Syria today is at the centre of the crisis of capitalism. Concentrated in the region and especially in Syria are all the tensions and rivalries of the different capitalist/imperialist powers and sub-powers, the economic and environmental crises of capitalism, the fragmentation of society and the naked brutality with which capitalist regimes hold onto power. Also concentrated there is the crisis of the working class, torn apart in extreme sectarian violence. Therefore an understanding of how these twin crises developed in Syria and in the region as a whole is vital, as is the need to figure out some way of linking up with working-class forces there – something that is impossible without a basic understanding of the present situation and what led up to it.
The Assad dynasty
The Assad dynasty originated with Hafez Assad, who seized power in a military coup against the left wing of his Ba’ath Party in 1971. On his death in 2000, his son Bashar inherited the reins of power. As was happening around the world, Bashar privatized and opened up the Syrian economy to the ravages of global capitalism. Politically, both based their rule on sectarianism, in this case on the Alawite ethnic group. Also, as opposed to much popular belief, they never were real supporters of Palestinian rights nor anti-US imperialists.
The Arab Spring
The economic crisis which started in 2007/08 had a profound impact around the world. No longer did it appear that the capitalists were in total control. Open, mass revolt was possible; in fact it became inevitable, starting in the Arab world with the Arab Spring of 2011. This was followed by the Occupy movement in the US, massive strike waves in China and South Africa, and a couple of years later the election of Syriza in Greece.
Revolt in Syria
In Syria the Arab Spring was felt later, due to a couple of reasons. First, the history of severe repression was stronger there. Secondly, unlike similar regimes elsewhere, Assad had managed to hold his base of support together. This was made possible because, rather than try to widen his base by bringing in representatives of different ethnicities, the Assads had always relied on the support of the Alawis alone.
That was insufficient to prevent the Arab Spring from spreading to Syria. But Assad fought back: “Thousands were kidnapped and over 300 detained, the majority tortured. In one instance, the mangled, tortured bodies of some scores of kidnapped school children were deposited at the doorsteps of their families. The regime also systematically tried to stir up sectarian conflict, hiring thugs posing as Alawis to attack Sunni neighborhoods, and vice versa…. The shabeeha (“ghost troops” – armed militia) scrawled it on the walls. ‘Either Assad or We’ll Burn the Country.’ In the countryside they killed livestock and burned crops. In the towns the army shelled bakeries, schools, hospitals and market places. Hundreds of barrel bombs dismantled Aleppo…. Women feared the roads lest they were raped by shabeeha at checkpoints; men feared detention or forced conscription…. (there was) mass expulsion of the population from the liberated areas…. The war stretched on, and the liberated areas became death zones. This was the vacuum in which jihadism would thrive.”
Local co-ordinating committees
If the Assad regime went further in repressing the revolution, so too did the revolution itself go further than in other countries. Most significant was the formation of the “Local Coordinating Committees” (LCC’s) to coordinate and advance the struggle in the different regions. As in nearly all such mass revolts, these LCC’s tended to take on the functions of a state power that rivaled Assad’s capitalist state, partly because Assad’s forces were driven out of one area after another.
“In the neighboring town of Binnish, I visited the farmers’ council, a body of about a thousand members that set grain prices and adjudicated land disputes. Its leader, an old man I’ll call Abdul Hakim, explained to me that before the revolution, farmers were forced to sell grain to the government at a price that barely covered the cost of production. Following the uprising, the farmers tried to sell directly to the town at almost double the former rates. But locals balked and complained to the citywide council, which then mandated a return to the old prices—which has the farmers disgruntled, but Hakim acknowledged that in this revolution, “we have to give to each as he needs… (In) the public-affairs committee, (of) one of the village’s revolutionary councils (meets). The moustached man slammed his hands on the floor and shouted, “This is a revolution of the poor! The rich will have to accept that.”’ 
This account seems to show how the class struggle naturally tended to emerge in the LCC’s. But this was not systematic, maybe because it seems that the working class played a less prominent role in the Syrian revolution than elsewhere. That, in turn, may be related to the fact that the industrial working class in Syria is relatively small, with the great majority working in small shops or working for the government.
So the dominant role of the youth seems to have been scattered and lacking in political clarity. A radical element did exist, as for example with the Syrian Revolutionary Youth, which called for free education and health care and gender equality and raised the Kurdish flag at protests. They were also anti-imperialist, calling for the liberation of the Golan Heights, Palestinian rights, and opposition to foreign intervention. They were viciously suppressed, and within a year their members had either been killed, captured and held in jail or fled the country.
The revolution marked a huge step towards women’s liberation. Yassin-Kassab/al-Shami quote one activist: “Men depended on women to carry supplies through the checkpoints. Now, women like these will call to inform their husbands they’re spending the night outside because, for example, they have to deliver aid. This was unthinkable before.”
The revolution in the rest of Syria was accompanied by an upsurge in the struggle for Kurdish rights in the Afrin region, also known as Rojava. Many of the steps taken there were great advances, including towards women’s liberation. However, questions remain. Soon after the revolution broke out, Assad withdrew his forces from Rojava and the PYD took over. According to Yassin-Kassab/al-Shami, this appears to have been coordinated between the two forces. They also report on criticisms from within Rojava about PYD’s repressing groups that weren’t controlled by them.
Aleppo and Damascus
Another weakness of the revolution was that it was not as powerful in Syria’s two main cities – Aleppo and Damascus – as in the less urban areas. Yassin-Kassab and al-Shami explain this as being due to the sectarian basis of Assad’s rule linked with the fact that both those cities had large Alawi populations.
The twin developments – a brutal crack-down and a deepening of the revolution – led to increased splits in the military as more and more soldiers defected. In a few instances, groups of soldiers were integrated into the LCC’s; however, there was no systematic effort to bring them in.
A layer of mid- and even upper-level officers maintained control over the defecting troops by defecting themselves. So by 2012, as the revolution became militarized, these officers became key, apparently pushing the revolutionary youth into the background. Among other things, in the process the role of women also became minimized.
The militarization of the revolution, the rise of former Assad career officers, the pushing into the background of the LCC’s (although they still live on) – all of this represents a major setback for the revolution. This is the basis on which the Sunni sectarian terrorist groups were able to impose themselves in the revolt against the Assad dictatorship.
A loose military coalition was formed: the Free Syrian Army. However, it was never one unified army. Although it did receive some aid from the Obama administration, that was very little. In addition, the Islamists started to organize, the main one being the Nusra Front, the Syrian representative of al-Qaeda, from which it received funding and supplies. A layer of fighters from Iraq entered Nusra in Syria and then split from them to form what became “Islamic State”. Another group that formed was Arar al-Sham, a broader alliance of Islamisists, both hard liners as well as “pragmatists”. In many cases, young fighters joined these groups not because they were necessarily Islamic fundamentalists but because these were the best armed and most determined fighters.
From 2012 to 2014 the opposition was on the attack, and by the end of 2014 it seemed that Assad was about to be overthrown. Then Russia intervened. It sent arms and troops to the regime and, most important, started a vicious bombing campaign. Both the Russian and the Syrian air forces relentlessly bombed residential neighborhoods, public markets and hospitals. Iran and its proxy – Hezbollah – also sent ground troops to bolster Assad’s army, which had become decimated by desertions. This turned the tide, and it now seems that these forces are on the verge of military victory.
Much media attention has been given to the brutality of the Islamic State – public beheadings, mass executions, stoning women to death. But the Assad regime matched the Islamic state, brutality for brutality. Amnesty International reported that up to 13,000 political prisoners were hanged in Assad’s prisons from the start of the revolution until 2016. Just one instance might serve to show the lengths that this regime will go: in 2011, Ahmed al-Musalmani was 14 years old when he was arrested by the Syrian police for having a song on his cell phone which mocked Assad. Two years later, his body was returned. He’d been tortured to death.
Another aspect of these war crimes was what amounted to ethnic cleansing. Amnesty International conducted a major study of the sieges of the entire population of certain areas. Civilian populations were systematically starved into submission, while the population was subjected to merciless bombardments until ultimately they would agree to leave the region.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, this has led to the forced displacement of 6.5 million Syrian people within Syria (as of July 2017) and an additional 4.8 million who fled the country entirely. This is out of a total population of 18.43 million in 2010; in other words almost 2/3 of the Syrian population! Add to this the estimated death toll of between 332,000 and 475,000 and you have a disaster of epic proportions. Since the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian backers have the majority of the fire power (including a monopoly of air power), they are responsible for the great majority of these deaths, as for most of the civilian displacement.
The United States
More recently, US military forces have become more directly involved, in particular including air attacks in support of their Kurdish allies. In March of 2017, it is reported that these attacks by the US forces killed 260 civilians.
The main consideration behind the policy of US imperialism has been to advance the influence of US capitalism in Syria and in the region as a whole. For this, stability is necessary. This means blocking the rise of Islamist jihadis, first and foremost the Islamic State.
Initially, Obama did call for the removal of Assad, just as he called for Mubarak to step down. In both cases he saw the continued rule of these dictators as destabilizing factors. However, his administration did little or nothing to remove Assad. The US basically cut off any serious effort to arm the FSA. In one instance the US regime and its Jordanian agents prohibited the FSA’s Southern Army from attacking Assad’s forces, and the Jordanian regime actually collaborated with Russia and Assad to retake southern Syria. According to Michael Karadjis, who reported on this, the Southern Army is the most anti-sectarian of all the anti-Assad forces in Syria.
The Trump administration
Donald Trump has openly expressed what Obama was already doing. For example, shortly before he was inaugurated, the New York Times reported Trump as saying “that the United States should focus on defeating the Islamic State, and find common ground with the Syrians and their Russian backers.” Since he came into office, time and again he has expressed a similar point of view.
Some point to the US bombing of al-Shayrat air field, from which Assad’s planes dropped sarin gas on Khan Sheikhoun, as evidence that the US is still trying to accomplish “regime change” in Syria. In fact, it may have been reassurances by the US that had led Assad to commit this war crime; just a few days before, on March 30, both US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and US ambassador to the UN, Niki Haley had said that removing Assad was “not a priority”. And just two days after the US bombed the air field, Rex Tillerson repeated that position.
The bombing of al-Shayrat air field was conducted in order to pretend to the world that the “humane” US government could not tolerate this war crime. Having warned Assad in advance (through his Russian sponsors) of the attack, it did not seriously damage the airfield or Assad’s air force. Within 24 hours the air field was back up and running.
We are not arguing that Trump & Co. should have launched a more effective attack; socialists should oppose any US military intervention there. But we have to be clear on the real nature of that “attack”.
Now that the war seems to be winding down, the outlines of a new situation seems to be developing:
The Iranian regime is seeking a permanent presence in Syria, as it has in Lebanon through Hezbollah. Meanwhile, within Iran there seems to be tension developing between Rouhani and the Revolutionary Guard. In any case, their overall goal is to turn Syria into a Lebanon Mark II. Their Russian allies, on the other hand, are seeking a settlement which would maintain stability while expanding their influence there. Meanwhile, both the Saudis and Israel will vehemently oppose any further expansion of Iranian influence. As for the Kurds, the SDF has offered to become part of Assad’s army if Rojava is granted autonomy. This is unrealistic, and their national dreams are likely to be crushed again.
As for the peace negotiations between the different belligerent powers and the Assad regime – they can be compared to the Sykes-Picot Accord on a smaller scale. These negotiations are for the purpose of deciding which powers will exert what influence in Syria and through what means. It may result in the Lebanonization of Syria. What it will not result in is any sort of democratic elections, which are impossible as long as Assad remains in power.
Left Assad supporters
A special word must be given to the confusion – and in some cases outright abandonment of the principle of international working class solidarity – among much of the “anti-imperialist” left, including in Britain the Stop The War coalition and even Jeremy Corbyn. There is also a whole layer of “left” journalists such as Chris Hedges, Glenn Greenwald and Robert Fisk who to one degree or another defend Assad. In the case of Fisk, he has become little but an Assad spokesperson.
When much of this left raised a hue and cry about Trump’s bombing of the Shayrat air field, this was pure hypocrisy; just a few weeks earlier US war planes had attacked a mosque in Syria, killing 40 or 50 men, women and children. These same “anti-imperialists” never said a word about that. Implicitly they are providing cover for the crimes of Assad and Putin. They also ignore the war crimes of the US forces in Raqqa and Mosul and ignore the mass war crimes against the civilian population in Syria, because these were carried out in effect in alliance with these reactionary regimes. They have forgotten the most fundamental issue: the role of the working class in history. Having forgotten that, they look for an already existing force that can stand up to US imperialism. Many also refuse to recognize the fundamental difference between capitalist and imperialist Russia of today as opposed to the old Soviet Union. They have lost sight of reality and abandoned the working class.
Putin and Trump join hands
On November 11, the US State Department issued a joint statement from Putin and Trump, who had just met in Vietnam. The statement made clear that their common goal was to defeat ISIS. They offered the fig leaf that there is no military solution and called for “free and fair elections”, without mentioning that Assad would remain in power until such elections. In these circumstances, any free elections are impossible. They call for a non-sectarian government in Syria, but the Assad dynasty has always been based on sectarianism.
While US and Russian imperialism share the common goal of opposing Islamic State in Syria, they are also rivals. As the war against the fundamentalists winds down, we may see an increased tendency for this rivalry to come to the fore.
The future of the revolution?
To summarise: what has taken place in Syria is…
* A revolutionary wave that swept the country, even to some extent establishing dual power;
* After that wave had stalled, a counter revolution in the form of attacks by Islamic State and the Assad regime;
* A major impact on the consciousness of the working class globally, both from the original revolutionary wave and the following counter-revolution;
From the outside, it’s unclear what remains of the original revolutionary wave there. Clearly, it’s been set back massively, but on several occasions, most recently in October of 2017, hundreds and even thousands of Syrians in rebel-held territory have come out on the street to protest against both Assad and the fundamentalists. Will Assad, Putin and Rouhani be able to stabilize the Assad dictatorship? Will a new revolt break out there, or possibly in some other country, including Iran? Only closer contact with those actually living and fighting there can answer these questions. Such contact is impossible if we give even the slightest hint of support to the Assad dictatorship.
The socialist position
Socialists should explain that the rise of religious fundamentalism in Syria is based on what is at least a partial defeat of the revolution there. This rise is part of a global process from India to the United States and beyond. Far from being a bulwark against such forces, Assad & Co. have contributed to them.
Any tendency to overlook the brutality of the Assad regime and of his sponsors – Putin, Rouhani and the Hezbollah – is a betrayal of socialism. Explaining this will not be easy, as in their confusion even such respected figures as Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges, and John Pilger have overtly or covertly covered for Assad and company. Even Jeremy Corbyn has been far from clear on the issue.
Socialists should seek to link up with the Syrian revolutionaries, first and foremost to try to understand what has happened there. What, exactly, were the Local Coordinating Committees? What was their composition, what concrete role did they play and what, exactly, was their potential? Such a deeper understanding, which can only be gained by contact with those who built the LCC’s, will be impossible without complete and total opposition to Assad’s regime.
We should link such an educational campaign with a campaign for immigrant rights as well as a campaign on behalf of the political prisoners in Iran, Syria and in the region as a whole.
Yassin-Kassab and al-Shami
 For those who doubt it was Assad, read this analysis of the alternate explanations: https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2017/10/26/investigating-march-30-2017-sarin-attack-al-lataminah/