Syria: Civil war threat as outside forces push both sides to more violence

Syrian rebel fighters.

The United Nations estimated in March that in the year since the Syrian uprising began, 9000 people had been killed, most by the regime of President Bashar Assad.

However, the opposition’s share of the killing has been rising. Wthin the Syrian opposition, the non-violent intifada has been increasingly overshadowed by sometimes foreign-backed armed groups and religious extremists, who have begun carrying out suicide bombings.

Since March, the killing has intensified. On May 25 and 26, despite a ceasefire and the presence in Syria of 300 UN observers, 108 people ― including 49 children under 10 ― were killed in the village of Houla. Many of the victims were bound and stabbed or shot at close range.

Other execution-style killings have taken place since then.

Outside-backed fundamentalists

Religious communalism has been promoted by the regime and Western-supported elements of the armed opposition. Both sides have massacred civilians, but it seems likely most of the Houla killings were carried out by Syrian government forces or pro-government militias.

Both sides blamed each other for the latest round of killing and their competing claims have been echoed by their respective foreign backers. Russia accepted the findings of a Syrian government inquiry and blamed foreign-backed rebels.

Western leaders have attributed all the killings to the regime and explicitly raised the possibility of a military attack on Syria. British foreign secretary William Hague told the BBC on June 1: “We would have to look at all options.”

However, he implied the West would not take unilateral military action: “We would do that with our allies, bearing in mind, of course, what can be secured at the UN Security Council and what is practical and effective.

“So we’re not ruling anything out, but a military intervention in Syria, as I’ve always pointed out, would have to be vastly greater in scale than was the case in Libya and it would have to enjoy very broad international support. So we’re not at that stage at this point now.”

This echoed remarks by recently elected French President Francois Hollande, who told France 24 television on May 29: “An armed intervention is not excluded on the condition that it is carried out with respect to international law, meaning after deliberation by the United Nations Security Council.”

However, Russia and China, both permanent UN Security Council members with the power to veto resolutions, have pledged to block any proposals for military intervention.

Addressing journalists after Annan briefed the Security Council on May 30, US Permanent Representative to the UN, Susan Rice, left open the possibility of taking unilateral action.

“Members of this Council and members of the international community are left with the option only of having to consider whether they’re prepared to take actions outside of … the authority of this Council,” she said.

Both Russian and Western leaders are warning of the dangers of a religious sectarian civil war in Syria. However, both are fuelling it.

Uprising against dictatorship

The secular Syrian dictatorship has sought legitimacy by posing as the defenders of religious minorities from the spectre of communalist and fundamentalist groups in the Sunni Muslim majority.

The ruling Assad family is from the minority Alawite sect.

The regime has portrayed all opposition as Sunni fundamentalist terrorism. This has been echoed by Russia.

However, the Syrian uprising was initially not sectarian. Chants calling for unity between Christian, Shi’ite, Sunni and Alawite Syrians marked protests.

The causes of the uprising were the same as those of those in Tunisia and Egypt which inspired it: opposition to a brutal dictatorship and to its harsh, Western-endorsed economic policies.

Samir Aita, editor in chief of Le Monde Diplomatique Arabic Edition said in a May 24 interview with “The socioeconomic situation is one of the major reasons for the uprising.

“You have what I call a youth tsunami in Syria ― 300,000 people coming into the labour market every year. In the last 10 years, with all the liberalisation, the economy was creating 60,000-65,000 jobs, which is really not enough.

“What is not said is that among those 65,000, there are only 8000-10,000 real jobs with a real contract and social security and so on. The rest of these are informal jobs, like that of Mohamed Bouazizi [the man whose self-immolation triggered the Tunisian uprising], who was university-educated.

“He was considered statistically as ‘working’, not jobless, but he was only pushing a small cart to sell vegetables and fruits, which is a menial job. This is one of the major reasons for the calls for ‘dignity’.”

The West’s attempts to hijack this revolt against neoliberalism have boosted the Sunni sectarian groups. From the outset, Western governments promoted the exile Syrian National Council as the sole representative of the opposition. This is despite the SNC not being accepted as such by the opposition inside Syria.

The SNC is dominated by Sunni Islamist sectarians. Through its proxies Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the West has armed and materially assisted Sunni fundamentalist groups inside the country.

Khalil Habash, an activist with the Syrian Revolutionary Left, wrote on the Syria Freedom Forever blog on May 13: “Saudi Arabia and Qatar … are trying to hijack the Syrian revolution and deviate it for their own limited objectives …

“Saudi Arabia has notably assisted financially and politically one specific group: the Farouk Battalion in Homs. The Syrian opposition members are aware of this situation and have condemned it.

“Twenty-four different opposition armed groups in Homs actually started to work together in part because of the behaviour of the Farouk Battalion. The representative of the 24 opposition armed groups … accused the Farouk Battalion of unjustified violence against their adversaries and other anti-regime groups ...

“He also stated that Farouk Battalion’s behaviors are led by its financial backers ― specifically, the Saudis. He adds that the basis of the crisis in the city of Homs is groups receiving uneven amounts of money from direct sources in Saudi Arabia some of whom are urging the targeting of loyalist neighbourhoods and sectarian escalation …

“The field leaders have noted that receiving aid from Saudi Arabia entails implicit conditions like working in ways other than the desired direction.”

Selective coverage

The Western media has highlighted accounts of regime violence. But that of the Saudi and Qatari-supported opposition, such as their current holding of Lebanese Shia pilgrims as hostages, is not reported.

The violence of both the Russian-armed regime and the Western-armed opposition groups is making the danger of a sectarian civil war a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The role of the West also strengthens the weight of claims by the Syrian regime that it is the victim of a Western conspiracy. However, despite its alliance with Iran and recent financial and diplomatic support to Lebanese and Palestinian groups resisting Israel, the Assad regime’s “anti-imperialism” is often grossly overstated.

Habash wrote on on May 29: “This is the same regime which crushed the Palestinians and the progressive movements in Lebanon in 1976 with the tacit acceptation of the West, putting an end to their revolution, while participating in the imperialist war against Iraq in 1991 with the coalition led by the US.

“They have also participated in the War on Terror launched by President George W. Bush by collaborating on security issues. Israel has actually several times called on the US to ease the pressure on the Syrian regime which has not shot a single bullet for the occupied Golan Heights since 1973 …

“Syrian officials have repeatedly declared their readiness to sign a peace agreement with Israel as soon as the occupation of the Golan Heights would end, while nothing was said on the Palestinian issue …

“The Palestinian refugees of Syria, fully aware of all this, have increasingly been participating in the revolution alongside their Syrian brothers and sisters. They have suffered from the regime’s repression, with more than 40 martyrs and hundreds arrested by security forces.

“Actions of support from the Palestine occupied territories and ’48 territories [Israel] to the Syrian revolution have multiplied these past few months.”

Despite escalating rhetoric, for the time being the West seems content to fuel the violence indirectly rather than get directly involved militarily. This could change, however.

The experience of Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq suggests that if the West militarily intervenes, the suffering of ordinary Syrians will increase.

Meanwhile, the Syrian revolution continues. “The Syrian revolution is part of the revolutionary process taking place in the Arab world, and should not be separated,” Habash said. “The Syrian people are struggling like Egyptians, Tunisians, Bahrainis and other democrats, socialists and anti-imperialists in the region.

“The Syrian people are the true revolutionaries and anti-imperialists, and not the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. It is the Syrian population who welcomed Palestinians, Lebanese and Iraqi refugees when they were attacked and occupied by the imperialist powers such as Israel and the US.

“The victory of the Syrian revolution will open a new resistance front against the imperialist powers, while its defeat will strengthen them. Long live the Syrian revolution.”