Remembering the real causes of the eruption the popular uprising in Syria, which is increasingly turning into an international war.
July 19, 2018
More than seven years after the beginning of the popular uprising in Syria, which increasingly turned into an international war, the causes of this eruption are often forgotten. When they are discussed, the vast majority of authors reduce the uprising to a struggle against authoritarianism while neglecting its socio-economic roots almost entirely. Yet the way in which the relations of production in contemporary Syria constitute a blockage to the development of the productive forces is in fact a key element in understanding the popular base of the Syrian uprising. The most important component of the movement was economically marginalized Sunni rural workers, along with urban employees and self-employed workers who have borne the brunt of neoliberal policies, particularly since Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000. The geography of the revolts in Idlib, Dar’a and other middle sized towns as well as in other rural areas exhibits a pattern_ namely, all were historical strongholds of the Ba’th Party, and benefited from agricultural reforms in the 1960s.
The Acceleration of Neoliberalism under Bashar al-Assad
Syria underwent an accelerated implementation of neoliberal policies in the decade after Bashar al-Assad’s took power in 2000, which also represented an instrument with which the new ruler could consolidate his power. Unlike his father, Bashar allowed the World Bank and the IMF to intervene in the process of economic liberalization. In 2005, the “social market economy” was adopted as a new economic strategy at the Ba’ath Party’s 10th Regional Conference. In other words, the private sector rather than the state would become a partner and leader in the process of economic development and in providing employment (Abboud 2015: 55). The aim was to encourage private accumulation principally through the marketization of the economy while the state withdrew from key areas of social welfare provision, aggravating already existing socio‐economic problems.
Neoliberal policies benefitted the Syrian upper class and foreign investors (particularly from the Gulf Monarchies and Turkey) at the expense of the vast majority of Syrians, who were hit by inflation and the rising cost of living. During this period, the regime also significantly reduced taxes on business sector profits for both groups and individuals. These measures were implemented despite the fact that tax evasion was already widespread, reaching 100 billion Syrian pounds in 2009 according to some estimates (Seifan 2013: 109).
The Syrian economy became increasingly rent-based, as the share of productive sectors diminished from 48.1 percent of GDP in 1992 to 40.6 percent in 2010, while the share of wages in the national income was less than 33 percent in 2008-2009, compared to nearly 40.5 percent in 2004 – meaning that profits and rents constituted more than 67 percent of GDP.
Responsibility for social services to ease rising inequalities was increasingly shifted to private charities, and therefore bourgeois and religiously conservative layers of Syrian society, especially religious associations.
Neoliberal Policies and Despotic Expansion
Neoliberal policies and deepening processes of privatization created new monopolies in the hands of relatives and other figures associated with Bashar al-Assad and the regime, either through familial ties or public and governmental positions or posts in the military and security service. Rami Makhlouf, Bashar al-Assad’s cousin and richest man in Syria, represented the mafia-style process of privatization led by the regime. His vast economic empire included telecommunications, oil and gas, as well as construction, banks, airlines, retail, and more (Seifan 2013: 113). The role of the new businessmen emerging from the state bourgeoisie and high officialdom grew prominent in Syrian economic life, increasingly taking up positions occupied by the old and traditional bourgeoisie.
The Socio-Economic Consequences of Syria’s Neoliberal Project
Bashar al-Assad’s political rule and economic policies led to an unprecedented impoverishment of society while wealth inequalities continued to increase, despite GDP growing at an average rate of 4.3 percent per year from 2000 to 2010 in real terms, but benefiting only a small strata of economic elites. GDP more than doubled, passing from $28.8 billion in 2005 to around $60 billion in 2010.
The labour force participation rate for people aged 15 years and above actually declined from 52.3 percent in 2001 to around 42.7 and 43.5 percent in 2010. This was a direct result of the regime’s failed neo-liberal policies, which proved unable to absorb potential labour market entrants, especially young graduates. The Syrian economy created only 400,000 net jobs between 2001 and 2010, at an annual growth rate of 0.9 percent, which resulted in a decline of the employment rate from 47 percent in 2001 to 39 percent in 2010. The diminution in the labour force participation rate took place in both rural and urban areas, but was sharper in the countryside.
Economic liberalization also had consequences on the labour market. Prior to the uprising, the informal sector was a significant contributor to the Syrian economy. It was calculated to contribute about 30 percent of employment and about 30-40 percent of GDP, according to estimates in the 10th Five-Year Plan, suggesting that the informal sector was at least as productive as the formal sector. It is worth noting that more than 50 percent of informal sector workers were between the ages of 15 and 29, revealing the decreasing opportunities available for Syrian youth during liberalization .
Estimates of what proportion of the population lived in informal housing vary, usually fluctuating between 30 to 40 percent. They may have been as high as 50 percent (Goulden 2011: 188). In Aleppo, 29 informal settlements (out of a total of 114 neighbourhoods registered by the municipality) occupied about 45 percent of the city’s inhabited area and were home to an estimated total population of 2.5 million (Ahmad 2012: 8). In addition to often being poorly constructed and therefore dangerous to live in, these neighbourhoods lacked medical services and had few public health facilities (Goulden 2011: 201).
The proportion of poor was higher in rural areas (62 percent) than in urban areas (38 percent), while over half (54.2 percent) of all unemployment was located in rural areas.
There has been a continuous impoverishment of Syria’s rural areas since the 1980s, while the droughts beginning 2006 accelerated the rural exodus. This situation was exacerbated by an annual population growth rate of around 2.5 percent that particularly affected small to mid-sized towns in rural areas, in which the population has often multiplied by five to ten times since the 1980s. Public services provided by the state in these towns did not increase, in fact they often even shrank as a result of neo-liberal policies, leading to a deterioration of living conditions for the local population (Baczko, Dorronsoro and Quesnay 2016: 46-47).
Bashar al-Assad’s rise to power in 2000 considerably strengthened the patrimonial nature of the state, characterized by the growing weight of crony capitalists within the regime’s inner circle. Its accelerated neoliberal policies led to an increasing shift in the original social base of the regime which originally consisted of peasants, government employees and some sections of the bourgeoisie, to a regime coalition crony capitalists at its heart – the rent-seeking alliance of political brokers (led by Assad’s mother’s family) and the regime-supporting bourgeoisie and upper-middle classes.
Large sections of those left behind by liberalization, particularly in the villages and medium-sized cities, have been at the forefront of the uprising. The absence of democracy and the growing impoverishment of broad segments of Syrian society, against the backdrop of corruption and growing social inequality, prepared the ground for the popular insurrection, which was simply waiting for the appropriate spark. Initial protesters in the country were inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, and saw an opportunity to launch a similar movement in Syria following the events in Dar’a.
Joseph Daher completed a PhD in Development Studies at SOAS, University of London (2015), and a PhD in Political Science at Lausanne University (2018), Switzerland. He currently teaches at Lausanne University. He is the author of Hezbollah: Political Economy of the Party of God (Pluto Press, 2016) and founder of the blog Syria Freedom Forever.
This article was first published on the following website Rosa Luxembourg Stiftung: https://www.rosalux.de/en/publication/id/39116/syria-the-social-origins-of-the-uprising/
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