Syria’s Uprising in Context By Stephen Gowans
10 February 2012 — what’s left
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.”  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.
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 30,000.
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.” 
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  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. 
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  –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.” 
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. 
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”  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.  “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.” 
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 —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.”  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” , 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.” 
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 interference.
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. 
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. 
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 privatization.
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. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/sytoc.html
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. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/3580.htm#econ. Accessed February 8, 2012.
15. Index of Economic Freedom 2012. http://www.heritage.org/index/country/syria. Accessed February 8, 2012.
16. US Library of Congress. A Country Study: Syria. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/sytoc.html