Violence escalates in Syria

The Syrian government of Bashar Al-Assad looks prepared to fight to the death in its brutal battle against pro-democracy protesters who have been calling for the downfall of the regime since March.

The death toll has spiked in recent weeks. LCCSyria.org said on November 16 that 376 people had been killed since the regime agreed on November 2 to a “peace plan” drawn up by the Arab League — a group of 22 countries led by Saudi Arabia.

Syrian human rights lawyer and activist Razan Zaitouneh told Democracy Now on November 14 that more than 4100 people had been killed by the government during the uprising.

Protesters have rallied daily in cities all across the country, showing incredible bravery in the face of regular killings, torture and arbitrary arrests. General strikes have also been held, with up to 90% of people taking part in some cities, Zaitouneh said.

Up to 15,000 soldiers have also defected to the opposition, the BBC said on November 16.

The Assad regime was dealt a blow on November 12 when the Arab League threatened to expel it over the repression. The Arab League extended its deadline for the end of repression to November 20, Bloomberg.com said on November 17.

The move is deeply hypocritical, since many of the leaders that pushed for the ban have brutally repressed pro-democracy activists in their own countries.

Jadaliyya co-editor Bassam Haddad told Democracy Now on November 14: “It is almost like … Israel speaking on behalf of equal rights or the United States speaking on behalf of international law.”

Despite its belated timing, Syrian activists have welcomed the decision as a step to isolate the regime. Zaitouneh told Democracy Now: “The international community were saying that they can’t do anything, because Arab countries are still supporting the regime. Now there is no reason to just stay watching.”

The Ghad Democratic Coalition said on November 13: “This move is an important answer to the demands of the Syrian people … This is first and foremost an achievement based on the sacrifices made by the Syrian revolutionaries.”

The Western powers continue to rule out a Libya-style invasion. Under Assad, Israel’s border with Syria has been stable, despite the Assad regime’s anti-Zionist rhetoric. This made regime change a questionable prospect for the West.

However, this is changing with the declining ability of Assad to maintain control. The West’s promotion of peak opposition group, the Syrian National Council, indicates imperialist powers are looking for an alternative to Assad, while continuing to rule out direct military means.

The ongoing bloodbath in Libya three months after the destruction of the Gaddafi regime suggests Western military intervention will increase the violence faced by Syria’s people. About 30,000 people have been killed in Libya since the March 17 UN resolution authorising NATO’s involvement.

Haddad told Democracy Now that one possible weak point for the regime was the economic cost of the ongoing crackdown.

“There will come a point in the next few months, and one hopes much earlier, where this will become an internal debate within the Syrian regime, because it’s going to cost ever more to actually continue this oppression, and that might spark some sort of compromise internally…

“There is a slow drain of business people that have been supporting the regime early on, but now they are basically defecting, so to speak, in a very silent manner. I suspect that the defection of the business classes from the regime’s ranks is going to continue and increase very rapidly.”

This drop in elite support has been pushed by economic sanctions imposed by the US and European Union on individuals connected with the regime. A further 18 people were added to the EU’s list, Reuters said on November 14.

LCCSyria.org released a report on November 15 detailing the government’s human rights violations between October 16 and 31. The report said 384 people were killed by the regime in that period — 313 were civilians, including 20 children. Nineteen people were killed under torture in prisons.

More than half the deaths had occurred in Homs, which has been the focal point of protests since the uprising began.

Hundreds of others were badly injured in the assaults. The report contained images and links to videos showing graphic details of the deaths of some protesters. Among these are images of children deliberately killed by security forces.

The report also said hundreds of others, including children, were arrested and abused — many on an arbitrary basis. Security forces also engaged in arbitrary home raids, looting, vandalism and denied people access to medical treatment.

Among the many horrific events, the report included one episode that typified the government’s brutal and vindictive attitude. In Homs on October 21, security forces fired on a demonstration and on a group exiting a mosque. An ambulance helping the wounded was fired on and forced to stop.

“The driver, medical crew, and the wounded were forced out of the ambulance, thrown on the ground, and beaten,” the LCCSyria.org report said. “Thugs (Shabiha) then killed the injured and disfigured their bodies.

“One of the injured was beaten on the head and feet several ties [sic] with the butt of a machine gun, while another injured person’s eye was gouged. The injured were stabbed with sharp knives in the hands, legs, and necks before they were transferred to the Air Force Military Intelligence branch.”

Comments

Ash Pemberton says: "The Assad regime was dealt a blow on November 12 when the Arab League threatened to expel it over the repression.....The move is deeply hypocritical, since many of the leaders that pushed for the ban have brutally repressed pro-democracy activists in their own countries."

Indeed, but it is not sufficient to criticise the Arab league's hypocrisy. We need to analyse its motives. Why do people like the King of Bahrain, whose troops have murdered protestors, criticise the Assad regime for doing the same thing?

The answer is that the Western imperialist powers (supported by their allies such as the King of Bahrain) want to replace the Assad regime with a more subservient one.

Ash says: "The Western powers continue to rule out a Libya-style invasion. Under Assad, Israel’s border with Syria has been stable, despite the Assad regime’s anti-Zionist rhetoric. This made regime change a questionable prospect for the West."

It is true that Syria has maintained a ceasefire with Israel, and has cooperated with the imperialist powers in various ways, including in the "rendition" of prisoners. But it has also done some things the imperialists don't like. For example, it has given aid to Hezbollah in Lebanon, thereby hindering the establishment of a stable pro-imperialist government there. Syria is an ally of Iran.

The Assad government is a bourgeois nationalist regime. It represses its own people, but it also defies the imperialists in some ways.

No doubt the anti-Assad protestors are motivated by a genuine desire for democracy and more just society. But imperialism has a lot of experience in co-opting such movements - most recently in Libya. Tactics can include giving money, publicity and arms to the most reactionary elements of a broad movement, and offering similar incentives to progressive elements that may be willing to abandon their anti-imperialist outlook.

The Arab League's criticism of repression in Syria, like the recent United Nations Human Rights Committee motion on the issue, is part of the imperialist propaganda effort to influence sections of the Syrian democracy movement. It may also prepare the ground for military intervention.

Chris Slee

While I agree with much of Chris Slee's comment, I think it is a mistake to imagine there is anything progressive about the Assad regime or that "it defies the imperialists in some ways," such as for example giving aid to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Assad's father's coup in 1970 was a "Sadatist" coup, but unlike Egypt under Sadat, which got the Sinai back from Israel, Israel has decided to keep the Golan Heights. No Syrian government can ever simply relinquish its sovereign territory. The regime there fore uses some limited support for Hezbollah or Palestinian factions as part of its pressure on Israel.

Indeed, the Assad regime has also carried out significant massacres of Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon, at times when it looked like they were adopting a course Assad did not approve of. Likewise, the regime has imprisoned, tortured and murdered countless Palestinian fighters, including members of organisations that it officially gives cover to. In the 1980s it armed and unleashed the Lebanese Amal movement in a barbaric war against the Palestinian refugee camps which rivaled Israel's own massacres of Palestinians, and earlier the regime had entered Lebanon in support of Lebanese Phalangist fighters carrying out an enormous massacre of the Palestinian-Muslim-leftist coalition at Tel-Al-Zatar. In 1991 it sent its army to join the US attack on Iraq in Gulf War I. To imagine such a regime would not do a complete Sadat if only Israel have it the opportunity is to not understand what all this reactionary behaviour is about.

While its current on and off support fro Hezbollah may prevent a stable Lebanese regime at present, Syria together with Saudi Arabia put together the new Lebanese sectarian constitution in 1991 which did indeed stabilise Lebanon for a decade and a half, during which time Syria was seen as the ally of the Lebanese oligarchs, not of Hezbollah. But with an even more completely uncompromising Israeli regime since the outset of the Bush era, Syria's necessity to rely on a tactical alliance with Hezbollah did eventually lead to conflict with the Saudi-backed parties in Lebanon.

Therefore the current imperialist war drive is I believe due to the fear of Assad losing control and thus the need to coopt the opposition, as Ash writes. But further than this there are also utterly irrational militaristic imperialist views emanating out of Washington and Tel Aviv, with a view to take out Syria as a step to taking out Iran, rather than - heaven forbid! - forcing Israel to return the Golan in order to get Assad on side, which is where he would be in a flash. Whether the aim is to attempt to replace Assad outright via intervention - a frightful prospect for all concerned, including the imperialists and *especially* Israel - or simply to pressure it remains to be seen.

Anonymous gives a long list of the crimes of the Assad regime. These certainly show its reactionary nature.

But on the other hand, it is also true that Syrian aid to Hezbollah played a significant role in Hezbollah's ability to drive the Israeli occupation army out of southern Lebanon.

Anonymous may well be correct that Syrian aid to Hezbollah is solely motivated by the desire to get back the Golan Heights, and would cease if Israel was willing to make a deal.

But Israel does not appear willing to give back the Golan Heights, and the United States does not seem willing to force it to do so.

Because Assad does not accept this, he is regarded as insufficiently subservient. The US would prefer a regime in Damascus that confines itself to verbal complaints about the Golan occupation, rather than arming Israel's enemies.

The uprising against Assad confronts US imperialism with both a danger and an opportunity. The danger is that a consistently anti-imperialist government might come to power. The opportunity is that a more subservient government might come to power. The US wants to ensure the latter outcome.

As in Libya, military intervention may be part of the US strategy. We need to start campaigning against this possibility now.

Chris Slee

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