Much confusion exists on the left as
to the real nature of the Syrian regime because of what it was in the
Much confusion exists on the left as
to the real nature of the Syrian regime because of what it was in the
past. In the 1960s after a Ba’athist coup, the economy was transformed,
adopting the model of the Stalinist USSR. Although progressive in terms
of the measures carried out, it was never a regime based on workers’
democracy. Power was in the hands of a bureaucratic elite, and in this
lay the danger of a reversal of the progressive measures and a return to
However, the old planned and nationalized economy, despite being
bureaucratically controlled, served to develop the economy of Syria and
also was reflected in rising living standards for the Syrian masses…
for a period.
Prior to this experience there was the short-lived union with Egypt.
The union was set up in 1958 and existed until 1961, when Syria seceded.
In 1957 Syria had a highly organized Communist Party. However, it was
Nasser who told the Syrian government that they needed to get rid of the
In fact Union with Egypt was considered by the Syrian bourgeois as a
means of forestalling revolutionary developments at home. There was mass
support in Syria for union with Egypt due to the popularity of Nasser,
who while being an anti-communist, at the same time pushed forward a
programme of nationalizations and many progressive reforms.
Ironically, it was this programme of nationalizations on the part of
Nasser that pushed the Syrian capitalists to organise the breakup of the
Union between Egypt and Syria as a means of maintaining their rule and
their property. On September 28, 1961 army officers carried out a coup
and broke from the union. The ensuing instability led in 1963 to the
Ba’athist party, based on sections of the military officers in Syria,
coming to power through a military coup.
The Rise of the Assad Regime
In January 1965, the Ba’ath Socialist Party government nationalised
106 of the biggest industrial companies and banks. The capitalists
attempted to resist and organise counter-revolution. This forced the
Ba’ath government to appeal to the workers and peasants for support. In
response, thousands of peasants marched on Damascus in support of the
In the process, capitalism was snuffed out and a regime modelled on
the Soviet Union was installed. This meant that while the economy was
taken over by the state and centrally planned, there was no workers’
control but a bureaucracy standing above the workers and peasants.
Initially, this led to significant economic growth, with an expansion of
around 80% in the 1960s and of more than 300% in the 1970s.
From 1963 to 1970, a series of inter-military conflicts and
assassinations saw the rise of Hafez Al-Assad to power. Thus was
established his one-party rule through the Ba’athist Party from 1970
until the present. When Hafez died in 2000, the presidency was passed
onto his son, Bashar Al-Assad, who continues to rule. Hafez Al-Assad
represented the more conservative wing of the Ba’athist Party, and in
fact he put a stop to any further nationalization programme and promised
business interests that he would protect their property. Hafez did,
however, maintain those industries that had already been nationalized
during the first two decades.
The Ba’athist Party, though it describes itself as adhering to Arab Socialism,
centred the nationalized industries in the grip of a tiny clique at the
top of society. There was not a degree of democratic control of the
economy by the workers. The Syrian Ba’athists suppressed any attempt of
workers to build independent organisations, and heavily suppressed the
However, the nationalised economy provided important benefits to the
masses in terms of employment, access to basic commodities, housing and
services. This provided some stability to the Assad regime and also
provided a base of support among important sections of the population
during the 1960s-1980s. Despite this, immense privileges were given the
bureaucratic circles around the ruling mafia-cliques in the regime, a
process which began during the 1960s and continued into the era of
When Hafez Al-Assad took power in 1970, he also relied heavily on
exploiting and fomenting sectarian divisions within Syrian society.
These divisions had been created and strengthened by the previous
Ottoman Empire, and the subsequent French imperialists, in a classical
“divide and rule” tactic. However, the nationalised, planned economy and
the subsequent economic development provided a degree of stability for a
This was not to last, however, as bureaucratic control revealed more
and more its limitations. The ensuing instability therefore created the
necessity to feed and re-invigorate the sectarian conflict as a means to
maintain control. These divisions are primarily between the Alawite
religious group and the majority Sunni population, but also with
Christian and Kurdish populations in the country.
Al-Assad used his supposed “secularism” as a means of actually
inciting ethnic divisions in Syria. He posed himself as a defender of
religious minorities against the Sunni majority, allowing him to
maintain a base of support among the Alawite and Christian groups who
make up a significant portion of the population (today together they are
20% of the population). This sectarian “secularism” was used to repress
opposition groups and the Sunni majority. Despite this secular facade,
Assad relied heavily on both Christian and Islamic religious leaders to
maintain control over the toiling masses.
Bashar Assad’s capitalism and inequality in Syrian society
It was in the early 1990s that the Assad regime began to shift its
policy to one of significant liberalization policies to encourage
foreign investment into Syria and to expand the private sector. This was
particularly accelerated in the 2000s, with the expansion of private
banking and businesses. The ruling bureaucratic cliques, presiding over
much of the nationalized economy realized that they could increase their
plunder by expanding capitalist investment into the country.
This move towards expanding capitalism in Syria occurred in the
political context of the fall of the Stalinist regime in the USSR and
the restoration of capitalism in the Eastern Bloc (1989-91). Hafez
Al-Assad, once an ally of the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia, was left
without a major power to lean upon.
The ruling Syrian clique, inspired by the Chinese model of
restoring capitalism, began to carry out similar reforms through a
programme of privatisations, ending subsidies and opening up to the West
and other imperialist countries. The old state bureaucracy, much like
in China, has shifted its base from a state owned, planned economy one
where parts of the old state owned sector have been privatised in favour
of members of the regime itself and the “market” has been allowed to
develop. As a result of this economic liberalisation, the gap between
Syria’s rich and poor increased massively.
The estimate of the number of Syrians living below the poverty line
is anywhere from 33% to 40%, with those in “extreme poverty”, defined as
being unable to even meet their most basic needs, standing at around
13%. Unemployment has skyrocketed to 20%, and is much higher among the
youth. It is precisely because of this programme of privatisation, cuts
to subsidies and cuts to social services that led the World Bank and the
International Monetary Fund (IMF) to express themselves as being quite
satisfied with the Assad dictatorship. The anger at these gaping
inequalities is a significant factor that fuelled the revolution that
erupted in 2011.
This economic liberalization flies in direct contradiction to any
“progressive” credentials that some supposed leftists attribute to the
Assad regime. The opening up of the Syrian market to foreign companies
caused the imperialists to flock to Assad. For example Suncorp, the
Canadian energy corporation that owns Petro-Canada, has $1.2 billion
invested in the extraction of Syrian gas resources. Other significant
investors into Syria include Royal Dutch Shell (UK), Total S.A.
(France), China National Petroleum Company, Stroytansgaz (Russia) and
the Oil and Gas Corporation (India). The Iranian automotive companies,
such as the Saipo group, have also invested in car manufacturing
factories in Syria. There has also been a massive expansion of private
banking with big stakeholders including Kuwaiti and Saudi major banks.
Furthermore, Russia also has a significant stake in the country, as
Syria provides it with a servicing point for naval bases in its
territory and also purchases significant arms from it. Assad’s policy of
opening up to foreign corporations directly contradicts the view that
he carries out anti-imperialist policies.
Rami Makhlouf is one of the most powerful individuals in Syria and a
member of Assad’s close circle. He has a near complete control over
foreign investment into the country and owns Syriatel, the largest telecommunications company in the country. According to the Financial Times,
he is said to control 60% of the Syrian economy, with business
interests in telecommunications, oil and gas, construction, banking,
airlines and retail.
The Assad clique has made significant changes to the Syrian economy
to expand private ownership. This has made a tiny layer of Syrians
immensely wealthy. This obscene inequality was displayed, for example,
when the Italian luxury car company, Maserati, launched its range of
high-priced vehicles in Damascus in 2010. The sale of luxury cars has in
fact skyrocketed in Syria.
Syria has become a capitalist society in which the majority of the
economy is in the hands of a mafia clique around the Assad regime.
Privatisation has to a degree taken place by transforming members of the
regime into owners of important sections of the economy. However, this
process of liberalisation has not been fully completed, and there is
still an important state sector.
This means that there is a new layer that has gained from the
introduction of capitalist relations, and this layer identifies still
with the regime. But there is still a layer that benefits from the old
state owned sector. The two combined have provided Assad with a certain
degree of lingering support. For the vast majority of the population,
however, the gains of a previous era have been eliminated.
The result is a Syria where the interests of the majority are
neglected while the profits of big business (including that of the
imperialists) are protected. Those who insist that the regime of Bashar
Al-Assad is anti-imperialist have a terribly delusional view of Syrian
Assad’s relationship to Israeli and US imperialism
Hafez Al-Assad first, and later his son and current ruler Bashar,
regularly entered into alliances with the Western imperialists. They
have played an openly counter-revolutionary role in repressing mass
uprisings in Lebanon in league with regional imperialist powers, were
open partners with George Bush Sr.’s invasion of Iraq in 1991 and have
played a collaborative role in the so-called “War on Terror”. Far from
the image that some on the left attribute to Assad as an
anti-imperialist, he has been a regional partner with imperialism and
has played a destructive role in relation to mass left-wing movements in
the region, most notably in Lebanon.
During the Lebanese civil war, from 1975-1990, the Syrian regime and
its proxies engaged in a direct offensive to repress the revolutionary
left-wing movements, particularly represented by the left-wing
Palestinian groups and the Lebanese Communist Party. Assad supported the
right-wing Maronite regime and the far-right paramilitary squads that
were used to drown the movement in blood.
From the standpoint of the Syrian regime, the mass left-wing
movements in a neighbouring country represented a threat that could
spread to Syria. Assad also wanted to establish and consolidate his
influence in Lebanon. The Syrian military and Syrian-backed local groups
directly intervened in the civil war. They also actively encouraged
sectarian differences, much as Assad has done at home in Syria. During
the mid-to-late 1970s, they were able to repress the Lebanese Communist
Party and the Palestinian revolutionary groups. After succeeding in
destroying left-wing groups in Lebanon, they turned to destroying the
Syrian left groups, including the Communist Labour Party and the Syrian
Throughout the civil war in Lebanon, both Syria and Israel
established significant control over the country. Though both Syria and
Israel had tense and at times conflicting interests, they united to
share power in Lebanon and to drown the revolutionary movements in
This willingness to come into partnership with imperialism was also
demonstrated when Hafez Al-Assad made an alliance with George Bush
Senior during the invasion of Iraq in 1991 following Saddam’s entry into
Kuwait. Syrian troops supported the US-led invasion of Iraq during the
Gulf War. The Syrian military forces did not enter into active conflict,
instead giving logistical support and providing reserve troops for the
invading forces. Over 100,000 Iraqi troops were killed in this
Since the “War on Terror” began in 2001, the Syrian regime has
presented itself as a regional ally of the United States. The United
States and Canadian governments began to target and observe certain
terrorist groups. These efforts included the wider targeting and
oppression of people from the Middle East. The Assad regime, with its
experience repressing the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, was seen as a
useful ally in these efforts.
The case of Mahar Arar, a Canadian-Syrian, who was tortured in Syria
is also indicative of the kind of anti-imperialism professed by the
Assad regime. In 2003 Mahar Arar, a Canadian citizen, was kidnapped
during his vacation travels. It was reported that the Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA), with the assistance of the Royal Canadian
Mounted Police (RCMP), suspected him of being involved in terrorist
activity. The CIA transported Arar by plane to Syria for interrogation.
Arar was detained and tortured for two years until it became clear that
he had no connections with any terrorist organizations. In effect,
interrogation and torturing of prisoners taken by the CIA and the RCMP
was contracted out to Assad’s Syria.
Marxist position on Syrian revolution
The Syrian revolution is a very contradictory process. As in any
revolution, millions have entered into political activity for the first
time. A year has passed since the movements first began, and the masses
have displayed great heroism in the face of Assad’s brutality. The
demands that are being raised by the movement, at this stage, are
largely of a democratic character.
This fact should not, however, lead one to a distorted view of the
revolution. The massive poverty, unemployment and rising cost of living,
coupled with the inequality and extravagance displayed by the ruling
circles around the regime were the major factors that led to the
revolution. At the current stage, the demand for democracy is seen by
the masses as a means through which they can improve their living
The fact that the repression by Assad’s army over the past months has
been focused on various working class slum neighbourhoods is indicative
of the class composition of the movement. The fact that protesters have
attacked assets of the ruling clique, such as Makhlouf’s Syriatel Corporation, displays this burning anger at economic injustice.
Facing collapse, Assad has been desperately trying to make
“concessions”. Many of these have been democratic in nature, such as
committing to eventually holding elections. It is notable, however, that
Assad’s concessions to the revolution have also been of an economic
nature, such as wage increases, and Mahlouf’s supposed “exit” from
business, with his wealth to be transferred to charity.
These facts display the degree to which democratic demands, in the
eyes of the mass of impoverished and working class Syrians are linked to
their pressing economic needs. The Assad regime realises this as well.
That is why at this point the masses have significant illusions in
bourgeois democracy, as was the case in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya as
well. They equate democracy with social justice!
The movement has clearly continued to deepen – in spite of the
terrible offensive against Homs and other areas. The growing breadth of
the movement, which was spreading to Aleppo and Damascus, and the
development of the Syrian Free Army have strengthened the resolve of the
The establishment of popular councils where the people have been able
to establish control, temporarily replacing the old state regime, is
also a significant development. So far, these have only lasted for short
periods of time and in limited parts of the country. In spite of this,
these are symptomatic of what would be possible with a genuine mass
However, despite this deepening of the movement, there is significant
confusion at the present moment. This is due to the fact that the major
opposition forces consist of the Muslim Brotherhood and some liberal
bourgeois organisations. They control the Syrian National Council (SNC).
These people who put themselves forward as so-called “leaders” of the
revolution are engaging in regular dealings with the heads of state of
This “leadership” has played a very destructive role in the movement.
They have not put forward a concrete programme of economic and
political demands, and have largely ignored the economic issues that
brought the people onto the streets in the first place. That reflects
their own bourgeois stance. Many of these elements are also playing
Assad’s game of fanning ethnic and sectarian divisions, but from the
other side. And as we explained previously, the SNC has also called for
foreign intervention in Syria, and has been co-opting the leaders of the
Free Syrian Army, who have now also come out in support of “no-fly
The problem, however, is not that the SNC lacks a political
programme. The problem is the nature of that programme. Its political
programme is one of bourgeois democracy under US patronage. This is a
reactionary programme which repels many in the opposition, as there is
an instinctive mistrust of these exile liberal, US-funded careerists,
among the supporters of Assad and among many who are actively involved
in the revolution against Assad!
Hence, the SNC’s bourgeois political programme, its narrow sectarian
outlook and its pro-imperialist position has tremendously weakened the
movement. Many layers who would come to the side of the revolution are
hesitating at this so-called leadership, which is alienating important
sections of Syrian society, and making it easier for Assad to maintain a
layer of support.
Put simply, the SNC puts forward no meaningful alternative to the
status quo. The failure of leadership has prolonged the revolution and
the masses have paid a high cost for this weakness. Indeed, the SNC is
putting the entire revolution at risk; in fact it is attempting to push
it down the road of counter-revolution.
The experience of the Iraq National Council and Chalabi is one worth
pondering over in relation to what is happening in Syria. The Iraq
National Council was an agent of the US in Iraq which has now ended up
as a prisoner of the fundamentalists of al-Sadr. We must not forget that
here was also a revolutionary movement in Iraq, the shoras in the North
and the Shia uprising in the South, but they were both crushed by a
combination of imperialist intervention, Saddam Hussein’s repression and
the manoeuvrings of the Kurdish reactionary parties of Barzani and
There is also another element that has to be considered here, and
that is that the ruling elites in Saudi Arabia, and particularly in
Qatar, also have their own agendas in Syria. They have an interest in
seeing the end of the Assad regime as this would weaken Iran. Both Saudi
Arabia and Qatar have already played an important role in Libya and
Tunisia in promoting their local agents there. It is clear that they are
already arming and training their own agents within the opposition,
preparing for the day after Assad falls. This in fact is what many
Syrians fear, that the revolution would lead to forces like the Muslim
Brotherhood coming to the fore in Syria also.
This fear is strengthened by the fact that Hamas has now broken with
the regime and come out in favour of the revolution, withdrawing all its
leading figures from Damascus. This indicates that they too are working
to divert the revolution down Islamic fundamentalist lines, something
which would weaken the revolution further.
Although the situation is very different, it is reminiscent of the
Spanish Civil War, where the revolution – the uprising against Franco –
was taken over by bourgeois elements. Once this happened, the social
content of the revolution was removed, and all that remained were two
bourgeois camps. In fact, in his famous book on the Spanish Civil War,
the historian Hugh Thomas has one chapter called “Rising and Revolution”
but a later chapter called “The War of Two Counter-Revolutions”. Once
the war became solely about defending bourgeois democracy against
fascism, without any social content such as demands for the land to be
taken from the landlords or the factories to be nationalised, it lost
its power to gather the masses as a united force.
In Syria today, there is also a massive vacuum on the left. The once
powerful communist movements in Syria have been severely weakened by
their failed Stalinist policies. As we have seen, the complete sell-out
of the Syrian Communist Party, which has acted as a loyal supporter of
the Assad regime and as part of his long-time National Progressive Front, is reflected in their openly counter-revolutionary position at present.
This renders the task of the genuine Marxists more difficult, as they
first have to explain why some “communists” are not with the
revolution, differentiate themselves from them and then explain the
position of genuine Marxism. The Marxists are part of the revolutionary
movement in Syria and fight alongside it. At the same time, we patiently
explain the pernicious role played by the various bodies assuming
leadership over the movement, particularly the SNC. We must put forward a
genuinely revolutionary perspective, which would aid the revolution to
victory and solve the pressing needs of the Syrian workers, farmers,
youth and unemployed.
Oppose foreign intervention!
One thing that must be clearly stated is that the imperialists can
play no positive role in Syria. We condemn totally any imperialist
meddling in Syrian affairs. Across the Middle East, the role of
imperialism has been completely exposed. The brutal occupation of Iraq
and Afghanistan has seen hundreds of thousands of civilians perish,
while no progress whatsoever has been made in terms of the living
standards of the people, democratic reforms, women’s equality or
economic growth. Imperialism has left a legacy of warlord-ism,
corruption and sectarian conflict, while big corporations have made
massive profits from the oil wealth, re-construction and arms
In the revolutionary struggles in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain, the
imperialists openly supported the old ruling regimes and gave them
military aid. The USA and Canada continues to ship arms and tear gas to
the Egyptian military council of General Tantawi. Likewise Saudi Arabia
continues to be a major recipient of Western arms while they brutally
crushed the revolution in Bahrain.
As has been examined, the Syrian regime is directly tied to Russia
and Iran. It has also been a working partner with US and Israeli
imperialism. It must be said, however, that at the current moment, it
seems that the Western imperialists are very hesitant to intervene
directly in Syria. They have limited their activity to condemning the
Syrian regime, and promoting their local stooges.
The statement by General Dempsey condemning the Syrian Free Army is
indicative of the suspicion with which the West views the revolution.
The West will continue to manoeuvre against the revolution through their
friends in the Syrian National Council (SNC).
The Syrian people must resolutely condemn these manoeuvres by the
imperialists. The interests of the imperialists are irreconcilably
antagonistic to the interests of the workers, peasants and youth of the
Middle East. The imperialists wish to plunder the resources of the
region and find markets for their products. The masses in the region are
rising up precisely against this plunder and wealth inequality. The
massive confidence and revolutionary consciousness sparked by the Arab
Spring directly threatens the interests of the imperialists. We should
have no illusions in the counter-revolutionary role they play. We
therefore say, “Imperialist hands off Syria! The Syrian people will
settle the score with Assad!”
Which way forward for Syria?
The present official “leaders” of the movement have successfully
antagonised significant sections of the population that can, and should
be won over to the revolution. The revolution has been advancing
painfully slowly precisely because sections of society that objectively
should be with the revolution have not lined up behind it. The fact is
that because of a series of factors – among which the bourgeois nature
of the SNC and its collaboration with imperialism – Assad still
maintains a degree of support, and has been able to use ethnic divisions
to his advantage.
All this emphasizes the importance of decisive leadership that is
able put forward a concrete programme of political and economic demands,
of both a democratic and socialist nature and thus cut across the
sectarian divisions. It is precisely the lack of such a programme that
is the greatest weakness of the revolution.
Some of the “leaders” are in fact presenting the revolution in
sectarian or religious terms. The presentation of the movement as
“Islamic” turns many ethnic and religious minorities away from the
movement, as well as a significant section of secular and progressive
minded Syrians, particularly those in Aleppo and Damascus. The
counter-revolutionary war of the Assad regime is not a war against Islam
– it is a war against the Syrian people – but because of the nature of
the leaders of the opposition it can be presented as such.
Advancing social and economic demands would prove decisive, and would
cut across ethnic and religious divisions. This should include the
demand for the re-nationalization of all industries that have been
privatized by the Assads, the establishment of workers’ democratic
control in the workplace, expropriation of the assets and companies of
the Assad clique and re-establishing subsidies for basic goods. The
pressing needs for employment, housing and services should be made a
priority of the revolution.
Those “leaders” who refuse to raise such economic demands because of
their personal economic interests should be removed and replaced by
genuine representatives of the revolutionary people. The present leaders
will only use the revolution to advance themselves, while maintaining
all of the old structures and inequalities intact.
The Syrian people have shown great revolutionary instinct. The
examples where they have established popular councils to replace the old
state apparatus and co-ordinate social and economic life in the certain
cities show the way. The establishment of a revolutionary army, from
the ranks of the soldiers and armed civilians, was a massive step
forward, but unless this is accompanied with a revolutionary socialist
programme the sweep of the revolution remains limited, and it will not
be able to bring out the full potential that exists.
This lack of a genuine revolutionary leadership of the movement will
result in a protracted struggle that could become very bloody. Indeed
the recent events in Homs and other areas are a confirmation of this
fact. The current leadership continually calls for “unity” in the face
of any criticism. In fact, with the excuse of this so0-called “unity”
they attempt to crush any genuine opposition to their attempts to take
over and emasculate the revolution. It is they who are dividing the
movement through their actions.
A genuine leadership must cut across sectarian divisions, oppose all
foreign intervention and advance social and economic demands to solve
the pressing needs of the people. Such a leadership, that could unite
the different sides of the movement, could win the necessary majority
that could end the brutal reign of the Assads once and for all, and
establish a genuinely democratic and socialist Syria.