In mid-March, in line with the ‘Arab spring’, the Syrian population began to protest and demand the removal of its leader and a ‘democratic’ regime. In the face of this popular movement expressing its discontent with the living conditions imposed by the regime of a clique descended from Hafez al-Assad, the “Desert Fox”, there has been a violent crackdown that has continued to intensify. There are already 1,600 dead, no one knows how many wounded, and 12,000 refugees principally in Turkey, but also in Lebanon, where hundreds of people have fled recently from the brutality of the Syrian army.
This repression and all-out terror shows the world Bashar al-Assad’s will to stay in office, against all odds. Villages and towns are deprived of water and electricity supply to ‘set an example’, while people are slaughtered as they flee the atrocities of the Syrian army. ‘Rebel’ cities are bombed. Torture, already common before, and one of the triggers for the revolt because of what was inflicted on five children, is reaching the heights of horror. The police regularly open fire on demonstrations and the suburbs of Damascus are attacked with increasing intensity with military or sniper fire. The situation has become so bad that soldiers are deserting in disgust. These desertions have been met with bloody repression such as at Al-Jisr Chouhour on 5 June where it appears that 120 deserters were shot by the army itself. The government is of course keen to attribute these killings to the “armed terrorists who spread chaos.” In its headlong rush into repression this is the Syrian regime’s terrorist leitmotiv, which is reminiscent of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, or of Russia in Chechnya, to justify their military abuses.
For now the Syrian state plays the card of confusion. So, while spreading repression across the country, Bashar al-Assad promised a programme of reforms for July 10, a programme with no official status. With a catastrophic economic situation, it’s not clear whether he will be able to promise much without being shot in the back. In addition, in an attempt to quieten the opposition he tried to organise demonstrations in his favour. It’s not clear whether participants were truly voluntary, or there with a gun to the head as with past mass demonstrations in the days of Stalinism. Syria had a long honeymoon with Stalinism during the cold war between the USA and USSR. A sham ‘opposition’ meeting was held in Damascus on 26 June, under the complacent gaze of the police who nevertheless continue to beat and kill a whole population of ‘opponents’. This fooled no-one, but allowed them to buy some time.
Syria is also threatening to extend the chaos to the surrounding region. The deployment of its massive army to the border with Turkey, and its brutal military incursions into villages increasingly close to the border, while the area is far from the epicentre of the revolt, is a clear message from Assad to the whole ‘international community’: leave me alone or I will spread disorder. While Turkey is already very concerned with its regions bordering on Iraqi and Iranian Kurdistan, the Turkish head of state, Erdogan, is worried about a conflagration on its borders with Syria and the occurrence of a real humanitarian catastrophe that would be the consequence. Damascus has threatened to set fire to the powder keg and open up a new front in military tensions. In this mutually destructive game Syria is in a strong position because Ankara cannot afford any slip. It is obliged, whether it likes it or not, to maintain imperialist order in the north of the Middle East. Pressure is put on Lebanon in the same way, through attacks on Kseir, on Syria’s border with the Golan heights, that Damascus claimed historically and was the reason for dozens of years of war and massacres. However, behind Lebanon, there is the huge problem of Israel, which has recently hardened its position on the questions of Palestine and Lebanon. From the stirring of tensions in the south of its territory, Syria has again provoked the threat of war and increased tensions with more risky results, not least because Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has a firmly anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian policy.
Developed countries, including those that produced a draft resolution in the UN a month ago (Germany, Britain, France and Portugal) have understood the need to approach the situation with care because, beyond the potential for the chaos of regime change in Syria, the entire region may be thrown into a more barbarous future. The leaders of these countries do not care or think about the population or their well-being, but are trying to contain a situation fraught with danger. There are celebrities who beg for peace but go no further because they know that military intervention in Syria would mean opening a Pandora’s box whose outcome would be uncertain when facing a strong, well-trained Syrian army.
No one can predict the prospect that awaits the people of Syria, and whether countries like the US, which has supported the ‘opposition’ for years, will intervene. However, it is clear that the current evolution of the situation in Syria, whether or not it’s the product of direct action by the United States, as some commentators have suggested, will be the centre of a free-for-all between imperialist appetites where the population is left to bear the cost. The formal opposition to any intervention from Russia and China in the UN prefigures this future. And, as the imperialist powers move their pawns to defend their interests, it will not improve the lives of all who live in poverty and suffer the violence of state repression.