With the major media and the leftwing of the Internet flooded with articles interpreting the fall of East Aleppo as a decisive Baathist victory and likely the end of the Syrian revolution, an article on the roots of the revolution might seem behind the curve. However, the contradictions of the Syrian economy that led to a revolt in 2011 have only deepened over the past five years and will likely keep the country locked in violent conflict until they are resolved. Despite the vain hopes of the pro-Assad left that the country can return to a development model advanced in the name of socialism, the outlook for Syria is extremely bleak as long as the country is locked into global capitalist property relations. For that matter, all our futures are bleak on that score, even in the most prosperous imperialist nations. Waking up to that reality is admittedly very difficult for a left that is lagging behind world historical developments that make socialism—real socialism—more necessary than ever.
The material for this article will be drawn from sources that have only become available recently:
- A chapter in volume one of the newly published Syria: from Reform to Revolt, edited by Raymond Hinnebusch and Tina Zintl, titled “The End of the World: Drought and Agrarian Transformation in Northeast Syria (2007-2010)” by Myrian Ababsa, who is a research fellow in social geography at the French Institute for the Near East in Amman.
- Dara Conduit’s article The Patterns of Syrian Uprising: Comparing Hama in 1980–1982 and Homs in 2011 that appears in the latest issue of the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 44:1. Conduit is a PhD candidate at Monash University working on the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
- Shamel Azmeh’s article Syria’s Passage to Conflict: The End of the “Developmental Rentier Fix” and the Consolidation of New Elite Rule that appears in the latest issue of Politics & Society, Vol. 44(4). He is a lecturer in International Development at the University of Bath where his research focuses on the interaction between international trade agreements and flows of products, capital, and workers through global production networks/value chains.
As might be expected, Conduit and Azmeh’s articles are behind a paywall. If you would like to read them or Ababsa’s chapter, contact me at email@example.com
Does it seem a bit odd that such articles have only begun to appear five years into a war that has polarized world politics, including that on the left? Azmeh puts it this way:
Syria’s descent into conflict is receiving growing scholarly attention. On their own, the sectarian and geopolitical interpretations of the Syrian conflict provide us with little understanding of the roots of the conflict. Recent studies have started to unpack the political economic and socioeconomics aspects of the conflict, highlighting issues such as the economic reforms in the 2000s, rising inequality, and climate change. This article aims to contribute to this growing literature by placing these issues in a broader analysis of Syria’s political and economic institutions.
I concur with this completely. Although my knowledge of the Middle East does not begin to approach that of the authors listed above, from the very start I sought out “a broader analysis of Syria’s political and economic institutions” finding Bassam Haddad and Gilbert Achcar essential. Unfortunately for most of the left, anything beyond “sectarian and geopolitical interpretations” was to be gingerly avoided. No matter how hard I tried to convince old friends and comrades to read what the Syrian left had to say, it was to no avail. Why try to understand class relations in Syria when John McCain or Samantha Power were on record as being for Assad’s removal?
There has been nothing (unfortunately) like a solidarity movement for the Syrian revolution as there was for revolutionary movements in Central America in the 1980s. Back then, I tried to get up to speed as rapidly as possible after joining the Committee in Solidarity with El Salvador and later when serving on the board of Tecnica. I read Robert Armstrong, George Black and found Robert G. Williams particularly useful. Williams made the case that an expanding fast food market created a demand for beef that Somoza and his cattle ranching henchmen met by throwing peasants off their land. While I have always understood that it was mainly the rural poor who rebelled against Assad, it was only after reading the three articles above that it became crystal-clear that the power and endurance of the struggle against the Baathists has much more in common with the Central American struggles against latifundias in the 1980s. That so much of the left is unable to understand this indicates a decline in Marxist thinking that could be very well related to the weakness of the left in general. If we line up on the wrong side of the barricades in a struggle between the rural poor and oligarchs in Syria, how can we possibly begin to provide a class struggle leadership in the USA, Britain or any other advanced capitalist country?
Understanding Syria economically means first of all understanding the importance of agriculture. While there is a tendency to see all countries in the Middle East as arid, Syria has depended for many years on agricultural exports. Under Ottoman rule, Sunni sheikhs owned vast land holdings and enjoyed a feudal-like grip on the peasants.
To start with, the state ruled by Hafez al-Assad was committed to raising the standard of living in the countryside as a way of providing a social base for a dictatorship. While not disposed (obviously) to break with capitalist property relations, he adopted measures that had a surface resemblance to traditional Soviet type states from radical land reform that encroached upon the traditional elites to promoting heavy state ownership of the commanding heights of the economy, especially oil as Azmeh states:
Nonetheless, to maintain the stability of the new regime, Assad had to deliver on the socioeconomic front, especially in rural areas that were the main constituency of the Ba’ath party. During the 1970s in particular, Assad expanded the state-led developmental model in Syria. This included large investment in state-owned enterprises; large public infrastructure projects such as dams, roads, and energy projects; investments in agriculture; a large expansion in spending on health and education; and a large electrification program in rural areas. It also included the gradual expansion of a large subsidies system that covered basic food products, energy, agricultural inputs, fertilizers, and machinery. These changes ushered in a rapid expansion in agricultural production.
Funding for development came from a variety of sources, including oil. Starting in 1968, Syria became an oil exporter utilizing a recently completed pipeline connecting the relatively oil-rich northeast fields to the Mediterranean port of Tartous. Another source was aid from wealthy states in the region and the Soviet Union. Billions of dollars helped to create jobs in the public sector, provide health services, guarantee free education, and ensure that working people had access to cheap energy and food. With respect to food, state support for farmers made sure that “strategic” crops like cotton were available for export and that food for the dinner table could be depended on.
With such emoluments in place, they could guarantee social peace especially when the secret police could be relied upon to pick up malcontents and heave them into a jail cell where they would be tortured for months and even years. In addition, nominally independent institutions like political parties, trade unions, student associations and women’s groups were depoliticized by attaching them to the Baathist machine and depoliticizing them. Clearly, Assad the elder had studied the USSR in the same way that fellow Baathist Saddam Hussein kept the collected works of Stalin on his bookshelf.
Unfortunately, this state of affairs was not sustainable over the long haul. While the “peak oil” hypothesis is debatable, there is no debating the fact that there was a limited supply of oil in Syria while the population continued to grow. Between 1970 and 2011, it expanded from 6.1 million to 22 million. The end of the Cold War also punished Syria by cutting off a source of external funding and a market for its exports, particularly agricultural.
Hafez Al-Assad was convinced that neoliberal reforms were needed but bureaucratic inertia and private sector suspicion of the “socialist” government’s intent kept them limited in scale. When his son took over in 2000, the Baathist elites were ready to dump “socialism”, such as it was, and join the rest of the capitalist world in letting free markets reign (as long as it was understood that those with connections to the inner sanctum were given the inside track.)
Bashar al-Assad was confronted by harsh realities. By the end of the decade, Syria was destined to become an oil importer. In 2004, Nibras Al-Fadel, an economic adviser to Assad, told the newspaper Al-Hayat:
The factors that make economic reforms in Syria inevitable are mainly internal. . . . the first issue is the pressure on the labour market which is not going to subside for the next ten years at least. Absorbing this pressure will require a growth rate of 6 percent at least which is double the current rate. At the same time, the exhaustion of oil reserves and Syria becoming a net oil importer will mean, with other factors remaining equal, a drop in GDP, living standards, and in the revenues of the state. Thus, the current economic trends are going in a direction that is opposite to what is needed and this is a time-bomb in the heart of the Syrian economy and society. We only have few years to dismantle this bomb.
Using the kind of double-talk associated with Middle East strongmen, Assad announced the introduction of a “social market economy” in 2005 that drew from the neoliberal bag of tricks including the promotion of foreign investment, liberalizing trade and ending subsidies for workers and for farmers. Medical care was now fee-based and a ceiling put on public employment. Despite Assad’s reputation on the left as an enemy of “globalization, the EU is Syria’s largest trading partner with €3.6 billion worth of EU goods exports to Syria and €3.5 billion of Syrian exports to the EU.
In the early part of Assad’s reign as family dynast, conditions favored his reforms. Oil prices, at an all-time high, meant that countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia were eager to pour billions into the tourist trade, real estate, leisure activities, communications, and financial services—exactly the kind of enterprises that made Baathist insiders like Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf fabulously wealthy.
It was the growth of quite impressive “improvements” to Damascus that must have wowed Baathist tools such as Charles Glass and Robert Fisk. Shamel Azmeh writes:
Government spending on infrastructure reflected the bias toward the areas where such projects will be located. In Damascus, investments increased in the rich areas of the city such as Mazzeh, Dummar, Kafar Souseh, Malki, and Yafour, including traffic tunnels, improvements to roads and pavements, “beautification” projects including tree-lined streets, green lawns (highly unsuitable to hot summers in the semiarid climate of Damascus), new multicolor night lighting systems, among other accessories. In the absence of investments in public transportation, such spending favored car owners. Whereas cars were a state-controlled “luxury” good in earlier periods, the liberalization of imports led, between 2003 and 2007, to a 122 percent increase in the number of private cars in Syria—although from a low base—almost half in the city of Damascus. At the same time, the number of public transport buses did not increase. Controlling the exclusive dealership rights for key car companies became an important area of competition for the new economic elite.
Such changes impressed the media in Syria that became the dictator’s handmaidens. Journalist Ibrahim H’Medi wrote in 2006: “Syria no longer looks like Cuba or North Korea”. Not surprisingly, it was such changes that endeared the Assads to Vogue Magazine that was all set to publish an article titled “A Rose in the Desert” that begins:
Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young, and very chic–the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies. Her style is not the couture-and-bling dazzle of Middle Eastern power but a deliberate lack of adornment. She’s a rare combination: a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement. Paris Match calls her “the element of light in a country full of shadow zones.” She is the first lady of Syria.
Syria is known as the safest country in the Middle East, possibly because, as the State Department’s Web site says, “the Syrian government conducts intense physical and electronic surveillance of both Syrian citizens and foreign visitors.” It’s a secular country where women earn as much as men and the Muslim veil is forbidden in universities, a place without bombings, unrest, or kidnappings, but its shadow zones are deep and dark.
One supposes that Monthly Review’s Yoshie Furuhashi was swept off her feet by the couple’s animal magnetism since she wrote not long after the Arab Spring began in Syria: “the president of Syria has a weapon in the obligatory media war accompanying any protest in a geopolitical hotspot these days, which neither any other Arab regime nor the Islamic Republic of Iran can claim: his undeniably charming wife Asma. Perhaps not altogether inconsequential in the age of celebrities.”
Things might have been going great in Damascus but in the hinterlands, not so well.
Myrian Ababsa’s chapter in Syria: from Reform to Revolt is focused on the northeastern provinces of Raqqa, Hassaka and Deir ez-Zor (collectively known as the Jezira), the poorest regions of Syria where most of the country’s farmers were impacted by a severe drought and government assaults on the social gains implemented in the early 70s.
Constituting 40 percent of Syrian territory, the Jezira produced 70 percent of the wheat. In the 1950s, it enjoyed something of a boom as Aleppo merchants invested in the cotton industry. Just as is the case with cotton farming everywhere, irrigation without draining the land and monoculture led to the impoverishment of the soil.
The drought that began in 2007 only increased the already existing misery. Up to 75 percent of the farmers in the Jezira suffered total crop failure of the sort that John Steinbeck depicted in “Grapes of Wrath”. Since wheat production relied on underground wells, a shortage of rain led to an increase in the price of a well. In Raqqa, the cost of a new well in 2001 was 16,000 euros—well beyond the capability of a small farmer to afford.
Herdsmen were also impacted. With insufficient water for cattle and goats, livestock had to be sold at 60 percent below cost. As fodder prices rose by 75 percent in January 2008, the flocks were decimated by half.
Not only were agricultural supports removed by the dictatorship; fuel was no longer subsidized. The price for a gallon of gasoline rose by 350 percent. This meant that motor pumps, so essential to drawing water from underground wells, became difficult to afford. All in all, the economic institutions that had been created by Hafez Al-Assad and abolished by his son came together in a perfect storm with the advent of a crippling drought.
The conditions of life in the Jezira could not be more distinct from the paradise enjoyed by the Damascus yuppies—both Alawite and Sunni—that were benefiting from a neoliberal boom. Ababsa writes:
The drought put an end to decades of development in the fields of health and education in the Jezira, and the sanitary situation became dramatic. In 2009, 42 percent of Raqqa governorate suffered from anemia owing to a shortage of dairy products, vegetables, and fruit. Malnutrition among pregnant women and children under five doubled between 2007 and 2009. To complicate matters, vegetable and fruit growers in dry northern Syria used polluted river water to irrigate their crops, causing out breaks of food poisoning among consumers, according to environmental and medical experts. Experts pointed out that the problem stemmed from sewage and chemicals allowed to reach rivers in rural areas near Aleppo, Lattakia, and Raqqa.
As they were suffering from malnutrition and lack of income, small. scale farmers and herders and landless peasants stopped sending their children to school. According to a UN needs assessment, enrollment in some schools in eastern Syria decreased by 70 percent after April 2008. This decrease reversed decades of literacy efforts and school creation in the Jezira, where the illiteracy rates were the highest in the country: 38.3 percent in Raqqa governorate, 35.1 percent in Hassaka governorate, and 34.8 percent in Deir ez-Zor governorate. More than a third of the active population was illiterate, including more than half of the female active population. Between 160 and 220 villages were abandoned in Hassaka governorate. The wells dried up and the population could not afford to bring water from private tankers at a cost of 2,000 SYP per month (about 30 euros).
When the latter-day versions of the Joad family left their farms and migrated to the cities, they tended to end up in the suburbs of Aleppo or Damascus where they struggled to find employment or entered the informal economy—in other words peddling fruit on the street. Or perhaps they would seek refuge in a city like Homs that was in the agricultural heartland and hardly a city to be profiled in Vogue magazine. Dara Conduit takes a close look at what happened in Homs after the influx of new residents with barely a pot to piss in.
Homs is Syria’s third largest city, midway between Damascus and Aleppo. It is the capital of the Homs Governorate, which has played a major role in agriculture. It contributed 79 percent of almond production and 23 percent of poultry. The Homs Chamber of Commerce proudly referred to itself as the breadbasket of Syria.
It was in Homs that Assad’s economic restructuring had its greatest and most damaging impact. As the largest capital of a drought-affected province, it became a major destination from both the west and from the Jezira to the east. Conduit reports that Homs was the third poorest province in the country and the capital city strained under the pressures of a massive influx of the desperate and the practically homeless. Between 2008 and July 2009, the government provided food assistance to 3037 affected households. Researchers discovered that six percent more residents of Homs were unable to cover basic food expenses than the average Syrian rate.
So naturally, Homs would be on the leading edge of the revolution as Conduit writes:
As a result, the unrest in Homs began in suburbs that had absorbed new rural migrants displaced from the country’s north-east or the wider province. These were urban areas once part of agricultural land and now surrounding the historic city. The clear demarcation of suburbs in Homs by socioeconomic and religious grouping made the city’s dynamics easily observable. Data on the frequency of protests between 28 September and 28 October 2011 showed that the suburbs on the city’s fringe experienced ‘near daily’ protests, including Al-Waer, Bab al-Amr, Inshaat, Ghouta, Deir Ba’albeh, Bayadeh and Khaldiyeh. Bab al-Amr was once an agricultural area on the outskirts of the city that grew most of the city’s fruit trees. By 2011, it was a ‘slum’ on the urban fringe that became ‘synonymous with the revolution’. Azzawi observed of Bab al-Amr: ‘the people there are very poor and very vulnerable, they feel that this regime put them so badly below the edge of poverty. So they are the real powers that are moving the acts of uprising in Homs’. The only exception to this pattern was Bab Houd, within the walls of Homs’ old city, which also experienced protest. The evidence therefore implies that those involved in the initial protests in Homs at the start of the 2011 uprising were citizens largely excluded from the Syrian social contract.
It is exactly people such as this, the poor and displaced rural folk who streamed into the suburbs of Damascus, Aleppo and Homs in the hope of finding a roof over their heads and food on their table who became the social base of the Syrian revolution.
God help us when so much of the left is clapping like trained seals when Russian bombers destroy their hospitals and force them to run through gauntlets of Hizbollah and Iranian militias that stand over them like the Wehrmacht soldiers stood over the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto. Comrades, we are in deep trouble when the left lacks the ability to discriminate between right and wrong and between the oppressor and the oppressed. It is time to build a new left that has once and for all learned to put the Stalinist legacy into the ashbin of history where it belongs.