Syria: Why is Assad Advancing?

In the Presidential elections held at the beginning of June, Assad was declared the winner with 88.7% of the vote. That is not surprising considering the nature of the regime. However, in spite of the fact that these were in no way “free” elections, and that many people could not vote as they were in refugee camps beyond the borders of the country, what emerged was that a significant section of the population is backing Assad. Why is this?

In 2012 the constitution was amended to allow – for the first time in forty years – a multi-candidate presidential election. This was clearly an attempt to present a picture of a reforming regime, moving towards some degree of parliamentary democracy. We must not forget that this was only due to the fact that in 2011 a revolution had broken out in the country, as part of the wider wave of revolution sweeping across the Arab world. So, while Assad bombed large parts of his people, pushing many to abandon their homes, he pretended that he was making “democratic reforms”.

The hollowness of these “democratic elections” is shown in the fact that the other two candidates were complete unknowns and had no chance of winning. This regime was not going to allow elections that could in anyway undermine the position of Assad.

All this is true. However, what was more important was what one could see with the naked eye - that there was mass participation in the election. This was confirmed by surprised western journalists reporting on the event from swelled polling stations in Syria. The advanced polls abroad were perhaps most indicative of the level of participation. In Lebanon, approximately a hundred thousand descended on the Syrian embassy in Beirut to vote. The scene was truly surprising for regime supporters and opponents alike.

What Assad wanted from the election was to get official public endorsement to continue his political and military campaign against his opponents, and it is safe to say that Assad got what he wanted, and perhaps more than he expected. This represents yet another turn in the whole situation, albeit one that has been coming for a while now.

The Balance of Forces

The balance of forces in the Syrian conflict has changed radically in favour of the Assad regime in the last year or so. The forces of the regime have regained control of the whole mountainous region bordering Lebanon, completely besieged the rebels in the areas surrounding Damascus, recently forced the rebels to surrender Homs and are working to achieved the same in Aleppo. The morale amongst the rebel forces is at an all-time low.

This is not simply due to support from Russia and Iran, or because of the presence of Shi'a militias like Hezbollah fighting alongside the regime forces. Although these are important factors, they do not explain the situation. In wars and revolutions, military considerations are subordinated to political ones, and not the other way around.

If his opponents had the support of the people in the main cities of Syria, Assad would be in a very fragile position. Instead, he has been able to turn the situation around and regain significant areas that had previously been held by the rebel fighters. How has this been possible, when just three years ago a wave of revolution swept across the country, putting at risk the very survival of the regime?

The truth is that the Syrian revolution won the support of a significant layer of the masses for a period. The revolution, both in the form of peaceful demonstrations and when it started to arm itself in reaction to the bloody repression meted out by the regime, was gaining support and popularity while Assad was rapidly losing legitimacy. The revolution was able to do that because it drew to itself the best of the youth, those who genuinely wanted to fight for a better world and a better country.

However, soon the situation started to unravel. There is no denial that the revolution faced a very challenging internal objective situation. It was mainly a youth movement faced with heavy repression, and it was unable to mobilise sufficient social forces to overthrow the Assad regime. There were several reasons for this. One of them was that the regime still had some social reserves, based on the reforms achieved in the past.

A key element was when the forces opposed to Assad turned to the armed struggle. Moving the weight of the struggle towards a purely armed confrontation - a field where the movement would naturally be weaker than the regime and its standing army - the ground was prepared for reactionary forces to gain a foothold within the movement itself. Some sections of the movement sought help from imperialism, and others came under the influence of extremist Jihadist elements which appeared on the scene with plenty of money and arms from their backers in the Gulf states.

Once they have been accepted, and even at times invited into the movement by the activists, the reactionaries quickly used this advantage of having funds and weapons, to gradually push aside, isolate or even kill the revolutionary elements. In essence, they emptied the movement from the inside. It ceased to be a revolution and turned into its opposite.

This was the decisive turning point in the whole situation, not the entry of Hezbollah as some claim. As a matter of fact, what made the entry of Hezbollah possible and justifiable to the base of the regime was precisely that the movement had so obviously became a tool of imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism!

The young people who had been protesting on the streets, shouting “we are all Syrians”, got an echo and some sympathy among the wider population. However, as soon as the face of the “revolution” was no longer that of youth protesting on the streets, but armed fighting groups who either made appeals to NATO to bomb the country, or to fanatical Jihadists calling for a Sharia-based caliphate, large parts of the urban population began to seek refuge under the protective umbrella of the Assad regime. Revolution turned into counter-revolution, and a civil war began that took on a very different aspect, including elements of ethnic cleansing.

Thus the two sides in the civil war were both reactionary. One of them, however, had within its camp some of the most fanatical Jihadist groups in the region. This was seen as a threat by many of the urban dwellers. And the moment the revolution started losing support, and began to turn into counter-revolution, the regime started regaining its feet. From recovering a significant part of its social base, the regime passed onto the offensive.

The situation among the rebel forces continued to degenerate further, with the most extreme form of Islamic fundamentalism appearing among the opponents of Assad. There was also the division in the opposition camp between the more openly pro-imperialist forces, such as the so-called Free Syrian Army and the Jihadist groups, and even in-fighting between the different Islamist militias. Thus, nothing remained of the March 2011 revolution.

Assad was therefore able to present himself as the defender of a “civilised Syria”. He could point the finger at the Islamists, and use them as a scarecrow to frighten much of the population. It has reached a point where Assad can now claim to stand for a modern Syria against the threat of barbarism! This is the real meaning and explanation of the presidential election!

What can we expect to come?

The opponents of Assad are in a complete shambles. The political opposition abroad is riven with divisions and has no control over what goes on on the ground. The FSA is on the verge of collapsing. The three main rebel organisations on the ground today are the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic Front. The ISIS and Al-Nusra, both offshoots of Al-Qaeda, have been involved in a bloody war against each other to gain control of the vast regions of eastern Syria and their oil fields, with ISIS presently having gained the upper hand in the wake of the declaration of its state. Once brothers in Jihad, they now use all kinds of methods of war against each other, including suicide bombings and beheadings.

The Islamic Front, an umbrella group of many tens of thousands of fighters under the auspices of Saudi Arabia, was formed as a moderate alternative to lead the fight against the regime and marginalise the Al-Qaeda groups. However, it has not been much of a success story. On the one hand, the groups making up the front are not homogeneous, each having their own agenda, and conflicts among them often comes to the surface, undermining their joint efforts. On the other hand, different components of the Front are often in alliance or joint operation with the Al-Nusra front against regime forces or ISIS.

The weakness of American imperialism has been a very important factor in the whole situation. The Americans, and with them the French and British, have been backing the forces fighting Assad and at one time were preparing to bomb Syria. They had to back off in the face of Russian opposition, but also because they felt they could not trust the forces fighting Assad, as these were in many cases the same forces they had fought against in places like Afghanistan. Events now in Iraq have added to the concerns of the imperialists. Instead of weakening the Islamic fundamentalist fighting groups, these have emerged strengthened and have totally destabilised Iraq.

The western imperialists, in particular the Americans, have been humiliated by the way things have developed in both Syria and Iraq. The very people they were backing have now turned out to be an even bigger problem than the Assad regime itself.

Obama, Cameron and Hollande would like to provide anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry to the “moderate”, “trustworthy” rebels, but the problem is that they are having to search very hard for them but are unable to find any! Reports have come out of the ISIS forces in Iraq using US-made arms obtained in Syria!

The US and European governments now understand the dangers of pressing ahead with arming the rebels. What Western governments are hoping for is to separate moderates from the extremists and then carry out their arming programme. How this is to be achieved is, however, anyone’s guess. Hollande has posed the condition that the Al-Nusra front must be driven out before any advanced weaponry is given to rebel groups. In this he is supported by Arab regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, as well as Israel, all of which are starting to have serious anxieties over the dangers the Jihadist groups can pose to their national security and stability of their own regimes. The events in Iraq confirm this, where the country is in the process of breaking up.

The rebel forces in Syria are constantly being weakened by their renewed in-fighting. New conflicts are already brewing in southern Syria, in the Damascus countryside, and in the countryside of Idleb and Aleppo in the North. It is true that these conflicts often involve ISIS, but not always. Now it seems that the Nusra front, weakened and humiliated by its rival ISIS, is moving to subdue smaller militias and declare its own Emirate in the areas under its control.  This situation is only giving further advantage to the regime’s forces.

The Future of Syria

It is clear that thanks to this situation, Assad has consolidated his position and has been advancing politically and militarily for some time now. The rebels have not been able to score any significant victory for months. The advances of Assad have been slow, but if things continue the way they have been for a while now, he will drive out the rebels from those parts of the country that are vital to him, and leave less important parts to the rebels.

Furthermore, the regime has been working on regenerating itself at local levels. Many elements that went over to the rebels for pragmatic reasons – that is, when they thought the Assad regime was sinking – are jumping ship again and coming back to the side of the regime. This is evident from hundreds of rebels who have surrendered their arms in the last period, some of them being incorporated into the state as security forces in their local areas.

In this process, certain local "personalities" and "figures" are playing an intermediate role, helping stabilise the situation and creating a forerunner for a new state bureaucracy. The presidential election itself proved that there is war weariness and a mass desire to end the fighting and return to what used to be normality. The regime has been taking advantage of this mood of despair to its own advantage.

The situation now is hinging on how long the war will continue as it cuts across any potential political developments. The regime is already talking about reconstruction plans with different sources hinting at certain Syrian businessmen and Russian companies lined up for contracts. This would not be totally surprising. Having invested large amounts of money in the survival of the regime during the war, it makes sense for regime backers to invest to make sure the regime survives after the war.

Iran also plays a role in this equation. It is de facto collaborating with the US in trying to curb the advance of ISIS and the other fighting groups in Iraq. Iran is also an ally of Assad and they are fighting the same enemies. This explains why the US and the Europeans have lost much of their initial appetite for an all-out war to overthrow Assad. He is fighting the same people they are fighting!

That layer of the population that has been supporting Assad, and that voted in the elections, is not homogeneous, and it would be wrong to imagine that they are one monolithic block. Most did not vote for Assad per se, but for what they see as a matter of survival, stability and preservation of the Syrian state. In fact, the other side of the coin is that there is incredible pent-up anger among regime supporters over the corruption of the Syrian state and the privileges of the ruling circles.

As an example, following the declaration of Assad's victory in the elections, there was an orgy of celebratory gunfire resulting in a few civilian victims hit by stray bullets. This provoked a wave of bitter indignation among regime supporters as they contrasted how soldiers are dying at the front lines, often because their corrupt officers failed to secure them enough ammunition, and how the same sons of officers are ravaging the streets firing their guns irresponsibly.

The soldiers that are fighting in the army and dying at the front lines know very well that their high ranking generals are extremely corrupt. There is not a single Alawite family in the countryside that has not lost a son, a brother or a husband in the war. Eventually, these soldiers are going to go back home from the front line and they will have certain demands and expectations. Similarly, there are the workers who stayed loyal to the regime and kept their heads down while prices doubled and tripled and living conditions deteriorated.

If reconstruction plans go ahead, then a new layer of the working class will be created, largely out of the ruined rural and urban middle classes. In fact, there is already a boom in the coastal areas such as Latakia as many industrialists and merchants who fled Aleppo and Homs have set-up their businesses there.  However, the Syrian state does not have the resources for rebuilding. Any reconstruction will have to come from the private sector and with it will come a heavy foreign debt and terrible working conditions.

Although it seems that the regime has secured its survival, at least for the coming period, it is also clear that in the long term it will not be able to rule as it did in the past. The stability of the past was based on the relative improvement in the lives of the Syrian masses, which was again based on the planned economy of the 1970’s and 1980’s. At some stage in the future, the contradictions outlined above will form the basis of the sharpening of the class struggle.

Syria and the Arab Revolution

The fact that the initial revolutionary wave in Syria in 2011 failed to achieve what the masses in Tunisia and Egypt had achieved – i.e. the overthrow of the regime – and then very quickly turned into a war between two reactionary fronts, means that the revolution in Syria has been pushed very far back. This means it will take some time for the masses to recover and return to a position where they feel strong enough to challenger the regime. The Syrian masses are not going to take to the streets again in mass protest any time soon.

The 2011 revolutionary movement and the widespread support it had have forced the regime to open up at least a semblance of legal and semi-legal channels as it felt it could no longer rule in the same old ways. This could become a channel for future struggles for economic and political reforms once the working class recovers. However, at the moment, since the regime has been strengthened, it will use this regained strength to tighten its grip around the areas that it controls and punish dissent.It is because of this internal situation, that a very important factor will be the revolutionary developments in other countries of the region, especially Egypt, Iran and Turkey. Major political upheavals, especially if they take place in countries involved in the Syrian war, will have an effect on the situation in Syria and can change the balance of forces.

The masses in Syria have been awakened to political life in the bloodiest of ways. What has been happening Syria is truly a tragedy on a grand scale. However, it is also true that Syrians have deep rooted traditions in progressive, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist and socialist politics. Traditions that are currently barely surviving under thick layers of debris and ashes and rivers of blood, will one day be rediscovered as national, regional and international factors mature.

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