Assad: A Short Analysis

Protests in Douma, a Damascus suburb, 8 April 2011 - Creative CommonsProtests in Douma, a Damascus suburb, 8 April 2011 - Creative Commons

Bashar al-Assad is the president of Syria, commander-in-chief of the Syrian Armed Forces, General Secretary of the ruling Ba’ath Party and Regional Secretary of the party’s branch in Syria. He has been president for 15 years, in secession of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who had ruled for 30 years. Throughout his years of presidency he’s gone through six prime ministers and four vice presidents. Only recently has his own position become threatened with the Syrian uprising which started in 2011 as part of the larger Arab Spring. Many factions, left-wing and right-wing alike, have risen to arms in opposition of Assad’s government. Jihadists, seculars, Arabs, Kurds and more; all, to some extent, want to see Assad gone and their own image of what Syria should look like implemented. The question remains: what exactly should be pursued?

The answer to that question comes in two parts. One, whether or not Assad should go. Two, what should replace him. We can start by answering the first. Is Assad’s government worth maintaining? More fundamentally, what is Assad’s government? Indeed, to answer the first we have to answer the latter. Before we decide worth we have to determine essence.

Assad is the president of the ruling Ba’ath Party which has been in power in Syria since the 1963 Syrian coup d’état. The Syrian Regional Branch of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, which Assad represents, is taken, by itself, to represent Ba’athism, a pan-Arabist and Arab nationalist ideology espousing the unification of the Arab world together with socialist ideals by way of revolutionary vanguard and the creation of a single-party state. Assad’s government is usually taken from an external eye as neo-Ba’athism, which is called such because its proponents (who variously may or may not have considered themselves neo-Ba’athist) supposedly discarded some of the key principles of Ba’athism, namely Pan-Arabism, or at least did nothing to pursue it actively, and because most of the old Ba’athists came to disagree with the new Ba’athist party line. Munif al-Razzaz, the former Secretary General of the National Command of the unitary Ba’ath Party stated that from 1961 onwards, there existed two Ba’ath parties – “the military Ba’ath Party and the Ba’ath Party, and real power lay with the former.” He further stated that the military Ba’ath (as paraphrased by Martin Seymour) “was and remains Ba’athist only in name; that it was and remains little more than a military clique with civilian hangers-on; and that from the initial founding of the Military Committee by disgruntled Syrian officers exiled in Cairo in 1959, the chain of events and the total corruption of Ba’athism proceeded with intolerable logic.” Salah al-Din al-Bitar agreed, stating that the 1966 Syrian coup d’état “marked the end of Ba’athist politics in Syria.” Aflaq shared the sentiment, stating: “I no longer recognise my party!”[1]

Whatever Ba’athism may have originally stood for, Assad’s government became something else. And this isn’t just Bashar al-Assad we’re talking about when we say “Assad’s government”, either; as you recall, it was Bashar’s father before him who ruled Syria. It wasn’t just Bashar who changed Ba’athism, then, it was Hafez and his circle. And why? Did they change it out of necessity, did they realize it was being changed at all? Were the changes on the whole good or bad? Does neo-Ba’athism resemble Ba’athism at all these days? These are all interesting questions that together might bring us closer to an answer to the original question: Does Assad need to go?

The why question is especially important. Why did the Assad family change Ba’athism? Certainly the change can’t be put down entirely to them; there were others involved, after all, in Syria, and of course at the same time the Ba’athists in Iraq were undergoing similar transformations. Perhaps it’s even in question whether or not the change was a conscious one. I can not answer that. But, nevertheless, the question falls for the most part to the Assad family, Assad being the focus of this article, and Hefez al-Assad, it is true, being one of the main contributors to the transformation to neo-Ba’athism. On, then, to the question.

The first answer we come to, certainly the most obvious (and most disputed, as I expect it might be when I make this case here), is one of power. Was Ba’athism transformed as a measure of preservation of power? It might appear that way taking into account two facts: the length of term for officials in Syria — see Hefez’s 30 years of rule and the lengths of term for various other officials — and the family inheritance, or that it is widely believed that Hefez’s son Bassel was to succeed his father and then, following Bassel’s death in a car accident, Bashar did. Additionally, several other members of the Al-Assad family have held political positions; too many, I think, to be ruled out as coincidence.

That’s not to say Ba’athism expressly forbids political family lines, so in that sense maybe it’s less a total transformation and more a loophole, but I still find the concept of political families distasteful and pretty antithetical to the kind of politics we socialists should be pushing for.

In another sense there’s the party itself that must be taken into account; the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party has been in power in Syria, that is, been the dominant party (as the pretense of democracy is maintained in parliament), since 1963, and while elections are held, Assad has consistently won by majority referendum each time, like in 2014, when he won by a staggering (but unsurprising) 88 percent vote. And in, for instance, the 2012 parliamentary election, the National Progressive Front (which is almost entirely comprised of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party) held 168 of the 250 seats. All but 5 of the others were non-partisan.

Also relevant to this theme of control and power is that there is an undeniable history of human rights abuses throughout the neo-Ba’athist government’s history. Now, too often are there cries of “Western propaganda” upon making a claim like that. Doubly so when in reference to organizations like Human Rights Watch. But why? Why the opposition to a claim like that? Certainly it’s easy to denounce every dissenting voice, every person who doesn’t believe what you believe as prey to Western propaganda, a pawn or other somesuch nonsense. No, the truth is that claims like that can be very real; and in this case, there is a very concrete history of human rights abuses to back that up, with or without the confirmation from organizations like Human Rights Watch. One recent one that come to mind is the Ghouta chemical attack, which, although having gone technically unproven in terms of who perpetrated it, for all intents and purposes reasonably points to Assad’s government. Less recently but far less open to debate as to who perpetrated it is the Hama massacre, in which ten(s) of thousands of civilians were massacred on orders from Hefez Al-Assad in reaction to revolts led by the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama.

But their human rights history extends far beyond a few singular incidents; to put it shortly, and in little detail, the Assad regime has a history of questionable judicial processes, political prisoners[2], freedom of religion[3], LGBT rights[4], freedom of movement and of speech[5], and institutional racism. [6] (Note: I use Wikipedia here as a general overview; more specific sources can be found within)

Finally, there is the issue of the civil war itself. The war erupted in 2011 as part of the larger Arab Spring, but like most of the other issues which collectively constitute the Arab Spring, it has its roots in government; specifically, citizen unrest because of the government. Generally, people do not revolt on the large scale without reason to. The only question is — is whatever reason they have good enough? Judging from all that’s been said above, and some things gone unmentioned, the people themselves view revolt as good enough; indeed, not just an alternative, but the answer.

Most believe Assad would not within his own power, in any case, grant them whatever they’re revolting to get. And sure, while that doesn’t preclude extremist groups like ISIS, it doesn’t preclude either, for instance, the Kurds, who have been continually denied basic rights and recognition and, seeing a chance to stop that, jumped at it. The people, as a rule — not bound by any particular ideology or group, but taking Syria’s rebels as a whole — are rebelling against what they perceive to be an unfit regime. Some might elaborate on “unfit” — authoritarian.

Ordinarily I would avoid making claims that a particular regime is “authoritarian”, per se, because of the extreme flak I can get for saying that. If I say that Mao Zedong’s regime, for instance, or Kim Jong-un’s, or Stalin’s is authoritarian, the response usually goes along the lines of that that is a purely propaganda-fueled claim, that there is no evidence to support that, that I’m falling subject to what the West wants us to believe, etc. The assumption is made that that claim, whenever it is made, has no background investigation behind it. That response, I’ve found, can be just as instinctive and uninvestigative as those of the people those repeating it are arguing against. In this case, then, I feel justified in saying: as I’ve found it, Assad’s regime is authoritarian. It is non-democratic, it is suppressive, it is militaristic. And, in short, it is not socialist. Why, then, should we support it? As a countermeasure to Western imperialism? Granted, that can, in certain circumstances, be worth supporting an otherwise unsupportable regime, but in this case I see no reason for Assad over other factions proclaiming an anti-imperialist stance.

In terms of economics (ignoring, for a moment, that the economics of socialism are indistinguishable from its political outlook, which we have already determined to be non-socialist), Syria is markedly non-socialist. The only time attempts were ever even being made to make it such was in the 1960s, when the government nationalized major enterprises, but since then Syria has only undergone further and further economic liberalization; private banking was legalized in 2001, and multiple private banks have since been established. In 2004, a committee formed to establish a stock market. Now, the private sector is as noticeable as any state and property rights remain more or less static.

In short, let it be put as this — Assad is no socialist, Syria is not a socialist state, and it is not on the way there. It has not been for its entire existence and there is no reason to assume it will become so. As such, there can be no more reason for socialists to rally to its support than there can for rallying to the support of capitalist Russia.

Which is where the second part of the purpose of this essay comes in: determining who is fit to replace Assad. For this some general criteria should be laid out: more protection for essential freedoms, those which Assad has denied. Lack of influence from external powers; the people have a right to self-determination, and we know that imperialist powers take every chance they get to exert their influence where it shouldn’t be. Most importantly, an actual socialist programme, or a drive for one, should be a necessity. For the last there would seem to be a shortage of alternatives. Of the various opposition groups, few even mention socialism, let alone would or are pushing for it. Many of them, too, are playing right into the hands of external powers, and a number of them would make no better a government than Assad in terms of rights and freedoms. Who, then?

I think there is only one choice: Rojava. Rojava is an autonomous region in northern Syria and part of the larger unofficial Kurdistan region, a geographical region defined by its majority Kurdish population. Until 2013, when the region was thrown into revolution as part of the Syrian Civil War, Rojava was controlled by the Syrian government and Kurdish nationalism suppressed (and indeed, Kurds have a history of suppression in general within Syria [7]). It has since, however, established itself firmly as a foothold in northern Syria, fighting both against Assad’s forces and, more often, against ISIS. But ideologically, what sets Rojava apart from other rebel groups?

Namely is the fact that Rojava, as an experiment in democracy and egalitarianism, has seen more success than any other. Rojava’s Charter of the Social Contract guarantees what every other constitution in the region has generally denied time and time again; freedom of religion (Articles 31, 32, 92), the right of women to participate in politics (Articles 27, 28, and indeed, Article 87 ensures that “All governing bodies, institutions and committees shall be made up of at least forty percent (40%) of either sex.”), freedom to express gender (Articles 23, 28), freedom in politics (Article 32), and operates on a markedly more democratic system than anybody else in the area (You should give the charter a read yourself).

But none of those things define socialism, do they? Indeed, in the developed world, they’re simply benchmarks of liberal bourgeois democracy. In Europe and America, such values are generally expected and upheld. What sets Rojava apart as not just the next upstart experiment in liberalism, but as a genuinely socialist programme?

Most obviously is that it is founded on the principles of democratic confederalism, an ideology developed by Abdullah Öcalan, a Kurd and a founder of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), the largest Kurdish nationalist movement in the world. The PKK, originally Marxist-Leninist, has since adopted democratic confederalism in accordance with Öcalan’s switch from Marxism-Leninism to democratic confederalism. The main principles of democratic confederalism are, in his own words,

Democratic confederalism is based on grass-roots participation. Its decision-making processes lie with the communities. Higher levels only serve the coordination and implementation of the will of the communities that send their delegates to the general assemblies. For limited space of time they are both mouthpiece and executive institutions. However, the basic power of decision rests with the local grass-roots institutions… [8]

… The democratic confederalism of Kurdistan is not a State system, it is the democratic system of a people without a State… It takes its power from the people and adopts to reach self-sufficiency in every field including the economy… [9]

…The stronger the participation the more powerful is this kind of democracy. While the nation-state is in contrast to democracy, and even denies it, democratic confederalism constitutes a continuous democratic process… [8]

Of course, those are just words, titles, and those can be misleading; it was earlier in this very essay in which we determined that Assad’s government, whatever it calls itself, is not socialist. I could not make the case here that Rojava is socialist just because it calls itself such without proving myself a hypocrite. Here, however, their success is marked not just in words and writings, but in practice. In that respect it differs from Assad; it does not say it is socialist and thus presuppose itself to be, it is socialist. The countless personal accounts and information released by those actually in Rojava should be enough to convince us of that.

There is no doubt, to be sure, that Rojava has its share of its own problems. The most fundamental of these are the organizational problems it faces right now in its leadership (this article does a good job of explaining). These are hurdles that would certainly have to be overcome, but that seems a small difficulty to overcome in the face of all Rojava’s potential. It represents an opportunity, if not for a socialist Syria (and it seems most likely that that won’t be a case, both because the imperialist powers have a vested interest in making that not happen and because the Rojava movement is primarily a Kurdish movement; by the Kurds and for Kurdistan), than for a socialist Kurdistan and a definite presence to be exported elsewhere. Even if the revolution in Rojava doesn’t end with the downfall of Assad, if successful it might set the stage for a revolution that will.

That being the case, a parallel can be drawn here between Rojava and the Bolsheviks in Russia. 1905 laid the ground for the October revolution; in the same way, Rojava might serve as the first of two revolutions, the second an exportation of Rojava’s values and success. If this is the case, and I think I speak for many when I say I hope it will be, we have to give Rojava all the support we can muster.

Bijî berxwedana Rojava!

About the Author

Bazyli Kronstadt
I write some things. I'm most interested in the Middle East, specifically the Kurds and Rojava.

3 Comments on "Assad: A Short Analysis"

  1. Good article. Far too many leftists support Assad because he’s “anti-imperialist” or because they’ve fallen for Syria’s claims to be socialist.

  2. French/Syrian Commie | January 6, 2016 at 6:03 pm | Reply

    Pretty happy to see leftists supporting change in Syria. Pseudo-anti-imperialism in traditional leftist circles has done too much bad.
    However I don’t really believe that the future of Syria truly lies within the Kurdish forces, who in the end are really much more focused on the idea of an independent Kurdistan rather than a free Syria as a whole. Sure, the Kurds might be showing an example by waging such a fight for progress and liberty, a good one even, but this fight doesn’t seem to consider the question of the country’s future. The Kurdish forces seem definitely more focused on repelling ISIS than building the future of all of Syria, from Deraa to Quamishli, including Sunni, Shia, Druzes and Christian Syrians; they care more about Kurdistan than anything. As such, the problem of this article is that it doesn’t really look into the Syrian democratic opposition as a whole, which is involved in the conflict between the regime and progress in the whole country much more than the Kurds, who are mostly focused on independence for them and not freedom for the whole country.

    tl;dr it’s a good article, but even though Kurds show a good example, that example still doesn’t take into account the majority of the country which is fighting a much different war than Kurds vs ISIS

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