What the Assad regime was and what it has become

The Syrian revolution that broke out in March 2011 was part of the wider wave of revolution that spread across the whole of the Arab world. The International Marxist Tendency supported the revolution without reservations in spite of its shortcomings. Since then, however, due to the lack of a revolutionary leadership, what was a genuine expression of the masses, has now been hijacked by reactionary elements that have a very different agenda.

Although clearly prompted by events outside the country, the seeds of the Syrian revolution were to be found in the social and economic conditions that existed in Syria itself. For example, between 1980 and 2000 average incomes actually fell by around 10%. Unemployment was officially at 9%, but the real figure was closer to 20%.

What allowed the Syrian regime to maintain itself in spite of the growing economic difficulties was the fact that it had sizeable oil reserves. In 2002 oil represented two thirds of exports and one half of state revenues. The economy was, however, still relatively underdeveloped as can be seen by the weight of agriculture, which still accounted for 27% of GDP and employed around 30% of the workforce.

The private sector – which previously had played only a secondary role – was growing and was particularly strong in textiles, agro/food industry, chemicals, pharmacy and engineering. And after 1990 the public sector employed around one quarter of the active population, and was creating 20,000 jobs per year, while the private sector was creating between 40,000 and 60,000 jobs per year. However, 250,000 young people were entering the labour market every year. This explains the growing youth unemployment – an important factor in the revolution!

These conditions were a consequence of the economic policies adopted by the Assad regime over recent years, policies that have involved a gradual breaking down of the old state owned, centrally planned economy and the promotion of greater and greater private involvement in the running of economic affairs with a transfer of state assets mainly to cronies of the regime. All this led to a growing social polarisation, which is at the very heart of the revolutionary upheavals.

It has to be said that there is much confusion on the left as to the nature of the Assad regime. Some still see in it the old regime that was based on a state owned, centrally planned economy. This led some to oppose the revolution from the very beginning when it was still a genuine expression of the mass movement from below. They see everything in terms of reactionary manoeuvres of imperialism, and in particular of reactionary regimes such as Saudi Arabia or Qatar.

While it is true that these regimes have been supplying aid and arming a section of the insurgents, promoting those forces that fit their reactionary agenda – and that foreign mercenaries are involved in the fighting – it would be simplistic and false to see everything in these terms. Initially there was a genuine revolution that was evident in the early days of the uprising against Assad. And it was the duty of genuine Marxists to support that movement. However, once the revolutionary content of that movement ebbed and the initiative passed to various reactionary elements it was also the duty of Marxists to state clearly what had happened.

The truth is that due to the impasse in the situation, the genuine revolutionary elements have been overwhelmed by all kinds of opportunist and counter-revolutionary elements that have come to the fore and been promoted by various foreign powers seeking to promote their own reactionary interests. This is a tragedy which has come about because of the lack of a revolutionary leadership with roots among the masses. Initially, especially the youth who took part in the mass protests, the movement was not ethnic or religious based. One of the slogans that could be heard on the rallies was “we are all Syrians”, a clear message to those who wanted to divide Syrian society along ethnic/religious lines.

Those on the left who have come out in support of the Assad regime, see in it some “progressive” and “anti-imperialist” elements. The truth, however, is very concrete: there isn’t an ounce of anti-imperialism in the Assad regime. There is nothing progressive about it that could in any way justify socialists giving the regime even the most critical of “critical support”. In order not to confuse revolution and counter-revolution, a thorough analysis of what the regime was in the past and what it has become over the years is essential. (We provide our analysis of this later in this article).

Divide and rule

As we have seen, faced with the initial revolutionary upsurge last year, attempts were made to divide the population along ethnic and religious lines. The Assad regime has fomented such divisions (as have also the reactionary regimes in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states). Having lost support in some key areas of the country, the means by which the Assad regime saw of holding on to some kind of mass base, at least in some areas, was to cut across the genuine revolution that had begun and provoke conflict between the different groups that make up Syrian society.

This was done in the classic manner of pinpointing particular groups and carrying out brutal indiscriminate attacks against them. As a large part of the crack security forces carrying out such attacks are predominantly made up of Alawites, it was one small step to provoking a counter-reaction among the ethnic/religious groups under attack. Alawites as a whole began to be seen as the “enemy”. On the other side of the divide, reactionary fundamentalist groups saw in the ethnic/religious divisions a means of promoting their own agenda. And that is what has led to the present impasse. In this process the voice of the genuine revolutionaries has been drowned out by the forces of reaction.

As we have seen, the revolution was rooted in the real economic and social conditions that had come into being under the Assad regime over a period of decades. In the recent period Syrian society has become more and polarised, with a small elite at the top enriching itself, while at the other end of the social spectrum we have had growing poverty and a general worsening of living conditions. Within this process of polarisation some layers had come out far worse off, but it is also true that, especially in cities like Damascus and Aleppo, a petit bourgeois layer was also reaping some benefit from the recent economic changes.

This factor explains also the resilience of the regime. Had the revolution offered a programme that could have won over these layers, the Assad regime would have fallen long ago. Unfortunately, the revolution failed to develop such a programme and this is what opened up space for the reactionary elements. The main message the revolution expressed was for the downfall of the regime and “democracy”. But democracy in and of itself is not always sufficient to mobilise all of the population. It must be combined with an answer to the economic and social problems, such as wages, jobs, housing and so on. The demand for democracy, as in Egypt and Tunisia, reflects a desire for social change among the bulk of working people, for an end to the misery they are living in. If “democracy” is perceived as bringing instability, ethnic/religious conflicts and economic dislocation, then it will fail to get the full backing of all the working people.

Added to this is the fact that very dubious and reactionary fundamentalist elements have entered the movement, attempting to divert it down a different road, giving the regime precisely what it required, the “fundamentalist” scarecrow with which to terrorise the urban petit bourgeoisie. The idea the regime has built up among these layers is that the opposition is merely made up of “terrorists” who want to drag Syrian society backwards and not forward; that it is made up of elements who would destroy the lay and “modern” nature of Syrian society; in a word it would mean barbarism. This has undoubtedly had an effect in at least neutralising some layers of the population, who cling on to the regime, not because they support the Assad regime, but for fear that something worse could take its place.

There is another factor that explains the stalling and derailing of the Syrian revolution. The Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions – also because of the lack of a revolutionary leadership – were side-tracked and Islamic parties came to the fore in the initial stages. There too, although the revolution saw the mass participation of workers and youth and a very rapid overthrow of the hated old dictators, once the regimes fell, unfortunately, the masses had no mass revolutionary party to rally to. A vacuum appeared and it was filled with what was available, varying forms of religious based parties. (In Egypt now things are moving on, with a significant layer of the population turning against the new regime of Morsi, but still no clear perspective of how the Egyptian revolution can be completed is being offered).

The situation in Libya has further added to the confusion. The regime eventually collapsed, but what has replaced it cannot be very attractive to many ordinary Syrians who are wondering what is going to replace the Assad regime once it falls. The prospect of the country breaking up into different fiefdoms, of different local power groups and militias, combined with dislocation of the economy is not a very attractive option. And, again, this explains why the regime, in spite of its brutality, has been able to hold on for so long.

Having said all this, it is clear that Assad will sooner or later fall. A regime that has to rule by the sword alone is doomed to eventual collapse. Even the most brutal of dictators must provide the masses with something other than brutal force. If it cannot provide enough jobs, wages, services, food, etc., eventually its downfall will come.

If there existed a revolutionary tendency, rooted within the masses, basing itself on the fundamental idea that a solution to the problems of the Syrian workers and youth can only be found in a radical transformation of society – which can only mean the socialist transformation of Syria – such a tendency would be in a position to win the ear of the masses and lead them in a class struggle. The tragedy is that such a tendency does not exist in Syria.

The role of the Soviet Union

And here we are faced with a key point in any discussion about Syria. Even the most militant and revolutionary workers and youth in Syria will wonder what we mean by socialist transformation of Syrian society. After all wasn’t the Assad regime “socialist”? Wasn’t the economy a “socialist” economy based on state ownership and planning? Wasn’t Syria part of the sphere of influence of the “socialist” USSR, which eventually collapsed?

Marxists must answer all this; otherwise they will never get an echo among the most advanced revolutionary youth of Syria, precisely those who have been sidelined by the different reactionary forces vying for control of the “opposition”, from the open stooge elements of western imperialism to the extreme reactionary fundamentalist groups.

When a Marxist poses the need for a socialist transformation of Syria as the only way out, inevitably he or she will come up against a barrage of protests: “but Syria was socialist and it didn’t work”. Genuine Marxists, i.e. the followers not only of the ideas of Marx, Engels and Lenin, but also of Trotsky, can explain why the Soviet Union collapsed. It is all in Trotsky’s classic, The Revolution Betrayed (written back in 1936!), where he explains how the Soviet Union degenerated into the Stalinist dictatorship which represented the interests of the bureaucracy and not of the workers and peasants. There were concrete material factors that led to that process of degeneration and which produced a phenomenon such as Stalin.

Lenin never envisaged the possibility of “socialism in one country”. He understood the need for international revolution; otherwise the country could even have reverted back to capitalism. That is why he dedicated so much energy to building the Communist International. The theory of socialism in one country, however, became the dominant school of thought within the Soviet Union after Lenin’s death, where the bureaucracy had risen above the working class and had assumed material interests of its own. This idea was then imposed on the whole international communist movement, which in turn prepared terrible defeats in one revolution after another, further isolating the Soviet Union and in turn further strengthening the bureaucracy’s grip on power.

It is not the purpose of this article to give a detailed account of why and how the October 1917 Russian revolution ended as it did. For a detailed explanation we refer our readers to Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed and Ted Grant’s Russia: From Revolution to Counter-revolution. However, we would stress that a correct Marxist appraisal of what happened in the Soviet Union, of what it was and what it became, is essential if one wishes to understand what the Assad regime was and the various changes and transformations that it has undergone over the years.

Without such an understanding one can end up making some very elementary mistakes as some on the left, particularly of a Stalinist or ex-Stalinist extraction, have made in the recent period. The fact that parties claiming to be Communist have continued to support the Assad regime has done serious damage to the cause of the Syrian revolution. It is precisely because of this that an article such as the present is required to state clearly what a Marxist position on the events in Syria should be.

Marxists stood clearly with the masses as they rose up against the Assad regime. However, to state that is not enough. As we have pointed out, there are extremely reactionary forces that are operating inside and outside Syria for the overthrow of the regime, but whom genuine Marxists cannot collaborate with in any form whatsoever. In fact, it is the duty of genuine Marxists to warn the workers and youth of Syria against these elements, however much the masses may desire the fall of Assad. These forces are not friends of the Syrian masses. It is sufficient to look at the situation in Egypt and Tunisia, where both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Ennahda party have been trying to roll back the gains of the revolution. We explained throughout the process of revolution in these two countries that such forces were reactionary and no support should be given to them. A similar warning has to be issued today in reference to Syria.

In spite of the reactionary positions adopted by different forces claiming to be the leaders of the opposition in Syria, it is evident that there are many honest people, workers, youth and unemployed, who are participating in the fighting against the regime. Many will have joined the various fighting groups and are courageously taking on the regime. In many cases they are simply joining whatever force allows them to defend their families and neighbourhoods against the brutal attacks of the regime. And it is mainly to these layers that this article is addressed.

The tragedy of the Syrian situation is that due to years of stifling dictatorship it was not possible to build a viable, genuinely socialist opposition grouping within the country. Furthermore, the fact that the Assad regime was seen as being very close to the Soviet Union, the idea that Communism can solve the problem of the Syrian people has been thrown very far back in the consciousness of the masses.

In all this it does not help that several Communist Parties around the world have come out in support of the regime. It means that anyone who claims to be a Communist, Socialist or Marxist and supported the revolution must first excuse themselves for something they are not responsible for.

An example of such “Communists” is to be found in Israel where in May of 2011 the general secretary of the Israeli Communist Party, Mohammed Nafa’a, published an article in Al Khuwar Al Mathmadan, a well-known Arabic site, denouncing the Syrian revolution. (Similar statements can be found from the Lebanese Communist Party and others). The following month the party’s Arabic language website published a statement of a meeting of Communist Parties in Brussels, which stated that “the Communist parties express their support of Syria in the face of the imperialist plots...”

Another example of such distorted thinking is the following:

“...Syria has become the new front line of the war between Empire and those resisting it... despite its many flaws, the Syrian regime is actively resisting imperialist aggression and anything less than lending it full support – for the duration of this crisis at least – is tantamount to opposing its resistance to imperialist aggression. Although part of our duty as intellectuals is to call for political reforms and a greater inclusion of the homegrown, legitimate opposition in the reform process, this must be done in a manner which neither undermines the regime’s current position vis-à-vis our shared enemies, nor benefits the latter. (From Syrian Crisis: Three’s a Crowd by Amal Saad-Ghorayeb , Published Tuesday, June 12, 2012) [Our emphasis]

Here we have outright support for the regime in the first example and a kind of “critical support” for the regime in the second.

All of this is based on the idea that the Assad regime is anti-imperialist. This flies in the face of reality and can only be sustained if one suffers from a kind of selective historical amnesia and ignores what the regime has actually done on many occasions to collaborate with imperialism. In 1976, Hafez Assad invaded refugee camps in Lebanon to suppress Palestinian resistance, coordinating its operations with Israel, and with the full backing of US imperialism. Syria had in fact been called on to intervene by the west (including Henry Kissinger) to prevent the defeat of the right-wing Maronite Christian militias in the civil war that had started in 1975 between progressive secularists, Muslim militias and the PLO. Later, in 1990-91 the regime cooperated in the US attack on Iraq; in 2003 the regime did not lift a finger to defend Iraq against imperialist attack. It withdrew from Lebanon under US pressure. These are the facts about Assad’s supposed anti-imperialism.

The false idea that the Assad regime is somehow progressive, is rooted in the events of the 1960s, which were eventually to lead to the setting up of a centrally planned, state owned economy, very similar to that in the Soviet Union. However, a long drawn out process has changed the nature of the Syrian economy from what was fundamentally a planned economy to one where the private sector dominates and this has to be understood if one is to make a correct appraisal of the nature of the regime headed by Assad today.

Early years of the Ba’ath regime

The events in the 1950s and 1960s are key to understanding what kind of regime was established by the Ba’ath party coming to power. And the events of those decades can only be understood in the context of the growing social polarisation that had emerged in the 1950s after independence. After the Second World War French imperialism was pushed out, but the country remained under the domination of imperialism. The local bourgeoisie was weak and unable to create a truly modern, independent bourgeois state. It was a compradore bourgeoisie at the service of imperialism. This explains the radical mood among the masses and their desire for social change.

In the late 1950s to cut across this rising movement of revolt among the Syrian masses, a section of the military elite turned to Egypt for help. Thus in 1958 a group of army officers pushed for union with Nasser’s Egypt, and the short-lived United Arab Republic (UAR) came into being. The measures adopted during the UAR period included land redistribution, social welfare for workers and the poor, and a push to industrialise the country. These popular measures, however, were combined with a ban on strikes and also of independent trade unions and peasant organisations.

What has to be remembered is that at that time Nasser began moving to the left and was adopting measures against imperialism and also against the local capitalists and landlords. That explains why the reactionary military caste in Syria very quickly decided to break the union with Egypt in 1961. Union with Nasser’s Egypt instead of solving their problems was actually exacerbating them, by introducing precisely the measures this officer caste wanted to avoid!

In spite of their wishes, however, the underdeveloped nature of the economy required major investments in infrastructure projects such as roads, ports, and irrigation systems, all of which the local bourgeoisie was incapable of providing. Only the state could provide the levels of investment required for such development.

In these conditions, on the basis of capitalism Syria could not emerge from its historical backwardness. The peasants could play no independent role and therefore the task of modernising the country, which could only be achieved through the socialist transformation of the country, fell to the working class. Unfortunately, the workers were led by parties such as the Syrian Communist Party which had no perspective of overthrowing the bourgeoisie through socialist revolution. On the contrary its leaders were constantly seeking alliances with the so-called “progressive” bourgeoisie, which did not exist!

This was the heritage of the Stalinist “two-stage” theory, which was based on the idea that in backward, semi-feudal countries, the task of the working class was first to support the so-called “progressive bourgeoisie” in eliminating the remnants of feudalism and establishing a modern bourgeois state. This was the “first stage”. Only much later, once capitalism had been built and consolidated, would the socialist tasks be posed. In practices in meant that in every revolution the workers had to subordinate themselves to the interests of the bourgeoisie.

Thus, we had a situation where the bourgeoisie was incapable of taking the country forward but the working class did not have the leadership required for it to be able to take on the unfinished historical tasks of modernising the country. In these circumstances the military officer caste assumed a much greater role than would normally be the case. The military was constantly involved in the political affairs of the country.

These objective conditions, combined with a general worldwide swing towards statisation, such as was the experience in countries like Egypt, Algeria and many other underdeveloped countries that had emerged from the colonial period, determined the events that unfolded in Syria at that time.

The impact of the Soviet Union and China also played a key role. Economic growth in both countries was still very strong. Thus the idea that a planned economy was the answer to the problems of these countries was growing among whole layers of the population, and this was also the case among intellectuals, the petit-bourgeois and a section of the officer caste in Syria, expressed through the development of the Ba’ath party.

The 1963-66 coups

In this context, in 1963 a section of the military officer caste carried out a coup. But this coup was very different from the ones that had preceded it. It set in motion a process that was to lead the nationalisation of more and more sections of the economy, including measures of land redistribution and the nationalisation of the private banks, going much further than even Nasser had done, eventually setting up a system modelled on that of the Soviet Union.

Thus, in spite of the manoeuvres to avoid radical measures being taken against the local capitalists and landlords, the inability of the local bourgeoisie historically to develop the Syrian economy is what led to the 1963 coup which brought to power a radical wing of the officer caste, in the form of the Ba’ath, to power.

A note here also needs to be introduced on the nature of the Syrian army officer caste. As in many underdeveloped countries, many of the army officers were not directly linked to the bourgeoisie, as would be the case in the advanced capitalist countries, through family ties and so on. Very often they came from lower layers in society. That explains for example why so many Syrian officers were from the Alawite minority, at that time considered an oppressed section of society.

General Salah JadidGeneral Salah JadidSalah Jadid, who later led another more radical coup in 1966, was an example of such an officer. Such officers sought the modernisation of their countries, and because the local bourgeoisie was tied to the interests of imperialism, they very often came into conflict with the class they were supposed to represent. And with the pre-existing models of the Soviet Union and China, which at that time seemed to provide a successful economic alternative to capitalism, this layer of the officer caste saw economic planning as the answer to the country’s woes. The Soviet Union and China were also attractive to these officers, because they dispensed with any form of democracy, in particular workers’ democracy, and also allowed for the existence of a privileged, bureaucratic elite.

One of the first things the regime did was to carry out agrarian reform taking from the large landowners their estates, and gave some land to the landless peasants. Commercial banks and insurance companies were completely nationalised, and by 1965 most large enterprises had been completely or partially nationalised.

As we have seen, because the local bourgeois class were incapable of developing the economy, the state was forced to step in, not partially in this or that industry, but to run the whole of the economy. This provoked an enormous backlash by the Muslim clergy and the “business community”.

The military regime, under pressure from these elements, was moving towards compromise, but this merely led to another coup which was carried out by radical young officers who were much more in tune with the mood of the masses. It was these young officers who went even further in the social transformation of Syria. For them it had become a life and death issue. That explains why in 1966, the Jadid-led coup took place, which finally completed and consolidated the process.

By 1966, the bulk of the economy was in the hands of the state, which now controlled the development of natural resources, electricity generation, and water supplies, most industrial plants, banking, and insurance, sections of the transport system and most of foreign trade and the domestic wholesale trade. The government also controlled most of the investments, credit and pricing of many commodities.

What has to be noted here is that the radical army officers proceeded to set up a militia and a massive peasant army to finally break the power of the old rotten, pro-imperialist semi-feudal, semi-capitalist regime. In the process a new state machine was created, with almost the whole of industry in state hands and a large part of the land as well.

What was taking place was a struggle between revolution and counter-revolution. The leaders of the Ba’ath regime, in attempting to forestall counter-revolution were forced to lean on the masses, and this is how Ted Grant described the process in 1965:

“In the early part of January, the Baath Socialist Party Government nationalised 106 of the biggest industrial concerns and banks with capital of over £25 million. To break the possible resistance of the capitalists, special courts were organised with powers up to the death penalty for anyone trying to obstruct these new measures.

“Within a week, the capitalists tried to organise a counter-revolution: merchants and small shopkeepers organised a capitalist 'strike' of protest, closing their shops and bazaars. The reactionary heads of the Moslem church in Syria joined in the conspiracy and denounced the government as being against “God and religion”. They launched together a campaign of civil disobedience and demonstrations. However, the government had cast the die. To retreat would have meant the collapse of the government and probably execution for the leaders of the Baath Socialists.

“ ‘Demonstrators were carried away by the truckload; shops that remained closed were broken open and their stock impounded; 22 leading merchants were stripped of their possessions; the power of the religious foundations were transferred to the ruling junta—including the power to appoint and dismiss Moslem clergymen; and eight ‘ringleaders’ of an extremist religious organization… were sentenced to death for plotting to assassinate the Head of State, General Hafiz’.

“To carry out the struggle successfully, the Baath government had to appeal to the workers and peasants of Syria for support. On Tuesday, January 26th, in response to an appeal, thousands of peasants flocked into Damascus to demonstrate their fervent support for these measures.

“As the Observer correctly comments:

“ ‘In Syria, the Baath's survival and stern repressive measures will have profound effects. The private sector, has been dealt a mortal blow, at least insofar as any large scale private enterprise is concerned. The government has now no choice but to pursue to the end its socialisation of the economy.

“‘At home this means that power has passed decisively away from the bourgeoisie of the cities to the more radical countryside and to the peasant army on which the regime depends.’”

“Thus these events mark the decisive beginning of the collapse of capitalism in Syria. What should be the attitude of advanced workers and of the Labour movement to these events? First, it is necessary to give unconditional support to the measures of the Baath Socialist Party against capitalism in Syria, a capitalism dependent on imperialism in the past for its survival and sustenance. But it is also necessary to understand the background to these events, their limitations, and the course of the revolution.” (20th February 1965)

Genuine Marxists supported the nationalisations that were carried out back then. At the same time, however, they had no illusions about the nature of the regime. Although the widespread nationalisations were progressive, the lack of workers’ democracy, of workers’ control and management of industry, meant that what had come into being in Syria was a system like that in the Soviet Union, i.e. a totalitarian one party dictatorship, with power concentrated in the hands of a privileged bureaucracy resting on a state owned economy. This was not “socialism”. For such a system to move towards genuine socialism would have required a second, political, revolution.

As Ted Grant pointed out:

“The Syrian regime, deformed and Bonapartist right from its inception, rests on the peasant army. It will lay the basis for an industrial plan by ending the senseless anarchy of capitalism. But because there is no check of workers' democracy, it can only end in creating a new privileged strata of managers, army officers and bureaucrats, as in Russia and China.

“To introduce this [workers' democracy] will require a new revolution, not a social but a political revolution. The masses in these countries will have to pay with this second revolution because of the tardiness of the Socialist revolution in the West.” (20th February 1965)

These quotes demonstrate the superiority of Marxism in its understanding of the processes that unfolded in Syria at the time. Marxist harboured no illusions in the regime, while at the same recognising and supporting whatever progressive measures it carried out. The new regime was what Marxists would define as a deformed workers’ state, i.e. a state where the economy is state owned and planned, but power is in the hands of a bureaucratic elite standing above the workers.

Permanent Revolution in distorted form

Senior officials in the Baath Party 1969Senior officials in the Ba'ath Party, 1969The 1963 coup and the coups that followed are an example of “permanent revolution”, albeit in a distorted manner. Leon Trotsky had explained how, in the more backward underdeveloped countries emerging from colonialism, the working class would have to take the lead in carrying out the tasks that belonged to the bourgeois revolution, i.e. breaking the grip of the old feudal ruling class, and developing a modern industrial nation.

However, he also explained that because of the reactionary role of the nascent bourgeoisie in these countries, and with the working class at the head of the revolution, the struggle would inevitably move towards socialism. In Syria due to the political forces leading it, the Syrian working class did not emerge as an independent leading force in society.

In these conditions, the radicalized layer of petit bourgeois army officers stepped in and carried out many of the tasks that belonged to the working class. It was because of this, as we have already explained, that the regime that emerged was Bonapartist in nature, while resting on nationalized property relations.

The “Ideological Report” of the Syrian Ba’ath Party’s 6th Congress in October 1963 states that the aim of the party was “to build a socialist society”. It also referred to the need for Agrarian Reform, the nationalization of commercial and industrial enterprises, economic planning and the setting up of a state bank. At the same time it stated that the Trade Unions were to be brought under state control. What this meant was that no independent workers’ organizations were to be allowed, again copying the Soviet Union.

The first to be affected were the private entrepreneurs, the big traders, big landowners and bankers, many of whom fled the country with their capital. In 1967 the private schools were nationalized. This was a measure against the religious foundations. On the international arena the country turned to the Soviet Union for both military and economic aid. De facto, the country had come under the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence, in spite of the fact that Brezhnev had not pushed for any such measures to be taken.

It was the state owned centrally planned economy of Syria that provided the basis for rapid expansion and economic growth. In the 1960s as a whole GDP per capita expanded by an overall 80%, and in the 1970s the figure was 336%.

The early years saw the most radical measures being taken. These were the years when the most radical wing of the Ba’ath was most influential in determining the regime’s policy.

The rise of Assad

However, as we have seen many times in history, once the more revolutionary wing has played a role in establishing and consolidating the regime, given the very nature of the more conservative bureaucratic apparatus that is put in place, the more “pragmatic” elements within the regime take over and displace the more radical elements.

This explains the frequent changes at the top of the regime between 1964 and 1966, and the subsequent struggle between Jadid and Assad, which reflected the struggle between the more radical and the more conservative wings of the Ba’ath party. This can be compared – with all the obvious differences in the circumstances – to what Trotsky described as the Stalinist Thermidorean reaction after the revolution in Russia.

It was this process that led to the rise within the regime of Hafez al-Assad, the father of Bashar, the present dictator of Syria. Initially the old Assad had to share power with some of the more radical leaders, but eventually he put on the regime the stamp of the so-called “pragmatist” apparatchiks who wished to push to one side the “revolutionaries”.

The key leading figure in the Ba’ath party in the early days of the regime was Salah Jadid, a Ba’athist army officer. Particularly after the defeat in the 1967 war against Israel tensions began to grow within the regime between Jadid and his followers in the Ba’ath on the one side and a more conservative faction around Defence Minister Hafez al-Assad that argued for a more moderate stance on Jadid’s policy of widespread nationalisation. Jadid had the support of most of the civilian side of the Ba'ath, but Assad, using his position as defence minister gradually gained control of the military wing of the party. In 1969, Assad proceeded to remove Jadid’s supporters from their positions of influence.

Hafez Al-AssadHafez Al-AssadThe simmering conflict between the two factions eventually led in 1970 to Jadid attempting to remove Assad and his supporters at the Ba’ath party congress, but it was the latter, through his control of the army, that successfully launched an intra-party coup against Jadid, who was arrested, and was kept in prison, and later under house arrest, until his death in 1993.

The whole process led to the creation of a highly centralised regime, with the military playing a key role at all levels, even of the economy. Together with this we saw the growing Alawite nature of the regime, Hafez al-Assad belonging to the Alawite minority. The Alawite minority within Syria was always considered an oppressed layer and it is not by chance that it is from this minority that a layer of radical officers emanated. Hafez proceeded to promote Alawites to the highest levels of the state and security forces. To this day some of the key forces are Alawite dominated.

What Syria became through this whole process was a totalitarian regime based on a state owned, centrally planned economy, fundamentally the same as that in the Soviet Union. As we have seen above, initially this provided a big stimulus to economic growth.

In the decade of the 1970s GDP grew by an average annual rate of 9.7%, much higher than was achieved in the advanced capitalist countries, even during the height of the post-war boom. Together with this growth went many social reforms in welfare, education, healthcare and so on. And it was this that stabilised the regime for a period.

Even in the bourgeois media this is often referred to as the “socialist” period; the economy is referred to as “socialist”. It was of course not genuine socialism, as there was no workers' democracy. It was a terribly deformed caricature of genuine socialism.

“Infitah” – opening up

What happened subsequently to the Syrian economy, however, is of interest to us in understanding what Syria has become today. Already by 1970, once Hafiz al-Assad had strengthened his grip on power, and in the aftermath of the defeat in the 1967 war against Israel, a process of opening up of the economy to private investment had begun

This economic “opening” was referred to as “infitah”, albeit a “modest” or “moderate” one. Some degree of private capital was allowed in various sectors, such as trade, real estate and services. Assad sought help from expatriate Syrian capitalists and foreign investors. In this, some of the previously expropriated property was handed back to its owners in an attempt to attract private investment. In this first infitah the investment that was attracted proved to be mainly of a speculative nature, an indication of the fact that those investing did not trust the regime in power. In spite of the modest infitah of the early 1970s the state continued to control most of economic output.

However, the rapid growth of the 1970s peaked in 1981, when growth was 10.2%, and then sharply decelerated to 3.2% in 1982 and in 1984 went into reverse with an actual fall in GDP of 2.1%. At this time the state still controlled over 60% of output and through various means had a major influence over the smaller private sector, but the system was clearly entering into crisis.

All the limitations of bureaucratic control over production were coming to the surface. This was taking place at the same time as the economy of the Soviet Union and the East European Bloc was facing a major crisis. This is when Gorbachev came to power (1985 to 1991) and promoted his policies of Glasnost (“openness”) and Perestroika (the reconstruction of the political and economic system of the country). Perestroika aimed at the introduction of some semi-private businesses and to create a semi-free market system.

It was evident that within the Soviet bureaucracy the idea was growing that the “market” worked better than planning. This has to be understood in the context of a collapsing economy in the Soviet Union, while capitalism in the West had partially recovered from the crisis of the 1970s and was back in boom. One also has to add to this the “reforms” introduced by Deng in China, where Special Economic Zones were set up in which capitalist relations were allowed to develop.

The same process that we observed in the Soviet Union under Gorbachev and in the East European bloc as a whole could be seen within the Assad regime in the mid-1980s. In 1986 the state in Syria still controlled a majority of the economy, but measures were introduced, known as the “second infitah”, to open up the economy somewhat. More private sector activity and investment were allowed and government controls were loosened to allow a degree of private trade in the importation of certain goods.

This was the beginning of the dismantling of the state monopoly of foreign trade, although over 100 of the key foreign commodities were still solely imported by state trading organizations. Also, in 1986 the possession of foreign currency was regulated and the limitations on importations introduced in 1977 and generalized in 1981 were still in place, an indication of the fact that the state was still holding on to its means of control over the economy.

The government did, however, establish six free trade zones – clearly taking a lead from Deng’s policies in China, where local traders and manufacturers were allowed to freely import, process, and re-export goods. Private investment, both domestic and foreign, was allowed in some sections of industry. Measures such as tax exemptions and cheap credit were introduced to facilitate the private investors.

The old state owned, centrally planned economy, however, had not been broken down. The state sector still continued to dominate, although by now the private sector dominated in agriculture and small trade. The private sector was also growing in influence in light industry, construction, transportation and tourism.

At this stage, the nature of the regime had not fundamentally changed, although processes similar to what we have seen in China were taking place: the private sector was growing in importance. The regime was still at the stage of seeking market stimuli to generate growth within what remained substantially a planned economy.

Although there had been some concessions to private capital under the old Assad, what was to rapidly accelerate the process and lead to a qualitative change was the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989 and the Soviet Union in 1991. The system the Assad regime had modelled itself on collapsed like a house of cards. And just as the Soviet model attracted the young officers who carried out the coup in 1963, now its collapse shook their confidence in that same regime.

Impact on Syria of the collapse of the USSR

None of them had ever understood the limitations of the Soviet Union, where the planned economy was not under the control of the working class, but was in the hands of a privileged bureaucratic elite. In fact they had been attracted to the Soviet model precisely because it seemed to give results in terms of economic growth.

Now they reacted in an equally empirical manner and began to turn much more boldly to capitalist measures. After 1990-91, having lost a solid point of reference in the Soviet Union – and aid – the regime embarked on a road that would eventually lead to the dismantling of the old planned system. A sign of how things were changing was the fact that in 1990 businessmen entered the Syrian parliament and in 1991 Law No. 10 was passed to encourage private investments.

As the process towards the restoration of capitalism gathered strength, divisions opened up within the regime, between the so-called “conservatives” who stood for the continuity of the old system and the “modernisers” who were for gradual reform, a slow controlled transition towards a market economy. The former represented all the apparatchiks of the state owned economy who risked losing much in a process of privatisation. The latter represented the growing pressures of world capitalism and the desire of a section of the bureaucracy to become direct owners of the means of production. This division was very similar to the divisions that emerged within the Chinese bureaucracy as the economy moved in the direction of capitalism from the 1980 onwards.

In spite of all this, the Bush administration’s approach to Syria was to treat it as a “rogue state”, in the same way as it treated Iran or North Korea. It imposed sanctions and did all in its power to isolate the regime. The more intelligent of the US bourgeois, however, were for “engaging” with the Syrian private sector and establishing joint ventures, investing in the country, etc., as a means of pulling Syria into the US sphere of influence and accelerating further the country’s transition to capitalism.

In an attempt to circumvent this isolation, the regime turned to the European Union and in 2003 began negotiations to acquire Associate status with the EU, but this failed to get the desired results and eventually Syria was forced to turn to countries like Iran and Russia. For example in 2005 Russia cancelled 73% of what Syria owed it. Capitalist Russia saw the opportunity of winning back spheres of influence it had lost in the past, especially as the Iraq war was unfolding as the US widened its influence in the region with a direct military presence.

In 2004 Assad went to Beijing on an official visit, again seeking a point of support as the US attempted to tighten the economic stranglehold on the country. China provided the model the Syrian regime required, for it had economic liberalisation, i.e. a growing role for the private sector, but without any hint of moving towards a western style parliamentary democracy. Authoritarian rule continued without so-called “political reform”.

It was in this period, in 2004 that the regime also sought openings towards both Israel and the United States. The result was that the regime agreed to withdraw its troops from the Lebanon. In April 2005 the last Syrian soldiers withdrew from Lebanon after a 29-year presence in the country. The west, Washington included, welcomed the role that Syria had played in Lebanon.

What we have to understand about Lebanon was that it had played an important role in Syria’s economy as a source of investment. a sort of Hong Kong for Syrian businessmen interested in having greater access to the global market, particularly in terms of trade, financing and banking services.

Having lost direct control over Lebanon it now became more urgent that other sources of investment be found. The result was a further acceleration of the process of restoration of capitalism.

Crony capitalism

It was in the 2000s that the process of capitalist restoration really accelerated, but the kind of capitalism being created was not to the liking of US or European imperialism. It was a “crony capitalism” whereby the process of privatisation saw the transfer of state property to powerful individuals from within the regime or with close links to the regime, family members of people at the top of the regime.

One such figure is Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of President Bashar al Assad. He controls Syria's telecommunications (Syriatel), its duty-free stores, a large part of its oil industry, air transport, a TV network and much real estate. Before the present conflict erupted he was reported as owning assets worth some $5 billion.

What kind of capitalism was being developed can be seen by the fact that Makhlouf was able to keep the Egyptian telecommunications company, Orascom, out of the Syrian market because he had the backing of the state. He was granted an 8-year license from the state, giving him a practical monopoly of the mobile network. By 2009 Makhlouf had acquired shares in nine of the 12 private banks. In fact this individual dominated the Syrian private sector.

There is also the example of M. Hamcho, who rose very quickly as a powerful businessman. The fact that he married Maher al-Assad’s sister-in-law indicates how he rose within the “business community”. In these conditions corruption was rife.

By now, the public sector, the state owned companies, no longer functioned according to a plan, but according to the laws of the market, as state capitalist companies. And at the same time a private “crony capitalist” sector was developing. On March 10, 2009 the stock exchange, which had earlier been stalled, was finally set up.

After the1996 economic crisis, during which it was only oil that saved the regime, the “need for structural reforms” was being posed ever more sharply. That explains why Bashar al-Assad placed “economic reform” at the centre of his “discourse”.

The “Group of 18” led by the Ba’ath economist Mohammed Hussein, who later became Deputy Prime Minister in 2001 and Minister of Finance in 2003, was a group of university professors, “experts”, businesspeople, liberals, etc., called on to oversee the process of privatisation.

Bashar nominated so-called “independents” to positions of responsibility in the government. Many economists and engineers educated in European or American universities were invited to return to the country to help run the “reforms”, i.e. the beginning of the process of opening up the Syrian market to private investors. This was a clear signal that Assad wanted to speed up the process. Non-Ba’ath party members were given key ministries. These included such figures as Issam Zaïm, Minister for Planning in 2000 and then Minister of Industry in 2001, who was an expert from the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme); Ghassan Rifaï, who was made Minister of Economics and Commerce in late 2001, an official of the World Bank; and Nibras Fadel, an expatriate technocrat, was made an adviser to the President in charge of reforming the state.

As well as these changes in the composition of the government, clearly part of a programme of opening up the economy to capitalism, there was also the dismantling of two state monopolies. In December 2011 the regime approved the setting up of private banks and a stock exchange, and the following year in February 2011 the government approved the setting up of privately run universities.

However, these measures come up against strong resistance from the “conservative” wing of the regime, and the private banks did not actually materialise at that time. It was this slowness in the development of a private banking sector that explains the important role played by Lebanese banks who filled the vacuum and provided the necessary credit to business.

“Social Market Economy”

The idea of the “Social Market Economy” – almost a photocopy of the wording of Chinese official positions – was adopted by the regime in order to disguise the real nature of what was happening, a transfer of property from the state to private hands.

This model involved a change in the way the state-run industries functioned. Now they were to operate according to the laws of the market, but without privatisations and without cutting jobs.

Here we see resistance to any fully-fledged programme of privatisations and opening up to foreign capital. But was it a resistance to capitalism per se? It was not. As in China, the tops of the regime wanted a model of capitalism that would allow the same privileged caste at the top to maintain its positions. The manner in which this was to be done was by assuring that state property was transferred to members of the ruling elite, or members of their families and close associates.

The year 2005 [after ending the occupation of Lebanon] marked an important turning point in the whole process. At the Ba’ath party congress those in favour of the so-called “social market economy” defeated those who wanted to defend the status quo. The road that was adopted was that of favouring the creation of oligopolies in the hands of cronies of the regime. It was a decisive step in the direction of capitalism.

What angered western imperialists was the fact that capitalism was being introduced into Syria under the strict control of regime cronies. The imperialists were demanding a complete opening up of the Syrian economy, as they were seeking further fields of investment for their own multinational corporations.

The regime preferred to keep things “in-house” and proceed towards capitalism by transforming sections of the bureaucracy into direct owners of the means of production. It was this environment which allowed figures such as Rami Makhlouf, referred to above, to emerge.

By 2007, within two years, a myriad of private insurance companies and banks were operating in the country. The banking sector was open to private investment as was foreign trade. To give an idea of the changes that were taking place we can look at the statistics for the number of products that were banned from being imported. In September 2003 the number was 11,000, but by January 2007 this figure had fallen to 1000.

The regime had thus established the conditions for the development of the free market, i.e. capitalism. This was part of the regime’s attempt to break out of the isolation imposed on it, particularly by the Americans.

Lebanon was also a big source of bank lending in this period. Because of the US boycott, and after the EU in 2004 had refused “associate” relationship, the regime turned to Turkey and Iran for help, and Iran in particular was only too willing to invest, itself a victim of US-imposed sanctions. And in 2006, as a result of the liberalisation, there was a financial boom, with big investments, mainly of a speculative nature, in real estate.

In the decade 2000-2010 we see a qualitative change taking place, where the movement away from economic planning and towards capitalism is finally consolidated. If we compare the years 2001-05 (the 9th 5-year plan) to 2006-10 (10th 5-year plan) we get the following picture. In the first half of the decade the public sector continued to dominate, but with a change in the way the state owned enterprises functioned. As we have seen they were now transformed into state capitalist enterprises. In the second half of the decade the private sector really took off. In 2007 already 70% of the Syrian economy was in private hands.

The “liberals” couldn’t have asked for more, as lavish profits could now be made. The real estate boom was an example of this. In the years 2003-04 real estate prices had grown by 59%, but in the subsequent three years, 2005-07, they went up by 400%!

At the same time we see the repatriation of old Syrian capitalists and bankers who had fled the country, many of them doing business in Lebanon. This was the return of those bourgeois who left the country after the nationalisations of the 1960s. However, there was also a bourgeois layer that had been tolerated ever since the old Assad had taken control of the regime in the 1970s. These “independent” capitalists had been tolerated as long as they did not coalesce as a major group, but operated as individuals, thus not posing a threat to the regime.

However, the flip-side to all this bonanza of profit-making and speculation was the growing pauperisation of a section of the population, as we referred to at the beginning of this article. The growing social polarisation saw the gap between the rich and the poor getting ever bigger.

In 2005 5.3 million people (30% of the population) were living below the poverty line, and of these 2 million (11.4%) could not meet their food requirements. The population continued to grow significantly, adding more and more young people to the list of those seeking work. At the same time there was continuing mass exodus from the rural areas to the urban areas, adding to the social problems in the cities. Damascus alone was growing by 150,000 a year. This created an urban scenario where the wealthy parts of town were surrounded by suburbs of misery.

Inflation took off in these conditions. In 2003 it had only been 1.3%, by the spring of 2007 it hit 18%. But the prices of basic consumer goods were going up even faster, with an increase of 60% in 2007.

Another key indicator of social progress, the literacy rate of the country started to worsen. The number of illiterates was growing. This shows the difference between the progressive measures of the past, which saw illiteracy go down, and the new “market” measures which saw a worsening of the education system.

Here too, we see the social polarisation. While basic education for the masses was being cut, in the period 2000-07 eight private universities were set up to cater for the elite. We had growing opulence and wealth in the midst of widespread misery. The number of luxury hotels, four-wheel drive cars, Mercedes, etc., was going up while a large layer of the population had to survive on $2 a day! In 2004 the poorest 20% of the population accounted for only 7% of overall spending; while the richest 20% accounted for 45% of spending.

In an attempt to compensate for the loss of the old benefits that were tied to the old state-owned, planned economy, now the regime attempted to introduce some form of social security, but widespread corruption in the system hampered its application.

Thus we see how over a twenty year period, after the fall of the Soviet Union, we have seen in Syria a long process of a gradual breaking down of the planned economy and the introduction of more and more elements of capitalism, leading eventually to the present crony capitalist system.

All this explains the confusion among some on the left. Some, as we have seen above, have continued to support the Assad regime in spite of the popular uprising, and their excuse for doing so, as we have seen, is that the regime is somehow progressive and anti-imperialist. It is, of course, nothing of the kind, as the facts and figures in this article amply demonstrate.

Others on the left blindly support the opposition as a whole, preferring to ignore the fact that the real revolution that erupted in 2011 has been hijacked by different reactionary groupings. This can only be explained by the fact that the Syrian revolution did not find the required leadership that would have been capable of transforming it into a socialist revolution. The revolution exploded under the impact of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. The masses wanted an end to both the growing social and economic problems and the dictatorship of Assad, but have not found a party capable of uniting the whole of the working population, the youth, the unemployed, the poor, in a joint struggle against the dictatorship.

What is to be done?

Because of all this, the situation is now far more complicated. Many revolutionary youth are still fighting to remove the hated dictator and all his hangers on. But what determines the real nature of the opposition as a whole is its leadership and its programme.

It is true that some sections of the Free Syrian Army have clashed with the fundamentalists that they see as having hijacked their revolution, but what is their alternative? The programme is fundamentally one of bourgeois democracy at best, and Islamic fundamentalist reaction at worst.

We must speak the truth and explain honestly what has happened. We are for the downfall of Assad, but we are also against imperialist intervention and the manoeuvres of the reactionary regimes in the region.

As was explained in the IMT statement on the situation, Perspectives for Revolution in the Middle East – Part Two,

"What would very quickly bring down the regime would be a Syria-wide general strike that could paralyse the country. To achieve this would require the presence of a party capable of uniting all the workers and poor around it. This could only be achieved if such a party had a programme that could offer solutions to all the burning economic and social problems that afflict large layers of the population.”

We also explained the following:

“The fact is that the solution to the crisis in Syria is to be found in Egypt and Tunisia – and perhaps even more so, Iran. No solution can be found within the narrow borders of Syria. Even with a healthy, mass revolutionary socialist party in Syria, the final solution would not be found within Syria itself. Even if there were to be a successful socialist revolution in Syria today, in order for such a revolution to survive it would have to spread beyond its borders, into Turkey, into Iran and beyond. And most importantly, it would require a socialist victory in Egypt, which is the biggest Arab country, with the largest working class, that can give a lead to the workers and youth in the whole of the Middle East.

“We must explain all this to the best elements within the Syrian youth. We need to develop a clear Marxist analysis and look at the long-term, explaining the reality of the situation. The Assad regime will eventually collapse, but how it collapses and who brings the regime down is as important as the downfall of the regime itself. In Libya we see the consequences of regime change achieved with the aid of the imperialists – chaos and confusion and the imperialists still manipulating from outside. The problems of the Libyan working people have not been solved; on the contrary they are getting worse. The same will apply to Syria if Assad is overthrown by militias that are aided and backed by the reactionary Gulf States and by the western imperialists.

“Nonetheless, eventually the situation will be stabilised and the workers will find their feet. They will begin to organise; trade union organisations will be created by the workers as they move to defend their interests. Eventually the labour movement will emerge as a force as it dawns on the masses that the downfall of the Assad in and of itself will not have solved anything fundamental. Therefore what the most advanced workers and youth must do is prepare for the future in creating a Syrian Marxist opposition. Such an opposition would have a big role to play in the future.”

London, February 25, 2013

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