There are some important changes taking place in the process going on in Syria since the end of July. One can easily observe a tangible escalation in bloodletting and violence; a worrying progress in the road to turn the differences among various ethnic, religious and sectarian communities into a means for sowing hostility; spreading of the effects of the process over the region; a general intensification of the initiatives of the imperialist and various regional powers. Taken in their entirety, these developments imply that we are passing through a new breaking point in the context of the process of revolt in Syria.
Unless an independent and powerful initiative of Syrian toilers develops we are faced with a great danger of devastation in Syria which will last many years even if the Baath regime is overthrown. The general picture gives the impression that the course of events arrived at the gates of a Lebanon-like bloody civil war and chaos that will last many years. This situation closely concerns the working class in Turkey and needs to be looked into carefully.
Degeneration of the revolt
The most evident aspect of the process in Syria in the last period is the stunning scenes of violence perpetrated by the rebel forces as they are now. Throat-cutting before the cameras, beheadings, throwing people from the roofs, executions regardless of women and children etc. are ever growing phenomena on the scene. And these are all accompanied by the facts that the Islamic influences are gaining strength in the revolt, paid Islamic warriors brought in from abroad are gaining the upper hand among rebel forces and that the mass movement, demonstrations etc. which were conspicuous at the beginning have retreated.
How the revolt in Syria started as part of the general revolt of Arab peoples came to this point needs to be grasped well.
One of the main reasons in this is that the rebellion in Syria broke out before the inner contradictions sufficiently matured. Under the influence of the revolt started in Tunisia, continued with Egypt and spread over to other Arab countries, the Syrian youth followed suit and took to the streets. But the discontent of Syrian people was not at the same level with the people in Tunisia or Egypt yet. Peculiar aspects of Syrian regime and that Bashar Assad created expectations for reform before the outbreak of revolt was effective in this. Thus the process of revolt that swept the region caught the Syrian toiling masses relatively unprepared in terms of mass psychology.
Yet the masses moved on in a relatively short period of time under the influence of the wave that swept the neighbour peoples and there were many mass demonstrations in various cities of the country. But the violent measures immediately exerted by the regime to suppress the movement were influential. The revolt started in March 2011 and reached a climax at the end of summer and after that point we have seen a general decline though with fluctuations. There was another peak in the beginning of 2012 in mass demonstrations but that did not last long either.
The relatively capable Syrian state apparatus surely played a role in this, but that there is substantial section of people that support the regime in fear of especially an Islamist rule was also influential. The factors such as foreign interference in the process of revolt and coming to the fore of Islamist elements have prevented these masses from breaking with the existing regime at present stage.
Alawites, Christians, Durizes, Armenians and also many moderate Sunni Muslims side with the regime for fear of an oppressive Islamist regime. That Islamists come increasingly to the fore among the rebel forces and that they use a religious rhetoric of hatred and slogans of hatred, also the violence they perpetrated made those sections of society more open to the scare propaganda of the regime. And the fact that the rebel forces are obviously in close contact with imperialists and that Syria is being savaged by imperialists also push many people towards the side the regime. Who can blame those people after they saw what has been experienced in Iraq?
In the first period of the revolt those slogans that stressed the unity and fraternity of Syrian people against the regime were on the forefront, but now it is the antagonizing slogans making enemies that tend to prevail. Those who put forward these slogans describe the struggle as “jihad against infidels”, and can aim at Alawism, for instance.
Thus the revolt that started with mass demonstrations with a democratic content gained a new course where military struggle quickly dominated as a result of both the heavy repression of the regime and the pressure of the Islamist forces and foreign powers. And this led, on the one hand, to the mass movement experiencing a serious retreat, and, on the other hand, passing to a passive position to watch the military conflict. This acted as a harmful factor on the democratic content of the revolt against the repressive and reactionary Baath regime. Moreover, we can say that the process in general has been experiencing some degeneration which has to be emphatically noted.
At this moment overthrow of the Baath regime may not mean a positive move forward from the standpoint of the broad Syrian toiling masses. As we noted above, the course of events has brought the country on the brink of an acute chaos and civil war which will make Syrian peoples suffer a lot. That we make this warning surely does not at all mean that the present Baath regime is the lesser evil or that it must be supported. Nor is it a call for sympathy for it. We know that there is such a mood on a rather wide section of the left, although it is not overtly stated. One should not fall into this trap. The correct attitude is to defend an independent line of struggle against both reactionary Baath regime and other reactionary bourgeois forces that may replace it. There can be no favour for the toiling masses from either the Baath regime or the bourgeois forces that have been fostered by imperialists and other reactionary powers of the region.
Western imperialists and Israel are concerned about the fact that the struggle against Baath regime in Syria shows symptoms of degeneration along radical Islamist lines and that the Baath regime proved stronger than expected. Clinton’s recent visit to Turkey should be considered mainly in this context.
The increasing influence of Islamist militants and that they are not fully under control, as it appears, is a source of problem for imperialists. Violent crimes perpetrated by these Islamist militants damage the image of “freedom fighter” and makes things harder for the Western imperialist alliance as a whole. Because this picture is hard to sell to the Western public opinion and will also create serious obstacles before possible attempts of direct intervention.
Apparently the Western imperialist alliance has been propelled into a new move to overcome this obstacle. The statements of Clinton in her visit to Turkey clearly show the goal to increase the control over local and scattered forces. There was also the message that they would set out to work to increase the possibilities of more direct intervention. “There has always been coordination between us [Turkey and the USA] since the beginning of the conflict. But now we have to go into the details of operational planning. Our intelligence services and armies have great responsibility and to accomplish that we started a study group” says Clinton. Together with the Turkish foreign minister they also stressed “accelerating Assad’s going” and “preparing for the post-Assad period”, at the same time mentioning that they would strengthen Syrian National Council and Free Syrian Army and that they would be given more direct help and provided with necessary equipment to increase the central capability to control.
These messages show that Western imperialist alliance considers from the standpoint of present balance of power within Syria that Assad’s ouster could take longer and that they are concerned of a possible chaos of Afghanistan or Lebanon type. Thus it is understood that they will set out to get more directly involved in the affairs of the rebel forces to avoid these possibilities. They will try to tighten the grip over the rebel forces, to tidy up those uncontrolled elements etc. Moreover it is sensed that they will step up their efforts to form a buffer zone to play a more direct role.
Turkey’s pain in the neck
Turkey plays a critical role in all this process. Portraying itself as the protector of the Syrian people Turkey plays on the hand the role of a merciful country embracing the refugees and on the other hand provides all round support for the armed rebel forces together with the USA, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This is a “secret” known by everyone. Existence of camps hosting armed elements besides the camps for refugees is revealed clearly by international press. One of the striking evidence of this fact was that recently some members of parliament from the CHP (Republican People’s Party) were not allowed to enter the Apaydin camp in Hatay in their attempt to visit it. There are some other indications such as that in the website of the Free Syrian Army Hatay-Turkey is presented as the main base and a phone number registered to Turkcell [a Turkish mobile operator] is the contact number.
The AKP government has embarked on a risky gamble about Syria and apparently it is anxious to play it through. Turkey has now become a sub-imperialist country and has ambitions to become a regional power as it is analysed in detail in the pages of Marksist Tutum (see Elif Çağlı, On Sub-imperialism: Regional Power Turkey). Turkey tried to achieve this goal through economic, commercial and diplomatic means and also utilizing its position in the Western camp (NATO and OECD membership, EU candidate membership etc.) until the start of the revolt of the Arab peoples which Turkey was caught quite unprepared. What happened was that they were busy developing close relationships and common interests with the existing regimes when the mass revolt erupted against these regimes. In Libya this situation was striking which led Turkish diplomacy to making scandalous zigzags. First it came against imperialist intervention but then made a complete turn to take part in the intervention when it became clear that Qaddafi’s overthrow was eminent in order to limit its damage and become part of the loot. But it was too late to compensate for the whole loss.
And when the wave of revolt reached Syria Turkish ruling class made the zigzag much more quickly this time because of both the danger of revolt spreading over to Turkey through Kurdish question by giving rise to a new dynamism for the Kurdish movement and also of its eagerness not to remain in the rear in the loot and revive the battered imperial ambitions. Almost overnight Erdoğan passed from being intimate friends with Assad to being hostile brothers. Thus Turkey plunged effectively into the conflict in Syria relatively early to get the most out of it. This fully aggressive policy pursued by the AKP government is certainly a gamble.
AKP has been put into trouble by the fact that Assad’s overthrow proved not to be as easy as it was thought in the beginning and that the Kurdish movement gained new positions in Syria. Another risk that appeared is that the hostile position it puts itself in relation to Syria, Iran and Russia may cause operations of these countries to destabilize Turkey. On the other hand AKP has not been yet able to create a sufficient level of justification for a military intervention against Syria, which is a positive factor in relation to the possibilities of mounting an anti-war movement. Indeed broad toiling masses are not convinced for a Syrian war. AKP is in trouble for that and this is one of the risky aspects of its expansionist policy which also causes AKP to aggravate its reckless rhetoric in the last period. Thus it resorts to an insidious sectarian discourse in face of criticisms it receives and labels critics with Baathism in a cheap manner.
Nowadays Turkey and the USA are in close collaboration to raise the issue of refugees on international level in order to lay the ground for a buffer zone. There is a special effort to raise the number of refugees above 100,000. This way they will use this as a psychological limit and then push for a buffer zone within Syrian territory on the pretext of “I cannot host this amount of people in my country”.
On the other hand the refugees who are settled in the provinces in the southern border of Turkey are becoming also an internal problem. Upon the blank check they received from the state, warriors among them began to bully the local people as if they are masters of those provinces strolling around with their arms. The government overlooks these acts as a result of its policy. And this results in an increased discontent and tension on the part of the local people. Hatay is especially in a critical state in this respect. And the government is now moving the refugees in Hatay to other towns, which is an admission of this situation.
So while the process in Syria does not look like promising for the Western imperialist camp which also includes Turkey, there are risks accumulating for Turkey and the AKP.
While it is clear that the Baath regime in Syria has little chance to survive in the long term, it is unclear what will happen in the short term. As mentioned above, the reactionary tendencies evolving in the rebel side helped broad Alawi, Christian and Druze communities and moderate Sunni Muslim sections to stay away from the ranks of the revolt and resulted in them finding themselves in a situation of rowing in the same boat with the Baath regime. Thus the conflict gradually tends to turn from being one between simply the state and the people to a conflict among various ethnic, religious and sects. Also the Kurdish movement, although they do not side with the Baath regime in the conflict, do not take part in the ranks of the rebel side. Moreover they consider the rebel forces a serious threat.
Even the Baath regime is overthrown this situation may lead to separation of various communities concentrated in different parts of the country, ethnic/religious/sectarian cleansing, massacres, pogroms, civil war, and different statelets being formed which will likely be warring with one another. Unless a powerful and independent revolutionary alternative based on the working people is formed this chaos scenario unfortunately appears to be a strong likelihood. There are more than 100 different groups waging armed struggle under FSA umbrella, acting largely autonomously and with very loose links among them. It is quite possible that a period of chaos will be opened, where these warring groups and radical Islamist militants will be riding up and down the country.
Therefore in the context of Syria there has to be a clear attitude against both the reactionary Baath regime and equally reactionary elements among the opposition groups, and an effort to create a structure that will satisfy the democratic and social aspirations of Syrian toilers has to be made. This structure must absolutely satisfy the righteous, legitimate, democratic demands of ethnic, religious, sectarian minorities living in Syria. This approach must also include the question of borders. It cannot be business of Marxists to sanctify the borders drawn a hundred years ago by the will of imperialists which in many cases do not fit into the real living bodies of peoples. From the standpoint of revolutionary struggle, borders can only be considered legitimate insofar as they are drawn by the democratic will of peoples. Therefore, for instance, should the Kurdish people in Syria demand self-determination and forming their own state, nobody has the right to object this on revolutionary grounds.
On the other hand, no matter how hard Turkey tries to secure “Syria’s territorial integrity” and “a stable transition”, it looks hardly possible that this will happen. As a matter of fact, Turkey helps creation of a “Syrian quagmire” by its aggressive and divisive policies and drags itself towards this quagmire. Should such a situation appear in Syria, it is quite likely that this will have repercussions in Turkey, such as increased sectarian tensions, bombs going off and an escalation in the unjust war against Kurdish people.
In this tense atmosphere it is exactly up to the working class in Turkey to try to mount the struggle against militarism and the imperialist war. Broad masses are not convinced for a Syrian war and this is a positive factor in terms of the possibilities for such a struggle. There was a substantial mobilisation against war in Turkey during the Iraq war and it is again possible and necessary to mount a similar struggle. In this context, an internationalist stance must be taken to fight for the unity of the working class and fraternity of peoples against the belligerent, expansionist, sectarianist, chauvinist, militarist foreign policy.