On Gowans on Syria

One can debate whether to label the ideology that structured the Arab nationalists’ economic policies as socialism, but U.S. officials unquestionably regarded the economic demarche of the Arab nationalist countries, including Syria, as socialist. As mentioned, some even went so far as to brand Assad’s father, Hafez, an Arab communist. Others described Syria’s economic policies under Bashar as inspired by Soviet models.

— Stephen Gowans, “Washington’s Long War on Syria

Late last year, a group of big-name investors — including Bill Miller of Legg Mason Capital Management and Barton Biggs, managing partner of Traxis Partners, a New York hedge fund — spent a week in Syria and Lebanon. They met with top political leaders and local businesspeople and were feted with elaborate dinners with the cream of society.

Traveling to far-flung corners of the world to get an early look at promising markets has long been a staple of global investing. But Syria — until recently a pariah state in the eyes of the U.S. — proved irresistible, drawing an unusual array of money managers.

Long isolated from international finance, Syria is one of the last remaining investment frontiers. It has a sizable economy, an educated populace, and, lately, a new degree of openness to foreign investment.

“This was not a group of naive investors, and [I] have to say it opened all our eyes,” said Steven Galbraith, a partner at Maverick Capital, a $11 billion hedge fund.

Joanna Slater, “Syria Woos Investors From Half a World Away”, Wall Street Journal, January 10, 2010

Published in April, 2017, Canadian blogger Stephen Gowans’s “Washington’s Long War on Syria” is a 282-page full-throated defense of Bashar al-Assad, who, according to the excerpt from the book’s Introduction above, amounts to a heroic figure defending socialism just as much as Fidel Castro did during the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. In a Manichean-like understanding of politics that permeates the openly pro-Assad left, the world is divided between Good and Evil. On one side, you have vintage Arab nationalism that stood up to Israel, exploited a nation’s resources for the common good, opposed medieval Islamic institutions, and generally took the side of people struggling against imperialism everywhere in the world. On the other hand, you had villainous Salafi jihadists funded by the Saudis and other Sunni states in the Middle East who sought to kill “infidels” such as the Shia and the Alawites. These mustache-twirling fiends were in turn backed by the CIA and Israel. According to this scenario, the revolt that began in 2011 was nothing but a plot hatched by the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria to foment discord among a comfortable and untroubled Sunni population that was unfortunately susceptible to demagogic appeals based on religious dogma. It was not hardship that drove people to protest but differences over who is entitled to speak in the Prophet’s name.

To prove that Syria was a serene socialist oasis standing apart from a region in the throes of legitimate uprisings during the Arab Spring like Tunisia, Gowans cites a variety of reporters in the mainstream media, whose credentials would appear impeccable. Who, after all, would question the journalistic integrity of Time Magazine, heaven forfend?

Gowans cites an article written by Time Magazine’s Rania Abouzeid on March 25, 2011 that testifies to the placid atmosphere of the socialist republic: “there do not appear to be widespread calls for the fall of the regime or the removal of the relatively popular President.” If Gowans had taken the trouble to read a dispatch from Abouzeid filed exactly a month later, he might have concluded that Israel bribed her to write a bunch of fibs:

In 2011, Hafez’s son and political heir Bashar Assad seems to be following in his father’s footsteps, responding to calls for greater freedom with crushing force. Yet Syria 2011 is not Syria 1982. The regime is still ruthless, but this time the rebellion is not restricted to one city or one sect. The constant stream of amateur video spilling over social media is also documenting events — despite the regime’s best efforts to smother information by banning journalists — and suggesting that, if there is not a future reckoning, there will at least be a future record.

Contrary to perceptions that the FSA upheld democratic values, Gowans links it to all the other Islamist groups that were trying to turn Syria back to the 11th century. We learn that Patrick Seale, a respected analyst of Middle East affairs, referred to the FSA as “an entirely Sunni Arab phenomenon.” And as such, it was in Gowan’s view ripping apart the fabric of religious tolerance the Assads had so assiduously weaved while delivering the Syrian people from medieval darkness. If you take the trouble to read the very article  cited by Gowans to prove that a healthy socialist state was being undermined by a viral infection, you will discover the same indictment of the regime made by Rania Abouzeid:

This is not to suggest that the present rebellion is driven only by religious motives and sectarian hate. Although these are real enough, other grievances have piled up over the past decades: the ravages of youth unemployment; the brutality of Syria’s security services; the domination of key centres of economic, military and political life by the minority Alawi community; the blatant consumerism of a privileged class, grown rich on state patronage, in sharp contrast with the hardship suffered by the mass of the population, including in particular the inhabitants of the ‘poverty belt’ around Damascus, Aleppo and other cities. These deprived suburbs are largely the result of inward migration from the long-neglected countryside, which in the past decade has suffered catastrophic losses from a drought of unprecedented severity.

Perhaps the most glaring example of Gowans’s dodgy cherry-picking habits was a reference to a New York Times article that found Syria “immune to the wave of uprisings sweeping the Arab world” in the spring of 2011. In keeping with his analysis of Syria as being threatened by germs, Gowans found the article as proof that Syria was “distemper-free” until the dastardly Salafist jihadis got a foothold. But if you take the trouble to read the Times article, you’ll notice that he excised the beginning and conclusion to the sentence he cited so as to give it the opposite meaning:

Syria, a police state known for its brutal suppression of any public protests, seemed immune to the wave of uprisings sweeping the Arab world until the past week, when demonstrations took place in several cities. The southern town of Dara’a, where citizens were outraged by the arrest of more than a dozen schoolchildren, has seen the largest protests by far. Thousands took to the streets on Sunday, as they have for several days now.

I try to understand the mentality of people like Stephen Gowans. Did he expect his readers not to double-check his sources? Perhaps, he simply lifted the quote from another article floating around the Internet that had already carried out surgery on the sentence. That’s giving him the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, given the pattern of his citations, it appears rather that he is so committed to flattering the dictatorship in Damascus that he hoped nobody would notice that he put rouge on the vampire’s cheeks.

Like most of the hundreds of articles I have read over the past six years about Syria, Gowans’s  “Washington’s Long War on Syria” makes no attempt to ground the analysis in political economy. Rather than examining the actual economic trajectory of Syria in the decade of the 2000s that led to the revolt, Gowans is content to quote extensively from the constitution adopted by the Assads, which as a constitution sounds pretty darn good. Since it guaranteed “security against sickness, disability and old age; access to health care; and free education at all levels”, why would anybody doubt the goodwill of the Presidents sworn to defend it, especially since they routinely got 98 percent of the vote? That’s even better than the 97 percent racked up by Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov in 2012.

You can search in vain for any reference to economic data in Gowans’s book. Since his goal is to portray the conflict purely as one involving a socialist government’s attempt to suppress an extremist threat to the idyllic status quo, he needs to sweep countervailing data under the rug. In all likelihood, Gowans has never read a single article or book about the class divisions that grew apace in Syria since the early 2000s so perhaps he is off the hook. But to paraphrase what they say in criminal court, ignorance of the data does not excuse a crime. If you are going to sit down and write a book about how Syria became embroiled in the most bloody conflict in the Middle East in this millennium, you have an obligation to see all sides of the question. Of course, if your purpose is to write regime propaganda, it is best to wear blinders.

The truth is that Syria went through profound transformations that were the inevitable outcome of rentier state contradictions. A rentier state is typically one that is based on the production and export of valuable natural resources like diamonds or oil. While it can obviously produce benefits for a population such as was the case under Hugo Chavez and even in the early days of the Baathist dictatorship, it is constrained by both the supply of the natural resource and the price it commands on the world market. In the case of Syria, the contradictions of rent profit-seeking reached critical levels more than a decade ago as pointed out in the article titled “Syria’s Passage to Conflict: The End of the “Developmental Rentier Fix” and the Consolidation of New Elite Rule” by Shamel Azmeh for the Vol. 44, 2016 edition of Politics & Society. Azmeh was an economics student at the University of Damascus between 2000 and 2005 and a part-time journalist for the weekly economics newspaper Al-Iqtisady. He is now in the Department of Social and Policy Sciences at the University of Bath in England.

Azmeh rejects the dominant narrative of what took place in Syria as a function of sectarian hatred or “artificial colonial borders”. Recognizing that there were was a redistributionist character to Baathism in the early years of the Hafez al-Assad regime, he argues that there was a dramatic shift starting in 2000 and coming to a head in the period between 2000 and 2005.

Between 1970 and 2011, the population of Syria nearly quadrupled while the oil resource began to decline. Consumption of energy continued to grow while production moved scissor-like in the opposite direction as revealed in this chart. Between 2005 and 2006, the regime woke up to the fact that oil—the main component of the GDP—was running dry. By 2010, its chief economists predicted that Syria would become a net importer of oil. In 2004, one such economist named Nibras Al-Fadel 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. [emphasis added]

Given the economic pressures faced by the elite by a declining source of revenue, it did what neoliberal regimes tended to do. It cut social costs. Azmeh writes:

Energy subsidies, fertilizer subsidies, food subsidies, crops prices guarantee, guaranteed employment for some university graduates, were all either eliminated or reformed. Other areas of state spending were also brought into the public debate with the aim of changing them eventually. For instance, free university education remained in place, but the government introduced alternative fees-based mechanisms and encouraged the opening of private universities. Similar trends were seen in healthcare, with a push to charge fees for services. The government also became far more vocal about the state-owned sector, especially companies that were making losses but were kept mainly because of their role in employment.

All of this happened despite the constitution that Gowans upheld as a guarantee of Baathist egalitarianism. Meanwhile, the urban elites—both Alawite and Sunni—benefited from Assad dispensing with the statist norms of the early Baathist regime in the same way a nouveau riche developed after the USSR collapsed. Investors such as those mentioned in the WSJ article cited at the start of the article descended on Syria but the biggest source of foreign direct investment was the despicable Sunni regimes that Gowans blamed for the troubles in Syria. The Baathists sought out the Gulf oil states that had little interest in promoting job-creating manufacturing. Instead, they profiteered in tourism, real estate development, leisure activities, and financial services.

A typical project was the “Eighth Gate”, funded by Dubai investors. This $1.5 billion, Trump-style real estate development was a showplace for luxurious high rises and retail stores that a promotional brochure described as a “thriving commercial hub that promotes entrepreneurship, a financial nerve centre that supports growth, a tourist destination that powers the economy and a residential getaway for connoisseurs.”

How did the rural poor who were pouring into the suburbs of Damascus and Aleppo react to cuts in social spending and the growth of developments typical of the oil-rich Gulf states? Did they think that re-establishing an alcohol-free Caliphate mattered more than providing food for the dinner table and medical care for their children?

Another useful resource for understanding the political economy that led to the Syrian revolt is the two-volume Syria: from Reform to Revolt, edited by Raymond Hinnebusch and Tina Zintl. In volume one, you can read an article 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. She makes clear that the drought Gowans dismissed as a cause of “massive upheaval” was certainly a driving force, especially considering the regime’s indifference to rural suffering.

She focuses 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 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 outbreaks 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 just like Mohamed Al Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation inspired millions across the Middle East to rise up against their oppressors.

Louis Proyect blogs at Louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.