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Syria’s balancing acts

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Mass protests have rocked Syria’s ruling class. Socialist Worker looks at the history of its changing relationships with other Arab states and the West
Issue 2246
Map of the region
Map of the region

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, like other Arab rulers, is determined to cling onto power in the face of the spreading revolts across the region. So far, that has meant killing more than 60 people in the first fortnight of protests.

The Syrian government blamed the protests first on Palestinians, then on foreign operatives from Israel or the US. That confusion points to some of the contradictions of the Syrian state.

According to the West, Syria is a “rogue” state that has interests in developing weapons of mass destruction and supports terrorism.

But as late as two weeks ago, Hillary Clinton praised Bashar al-Assad as a reformer.

Most of the country’s 17 million people—half of whom are aged under 19—are poor and becoming poorer. Unemployment stands between 25 and 30 percent. GDP is falling and the oil is running out. The vast bureaucracy and military and security machine that has kept the ruling Ba’ath party in power can no longer be sustained.

Syria’s economy floats near bankruptcy. Some of the biggest protests have taken place in the impoverished southern city of Dara’a, where agricultural production, on which most people rely for income, has been wracked by drought in the past few years.

However, the uprising has spread to bigger cities around the country, including the capital Damascus, Aleppo, Latakia, Homs and Hama. The Kurdish minority in the north is also in semi-revolt.

As Robert Fisk puts it, “Torture does continue, the iniquities of the mukhabarat security services continue, freedom in Syria is as hard to find as an oasis in the desert, and the Syrian parliament remains a circus of support.”

The Syrian regime is based on a narrow group mainly drawn from army officers belonging to the Alawite sect of Islam, which constitutes 12 percent of the Syrian population.

In contrast, the revolt has involved a range of different religious groups.

Syria has an uneasy relationship with the West. It was on the US’s target list after Iraq. It has US-occupied Iraq on its eastern border and Israel to the west. Its history is of both imperial domination and a response to domination.


As the Ottoman Empire crumbled during the First World War, Britain and France divided the region.

In 1920, Emir Faisal led an Arab rebellion that proclaimed an Arab kingdom in Damascus. French troops crushed the revolt.

French tanks mowed down the Arab horse-riding army at the battle of Maysaloon and the emir was hastily packed off to Baghdad by the British to become king of Iraq.

For the next 25 years, French colonial administrators governed the country. But there was widespread resistance.

Between 1925 and 1926, a massive revolt spread in opposition to colonial rule, which the French crushed with difficulty, twice bombing Damascus.

Finally, in 1946, another popular rebellion forced the French to evacuate their troops.

The landowners and merchants who formed the first post-independence governments soon faced workers’ strikes for better pay and conditions, while peasants rebelled. Radical parties flourished.

The first Communist MP in the Arab world was elected in 1954, as the nationalist Ba’ath Party’s vision of pan-Arab unity to defeat imperialism found a growing audience.

The Ba’athists were based on middle class intellectuals, professionals, students, traders and businessmen who hated what imperialism had done to the region.

They believed in a united Arab world and called for the nationalisation of major sections of the economy and opposing imperialism.

But once the Ba’athists came to power, they were pulled towards identification with the state they had taken over. Ba’athist parties spread across the region. Today many parties retain the name, but they have split from their radical founding philosophy.

In Syria this meant they soon became more concerned about the defence and extension of boundaries and interests, not pan-Arab revolution.

In 1958, the Syrian Ba’athists urged Egypt’s military leader Gamal Abdul Nasser to become president of a United Arab Republic made up of Syria and Egypt. But the republic fell apart in 1961, when Nasser faced a revolt by some Syrian capitalists who opposed his land reforms and plans to nationalise industry and the banks.

A military coup in Damascus handed power back to a liberal civilian government. The Ba’athists regained power in 1963 in another coup.

They combined anti-imperialist rhetoric and support for the emerging Palestinian guerrilla groups with state capitalist economic policies modelled on the Soviet Union.

This added fuel to the constant tension with Israel—the outpost of US power in the region.

In the 1967 war Israel defeated Syria and other Arab nations. Israel occupied Syria’s Golan Heights.

This defeat strengthened the position of the military wing of the Ba’athists. Hafiz Assad, one of its leading figures and the current president’s father, launched an internal coup—dubbed “the Corrective Revolution”—in 1970.

Assad turned away from some of his predecessors’ state capitalist policies, partially liberalising the economy.

Modern Syrian history has seen a continuing pattern of clashes with Israel—but for all the talk of solidarity with the Palestinians, betrayal was the order of the day.

Egypt and Syria launched another war against Israel in 1973 in an attempt to reclaim back their land. They lost.

But in 1976 Syria, under orders from the US, sent troops into Lebanon during the civil war on the side of vicious fascistic Phalangists who were fighting against Palestinian and Muslim groups.

That year Syria’s forces collaborated with these right wing Christian militias in the massacre of 2,000 Palestinians at Beirut’s Tel al Zaatar camp.

Syria has met internal resistance with severe repression. The most serious opposition came from armed Islamist groups in the early 1980s. In 1980 this combined with mass strikes and demonstrations. Some two thirds of the population of the city of Aleppo rose up for several weeks.

The same year, the state killed 1,000 people to crush a revolt in a huge detention camp in the eastern desert near Tadmur.

There was then a general insurrection in Hama in 1982. Assad declared, “They will pay the price for what they have done.”

He ended the rising with a bloodbath, butchering tens of thousands of people in the space of a month.

Entire urban districts were destroyed. Civilians were hunted down in the underground tunnels of the city. The aim was to terrify opposition forces.

In the 1980s the Syrian economy stagnated and its superpower supporter, the Soviet Union, went into terminal decline.

But the 1991 Gulf War provided an opportunity for Syria to realign itself with the Western powers.


Syria backed the US’s war against Iraq in 1991 and was courted by the US.

The shift did not lead to a resumption of US aid, but opened the door to an improved relationship with the European Union and Saudi Arabia.

Limited economic growth was aided by an expansion of oil production and the Syrian ruling class brought in new laws to encourage foreign investment. But most ordinary Syrians lost out.

Since the death of Hafiz al-Assad in 2000, his son Bashar has ruled. He initially promised political and economic liberalisation known as the “Damascus Spring”.

But the repression of human rights and political activists continues. After 9/11 Assad reminded the US of the way his government had acted in Hama and said it was a “successful example” for Bush to follow.

There are hundreds of political prisoners in Syria and human rights groups say that torture is “routine”.

That torture has at times been an asset for the West. The US outsourced torture to Syria as part of the rendition programme of the “war on terror”.

At the point George W Bush was adding the country to the “axis of evil”, his government was sending people to Syrian jails.

The Syrian prison, known as the Palestine Branch, is where some of those kidnapped by the CIA ended up.

One Canadian citizen, Maher Arar, was sent there after being kidnapped in New York. They released him after nearly a year of torture and sent him home without explanation.

The relationship changed again in 2005, when the assassination of then Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri was blamed on Syria.

His assassination triggered the so‑called Cedar Revolution in Lebanon.

A wave of demonstrations forced Syria, which occupied sections of Libya, to withdraw.

The US imposed sanctions on Syria, accusing the Ba’athist government of aiding the resistance in Iraq. In 2008 US troops carried out an attack that killed eight people.

The Syrian government’s response was to clamp down on Palestinian groups and “foreign fighters”.

Syria’s rulers’ balancing act has never been easy. The current revolt makes it even harder.

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