Since serious protests began in March of last year, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has savaged thousands of unarmed Syrians. Civilians are murdered execution-style; gang rapes of women are a weapon of war. Death toll estimates reach over 17,000.
But, in reaction, tens of thousands of people, from every ethnic and religious background, are becoming dedicated oppositionists. Women and men who began by demanding the release of political prisoners now will settle for nothing less than fundamental change.
The clock has been ticking in beleaguered Syria. A decade of privatization and austerity imposed by the rich and their global banks has made poverty widespread, while the Arab Spring has given new hope to the afflicted. And now, the Syrian family dictatorship that has repressed its opponents for four long decades has finally gone too far.
Who are the rebels? Mainstream and even some left media give the impression that the rebels are primarily Islamic reactionaries (al-Qaida is often mentioned) or dupes of Western imperialists and the CIA. But independent journalists, bloggers, Internet reporters, activists on the ground, and Arab analysts tell a different story.
Most protesters are impoverished rural and urban working people, including small shopkeepers and vendors. A great many are young, powerfully motivated because they have nothing to lose. Fifty-five percent of young Syrians are unemployed, in a country where people under 30 are 65 percent of the population.
The organizers of the demonstrations, boycotts, and strikes are civilian councils, now brought together in a network called the Local Coordination Committees. The councils include long-time activists, both liberal democrats and Marxists. Many have organized underground and spent years in jail. Some were prominent during the 2001 Damascus Spring, a period of political ferment after Assad succeeded his father. Among the Damascus Spring activists are women who continue to be leaders today; for example, four who planned a March 16, 2011, vigil demanding freedom for political prisoners, which police viciously attacked.
As the civilian insurrection met with violent repression, armed self-defense became necessary, and in places has gone onto the offensive. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) was at first made up of military deserters who refused to fire on unarmed demonstrators. Now opposition news reports say that FSA is hugely reinforced by displaced farmers and the unemployed. Other local militias protect protesters and neighborhoods under attack.
Without massive popular support, the various guerrilla fighters could not have survived a week against Assad’s vastly superior military machine. But FSA lacks a central command and is not accountable to democratic civilian bodies involved in the struggle to overthrow the regime.
Syrians are proudly multi-ethnic and multi-religious, and so is their movement. It includes Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, and others. Though their background may be Muslim or Christian, the majority are anti-sectarian and for a secular government.
On the question of “humanitarian” imperialist military intervention, the movement is divided, though Arab analysts report far less support for this than Western media portrays. Bitter lessons, from Kosovo to Iraq, Haiti, and Libya, have taught Syrians that outside military interference brings misery and death, while serving only the interests of international capital.
Split in the Left. At the start of the Assad dictatorships in the 1970s, the regime masqueraded as the left wing of the Arab world, currying favor with the Soviet Union and other Stalinist countries. Today, in countries including the U.S., a few left groups take counterrevolutionary positions because of the president’s supposed anti-imperialism. They claim that the rebellion is an “imperialist conspiracy” or “Islamic takeover.”
In fact, the regime has never been truly secular or anti-imperialist, let alone socialist. Its foundation rests on military repression and the support of economic and religious elites (both Muslim and Christian). Unions have never been tolerated. The regime sold out Palestinian and Lebanese resistance fighters in the 1970s and participated in the 1991 war against Iraq.
Undoubtedly, Western imperialists and reactionary Arab regimes are maneuvering for influence within the Syrian opposition. The degree to which they are funding or arming the revolt is hotly disputed. Some commentators make the case that countries like the U.S., Britain, and France prefer that Assad come out on top, as the more “stable” option. In any case, these forces are not seeking a solution in the interest of the Syrian people, but an increase in their own economic and geopolitical standing.
The danger does exist that the Syrian revolution could be hijacked by some combination of these global players and Islamic fundamentalists, as the Libyan revolution was. But to fail to support the uprising for this reason is a betrayal of the workers, poor, women, and youth who are its mainspring.
Revolution-building in progress. Revolution is partly made up of spontaneous protest. Russian Soviet leader Leon Trotsky called it the “art of insurrection.” But, he cautioned, to counteract the superior power of the ruling class requires revolutionary leadership that is organized on a program addressing the needs of the most oppressed and aiming for the ouster of capitalism.
Palestinian-Syrian activist and Marxist writer Salameh Kaileh, who has spent years in Assad’s prisons, recently put it this way. “In order to achieve the goals of the uprising today, there must be a new vision based on a Marxist analysis, and that represents the interests of workers and farmers, which, in turn, can allow a new party to be set-up that would undertake a genuinely transformative programme. It is this possibility which has been opened through the uprising.”
A program representing the working class would fight for full employment, the right to form independent labor unions, guaranteed housing, the nationalization of major industries under workers’ control, unconditional respect for women’s rights, and no discrimination on the basis of religion or ethnicity.
Syria’s exhilarating revolution does not need the poisonous “help” of imperialists. The help it needs from outside its borders is the solidarity of workers and radicals demanding that their governments leave the Syrian revolution to the Syrian people. A renewed anti-war movement globally, especially in the U.S., would be the best expression of solidarity possible.