21 January 2013.
A World to Win News Service. The following is a condensed version of a discussion in which the Syrian revolutionary Hassan Khaled Chatila gave his views on the current situation there. It is especially important because of the light it sheds on the relationship between classes and class contradictions on the one hand, and ideological factors on the other.
The situation in Syria is now dominated by rival reactionary forces. The political class [the traditional, once tolerated opposition, mainly operating from abroad] seeks foreign intervention, while the Free Syrian Army is a heterogeneous mix with no clear political and military strategy. They take towns and neighbourhoods and occupy them, and then the regime destroys them. This benefits the regime, and makes it possible for it to take full advantage of its still superior military forces and arms. The FSA makes no attempt to mobilise the masses of people or to lead them in establishing local revolutionary political power.
The regime is now using the entry of Islamist forces into the country to justify its existence as a barrier against them.
What began as a social movement against the regime has been smothered by pro-Western and Islamist forces. In short, the revolt that began in Daraa on 15 March 2011 has been turned into something else by the Free Syrian Army and the political class. It is possible that the situation could slide into a religious civil war; the armed fundamentalists are certainly trying to provoke a Sunni-Alawite war. Many people who were previously favourable to the opposition no longer see the fall of Assad as a good idea.
You asked me about the role of regional inequalities and the growing gap between the countryside and city, both in driving the revolt, and also in providing an audience for fundamentalists.
I would answer this way: During the last decade the regime used financial aid and other incentives to encourage big landowners to eliminate the small peasants. In this, it has been following the IMF strategy for developing globally-competitive commercial agriculture and attracting foreign investment. The now landless peasants immigrate to the big cities in hopes of accumulating enough money to be able to return to their land. In addition, for a long time many small peasants who still own land [and grow vegetables and so on for urban markets] have lived on the outskirts of towns and cities. So there is a very large peasant population ringing all the big towns and cities. Unemployment is very high in both the cities and the countryside, and many people are hungry.
The Syrian peasantry has been playing a big role in the revolt, both in the countryside and the big-city suburbs. The middle classes in the provinces and the cities have gone back and forth, although they have certainly played an important role in the revolt, too. Some sections of the lower middle classes came over to the revolt and some supported the regime, especially the better-off sections. The Islamists draw many of their recruits from the lower classes, and better-off sections as well, such as engineers, doctors, architects and businessmen, including shopkeepers. In the past, the lower classes tended to be Arab nationalists or supporters of parties that called themselves socialist and communist, and anti-Israel and anti-imperialist. The Moslem Brotherhood has been deeply rooted in the middle classes. I'm not sure who the members of the FSA are, but I'm certain that many are from the middle classes.
The chambers of commerce and industry, which group together the large number of middle capitalists and the biggest, continue to support the regime, even though the majority are Sunnis. The Sunni-Alawite fracture doesn't cancel out the class fracture. There are divisions on both religious and class lines. There are small, medium and big Sunni capitalists who have prospered in alliance with the bureaucrat-capitalist regime. It's important to note that the souks [the traditional markets that are the centre of both retail and wholesale commerce] have never shut down in protest against the regime. There has been no generalized civil insurrection even among Sunnis.
Industry and commerce is mostly controlled by Sunnis, as well as Christians. The ethnic and religious minorities like the Alawites tend to be peasants, and rise socially by becoming government employees or military men. Alawites close to the regime have gotten rich.
Among the workers, including the Sunni majority, a large section has no steady work and certainly not a regular work contract. They live week to week on the crumbs their employers throw them. They work in close proximity with their bosses in beauty salons, garages and other small service businesses. This can mean that they are attracted to the bourgeoisie. But either way they play an important role because they feel that they have nothing to lose. When their children reach the age of 12, usually they have to quit school and look for work. They are involved in both the popular movement and the Islamist movement.
To the extent that it was organized, the popular revolt was based on the lower middle classes and the desperately poor, as well as other sections of the masses. In the provincial cities like Homs [an epicentre of the revolt], it is the poor urban neighbourhoods and not the better-off quarters that have been destroyed by the regime. In Damascus all the poor neighbourhoods have been destroyed.
The villages were very much involved in the demonstrations and the general revolt against the regime. A revolution would have tried to organize these peasants into political committees to exercise political power in the countryside and eliminate the regime's local political and administrative control. While the country's topology makes a frontal confrontation with the state very difficult, it would be possible to organize small groups of guerillas to mount effective attacks on the power centres and then melt away. These peasants have played a very important role in the popular revolt but not in an organized revolutionary way, and they are susceptible to being organized by the fundamentalists, whose sole form of organisation is military. The Islamists in the FSA make no attempt to win civilians over to their side, [even though] the majority of the population is Moslem. The social and political demands of the revolt have receded into the background.
There has arisen an embryonic mass movement demanding a stop to the violence. For instance, there was a famous incident when a woman dressed in white demonstrated all by herself in front of the parliament building in Damascus, and got a lot of support. Calling for an end to all violence is not the solution, but the growth of this sentiment shows the isolation of the FSA from the people. The political and social mass movement against the regime has been buried. With its demands for bread, dignity, freedom and justice, it had many things in common with the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. In my opinion, the Free Syrian Army aborted that revolution before it could mature.
Because of its hybrid nature, the FSA could disintegrate into rival clans waging war on each other. That could happen if it doesn't succeed in overthrowing the regime, or even if it does. It would be a mutual slaughter. There are real gangster elements involved.
Syria is sinking into chaos. The Western imperialists want to destroy the country economically and see its army torn to shreds so that it can't oppose Israel. When this political crisis is resolved, one way or the other, Syria will come out of it completely destroyed. Its economy will become even more dependent on the world market. But on the other hand, the objective basis for revolution will continue to exist because the factors for this crisis are deeply rooted in Syrian society. That was reflected in the revolt that began in March 2011. A transition to a fully neo-liberal economy can't resolve that crisis and certainly cannot develop an economy that would meet the needs of the people. That can be done only by smashing both bureaucrat capitalism and big private capital. So there will always be an objective basis for revolution, but then there is the question of who will influence the people. The fundamentalists will continue to attack the neo-liberals, including by an armed struggle whose methods are often basically "terrorist".
Because of the strength of the Islamists the Western powers are now somewhat more favourable to leaving the regime intact and maybe even leaving Assad in place. The U.S. is afraid of the FSA because it might go against American interests and those of its regional allies.
This is the position of Turkey and Iraq, as well as Iran, in terms of neighbouring countries, and of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Right now none of them is interested in supplying the FSA with game-changing weapons. The FSA is receiving less military aid than ever. Nobody wants to give them surface-to-air rockets.
Even though the Saudis have been bankrolling the fundamentalists, as part of their policy of developing a Sunni-Shia confrontation to oppose Iranian influence in the region, they are worried about the rise of the jihadis. They know they can't control these people. Their policy could backfire if fundamentalism in Syria takes up the anti-U.S. banner.
The U.S. is even softening its tone toward Assad a bit. Hillary Clinton has criticized the traditional opposition, demanding that it unite and form a government [one acceptable to the U.S., which it hasn't been able to do in any convincing way. There is some revived talk about a "political solution" between the regime and the opposition in Western policy circles].
In short, no state cares about the Syrian people. They don't care about the 60,000 people killed, the 300,000 people forced to seek refuge abroad or the internally displaced people who number as many as a million. They don't care about the fact that among a population where half the people already lived below the UN-defined poverty line of 2 dollars a day, price speculation has brought about real famine. Prices for bread, sugar and fuel oil for cooking have doubled and tripled, if these things can be found at all. Forget about meat, which the poor seldom ate anyway.
The fake "solidarity with the Syrian people" that used to fill the Western media is fading. Even many people who have genuinely wanted to express their solidarity with the Syrian people have become discouraged because they don't know who to support. This shows how serious the problems are.