For Western rulers Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has gone from reformer to war criminal. At the same time his repression of protests against his regime is threatening to drive large numbers of Syrians into the arms of the West.
The revolution in Syria is part of the wave of uprisings that have spread across the region over the past year.
But unlike the revolutions in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia and Bahrain, it is taking place in a country that is not a Western client. The revolt is complicated further by sectarianism and brewing civil war.
Supporters of the Syrian regime claim this is not a real revolution. They argue it has been stoked up by the West and Arab monarchies as a strategic move to undermine opposition to imperialism.
But the Syrian revolution is homemade. It is the product of the country’s entanglement with imperialism, resistance, compromise and failed reforms.
The overthrow of Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mubarak last year was the immediate trigger for Syria’s revolt. But its origins lie in a period of failed reforms known as the “Damascus Spring”.
Bashar al-Assad took over from his father Hafiz in 2000. Initially he tried to steer Syria towards a free market economy with limited but real reforms.
Syria had previously adopted a state capitalist economic model. The economy was dominated by nationalised industries and central government control. This was useful for Syria’s rulers in the development of the country following the end of colonial rule. But by 2000 it was stagnating.
Bashar al-Assad’s changes meant the introduction of neoliberalism alongside greater political freedom. Plans were drawn up for rapid privatisation and expansion of the private sector. Generous contracts were handed out to a small group close to the ruling party.
The second part of the “Damascus Spring” was, in contrast, short-lived. Discussions about political reform came to an abrupt halt with the arrest and jailing of prominent human rights advocates, including two MPs.
These “salon reformists” had overstepped the mark by raising the question of corruption.
Many Syrians believed Assad was genuine in his desire for reform, but that hardliners had stopped him.
This idea persisted last year through the early days of the revolution. The first slogans heard on demonstrations demanded “implementation of reforms”, not “overthrow of the regime”.
Assad appeared on state TV with vague promises about “consultation”, “change” and “dialogue”. Protests would be legal, as long as the interior ministry had granted them permission.
Assad scoured the prisons looking for a “loyal opposition” that would support a programme of reforms that he could not deliver. But dreams of real reforms faded after a delegate at the first official opposition meeting was beaten in front of cameras for going too far in his criticism.
The state killing of protesters escalated as the demonstrations continued. People shouted at security forces, “Are these Bashar’s reforms?”
Soon a more ominous slogan was heard: “The people demand the execution of the leader.”
Previously quiet neighbourhoods burst into mass protests, usually in solidarity with the those in cities such as Deraa, Hama or Homs.
It became clear that there was no chance of reform and that the movement had to continue to the end.
Many Syrians, caught between the movement on the streets and the security forces, were terrified that the country would collapse into sectarian war.
Assad’s promise of future change was directed primarily at them. This group included the two major cities that up to that point had not revolted—Aleppo and the capital Damascus.
Sectarianism is the dirty secret behind the Syrian regime’s longevity. Underneath an official language of secularism, Syria’s ruling clique is drawn from the Alawi community, a historically downtrodden minority.
Many ordinary Alawis fear being “driven back to the mountains” if a regime dominated by Sunni Muslims emerged out of the revolution.
That is why early protests resounded to the chant of “the Syrian people are one”. Many Alawis, who remain poor, supported the aims of the revolution.
The regime hardliners worked hard to break this solidarity by kidnapping Sunni Muslims and dumping their bodies in Alawi neighbourhoods.
Alawis feared they would pay the price for murders done in their name. They have little alternative but to support the regime and its pretence that the revolution is a “sectarian plot”.
Alongside this runs the idea that Syria is the victim of a “foreign plot”. But Homs, Hama and Deraa are not “foreign”. The tragedy is that the oppressed call for intervention out of desperation. The West and its allies are happy to exploit them as they did in Libya.
The immediate strategic aims of the West coincide with the revolution in Syria. But that is a coincidence. The aims of the revolution are not those of the West. Many inside the revolution’s grassroots leadership understand this and continue to fight for its independence.
The future of the Syrian revolution, like all the others, lies in the struggle to remain independent. Victory rests at home, in the cities and neighbourhoods, schools, factories and offices. And above all it lies in the struggle to maintain unity in the face of sectarian gangs, charlatans and false friends.
Conflict spills over into Lebanon
The Syrian regime is closely associated with the Lebanese resistance organisation Hizbollah and the Palestinian Hamas movement.
Hamas refused to endorse Assad’s repression, and cut its ties with Syria. But Hizbollah has remained loyal, and is deeply compromised by its calls for Syrians to support the regime. This will have long term and disastrous consequences for the Lebanese resistance.
As the scale of the bloody offensive on Homs became clear, Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah appeared on TV and said, “We have our friends in Homs who have nothing to do with the regime. We called them and said, ‘What is going on?’ But they said, ‘Nothing is going on’.”
Nasrallah’s words cut a deep wound. During the 2006 Israeli war, Syrians opened their homes to the tens of thousands of refugees who fled Israeli bombs. This was despite the severe poverty many Syrians faced.
I joined these refugees in Damascus on the day of the ceasefire as they began their journey home.They described how eternally grateful they were for the hospitality and shelter.
How harsh must Nasrallah’s words be to them now. Demonstrators in Syria began to burn the Hizbollah flag—not as a sign of support for Israel, but as a protest at this bitter betrayal.
It is not surprising that hundreds of southern Lebanese families have signed a statement denouncing the Syrian crackdown. Youth in Hizbollah heartlands regularly scrawl “victory to the revolution in Bahrain” and “victory to the revolution in Syria” on walls.
For them, and the millions across the Arab world, all these revolutions are “one hand”. They are the genuine voice of the mass of people.
History of overtures to the West
The Syria that emerged in 1946 following the overthrow of French rule has struggled to maintain the country’s independence and build a sustainable society.
The Israeli army is camped just 50 miles from Damascus. It has been there since Israel occupied Syria’s strategic Golan Heights in 1967.
So the threat of Western imperialism and its allies against Syria is real. But the regime did not emerge from popular resistance.
Hafiz al-Assad, the current leader’s father, took power in a coup in 1970. He followed the path of Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and sought a deal with Israel. Assad believed the US and Israel would trade the Golan Heights for peace.
This game by the Syrian regime was laid bare in 1976 when it invaded and occupied Lebanon.
The Lebanese and Palestinians had risen in revolt against their pro-Western government. Theirs was a genuine revolution 20 years in the making. But on the eve of victory Syrian troops invaded to crush the progressive forces.
Assad offered Lebanon to the US as downpayment. But in the end the Israelis did not need him. They were concluding a far more important treaty with Egypt.
The 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait provided Assad with another opening. He sent troops to fight alongside the US, only for his peace overtures to be spurned again.
Bashar followed the same path by signing up to the “war on terror”. His regime played a key role in the West’s secret rendition-for-torture process. He also sealed the border with Iraq to halt the flow of volunteers to the anti-US insurgency.
These gestures came to nought—despite the high price paid by Iraq’s popular resistance movement.