After weeks of relentless bombardment Syrian troops have retaken the city of Homs including the neighbourhood of Baba Amr, an opposition stronghold.
Homs is considered the “capital of the revolution” and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad hopes this will be part of a “decisive month” that crushes the uprising. But demonstrations have continued to spread across the country.
There are now large protests in the working class areas of the major cities Aleppo and Damascus. Palestinians in refugee camps like Yarmouk in Damascus have also joined the revolt, with 15,000 attending a funeral to protest the killing of a Palestinian employed in the Syrian army who refused to repress a protest in the camp.
Syria sits in a key strategic position within the Middle East, bordering Israel, Turkey and Iraq. It is also divided along ethnic and sectarian lines. The Assad regime has stacked the military and ruling class with fellow Alawites, a minority Shiite Islamic sect. Elite units like the Republican Guards and the 4th Mechanized Division are entirely Alawite and are being used extensively against the opposition.
The majority of the population is Sunni Muslim, while the country also contains Kurdish and Christian minorities.
Assad is getting backing from Russia, China and Iran who all see supporting Syria as a way to increase their own power in the region.
The humanitarian crisis associated with the siege of Homs has increased the calls for military intervention by the Western powers. But Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, while calling for Assad to step down, has ruled out the US arming the opposition. The US would rather negotiate a post-Assad deal than see more instability and the risk of losing its influence as it has in Iraq and Egypt.
Sections of the Syrian opposition are calling for a Libyan-style intervention while US Republican Senator John McCain has argued to, “start considering all options, including arming the opposition”.
But Western intervention won’t deliver human rights. Arming the opposition would have the potential to transform a struggle between the people and their regime into a proxy war for regional influence, with different outside powers backing different factions inside Syria. The big powers would not hesitate in promoting sectarian strife if they felt it necessary to further their interests.
Western intervention in Iraq resulted in a brutal sectarian war which lead to millions being displaced.
Assad accuses the opposition of being Islamic extremists. By raising the spectre of a sectarian war Assad hopes to rally behind him Alawite, Christian and other minorities, which are about 26 per cent of the population and certainly not all privileged.
Many in the opposition recognise the danger of sectarian war. Alawites and Christians have spoken at opposition rallies and the chant, “the Syrian people are one” is popular.
The Free Syrian Army has assured Alawites there will be, “no reprisals, as we also have Alawites in our ranks who oppose the al-Assad regime”.
While opposing Western intervention, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of apologising for Assad. Some on the left accept the false dichotomy that if you’re not with Assad then you are with the West, leading them to downplay the revolution, describing it as “manufactured”.
But there is nothing “manufactured” about the hundreds of thousands that have continued to rally week after week for over a year, nor the substantial desertions. Soldiers are deserting because they don’t want to fire on their own people.
If the revolution was “manufactured”, why has Assad made concessions, releasing political prisoners and promising multi-party elections? These are signs of a regime under immense internal pressure trying to hold onto power.
It’s argued the fall of Assad—a backer of Hezbollah and Hamas—will weaken their legitimate struggles against imperialism.
But Hamas’ break with the regime and announcement of support for the opposition in late February, delivered by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh at the al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, should dispel this idea.
The Assad regime has also been happy to side with imperialism in the past. The regime turned its guns on Palestinians during the Lebanese civil war in 1976 and joined the US’s war against Iraq in 1991. If Assad could strike a deal with Israel over the disputed Golan Heights, his support for Hamas and Hezbollah would disappear overnight.
The Arab Spring is a much greater threat to imperialism than the corrupt Assad dictatorship. The left must back Syria’s year long uprising. A victory for the aspirations of the Syrian masses would be a blow to imperialism. During Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon the people of Syria opened their homes to those fleeing the violence.
We have to be both against Assad’s dictatorship and against the West hijacking the revolution.
In mid-February, one protester was killed when up to 30,000 demonstrators took to the streets of the Mezze district of Damscus. At the woman’s funeral mourners shouted, “We sacrifice our blood, our soul for you martyrs. One, one, one, the Syrian people are one.”
As with the whole of the Arab Spring, the hope for Syria is in the struggle from below.