Apr 4, 2011
The wave of protests sweeping through Arab countries is now hitting Syria. Since March 18th, demonstrators have demanded the freeing of thousands of political prisoners, the lifting of the state of emergency, freedom of expression and assembly and an end to the repression carried out by the all-powerful state security forces. Demonstrations occurred in several Syrian cities, including the port of Latakia and Daraa, a city in the south, where the forces of repression killed at least a hundred demonstrators.
Like the other regimes facing demonstrations, the Bashar al-Assad regime used both violent repression and actions that pretend to offer “change.” Since March 24th, the regime promised to create a commission to look into lifting the state of emergency in effect since 1963. It may consider legislation on freedom of the press and political parties. It also promised to raise the pay of public employees.
Finally, on March 29th, the prime minister and his entire cabinet resigned, with the incoming administration supposedly promising liberalization. At the same time, the Assad regime orchestrated counter-demonstrations in its own support. Students and bank employees got a day off, and other workers were paid to take part in the demonstrations.
For 50 years, the Syrian population has known nothing but the Baath Party dictatorship. When the al-Assad family took power in 1970, it ended the instability the country had known since its independence at the end of World War II. In 2000, when Bashar succeeded his father Hafez, who died after 30 years in power, Syrians spoke of a “Damascus spring.” An opposition party appeared, demanding the end of the dictatorship. But very quickly, the new president took charge.
The leaders of the Arab world, and also the imperialist leaders, are visibly worried about what will happen in Syria. Even if they have at one time or another castigated the regime, even portraying it as an enemy to be brought down, they were well aware that in its way it was valuable to them.
Syria has long been a home of Arab nationalism, and the dictatorship of the Assads was an expression of that nationalism. But it was a dictatorship quite adept at compromising with the imperialist leaders. For years it collaborated to maintain an equilibrium in Lebanon after the outbreak of civil war there in 1975, and it controlled the Palestinian movement in Lebanon. Syria still demands the return of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel. But it also knows how to observe the status quo with its neighbor.
The Assads knew how to make use of the Communist Party, by integrating it into a “progressive national front,” gaining the party’s support for the regime. Fractions of the Communist Party opposed to this collaboration were sent to prison. Finally, Assad’s regime repressed the Islamist opposition, especially by bombing the city of Hama in 1982, killing thousands after an uprising there led by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The end of the Assad dictatorship could mean the return of the Syrian working masses to the political scene, and in particular of a working class which has traditions of struggle and political consciousness. That’s what worries the leaders of the imperialist world and the regional powers.
Indeed, if the Syrian dictatorship vacillates, it would call into question a fragile internal equilibrium, and also the fragile equilibrium of the Middle East. The Assad regime up to now has maintained a sort of balance between Israel, Iran, Lebanon and the other Arab countries and the imperialist powers.
All these powers question who could replace Assad, and what political forces could emerge among the demonstrators who today are challenging him. But their grounds for unrest could be grounds for hope for all those in the Arab world who aspire to put an end to a situation of misery and oppression.