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Massacres expose Assad’s murderous repression

As sectarian militias roam the countryside seeking to drown the Syrian revolution in blood, Marcus Halaby argues that the only progressive solution is one based on class


After the massacres in Houla on 25 May and in Qubair on 6 June, anyone on the left who still opposes the Syrian revolution should be treated with the contempt that they deserve. Reportedly involving the deaths of 25 men, 34 women and 49 children, the Houla massacre clearly demonstrates the Ba’athist regime’s murderous determination to hold onto power, and its readiness to fan the flames of sectarian warfare.

The massacre began after the army shot at a post-Friday prayers protest at a checkpoint near Taldo village to the north of the town. The army then shelled the town centre after a retaliatory attack on the same checkpoint by armed rebels. Later that night, members of the Shabiha (“ghosts” or “thugs”) – the popular name for the shadowy unofficial pro-regime militias – entered the town, looting homes and shooting, clubbing and stabbing their occupants to death.

United Nations (UN) observers who went to Houla the following day could attribute only about 20 of the casualties to artillery shelling, suggesting a deliberate targeting of civilians. Worse still, reports from survivors indicate that the Shabiha, dressed both in military and civilian clothing, came to the mainly Sunni Muslim town from the nearby Alawite villages of Kabu and Felleh, and that they scrawled sectarian slogans on the faces of their victims.

The Houla massacre is by no means the largest to have taken place since the uprising broke out. Figures compiled by the UN, the Syrian Youth Movement, Syrian Shuhada (“martyrs”), and the Syrian Revolution Digest suggest that 15,234 people were killed in the 435 days up to and including this particular atrocity – an average of 35 per day. Hundreds were killed in the January and February 2012 siege of the Baba Amr district of Homs, Syria’s third largest city, during which President Bashar Assad’s regime used methods every bit as indiscriminate as those used in Israel’s devastation of Gaza in January 2009.

Worst hit have been Daraa, where the uprising began, and Homs, the “capital” of the revolution. Close behind them have been the rural region around Damascus – where the army’s inability to maintain control only a short drive from the capital puts the regime’s fragility on full display – and the Idlib and Hama regions, just inland from the Alawite coastal heartland around Tartous and Latakia, where the regime has preferred to outsource its repression to its unofficial thugs.

To the shooting of unarmed protesters, and the low-tech murder of civilians in their homes, Assad’s regime has added artillery bombardment and the launching of anti-aircraft missiles at apartment blocks. These cowardly methods make sense only if one takes into account the army’s low morale and the constant flow of defectors from it.

This is, however, the most visible massacre to take place since UN envoy Kofi Annan’s proposed peace plan, a key element of which was the brokering of a ceasefire between the army and the armed opposition.

Originally intended as a concession to Assad’s Russian and Chinese allies, who had vetoed any moves by the UN Security Council that might have opened the way to a Libya-style military intervention, the Annan plan’s most important achievement from the viewpoint of the regime is that it does not call for President Assad to step down. But far from facilitating “talks” to a peaceful transition, it seems to have emboldened the regime to continue its violence, behind the thinnest screen of plausible deniability, while blaming the opposition for any breaches of the ceasefire.

True to form, the Assad regime denied responsibility for the massacre, with Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, denying that any shelling had taken place, and claiming that opposition elements had staged the massacre to discredit the regime prior to planned talks with Annan. Assad himself feigned anger at the massacre, calling it an “ugly crime” in a speech to Syria’s rubber-stamp parliament, and blaming “foreign meddling” for Syria’s political divisions.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, perhaps not entirely buying the lies of his Syrian protégé, announced that the rebels shared the blame for the massacre, saying that “both sides evidently had a hand in the deaths of innocent people”, and calling on “every individual with a gun” to lay down their arms. Claiming that “ending the violence” was more important than who was in power, and saying that Russia “does not support the Syrian government” but rather “supports the plan of Kofi Annan”, he nevertheless used the existence of armed elements amongst the Syrian opposition to deflect blame from the regime.

This misses the point. The armed Syrian opposition consists in its majority of defectors who have refused orders to attack their own people, as well as civilians who have armed themselves in self-defence and the defence of their communities. To equate them with those soldiers and officers who continue to obey the criminal orders of their government is to blame the victim, however “tactically wise” it may have been for the armed opposition to engage the army, on this or any other occasion.

For their part, the Western powers are exploiting Assad’s repression to embarrass Russia and China and to demonise an old adversary, while at the same time seeking a deal with the Russians and the Chinese for a transition that will maintain regional stability, and crucially, Israel’s security.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, saying that Syria looked “more like Bosnia in the 1990s” than Libya in 2011, denounced Houla as an example of the “escalating depravity and criminality” of the Assad regime. But he noted that Russia had “important leverage” over Syria, and called for “consequences” if the Annan plan is not implemented, regretting that Russia had blocked “more robust and effective measures” in the UN Security Council in the past.

The ferocity of the regime’s repression may seem irrational, given that conscription ensures that soldiers and officers will be forced to use arms against people who they recognise as their own, with defections and poor morale an inevitable by-product. It might seem equally irrational for this avowedly “secular” regime to be seen to engage in sectarian atrocities, given that the Alawite minority from which Assad and much of his ruling clique originate is outnumbered six or seven to one by the three-quarters of Syrians who are Sunni Muslims, with Christians, Druze and other minorities making up the rest.

But this fails to take into account the regime’s desperate strategy – “Après moi, le déluge”. By implicating as much of the army in the murder of their fellow-citizens as possible, the regime hopes to prevent any oppositional leadership from emerging within it that might be able to claim to have clean hands if they make a bid for power. And by playing the “sectarian card” as an extortion racket – placing a wall of hate between the Alawite and other minorities and the Sunni Muslim majority – the regime hopes to scare Alawites, Christians, Druze and secular Sunni Muslims, either into supporting it for fear of something even worse, or at the very least into a terrified silence.

So far, this has had only limited effect. Prominent opposition Alawite intellectuals – and urban Alawites in Latakia and elsewhere – have been involved in the anti-regime protests from day one. The popular protests themselves continue to display a markedly anti-sectarian and patriotic spirit, with “our country is our sect” being one of the most popular slogans. And, like the Alawites, the Christian minority has been split down the middle by the uprising, with the youth and the poorer elements largely in favour of the revolution, and the less plebeian elements more sceptical or pro-regime.

Moreover, this division – along class lines – also mirrors the divisions within the Sunni Muslim majority, demonstrating that class, rather than sect, has been the main dynamic of this struggle. The traditionalist bourgeoisie and upper middle class of Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, have so far stayed solidly behind the regime, despite their past history of support for the banned opposition Muslim Brotherhood.

It is this dynamic that should be encouraged. Much more quickly than in Egypt or Tunisia – where revolutionary uprisings for democratic rights began as urban revolts of “the whole people” against apparently isolated regimes before revealing their class divisions – the Syrian revolution has assumed the visible appearance of a struggle between the haves and the have-nots. Its strongholds have been in the small towns and villages that litter Syria’s impoverished countryside, as well as in the poorer districts of the smaller major cities. To achieve victory, it will have to go further than Egypt or Tunisia, and develop into a struggle in which the working class – leading the farmers, the ruined middle class, urban poor and intelligentsia behind it – fights not only the Ba’athist dictatorship, but the system of class domination that it represents.


The original version of this article first appeared on the website of the New Anticapitalist Initiative at http://anticapitalists.org/2012/06/06/houla-massacre-exposes-assads-murderous-repression/

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