The killing power of the modern state easily dwarfs the crimes of an individual mass murderer like Anders Breivik, currently on trial in Oslo for shooting scores of young people at a Labour youth summer camp, The Assad regime in Syria continues to demonstrate its capacity to sow terror on an industrial scale. Town after town is subjected to intense artillery bombardment and the population is trapped in homes or cellars, deprived of food and electricity for days, even weeks. Army snipers are installed on the rooftops, picking off anyone foolhardy enough to try and forage some food for their families. And when the town finally falls, whole families are wiped out in a more direct and personal way, either by regular soldiers, or more frequently – since so many soldiers have deserted the ranks of the army in disgust at what it was forcing them to do – by shadowy criminal gangs known as ‘Shabiha’ or ghosts. The two most well-known massacres of late took place in just such a fashion in Houla and Mazraat al-Qubair, but they are by no means the only examples.
With the most shameless arrogance, the mouthpieces of the regime justify these bloody sieges by claiming that ‘armed terrorist groups’ have taken hold of the town in question. Very often they even blame the more widely publicised slaughters of women and children as the work of these groups, acting presumably to throw discredit on the government.
The brazen nature of the crimes and lies of the Syrian government is not however the mark of a regime resting on strong foundations. Rather it reflects the desperation of a regime whose days are numbered.
Faced with the widespread protests which erupted against his rule in the wake of the other massive movements throughout North Africa and the Middle East, Bashir al-Assad tried to follow in his father’s footsteps: in 1982 Hafez al-Assad was faced with another uprising, led by the Muslim Brotherhood and centred in the city of Hama. The regime sent in the army and carried out an atrocious butchery: the death toll has been estimated at anything between 17,000 and 40,000. The uprising was crushed and the Assad dynasty has been able to maintain a more or less uncontested grip over the country for the past two and a half decades.
The situation has changed since 1982
But a quick dose of the most ruthless terror no longer works in the same way, because history has moved on since the mid-80s. To begin with, the relative stability that resulted from the old two-bloc system (in which Syria was the USSR’s most consistent ally in the region) was undermined by the collapse of the eastern bloc and the consequent unravelling of the bloc led from Washington. This profound shift in ‘international relations’ opened the doors of the arena to a whole number of imperialisms, small, medium and large, who were no longer ruled from afar by either of the old superpowers. In the Middle East, Iran was already a troublemaking element before the fall of the blocs, and its ambitions have been strengthened considerably by the US-led invasion of Iraq. Under Saddam, Iraq had been a major counter-weight to Tehran’s position in the region, but after Saddam was toppled the country was crippled by internal disorder and is governed by a weak Shia faction that is highly susceptible to Iranian influence. Turkey, once a reliable ally of the US, has begun playing its own game, increasingly presenting itself as the champion of the Muslim Middle East. Even Israel has been more and more asserting its independence from its US paymasters – a reality which is currently being underlined by the voices in the Israeli state calling for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, a move that the US is reluctant to endorse because of the huge risk of chaos that it would entail.
In this cauldron of national ambitions, what began as an unarmed popular protest against the Assad regime has very quickly turned into a proxy war between regional and global imperialist powers. Iran, Syria’s main local ally in the region, has been standing firmly by the Assad regime, and there have been reports of Revolutionary Guards or other agents of the Islamic Republic working on the ground as accomplices in Assad’s campaign of terror. Assad has also continued to enjoy the protection of Russia and China, who have been active in the UN Security Council in blocking a series of resolutions condemning the Assad government or calling for sanctions against it. Russia has had to moderate its stance in the face of very sharp criticism, making its first timid criticisms of Assad’s massacres, but its support for a policy of ‘non-intervention’ boils down to making sure that the rebel forces don’t get arms while the official armed forces keep their gigantic arsenal. In fact, Hilary Clinton recently accused Russia of supplying the regime with attack helicopters – to which the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov replied that the helicopters were purely for ‘defensive’ purposes and, anyway, the west was covertly arming the rebels.
This was the first time the Russians have openly made this accusation, but it has been true for a long time. Once the opposition coalesced into a serious bourgeois political force around the Free Syria Army and the Syrian National Council, there have been shipments of arms from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Turkey, meanwhile, has done an about-face, ending its previously friendly relations with the Assad regime, condemning its inhumanity, and offering protection to refugees fleeing the slaughter. On the military level it has amassed considerable forces on its Syrian border; and, in the same speech condemning Moscow for supplying Syria with helicopters, Clinton suggested that Syria’s massing of forces around Aleppo, close to the Turkish border, “could well be a red line for the Turks in terms of their strategic or national interests” (Guardian 13 June). Most recently, Syria’s shooting down of Turkish aircraft, including a military jet which had allegedly violated Syrian airspace, has further heightened tensions between Ankara and Damascus.
Thus, the policy of terror, far from strengthening Assad’s hold over the country, has embroiled it in an increasingly unpredictable imperialist conflict, which also has the effect of exacerbating the religious and ethnic divisions inside the country: just as the Iranians support the dominant Alawite minority, so the Saudis – and no doubt any number of freelance jihadis attracted to the conflict like the hyenas they are – aim to impose some kind of Sunni regime. There are further divisions between Christians and Muslims, Kurds and Arabs, all of which threaten to become too widespread and too bitter to be manipulated without plunging the country into an even more chaotic situation, on the model of Iraq.
As Syria heads in the direction of becoming a failed state, and UN sanctions and observation missions are revealed as powerless to halt the killing, there have been growing calls for a ‘humanitarian’ military intervention on the part of the western powers. After all, say its partisans, it ‘worked’ in Libya, where France and Britain led the charge to impose a ‘no-fly zone’ which effectively resulted in the victory of the rebels and the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime. But in the case of Syria, states like Britain, France and the US are being much more cautious, despite calling more loudly for Assad to go. There are a number of reasons for their hesitation: the geographical terrain in Syria is much less amenable to aerial warfare than Libya, with its vast expanses of desert. And while in his final days Gaddafi had become isolated internationally, Syria has much stronger ties with Russia, China and Iran. With Israel already goading the US into attacking Iran by threatening to do the job itself, an escalation of the war in Syria could also light the blue touch paper over Iran, with even more devastating consequences. Moreover, Assad’s army is far better equipped and trained than Gaddafi’s. In sum the western powers risk getting bogged down in a real mess in Syria and beyond, just like they have been in Afghanistan and Iraq; and in contrast to Libya there is no danger of valuable oil reserves falling into the wrong hands, since Syria is not blessed with any oil at all. The social and political repercussions of another theatre of war opening up for the big powers in this ravaged region are, for the moment at least, too uncertain to make the risk worthwhile. Turkey as well, despite being most directly threatened by the consequences of the humanitarian disaster in Syria, is also playing its cards with some caution at the moment.
There is a kind of imperialist stalemate over Syria, and meanwhile the deaths pile up. This is not to say that a western military intervention would prevent them from happening. As we can see from the experience in Iraq and Afghanistan (and Libya, where there is also an aftermath of conflict spreading into a number of neighbouring countries), the consequences of western military intervention are anything but humanitarian. Even when it would suit their imperialist interests to impose a certain order over the situation and thus minimise some areas of conflict, the result in all these cases has been to accelerate the tendency towards disorder and chaotic violence. Like the economic crisis which is now facing capitalism like an unassailable wall, the proliferation of wars and imperialist tensions across the planet testify that capitalism has become a total dead-end for humanity.
. The Assad regime has long based its power on a divide and rule policy, making full use of the various religious and ethnic divisions that have a long history in the country. In particular, it has rooted itself in the Alawite religious minority, maintaining its support among this group – which is considered heretical by many Muslims - through a combined policy of handing out perks and privileges and instilling a climate of fear about what would happen to members of the sect if their protectors were removed from power. For its part, the Iranian Mullahs, to lend theological weight to their pro-Syria foreign policy, appear to have accepted the Alawites as part of the Shia Muslim fold. This article shows that while many of the Shabiha are drawn from the Alawite minority, there are others, perhaps a majority, who are increasingly concerned that they will be indiscriminately associated with Assad’s crimes.