L’Internationale, 1 December 2014
At an early stage of the Syrian revolution, which erupted in the context of the ‘Arab Spring,’ the billionaire Rami Makhlouf stated that ‘the government’s decision is to fight.’ Speaking without any official title except for being the cousin of Bashar Assad, Makhlouf added: ‘Each one of us knows we cannot continue without staying united together.’ Without clarifying in the name of which ‘we’ he was speaking, Makhlouf went on: ‘We will sit here. We call it a fight until the end.’ Makhlouf’s comments were published in the New York Times on 10 May 2011, after less than two months of peaceful protests. This was not only a declaration of the determination for war, but reveals also that this war was waged to keep the ‘unity’ of political and economic power.
Rami Makhlouf dominates major sectors of the Syrian economy through the companies that he owns, or presides over. In the years leading up to the revolution, the expression ‘Ramisation’ in relation to the Syrian economy became the name of the process of Rami’s control over it. Because partnership with him was forced upon other economic actors, a word pun became widely pronounced among Syrians- that all economic activity was either Makhlouf or mukhalif (Arabic word for unlawful) – to be ‘Makhlouf’ meant to be in-line with the regime.
The state, the dominant political-security-economic complex, began its war early. At dawn on 22 March, when a protest gathering was dispersed at an ancient mosque in the city of Dara’a, a number of local inhabitants were killed, and the time-honored mosque was destroyed. Not a day has passed without killing ever since.
For months, public protests remained peaceful. In dozens of sites around the country the people attempted to occupy public spaces for the longest possible duration, utilizing only their bodies and voices. The goal was to take back possession of the political and the public space: to gather, speak up openly, and to transform the mass of people to a political actor.
On 18 April 2011 at around midnight, at least two hundred people were savagely butchered in Homs. They were peaceful protesters trying to do a permanent sit–in in the clock tower square. In August of 2011, tanks occupied the two cities of Hama and Deir az-Zor, which had witnessed demonstrations by hundreds of thousands people in public squares. The politically marginalized also joined into the revolution: university students, young men and women seeking opportunities for life and work, and former political prisoners.
The people were forced to take up arms in self-defense, when their attempts to possess politics peacefully were faced with war. Finding that its monopoly on violence was broken up, the elite took this confrontation to the level of tanks, military helicopters firing exploding barrels over cities and country-sides, military aircraft, long-range Scud missiles, and chemical weapons.
Is this ‘Civil War’? Could be. Though it must be clarified that it is not a war of some of the population against others, but rather a ‘fight until the end’, waged by the elite, Makhlouf’ et al, against the general population. The ‘state’, public resources and the public army were instrumental in this war of Ramisation.
The population targeted by war lives in impoverished neighborhoods of big cities, in towns with crumbling social conditions and services, and in dilapidated rural areas. They suffer from the rampant embezzlement by state agents, security personnel, bureaucrats, and Baath party affiliates. Patron client relations, not citizenship, defined the relation between the state and the lucky segment of the population, while most of the Syrians lived impoverished (37% below the poverty line of two dollars per day in 2007), excluded from the system of clientelism, and compelled to pay bribes out of the little they have in the first place. The poor were more deeply impoverished by this power structure, and the holders of power were enriched.
This elite war is not new in Syria.
A generation ago, between 1979 and 1982, a wave of intense social and political struggle rose up, ending in the great massacre in Hama in February 1982, in which twenty to thirty thousand people were killed. Hama was only one of the cities in which protests erupted from various ideological backgrounds. Tens of thousands spent long years in prison. I was one of them for a period of sixteen years, during which time close to fifteen thousand prisoners were executed in Tadmur prison. At that time too, the regime and its ideological tools reduced the struggle to one between the regime and the Islamists. Untrue. It was a much wider struggle, involving university students, trade unions, and political parties. This struggle included a general strike in a number of cities, and many public statements with emancipatory and democratic demands were disseminated.
The aim of such an excess of repression was to discipline the public, to create a long-term memory of fear. For nearly 20 years after it, Syria was a ‘kingdom of silence,’ in the expression of Riyad al-Turk, the leftist struggler who spent about eighteen years in solitary confinement during the rule of Hafez (1980-1998). He was held captive for fifteen months under Bashar (2001-2002), and lives now in hiding in Damascus.
Actually, the forty-four years of the Assad state constituted a continuous cold war, waged by a military security complex against the general population. Through sectarianizationof the security apparatus and succession of power based on lineage, and the stripping away from the people of any kind of claim over their country (the official name of the country became: Syria of Assad), the state built by Hafez al-Assad in Syria became in essence a slavedom. This state has monopoly over ‘fitna’ (sectarian civil war), an expression that Bashar al-Assad used sixteen times in the first speech he gave on 30 March 2011, two weeks after the beginning of the revolution. This ‘state’ spreads ‘fitna’ when faced with popular protests, a method of deflecting the struggle of the population against the ruling elite away to a fight among confessional communities. I would call this the ‘neo-Sultanic State. It is built on personality cult, patrimonialism, sectarianism, fitna as an elitist technology for aborting political change, and the crushing of all independent social and political organizations and institutions. Thus throughout 44 years, the only political institutions experienced by the population were the infamous security agencies and prisons.
As for foreign policy, it was centered around the discourses of ‘Syria’s regional role’ as an agent of stabilization, and Hafez Assad being a responsible diplomatic ‘genius’. The relation between the domestic and foreign policies of the neo-Sultanic state was secured through the Emergency law in effect since 1963. This law, which was legitimized by the so called state of war with the ‘enemy’ at the border, namely Israel, was actually used to suppress the real enemy, the Syrian people.
The war state was not limited to inside Syria’s borders. The Syrian regime interfered in Lebanon from 1976 on, with a green light from the United States and Israel, and remained there with its checkpoints and ‘mukhabarat’ headquarters until 2005. It participated in the war against various Lebanese and Palestinian organizations, most notably against progressive Lebanese forces aligned with the Palestinian resistance. On record also are many assassinations of journalists and politicians both Lebanese and foreign (among whom are Michel Seurat, the author of the book ‘The State of Barbarism’ about the Assad state.) The result of this extensive interference has been the bringing to submission of the Lebanese political class, and the entrenchment of sectarian conflicts in Lebanon. The neo-Sultanic state treats those it ruled as its subjects and binds them to their sectarian identities. It suits this state that the world is divided up into sects and ethnicities, thereby legitimizing its own existence.
About two years after its inception, the war the Sultanic state waged against the people developed into a regional and international war in Syria. A new fascist and racist entity called the ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS) emerged; first through the conjoining of the globalized Al-Qaida organization with the Iraqi Baathist leftovers, with Syrian impoverished and despised Sunni communities. The Assad necktie fascists never confronted the Baghdadi bearded fascists before the latter slaughtered Americans. The message was that the neo-sultan is ready to join the Empire’s campaign against the neo-Caliph, while the slaughtering the Syrians was not an issue for the neo-sultan or for the neo-Caliph. Or for the Empire for that matter.
Throughout these forty-four months of war against the people, Iran was here, along with its Iraqi and Lebanese followers, as was Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, supporting and corrupting the Syrian fighting groups that emerged from the dejected elements of the public. Based on their level of being proxies to such foreign powers, many of these groups turned against the local communities and the emancipator values of the Revolution.
Russia was here too, supporting the murderous regime of thugs, increasing its weight at the international level, benefitting from the fact that Washington’s animosity toward the Syrian people was even greater than its distaste for the neo-Sultan. It seems that, under the command of Putin, this ‘prison of peoples’ (as Marx dubbed Russia in the nineteenth century) has nothing else to offer other than weapons, and further weakening of already dysfunctional international institutions, which is also in line with the United States’ policies.
In this sense, this war is not a “civil war”. It is a world war, even though it has not yet been honored with that title.
We face three wars and three warring parties in Syria now: (1) the war of the ‘neo-Sultan’, and Makhlouf et al, as the protagonists of the internal first world of Syria, supported by Iran and its satellites, against the subjects. This is a neglected war that no one wants to speak about. (2) The war of the ‘neo-Caliphate’ against intractable local societies – this ‘state’ is the mostly globalized one on the planet, characterized by a blend of settler colonialism, ethnic cleansing, and fascist methods of control. (3) The war waged by the ‘empire’ of the ‘first world’ and its regional satellites against the caliphate. It is not clear what the just issue of this last war is, in what political vision it is been carried out, or even what the military strategy orienting this war might be. But what lacks justice does not necessarily lack logic: The first world elite find in the internal first world of Syria- the necktie fascists- an ally in the war against the neo-Sultan’s bearded counterparts. Structures bind.
The revolution of the people was crushed at the hands of the neo-Sultanic state, before it was joined by the neo-caliph, and then came the empire to complete the triangle of the powerful.