Syria: the defeat of a popular revolution

While the most powerful forces in Syria are now the ruthless dictatorship and reactionary armed groups, the echo of the popular revolution is still visible, writes James Supple

The onslaught on Aleppo displayed the depth of the brutality of the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian backers.

Russian and Syrian planes used unchallenged control of the skies to launch months of ruthless bombing of civilian areas, repeatedly targeting hospitals and schools.

During the final weeks of the assault the White Helmets, a volunteer group dedicated to trying to rescue the injured, reported, “streets and destroyed buildings are full with dead bodies”.

This is the savagery of a ruling class desperate to crush the last echoes of a popular revolution that threatened its power.

The recapture of Aleppo gives Assad control of all of Syria’s major cities. Since Russia threw its full military weight behind Assad last year, there have been a string of victories for the regime.

The US and other Western leaders condemned Assad and Russia’s assault. But these hypocrites support and arm other dictatorships across the region including Egypt and Saudi Arabia. And the US, with Australian support, is leading its own bombing campaign on the Iraqi city of Mosul, working alongside sectarian militias.

The capture of the eastern half of Aleppo in 2012 was one of the armed rebels’ biggest successes. But, as Syrian revolutionary socialist Joseph Daher has put it, eastern Aleppo has also been, “a symbol of the democratic alternative”.

Before the siege began this year, its grassroots revolutionary movement contested efforts by armed Islamist groups to impose their own control in Aleppo.

The most hardline Islamist groups were even forced out for a period. Islamic State was expelled from eastern Aleppo in 2014, and the Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra (now renamed Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) was pushed out in 2015 for almost a year. But as the siege tightened, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and similar groups returned as a component of the rebel forces, alongside groups backed by Saudi Arabia and the West.

Popular revolution

The rebellion against Assad began in 2011 as a popular revolution, with mass protests across the country demanding an end to Syria’s brutal dictatorship. The regime responded by shooting people down in the streets, killing 1000 people in the first three months.

The armed rebellion began as an outgrowth of this popular revolt. Local armed groups were joined by thousands of deserters from Assad’s army. But militarisation distorted the struggle. It allowed those with arms to dictate to the popular movement.

Groups linked to the democratic forces were denied any serious arms or assistance by outside powers. It was not in the interests of either the US or Arab dictatorships like Saudi Arabia to support revolutionaries fighting for democracy and popular power. Instead the Saudi Arabia and Qatar particularly supported and built up sectarian Islamist groups.

Alongside this jihadist groupings including Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham emerged as the best armed and most effective fighters among the opposition. Both have captured and killed revolutionary activists, and set up their own systems of justice imposing supposedly Islamic measures, like forcing women from their jobs and to cover their bodies.

The regime also helped to turn the conflict into a sectarian war, releasing jihadists from its prisons and unleashing sectarian militias based on the Alawite Shia minority against Sunni areas.

Syria’s population is 55 per cent Sunni Muslim, but the regime is dominated by the Alawite Muslim minority, and there are other substantial minorities including Christians, Druze and Kurds. Turning the struggle into a sectarian conflict was designed to push minority groups behind the regime.

Support for Assad

As a result, some on the left have argued that a victory for Assad is now a lesser evil to a Syria controlled by Islamic State and other jihadists.

This is a false choice. Both the Assad regime and the jihadists are forms of counter-revolution viciously hostile to any form of democracy. Both mean a dictatorship allowing little space for a workers’ movement or any organised opposition. Islamic State’s repression of women’s rights, protests and LGBTI people is well known. But independent trade unions have been banned in Syria since 1959, all through the period of the Assad regime, and thousands have been tortured to death since 2011 in the regime’s prisons.

Others support Assad and Russia as supposed anti-imperialists or some kind of alternative to US imperialism.

It is right to oppose US, Australian and Western military intervention in Syria. But imperialist powers with their own agendas have been drawn in on the side of the Syrian government.

Syria hosts the only Russian naval base in the Mediterranean, at Tarsus. Russia has been determined to maintain the Assad regime in power, as its sole ally in the Middle East. Putin is also using the conflict to establish Russia as a more important broker in world affairs. It is now Russia that is negotiating ceasefires with the rebels and Turkey and talking about a deal to settle the conflict, completely by-passing the US.

Iran for its part is another backer of the Syrian regime, as a reliable supporter in its struggle against Saudi Arabia and other Western allies for regional dominance in the Middle East.

As in the Cold War, when Russia often sent troops to prop up allied regimes around the world, the left should oppose what are simply rival imperialisms.

A victory for Russia and Iran will not lead to a progressive outcome. This would only embolden Russia to throw its weight around further and help ignite further conflicts and wars across its sphere of influence.

The logic of supporting Russian or Iranian intervention in Syria is that military action by these powers can somehow play a progressive role, not just in Syria but in other conflicts.

But there was nothing progressive about Russia’s military onslaught on Chechnya in the 1990s that left between 50,000 and 250,000 civilians dead in an effort to prevent independence. Russia bombed refugee convoys, designated “safe areas” and civilian targets and used kidnapping and murder on a massive scale.


Imperialism must be understood as a system of many competing states, not simply the world’s largest power, the US, dominating everyone else. This understanding flows from the theory of imperialism developed by the Russian Marxists Lenin and Bukharin at the time of the First World War. They analysed a world of many imperialisms, where there was both collaboration and competition between powers such as Britain, Germany, France, the US, Russia and Japan.

Modern imperialism, they argued, was a product of capitalism once it reached a monopoly stage of development. This saw individual companies based in a particular country reach such a size that they both dominated their domestic market as well as markets overseas, and required raw materials from outside national boundaries. This meant they required state action to safeguard and pursue markets and raw materials through diplomacy and war.

In an era of multinational corporations, this remains true, despite the end of direct European colonial rule. And it applies not simply to multinationals based in the most advanced capitalist states like the US. States like Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey all have their own multinational companies with interests abroad. Competition between states also plays out through geo-political competition to control territory and assert military superiority, even where there are no immediate economic benefits.

Far from simply an issue of Western dominance, the Syrian conflict shows the differing interests even between states within the pro-US camp.

Turkey, a member of NATO, has sent troops into northern Syria with the aim of preventing an independent Kurdish state there. It has even drawn closer to Russia in order to win assent for this intervention. This puts it at odds with the US, which sees the Kurds as its most dependable ally in Syria for fighting Islamic State, and is bombing targets in Syria in co-operation with them.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both US allies, have shown far more enthusiasm for arming rebel groups than the US. Both have more at stake in what happens in Syria than the US, and see weakening an Iranian ally in the region as key to boosting their own influence.

These dictatorial states also feared the consequences of movement for democracy in Syria and so were anxious to marginalise rebel groups supporting this.

The US, by contrast, has been prepared to work with Iran in military operations inside Iraq against Islamic State. Even in Syria its main focus is on operations against Islamic State, not Assad.

Syria also shows the limits to US ability to get its own way. The failure of its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made it more cautious about military intervention. The US never provided substantial arms to the rebel groups. Assad and Russia’s monopoly on aircraft has allowed them to ruthlessly bomb rebel areas. Yet the US has consistently blocked its allies from supplying anti-aircraft missile systems, known as Manpads, that could allow them to shoot down planes. And it has limited supplies even of light arms to a trickle.

While calling for Assad to “step down” the US has never pushed for the fall of the regime as a whole, hoping instead for a transition similar to that in Yemen in 2011, replacing Assad with a new leader and incorporating some opposition figures into the regime. At the end of 2015 US Secretary of State John Kerry even stated that the US was “not seeking so-called regime change”.

The revolutionary mass movement in Syria is now effectively defeated. It faces enemies on all sides.

For now, the future of Syria is being determined mainly by the outside imperialist powers supporting Assad on the one side, and reactionary armed groups on the other. But, as Syrian revolutionary Ghayath Naisse told International Socialism, “The popular movement isn’t dead… Though the organisations of the movement have been pushed back and severely weakened, they survive.”

As recently as March last year, there were demonstrations across Syria when a major ceasefire brought a halt the fighting.

Syria’s immediate future is bleak. But a return of the revolutionary mass movement in Egypt, Lebanon or any of the major countries in the Middle East would have an impact in Syria, just as the toppling of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt did in 2011.

It is only a revival of the struggle from below that can deliver freedom and social justice for ordinary people in Syria.


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