As Solidarity goes to press, fighting continues in the Syrian city of Aleppo. The BBC reports 200,000 people have fled the town as the thuggish state, backed by its Shabiah militia, attempts to retake the city from the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The US and UK governments say they fear a massacre.
July has been the bloodiest month since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011 as the rebellion is increasingly arming itself against intransigent and murderous repression. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that well over 100 people a day are being killed.
The total death toll is now over 20,000, with 8,000 killed since March 2011. 770 have died under torture and 1,600 children have been killed. Over 200,000 have been detained and 65,000 are missing.
115,000 Syrians have registered as refugees, mainly in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. The UNHCR estimates the true figure is over 270,000.
Up to one million are internal refugees, from a total population of 22 million.
The opposition received a big boost when four of President Bashar Assad's key security officials were assassinated on 18 July.
FSA fighters took the initiative and moved into Damascus and Aleppo. Both towns are vital to the state and had been relatively peaceful during the uprising.
Border posts to Turkey and Iraq were also overrun by rebels. And there were reports of new, large army defections.
The main groups of FSA fighters were forced out of Damascus within a few days, as they probably knew they would be.
Next the focus shifted to Aleppo, Syria's largest city with a population over two million. Unlike Damascus much of the countryside around Aleppo is controlled by rebel militia units. Aleppo is much nearer FSA supply routes from Turkey.
However the FSA is unlikely to hold Aleppo either. One FSA commander stated: “The FSA has several hundred soldiers inside [the town] and in total a bigger force of 2000 in the area. The regime has 100 tanks, 400 troop carriers with 1500 soldiers [and militia]. And the regime has helicopters” (Guardian, 30 July).
The government has used artillery and aerial bombing against much more lightly armed FSA fighters.
Aleppo is home to the Sunni capitalist class; that elite had accepted minority, sectarian Alawite rule (the Alawites are a 10% minority) on the understanding that its business interests will be protected. The elite is now caught in a bind: on the one hand the current government has failed to smash the rebellion and the economy is going to hell; on the other they are scared about the FSA, made up of the Sunni poor from outlying villages.
US academic Josh Landis notes: “The [Sunni business people] look out at the countryside and think: What if these people win? Are they going to respect capitalism? Are they going to preserve our wealth? Or are they going to come by and say, ‘Oh, you’ve been a collaborator for 40 years, and we’re going to take everything you own’? The [elite] don’t know.”
In order to mass loyal units outside Aleppo the regime has had to abandon army posts in the Kurdish areas of north east Syria
The state’s forces are now seriously stretched. Most of the regular army is locked-down in barracks and monitored closely by the intelligence services to guard against defections. The government is estimated to have about 70,000 loyal troops — albeit much better armed than the FSA.
In a number of Kurdish villages and towns the flags of the PYD, the political wing of the terrorist Kurdish PKK, and the Kurdish alliance, the Kurdish National Council (KNC), are flying. The balance is very much with the PKK, which has moved its forces into northern Syria from Turkey and Iraq, much to the alarm of the Turkish government.
The Turkish Islamist government continues its state’s chauvinist attitude to Kurds living inside Turkey. The Turks have fought a long, bloody war against the PKK and are alarmed that the PKK is regrouping in Syria.
The Syrian regime seems to have informed the PKK/PYD in advance of their withdrawal. The Syrian rulers have had a working arrangement with the PKK, using them against Turkey when they found it expedient.
The main Kurdish organisations remain outside the main Syrian opposition grouping, the Syrian National Council (SNC). The SNC remains hostile to any idea of Kurdish rule, defining Syrian nationality in Arab nationalist terms.
The content of the rebellion remains as it was: a mass popular upsurge against Assad’s police state which has spread to engulf the whole of Syria geographically and is essentially both democratic and plebeian.
It has produced a large number of grassroots committees which have directed the rebellion on the ground.
The revolt has had the active sympathy of the Sunni Muslim workers and poor since its beginning; now the majorities of the Christian (10% of the total), Palestinians (half a million), and the Druze population, probably back the movement.
The only minority which remains solidly tied to the state in their majority is the Alawites. Alawites have received preferential treatment in jobs, housing and education. Alawis are in key positions in all the security services.
The rebellion retains its basic character, while becoming more and more militarised. However some reactionary features are being strengthened.
First, there has been a growth of independent, salafist Islamist militias, backed and funded from outside Syria. Two journalists were recently kidnapped by such a group in northern Syria and report that their captors were all foreign fighters.
Second, there has been drift within the main body of the organised opposition towards both a more (Sunni Muslim) religious and a sectarian (Arab and anti-Alawite) stance. One chant heard in Hama is, “The Alawi in the coffin, and the Christian to Beirut.”
For example, Zabadani, a town with a population of 5,000 Christians and 30,000 Sunni Muslims has two Free Army militias. One is more secular; the other — bigger and better funded with guns and money from abroad — is salafist.
The FSA is estimated to have about 40,000 former armed forces personnel in its ranks supplemented by civilians — the proportion for civilians varies from area to area. The FSA is a federation of local groups, many with tenuous relations with the FSA command based in Turkey.
Saudi and Gulf states money is allegedly being channeled through the SNC to the FSA — although little money or equipment seems to have arrived so far.
The Saudis and Qataris have often promised money and weapons aiming to cultivate allies.
The largest political opposition front, the Syrian National Council (SNC), is now largely dominated by the Muslim Brothers. It has relatively little direct purchase inside the country although it may end up being the beneficiary — as in Egypt — of the overturn of the regime.
As the western powers have come to believe that it is only a matter of time until Assad falls they have been shifting around to find better “partners” than the SNC. Currently former regime insider, friend of president Bashar Assad, and recent defector, Manaf Tlas, is being touted as someone who might hold the state together and be someone acceptable to the Russians. Of course such a person — a rich, ex-General in the Republican Guards, who for twenty years was a personal friend of the Assads — is hardly likely to be warmly welcomed by those actually fighting the regime.
As a result of EU sanctions over 130 Syrian individuals and 50 companies have had assets frozen. £100m has been frozen in the UK alone.
Syria formerly sold most of its oil to the EU and sanctions have meant a loss of up to $4 billion.
In order to continue salary payments for over two million state employees among a workforce of 4.5 million the state has begun to circulate a new run of banknotes. Inflation is now at over 30% and the new banknotes will make that worse.
Syria’s economy shrank 3.4 percent in 2011 and may contract by a further 8 per cent this year.
There are now widespread, hours-long power cuts each day in all areas of the country. Heating oil and petrol are very expensive. The wheat harvest has been seriously affected because of diesel shortages.
Recent press commentary suggest that the Alawite community may retreat to its traditional heartlands in north west Syria. The evidence claimed for this is some ethnic cleansing by Alawite militias against neighbouring villages. There are echoes of a suggested Boer state at the end of South African apartheid.
In the 1920s the French colonial authorities divided Syria into various units, including an Alawite entity. The Alawites were unsophisticated, mountain village people. The French gave the Alawites a role in the military precisely because they had few ties to the majority Sunnis in the big cities. It was this base in the army which later allowed the creation of a sectarian Alawite state across all of Syria.
However the Alawites — after 40 years of power — have often moved into Syria’s cities and towns. And large towns in the north west — such as Latakia on the coast — are now Sunni majority towns. There is no going back.
Although the current rebellion in Syria is a product of the situation inside the country (not the malign creation of meddling outside powers as the Syrian state claims, and some of the far left seems to believe), foreign governments see dangers and opportunities.
One the on hand the Syrian state continues to receive military, economic and diplomatic support from Iran, Russia and China. These states are weighing in heavily on Assad’s side.
On the other hand, seeing the likely end of Assad (if not necessarily the end of his state) the US has begun to look towards a post-Assad Syria. The US fears that Syria will “explode, not implode.” They are (rightly) concerned about the possibility of the Syrian state collapsing into sectarian civil war which would spread to Lebanon.
Other dangers include Syrian chemical weapons being given to — or taken by — Hizbollah or other Islamists (and Israeli intervention as a result); a Muslim Brotherhood victory in Syria leading to the fall of the Jordanian monarchy to its own Brotherhood; Turkish invasion of northern Syria to smash the PKK.
Still, US officials are insisting they won't provide arms to Syria's anti-Assad forces or push for a no-fly zone over rebel-controlled areas. The US has been very active attempting to stop weapons getting to people who might later turn them on the US. The FSA has demanded weapons from the west — which it has a perfect right to do — but these have largely been denied (something which underlines the absurdity of “left” claims that the war in Syria is an “imperialist” provocation).
The Saudi state’s reaction to the “Arab Spring” has been two-fold: preventing pro-democracy movements doing damage its own reactionary interests; ensuring that Iran does not benefit from any changes to the regional balance of power.
The Saudi (and Gulf states’) policy is to break the alliance between Syria and Iran, while also worrying about the consequences of the regime’s fall (which has inhibited them). They also present themselves as the protector of Sunnis against Iranian interference in Arab affairs.
Workers’ Liberty supports the fight for women’s rights, secularism and workers’ rights in Syria. Down with Assad’s regime! For liberty and democracy!