For decades after Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970 Syria's political and economic system seemed to guarantee the country's stability and independence.
The Ba'athist version of "Arab socialism" kept the country out of the clutches of the West, its anti-Israeli stance made it a key regional and Arab power and its state sector also allowed the country to improve living conditions and pursue modernisation.
In the early 1970s, Assad strengthened links with the Soviet Union.
In 1972 he brought the Syrian Communist Party (SCP) into his Progressive National Front alongside Arab socialist, Nasserist and nationalist groups.
From Assad's perspective this not only broadened the regime's base but also acted as a means of turning potential critics into subordinate allies.
While the SCP attempted to use its legality to press for deeper social change, its acceptance of legal status also meant it was forced to work within the limits defined by the Ba'ath.
Although Assad improved relations with the West and other Arab states - with the singular exception of Iraq, ruled by a hostile rival current of Ba'athism - the Soviet Union became a major military and close economic ally of Syria.
Soviet experts categorised Syria as one of several countries of "socialist orientation" and the Syrian Ba'ath as part of an international trend of "revolutionary democrats."
Both terms implied certain important distinctions between Syria and what the Soviets regarded as fully socialist states. Nonetheless the assumption was that Syria's social development was laying the ground for socialist development.
Subsequent developments in Syria and elsewhere - at various times Soviet writers had also spoken of Egypt, Algeria and Iraq in similar rose-tinted terms - showed how easy it was to reverse this process. Later these very same countries would opt for capitalist orientation with reactionary undemocratic regimes.
Nonetheless, throughout the late 1960s and 1970s there seemed to be rational grounds for optimism.
A US Congress report noted: "In the 1960s, land reform, nationalisation of key industries and the socialist transformation of the economy affected the pace and scope of economic development. Growth of the economy, measured by GDP at market prices in terms of constant 1980 prices, averaged 9.7 per cent a year during the 1970s."
Despite the stellar performance of the 1970s, by the early to mid-1980s warning signs were appearing.
Growing in parallel with the state sector was a specific form of capitalist development that fed off lucrative state sub-contracts and skimmed money through bribery and black marketeering.
Dubbed by Marxists as the "bureaucratic bourgeoisie" or the "parasitical bourgeoisie," these crony capitalists used personal connections and political patronage to amass fortunes.
Noting similar developments in their own country, South African communists have colourfully described these economic strata as "tenderpreneurs."
Writing in World Marxist Review in June 1984, SCP politburo member Khalid Hammami wrote that in his country "the parasitical bourgeoisie is growing and corruption is rife. The ruling quarters are suspicious and fearful of all initiative or independent activity on the part of the masses."
This is reinforced from a different perspective by a recent overview by Jihad Yazigi, editor of the business magazine Syria Report.
He has argued that in the past public-sector advances had built enormous legitimacy for the Syrian government among ordinary people but that "their disillusionment since that time has followed three decades of state divestment, liberalisation of trade, neglect of agriculture and of rural areas, and government prioritisation of the services sector."
Yazigi notes that Bashar al-Assad's effort to open up the economy also had a negative impact as free trade agreements and tariff reductions resulted in a flood of foreign products overwhelming local producers.
Especially hard hit have been farmers in rural areas affected by drought and the cuts in government subsidies, which "reduced the contribution of agriculture to GDP from around 25 per cent to 19 per cent in less than a decade."
Syria's current economic problems have been compounded by the explosive growth of the non-productive sectors of the private sector, the "parasitical bourgeoisie" Hammami warned about.
Marxist economist Qadri Jamil estimates that corruption accounts for between 20 to 40 per cent of Syrian GDP, generated through government deals and the exploitation of government resources such as selling subsidised goods on the black market.
Bashar Assad's close family and associates have certainly been beneficiaries.
The country's richest man Rami Makhlouf is Assad's maternal cousin with assets ranging from real estate to the country's major mobile phone operator. All are business sectors that rely heavily on state approval and licences.
Growing unemployment - especially among the young - rising poverty and the ostentatious emergence of a politically connected business class have been key domestic causes of Syria's unrest alongside demands for greater political freedom.
However, past attempts to push the Ba'ath Party and the country on to the path of political self-reform and economic rejuvenation appear to have been fruitless and the Assad leadership responded lethargically only after mass protests erupted in 2011.
As the struggle has shifted from civilian protest to military struggle the legitimate grievances and demands of the initial protests and Assad's own belated proposals for reform are being sidelined.
Instead the real battle lines are being drawn over issues of acute regional importance. Syria is a crucial fulcrum in resistance to US hegemony in the Middle East since it has close links with Hezbollah in Lebanon and with Iran.
This is not to whitewash Syria's foreign policy history. Hafez al-Assad intervened in the Lebanese Civil War on the side of right-wing Maronite forces in 1976 against the Palestinians and the Lebanese left.
Syria continued to occupy much of northern Lebanon until 2005. Syria's "elder-brother" interference in Lebanon created enormous lingering resentment.
In the first Gulf war of 1990-91, Syria supported the US against its neighbour Iraq. US secretary of state James Baker was a regular visitor during this time to Damascus.
Despite this, Syria has in general followed an independent line on international affairs.
Now the US sees an opportunity to change that and claim a post-Assad Syria as a client state.
US strategy at the moment shies away from direct intervention but opts instead to use proxy forces.
The Washington Post's well connected columnist David Ignatius wrote on July 19 that "the CIA has been working with the Syrian opposition for several weeks under a non-lethal directive that allows the United States to evaluate groups and assist them with command and control. Scores of Israeli intelligence officers are also operating along Syria's border, though they are keeping a low profile."
What constitutes lethal or non-lethal directives for the CIA is a moot point, especially given credible reports of the agency's direct involvement in arming selected militias of the rebel Free Syrian Army. Aside from the usual suspects - the US, France and Britain - the international anti-Assad coalition consists of seemingly unlikely bedfellows.
Saudi Arabia, which is currently witnessing fresh protests among its own Shia population, would love to see a new Riyadh-friendly regime in Damascus, thereby depriving Iran of a key ally.
Turkey's Islamist government has assiduously wooed the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood and is the major logistical support for the Free Syrian Army command. Furthermore it would like to neutralise Syria's Kurdish national movements, which have been supportive of Turkey's own Kurdish minority.
Israel continues to occupy Syrian and Lebanese as well as Palestinian territory. Israel took the Golan Heights after the 1967 war and the area is now home to some of Israel's most advanced spy technology. Damascus is less than 40 miles away.
In an interview published in the Miami Herald on July 17 a senior Israeli intelligence official based near Israel's border with Syria admitted Israel was gathering critical details of the fighting.
"We know, down to the names of the battalion commanders, what is happening in Syria," the official is quoted as saying. "That is information we are sharing with the relevant partners."
One can only guess who those "partners" are but it can be safely assumed that, directly or indirectly, this sensitive military information is being fed to the rebel militias to allow them to co-ordinate their attacks.
The left in Britain, whatever their criticisms of the Assad government, should have few illusions about who the "Syrian revolution" actually benefits.
If you appreciated this article then please consider donating to the Morning Star's Fighting Fund to ensure we can keep developing your paper.