Socialist Worker

Conflict and war in Syria

Judith Orr spoke to Syrian socialist Joseph Daher about the resistance, the regime, the West and rise of Isis after more than four years of conflict in the country

Issue No. 2456

Destroyed regime tanks in Azaz, Syria, in 2012

Destroyed regime tanks in Azaz, Syria, in 2012 (Pic: Christiaan Triebert on Flickr)


What is the situation in Syria after more than four years of conflict?

It is a state of catastrophe. Whole cities have been destroyed. More than 80 percent of the population live on the poverty line. Inflation is rising and unemployment runs at 60 percent.

The regime has been unable to pay public sector workers’ wages for the last four months.

At least half the population is internally displaced, others have fled the country. Small numbers reach Europe, most refugees travel through to Turkey, Egypt and Libya.

But only really the better off and middle class are able to travel. It can cost as much as £4,500. 

The reasons people protested and started the revolutionary process have not gone away, they have only deepened.

The struggle started as a popular revolt against president Bashar al-Assad’s regime. How has the dominance of the military conflict led to different Islamist groups gaining more control of the opposition? 

The structure of the state in Syria has more in common with what happened in Libya, where it was impossible to separate the military from the head of the regime. 

Assad’s security services imposed repression for four decades prior to the uprising. 

So the biggest problem is the lack of a large democratic and progressive left organisation of the masses. You cannot reduce it to that but it would have made a difference.

During the start of the popular uprising we had coordination committees and youth organisations, but the trade unions were completely co-opted by the regime. 

The activists who started the uprising suffered first from the regime’s repression and then from the Islamic fundamentalist forces who were absent at the beginning. 

The shift to a military dynamic over the past two years has benefitted the fundamentalist forces most.

Until 2013 you had military clashes but the popular movement was very much present. Today it’s very minor.

You have popular protests in some areas, but not on the same scale of even two years ago. This is a big problem.

Isis is making new gains across the region. How is this affecting Assad’s power base?   

The regime only controls around 22 percent of the country, but this is where 50 to 60 percent of the population lives.

The regime’s military defeats have pushed it to concentrate its forces in the regions already under its control. Such as the coast with the cities of Lattakiya and Tartous, the two cities in central Syria, Hama and Homs, and the capital Damascus. 

Much of the rest of the country is in the hands of mainly Islamic fundamentalist forces, except for the Kurdish regions and some of the Damascus countryside.

Since the failure of the regime’s offensive in February to cut supplies to Aleppo’s opposition forces, the army is on the defensive almost everywhere.

What does the recent resistance to army conscription reflect?

This resistance has been growing and shows the unpopularity of the regime, even in the areas it controls. 

More people are refusing to send their sons into the Syrian army to be killed. There have been popular protests, mostly in the Alawite populated areas. Young people pay bribes to get out of the army, some escape the country.

As the regime’s structural problems deepen, it is even more dependent on foreign allies, especially Iran and Hizbollah, but also Russia.

What is the situation for Palestinians within Syria?

The Yarmouk refugee camp was once home to 200,000 Palestinians and Syrians before the revolution. They have been under siege for nearly two years. Now only 15,000 are left. 

Assad has bombed numerous Palestinian camps throughout Syria. 

Recently the regime started talking about supporting the Yarmouk Palestinians. Suddenly they want to present themselves as the Palestinians’ protectors because Isis has invaded the camp. 

Has religious sectarianism played a role in the struggle?

The regime uses sectarian propaganda to scare religious minorities and secular people saying the only alternative to Assad is the fundamentalists. 

But unfortunately some of the opposition also use sectarianism arguing that they are part of a “Sunni” uprising against an “Alawite” regime. 

They believe this can win them 80 percent of the population. But this is a miscalculation.

What about the role of Western imperialism?

The West wants to end the revolutionary process. 

The US supports the latest Saudi Arabian military intervention in Yemen, which has killed more than 2,000. The Saudis are important allies but there are also tensions. 

Saudi Arabia planned the Yemen intervention independently to show it would not allow Iran to wield too much power in the region.

The US is also giving money to Egypt’s regime. This is no longer conditional on “democratic advances”.

In Syria the US wanted a “Yemeni” solution, keeping the regime, but without Assad. Now Assad is seen as a way to stabilise things, while using Iran to help break Isis in Syria and in Iraq.

Within Syria the regime is not popular but people are tired. Their children cannot go to school and they struggle for the basics of life. 

The continuation of the military conflict is no way forward. It does not work in the favour of the masses.

Joseph Daher will be speaking on Syria Today and Sectarianism in the Middle East at the Marxism 2015 festival in London, 9-13 July. marxismfestival.org.uk

A demonstration in the city of Banyas in April 2011

A demonstration in the city of Banyas in April 2011 (Pic: Syria Frames of Freedom on Flickr)


The Syrian popular uprising is caught between Assad and Isis 

by Judith Orr

The revolution in Syria broke out in 2011 as part of the wave of revolts against dictatorships in the region.

Mass popular demonstrations began by asking for reforms. 

Thousands of local coordination committees sprung up to organise the opposition movement and provide an alternative to the regime.

But dictator Bashar al-Assad responded with violent repression and the revolt turned into a life and death struggle to bring down the whole regime.

Assad has hung on to power partly because of his hold on the military. However he has increasingly had to rely on regional allies and the mainly Shia Lebanese Hizbollah forces.

Assad is from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, while the majority of the population are Sunni Muslims.

The regime has tried to portray the uprising as a sectarian movement. But it was rooted in resistance to Assad’s dictatorship.

Assad went all out to crush the uprising with airstrikes and ground troops. Millions have been forced to flee.

Defecting soldiers and opposition fighters created a Free Syrian Army to defend opposition areas. But as the conflict descended into a military battle, various Islamist forces came to dominate the struggle.

The West has played a hypocritical role. At first it was keen to use the revolt as an excuse for regime change—to get rid of Assad, one local dictator it did not support. 

For the governments of the US and Britain this was not about supporting an uprising they didn’t like, but reasserting imperial control. It was only international campaigning that stopped direct military involvement.

More recently the imperial powers have switched to viewing Assad more positively as a bulwark against the growth of Isis.

Assad had concentrated on crushing the popular revolt. Meanwhile Islamist groups grew in strength. 

They too saw the popular movements and local committees as a block to their aims. 

The mass of ordinary people became caught between two militarised forces—neither of which represented their interests.

Today Isis is the most powerful group fighting Assad. It is also fighting the US-backed regime in Iraq.

Western and Gulf forces are allied in a bombing campaign against Isis.

This imperialist intervention has only brought greater suffering to the remaining populations.


Read more

Isis and counter-revolution: towards a Marxist analysis
by Anne Alexander, International Socialism journal 145
bit.ly/1ArWkJ9

Syria Freedom Forever
Statement from the Syrian Left Current in 2013 
bit.ly/1PSB8Xs


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