Shattered Lands: A Short History of the Syrian Conflict

When the Arab Spring came to the Middle East ten years ago, most on the left welcomed the protests, except in Libya and Syria largely out of geopolitical concerns. If the world was made up of opposing camps, you had to support Washington’s enemies even if their secret police were torturers and their governments little more than family dynasties. Libya was far more up-front about being the wholly-owned property of the Gaddafi clan but didn’t Syria have elections? Most notably, you can find references to Bashar al-Assad being re-elected to President in 2014 with close to 90 percent of the vote, a seeming anomaly given the depth of the civil war.

It turns out that he did even better in 2007, when he got 97.29 of the vote, a total redolent of Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman’s studies of demonstration elections. But you had to avoid making such a charge since you didn’t want Assad to be mistaken with José Napoleón Duarte’s victory in El Salvador in 1984. He got 54 percent of the vote but—who knows—maybe Assad deserved such overwhelming support. Yes, it’s true that it wasn’t exactly an election but a referendum on whether he should take over for his father after Hafez’s death that year. With word of posters being plastered on Damascus’s walls and songs blaring from cars and loudspeakers “We love you”, who could deny his popularity? Of course, anybody caught writing graffiti on the walls denouncing such a rigged election might end up hanging upside down in a police station and beaten for hours. That would the norm in 2011, when Syrians lost their fear.

Between 2007 and 2011, not much attention was paid to Syria. For many, the charms of the country were irresistible. Visits to Damascus and Aleppo were a perfect alternative to the usual resort spots. What could be more fun than strolling through the bazaars in search of cheap rugs? Even after the country had been torn apart by civil war, you could always count on Vanessa Beeley and Max Blumenthal to report back on the glories of the nightlife and their favorite hotels.

It was left to the intrepid anti-imperialists to keep a close eye on Syria since it bordered Iraq, a country that was the victim of regime change. What was to prevent the USA from making war on Syria alongside its allies like Saudi Arabia that feared and hated Syria’s ties to Iran? Proof of the danger materialized in a secret document titled “INFLUENCING THE SARG (Syrian Arab Republic Government) IN THE END OF 2006” that Wikileaks got its hands on. After all, it stated, “Actions that cause Bashar to lose balance and increase his insecurity are in our interest because his inexperience and his regime’s extremely small decision-making circle make him prone to diplomatic stumbles that can weaken him domestically and regionally.”

Despite these words, the period beginning with Assad’s assumption of power were seen as one of rapprochement rather than confrontation with the West and its allies. If you were going to believe Wikileaks in 2006, why not believe it in 2009 when the shifting sands of Middle East deal-making had produced new outcomes. A Saudi cable titled “SAUDI-SYRIAN RAPPROCHEMENT BACK ON TRACK?” concluded:

Asad’s visit to the Kingdom is the latest in a series of steps towards a fuller Saudi-Syrian rapprochement. Whether the meeting will lead to the King visiting Damascus– and whether this visit will become before, or after Lebanese government formation– is still unclear. Saudi Ambassador Abdullah Al-Eifan’s arrival in Damascus on August 25 was confirmation that the Saudi-Syrian relationship was ready to enter a new phase.

It’s true that Lebanon was still a sticking point but it was possible that capitalist trade might speed reconciliation. Italian media (ANSAmed, October 28, 2009) reported that the Saudis had agreed upon a loan of 1 billion dollars to Damascus for “development projects” reached during “the historic summit” held in the Syrian capital between President Bashar al Assad and the Saudi sovereign Abdullah. The meeting marked the recovery of “cordial relations” after four years of tension between Iran’s ally Syria and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, supported by the USA. Next spring, the two nations would hold a “Syria-Saudi Arabia economic forum” in Damascus in line with the increase of Saudi investments in Syria increased by 25% between 2007 and 2008. Trade between the two countries stood at about 2 billion dollars in 2009.

Keeping in mind that the Saudis always had more to fear from an armed peasantry in Syria than a non-Sunni ruling party, things returned to normal between the two countries once again fairly recently. On March 11 this month, the Saudis declared their intention to work with Russia to bring peace to Syria because unrest there would nurture extremism among the region’s youth. Odd, I’ve always heard that Saudi Arabia intervened in Syria just to nurture extremism, the Wahhabi devils. Had the Saudi princes studied Kissinger? They apparently understand that they have no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.

They were not alone. At Hafez al-Assad’s funeral in 2000, the imperialists came to pay their respects, including Jacques Chirac and Madeleine Albright. Albright, with her nose for dictators and ready to play ball, gave Bashar thumbs up at a press conference. “It seems to me he is poised and someone who is ready to assume his duties. I was very encouraged by his desire to follow in his father’s footsteps.” Sarkozy joined the club, making a state visit to Damascus in 2008.

Nothing much changed under Obama since Bashar al-Assad was smart enough to exploit divisions in the American political establishment. In 2007, he welcomed Nancy Pelosi to Syria to see if there were grounds for a new approach in Mideast politics, especially after the odious George W. Bush presidency had ended. Next year, after Obama became president, Bashar told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius that he was ready to work with the new president as long as “regime change” was abandoned. The Syrian dictator sensed the new mood in Washington. In January 2009, Obama appointed George Mitchell as Mideast envoy. Part of his mission was to reengage with Syria.

Obama’s next step was to dispatch John Kerry to Syria, where he assured al-Assad that the new administration was going to be different. The USA was now ready to talk “respectfully and frankly with the parties in the Middle East.” At an elaborate dinner at al-Assad’s mansion, Kerry met Manaf Tlass, who was the dictator’s top enforcer. Kerry gushed, “I am happy that someone like you is at the president’s side.”

Perhaps a decline in the interest of Marxism explains the reliance on secret cables by much of the left rather than class analysis. If all that counts is where Saudi Arabia stands at a given moment, who needs to read Leon Trotsky, especially if you are still one of those people who admire Joseph Stalin. If Vladimir Putin was a fan of both Joseph Stalin and Bashar al-Assad, why quibble?

What could be a bigger waste of time than examining class relations in Syria when the USA is supplying the rebels with small arms? That’s the litmus test for people who like things simple. Yes, they were ordered to fight ISIS but it would be far better for Syria if they were disarmed. After all, a disgruntled FSA fighter might have decided to fire a machine gun at a Russian MIG-29 bombing a hospital. Couldn’t that lead to regime change?

And why would the West lose sleep over Assad’s economic policies? They were no different than any other dictatorship in the region. Dispensing with his father’s statist policies that were sufficient to put enough bread on the table to allow the masses to put up with torturing cops, Assad began to put big capital first as a way of “modernizing” the nation. In an important article for the March 2012, MERIP, Bassam Haddad noted:

After Bashar al-Asad succeeded his father in 2000, the architects of Syria’s economic policy sought to reverse the downturn by liberalizing the economy further, for instance by reducing state subsidies. Private banks were permitted for the first time in nearly 40 years and a stock market was on the drawing board. After 2005, the state-business bonds were strengthened by the announcement of the Social Market Economy, a mixture of state and market approaches that ultimately privileged the market, but a market without robust institutions or accountability. Again, the regime had consolidated its alliance with big business at the expense of smaller businesses as well as the Syrian majority who depended on the state for services, subsidies and welfare. It had perpetuated cronyism, but dressed it in new garb.

The economic consequences were disastrous for the country’s farmers.

Constituting 40 percent of Syrian territory, the Jazira province produced 70 percent of Syrian wheat, an obvious necessity for that bread on the table. In the 1950s, it enjoyed something of a boom as Aleppo merchants invested in the cotton industry. Just as is the case with cotton farming everywhere, irrigation without draining the land and monoculture led to the impoverishment of the soil.

The drought that began in 2007 only increased the already existing misery. Up to 75 percent of the farmers in Jazira suffered total crop failure of the sort that John Steinbeck depicted in Grapes of Wrath. Since wheat production relied on underground wells, a shortage of rain led to an increase in the price of a well. In Raqqa, the cost of a new well in 2001 was 16,000 euros—well beyond the capability of a small farmer to afford.

Herdsmen were also impacted. With insufficient water for cattle and goats, livestock had to be sold at 60 percent below cost. As fodder prices rose by 75 percent in January 2008, the flocks were decimated by half.

Not only were agricultural supports removed by the dictatorship, fuel was also no longer subsidized. The price for a gallon of gasoline rose by 350 percent. This meant that motor pumps, so essential to drawing water from underground wells, became difficult to afford. All in all, the economic institutions that had been created by Hafez Al-Assad and abolished by his son came together in a perfect storm with the advent of a crippling drought.

The conditions of life in the Jazira could not be more distinct from that enjoyed by Damascus yuppies—both Alawite and Sunni—that were benefiting from a neoliberal boom. In 2009, 42 percent of people in Raqqa developed anemia because of a shortage of dairy products, vegetables, and fruit. Malnutrition among pregnant women and children under five doubled between 2007 and 2009. Furthering their misery, farmers in drought-stricken northern Syria used polluted river water to irrigate their crops, causing outbreaks of food poisoning.

When the ruined farming class migrated to the cities, they tended to end up in the suburbs of Aleppo or Damascus where they struggled to find employment or entered the informal economy—in other words, peddling fruit on the street. Or perhaps they would seek refuge in a city like Homs that was in the agricultural heartland and hardly a city to be profiled in Vogue magazine.

It was in Homs that Assad’s economic restructuring had its greatest and most damaging impact. As the largest capital of a drought-affected province, it became a major destination from both the west and from the Jazira to the east. Between 2008 and July 2009, 3,037 households relied on food assistance. Researchers discovered that six percent more residents of Homs were unable to cover basic food expenses than the average Syrian rate.

The people of Homs were the first to use small arms to drive Assad’s butchers out and to enjoy relative freedom until tanks, helicopters and MIG’s unleashed a merciless attack that left the rebel-controlled neighborhoods looking like Stalingrad in 1943. All this is documented in the 2013 Syrian-German documentary film “The Return to Homs” written and directed by Talal Derki. The film can be rented on Vimeo. Anybody watching it back then might have anticipated the suppression of the Syrian revolt given the asymmetrical character of the warfare.

Given the analysis of the Assadist left, one wonders how anybody could have possibly expected Syria to go the way of Iraq, especially since the country was not particularly endowed with oil and gas. Despite the ceaseless warnings about “regime change”, Obama was content to see the rebels crushed underfoot. The bulk of the billions spent in Syria were not allocated to weapons that could have deterred Assad’s air force. They were used against ISIS. FSA fighters were warned not to confront Assad’s military or else they would lose their funding. For Obama, this was realpolitik since there was no competition between a massive professional military and the largely untrained FSA. In 2014, he pretty much wrote them off in a statement: “Oftentimes, the challenge is if you have former farmers or teachers or pharmacists who now are taking up opposition against a battle-hardened regime, with support from external actors that have a lot at stake, how quickly can you get them trained; how effective are you able to mobilize them.”

I don’t know. If you give a pharmacist a MANPAD (Man-portable air-defense system), he could do quite a bit of damage. Given the supposed animosity of Sunni-ruled states in the region to Assad, you’d think that they’d be happy to put them into the hands of a pharmacist. As it happens, there were class affinities between Assad and his ostensible enemies in the region that transcended the battlefield line-up. Like Obama, there was little interest in plebian militias forming a revolutionary government committed to reversing the disaster that had afflicted the rural and urban poor. Class equality can be catching, after all. The Wall Street Journal reported on October 17, 2012:

U.S. officials say they are most worried about Russian-designed Manpads provided to Libya making their way to Syria. The U.S. intensified efforts to track and collect man-portable missiles after the 2011 fall of the country’s longtime strongman leader, Moammar Gadhafi.

To keep control of the flow of weapons to the Syrian rebels, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar formed a joint operations room early this year in a covert project U.S. officials watched from afar.

The U.S. has limited its support of the rebels to communications equipment, logistics and intelligence. But U.S. officials have coordinated with the trio of countries sending arms and munitions to the rebels. The Pentagon and CIA ramped up their presence on Turkey’s southern border as the weapons began to flow to the rebels in two to three shipments every week.

In July, the U.S. effectively halted the delivery of at least 18 Manpads sourced from Libya, even as the rebels pleaded for more effective antiaircraft missiles to counter regime airstrikes in Aleppo, people familiar with that delivery said.

Even with Assad’s total control of the skies, his military found it more and more difficult to suppress the lightly-armed militias that lacked a central command, let alone political agreement on the future of the country. In 2015, Russia began flying bombing missions in Syria to compensate for a military that was bleeding defectors and suffering poor morale. Sunni draftees could no longer be trusted and even Alawites were wondering how it would all end.

To make sure that the rebel threat would disappear for good, Assad began to use chemical attacks. While sarin attacks have generated the most press attention, it was chlorine gas dropped from helicopters that did the most to drive Syrians away from rebel-controlled territory and into refugee camps. If you’ve paid any attention to one of Assad’s few remaining fan clubs in the West, Max Blumenthal’s Grayzone, you couldn’t miss the fervor its reporters have shown in absolving Assad for the death of more than 40 people on the steps and landings of a Douma apartment building nearly three years ago. It turns out that there have been 336 chemical attacks in Syria since the war began, with 98 percent of them attributed to Assad. Most have been chlorine rather than sarin since it tends to generate less outrage. For those exposed to chlorine, especially in repeated attacks such as took place in Douma, the consequences are not death but extreme pain and after-effects. This is enough to drive them into Idlib, where refugees have not only fled chlorine gas but barrel bombs, starvation sieges, artillery and other punishment.

Now triumphant, Assad evokes Tacitus’s observation that the Roman conquerors have made a desert and called it peace. Tacitus, of course, was referring to the damage done to his enemies but in a new twist on the Roman historian, Assad’s victory has been over his own supporters in the final analysis. A combination of American sanctions, Lebanese bank collapse and the failure of his Russian and Iranian benefactors to supply financial support have left cities under his control suffering nearly as badly as those he conquered. The UN News summed up the situation in Syria:

Citing “disturbing new food security data” published by the World Food Programme (WFP), Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock stated that some 60 per cent of the population “do not have regular access to enough safe and nutritious food”.

“The increase may be shocking, but it cannot be said to be surprising”, he said via video link.

The UN official told the Council that average household expenses now exceed income by an estimated 20 per cent, leaving millions to resort to “desperate measures” to survive.

More than 70 per cent of Syrians say they have taken on new debt, and are forced to sell assets and livestock. Meanwhile, parents are eating less so they can feed their children, who are now working instead of studying.

“Those who have run out of options are simply going hungry”, he spelled out, flagging that more than half a million under-fives are suffering from the effects of stunting.

Despite the terrible losses suffered by the opposition, those activists who were not killed by Assad have told The New Arab that they have no regrets:

Dani Qappani documented human rights abuses by the regime and was pursued by its security forces, while his brother was arrested. After the regime lost control of Moadamiyeh to rebels, it used chemical weapons on the city, killing hundreds of people and later overrunning the rebel stronghold

“My experience during the revolution was one of a dream fulfilled, a dream of freedom of thought and expression, a dream of liberation from servitude to individuals, to the Assad family, from all the chains restraining our minds, our eyes, and our mouths,” he told The New Arab.

“Personally, I have never regretted my participation in the revolution and I will not regret it. It’s an inevitable result of the oppression, repression, and criminality that Assad’s gang has practiced for decades,” he said.

What does the future hold in store for Syria? Can the Assad family dynasty continue? Will the country’s ruling class finally decide that less clientelism and state-sponsored violence will be necessary for it to gain a new footing, especially with a fresh face in the presidency that could mollify the West into ending the sanctions? Although it is apocryphal, Mao Zedong was once asked for his judgment on the French Revolution. He answered that it was too soon to say. One can be sure that the final verdict on the mafia-state running Syria under the family name brand Assad will come in a lot sooner.

Louis Proyect blogs at Louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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