The Civil War in Syria

The civil war in Syria, now in its third year, originated in the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2010-11 when popular revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya overthrew long-time dictators. The ‘cradle of the Syrian revolution’ was Daraa in the impoverished south of Syria. In 2011 Syrian workers shouted: ‘One, One, One, the Syrian People Are One !’ but today Islamic fundamentalists are chanting ‘ Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the Grave !’ According to the UN Human Rights Data Analysis Group there have been 92,901 reported killings in the period March 2011 to April 2013 in Syria.

USA and Britain vacillate over intervention in Syria. It was only in July that the USA agreed to ‘limited military support for vetted rebel groups’, although General Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said at the Senate Armed Services Committee there was a ‘risk arming al-Qaeda-aligned extremist forces amongst rebels’. David Cameron observed recently that the Syrian opposition contained ‘a lot of bad guys’ which means Islamic fundamentalists, Jihadists, and Al Qaeda.


The Ba’athist Party have been in power in Syria since 1963 and the Assad family have been dictators of Syria since 1970. The Assad family are Arabs of the Alawite sect of Shia Islam who only comprise 12 percent of the population. The largest ethnic and religious group are the Arab Sunni Muslims who comprise 65 percent of the Syrian population. About 10-12 percent are Christians and 9 percent Kurds.

Modern Syria was born as a League of Nations mandate territory given to France in 1920. Under French rule the minority Alawites were recruited into the Syrian Army as they were not able to buy themselves out of military service. After Syrian independence in 1946 the Alawite Muslims had a large representation in the Officer Corps.

In post-independence Syria, society was still ‘quasi-feudal’ in nature and dominated by conservative rural landlords and the peasantry. The small industrial capitalist class vacillated between cooperation and antagonism with the landowning class which was ultimately a fetter on the industrialisation of Syria. There were regular political upheavals in Syria with coups and counter-coups, which was not good for capitalist development.

In 1947 the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party of Syria was established which advocated Arab Nationalism and Arab ‘Socialism’, which in reality meant state capitalism. The word ‘ba’ath’ is Arabic for ‘renaissance’ but for the Syrian working class it was still the wages system under new management. A military coup in 1963 by the Alawite Muslim Ba’athist officer corps was supported by the peasantry, religious minorities such as Christians and the Sunni capitalist class. The Ba’athist regime was sometimes called ‘Bonapartist’ because it rested on ‘the conservative peasant’ and a radicalised layer of  ‘petty- bourgeois’ Alawite army officers. Raymond Hinnebusch in Syria: Revolution from Above (2004) wrote that ‘without the peasantry there could not have been a Ba’athist revolution’.

The ‘social pact’ was the foundation of Ba’ath Party rule which meant land distribution for the peasantry, social welfare for the working class, industrialisation for the capitalist class but no free speech, and banned trade unions. It was a planned state run economy loosely modelled on the state capitalism of the USSR. In 1965 the Ba’ath regime ‘nationalised’ 106 industries which included electricity, water, industrial plants, the transport system, insurance companies, and commercial banks.

Ba’ath Party rule ensured economic and political privileges were given to Alawite Shia Muslims and in 1970 Hafez Al-Assad, an Alawite, came to power as sole ruler. Assad became known as ‘the Lion of Damascus’, a personality cult was developed around him and the internal repression meant Syria became known as the ‘kingdom of silence’. Assad’s regime exploited sectarian divisions in Syrian society to defend the minority Alawite capitalist and political class from the Sunni Muslim working class majority.

The 1970s in Syria was a time of economic growth with a peak GDP growth rate of 10.2 percent in 1981 but Syria’s state capitalism was not immune to the world capitalist slump and in 1984 GDP was -2.1 percent.

Crony capitalism

The Assad regime’s response was ‘Intifah’ (economic liberalisation) modelled after Deng’s introduction of the market into Chinese state capitalism in the 1980s. In Syria more private economic activity was permitted, state controls were loosened, free trade zones were established, tax exemptions and cheap credit introduced and local traders and merchants were allowed economic freedom to import and export goods. Nationalised industries were ‘privatised’ which meant state ownership was transferred to cronies of the regime. ‘Crony capitalism’ meant that by the mid 90s ‘an upper class has emerged both greater in number and wealthier than the bourgeoisie of the pre-Ba’athist era’ wrote Volker Perthes in The Political Economy of Syria under Assad (1995).

In 2000 Hafez died and his son Bashar became leader, and economic liberalisation continued. In March 2009 Assad opened the Damascus Securities Exchange, Syria’s first stock market in over forty years. The IMF and World Bank were satisfied with the Syrian economy with its ‘privatisations’, and cuts in corporation tax for the capitalist class. The wealth of the crony capitalist class was evident when Maserati launched its range of high-priced vehicles in Damascus in 2010. One particular ‘crony capitalist’ was Rami Makhlouf, cousin of Assad who owned Syriatel (telecommunications), a TV network, assets in oil, gas, construction, real estate, banking, airlines, retail, and duty free stores. His assets were worth $5 billion and he was known to the Syrian working class as ‘Mr Ten Percent’. In the uprising his properties and assets were attacked.

The 2011 uprising has its origins in economic inequality, poverty, inflation, unemployment in Syrian society, and ‘crony capitalism’. Significantly Syrians abroad who previously sent home remittances returned to Syria following the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, workers returned from the Gulf following the Dubai financial crisis of 2008, and 1.5 million Iraqi refugees poured into Syria following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Also significant was the ‘proletarianisation in the countryside’ because land redistribution failed as many peasants ended up with holdings too small to support a family and therefore were forced to become wage labourers for larger landowners or forced to work in new factories and mines. The ‘privatisation’ of state land led to peasant evictions, and the drought of 2008-10 forced tens of thousands of peasants to flee to the cities.

Underclass rebellion

Hanna Batatu writing in the 1981 Middle East Journal is prophetic about the 2011 uprising: ‘ rural people, driven by economic distress or lack of security, move into the main cities, settle in the outlying districts, enter before long into relations or forge common links with elements of the urban poor, who are themselves often earlier migrants from the countryside, and together they challenge the old established classes’.

An Associated Press Report of 16 October 2012 identified that the rebels were poor, religiously conservative from the underdeveloped countryside who felt economically marginalised, were against elite merchants and industrialists who dominated Aleppo and allied to the regime. An ex-car mechanic now in the rebel army said: ‘those who have money in Aleppo worry about their wealth and interests when we have long lived in poverty’. The report concluded that the uprising was ‘as much a revolt of the underclass as a rebellion against the regime’s authoritarian grip’.

The Syrian opposition is the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces which advocates a secular, democratic, liberal, bourgeois capitalist Syria. The Vice President of the National Coalition is Riad Seif, a Sunni capitalist who once owned the Adidas franchise in Damascus.

The Free Syrian Army contains mainly Arab Sunni Muslims but also Islamic Fundamentalists, Jihadists, and Salafist militias. The Wall Street Journal (16 April) reported that the Obama administration did not want an outright rebel military victory because they believe ‘the good guys’ may not come out on top, and feared that Islamists tied to al-Qaeda were increasingly dominating the opposition to Assad. The Washington Post (1 May) reported ‘If things continue as they are, the Syrian government will certainly be the party that has the major advantage in any talks, it is clear the Insurgency does not pose an existential threat to the regime’.

The ‘bad guys’ include the Jabhat Al-Nusra Front which is very well organised with access to resources and continues to gain control of Syrian oil fields. Jabhat Al-Nusra is a Sunni Salafist Jihadist militia which in April 2013 was incorporated into Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant and is the group of choice for foreign Jihadists coming to Syria. Jabhat Al-Nusra is financed by donations from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan, all allies of the USA and Britain. The New York Times (27 April) reported from Aleppo, the industrial and commercial hub of Syria, that the Jabhat Al-Nusra Front controlled the power plant, ran the bakeries and headed a court that applied Islamic Sharia law. The report concluded that ‘nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of’.

Proxy war

Recently the EU has lifted sanctions on oil exports from the Syrian oil fields (mainly in the eastern part of Syria near the border with Iraq) because they are in rebel-controlled areas although mostly controlled by the Jabhat Al-Nusra Front. Before the civil war, the EU spent $4.1 billion on Syrian oil imports, in 2010 oil sales generated $3.2 billion which accounted for 25 per cent of Syria’s revenue. Syria has estimated oil reserves of 2.5 billion barrels. With economic liberalisation foreign oil companies such as Royal Dutch Shell, Total SA, Gulfsands Petroleum, China National Petroleum Company, Stroytansgaz, and India Oil and Gas Corporation went to work in Syria although all operations were suspended by the civil war. In 2008 Syria produced 187 billion cubic feet of natural gas and has estimated reserves of 9.1 trillion cubic feet which led to SunCorp, a Canadian energy corporation that owns Petro-Canada to invest $1.2 billion in the extraction of Syrian gas reserves.

‘The Road to Tehran Goes Via Damascus’ is key to western capitalism’s view of Syria. Iran is the second largest oil producing country in the world. The USA and Israel view Assad’s Syria as a ‘rogue state’ and part of an ‘axis of evil’ with Iran. The competitive economic struggle between western capitalism and eastern capitalism (Russia and China) is reflected in Syria where Assad’s regime is supported by Putin’s Russia and by China while the West backs the Syrian opposition.

Assad’s regime has given political support to Hezbollah, the Shia Islamic group which has been in conflict with the Israeli state. Hezbollah receives large military and economic support from Iran. Hezbollah are fighting alongside Assad’s army against the rebels and recently Israel launched air strikes on Hezbollah forces in Syria.

As well as a proxy war between the West and Russia and China, between Israel and Hezbollah and Iran, the USA and Iran, Syria is also a regional proxy war between the Sunni Muslim capitalism of the Persian Gulf states of Saudi Arabia and Qatar allied with the Sunni Muslim state of Turkey against the Shia Islamic capitalism of Assad’s Syria and Iran. The Financial Times (17 May) reported that Qatar had spent $3 billion over the last two years supporting the Syrian revolt, and this was only exceeded by donations from Saudi Arabia.

A planned natural gas pipeline from Iran (second largest gas reserves in the world) through Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean and Europe has had its route through Iraq agreed in May. There is a rival pipeline planned from Qatar through Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria which makes the defeat of the Assad regime in Syria all the more urgent.

For the Syrian working class the best likely outcome in present circumstances from an ending of the civil war is a bourgeois capitalist liberal democracy and at worst an Islamic fundamentalist reactionary theocracy. Any group replacing the Assad regime will have to continue to run Syrian capitalism for the benefit of the Syrian capitalist class.

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