member of the
Syrian National Council, the main exile opposition group, which French
Foreign Minister Alain Juppé and UK Foreign Secretary William Hague have
designated a legitimate representative of the Syrian people [5] –a
matter one would think should be decided by Syrians, not outsiders, and
least of all not former colonial powers. The group “has a significant
contingent of Islamists.” [6]

The Syrian National Council’s foil is the National Coordinating Body
for Democratic Change in Syria, led by opposition figures who live
inside the country. The body, left-wing and secular, is open to dialogue
with the Assad government and subscribes to the three no’s: no to
foreign intervention, no to sectarianism, and no to violence. [7]

The Islamist-heavy Syrian National Council, by contrast, follows the
three yeses: Yes to foreign intervention, yes to sectarianism, and yes
to violence. It has “called on the international community to take
aggressive …steps, including the possible establishment of a no-fly zone
in Syria” [8] and appears to be tied up with the Free Syrian Army, a
largely Sunni formation which operates out of Turkey and has, it says,
about 10,000 fighters. [9] “The Saudis and Qataris are reported to be
funding and arming the opposition” while “Western special forces are
said to be giving military support on the ground.” [10]

SNC leaders say that if they succeed in achieving their goal of
replacing Assad they’ll cut Damascus’s alliance with Iran and end arms
shipments to Hezbollah and Hamas [11]—a policy that would be welcome in
Washington and Israel.

In September, The New York Times reported that the Obama
administration was discussing how to bring about Assad’s ouster but that
“the administration does not want to look as if the United States is
trying to orchestrate the outcome in Syria.” [12] It is no longer
necessary for Washington to conceal its regime change ambitions. Its
description of the unrest as violent dictatorship against a peaceful
demand for democracy, rather than the alternative and more descriptive
narrative of secular government against an armed Islamist rebellion, has
become hegemonic. Who’s going to blame Washington for intervening on
the side of, what’s understood to be, a popular rebellion for democracy?
Accordingly, the State Department now openly acknowledges that it “will
continue working with Syria’s political opposition to ensure an
eventual political transition” [13], which is to say it will continue to
pursue its longstanding policy of working with the opposition to bring
about the Ba’athists’ overthrow.

Washington’s motivation for ousting Assad has nothing whatever to do
with his handling of the rebellion. Assad’s reaction to the uprising is
only relevant as raw material to be shaped, twisted and manipulated
into a pretext for overt intervention. Washington’s concerns lie
elsewhere, unrelated to the welfare of Syrians or attachment to
spreading democracy. Indeed, were Washington impelled by humanitarian
concerns and a desire to overturn tyranny, it would be difficult to
explain its foreign policy record.

When democracy-hating Bahrain, home to the US Fifth Fleet and
paradise for foreign investors, violently put down a popular uprising
last year, Washington sat on its hands. Sometimes raw interest trumps
principle, explained the United States’ newspaper of record, The New
York Times, as if US foreign policy is normally governed by principle,
and departures from it in favor of interests are aberrations, rather
than the opposite.

The cracking of Shiite skulls in Bahrain was ably assisted by the
Sunni petro-monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which dispatched
tanks and troops—the same democracy-abominating countries which have
taken a lead role in demanding that Assad undertake democratic reforms.
Every one of them absolutist states, they have joined the United States,
Britain and France in a preposterously named “friends of Syrian
democracy” group. Qatar, one of its members, was instrumental in
providing material and propaganda support to the Libyan rebels—many of
whom, like their Syrian counterparts, were militant Islamists. The
spectacle of the Gulf Cooperation Council aligning itself with what is
called a pro-democracy rebellion is a bit like the Wall Street Journal
backing the communist-era Solidarity trade union as the true face of
socialism in Poland. Whatever Solidarity was, it was not the true face
of socialism, which is why the Wall Street Journal backed it.

Neither has Washington taken effective, concrete measures to prevent
Israel from cracking down violently on Palestinians who rise up against
Israeli oppression, let alone recognize Israeli oppression as
illegitimate. Washington’s violent intervention in Iraq on entirely
baseless grounds, and its authoring of a colossal humanitarian tragedy
there, hardly recommends the United States as a country whose foreign
policy is governed by a commitment to peace and democracy, though its
commitment to war and the plundering of countries unable to defend
themselves is undoubted.

No, Washington’s ambition to overthrow Syria’s Ba’athist state is a
longstanding one which pre-dates the current uprising. The US state has
been keen to install a pro-imperialist government in Damascus since at
least 1957, when it tried unsuccessfully to engineer a coup there. In
2003, the United States initiated a program of economic warfare against
Syria, and in 2005, if not earlier, started to funnel money to
opposition elements to mobilize energy for regime change.

Apart from Syria’s irritating Washington by allying with Iran,
backing Hezbollah, and providing material assistance to Palestinian
national liberation movements, the country exhibits a tendency shared by
all US regime change targets: a predilection for independent,
self-directed, economic development. This is expressed in
state-ownership of important industries, subsidies to domestic firms,
controls on foreign investment, and subsidization of basic commodities.
These measures restrict the profit-making opportunities of US
corporations, banks and investors, and since it is their principals who
hold sway in Washington, US foreign policy is accordingly shaped to
serve their interests.

The US State Department complains that Syria has “failed to join an
increasingly interconnected global economy,” which is to say, has failed
to turn over its state-owned enterprises to private investors, among
them Wall Street financial interests. The State Department is aggrieved
that “ideological reasons” continue to prevent the Assad government from
liberalizing Syria’s economy. As a result of the Ba’athists’
ideological fixation on socialism, “privatization of government
enterprises is still not widespread.” The economy “remains highly
controlled by the government.” [14]

The Wall Street Journal and Heritage Foundation are equally
displeased. “Hafez al-Assad’s son Bashar, who succeeded him in 2000, has
failed to deliver on promises to reform Syria’s socialist economy.”


The state dominates many areas of economic activity, and a
generally repressive environment marginalizes the private sector and
prevents the sustainable development of new enterprises or industries.
Monetary freedom has been gravely marred by state price controls and

The repressive business environment, burdened by heavy state
intervention, continues to retard entrepreneurial activity and prolong
economic stagnation. Labor regulations are rigid, and the labor market
suffers from state interference and control.

…systemic non-tariff barriers severely constrain freedom to trade.
Private investment is deterred by heavy bureaucracy, direct state
interference, and political instability. Although the number of private
banks has increased steadily since they were first permitted in 2004,
government influence in the financial sector remains extensive. [15]

The US Library of Congress country study on Syria refers to “the
socialist structure of the government and economy,” points out that
“the government continues to control strategic industries,” mentions
that “many citizens have access to subsidized public housing and many
basic commodities are heavily subsidized,” and that “senior regime
members” have “hampered” the liberalization of the economy. [16]

All in all, Syria remains too much like the socialist state the Arab
Socialist Ba’ath Party founders envisaged for it, and too little like a
platform for increasing the profits of overseas banks, investors and
corporations. Accordingly, its regime of self-directed, independent,
economic development must be changed. The militant Islamist uprising,
helped along by US money, propaganda and diplomatic support, has set the
stage for Washington to realize its regime-change ambitions. Washington
has framed the conflict as one between peaceful pro-democracy
demonstrators and a murderous tyrant whose thirst for power has driven
him to the extremes of killing his own people. Assad has, by this
reckoning, “lost legitimacy” and must step aside.

Of course, the idea that the conflict is the latest in a long line of
militant Islamic eruptions against a secular Syrian state is never to
be entertained. Neither is the notion to be contemplated that the
insurgency has evolved into a civil war. There were more casualties in
the US Civil War than in all other US wars combined, yet complaints
about Abraham Lincoln killing his own people–and on a grandiose
scale–are never heard. The Spanish Republic was never abominated, except
by rightists, for killing the Spaniards who rose up against it. In
these conflicts, there were material and class interests at stake—and
the clash of them led to the killing of rebel forces by the government
and of government forces by the rebels. And so too in Syria. Yes, in
civil wars, governments do kill their own people.

I’m on the side of the Syrian government. The Assads backed away from
the Ba’athist commitment to socialism further than I would have liked,
but I recognize that the possibilities for achieving socialism in a
small Third World country have become vanishingly small since the demise
of the Soviet Union (and were not without formidable challenges before
then.) All the same, the Ba’athists continue to obstinately hold on to
elements of the party’s socialist program; hence, the US State
Department’s complaint about “ideological reasons” getting in the way of

Moreover, Ba’athist Syria remains an organized force against Zionism
and for Palestinian national liberation, and it’s not clear that a
successor government would follow the same path. Importantly, what would
likely follow Assad’s ouster is hardly to be embraced: A country thrown
into chaos by competing militias and warlords, where torture and the
systematic extermination of the old regime’s supporters run rampant, as
has characterized post-Gaddafi Libya, or the installation of a US puppet
regime to facilitate the exploitation of Syria’s land, labor and
resources by Western captains of industry and titans of finance. A
third choice of more space for other political parties and the
parliament being given new powers is academic. The hard-core of the
rebellion won’t be satisfied with anything less than the complete
extirpation of the Ba’athists and what they stand for: some measure of
socialism and the secular state. Neither will the United States,
Britain, and France settle for the continuation in Damascus of a state
committed to independent, self-directed economic development and
alliance with Iran.

The choice, then, is between, on the one hand, the triumph of yet
another eruption of imperialism under the guise of humanitarian
intervention, and on the other, the preservation of the Ba’athist state,
and Syria’s self-determination. If the Ba’athists are overthrown, a
blow will be struck for imperialism. Their survival will preserve the
life of an organized force against Zionism, imperialism and for some
measure of self-directed development toward socialism.

1. Anthony Shadid, “Assad says he rejects West’s call to resign”, The New York Times, August 21, 2011.
2. US Library of Congress. A Country Study: Syria.
3. Craig Whitlock, “U.S. secretly backed Syrian opposition groups,
cables released by Wikileaks show”, The Washington Post, April 17, 2011.
4. Moshe Ma’oz, “Damscus vs. Washington: Between the ‘Axis of Evil’ and
‘Pax Americana’”, in Bruce Cumings, Evarand Abrahamian and Moshi Ma’oz.
Investing the Axis of Evil: The Truth about North Korea, Iran and Syria.
The New Press. 2004.
5. Jay Solomon, “Clinton Meets With Syrian Opposition,” The Wall Street Journal, December 6, 2011.
6. Charles Levinson, “As Syria strikes kill scores, opposition seeks backing”, The Wall Street Journal, February 10, 2012.
7. Mazda Majidi, “Will Syria be another Libya?” Liberation, November 29, 2011.
8. Jay Solomon and Nour Malas, “Syria would cut Iran military tie,
opposition head says”, The Wall Street Journal, December 2, 2011
9. Dan Bileksky, “Factional splits hinder drive to topple Syria leader”, The New York Times, December 8, 2011.
10. Seumas Milne, “Intervention in Syria will escalate not stop the killing”, The Guardian (UK), February 7, 2012.
11. Jay Solomon and Nour Malas, “Syria would cut Iran military tie,
opposition head says”, The Wall Street Journal, December 2, 2011
12. Helene Cooper, “U.S. is quietly getting ready for Syria without Assad”, The New York Times, September 19, 2011.
13. Charles Levinson and Gregory L. White, “America Exits Syria as
Russia Makes Push”, The Wall Street Journal, February 7, 2012.
14. US State Department website. Accessed February 8, 2012.
15. Index of Economic Freedom 2012. Accessed February 8, 2012.
16. US Library of Congress. A Country Study: Syria.

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