Fierce repression fails to stop Syrians intent on Assad’s overthrow

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With unremitting courage, the people of Syria continue to organize against the brutal dictatorship of Pres. Bashar al-Assad. Since March 2011, the death toll has reached 3,000 as police and military attack protesters with tanks, gunboats, bombs, assault rifles, and vicious beatings. Tens of thousands have been jailed and many tortured for protests, most of which occur on Friday evenings after people gather at mosques for prayer, the only legal form of public assembly.

As the month-long observance of Ramadan approached its start on Aug. 1, rebels vowed to organize at the traditional large gatherings. Rami Nakhle, a well-known 28-year-old cyber-activist explained: “People are already mobilized during Ramadan. They will speak out against any injustice. It will be like every day is Friday. And it will be a big, big, big challenge for the Syrian regime.”

Indeed, it was. Defiance came from every city, town and region. The government, scorning the peaceful traditions of the season, killed an estimated 551 people during Ramadan. Their role as instruments of repression is taking a toll on Assad’s troops who are deserting in increasing numbers.

The sparks. The sweeping Arab Spring of revolts against brutish regimes, highlighted by the ouster of Tunisia’s, Egypt’s and Libya’s headmen, had no small affect on the Syrian masses. Political repression in the country had become even more unendurable in the last decade as neoliberal economic measures enriched ruling circles, while driving down living standards for the majority. Syria’s workforce is fairly evenly divided between industry, agriculture and services.

In 2005, in anticipation of joining the World Trade Organization, the Assad government began wholesale privatization of state enterprises and reduced public services. Banking, insurance and trade grew considerably, while many subsidies to farmers were ended. Unemployment is 14 percent, and more than 900,000 Syrians left the country over the last five years to seek work. The cost of healthcare has boomed with the introduction of private insurance companies. But taxes on profits and income have been slashed.

Such injustices have mobilized wide sectors of workers even though unions independent of government control are illegal.

Broad opposition. A tremendous strength of the Syrian rebellion is the integration of the country’s ethnic groups, youth, women, workers, the poor, students, intellectuals, and small businesses and farmers. Journalist Yassin Al Haj Saleh, who spent 16 years in prison for his involvement with a communist opposition group, attributes the lack of religious/ethnic friction to the fact that the uprising is “directed against the society of privilege and power, not against any particular religious group or sect.” He thinks the movement’s economic goals attract a wide range of activists from “traditional Islamic backgrounds and secular youth, including women of ‘modern’ orientation and comportment.”

In recognition of women’s heroism as activists and martyrs, May 13 was designated the “Friday of the Free Women.” Demonstrations by and honoring women took place in many cities that day. A female human rights lawyer told a reporter from The Guardian, “In some areas, so many of the men have been killed, arrested or injured it is the women who have been left to protest.”

Crucial strategy questions. The uprising does not yet have a unified program or centralized leadership. Some groups seek only Assad’s removal without making broader demands. Some communities have used weapons to turn back government troops. Others call for pacifism. A small minority raise the dangerous call for outside intervention.

However, the vast majority of anti-government Syrians are adamant about not trading a homegrown dictator for an imperialist occupier. One frequently cited network, the Local Coordination Committees, warns, “If … international military intervention becomes a reality, it will be virtually impossible to establish a legitimate foundation for a proud future Syria.”

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