The Syrian crucible

Issue: 135

Jonathan Maunder

The Arab revolutions have been a great inspiration for the struggle against capitalism and imperialism across the world. They have inspired and fed into a global mood of alienation and anger against the system as expressed in strikes, occupations and protests.1

However, the revolutionary process has developed unevenly across the region. In Tunisia and Egypt quick advances were made, with Ben Ali and Mubarak overthrown in a matter of weeks. In Libya Gaddafi was deposed following a longer struggle which ultimately relied upon NATO military intervention. In Yemen, Saleh was removed following a deal which leaves his regime intact. At the time of writing the situation in Syria appears to be following a different trajectory, with a stalemate emerging between the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the popular uprising.

Some on the left have viewed the uprising fundamentally in geopolitical terms, as a clash between the West and its regional allies, manipulating the uprising to advance their interests, and the Assad regime, which has represented a challenge to Western domination in the region.2 I argue that while the geopolitical dimension is important, it needs to be integrated with an understanding of developments within Syria since 2000, which have seen a breakdown in the historic “social pact” underpinning Ba’ath Party rule, leading to an intensification of class inequality and state authoritarianism. In this sense the Syrian uprising is motivated by the same issues and concerns as the other Arab revolutions. This context is vital in order to understand the Syrian uprising in its totality. I argue that, like the regimes of Ben Ali and Mubarak, the Assad regime represents a ruling class fundamentally opposed to the interests of Syrian workers and the poor. Furthermore, its position towards both imperialism and the resistance movements in Palestine and Lebanon is deeply contradictory, reflecting its geo-strategic interests as a ruling class.

The working class in Syria has not yet exercised its collective power through strikes on the same level as it has in Tunisia and Egypt, where mass strikes were vital to the early successes of the revolutions. I argue that, despite serious challenges, the Syrian working class has the potential power to play such a role, and that this is the only way to fully realise the goals of the uprising for real freedom, equality and democracy. Furthermore, the development of a confident, self-organised workers’ movement is the best defence against imperialist intervention and manipulation.

I do not provide here a detailed account of how the uprising began and has developed since February 2011.3 The aim of this article is to try and understand the nature of the Assad regime in Syria, the social and economic roots of the uprising, and assess the prospects for a workers’ movement to emerge which can provide an alternative to the regime and imperialist intervention.

The political economy of the Syrian regime

In order to understand the nature of the regime it is necessary to start with the historical context in which it emerged. The period following Syrian independence from France in 1946 was one of social turmoil in which the different class interests of those involved in the national liberation struggle came to the fore. The landowners constituted a conservative force, fighting to maintain a feudal system in the countryside, while peasants and workers fought for a more equal distribution of land and wealth and for meaningful democracy.4 The small industrial capitalist class, deeply afraid of the movements from below, vacillated between cooperation and conflict with the landlords, and failed to push through industrialisation.5

This period saw important struggles from below which helped to make Syria “the political and cultural mecca of the Arab world” at this time.6 In 1946 strikes forced the passage of advanced labour laws, including the establishment of the right to strike, leading to a tripling of union membership. A national peasant uprising in 1950 was followed by the first peasant congress in the Arab world in Aleppo in 1951.7 These movements coalesced around nationalist and socialist currents such as the Ba’ath Party, the Arab Socialist Party and the Communist Party.

However, to different degrees these political forces dissipated and then suppressed the popular struggles. The Ba’ath Party had a narrow middle class base and a nationalist ideology which combined opposition to imperialism and the landowning class with hostility to class struggle from below. The Arab Socialist Party had a wider peasant base but surrendered its political independence by merging with the Ba’ath. The Communist Party, following the Stalinist strategy of the time, vacillated between the workers’ and peasants’ struggles and the “progressive nationalists” of the Ba’ath. In 1955 the three parties formed an electoral alliance under the name of the National Front.8

In 1958 a group of army officers, terrified by the movement from below, led Syria into a union with Nasser’s Egypt, forming the United Arab Republic (UAR). This was supported by the Ba’ath and not opposed by the Communist Party. The reforms of the UAR period laid the basis for the “social pact” which would become the foundation of Ba’ath Party rule in the following decades. This involved land redistribution, establishing social provision for workers and the poor, and industrialisation, in exchange for complete state control of the popular movements. The right to strike was repealed in 1959 and all independent trade unions and peasant organisations were banned.9

The UAR collapsed in 1961 but was followed by a Ba’ath military coup in 1963 which retained the “social pact” model. The Ba’ath used the power of the state to push forward industrialisation which meant challenging the immediate interests of the ruling class through land redistribution and nationalisations as well as blocking independent organisation by workers and peasants.10

Syria’s entry into the UAR and the 1963 coup can be seen as examples of what Tony Cliff called “deflected permanent revolution”, a deviation from the process of permanent revolution as outlined by the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Trotsky described how, in countries emerging from colonialism, the working class would have to take on the task of breaking the dominance of the old feudal ruling class and, in doing so, lead the struggle towards socialism. However, due to the political forces leading it and its relatively small size in comparison to the mass of the peasantry, the Syrian working class did not manage to establish itself as the leading force in society. At the same time, the industrial and agrarian ruling class was too timid and divided to take up the task of economic and political development. Cliff’s theory described how in this situation radicalised sections of the middle class connected to the state could drive through national development. The results of this “deflected permanent revolution” were forms of state capitalism, not socialism.11 Cliff describes the outlook of this social layer:

They hope for reform from above and would dearly love to hand the new world over to a grateful people, rather than see the liberating struggle of a self-conscious and freely associated people result in a new world for themselves. They care a lot for measures to drag their nation out of stagnation, but very little for democracy. They embody the drive for industrialisation, for capital accumulation, for national resurgence. Their power is in direct relation to the feebleness of other classes, and their political nullity.12

Cliff’s theory provides important insights into the role played by the Syrian Ba’ath in the 1960s and by Hafez al-Assad following the coup which brought him to power in 1970. It highlights how this process involved the suppression of struggles from below, which is why the 2011 uprising is so significant.

Hafez’s “corrective movement” can be seen as the point in the process of “deflected permanent revolution” when state capitalism is fully established and any connections of the state apparatus to the revolutionary struggles of the past are broken. A member of the minority Muslim Alawi sect, Hafez used sectarianism to build a loyal core of Alawi army officers and to purge Sunni Muslim officers, before cementing an alliance with the Sunni bourgeoisie, to whom he offered new opportunities to invest and trade.13 Sectarianism was therefore used to create “an advance guard of an elite or class coalition”,14 part of an attempt to establish a stable ruling class. Hafez’s rule did bring stability in comparison to the repeated military coups after independence, but it was a stability built on the basis of smothering popular struggle from below. The Syrian Communist Party were complicit in this process through their alliance with the Ba’ath since the 1950s, who they described as a “basic revolutionary force” which had adopted “scientific socialism”, rather than a clear orientation on the mass struggles of peasants and workers.15 This highlights the danger of the left putting its faith in supposedly “progressive” and “anti-imperialist” nationalist leaders rather than in mass struggles from below, a mistake made by some today who have illusions in the Assad regime.16

The years from 1970 to 1982 saw a substantial growth in the size of the Syrian working class. Following land redistribution many peasants ended up with holdings which were too small to support a family, and the reforms made no provision for access to machinery and water to irrigate land. The result was proletarianisation in the countryside.17 Between 1970 and 1981 the number of full-time peasants decreased from 440,000 to 290,000, forming a pool of wage-labour which was drawn upon by larger landowners who had increased their share of land.18 These peasants also went to work in the new factories and mines. The industrial labour force increased between 1972 and 1982 from 276,515 to 433,609.19

By the early 1980s the number of the population in relative poverty had declined, due to the impact of reforms against the worst inequalities of the post-independence era, the expansion of relatively well-paid jobs in the state apparatus and remittances from Syrian workers in the Gulf states following the 1970s oil boom. However, life for many workers was still tough. The 1981 housing census showed that in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, 62 percent of the population were living in overcrowded and cramped conditions, including 20 percent living with more than four persons per room.20 Interviews in 1980 with Damascus factory workers revealed similar overcrowding, regular flouting of employment laws by bosses, and workers threatened with fines or imprisonment simply for leaving state companies.21

In the mid-1980s the regime responded to poor economic growth and declining foreign investment by slashing wages, benefits and subsidies on everyday goods. The result was a reversal of the gains made in the preceding period so that by the mid-1990s 70 percent of the population were living below the relative poverty line.22 The passing of Investment Law Number 10 in 1991 opened up new areas of the economy to private capital.23 By the mid-1990s Volker Perthes could write that “an upper class has emerged both greater in number and wealthier than the bourgeoisie of the pre-Ba’athist era”.24

This was the situation when Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000 following his father’s death. Bashar went even further in opening up the economy to private capital, cutting back the social functions of the state and relying increasingly on its repressive functions. The historic “social pact” underpinning Ba’athist state capitalist rule since the 1960s was significantly weakened. It is this context which is vital for understanding the roots of the 2011 uprising and why it spread so quickly and has proved so difficult to crush.

The social roots of the 2011 uprising

Bashar’s neoliberal reforms occurred at the same time as a number of important events effecting Syrian society. Perhaps the most significant of these was the drought of 2008-10, which caused tens of thousands of peasants to flee to the cities.25 Around the same time thousands of Syrians working abroad who sent remittances back to their families returned following the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 and the Dubai financial crisis in 2008. Further to this was the arrival of 1.5 million Iraqi refugees following the 2003 invasion by the US and Britain. These groups sought work and housing largely in the impoverished peripheries of the cities.26 It is these areas that have been the main centres of urban opposition during the 2011 uprising.

The impact of these events was intensified by the neoliberal reforms. The effect of the drought was made worse by the privatisation of state lands in 2000, which led to an increase in peasant evictions and intensive commercial farming which depleted the water table.27 The state-controlled Agricultural Workers Union pointed to subsidy cuts to fuel and the abolition of price controls on pesticides and animal feed as further causes of rural distress.28 In the cities the abolition of rent controls and an influx of Gulf investment in real estate made it increasingly difficult to obtain affordable housing.29 Reductions in import tariffs put many small manufacturers out of business, contributing to already high unemployment rates, particularly among the young. Wages declined in relative terms, following subsidy cuts and inflation, with 61 percent of workers earning less than $190 a month in 2010.30 Other reforms, such as cutting corporation tax, further increased the surge in wealth for the rich.31 In contrast to Egypt, where there was wholesale privatisation of sections of the economy and opening up to global capital, neoliberal reform in Syria often involved alliances between private capital and the state, an undermining of social provision and workers’ conditions within the state sector and strengthening ties to regional capital. So in the World Bank’s measurement of how open economies are to foreign capital Syria is ranked very low compared to Egypt, but in the measurement for “labour flexibility”—the extent of control bosses have over workers—the two countries are much closer.32 Across society, forms of social provision which workers had come to expect were undermined. In health and education creeping privatisation and the introduction of charges created a two-tier system with exclusive universities and hospitals for the rich.33

The impact of these reforms on Syrian society was profound. By the mid-2000s the World Bank’s index of inequality placed Syria lower than Egypt.34 As the Syrian economist Samar Seifan puts it, “Syria used to have a social pyramid characterised by a wide base, a big middle stratum and a low peak; under economic reform, the middle stratum are shrinking while a rich stratum is emerging at the top, resulting in a social pyramid with a broad base, a narrowing middle stratum and a higher peak”.35

Similarly Raymond Hinnebusch and Soren Schmidt have described the years preceding the uprising as representing “a decisive turn…in which authoritarian power is put in the service of a new stratum of crony capitalists”.36 Echoes of this reality could be heard within the regime, with an internal memorandum to Assad from his advisory committee in 2009 warning of popular perceptions that the state was “abandoning the poor for the sake of the rich”.37 One week before the 2011 uprising a peasant from the agricultural district around the southern city of Deraa presciently told a journalist, “You cannot keep pressuring people like this. You simply cannot. All it needs is a spark”.38

The increasing class polarisation in Syrian society also meant that the relationship between the state and the people became increasingly based on harassment and corruption. Transparency International moved Syria from 69th position in 2003 to 93rd position in 2006 on its international corruption index.39 Widespread alienation from the authorities fed trends in popular culture, with TV dramas, novels and cartoons satirising corrupt officials.40

The unravelling since 2000 of the historic “social pact” forged by the Ba’ath Party in the 1960s and 1970s is therefore key to understanding the roots of the 2011 uprising. As Bassam Haddad puts it:

Deep economic deterioration, elite capture of public policy, and authoritarian rule…created a pressure cooker effect for many years, leading to a sense of despair across broad sectors of the population… What tilted the calculus of individuals and groups in Syria in terms of going to the streets is the feeling that, after Tunisia and Egypt, they can actually do something about it.41

This unravelling has revealed the fundamental division in Syria between a corrupt and authoritarian ruling class and the mass of workers and the poor. It shows clearly why the left should have no illusions in Assad being somehow more worthy of support than Mubarak or Ben Ali. It also highlights the deep social roots from which the uprising has emerged, which will make it difficult for both the regime and foreign governments to contain and shape it in their interests.

The foreign policy of the Syrian regime

Since Hafez came to power, Syria has been seen as the key “rejectionist” state in the Middle East, due to his refusal to sign a peace treaty with Israel, and Bashar’s support for the Hamas and Hezbollah resistance movements in Palestine and Lebanon and alliance with Iran.

But far from representing a principled anti-imperialism Syrian foreign policy since 1970 has involved a series of manoeuvres motivated by the geopolitical and internal economic interests of the Syrian state capitalist ruling class. These manoeuvres have led to repeated changes in relations with international powers, primarily the US and the Soviet Union, regional powers, such as the Gulf States, and the resistance movements in Palestine and Lebanon.

The humiliating defeat of the Arab armies by Israel in the 1967 war was the key event shaping Hafez’s foreign policy on coming to power. The war led to Israel’s occupation of Syria’s Golan Heights, just 50 miles south of Damascus, which continues to this day. Following this Hafez was determined to achieve conventional military parity with Israel in order to negotiate from a position of strength. This involved breaking with the idea of a popular resistance war to liberate Palestine and attempting to control the Palestinian movement in order to use it as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Israel and the US. As one study puts it, “the main issue over which Hafiez came to power was opposition to a guerrilla war against Israel”.42 Early on Hafez launched an attack on the Palestinian guerrilla movement based in Syria, arresting its leaders and closing its offices. When Jordan’s King Hussein launched his first assault on Palestinian guerrillas based in Jordan in 1970, Syria intervened on the side of the Palestinians, but a year later Assad seized arms sent for the rebels by Algeria and offered only diplomatic protests when Hussein launched his final assault on the Palestinians.43

The build-up of conventional military power allowed Syria to join Egypt in launching a surprise attack on Israel in 1973 and inflict significant military losses on it. Hafez used the authority of this victory to open up politically and economically to the US while refusing to join Egypt and Jordan in “peace talks’”with Israel.44 US recognition of Syria’s importance in the region was summed up at the time by Henry Kissinger: “There can be no war in the Middle East without Egypt and no peace without Syria”.45

After inflicting a defeat on Israel Hafez now sought to further cement his control over the Palestinian resistance movement through intervention in the Lebanese civil war. In the mid-1970s an alliance of Palestinian guerrillas in the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and left wing Lebanese groups were engaged in a historic challenge to the ruling class in Lebanon. Israel and the US intervened on the side of the government and the extreme-right Christian Phalangist militias.46 Syrian troops entered Lebanon in 1976 to prop up the government. They offered protection to Christian areas enabling the Phalangist militias to go on the offensive, leading to the massacre in the Palestinian Tel al-Za’atar refugee camp in 1976.47 Shortly afterwards Assad routed the PLO from Lebanon by sponsoring a Palestinian faction to mutiny, then assisting it in laying siege to the remaining PLO fighters around the Lebanese city of Tripoli. Robert Fisk described the scene:

The two Palestinian camps of Badawi and Nahr Al-Bared were besieged by the mutineers, assisted by Lebanese Ba’athists and Syrian artillery batteries which shelled not only Arafat’s men but the civilian population of Tripoli… I would drive through the shattered city, run through the shellfire to the hospital and ask for the number of victims. Outside the building there stood a refrigerated meat lorry packed with civilian bodies.48

The final betrayal of the Palestinians came in 1983 when Syria backed Elie Hobeika, leader of the infamous massacre of around 2,500 Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, to be the new leader of the Christian militias. Hobeika argued that Syria had a “major role” to play in Lebanon and later fled to Damascus, receiving help from the regime in setting up his own militia.49 Syria’s intervention in Lebanon reflected Assad’s desire to manipulate and control the Palestinian resistance in order to strengthen his own position in the region and possible future negotiations with Israel and the US. As well as smashing the PLO in Lebanon this strategy also involved sponsoring pro-Syrian Palestinian guerrilla groups who could be used to advance Hafez’s strategic interests.50 The same cynical sponsoring of resistance movements to bolster Syria’s geopolitical position informs Bashar’s strategy towards the movements today.

By the early 1990s the collapse of the Soviet Union and Syria’s economic crisis prompted Hafez to make a turn towards the US. He supported the first US-led war on Iraq in 1991, helping to secure major investment from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States throughout the 1990s. As part of this shift Hafez also sought renewed negotiations with Israel. In 1996 and 2000 a “cold peace” deal was very nearly struck in which Syria would agree to diplomatic normalisation, economic cooperation and security measures in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from the Golan Heights—justice for the Palestinians was off the agenda.51 An Israeli government adviser later recounted, “I heard senior members of the Israeli delegation saying that an agreement was possible within two or three months. On all the issues—normalisation, security, and water—we got more than we’d gotten before”.52

By the time Bashar came to power in 2000 following Hafez’s death, the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada, coinciding with the announcement by Israel of plans to build 1,500 new settlements in the Golan Heights, put an end to the possibility of a peace agreement with Israel.

Bashar’s strategy in this period is usually seen as one of straightforward opposition to Israel and US foreign policy, in particular the Iraq War. In reality his approach has been more nuanced, reflecting the strategic dilemmas and calculations of the regime. On the one hand, support for the Palestinian and Lebanese resistance movements allowed Bashar to apply pressure on Israel without directly confronting its occupation of the Golan Heights.53 Alliances with Iran and Iraq under Saddam Hussein had important economic and political benefits. But at the same time Bashar sought to strengthen Syria’s ties to pro-Western states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in order to insulate the regime from an aggressive US administration following 9/11. As Raymond Hinnebusch puts it:

Syria was trying to position itself to manipulate two opposing regional alliance networks, the traditional pro-Western one that tied it to Cairo and Riyadh and what at times looked like a potential new anti-Western one with Iraq [under Saddam Hussein] and Iran.54

On an economic level this can be seen in the way that under Bashar the hostile ruling classes in Iran and the Gulf States have exploited Syrian workers and resources. While Iran built a gas pipeline and Syria’s first car factory in 2007, billions of dollars of real estate investment have poured in from Saudi Arabia (including from the Bin Laden family), Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE.55 On a geopolitical level, it can be seen in the way that, as well as backing resistance to Israel and opposing the war on Iraq, Bashar cooperated with the US in sealing the border with Iraq to stop insurgents fighting the US/UK occupation and participated in the torture of “terror suspects” through the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” programme.56

Bashar’s contradictory role in the region can be seen in the response of Saudi Arabia and Israel to the 2011 uprising. As the New York Times commented in May 2011 on the Saudi response:

An initial statement of support by King Abdullah for President Bashar al-Assad has been followed by silence, along with occasional calls at Friday prayer for god to support the protesters. That silence reflects a deep ambivalence, analysts said. The [Saudi] ruling family personally dislikes Mr Assad—resenting his close ties with Iran and seeing Syria’s hand in the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, a Saudi ally. But they fear his overthrow will unleash sectarian violence without guaranteeing that Iranian influence will be diminished.57

Similarly some Israeli officials expressed concern that the fall of Assad could lead to “the freeing of Palestinian organisations from any restraints and [their belief] that the Syrian regime represents a central authority that regulates behaviour and keeps events from slipping out of control”.58 This “regulating” position was reflected in comments by the chief of Syrian intelligence in 2003 that threats of regime change against Syria from the US “could unleash groups that had hitherto been checked by Syrian intelligence networks, namely Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad”.59

If the position of Bashar’s official enemies is not straightforward, neither is that of his supposed allies. Hamas has refused to back the regime during the uprising and has moved its political office out of Damascus, while Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah has stayed loyal, even though this threatens to undermine Hezbollah’s credibility in Syria and the Arab world in general.60

Hafez and Bashar al-Assad’s opposition to Israel and support for resistance movements has been shaped primarily by their geopolitical interests as representatives of a state capitalist ruling class, concerned above all to maintain their influence and strength in relation to other states. This has involved repeated manoeuvring between support, restraint and repression of these movements. In contrast to such cynical manoeuvring socialists should look to the mass struggles of the Arab revolutions as the greatest hope for challenging imperialism in the region and liberating Palestine.

Beyond stalemate?

At the time of writing the Assad regime remains in power. There is some uncertainty about what will happen if it does fall. Some argue that it will mean a boost for the US and Israel, and a further step along the road to a war with Iran. Another concern is the descent into sectarianism and civil war. All these outcomes are possible and should not be treated lightly.

The key question is whether the working class can use its collective social power in the workplaces through mass strikes to tip the balance against the regime and make it more difficult for outside powers to manipulate the uprising. Beyond the regime’s suppression of the uprising, whether this happens depends on the role of other forces within the opposition such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Syrian National Council (SNC), and the influence of sectarianism.

The FSA mostly comprises defecting soldiers and officers, and civilians who have taken up arms to defend themselves from regime attacks. It is no surprise that armed resistance has developed given the ruthless suppression of the uprising and the legacy of the regime’s brutal war against the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which destroyed the city of Hama and killed around 20,000 of its inhabitants.61

The “umbrella” of the FSA includes a number of different groups who maintain a loose connection with the leadership based in Turkey. There has been much discussion about the extent of assistance being provided to the FSA by external powers such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and NATO. While it is likely that some form of assistance is being provided, and may well increase in future, it is important not to exaggerate such claims. Credible reports in early 2012 suggested that the FSA remained poorly armed and with a significant proportion of its arms coming from defectors, raids on government weapons bases and black market purchases.62

Photographs from Aleppo in April 2012 showed predominantly young FSA fighters taking on tanks with small and defective weapons, pipe bombs, improvised body armour and Molotov cocktails.63 The FSA has real popular roots within the uprising and is simply too diverse for it to be easily turned into a unified proxy force acting in the interests of outside powers.

However, it is likely that outside powers will try to build up loyal units and co-opt leaders within the armed resistance. There is a danger that a protracted military confrontation with the regime will make the FSA increasingly reliant on external support. In such a situation the FSA could also become a barrier to popular participation and the emergence of a workers’ movement. As Lee Sustar and Yusuf Khalili have argued:

the question of non-violent mass protest—and whether and how to conduct an armed struggle—is key to the Syrian Revolution. Organising self-defence of a neighbourhood or city under attack from the armed forces is different from building the FSA as a fighting force—particularly if foreign powers are attempting to dominate the FSA. Meanwhile, the emergence of Iraq-style jihadist attacks on civilian targets would only play into Assad’s hands by giving credence to the idea that the revolution is simply the work of foreign agents.64

Therefore while socialists should defend the right of armed resistance against the regime, and oppose abstract calls for the resistance to lay down its weapons while the murderous Assad regime remains in power, the dangers of a situation where the FSA becomes a substitute for mass popular action also need to be recognised. Such a development will make it harder for a workers’ movement to emerge.

The SNC was formed by exiled leaders, dominated by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, in an attempt to persuade the West to carry out a similar military intervention in Syria to that which it carried out in Libya. The leaders of the SNC have thus focused most of their attention on lobbying for military intervention rather than building international support for the uprising. They represent the most pro-Western element within the opposition, and are positioning themselves to become a new ruling elite. However, their role is contested by the opposition in Syria. They have alienated many of the activists based around the Local Coordinating Committees, which are largely opposed to military intervention, as well as Syria’s Kurds by refusing to back Kurdish autonomy or independence in a post-Assad state.65 The SNC’s support for the “Libya model” has been discredited both by the fact that it is less certain that the West will intervene in the same fashion against Assad and by the result of the intervention in Libya, which has led to the installing of a secretive and corrupt Transitional National Council and the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians.66

The role of sectarianism

Syria is one of the most diverse countries in the Middle East. Around 65 percent of the Syrian population are Sunni Muslims and the rest are Muslim Alawis (14 percent), Christians (12 percent) and smaller Shia Muslim and Druze minorities.67 Historically the regime, made up of a core of Alawi military officers in alliance with the Sunni bourgeoisie, has played on fears of a Lebanese-style civil war to pose as the keeper of stability.

During the uprising the regime has worked hard to bind the minority groups to it through fear of violent Sunni retribution. On occasions it has been able to hold significant pro-Assad protests based on their support. The statement of responsibility by an Islamist group for the massive car bomb which ripped through Damascus in May 2012 increased fears of sectarianism: “We tell the regime: stop your massacres of Sunni people or you will bear the sins of the Alawis”.68

But it is important to stress that anti-sectarianism has been a key part of the slogans and chants of the uprising.69 It is also not the case that the minorities have uniformly backed the regime. As one analysis puts it:

Many an Alawi, especially amongst intellectuals and simple villagers, resents how his community has been taken hostage by the regime. The Druze are split somewhere down the middle. Christians, who are geographically dispersed, adopt remarkably different viewpoints depending on how much they see of the security services’ abuse on the ground…Ismailis, based in the town of Salamiyya, were among the first to join the opposition.70

This highlights how the regime’s talk of sectarianism conceals the reality of class division in Syria. The minority communities are divided by class just as much as the majority Sunni Muslim population. This is yet another reason for the importance of the development of a workers’ movement within the uprising. Such a movement would be a powerful means of uniting Sunnis, Alawis, Christians, Druze and others through common class demands. In the absence of such a movement both the regime and the Gulf States will have more chance of stoking sectarian tensions.

The working class

How likely is it that a working class movement will emerge within the uprising? In objective terms, the working class in Syria today is a potentially powerful force. Out of a population of around 22.5 million, around 2.7 million are wage workers.71 This means that close to 70 percent of the population depend on wage labour directly or indirectly once families and the unemployed are taken into account. Around 75 percent of the population live in the largest six cities: Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Latakia and Tartous.72 Each of these cities contains powerful groups of workers. Syria has a large mining and manufacturing sector and over the past 20 years workers in airports, railways, ports and power stations have all become increasingly important to the economy.73 Alongside them are public sector workers such as civil servants, teachers and doctors who make up around 25 percent of the workforce and whose wages have declined in relative terms since the 1980s, leading 40 percent of them to take on second jobs.74

However, while the Syrian working class exists as a powerful social force in objective terms, there is no inevitability that this will translate into subjective action. This depends on the confidence of workers to fight and the development of independent networks of organisation. In contrast to the working class in Tunisia and Egypt the Syrian working class has a weaker tradition of such organisation. As the Egyptian revolutionary socialist Mostafa Bassoumy has argued:

The main difference between the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions and the Syrian uprising is the role played by the labour movements in each country…

The labour movement is simply absent in Syria. This may be because Syrian unions are controlled by the state and have been relatively listless compared to those in Egypt and Tunisia. The existence of semi-independent Tunisian unions and an increasingly active Egyptian labour movement in the past few years helped catapult the organised workers into the heart of revolution. In both cases, this led to a quick resolution of the uprising in favour of the people.75

By contrast the last major strike wave in Syria was in 1980-1, which led to the imprisonment of hundreds of union activists. Beyond low levels of independent workers’ organisation, the growth of “informal labour” and the persistence of small workplaces in the economy also pose challenges for the formation of a strong working class movement.76 Those counted as unemployed in Syria, around 20 percent of the working population (the percentage is much higher among the young), blend in with those in the “informal” economy, who might work on street stalls or as part of an established company on an “unofficial” temporary basis. In terms of small workplaces, one study from 2004 estimates that, out of 600,000 companies in Syria, 500,000 employed fewer than five workers.77

However, as analysis has shown in other countries in the Global South, it is likely that there is no clear division between these groups of workers.78 The same workplace can employ both “formal” and “informal” workers, and individual workers may work “formally” by day and “informally” at night.79 The dominance of small workplaces also varies. Workplaces of fewer than 14 workers make up around 60 percent of companies in Damascus and Aleppo, whilst in the more industrial cities of Homs and Hama they make up around 20 percent of companies.80 Therefore the total picture of the working class in Syria is one in which more strategically powerful groups of workers are part of a broader mass of workers and the poor who are either unemployed, informally employed or employed in small workplaces, a situation common across the Global South.81

There have been many recent examples of struggles in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East where strikes by powerful groups of workers have fused with the resistance of the wider mass of poor and unemployed.82 It was this process which developed in the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions where after weeks of street protests the spread of strikes provided the crucial pressure which brought Mubarak and Ben Ali down.83 In Syria forms of organisation have included the formation of the Local Coordinating Committees, strikes by market stall holders and small shopkeepers and the establishment of road blocks and check-points. There have also been some limited strikes at factories, offices and hospitals. But what has been missing so far is sustained and coordinated strike action by those powerful groups of workers—in the oil refineries, ports, factories, offices, mines, railways, airports, schools and hospitals—who potentially have the power to bring the economy to a grinding halt and break the regime.

The collective power workers have in the workplace is unique because it can hit the regime directly by shutting down whole sections of the economy and the state. It is also the most powerful way of breaking down sectarian divisions, which is one of the reasons why the regime has managed to hold on to power so far. It is by no means inevitable that such a workers’ movement will emerge, and it is made difficult by the brutality of the regime and the militarisation of the conflict. But unless it emerges, the revolution cannot fully achieve the real and profound change desired by ordinary people.


Socialists should identify clearly with the forces from below which are fighting the Assad regime. There is no contradiction between this and opposition to imperialist intervention. On the contrary, belief in social change and socialism “from below” is the most consistent and solid basis for opposing imperialism. The importance of the Arab revolutions is that they raise the possibility for the mass of ordinary people in the region to challenge the control of both regional ruling classes and the
imperialist powers.

Despite significant challenges, and some important contrasts with the struggles in Tunisia and Egypt, the Syrian uprising is part of the same struggle across the region against poverty, inequality and state repression. It has emerged out of the regime’s drive to reform the economy in the interests of the ruling class while strengthening its means of internal repression.

The uprising can be seen as a new phase in an important tradition of popular struggle in Syrian history. As Hanna Batatu wrote of Syria in 1981:

Connected with these struggles is a phenomenon that repeats itself: rural people, driven by economic distress or lack of security, move into the main cities, settle in the outlying districts, enter before long into relations or forge common links with elements of the urban poor, who are themselves often earlier migrants from the countryside, and together they challenge the old established classes.84

A crucial difference this time is the greater objective potential for the Syrian working class to lead the struggle, due to its growth in both absolute and relative terms, and the fact that a majority of Syrians now live in urban areas. The developing strength of this class, using its unique collective power in the workplaces, is the only way the Syrian Revolution can can fully realise its emancipatory potential—not just bringing down the regime, but beginning to address the deep social and economic issues facing workers, the youth and the poor.

The further development of the revolution faces substantial obstacles. The massacre in the town of Houla in May 2012 shows the extreme lengths to which the regime and its militas will go to in order to strike fear into the hearts of the opposition. But at the same time reports suggest the revolution is drawing in increasing numbers of people, with a growing armed insurgency and bigger and more frequent protests and strikes. What is certain is that both the regime and foreign forces ultimately want to crush the movement from below. The success or failure of the Syrian uprising will have an impact on the confidence of revolutionary movements across the region and the rest of the world. For this reason socialists should oppose all attempts by imperialist powers and their allies to intervene in Syria, and stand firmly in solidarity with the workers, peasants, soldiers and students in their struggle against the Assad regime. Their victory will be our victory, just as their defeat will be our defeat.


1: Thanks to Anne Alexander, Simon Assaf, Alex Callinicos, Joseph Choonara and Sam Southgate for their extremely useful comments and discussions on an earlier draft of this article.

2: See Amin, 2012; Galloway, 2011; Ibrahim 2012; Ramadani, 2012.

3: For a concise and accessible overview of the uprising see Assaf, 2012. For a more detailed account see International Crisis Group (ICG), 2011.

4: Petran, 1972, pp80-106.

5: Heydemann, 1999.

6: Petran, 1972, p111.

7: For the struggles in this period see Petran 1972, pp86-88 and p101.

8: Petran, 1972, p114.

9: Petran, 1972.

10: Heydemann, 1999.

11: For an introduction to the theory of state capitalism see Haynes, 2009. For a recent discussion of the theory of deflected permanent revolution see Choonara, 2011.

12: Cliff, 1963.

13: See Batatu, 1981, and Haddad, 2012a.

14: Van Dam, 1996, p141.

15: Marshall, 1995.

16: See, for example, West, 2012.

17: Perthes, 1997, p86; Ababsa, 2010.

18: Perthes, 1997, p85.

19: Longuenesse, 1985, p22.

20: Perthes, 1997, p131.

21: Longuenesse, 1985, pp20, 23.

22: Perthes, 1997, p117.

23: Polling, 1994.

24: Perthes, 1997, p109.

25: Ababsa, 2010, p83.

26: ICG, 2011.

27: Ababsa, 2010, p84; ICG, 2011.

28: Syria Report, 2011.

29: Hinnebusch, 2012, p102.

30: Seifan, 2010, p127.

31: Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), 2008, p3.

32: Zorob, 2008, p6; Aita, 2009, p31.

33: Aita, 2009, p50; Seifan, 2010, p19.

34: World Bank, 2005.

35: Seifan, 2010, p24.

36: Hinnebusch and Schmidt, 2009, p4.

37: Hinnebusch, 2012, p102.

38: Syria Report, 2011.

39: Seifan, 2010, p28.

40: Lesch, 2005, p223.

41: Haddad, 2012a, p121.

42: Slater, 2002, p93.

43: Petran, 1972, p253.

44: Rogan, 2011, p467.

45: Traboulsi, 2007, p195.

46: Traboulsi, 2007, pp187-204.

47: Fisk, 2001, p85.

48: Fisk, 2001, pp529-530.

49: Fisk, 2001, p601.

50: Fisk, 2001, p569.

51: Slater, 2002, pp94-100.

52: Slater, 2002, p100.

53: As a chant of the 2011 uprising put it, “Bashar-butcher of Damascus, coward of the Golan.” Thanks to Simon Assaf for this reference.

54: Hinnebusch, 2003, p200.

55: Khosrokhavar, 2012, p286; Seifan, 2010, p22.

56: Salloukh, 2009; LaHood, 2005. Arar, 2003, provides a harrowing account by one victim of Syria’s participation in extraordinary rendition.

57: Khosrokhavar, 2012, p289.

58: Policy Analysis Unit, 2012.

59: Salloukh, 2009, pp164-165.

60: Sadiki, 2011.

61: Rogan, 2011, p515.

62: Holliday, 2012; Abouzeid, 2012.

63: Cantlie, 2012.

64: Sustar and Khalili, 2012.

65: Sustar and Khalili, 2012.

66: Milne, 2011.

67: EIU, 2008, p2.

68: Pearse, 2012.

69: See Zenobie, 2011.

70: Harling and Birke, 2012.

71: Seifan, 2010, p42.

72: EIU, 2008, p3.

73: EIU, 2008, pp9, 17.

74: EIU, 2008, p18.

75: Bassyouni, 2011.

76: Haddad, 2012b, describes those in the “informal sector” as “functioning, and living, almost completely outside the market”-p119.

77: Seifan, 2010, p54. It is possible for these kinds of figures to be exaggerated. In Bolivia the number of small workplaces has been inflated by bosses artificially dividing up their companies for tax purposes. However, I have no evidence that such practices are occurring in Syria. Thanks to Joseph Choonara for this point.

78: See Harman, 2009, pp337-352.

79: The findings of Fourtuny and al-Husseini, 2010, and Longuenesse, 1985, suggest this.

80: Seifan, 2010.

81: Callinicos, 2007.

82: Harman, 2009, pp343-344.

83: See Naguib, 2011, and Alexander, 2011.

84: Batatu, 1981, p337.


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