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Salameh Kaileh: Assad’s collapse imminent

Popular movement will prevail over foreign meddling

30. July 2012
Mohamed Aburous and Wilhelm Langthaler

Salameh Kaileh is a Palestinian-Syrian author, political activist and Marxist intellectual representing the Syrian Left Coalition. He was arrested anew on April 24, 2012. Having been tortured, he was eventually deported from Syria where he had spent three decades and out of that eight years in prison.


The Assad regime used Kaileh’s Palestinian decent as an excuse to legitimise the deportation. His tendency has been fully immersed in the popular revolt from the very beginning.

Salameh Kailah was invited to Vienna by the Arab Austrian Cultural Center (OKAZ) and the Union of Syrians Abroad to deliver a speech on the civil disobedience movement in Damascus. The Anti-imperialist Camp participated in the organisation of the event and in the discussion..

Kaileh’s intervention came in the aftermath of the bomb attack in Damascus which killed four high ranking officials of the security apparatus. The political situation on the ground hints that the final battle is coming closer. For Kaileh it is of utmost importance that the victory of the popular uprising is possible without foreign intervention. This might pass by an internal forceful change within the state apparatus parts of which might be searching for a compromise with parts of the opposition. If this does not succeed, there is the danger of the descent into chaos and prolonged civil war, says Kaileh.

According to Kaileh neither the people nor the majority of the armed rebel forces want sectarian civil war. Even the more religious sections of the population do not enforce sectarianism. But he does warn from those forces supported by the Gulf which want to transform the popular revolt into a sectarian civil war. This goes also against parts of the political opposition which develops a sectarian discourse. Therefore he called upon the Syrians abroad not to limit themselves to humanitarian help but to develop a political discourse for solidarity campaigns with the Syrian revolution. This field must not be left to those forces following foreign agendas.

End in sight

Kaileh gave an insight into how the regime gradually lost its social base with the growth of the rebellion. The most important sign is that eventually the two urban centres, Damascus and Aleppo, joined the uprising marking the final stage. The political strategy of the regime consisted in the bloody crackdown on the civil protests on one hand. On the other hand it chose to stir fear of Islamic fundamentalism and a sectarian civil war especially targeting the minorities. In the first period this did yield results. Important sections of the people, especially among the minorities, stayed away from popular protest. It must be noted that components of the opposition were part of that game and helped Assad by actually promoting Sunni sectarianism.

But things have changed by time. More and more sections of the population move away from the regime as the uprising continues to grow and the regime displays it inability to put it down. The merchant class, one of the main bases of the regime, has gradually been withdrawing their support. Even the recruitment of the regime’s thugs, the Shabiha, faces troubles as their families do not want to loose more sons for a struggle which appears increasingly as being lost. On the contrary, the severity of the repression against the civil street movement forced it to employ armed means of self-defence with popular legitimacy. Meanwhile the protests kept expanding to more and more regions. The economic crisis of the regime added to that process as it lost the revenues from the petrol exports. Also tax collections dropped sharply. The authorities reacted with printing money which let to spiralling inflation hitting the population.

Armed struggle as continuation of the popular democratic movement

According to Kaileh, the transition to armed struggle is a legitimate development facing the brutality of the regime. After six months of peaceful protests the activists came to the conclusion that only with armed self-defence they could withstand the attacks by the army and the paramilitaries. The growing engagement of the army accelerated that process.

The bomb attack came at the point where the weaknesses of the regime already accumulated a lot. Regardless how one interprets the blast, whether as perpetrated by the armed rebels or as an internal liquidation, both displays a crisis of confidence and coherence within the power structure. Significant parts of the military, police and bureaucratic apparatus doubt that a military solution is any more possible. For them a co-operation with the uprising becomes more and more possible and necessary. On the other hand the close cycle around Assad does not trust its power structure any longer and relies more and more on their exclusive loyal groups within and outside the state apparatus.

A coup combined with the uprising

According to Kaileh the most probable and also desirable variant of change would be a coup inside the state apparatus which requires a group within to assume power and enter a compromise with the uprising building a transitional regime. Russia, which played a decisive role in keeping Assad in place, seems to alter its position. They search for forces which could lead the transition guaranteeing also Russian interests. If such a coup does not happen, the Assad regime might fight until the end. This could lead to chaos and civil war if the opposition is not able to take control and unify the country given the interference of groups following foreign agendas.

For Kaileh in the last instance only the Syrian people on their own can defeat the regime and take over the state.

Foreign meddling

At the same time Kaileh does acknowledge the presence of forces supported by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states which wish to instigate sectarian civil war. But according to Kaileh this remains a politically marginal phenomenon which does not express the political and social demands of the popular masses.

But foreign meddling of different regional and global players representing diverging agendas has been complicating the situation.

From the very beginning Saudi Arabia fought the democratic movement in the Arab world. They fear that it could eventually reach their realm. Therefore in the first months of the uprising it even supported the Assad regime financially. Later they switched to fundamentalist forces within the opposition in order to abort the revolution from within. The Saud’s line is to transform the democratic popular movement into a sectarian civil war. Together with imperialism they want prolonged hostilities to weaken all sides. Eventually the Saudis will be able to dictate the conditions to the victors — whoever it might be.

Non-sectarian majority

Kaileh insisted that the majority of the population does not want to be drawn into a sectarian civil war. Actually the tendency is even reverse. While in the first stage the minorities maintained passivity out of fear from Sunni fundamentalism they are today joining the anti-regime protests. Even among Allawis the support to Assad is less than being reported. Instead of threatening them – as some opposition forces happen to do – it is the task of the opposition to convince them and to take away their fears by bold political guarantees, Kaileh stated.

Kaileh warned from sectarian-type simplifications associating confessional groups with homogeneous political stances. The notorious Shabiha gangs for example do not exclusively consist of Allawites as is being commonly reported. The roots of the phenomenon are in the Allawi coast region as a mafia structure engaged in smuggling which was protected by the ruling Assad-Makhlouf family. These thugs did not refrain from terrorising also the Allawi population and were hated also among them. Later the Sahbiha have been transformed into a para-military structure as it is operating today. In Aleppo these thugs are not Allawi but Sunni and also in Damascus there are Sunni Shabiha.

Erratic analysis of imperialism and its foes

Among the Arab uprisings the Syrian has been the most disputed one. Many of those forces who supported the popular eruptions in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and even Libya could not find clear words on Syria. The reason for that is the official support Assad lends to the Palestinian resistance.

The defect is, Kaileh says, that this view remains in the past unable to consider the deep changes Syrian society has been undergoing. Since the 1990s there has been a strong tendency to capitalist liberalization. After the inheritance of power to Bashar al Assad this process even accelerated. Since 2007 the social situation in Syria does not differ much from those countries where the popular rebellions started: Mafia-type control of the power elite over the pivotal sectors of the economy, huge unemployment of about 30% and increasing mass poverty driven by the widening abyss between wages and prices. Syria has been fully integrated into the global capitalist order. The economic treaties with Turkey accelerated the collapse of the domestic agriculture and industry. This social aspect is too often neglected in analysis sticking exclusively to the political field.

The second error is to see imperialism only under a geo-political view with formalistic criteria. Also here the economic crisis of imperialism is not being considered. Actually the capacity of imperialism to exert global control has diminished. Not even in Libya, where NATO intervened directly and militarily, it is able to dictate its conditions. Imperialism is not able to organise such a “conspiracy” as the Syrian uprising. On the contrary, its policy is marked by the acknowledgement of a loss of hegemony. Therefore Washington is not able to play directly in Syria. It is looking for a compromise with Moscow, while they leave the field of direct influence to Europe, Turkey and the Saudis.

But also the Turkish intervention is not consistent. While it has turned against Assad, Ankara is reluctant to lend full support to the armed groups. Nor does it want a too strong US influence as this would undercut its regional clout. Turkey also fears chaos which could backfire at home.

Even if imperialism might succeed to secure its interests during a transitional period by incorporating some Islamist forces, they will not be able to solve the underlying problems which led to the popular uprisings. Kaileh is setting his hopes on the new political forces arising from the mass movements which will continue the struggle as we see it right now in other Arab countries.

Mohamed Aburous and Wilhelm Langthaler