Thousands of people took to the streets in cities and towns throughout Syria on May 13, despite a week of intensified repression by the Baath Party regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
On May 11, tanks shelled the city of Homs, one of the centres of protest, and mass arrests took place throughout the country.
Friday prayers have become a focus for protests. The demonstrations began on March 18 when people took to the streets in the provincial town of Deraa, demanding the release of three youths arrested for writing anti-government graffiti, using slogans borrowed from the Egyptian uprising.
Thousands have been arrested since the protests began. The May 13 New York Times reported: “Wissam Tarif, the executive director of Insan, a human rights group, said his organization had recorded 8,000 people arrested as of May 3.
“In the past week, he said, they had recorded 2,800 more.”
With prisons overflowing, detainees have been held in football stadiums. In the past week, the NYT said, “arrests [have been] often arbitrary, sometimes for little more than a tattered identity card, in a campaign that seems motivated to bully people to stay indoors and to restore a measure of the fear that has buttressed the Assad family’s four decades of rule”.
The BBC reported on May 13 that three protesters were killed by security forces in that day’s protests. Other media reported between one and four deaths. This was lower than the number of protesters killed on previous protests.
“A spokesman of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said earlier that 700 to 850 people had been killed in the two-month-long crackdown,” the BBC said.
The regime has blamed the unrest on Western and Israeli interference and religious sectarian forces, in particular Sunni Muslim extremists. These charges have been echoed by some of the international Left.
These charges have some resonance inside Syria, and that there is still support for the regime, was shown by tens of thousands taking part in pro-regime demonstrations on March 29.
These demonstrations were clearly state-organised, but the numbers involved were far higher than other Arab regimes threatened by uprisings have managed to muster.
Israel has attacked Syria several times and has occupied the Golan Heights since 1967.
The West’s hostility to the Syrian regime goes back to its Cold War alliance with the Soviet Union. More recently, it has been centred on the Syrian regime’s support for anti-Israel resistance movements in Palestine and Lebanon, in particular the Lebanese Hezbollah resistance movement.
The secular Baathist regime has a history of stoking fears of religious and ethnic minorities among the Sunni Muslim majority.
This fear-mongering has gained credibility from the sectarian bloodbath instigated by the US-led occupation forces in neighbouring Iraq.
However, although the opposition includes Sunni sectarian groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and the US has tried to fund opposition groups, the uprising has been overwhelmingly secular and not pro-Western.
“People say that they are better off without any intervention, they are very critical of the US,” Al Jazeera reported on May 1.
Such is the lack of support for the US in Syria that when, in February 2006, then-US president George Bush announced US$5 million would be given to Syrian opposition groups, a US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks revealed no group within the country was willing to take the money.
The US and European Union have imposed sanctions against some Syrian regime figures. They are threatening more.
However, both the US and EU have already had sanctions against Syria since 2004.
These were initially imposed to force the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon (a demand with which the Syrian regime has complied) and kept in place ostensibly over unproven allegations of Syrian involvement in the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
In reality, they are punishment for Syrian support to Lebanese and Palestinian resistance groups.
A confidential cable published by WikiLeaks from the US embassy in Damascus, dated May 8, 2008, makes it clear that US sanctions and subversion were not aimed at regime change but at pressuring Syria to withdraw support from Hezbollah.
Australia imposed sanctions on April 30 and the May 14 Australian reported that foreign minister Kevin Rudd was pushing for stronger measures from the United Nations.
These new sanctions and the accompanying rhetoric are essentially shadow boxing. The West, and Israel in particular, are more concerned about the nationalist sentiments of the Syrian people than the limited support given by the Assad regime to Lebanese and Palestinian resistance groups.
An anonymous “Syrian analyst” in Amman told AFP on May 10: “The international community is cautious in its response to the actions of the Syrian regime ... Israel is satisfied with the status quo with the Syrian regime and the United States needs Syria because it has an influence on the Sunni resistance in Iraq and because it is a key link between Washington and Tehran in issues related to Iraq.”
Jordan-based Syrian dissident Abu Adham told AFP: “World powers are lethargic when it comes to Syria because they do not want to see chaos on the doorsteps of Israel, which enjoys the most secure borders with Syria since the establishment of a demilitarised border zone in 1974.”
Israeli leaders concur. Alon Liel, a former managing director of the Israeli foreign ministry, told the May 6 Christian Science Monitor: “Assad is definitely an enemy who helps Hamas and Hezbollah. But the disintegration is frightening.
“There is no one opposition group that can take control of Syria. It’s quite a mess.”
Echoing the Syrian regime’s false accusation of the nature of the protesters, Ayoub Kara, an MP from Israel’s ruling Likud party, told the CSM: “I prefer the political extremism of Assad over religious extremism. We don’t want religious extremism on the border.”
The increasingly desperate Syrian establishment is playing the “religious extremism” card.
Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of Assad (whose use of his family connections to become Syria’s biggest business tycoon has made him a main target of protesters’ anger) told the May 10 New York Times: “If there is no stability here, there’s no way there will be stability in Israel. No way, and nobody can guarantee what will happen after, God forbid, anything happens to this regime.”
The Syrian uprising is not an imperialist conspiracy, it is a response to four decades of oppression.
The Baath Party first came to power in Syria in 1963 in one of the frequent military coups that had plagued Syria since it won independence in 1946. In 1970, after several more coups, the Baath Party was stabilised by the current president’s father Hafez al-Assad.
The antipathy between the Syrian Baathist regime and the Iraqi Baathist regime that was consolidated at the same time was an indication of how far the Baath Party had departed from its pan-Arabist ideals in both countries.
With Soviet economic assistance, Assad created a large state sector that fuelled economic development and a rudimentary welfare state, giving his regime a social base.
However, the main instrument of rule was terror, most graphically demonstrated after an Islamist uprising in the town of Hama in 1982, when the regime killed between 10,000 and 40,000 people in reprisals.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the regime began to open the country to Western capital. It also supported the 1991 US-led war against Iraq.
When Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, his son literally inherited the presidency.
Neoliberal economic reforms accelerated, although the regime kept Syria out of the International Monetary Fund.
This led to the rise of crony capitalists such as Makhlouf, a decline in the technocratic middle class that had been based in the state sector, and the sinking of the working class and peasantry into desperate poverty, with huge levels of unemployment.
It is no coincidence that the Syrian uprising began with unemployed youths writing graffiti inspired by the uprisings against the pro-Western regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. The combination of political and economic oppression that the uprisings in those countries were against also exists in Syria.