We're told that the Syrian civil war is just a proxy conflict between various powers: Bashar al-Assad is the face of an axis of resistance forged by Iran and Russia, while the US and its allies are backing the Islamist rebels as they try to takeover Syria bit by bit. This wrongheaded narrative has become incredibly powerful. The Syrian revolution has been subsumed into a geopolitical analysis of regional players.
The agency of armed groups in Syria has been supplanted for the flows of arms from the Gulf states and the US, the role of Turkey, the militias organised by Iran and the air campaign of Russian fighter jets. The context of the Arab Spring is completely lost, and the left-nationalist character of the uprising is concealed from public view. Instead, the Syrian civil war is just another senseless event, or the proxy struggle between the West and its anti-imperialist foes.
Through this narrow lens the use of poison gas in Khan Sheikhoun is either a false flag operation or just the symptom of the spiralling chaos of war. It looks like the Assad regime and its Russian patrons have resorted to poison gas out of exhaustion. The target is primarily civilian because the basis of the revolution were the elected councils fostered in rebel-held territory. This democratic alternative had to be snuffed out.
At the same time, the Western powers - the US, Britain and France, in particular - have not done much at all to support the Syrian opposition and the cause of a democratic Syria. The political support for the rebels only meant limited supplies of arms and funds, while the US has been happy to collaborate with Russia in bombing Syria. France and Britain have too taken to bombing the country. Yet the West has failed to provide air drops of food aid and take responsibility for the humanitarian fallout.
Although I oppose the West bombing Syria, don't mistake me for a fool who thinks Assad is worth defending. The Syrian regime is responsible for the bulk of deaths and suffering in the country, and it has a long record of collusion with the United States. The Assads sided with the US against Iraq in 1991 and the 'rendition programme' of torturing terror suspects after 2003. There's a reason the Blair government considered bestowing an honorary knighthood on Bashar al-Assad.
Don't tell me the Syrian Ba'ath regime is "anti-imperialist". Hafez al-Assad seized power from Salah Jadid in late 1970 after dragging his heels over the Syrian intervention on the side of the PLO in Jordan. At the time, the PLO was fighting to bring down the Hashemite monarchy and takeover the country. Perhaps fearing a rival Arab nationalist regional power, Assad was not eager to support Yasser Arafat. This is also why Syria would invade and occupy Lebanon in 1976.
The Assad regime sought to clip the wings of the PLO and prevent the Lebanese Left from taking over Lebanon. The Syrian occupation would converge with American and Israeli interests in keeping the Christian Maronites in power and expelling the PLO from Lebanon. Later, Syria would support the US military response to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. This would help bring the Lebanese civil war to an end, as the Iraqi regime would withdraw support for its allies in the war.
The Syrian Ba'ath regime was no more "anti-imperialist" than its rival in Iraq. Both Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad were Soviet clients for many years, before defecting to the American camp. Iraq invaded Iran with full US approval, whereas Syria was more than happy to side with the US when Iraq went off the reservation. Meanwhile Syria has not challenged Israel since it lost the Golan Heights in the Six Day War and failed to recapture the territory in the 1973 war.
As for the claim that the Ba'ath regime is a secular socialist government, Hafez al-Assad rewrote the Syrian constitution to ensure that the president would always be a Muslim and constructed an alliance between the Alawite military leadership and the Sunni capitalist class. The state acted as a means of economic organisation and established a patronage network to sustain itself. This may have meant that the Syrian regime was willing to nationalise industry, but it was also willing to privatise these assets later on.
People continue to claim that the mixed nature of the Assad dynasty means that the state is the only non-sectarian alternative to Islamist barbarism. This fails to take into account the extent of violence and discrimination by the state against the Sunni working-class. Not only has the economy depended upon the exclusion of the Sunni urban and rural poor, the state has routinely repressed non-violent protest and tortured activists. The armed uprising was made inevitable by the regime because the Syrian security forces thought they could win easily.
When faced with an armed resistance the Syrian regime opened its prisons and released thousands of Islamists. Saddam Hussein did the same when faced with the US invasion. The Islamists have played a dual role: providing a strong front line for the rebels, but also acting as a counter-revolutionary agent. These militants may have been the toughest fighters, however, their actions have undermined the support for the revolution. This is all true even without taking into account ISIS and its monstrous actions.
It's hard to see how the civil war could end on just terms. As long as the Assad regime stands its ground, the hope of democracy and freedom in Syria is blighted and the reasons why the uprising happened go unchanged. In many ways, the Syrian opposition has more reason to keep on fighting than to settle in negotiations. The immense suffering in the country is down to the Syrian regime and its allies Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. For this reason, I suspect and fear that the war may continue to rage for years to come.