Class struggle and religious sectarianism in Syria

To win the revolution in Syria, a revolutionary working class party must be built!
By Yossi Schwartz
Revolutionary Communist International Tendency

It has been a week of military gains for the Syrian government, whose soldiers won an important battle against the rebels after long and intense fighting over Qusayr, a strategic city near the Lebanese border. The fact that the Syrian army and Hezbollah fighters are much better armed is an important factor in the battle. However this is only a secondary factor.

Classes in the Syrian Revolution

As Carl von Clausewitz wrote, war is the continuation of politics by other means. This is certainly true in Syria. The Syrian civil war is a manifestation of class war: the rich Sunni merchants are on the side of Assad – in addition to the capitalists from the Alawites/Shiites, Christians and other sects. On the other side, we see the workers and the poor peasants mostly on the side of the rebels. It is no accident that the biggest industrial and working class concentration of the country – the Aleppo region with nearly 5 million people – is one of the biggest strongholds of the rebels.

But due to the policies of Assad and his imperialist allies, plus Iran and Hezbollah, on one side and those of Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the Islamists they are arming on the other side, the class nature of the war is obscured, and the conflict consequently has the outward appearance of a sectarian struggle between Sunnis and Shiites. This obscuring of the class war is the prime reason for Assad’s victories. (1)

Qatar’s and Saudi Arabia’s interests and interference

Some on the reformist and centrist Left who support the Assad regime, claiming that his regime is anti-imperialistic, argue that the Islamist rebels being armed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia are tools of the imperialists. According to this argument, these reactionary states are simply vehicles for the transfer of weapons by the imperialists to the rebels. Yet, we have never received an answer from Assad’s supporters to the simple question: Why would the imperialists elect to send the rebels weapons indirectly when they can easily enough send them directly? While our defense of the masses of Syria fighting for revolution would not be different even if the American or European imperialist were to send arms to the rebels, so long as the imperialists do not directly command the rebel forces, the fact is that the Western imperialists have not sent the rebels any weapons. However, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are sending weapons to the Islamist rebels, not as agents of imperialism, but rather for their own self interests in gaining influence, achieving a bourgeoisification of the rebel movement and hereby preventing an authentic revolution in Syria. These reactionary states use their influence to encourage the Syrian regime’s sectarian policies, very effective tools of counter-revolutionary policy.

In reality, the interest of the imperialists – whether American, European, Israeli, Russian or Chinese –, are served by the obscuring of the revolutionary nature of the struggle by means of these sectarian policies of the regime and the middle class leadership of the opposition. Sectarianism is a poison that prevents the unification of the masses against the oppressive regime.

Lessons from History

As the history of the Russian revolution has shown, only the working class, led by a revolutionary Bolshevik party at the head of the masses, can unify these masses irrespective of religious or ethnic background. Tsarist Russia was well-known as a prison house for many nationalities and, were it not for the Bolshevik policy on the national question, the revolutionary struggle could have easily degenerated into a sectarian nightmare. However, in Syria a revolutionary party still does not exist and, therefore, the obscuring of the class nature of the war depicted as a sectarian war is helping Assad win battles, as the Syrian army and its allies are much better armed than the rebels. The real potential of the revolution is in the unity of the struggling masses led by the working class. As long as this does not occur, the stronger and better-armed side will win.

In one respect, the Syrian revolution is similar to the Spanish civil war of the 1930s. In Spain, the imperialists did not send weapons to the Republican forces fighting against Franco’s Nationalist rebels and his much better armed German and Italian allies. However, the main reason for the defeat of the Spanish Republicans was the policies of the popular front government, which paralyzed the working class and the poor peasants. Consequently, Franco’s better-armed side won the civil war.

In civil war Spain, revolutionaries stood shoulder to shoulder with the Republicans, but at the same time opposed the anti-working class policies of the Republican government. In Syria, militarily we stand with the opponents of the Assad regime, but give no political support to the secular pro-imperialists and the reactionary Islamists. Furthermore, the RCIT opposes all policies that divide the masses in Syria, and blame not only Assad but the middle class organizations as well who similarly foster the poison of sectarianism that ultimately contributes to Assad’s victories. (2)

Revolutionary Tactics in case of a war with Israel

While discussing the military aspect of the civil war in Syria, it is important to address the possibility of a war between Israel and Syria. This year, Israel has already attacked military convoys in Syria carrying weapons to Hezbollah on three separate occasions, and Assad has declared that Syria will respond the next time this occurs. While the chances for such a war are not great, it cannot be ruled out.

In such a war, the interests of the international working class will be the defeat of Israel, as Israel is both a reactionary settler state as well as an imperialist state. (3) In such a situation, the RCIT will call for the Syrian opposition to fight on two fronts: one against Assad’s army and the other one against Israel. How much relative effort the opposition will have to invest simultaneously in each front will depend on which of the two enemies is more dangerous at any given moment. (4)

While a victory for Assad in the civil war will weaken the revolution, a defeat of the Israeli ruling class will strengthen the revolutionary struggle. Such a defeat may even split the Israeli Jewish population, as a section of the Israelis, especially the most exploited and oppressed among the Jewish workers, may realize that, for them, Israel is a death trap, and that it is better to be alive in a Free, Red Palestine than to lay dead, wrapped in a blue and white shroud.


(1) In this context we refer to a number of articles published on the RCIT’s website in which we analyzed the contradictions and perspectives of the Syrian Revolution. The most recently published articles on Syria are Yossi Schwartz: Syria: After the defeat in Qusayr and ahead of the Battle for Aleppo, 11.6.2013; Leaflet of the International Socialist League (RCIT-Section in Occupied Palestine/Israel): Victory to the Revolution in Syria! (in: Revolutionary Communism No. 11, June 2013); Budour Hassan: Syria: Urgent appeal to Free Ali Shihabi; (in: Revolutionary Communism No. 11, June 2013)

(2) The RCIT has elaborated the Marxist position on Liberation Wars in which reactionary forces intervene on the progressive side in a document of Michael Pröbsting: Liberation struggles and imperialist interference. The failure of sectarian “anti-imperialism” in the West: Some general considerations from the Marxist point of view and the example of the democratic revolution in Libya in 2011, (in: Revolutionary Communism No. 5, September 2012)

(3) We have studied the nature of the Israeli state in various documents. See e.g. two longer studies which we recently published: Yossi Schwartz: Israel’s War of 1948 and the Degeneration of the Fourth International; Michael Pröbsting: On some Questions of the Zionist Oppression and the Permanent Revolution in Palestine. Thoughts on some exceptionalities of the Israeli state, the national oppression of the Palestinian people and its consequences for the program of the Bolshevik-Communists in Palestine, May 2013. Both documents have been published in the RCIT’s international journal Revolutionary Communism No. 10, June 2013)

(4) See on this also the RCIT’s statement Israel: Hands Off Lebanon and Syria!, 6.5.2013, (in: Revolutionary Communism No. 11, June 2013) 

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