Syria left vulnerable by state violence

Bashar al-Assad’s shelling of towns and killing of citizens leaves country at risk of imperialist invasion, says author.

Latakia warship
Latakia, home to a Palestinian refugee camp, has been shelled by tanks and warships, killing dozens of people [REUTERS]

The news this morning that the Syrian navy were shelling the water-front of Latakia – including the Palestinian refugee camp there – shook me to the core.

Not just because I lived in that camp last year, on that water-front, when Egypt’s then-dictator Hosni Mubarak was stalling about letting the Viva Palestina 5 convoy sail for Gaza (after more than a fortnight of Syrian hospitality, the convoy sailed – though I was banned). The people of Latakia, a beautiful seaside holiday resort, were good to me. I cannot be silent about their suffering now.

More importantly, the news was shocking insofar as it calibrated how close we now are to a full-scale civil war in “the last Arab country” – as I described Syria in a speech in the Assad library five years ago, just after the Israeli attack on Lebanon was repulsed by the Syrian-backed resistance, led by Hezbollah.

Historically, I was never close to the Syrian regime. I’m writing this from my house – which I named Tal-al-Zattar, after the Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon which suffered a massacre – facilitated by another Assad – more than thirty years ago, and carried out by his then Phalangist allies.

I was with Yasser Arafat in his long struggle to keep the PLO free from the dead hand of the Syrian Ba’ath Party. I stood with Iraq when 29 countries tried to destroy it in the first Iraq war in 1991. One of those countries was Assad’s Syria.

Anti-imperialism vs the police state

But in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, and, by 2006, Bashar al-Assad was left standing as the last Arab leader not to be in the pocket of the West. Syria was hated, I said that night in the library – not because of the bad things it had done, but because of the good. I outlined them thus: Syria has refused to sign a surrender peace with Israel, refused to abandon its territory on the Golan to the illegal occupiers. Syria has refused to abandon the Palestinian resistance, continuing to give safe haven for the leaders, and fighters, of virtually the whole gamut of resistance organisations. Syria has insisted on supporting the Lebanese resistance, has refused to allow its territory to be used as a base against the resistance in Iraq and so forth. It was all true, of course, but it was not the whole truth.

The dark side of the Syrian regime, its authoritarian character, its police state mentality – above all, its deep-seated corruption, fantastically exacerbated by the regime’s neo-liberal turn with its attendant privatisations – substituting state property for private ownership by the regime’s comprador, by and large. This was another part of the truth, though partly concealed by the Arab nationalist, anti-imperialist character of the Syrian people and their government. This has been the experience lived by most Syrians for more than forty years. That’s a lot of darkness.

It was formerly possible to judge Syria by the nature of its enemies – Israeli, US, British and French imperialism, the Arab reactionaries, the Salafist sectarian fanatics – for as long as the Syrian people remained either supportive or were largely quiescent behind the regime, even if only for fear of something worse. And for as long as the president, Bashar al-Assad, held out hope for real reform towards democracy, open government and an end to the rampant corruption – much of it concentrated around his own family and close cronies. That hope now dangles by a thread.

To describe the mass uprising in Syria, day after day, for months – undaunted by the steadily rising price in blood being paid by the protesters, as the actions of “terrorists” and “gunmen” is a gross distortion. In fact, the regime itself looks more and more like the terrorist, certainly the gunmen, in this picture. This is a genuine popular uprising taking place in Syria, even if it is heavily infiltrated by all of Syria’s enemies – the enemies of all the Arabs in my view.

Vulnerable to Western ‘intervention’

The biggest problem is that the longer fighting on this scale continues, the greater the scope for these enemies to engineer an outcome favourable to them. An outcome which takes Syria out of the traditional national camp and into the camp of collapse, surrender, sectarianism and indignity.

That’s why I must say, for me, it looks like five minutes to midnight in Syria. For years, the president has talked of reform. But the more he talked, the faster his relatives counted their ill-gotten gains.

He has talked about the lifting of states of emergency while presiding (one assumes he’s still presiding) over the mother of all emergencies in his country. He has talked about ending the Ba’ath party’s constitutional monopoly as the “leading force” in the country – but it still exists, at least on paper if not on the streets. He has talked about elections, but of those there is no sign – and how could there be amid the carnage?

The risk of open imperialist intervention in this situation increases almost by the hour. The enemies of the Palestinians and of all the Arabs are rattling their sabres. The Syrian people, always the heart of Arab nationalism, cry out in their slogans – even as they are shot down – against any such foreign interventions, but the vultures circle nonetheless. Such a fate for the great Syria must be avoided at all costs. At all costs.

Unless the Syrian regime can conclude an urgent agreement to proceed to elections, a free media, legal political opposition and an end to what has now become a massacre, the state is going to be invaded or is going to collapse under the weight of the bloodshed. And amid the ruins, the rats of reactionary, sectarian hatred and treason will certainly run free.

George Galloway is a British politician, activist, author, journalist and broadcaster who was a member of parliament from 1987 to 2010.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.