Is Syria socialist?


Syria: Neither Bread Nor Freedom
By Alan George
Zed Books, 2003


Israel's government on October 5 launched a missile attack on Syria, the first strike into Syrian territory in 30 years. US President George Bush immediately condoned the attack. Within days, US Congress passed the Syria Accountability Act, which contains sanctions against Syria.

Since the US-led conquest of Iraq, the idea of Washington invading Syria has also been openly discussed in the corporate media and by senior US officials. These developments highlight the importance of activists making themselves aware of what is happening in Syria.

Alan George's Syria: Neither Bread Nor Freedom is a useful introduction to the history and politics of Syria. Its main emphasis is on the repressive nature of Syria's Baath Party regime, but it also provides information about many aspects of Syrian society.

Syria, formerly part of the Ottoman empire, became a French colony after the carve-up of the Middle East following the first world war. It became politically independent in 1946. After a series of military coups, parliamentary democracy was restored in 1954, but was short-lived. In 1958, Syria united with Egypt, then ruled by the Arab nationalist regime of President Gamal Abdul Nasser. In 1961, another coup broke the union with Egypt and in 1963 the Baath Party seized power.

The Baath (renaissance) Party claimed to be socialist, and its leaders described their seizure of power as a "revolution". However, it was a coup carried out by a few military officers, not a mass uprising of workers and peasants. The resulting regime was another military dictatorship.

The Baath Party was internally divided. In 1966, a more left-wing faction seized power. Then, in 1970, a right-wing coup brought Hafiz al Asad to power. He ruled Syria until his death in 2000, when his son Bashar el Asad took over.

Hafiz al Asad's regime used anti-imperialist rhetoric and at times was in conflict with the imperialist powers. It supported Lebanon's Hezbollah in its successful fight to drive the occupying Israeli forces out of southern Lebanon.

At other times, the regime did unprincipled deals with imperialism. It intervened against the left in the Lebanese civil war in 1976, and attempted to control the Palestine Liberation Organisation. It supported the US-led war against Iraq in 1991.

The Baath Party rules Syria with a combination of repression and patronage. Joining the Baath Party is often a preconditon for gaining a job or a promotion. Oppositionists, from the left and the right, have been jailed, tortured and murdered.

Some "left" and nationalist parties, including the Syrian Communist Party, were coopted into an alliance with the Baathists called the Progressive National Front. The Baath Party remained the dominant force in this alliance and the other parties were there as window dressing. Those left parties that refused to cooperate with the Baathist regime were subject to severe repression.

The "socialist" Baathist regime has developed a strong state sector in the economy, but represses independent working-class organisation. The authoritarian nature of the regime facilitates corruption, which permeates the system. According to George, the regime "uses corruption and favouritism on a grand scale as a means of control... At one extreme, the president's immediate circle appropriates enormous wealth by dint of its ability to 'broker' major business deals (i.e. block them unless substantial kickbacks are paid) and oversee illicit trade and smuggling ... At the other end of the scale, a lowly customs officials might expect a modest tip for expediting documentation."

When Bashar el Asad replaced his father, some of his early statements hinted at a possible easing of repression. This encouraged intellectuals to hold discussions about reform. Meetings of several hundred people (often held in the homes of prominent intellectuals) became a regular occurrence. Manifestoes were issued calling for freedom of speech, the release of political prisoners, freedom of political and trade union organisation, free elections and similar democratic demands.

However, after a brief period of relative freedom, the government cracked down again and arrested key participants in this movement.

The regime has tried to portray these opponents as agents of imperialism. This accusation is hypocritical given the very dubious record of the Baathist regime, which has been willing to ally itself with imperialism when it serves its interests.

Nevertheless, it is probable that some elements of the opposition movement are pro-imperialist. Riad Seif, one of the key leaders of the movement, formerly employed 1400 workers to make clothing for the transnational corporation Adidas. Seif's business went bankrupt when the government accused him of tax evasion. In George's view, this was a "witchhunt" to punish him for his criticism of the government's "economic mismanagement".

Other sections of the opposition appear to be more left-wing, although George does not discuss their policies in detail. An alliance called the National Democratic Gathering includes a number of leftist and Arab-nationalist parties, while the Party of Communist Action remains outside the alliance.

Another opposition group is the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist party that conducted a rebellion against the regime during the 1976-82 period and was ruthlessly crushed. In the past, the Brotherhood refused to collaborate with secular groups, but this has changed in recent years. It now claims to support multi-party democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

The Syrian government has begun implementing "free market" economic policies. However, it has been hesitant about going too far because unemployment is already very high. According to George, unemployment is officially 11.2% but actually 25-30%.

In December 2000, the Baath Party approved plans to establish private banks, a stock market and to float the currency, marking the end of a 40-year state monopoly on banking and foreign exchange transactions. In February 2001, justifying the crackdown on the "civil society movement", Bashar al Asad said that "economic reform" should take priority over political reform.

In January 2002, economy and foreign trade minister Ghassan al Rifai (who worked for the World Bank before becoming a minister in December 2001) said: "I see a great need to invigorate the role of the private sector, domestic and foreign, and to give it the opportunity to lead the growth process".

Opposition figures also talk about the need for "economic reform". However, the information provided in Syria: Neither Bread Nor Freedom does not make it clear what kind of reform they are advocating. But there is little doubt that the most right-wing elements of the opposition would advocate the privatisation of state-owned enterprises. George does not give enough information to say whether left-wing elements have a clear alternative.

The solution to Baathist corruption is not neoliberal policies but a struggle by the workers and peasants to remove the pro-capitalist Baath Party regime and replace it with a workers' and peasants' government. Such a struggle would involve organising the workers to challenge the corrupt activities of managers and state officials and demand their removal from positions of power. Instead of privatising state property, the aim would be to make it work for the benefit of the workers and peasants, rather than a layer of corrupt officials.

Baathist-ruled Syria, despite its "socialist" pretensions, is a capitalist state. Explaining why Nasser's Egypt was not a workers' state, US socialist Joseph Hansen wrote: "A workers state is based not only on nationalisations, but among other things, on the revolutionary consciousness of the masses... The great school for the masses in achieving this level is a popular revolution — a profound collective experience in mobilising against the ruling class and its system".

Hansen pointed out that such a revolution had not happened in Egypt when Nasser seized power in a military coup. The same is true of Syria.

But while supporting progressive opponents of the Baathist regime, we need to be conscious that imperialism also wants "regime change" in Syria. The imposition of a regime that more consistently supports imperialist policies in the Middle East and more thoroughly implements neoliberal economic policies would be a step backward. We need to oppose any US economic sanctions or military aggression against Syria, and any Australian involvement in such attacks.

From Green Left Weekly, October 22, 2003.
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