As Syria Free-Falls . . . A Return to the Basics

Lest we forget, or forget why, it has become important to consult the basics regarding the Syrian uprising. This might very well be the best time for such a review. For as the death toll rises and the gradual destruction of the social fabric continues, the Syrian tragedy is increasingly more about the fall of Syria(ns) than the fall of the Syrian regime. One

Bassam Haddad

Professor of Political Sciences at George Mason University and Chief Editor of Jadaliyya

| ar

Lest we forget, or forget why, it has become important to consult the basics regarding the Syrian uprising. This might very well be the best time for such a review. For as the death toll rises and the gradual destruction of the social fabric continues, the Syrian tragedy is increasingly more about the fall of Syria(ns) than the fall of the Syrian regime. One result has been analytical helplessness, which prompts a return to the basics. 


Those of us who follow Syria coverage in every major outlet in both Arabic and English know well that we are getting into diminishing returns. Worse, the political polarization around Syria has produced an interestingly problematic phenomenon: analysis is no longer important. You can always rely on the gatekeepers and die-hard supporters on either side to stand by you so long as you are politically on their side. Your analysis matters less/not. Only your position does, eve if under changing circumstances. It is all ex post facto at this point, as both camps have solidified into two concrete walls, crushing both nuance and humanity.

In such political fog—and I make no pretense of saying that it is an insignificant political fog—it might be a good idea to review some of the basic realities, causes, and contours surrounding the Syrian case. Every word in this and any other article will be hotly contested, but not all contestations—nor all my claims—will stand the test of time.

I will briefly review the complexity of the Syrian uprising and then address what can be called the “stubborn facts” in condensed form. I end by discussing the structural causes of the uprising and the thorny issue of “sectarianism.” 

[I will try to address these points in a less prose-ish form, anticipating a more detailed formulation in the future. The points below have been made by many, including myself, at the various venues in which Syria was the topic. Apologies for the elementary nature of some of the claims, but that is perhaps what is also needed during the current fog and tragedy.]

1. The Evident Complexity of the Syrian Case

All the other Arab uprisings are complex, but the Syrian case is endowed with added complexity because it is at the heart of various historical struggles in the region and beyond: the Arab-Israeli conflict; the related question of resistance to imperialism; regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the one hand and Iran on the other, with Syria squarely in the latter camp since the uprising; a cold but real tension between the United States and Russia; and, finally, the question of Hizballah, which merits its own category. Increasing regional sectarian tensions also add another ugly layer. Thus, the Syrian uprising is at once a local, regional, and international affair. Adding to the complexity is the fact that the majority of forces who wish to remove the Syrian regime from power, or those who historically opposed it, are themselves the dominant political/economic forces regionally and, to a large extent, internationally (i.e., the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Israel, among others). This is to be contrasted with the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen, which were largely domestic affairs and excluded the support for regime change by the aforementioned dominant forces (and in the case of Bahrain, included these forces' intervention topreserve autocracy). Such differentials explain, in part, why many historical critics of the Syrian regime’s domestic policies continue to hold this stance but not from the perspective of—nor in accordance with—the interests of the forces listed above. The protracted nature of the Syrian uprising and the lack of an evident exit or solution is a direct function of the intertwining of its local, regional, and international dimensions. 

Since the summer of 2011, we have been in a situation in which we are no longer comparing good and bad alternatives. We are facing a choice between the horrible and the catastrophic, at least in the short to medium run. To seek the optimal outcome is to be unrealistic or uninformed.
Discursively, the nature of the divide that makes up the complexity is thick and varied, but has been dominated by the authoritarian/imperial contest (i.e., what is worse, authoritarianism or imperialism?). Some of us have critiqued this binary by saying we are against both, but we were in turn critiqued because that position was no longer real, as there was no local agency that espoused it. Yet there are no metrics to determine whether the binary positions that pit regime (or status quo) supporters against supporters of the now multi-faceted uprising is any better. Ultimately, it could very well be a matter of horizons in time and space. In other words, how far is one’s gaze and regarding what issues? 

2. Three Stubborn Facts: Dictatorship, Suspect Opposition, and Their Supporters

Two elementary interrelated and stubborn facts animate the uprising and cannot be oversimplified or ignored, whatever one’s politics. Their discursive and empirical relevance to the ongoing conflict cannot be underestimated, and will likely animate how history books will distill the thick lines in retrospect. 

First, in analyzing the situation in Syria today, and despite the unsavory actors lined up against the Syrian regime, we cannot consider March 2011 to be the starting point of the unfolding events. We are witnessing an opposition to decades of dictatorship in Syria, irrespective of the twists, turns, and marring of the uprising. This fact cannot be compromised or limited in space and time to the nitpicking about who did what since March 2011. In other words, the sins of the Syrian regime—primarily against the majority of Syrians—must take the lead in animating one’s understanding of the developments on the ground: in March 2011, only the regime was standing, unrivaled. This is a thick and sometimes uncomfortable file for those who are ambivalent about the uprising. Yet it is not likely to be written off, nor should it. When people argue or write about Syria, even proponents of the opposition, they tend to overvalue the post-March 2011 period at the expense of the past few decades. Analytically, to discount the pre-March 2011 period is to fail to understand why after March 2011 the Syrian regime has lost its ability to govern Syria, whatever one’s political/ideological leanings. And many of those who support(ed) the status quo (e.g., minorities) have/had their reasons, the most important of which had nothing to do with the regime’s character. Instead, it is about protection, survival, and now, instinct, as a function of aligned strategic interests. This is in part why many observers fail to make good sense of the distribution of views and positions on Syria. 

The second stubborn fact is that, for some time now, we can no longer take this uprising for granted (some say this is a gross understatement, and it may well be). We are no longer witnessing a clear-cut event where an independent pro-democracy movement is facing a dictatorship. Though the latter part holds, the former does not. The dependence, weakness, fragmentation, and divisiveness of the especially external opposition and its internal correlates are now evident to all. Beginning sometime during the summer of 2011, this conflict has become a war of position in which the opposition's moral high ground has diminished considerably as a result of some of its own tactics and a good deal of its external relations and related factors. In other words, we passed the point where the opposition can depend on the mere fact that it is opposing a dictatorship. Those who still write about the Syrian uprising—and they are many—as though the first days of the uprising were frozen in time are speaking of a world that no longer exists. Reasonable observers and participants can disagree on the extent to which many parts of the opposition have been tainted by the same tactics/behaviors that characterize the regime, but it is difficult to dismiss the fact that the fight has been, in par though not in whole, hijacked by exogenous factors, actors, and sentiments for purposes that do not serve the interests and aspirations of the majority of Syrians. Still, that does not mean that a return to the status-quo ante should be acceptable. But the binary that increasingly imposes itself today (i.e., the regime or the externally supported uprising) is in practice difficult to dismiss in favor of good sense, though it must be overcome.

The third stubborn fact is that external supporters of regime change in Syria were perhaps one of the biggest impediments to a genuine movement towards a better future there, because of their brutal policies, duplicitous politics, and/or human rights record. These external actors include Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel, and the United States. Ironically, Israel fits in this group by association, though its ambivalence until recently regarding regime change in Syria kept it on the sidelines. (The ambivalence is caused more by a desire for a “strong” regime that can protect its northern border, as the current regime has done for nearly four decades.) Significantly, all these states constitute the spearhead of counter-revolution in the region. This third stubborn fact is what buttresses the binary discussed above and creates despair among those inside and outside Syria who are satisfied by neither.

[Some may retort: “what about Syria’s supporters, Russia, China, or Iran, not being democratic and having their own brutal/repressive records, etc.?” Certainly. But these countries are not seeking to change this regime, and whoever argued that the Syrian regime is democratic or is seeking democracy for this association with non-democratic states to even be relevant? Furthermore, democracy is only one factor in this conflict. There are more visceral/existential issues related to the region as a whole, and that have animated the dominant conflicts since World War II (e.g., the Arab-Israeli conflict and Israel’s consolidation of Apartheid-type rule with ample backing, and the hegemony of various mutations of neoliberal economics, which fermented difference, exploitation, and instability across the board)]. 
With these stubborn facts, I will move on in “Part 2” to discuss the causes of the revolt, putative and actual, and to the question of sectarianism. 
Amid the mounting and tragic violence, loss of life, and loss of Syria, it seems difficult to write about history and causes. Yet it is equally difficult to write critically about the current chaos, precisely because of the information gap. One also wonders, what can be said about Syria anymore? In this vein, and following the despair in the first part of this article, I retreat to the basics, to what we think we know a little better. In the first part, i addressed what I called "Stubborn Factors" that animate the uprising, and discussed the complexity of the Syrian case with an eye on its regional role. Here, I address some structural causes of the uprising. The next and final post will address the question of sectarianism.

3. Some Structural Causes of the Syrian Uprising

A methodological note on causality is in order.

Most serious treatments of this topic—those based on long-term historical and analytical engagement with developments in Syria—will remain inadequate, including this one. The first objective is to evade the outlandish treatments (those proceeding from some idiosyncratic political or cultural essence) and monist treatments (those that reduce outcomes to one variable). The second objective is to recognize the limits of our ability as informed analysts in pinning down the right mixture of weighted variables in explaining such outcomes. But explanatory despair should not be the takeaway from these precautions. The trick is to refine the conversation on the question of causes, with time. Revolutions, or uprisings, are not a science—even according to Political Scientists! But we surely can do much better than the outlandish and the monist.

My first task is to disembody the notion of the “Middle East” or even the “Arab World,” as we often unintentionally speak of the uprisings across the region in monolithic terms. We usually receive a steady explanatory diet with either generic “economic” arguments about poverty or unemployment, or with arguments about intolerance of decades of authoritarian rule. Little attention is given to the interaction between political and economic variables, and even less attention is given to the particularities of every case and their political-economic trajectories. Even when we do have a nuanced analysis, we forget that having the necessaryingredients has not been sufficient to produce the kind of mass mobilization that we are now associating with revolutions and uprisings. Focusing too much on structure without recognizing agency and its role in making people go to the streets and fight bullets with their bodies (at first, that is) is like watching the right ingredients of a particular recipe lying around the kitchen table, with no meal in sight. In short, there is much that cannot be predicted, to the chagrin of social scientists. Hence, the advice for analytical modesty.

In the Syrian case, facile and essentially inadequate arguments often take the form of the old and tired “sectarianism” or “sectarian rule” argument, where the Alawite minority is pitted against the Sunni majority—and usually without much mention of history and legacy of interaction prior to the coming to power of the Ba`th Party. Even more sophisticated arguments that recognize the inadequacy of the “sectarianism” narrative fail to indicate that almost half of Syrian society is itself comprised of minorities of sorts. Finally, in the Syrian case in particular, the question of Syria’s regional role and “resistance to imperialism” credentials is vexing on two opposite fronts: first, it is introduced by some to blur or mar the anti-authoritarianism protests in favor of regional and international issues that may or may not impinge on the very raison d’être of the uprisings; on the other hand, those oblivious to such nationalist credentials (which do exist, and reasonable analysts can debate their extent), or those who stand opposed to what such credentials stand for, proceed as though what goes on in Syria is unrelated to the existence and policies of equally unsavory actors nearby and beyond, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United States. 

All the above—the generic political, economic, and communal arguments, or the “resistance” factor—often form an amorphous explanatory lens through which the battle on the ground is interpreted. In most narratives, we end up focusing on symptoms rather than tangible causes that instigated the confrontation—for the post-initial period has taken a life of its own. It is true that regional and international interference clouds the domestic setting and often alters the “conflict,” but such factors should be integrated into the analysis to reveal the complexity of the Syrian case, and should not simply replace or hijack the essential narrative of causes for the uprising. If the external forces lined up against the Syrian regime are problematic, it does not mean that the original anti-regime sentiment is problematic: if the goals of overthrowing the regime are aligned, the motives do not have to be so. And this is a major part of the current dilemma, political, analytical, and humanitarian. 

Separating the Immediate from the Structural

One way out of this politico-analytical web is to separate the two tasks into two less messy questions: 1) What caused the uprising? And 2) What perpetuates the uprising? The answers are different. The first deals primarily with local factors and the second with a combination of factors tilting to external ones. 

Even in dealing with the first question of causes, we must separate the structural from the circumstantial, by separating between the large structural reservoir of causes that built over time and the immediate causes that instigated social mobilization on a large scale in Syria terms. Herein, I will address the question of structural causes. On the one hand, I have alluded to the second question under the above title “The Evident Complexity of the Syrian Case” (in Part 1), though a more detailed treatment is necessary elsewhere or by someone else. On the other hand, the question of what instigated the uprising is less complex, and merits a detailed treatment once more information is available, though the facts are not too controversial. Inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian experiences just one to two months prior, the narrative of the young kids who called for the regime’s fall on the walls of their school in Der`a constituted the first flame that ignited the heap of hay accumulating for decades. Surely, the local strongmen’s brutal response guaranteed the wider mobilization there at first, but it was bound to happen after a few such dissenting attempts. The same incident, if it had occurred one year prior, would have fizzled out within days, if not less. However, the regional domino effect and the continuing collective focus on the broader context gave that incident prominence while changing the calculus of individuals vis-à-vis the risk and potential success of taking to the streets en mass, especially in the more rural areas and small towns. The rest is bloody history. 

Highlighting the Spinal Cord of Structural Causes

The set of structural causes that I would like to highlight, beyond the constant factor of repression, relate to political-economic factors that have engulfed Syria since 1986, when the regime effectively began shifting its social and political alliances from labor to business. Namely, I am referring to the growing relationship in the past few decades between the political and economic elite in Syria, and its continued policy implications for nearly twenty-five years. This new nexus of power pervades most global political economies but produces deleterious effects to the extent that the context allows. In many developing countries, including Syria, it is associated with the protracted process related to the unraveling of the state-centered economy, which also constitutes the rolling back of redistributive policies on which the masses increasingly relied in the absence of economic growth. I must caution in the same breath against the emphasis on such factors as singular causes for the uprisings, in Syria or elsewhere. Instead, I address this factor as a central one, not the only, one. Thus, this cannot be a comprehensive account of structural causes.

Politically, the new nexus of power between the political and economic elite in Syria seems to have buttressed authoritarian rule in Syria over the past two decades, whether or not other factors contributed to this outcome. This is not simply a function of “support” for the status quo by beneficiary elites, for this is the norm nearly everywhere. It is also a form of legitimation of a changing status quo because the corollary of this particular nexus of power involves various forms of “liberalization” or state retreat: this includes a “budding,” “growing,” or seemingly “vibrant” civil society that may be considered a sign of political “opening;” a “freer” economic environment in which the state gives up its monopoly over some sectors of the economy; and a large “private” sector that purportedly grows at the expense of the state-run “public” sector, giving way to a broader dispersion of resources with economically democratizing effects. Though these outcomes are pleasing to some external actors (including that amorphous conception, “the international community”), they are not felt in any positive manner by the overwhelming majority of the population, who must fend for themselves as public provisions, jobs, and welfare dwindle. Quite the contrary, the majority of the Syrian people have seen their fortunes decline with the deepening of this alliance between state and big business since the mid 1980s. 

Economic Policy, Economic Structure, and Social Impact

The apparent social effects of the new elitism and the policies they engendered are even deeper, affect the lives of most Syrians, and were all too clear before January 2011. Discussed elsewhere in greater detail, the impact of this alliance had a tremendous polarizing effect on Syrian society, one that approaches, if not matches, the pre-Ba`th era. The effects proceeded at three levels: economic policies, economic structure, and social impact.

It is not too challenging to demonstrate that the policies supported by this new nexus of power are responsible for unduly removing or destroying various forms of social safety nets (e.g., welfare, subsidies, job provisions) that kept populations afloat or barely above water for decades. If these provisions were not removed altogether then either their quality has deteriorated significantly (e.g., health, education) or rations have shrunk (e.g., bread, flower, sugar). Such drastic changes contributed to two dangerously related phenomena: first, increasing poverty (including absolute poverty) and thus social polarization, whereby societies are increasingly losing their middle classes; and second, economic exclusion from the “market,” a phenomenon contributing to a dramatic increase of the informal sector, or those who are functioning, and living, almost completely outside the market, most of whom inhabit rural areas, small towns, and smaller cities. 

Meanwhile regime policies that emphasized the growth of the “private” sector by providing investors with privileges, distinctions, and exemptions did so without exacting reciprocity in practice in terms of added value, employment, and exports. More important is that the most lucrative new economic opportunities were monopolized by regime loyalists, relatives, or partners, all part of the same state-business networks that developed in the 1970s and 1980s and matured in the 1990s. The striking proximity of policy makers to policy takers made rent-seeking and structural corruption extremely efficient, producing a plethora of tailored policies that weakened, fragmented, and taxed the national economy.     

The broader societal impact was hard-felt in some important sectors. The incremental—and not so incremental—goring of workers’ and labor interests in the private and public sectors is another outcome that can be easily traceable to policies and political decisions associated with the new elitism. The shifting of effective alliances from labor to business was part and parcel of the unraveling of state-centered economies. Rights, rules, and regulations increasingly favored business at the expense of labor as time went by, starting in the 1970s (officially or unofficially). Trade/peasant unions and labor organizations were co-opted around that time by corporatist authoritarian systems of representation, but continued to enjoy some privileges. It is true that the political elite started this process of shifting alliances and privileging capital long before business actors became prominent, but the sort of change that took place in the past three decades has a different character. Earlier, such stripping of labor rights was considered a function of problematic authoritarian arbitrariness, something that is frowned upon socially and viewed as a departure from a social (developmental) contract of sorts. More recently, and before the wave of protests and revolts, the incremental stripping away of labor rights was carried out in the name of “investment,” “growth,” and "modernization." 

The ideological context in times gone by was one of a socialist-nationalist coloring that provided a basis for judgment and norms. Hence, social polarization, poverty, and developmental exclusion were considered “wrong” and unacceptable. Today, such disturbing effects have become the new norm, a means to a “better” future, a legitimate station along the way to prosperity and efficiency. All such designations were short-circuited by the uprisings, but it is too early to sound the death-knell for growth formulas that are zero-sum in character. In part, it was this “positive”-sounding narrative of the new policies that camouflaged the deep discontent and resentment among the essentially voiceless.

Perhaps most significant were the developmental implications of a new elitism that vehemently emphasized urban development (at the expense of the neglected countryside and its modes of production) and non-productive economic activity, characterized primarily by consumption. The increase in shares of the tourism and service sectors at the expense of manufacturing and agricultural production (associated with land re-reform laws and other regulations) produced different kinds of needs in society. For instance, there was significantly less need for skilled labor, and the educational systems and institutions that would be required to train skilled labor. 

Whatever emerged in terms of the “new economy” and information technology fields lagged far behind other countries, was too small and too underdeveloped to substitute for losses in other sectors, and was certainly not competitive internationally. Employment of hundreds of thousands of yearly new entrants became increasingly a pipe-dream, pushing masses of disenfranchised youth to oblivion and circumstance. 

An interjectory note is in order, even if unrelated to “policy.” Since 2003, Syria has experienced an unprecedented drought that caused the internal migration of more than 1.2 million people, by conservative estimates. Tens of thousands of families migrated to the cities where they joined the ranks of the unemployed, especially in smaller towns/provinces like Der`a, Idlib, Homs, and elsewhere. This displacement exacerbated discontent on all those affected, directly and indirectly, and increased the social and regional polarization to levels Syria had not seen since the middle of the last century. Though this was a natural disaster, the government’s chronic poor planning and mismanagement of water resources since the 1990s was one opportunity cost of the myriad of polarizing policies pursued during the same period.

The problem of development is not simply about rules and markets and will not be resolved as such. Nor is the panacea of “democracy” sufficient to treat the basic ills. Whatever else is at work, the most egregious problems stem from various and continuing forms of political and economic disempowerment and denial of self-determination at the individual and collective levels. Most of these problems were/are being exacerbated by a new nexus of power that was as unrelenting as it is/was essentially unchallenged (depending on the case). This new elitism and the policies that came with it were not the only source of discontent and dissent, but a guarantee that they will fester if alternative agencies, institutions, and social contracts do not develop, even under changed regimes. For our purposes here, we cannot underestimate the contribution of these resultant social effects on the structural reservoir that fueled the uprising’s origins, notably in the rural areas and small towns. 

This article was originally published by Jaddaliya

Articles from Syria