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Vol. 75/No. 15      April 18, 2011

Antigovernment protests
challenge Syrian regime
Protests in Syria demanding freedom of speech and assembly and measures to alleviate the impact of the capitalist economic crisis on working people have been met by state violence and promises of limited concessions.

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad told parliament March 29 that the protests are part of a foreign “conspiracy” creating “chaos and destruction.”

In an interview earlier this year with the Wall Street Journal, 45-year-old Assad said that uprisings that began in Tunisia and spread across the region had little to do with Syria. “We are not Tunisians and we are not Egyptians,” Assad said. We are “very closely linked to the beliefs of the people,” he added, pointing to opposition to Israeli occupation of Syria’s Golan Heights.

Less than two months later, demonstrations swept the country. They were attacked by the regime’s security forces, who killed dozens. In an attempt to quiet protests, Assad announced March 29 he was replacing his entire cabinet. He later said he was ordering a study of eventually ending the state of emergency.

Like other regimes in the region, the Syrian government is based on a narrow layer of capitalist families, in this case mostly from the Alawite Muslim minority, a branch of Shiite Islam. Three-quarters of the population are Sunni, only 11 percent Alawite, and 12 percent are Christians. Some 9 percent are Kurds. While some Assad family members are billionaires, a third of the population survives on $2 a day or less.

A British-trained eye doctor, Assad became president in July 2000 after the death of his father Hafez al-Assad, who had ruled the country with an iron fist since 1963. Emergency laws imposed at the time by the ruling Baath party are still in place today.

Bashar al-Assad began a short-lived relaxing of restrictions on rights known as the “Damascus Spring.” While he has released 700 political prisoners, at least 4,000 remain in prison, even before the recent arrests. Assad also kept in place his father’s tight control of the Alawite-dominated officer corps.

Assad’s bourgeois Baath party once flaunted the demagogic motto “Unity, liberty, and socialism” in the fight against imperialism and proclaims itself a “fortress of resistance” of the Palestinian people.

During the 1975-76 civil war in Lebanon, however, Syrian troops entered the country to prevent a revolutionary upsurge that threatened the regime there. These troops blocked Palestinian fighters from defending the Tel al-Zaatar Palestinian refugee camp, which was under siege by the Lebanese army and rightist militias. Hundreds of camp residents were slaughtered.

In 1985, less than three years after Phalangists backed by Tel Aviv massacred Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut, the Syrian-backed Amal militia attacked the same camps. Assad wanted to bring the Palestine Liberation Organization under his control, using it as a bargaining chip in his dealings with Washington.

In 1991 the regime of Assad senior joined Washington’s “coalition of the willing” in the war against Iraq. Since then, despite heated conflicts with the U.S. government over Syria’s role in Lebanon and relations with Iran, Damascus has sought to keep relations with the imperialist powers on an even keel. After Sept. 11, 2001, the regime handed over to U.S. forces people accused of al-Qaeda ties and closed down offices of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and other Palestinian and Islamist groups.

The latest protests in Syria began in mid-March, after 15 teenagers in the southern agricultural town of Dara’a were arrested for writing graffiti saying, “The people want the regime to fall.” The youths were later released, but protests spread.

According to al-Jazeera, actions took place across the country April 1, including in Dara’a, the mixed Sunni-Alawite city of Latakia, and in Damascus, the capital. The New York Times reports that at least five people were killed in Douma, a working-class neighborhood north of Damascus.

For the first time, protests took place in Qamishli and Amuda in the mostly Kurdish northeast. Some 300,000 Kurds have been denied citizenship since a census in 1962. The use of the Kurdish language is restricted, and most Kurds are not allowed to own land. Radif Mustafa, a Kurdish rights activist, told Agence France-Presse that people chanted, “We don’t only want citizenship but freedom as well.”

The Syrian Communist Party (Unified), long part of Assad’s National Progressive Front, took its distance from the protests, while calling for “reforms.” Anything “that inflames feelings and situations should be avoided,” the Stalinist party said. “National unity must be ensured.”

In December President Barack Obama appointed the first U.S. ambassador to Syria since February 2005. At a March 27 press conference, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton contrasted Assad favorably to Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi. “There’s a difference between calling out aircraft and indiscriminately strafing and bombing your own cities,” she said, “and police actions that frankly have exceeded the use of force that any of us would want to see.”

Nor is the Israeli government cheering for the anti-Assad protests. While Tel Aviv and Damascus have often clashed, Israeli “officials note that Syria has been careful for decades to avoid direct violence” along the border with Israel, reported Associated Press.
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