The horrible history of the Assad regime

Lachlan Marshall explains the Syrian regime’s history of deals with imperialism and attacks on its own working class in order to boost its own wealth and power

In 2011 revolutions toppled dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, sparking off the Arab Spring.

But some progressive commentators denied that the Syrian revolution shared the same aims. They focussed on the regime’s occasional opposition to the West and cast dictator Bashar al-Assad as an anti-imperialist.

The US has continually said it wants to see Assad gone, favouring a leader more willing to serve its interests. Syria was a Russian ally through the Cold War and has relied on Russia and Iran as a counterweight to the US.

The Assad regime has refused to recognise Israel, offered rhetorical support for Palestinian liberation and aligned itself with Hezbollah and Iran. But like all capitalist states, its foreign policy is driven by self-interest and opportunism.

Ever since Israel occupied the Golan Heights in 1967 Syria has attempted to control the Palestinian liberation movement to use it as a bargaining chip with Israel and the US.

The regime has routinely suppressed Palestinian activists. Former President Hafez al-Assad moved against the Palestinian guerrilla movement in Syria, closing its offices and arresting its leaders.

In 1976 during the Lebanese civil war, which pitted Palestinian factions and left-wing Lebanese groups against the Lebanese government, right-wing Christian Phalangists, the US and Israel, the Syrian regime intervened decisively on the side of the latter.

In 1983 Syria supported Elie Hobeika as leader of the Christian militias, a Phalangist responsible for the slaughter of 2500 Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

According to the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, the role the regime has played historically in constraining movements it supports—like Hamas and Hezbollah—is acknowledged by Israeli officials, who, “fear the freeing of Palestinian organisations from any restraints and believe that the Syrian regime represents a central authority that regulates behaviour and keeps events from slipping out of control.”

The collapse of the Soviet Union and Syria’s own economic problems in the early 1990s prompted it to reorient towards the West and support the US in its first war with Iraq in 1991.

The second Palestinian intifada in 2000 along with Israel’s decision to build 1500 settlements in the Golan Heights forced Bashar to adopt a less compromising attitude to Israel and the US, increasing support for Hezbollah and the Palestinian resistance. But Assad has not challenged the status quo in the Golan Heights.

In the lead up to the 2011 uprising, Assad’s strategy involved trying to hedge between Iran and Russia on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and the US on the other. For instance Syria participated in the CIA’s torture program of “extraordinary rendition.”

According to the Financial Times, “In his dealings with the Kremlin, Mr Assad has adopted a strategy of playing one foreign power off against another. His trump card on this occasion was Iran. Russia has been nervous of Tehran’s growing regional influence at the cost of its own leverage for months.”

Like all other Arab ruling classes, the Syrian ruling class has accommodated to imperialism. Its foreign policy twists and turns have been focussed exclusively on trying to maintain the most favourable position possible within a cut-throat system of competing capitalist states. Its commitment above all else is to running capitalism and increasing the wealth of Syria’s rulers at the expense of workers and the poor. A look at the history of the Assad regime shows this clearly.

From national liberation to dictatorship

A period of social upheaval followed Syria’s independence from France in 1946. That year saw strikes force the passage of progressive labour laws and a trebling of union membership. A peasant uprising in 1950 added to the tumult, forming the base for the progressive and nationalist parties that dominated the period. In 1955 the Communist Party, Arab Socialist Party and Ba’ath Party formed an electoral alliance.

In 1958 Syria joined with Egypt to form the United Arab Republic (UAR) at the instigation of the Ba’ath Party and army officers, in an effort to undermine the wave of class struggle and the influence of the Communist Party. The new government introduced welfare reforms and land redistribution in exchange for total state control over the social movements. All independent unions and peasant organisations were banned and the right to strike was repealed.

The Communists failed to oppose these policies. They celebrated the Ba’ath Party as a “basic revolutionary force”, following the disastrous Stalinist policy of uncritical support for the nationalist bourgeoisie in post-colonial countries.

The Ba’ath Party took power in a military coup in 1963 aiming to further develop Syrian capitalism through a program of state-led industrialisation.

This required a challenge to the established elites through further land redistribution and nationalisations. Although the party used the language of anti-imperialism, its own support base was among army officers and the middle class—not the mass of workers and peasants.

The Ba’ath Party further restricted democratic rights. Worker and peasant struggles faced repression, as an obstacle to capitalist development. An emergency law suspending all constitutional rights has been in force ever since.

Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, took over in another coup in 1970. Syria is a diverse country, with a large Sunni majority of 65 per cent along with significant Alawite (14 per cent), Christian (12 per cent), Druze and Shia minorities.

Hafez, a member of the Muslim minority Alawi sect, used sectarianism to cohere an Alawi ruling class. He purged Sunni army officers and installed a loyal Alawi officer elite. The regime stoked sectarianism by playing on fears of ethnic strife. But the stability his rule engendered allowed him to gain the consent of the Sunni capitalist class.


Weaker economic growth in the 1980s forced the government to dismantle the social pact, cutting wages, benefits and subsidies. Deregulation opened up vast parts of the economy to private capital. Inequality increased so that by the mid-1990s 70 per cent of the population lived below the relative poverty line.

There was a ramping up of repression against all remaining opposition. The regime tortured political prisoners and periodically massacred inmates, for example in 1980 when the government ordered the summary execution of 1000 prisoners.

It responded ferociously to an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982, slaughtering up to 40,000 residents, most of them civilians.

Hopes ran high for the British-educated Bashar, who began his reign in 2000 as a reformer, releasing political prisoners and speaking of the need for constructive criticism. This stimulated a flourishing of dissent that became known as the Damascus Spring.

Liberal intellectuals and artists launched a vigorous democracy campaign. Assad arrested most of the leaders of this movement in 2001.

He extended the neo-liberal agenda, opening the economy further to private capital, slashing corporate tax and paring back social spending.

Corruption and inequality skyrocketed under Bashar, who increasingly distributed the spoils of office to members of his family. This was epitomised by Assad’s second cousin, Rami Makhlouf, whose family business empire controlled almost 60 per cent of Syria’s economy on the eve of the 2011 uprising. Official figures put unemployment at 15 per cent, and one third amongst those aged 20-24 years.

From 2008-2011 the UN estimated that three million farmers were plunged into poverty as a result of drought and forced into slums on the outskirts of cities.

Imperialism, sectarianism and the civil war

The 2011 uprising in Syria was fuelled by hatred of political repression and the growing social pain of the neo-liberal era.

In 2011 revolutionaries stressed the anti-sectarian nature of the movement, with slogans like, “In Syria, there are two sects: the sect of freedom and the sect of the regime.”

But compared to Tunisia and Egypt, Syria’s working class played little organised part in the revolution.

Local Coordinating Committees sprung up across Syria to organise resistance to the regime and the provision of services where the state had retreated.

However, Syria’s unions remained largely under regime control. This contributed to many revolutionaries seeing no alternative to focussing on armed struggle. This left the movement incredibly vulnerable to being co-opted by foreign states who could supply the arms and funding needed to take on the Syrian army.

In order to divide the democratic, anti-sectarian forces of the revolution, Assad deployed sectarian militias from his own Alawite religion, while also releasing about 1000 Salafist political prisoners, who flooded into an increasingly Jihadist led insurgency.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have also fuelled this process, channeling money and arms to Sunni Jihadists, to increase their leverage in negotiations over the future of Syria.

For their part, the US has given limited support to elements of the Free Syrian Army, with a similar intention of increasing their leverage against Assad and Russia.

The Islamic State (IS), born as a sectarian Sunni group in the chaos imperialism has inflicted on Iraq, capitalised on the chaos of the civil war to seize large areas of Syria, but they have not been a consistent opponent of the regime.

Some Assad supporters argue that the regime is the lesser evil to the IS. In fact IS and Assad have mostly avoided direct conflict.

An analysis of IS by the Kings College in London said the group has suffered defections from fighters initially attracted to the military strength of IS because “toppling the Assad regime didn’t seem to be a priority.”

As Serdar Ahmed, a secular Kurd interviewed in the book Burning Country said: “We hate Daesh [IS], but you must compare them to Assad. Daesh’s worst crime in Syria was the massacre at Taqa airbase where they killed 220. Assad has killed 200,000. He has committed thousands of massacres.”

The logic of imperialism in the Middle East, to which the Assad regime has accommodated for decades, is now on graphic display, as Russia and the US negotiate the terms of “peace” in Syria, and regional powers back rival armed groups in an attempt to court influence.

But workers across the region have begun stirring again, with anti-government protests in neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq.

And despite the grip of military dictatorship, in recent months thousands of Egyptians have defied anti-protest laws to take to the streets again. Even amongst the enormous misery in Syria, democratic activists took advantage of a brief “cease fire” in April to again take to the streets.

The hopes of 2011 will only be realised through a revival of the revolutionary movement and the working class across the region.


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