Never in human history has there been a revolution quite like the Syrian revolution.
Never in human history have a people dared to struggle against such an imposing array of forces as the Syrian people. Ranged against them is the regime of Bashar al-Assad and all its resources – sarin, scud missiles, MiG jets, death squads, allied media outlets, and useful idiots like Robert Fisk. Ranged against them are not only Assad’s armed forces but the armed forces of Hezbollah, Iran, and Iraq’s militias, tens of thousands of Shia men with an unlimited supply of modern Russian weapons, a sophisticated command-and-control system, billions of dollars in funds, and a logistical infrastructure stretching from Tehran to Beirut. Ranged against them is an unholy alliance of imperialist powers (East and West) and their ‘anti-imperialist’ opponents in which Rand Paul and Donald Rumsfeld join hands with George Galloway and Nicolás Maduro to keep the Syrian people politically isolated as they battle the most murderous fascist since Adolf Hitler. Ranged against them are the combined forces of famine, pestilence, cynicism, treachery, paralysis, infighting, indifference, defeatism, fatigue, exhaustion, and death.
Despite all of these obstacles, the Syrian people have liberated nearly half of their country from the regime’s control only to have their gains hijacked by the so-called Islamic State and Al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra. With international assistance, they will uproot and destroy these usurpers and finish what began as a people’s revolution and quickly became a people’s war.
The following is an evaluation of their historically unprecedented struggle for freedom from the standpoint of historical materialism.
One Tinderbox Among Many
Fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation set the entire Middle East and North Africa ablaze only because each nation affected by the Arab Spring was a tinderbox. Syria was no exception, but it was exceptionally late in exploding. Not until March 15, 2011, one month after Libya’s February 17 revolution, two months after Egypt’s January 25 revolution, and three months after protests ousted Tunisian tyrant Ben Ali did a Syrian protest movement gain enough traction among the masses to withstand the Assad regime’s particularly vicious repression.
The decade prior to the revolution was an unhappy one for Syria’s 99%. Bashar al-Assad ‘reformed’ the national socialist regime he inherited from his father until it became a fascist kleptocracy. Subsidies for fuel, food, fertilizer, and pesticides were slashed even as their prices on the world market skyrocketed. These cuts tripled diesel prices overnight in May 2008 and doubled chemical fertilizer prices a year later. A private banking system was created. Protectionist monopolies awarded to (inferior) Syrian manufacturers began to end. Restrictions on foreign investment were relaxed and capital from the Gulf states poured in, creating a boom in urban real estate. As GDP tripled from $21 billion to $59 billion during Bashar’s early reign, the Assad family used its monopoly over the state machine to become fabulously rich. Bashar’s cousin Rami Makhlouf physically muscled his way to the top of the business elite, becoming a telecom billionaire and owning a whopping 60% of the economy by the time the uprising broke out.
While the regime’s ruling families were busy enriching themselves and transforming into a neoliberal bourgeoisie, the peasantry and the countryside where nearly one-half the population lived were subject to a policy of malign neglect. 47% of the wells in al-Raqqa governate did not function even though wells watered 50% of the country’s irrigated land. 90% of Syrian crops were rain-fed and by the time the 2006-2010 droughts came, five out of seven of the country’s water basins had negative balances. These water reserves were squandered by the regime’s pursuit of mutually exclusive objectives: attaining food self-sufficiency in wheat production (an impossibility) on the one hand and boosting profitable water-intensive cotton exports on the other. Farmers paid a high price for the regime’s inability to resolve contradictions between its autarkic and export-oriented agricultural policies.
In the first year of the droughts, wheat production in non-irrigated areas collapsed, falling by 87%. In 2008, 90% of the barley crop failed and small livestock herders lost 70% of their flocks. Some 1.3 million Syrians were affected by this calamity. Roughly 800,000 people lost 90% of their income. In 2009, 700,000 households – or 3.5 million people – were reported to have no income, mostly in Aleppo governate. The overall rural poverty rate rose to 60% and in areas affected by the drought, the poverty rate rose to 80% as people subsisted on nothing but bread and sugared tea.
What was happening in the countryside did not stay in the countryside. The droughts and the social reaction to them changed Syria’s class structure. Agriculture, which previously accounted for 25% of both the country’s GDP and total labor force, shrank to 17% on both counts and for the first time the country became a wheat importer rather than exporter. As poverty became rural, the impoverished fled to the cities and their suburbs only to find already high unemployment and low wages. While the Syrian economy rapidly produced wealth during the first decade of Bashar, it did not produce jobs – 40,000 jobs a year were created for a workforce that expanded annually by 100,000–300,000. The official unemployment rate was 8% but in reality was two or three times that figure. The influx of nearly 1 million former farming families into a labor market already struggling to cope with the country’s high birth rate made the high unemployment, low wages problem worse and pushed real wages downward along with household expenditure. By 2009, the average Syrian household spent $653 a month of which $295 went towards food alone and 71% of workers earned a mere $274 a month.
Syria was ripe for revolution, for the “violent break-up of the obsolete political superstructure, the contradiction between which and the new relations of production caused its collapse at a certain moment” as Lenin put it.
That moment arrived on March 15, 2011.
Fascism with Syrian Characteristics
Like its fascist counterparts in Iraq and Libya, the Assad regime was the product of a series of coups and countercoups during the heyday of Arab nationalism and ‘Arab socialism’ in the 1960s and 1970s. These struggles naturally selected the most conniving, sneaky, and ruthless hangmen. Only by honing these attributes to perfection did survivors of this Darwinian process gain the right to rule, to govern, to control the state machine.
The victor of this personalistic struggle for power in Syria was Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite Ba’ath Party activist who (like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak) rose through the ranks of the Air Force. This peasant-turned-tyrant put an end to the incessant coups that plagued Syria since it won independence from France in 1946. His was the sixth and final coup in 24 years. He shrewdly and systematically constructed a regime that would make coups and political change all but impossible. Its inner core consisted of his family, the Assads, either by blood or by marriage; they headed the most powerful or sensitive posts in the military-security apparatus. Its outer core, in lesser but still powerful military-security posts, consisted of members of the Alawite tribe the Assad clan belonged to, al-Matawirah. The other three major Alawite tribes populated the elite military-security services like the Republican Guard. The military-security apparatus’ chain of command was constructed to rob its commanders of any autonomy. Powerful units could not take action without the knowledge and approval of generals from other units or of the president himself.
With family, tribe, and sect ties forming a series of social security rings around Hafez al-Assad and his clan, Sunni generals, politicians, and businessmen formed the outer shell of the regime, broadening its social basis beyond a fraction of a sect. Appointments, cronyism, patronage networks, and marriage cemented the regime’s Alawite core to its Sunni shell. Bashar’s marriage to Asma can only be understood in this context since Sunni-Alawite marriages are exceedingly rare in Syria outside of elite circles. The alliance between the Alawite and Sunni bourgeoisies, senior and junior partners in tyranny, would endure until it was pried apart piece by piece, post by post, bombing by bombing, defection by defection by the revolution that left the regime without much of its Sunni façade.
Creating a coup-resistant military hierarchy was necessary but not sufficient to permanently frustrate attempts to oust the Assads from power. As additional insurance, Hafez al-Assad created a plethora of fearsome spy agencies to check the power of the military and of each spy agency.
Class War and the Sect-Class System
The Syrian people are made up of four main classes:
- Businessmen (the bourgeoisie).
- Wage workers (the proletariat).
- Farmers, merchants, traders, small businessmen, the self-employed, highly educated professionals, managers (the rural and urban petty bourgeoisies).
- The chronically unemployed, paupers, vagrants, petty criminals (the lumpenproletariat).
This simplistic, lifeless schema of the country’s class system is in reality extraordinarily complicated due to the role played by sects and sectarianism. To maintain their position at the apex of the sect-class system, the Assads constantly manipulated and managed Syria’s sects. They mollified the oppressed Sunni majority while simultaneously blackmailing and oppressing their own co-religionists, giving rise to the bizarre spectacle of an Alawite-dominated state promoting Sunni Islam in state textbooks, building Sunni mosques in Alawite areas, sanctioning Sunni Islamic laws and religious (sharia) courts for matters of personal status, and sponsoring Sunni clerics – all while barring Alawites from practicing their faith openly or creating their own clergy.
The regime set all sects and classes against one another and against themselves, creating an intricate and permanent system of tension. This not only neutralized potential blocs of opposition but, more importantly, ensured the regime’s role as the indispensable guarantor and arbiter of this delicate arrangement the slightest disturbance of which would threaten all actors with existential catastrophe, binding their interests to the regime’s survival. This social architecture all but guaranteed that opposition to the regime would not emerge uniformly among the country’s social classes regardless of sect and set the stage for the current clash between a rebellion that is nearly unanimously Sunni in complexion and loyalist forces who enjoy near-unanimous support from Alawites.
The Syrian revolution is thus a class war but not a war of class against class that unites landless against landlord, labor against capital, poor against rich. Rather, because of the configuration of the sect-class system overseen by the Assads, the revolution unites many classes against the regime even as it divides these classes against themselves. The pervasive poverty that compelled Sunnis with nothing to lose to take up arms against the regime compelled their impoverished Alawite counterparts to do the opposite, to take up arms in the regime’s defense since they have a material and social stake in it. (Academic Fabrice Balanche estimates that 90% of the Alawite population works for the state.)
This split in the lower classes was matched by a split in the upper classes. Some Sunni businessmen sold all their assets and spent their life savings arming brigades to bring down the regime while other segments of the Sunni bourgeoisie like the Berrie clan killed in the regime’s defense. Similarly, the Aleppo Chamber of Commerce denounced the ‘socialist’ rhetoric of elements of the opposition while the Chambers of Commerce in Hama, Homs, and Deir Ezzor joined or endorsed general strikes in 2011 to protest regime repression. In these areas, stores closed and businesses large and small shuttered as workers withheld their labor, uniting labor with elements of capital in the fight against fascism. This cross-class alliance – inherent in an anti-fascist democratic revolution – can also be seen in the work histories of prominent rebel leaders:
The only class not represented among rebel leaders is the lumpenproletariat. Individuals from this class tended to lead gangs of robbers, kidnappers, and criminals rather than Free Syrian Army or Islamic Front units.
Motive Forces of the Revolution
Prior to the revolution, Syria’s class structure was predominantly petty-bourgeois and increasingly lumpenproletarian in character, its under-developed class divisions and antagonisms rooted in economic backwardness. Of the roughly 6.0 million-strong labor force before the revolution, perhaps 2.5 million were wage laborers. Trade (in the form of import-export businesses) and commerce were the principal sources of the bourgeoisie’s wealth rather than large-scale industry, which hardly existed. The regime’s main sources of hard currency, agricultural and oil exports, were sectors monopolized or dominated by the state rather than the private-sector bourgeoisie. Small and medium-sized enterprises – and the intimate, paternalistic social relations between boss and worker they entail – dominated country’s industrial heartlands around Damascus and Aleppo. An estimated 500,000 of the country’s 600,000 enterprises employed less than five workers. Consequently, the worker blamed his poverty not on his employer (who also struggled to feed his family) but on the regime, on the immensely wealthy ruling families, on macroeconomic conditions like poverty, joblessness, stagnant economic growth, and impersonal market forces that continually drove prices up and wages down.
Marx held that capitalist economic development would tend to simplify the class struggle into a two-sided affair as small proprietors were economically ruined by competition from big business, that future social conflict would consist of the proletariat produced by the industrial revolution fighting on one side of the revolutionary barricade for socialism and the big, corporatized bourgeoisie on the other side fighting for capitalism. In the case of 21st century fascist Syria, few parts of Marx’s prophecy came to pass. Farmers were ruined en masse not by the forward march of capitalism’s relentless replacement of small-scale handicrafts and individualized farming with large-scale manufacture and agribusiness but by the 2006-2010 droughts and the regime’s catastrophic non-response to them. They fled the countryside in search of work as propertyless wage laborers but there were no jobs to be had. The country’s productive forces and infrastructure were starved of investment for four decades by the state’s criminally bloated war machine and pseudosocialist subsidies for crony capitalist manufacturers who, rather than “constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production,” produced inferior products and kept labor productivity stagnant. Persistent economic backwardness meant that class distinctions on the lower end of the economic ladder between the working, merchant, trading, professional, peddling, and unemployed classes blurred rather than sharpened; an estimated 40% of state employees took second jobs and even Bashar’s bodyguards reportedly drove cabs to make ends meet. On the upper end of the economic ladder, the stratification of the bourgeoisie between regime insiders and outsiders became intensified as the former profiting handsomely from the fascist kleptocracy’s free-market reforms while the latter lost out.
The social classes that drove the 2011 uprising and the revolutionary war that followed were not Marx’s industrial proletarians nor the land-hungry peasants of yore but Syria’s sans culottes, a plebeian mish-mash of laborers, unemployed and under-employed, struggling small businessmen, students without job prospects, and ruined farmers. The class break down of regime torture victims collected by the Violations Documentation Center provides grotesque confirmation of this fact. Opposition among the professional and bourgeois classes developed later as a function of the regime’s escalation of violence against the plebeian classes in the form of high-level military, political, and economic defections.
Class Politics of the Revolutionary Movement
National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (Etilaf): Although based in exile, Etilaf is the revolution’s broadest, most inclusive umbrella pro-democracy coalition. It enjoys the (often critical) support of the organized elements of the Free Syrian Army, the local councils that govern liberated and besieged areas, Sunni clerics, the Local Coordination Committees, the Syrian Business Forum, ex-regime technocrats, and veteran dissidents such as George Sabra, Michel Kilo, and Burhan Ghalioun. In class terms, Etilaf is an alliance of bourgeois and plebeian classes. The coalition’s refusal to attend the Geneva 2 talks with the aim of reaching a negotiated settlement with the regime that would keep its state institutions in place broke down after the U.S. threatened to withhold its financial and logistical support for local councils, Free Syrian Army units, White Helmets emergency responders, and Etilaf itself. However, in exchange for attending the talks, Etilaf extracted a commitment from the U.S. to provide heavy weapons to select rebel units (Islamist and otherwise) on the condition that the units support the Geneva process.
Free Syrian Army: As the unarmed struggle transformed into armed struggle and civil war, businessmen in Syria and abroad poured hundreds of millions of dollars into funding the neighborhood-based militias composed of the country’s four main classes that took to calling themselves the Free Syrian Army. Like Etilaf, its organized elements (such as the Southern Front) support a negotiated settlement with the regime to end the war.
Islamic Front: Unlike the bourgeois democrats of the Free Syrian Army and Etilaf who were compelled to accept retaining elements of the Syrian state machine, the Islamic Front stands for their complete and total destruction and rejected the Geneva talks as “treason” to the revolution. Another difference is that the front’s program contains social measures: “to defend the underdogs, their honor and wealth” and “to manage resources and wealth and then use them in favor of the individual and society and meet the basic needs of the people in terms of food, health, and education.” This implacable hostility the regime and support for welfare state measures protecting the poor are the political-religious expression of the rural and suburban Sunni petty bourgeoisie’s revolutionary democratism and thirst for social justice.
Local Councils: “The passing of state power from one class to another is the first, the principal, the basic sign of a revolution.” (Lenin) In most of Idlib, parts of Daraa and Aleppo, and the besieged suburbs of Damascus the fascists and their bourgeois cronies have been overthrown – and since the wealthy and privileged have fled to avoid being barrel bombed and/or starved – state power is in the hands of the plebeian classes. In place of the old fascist state, governed by the Ba’ath Party and the mukhabarat, stand the rudiments of a potential democratic state governed by elected ad hoc councils operating under the security umbrella provided by Islamist and Free Syrian Army militias.
Conclusion: Syria Will Be Free(r)
The Syrian revolution of 2011 emerged out of insoluble contradictions between Assad’s fascist autocracy and the profound social and economic changes that took hold in the country immediately preceding the Arab spring. The revolution’s target is the Assad regime. Its task is to overthrow this regime in favor of a democratic republic. The motive forces of this revolution are the (predominantly Sunni) plebeian classes, the petty bourgeoisie and proletariat, in alliance with dissident, reluctant bourgeois elements. The revolution’s origins, targets, tasks, and class alliances mean that is an anti-fascist democratic revolution rather than an anti-capitalist socialist revolution.
The revolution remains unfinished as it enters its fifth year. The division of the lower classes into loyalists and revolutionaries is the social basis of the regime’s ability to adapt and survive the uprising and subsequent protracted war. This division renders the military victory of either side impossible. Unless and until contradictions in the pro-regime camp between the Assads and the Alawites sharpen and become irreconcilable, the war will end in some form of negotiated settlement. The result of that will not be a free Syria, but a freer Syria.