Counterfire, June 30, 2011
A general strike and continued street demonstrations marked the passing of one hundred days of protest and repression in Syria. Khalil Habash writes on the popular protest movement for democracy, social justice and against imperialism.
The Syrian uprising has exceeded 100 days. Despite harsh repression, the protest movement is continuing and increasing. Since 15 March more than 1,500 civilians have been killed, including around 70 children, and about 10,000 people arrested, according to Syrian human rights groups.
Many Syrians have fled to neighboring countries. More than 11,700 are now housed or seeking shelter in Turkish refugee camps, while a few thousand are now in Lebanon. Demonstrations are still being repressed by security forces, thugs of the regime and a section of the army, despite various declarations of the regime that they will not shoot on protesters if they demonstrate peacefully.
In Jisr al-Shughour and other towns such as Homs, military forces used helicopters and tanks to shoot at protesters. Some 15,000 troops and 40 tanks have reportedly been deployed to the city and surrounding region.
The protest movement is nevertheless growing, with demonstrations nearly on a daily basis in various cities in Syria, while on the "Friday of Tribes", 10 June, protests were reportedly held in 138 cities and towns across the country. Similar demonstrations happened on Friday 17 and Friday 24 June.
On Thursday 23 June a successful general strike marked 100 days of the revolution and was upheld in the governorates of Homs, Hama, Deraa, markets of Deir Zor, the city of Lattakia Banyas, Douma and the majority of Rif Damascus. Universities, especially in Damascus and Aleppo, have witnessed demonstrations from students against the regime.
President Assad tries to contain the revolt
President Bachar Al Assad, in his speech on Monday 20 June, did not say or give anything new to satisfy the protesters. He maintained a defiant position. President Assad acknowledged that a certain segment of the protest movement might have some legitimate demands and wished to participate in democracy, but claimed immediately after this short statement that as many as 64,000 "outlaws" are leading the havoc in Syria and that, alongside this "army" of criminals, the uprising in Syria is also being stirred by radical and blasphemous intellectuals, trying to infiltrate into Syria wreaking havoc in the name of religion.
The Syrian media, all controlled by the State directly or indirectly, have been portraying all protesters as terrorists controlled by foreign powers.
Assad adds that Syria's image has been "smeared" internationally, and that some protesters are being paid money in order to film demonstrations and deal with media. He claimed that Syria is a victim of "political conspiracies" which he likened to "germs". This conspiracy theory against Syria is used by the Syrian regime in each official speech.
These accusations against the protesters did not prevent him calling for national dialogue with the opposition and the protest movement. He also indicated that the greatest danger the country now faced is the weakness or collapse of the Syrian economy.
But how does this speech fit with the reality of the situation in Syria?
Firstly, the reality is very different from Assad’s depiction of a protest movement dominated by terrorists, salafists and opportunists linked to foreign conspirators. We are now witnessing in Syria a popular national movement struggling for democracy and social justice. The protesters include the different ethnic and sectarian components of the country, as well as all the governorates throughout Syria.
Major demonstrations have taken place in the two big cities of Aleppo and Damascus. In addition to protests in Aleppo University, the two last Fridays also saw protests in Aleppo neighborhoods such as Salahedeen and Seif al-Dawali. In the villages north of Aleppo, around 5,000 protesters had turned out across Tal Rifaat, Hreitan, Mareaa and Aazaz. In Damascus as well protests were presents in the suburbs as well as smaller ones in the city.
The opposition outside Syria has also started to organise, gathering in several conferences across Europe. A consulting committee of the Antalya conference from May 31 to June 3, the main coalition of the Syrian democratic opposition, was set up. The main promoters of this conference were the left and liberal forces around the Damascus Declaration (DD).
Out of 31 members of the consulting committee 4 members each are from the DD, Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the Kurds (who are predominantly leftist) and the tribes. The remaining 15 are independent personalities. These outside organized forces of the opposition are nevertheless very weak on the ground. The MB as well as the left has been driven out by decades of severe persecution.
One of the main points of the Antalya declaration was to oppose any foreign military intervention. The protest movement on the ground has also refused any foreign military intervention which would serve the regime and would probably lead the country to civil war.
The popular movement in Syria is in favor of the unity of the Syrian people and against division, with a developing feeling of national solidarity and social solidarity that transcends sectarians and ethnic divisions.
The regime is using sectarian issues to scare one community against the other and divide people. It built the army according to sectarian criteria to maintain loyalty. While the majority of the conscript soldiers are Sunni according to their population share, the officers’ corps is predominately Allawi and fidels of Assad’s family.
The sieges and military intervention against the rebellious towns were nearly all by the 4th brigade led by Maher al Assad and special units in which most of the soldiers are Allawi. President Assad does not dare to use normal soldiers as he fears mutinies. There have only been some individual defections so far.
Secondly, the so called dialogue called by Bachar Al Assad can’t be taken seriously while the killing, injuries, repression and arrests against protesters are still going on. No dialogue is possible when tanks and helicopters are sent against the people. The popular movement has refused any so called dialogue until demands from the protesters are implemented. The so called general amnesty granted by the President for crimes committed before 20 June did not see the liberation of the 10 000 protesters detained since 15 March.
The democratic demands of the popular movement for a democratic, civic, and free Syria are not being met by the regime, which has drafted a new political party law which proposes establishing a "Party Affairs Committee" chaired by the Minister of Interior. Its members will include a judge from the Court of Cassation, and three independents appointed by the President of the Republic. Any person wanting to establish a political party will have to apply for a license along with 50 founding members "over the age of 25."
They have to be residents of Syria representing no less than 50% of Syrian governorates. Additionally, party founders need to have a clean legal record and cannot be members of any other political party simultaneously. Any party needs to have secured 2,000 members at the time of applying, along with premises for its headquarters.
Parties cannot use government agencies to market themselves, nor can they operate out of charity organizations, educational institutes, or religious venues (church or mosque). This is all designed to maintain the Baath party’s monopoly.
Economic problems in Syria
As well as Assad mis-representing the protest movement and failing to engage in real dialogue, a third problem is his remarks on the economy. In relation to the possibility of the collapse of the Syrian economy, the Syrian President did not understand that his economic model has already collapsed for many people. This is part of why they are protesting against the regime.
Syria doubled its GDP between 2003 and 2008, but the economic growth did not benefit the Syrian people. Economic liberalization policies started in the early nineties, which were accelerated and boosted since Bashar Al Assad’s arrival to power in 2000. These policies have benefited a small oligarchy and few of its clients.
Syria witnessed the emergence of private banks and foreign investment in the country’s market, alongside privatisation and liberalising of foreign trade. Tourism has become a flourishing sector, accounting now for 12% of the Syrian GDP - it brings revenues of about $ 6.5 billion and employs about 11% of the workforce. Syria, which was self sufficient in the past and used to have a strong industrial sector, is now importing food.
This economic policy had severe consequences for the people. Per capita income remains well below the average for the Middle East, the economy is still "developing", the welfare state is gone, controlled prices on first necessity goods have been abandoned in some cases and poverty affects one third of the population. Extremely reliant on service, the economy is now not creating enough jobs, especially for the young graduates.
The regime has progressively abandoned the agriculture sector which represents 20% of the Syrian economy. The countryside has endured harsh conditions as a result of four years of drought. The government did not answer the plight of the farming population, a lot of them having to leave their rural areas to cities to find jobs. Today, the rural poor are providing the foot soldiers of the uprising.
The announcement that Rami Makhlouf - the cousin of President Bashar Al-Assad and focus of anti-corruption protests - is quitting business and moving to charity will not solve the problems of the Syrian economy and definitely not appease the protesters. Rami Makhlouf controls several businesses including Syriatel, the country's largest mobile phone operator, duty free shops, an oil concession, airline company and hotel and construction concerns, and shares in at least one bank.
As the uprising continues, manufacturers and merchants of Damascus and Aleppo, who have been until now supporters of the regime, have started questioning their political loyalty to the regime. They are now confronting a difficult situation by closing facilities and laying off staff. The bourgeoisie and the merchant class might therefore question their political loyalty to the regime if the situation continues this way and no viable alternatives are found. There are even now signs that some elements of the business elite are thinking of switching side.
The popular movement has refused any foreign military intervention in Syria and personalities linked to foreign imperialist interests such as Abdel Halim Khadam, Rifaat Al Assad and Mahmoun Homsi. There are those who make excuses for the Assad regime, and castigate the protest movement as 'pro-imperialist’ for opposing it, like Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. They should be reminded that it is the Syrian people who pressured the Syrian regime to support the resistance now and in the past. It is the Syrian population who welcomed Palestinians, Lebanese and Iraqis refugees when they were attacked and occupied by the imperialist powers such as Israel and the USA.
It is this Syrian regime which arrested the people of Syria who struggled for the liberation of the Golan and Palestine for the past 30 years. struggle for the liberation of the Golan and Palestine for the past 30 years. This is the same regime which crushed the Palestinians and the progressive movements in Lebanon in 1976, while participating in the imperialist war against Iraq in 1991 with the coalition led by the USA. The Syrian people are the true revolutionaries and anti imperialists, and not the regime of Bachar Al Assad. The victory of the Syrian Revolution will open a new resistant front against the imperialist powers, while its defeat will strengthen these latter.
In conclusion, the Syrian popular movement is struggling for democracy, social justice and anti imperialism. The Syrian people will not go back to their houses despite the repression and the killings; they will continue to demonstrate until their demands are met. The Syrian people will not step down and attempts to divide the popular movement will not succeed - the Revolution will be permanent!