The suffering people of Syria stand on the brink of a precipice. Each day brings new evidence that a sectarian conflagration of terrible proportions can ensue, unless a force emerges which could hold out a realistic prospect of uniting its 22 million people through offering a new dispensation. This would be one where the wealth and stewardship of the nation would be democratically invested in them rather than be the subject of warring factions led by local elites and sponsored by cynical international interests.
Things have moved very far and deteriorated very much since the promising days of March 2011 when a popular movement sprang into existence in Syria against the dictatorship of Bashar El Assad demanding an end to dictatorial rule and the vicious repression with which he has ruled for the past eleven years, following the thirty year tenure of his father who put the machinery of oppression, torture and fear in place. Drawing inspiration from the uprisings of the Arab Spring begun by the heroic mobilisations of the people of Tunisia followed by the Egyptians, the protestors would have hoped that their mass rallies would have achieved reforms including human and democratic rights without the nightmare that is now being visited on them.
The privileged elites in whose interests Assad has ruled which include the top strata in the army had a different outlook however. Their wealth and power derived from the dominance they exercised through control of key areas of the economy and society and they were not about to walk away in the interests of justice for their fellow Syrians. As result 20,000 have been killed, thousands of whom were slaughtered by the criminal bombardment of civilian areas by military aircraft and heavy weaponry deployed by the regime. There have also been atrocities by some opposition forces.
Syria is a complex patchwork of interweaving populations, 74% Sunni Muslims, 12% Shia Muslims mainly Alawites and 10% Christian. The Assad regime cynically used sectarian divisions to manipulate and balance between the various populations and promoted the minority Alawites to most controlling positions in their governments. Inevitably, in the context of a long drawn out struggle, these divisions can become festering wounds.
A poisonous cocktail of interests is now at play in the civil war in Syria. Western imperial powers which have widely interfered in the Middle East over an historic period –Britain, France and the United States – have been busy giving aid in different guises to the Free Syrian Army in the hope of toppling the Assad regime and getting a more pliable government. Naturally they proclaim their main interest is democracy for the Syrian people.
The hollowness of this claim is underlined by Saudi Arabia and Qatar being their agents in the region, two of the most oppressive and corrupt regimes in the Arab world. They have been arming and financing some of the opposition factions. Turkey also is an ally while its government represses its own substantial Kurdish population.
At the same time the government of Russia, Iran and China are backing the Assad regime. In a mirror image of the western governments’ involvement, these regimes are jockeying to have significant power bases in the region in order to guarantee their own selfish interests.
There is great fear of the future among the minority population in Syria. The involvement of the reactionary Sunni regime in Saudi Arabia and its support for Sunni opposition groups can help to keep the minority Alawites and Christians in the corner of the Assad regime, fearing being scapegoated. The danger is that these deep divisions can lead to a catastrophic sundering of Syria with the country breaking into warring enclaves as happened in the former Yugoslavia with all the suffering that brought for the ordinary people who made up the different ethnic groups. The awful civil war in neighbouring Lebanon in the 1970s and 80s which destroyed the capital Beirut, and resulted in that city’s name being used as a synonym for the most awful urban devastation, should also act as a warning.
It is not possible to will a solution into being in the massively complex crisis in Syria. Equally there are simple truths that if understood and applied could bring about a transformation. The people of Syria, particularly the workers, peasants and poor, cannot rely on cynical foreign powers any more than they should put their trust in the pro Assad elite or the pro capitalist, and largely Sunni, opposition Syrian National Council. A clear programme for democratic rights and religious freedom for all groups linked to public ownership and democratic control of the wealth in their country could unite the majority of the ethnic and religious groups and allow this highly cultured and historic country to begin a new phase unrecognisable from the suffering of the present and past.