How Economic Misery Helped Fuel the Syrian War

Ever since the civil war began in Syria in early 2011, the left has largely ignored the social and economic circumstances that led to a conflict costing over a half-million deaths and the migration—internal and external—of half the population. The tendency was to see Syria as a piece on a global chessboard with “the axis of resistance” fending off attacks from the West. There was lip-service to the idea that Syrians had legitimate grievances against the government early on, but by the end of 2011, the “anti-imperialist” consensus was that the rebels were jihadists interested more in fighting unbelievers than inequality.

To my knowledge, the first attempt at an analysis of the internal class contradictions appeared in 2015. Long-time Syria scholar Raymond Hinnebusch and Tina Zintl edited a collection titled “Syria from Reform to Revolt: Volume 1: Political Economy and International Relations”. (A second volume never appeared.) I found this book invaluable in writing an article titled “The Economic Roots of the Syrian Revolution”. My goal was to demonstrate that a rural agrarian crisis provided the fuel for an uprising. An article by Myrian Ababsa provided statistics that revealed the depths of misery that led to the revolt. 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. That was the cause of the conflict, not Saudi desire to impose shariah law on the country.

Although published in 2018, another collection first came to my attention a month ago. Titled “Syria: From National Independence to Proxy War” and co-edited by Linda Matar and Ali Kadri, the book overlaps somewhat with the earlier volume. There are articles by Raymond Hinnebusch and Myrian Ababsa. There is also the same scholarly attention to statistics that help make the case that economic misery fueled the war. Since the hardcover is $83.99, it targets university libraries just like the earlier volume that cost $158.60. I was only able to read both books through access to the Columbia library. It is a shame that those without such connections will likely never be able to afford books that are essential in developing a class rather than a geopolitical understanding of what took place in Syria.

Since both Linda Matar and Ali Kadri have written for Global Research, your natural tendency would be to anticipate that most of the articles in their collection would have to do with the “proxy war.” You’d expect copious references to Wikileaks and articles by Max Blumenthal. To my great astonishment, the book is a broadside against the same neoliberal policies that the earlier volume details.

There is a real sense of cognitive dissonance in the collection. In the introduction, the authors echo the geopolitical narrative alluded to above:

Our hypothesis was, and remains, that Syria—the real home of culturally diverse working people—underwent an imperialist assault before and during the Arab Spring to tear it asunder. In standard political economy parlance, US-led imperialism breaks down geographic barriers to subvert and re-articulate less developed modes of production, to unweave their social fabric and re-weave them into the social fabric of US capitalism.

However, in the same introduction, they say that Assad “capitulated to the competing interests of comprador-merchants willing to dismantle the country and sell it as scrap metal.” Matar’s article in the collection is titled “Macroeconomic Framework in Pre-conflict Syria.” It is unlike anything that ever appeared in Global Research:

Macroeconomic reforms shrank the middle class, the government’s traditional social base of support, and widened the income gap between rich and poor. The government reduced its education and health spending and lifted the social safety nets that initially prevented individuals from falling into poverty. Very few had the privilege to enjoy wealth, education and health. The majority struggled to make a decent living on daily basis. Independent researchers estimated that the unemployment rate ranged between 15 and 20 per cent in 2010. In 2007, the poverty rate was 33.5 per cent. And in rural areas, it reached 62 per cent. The total number of people who were under the upper poverty line (90 Syrian pounds per individual per day) was more than six million in 2007.

That’s quite a mouthful from a Global Research contributor, but not one so nearly as startling as one by Nabil Marzouk, who is none other than an employee of the State Planning Commission in Syria. Titled “The Syrian Conflict: Selective Socioeconomic Indicators,” the article buttresses Matar’s with statistics that leave no doubt. Despite the reputation it once had as an anti-imperialist stronghold, Syria was a country that cared little about its working-class and peasantry. Marzouk writes:

Income was the weakest component of Syria’s Human Development Index. Many factors have led to poor incomes amongst Syrians, among which have been weak institutions, rising inequality, the rent-based structure of the economy, and the introduction of neoliberal economic policies. It is worth noting that wages’ share of net domestic product—in current prices—declined from 40.5 per cent in 2004 to about 33 per cent in 2010, at production factor cost. If we compare the results of the household expenditure survey in 2009 with that of the labour survey in 2009, we see immediately that the average wage covered only 32 per cent of necessary family expenditures.

So, that’s what someone in the State Planning Commission on the Baathist party payroll says. If your wage only covered 32 percent of necessary family expenditures, wouldn’t you revolt? Considering the precarious state where most working people are in the USA, one can easily imagine that they too will rise up at some point. As Robert Fitch once said, vulgar Marxism explains 90 percent of what happens in the world. Hunger drives people to struggle, not outside agitators the Saudis fund.

Of keenest interest to me was the article titled “The Political Economy of Thermidor in Syria: National and International Dimensions” by Max Ajl, a Development Sociologist at Cornell University. I ran into Ajl at some leftwing conference about a decade ago and exchanged pleasantries. That is before I became persona non grata on the left for opposing Assad.

In 2011, Ajl became an editorial board member of Jacobin with the authority needed to give the green light for Global Research type articles about Syria. They were bereft of any considerations of the class contradictions within the country. Typical was Asa Winstanley’s “Syria: The Revolution That Never Was” that accused the “brutal Saudi tyranny” of waging a proxy war. This analysis joined Jacobin at the hip with other conspiracy-mongering outlets.

In 2017, Sunkara gave Ajl his walking papers since Jacobin began publishing a different kind of article, like an interview with Yassir Munif. This platform allowed him to describe Assad as the head of a “totalitarian, sectarian, and, more recently, neoliberal regime.”

It must have agonized Ajl to suffer for his pro-Assad beliefs, especially since for other people like Max Blumenthal, they provided a handsome income. In a soul-searching session with fellow Assad supporter Justin Podur, an associate professor at York University, Ajl sounded like he was in a persecuted minority:

And so, what we can see since 2011, are a variety of almost formulaic attacks on the left in Syria: “the left isn’t doing this on Syria”; “the left is all Putinites”; “the left is supporting genocide”; “the left has a double standard”; “the left should supply the same standard of Palestine to the Syrian conflict”; “the left is inadequately supporting the revolution”. And at the same time, we have so-called news coverage saying that whatever is occurring in Syria has no foreign help, is not getting support from the US government, there are no sectarian elements, and so forth.

Perhaps, as a result of operating in a more rigorous academic framework, Ajl had to pivot toward a serious analysis of Syrian society rather than the run-of-the-mill “anti-imperialist” platitudes. Thank goodness he did, since his article is first-rate. (Downloadable from Researchgate.)

As with all the other contributors to the collection, Ajl does not connect the dotted lines between the economic misery in Syria and the uprising. For all I know, he might still believe that they are Saudi proxies. However, the research he did in uncovering the agrarian crisis stands on its own and reflects his political growth.

Thermidor describes a rightward retreat from a revolution with Napoleon being the paradigm. It is the term that Trotsky used to characterize Stalin. In this instance, Ajl is describing the neoliberal turn that took place in Syria under Hafez al-Assad and that continued under his son’s rule.

While Syria never had a socialist revolution, it did have a sizable left that pushed the country into adopting a genuinely anti-imperialist foreign policy and progressive measures among the most generous in the Middle East. Of course, as was the case in Libya, there were no democratic institutions that could defend them in the long run. While it was clearly beyond the scope of the article, there were signs early on that the Assad dynasty and its Makhlouf family allies were constructing an oligarchy superimposed on the relatively radical foundations. Ajl describes this arrangement as a “social pact” that became exhausted when the dictatorship decided to cater to the class interests of wealthy farmers just as Stalin and Bukharin did in the 1920s. The use of the term Thermidor in the title of the article was most appropriate.

Wealthy farmers got easy credit, and those with small holdings were on their own. As agriculture became geared to the market rather than family needs, irrigation was necessary just as it is in the Central Valley in California. To fuel the pumps for irrigation, it takes a major investment that only wealthy farmers could afford. Ajl writes about the poor peasantry’s distress:

What were the consequences of these policies? In eight villages in Idlib, Hama, and Hasakah provinces in 2000, the percentage of immiserated groups amongst the total agricultural households reached 34–37 per cent. Furthermore, the official statistics on agricultural households without land indicate that from 1981 to 1994, the number of landless rural households had doubled, from 11,224 to 22,860.80 These rural people were concentrated in Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, and Hasakah. This number is in addition to leasers or sharecroppers farming less than two hectares, who numbered some 110,000. There is reason to think these trends continued and heightened. Furthermore, poverty is concentrated in this segment of the rural population. Surveys found that in the early 2000s, 77 per cent of the poor in the countryside did not own land, but owned other assets, such as livestock—primarily, sheep, cattle, and poultry. Thus, there was a massive sector of the Syrian marginal rural poor who relied on livestock for their well-being, particularly in the country’s more arid Northeast—the centre of poverty. This was before the drought of 2008 but, it should be noted, after the drought of 1999, leaving a population perched on the precipice of absolute penury.

Such was the fate of a majority of Syrians before 2011. With nine years of war in front of them, the suffering grew exponentially. People already forced into the barest of circumstances soon found themselves facing barrel bomb attacks, starvation sieges and chemical gas attacks. No wonder so many decided to take a chance fleeing across the Mediterranean in barely sea-worthy boats or treks through Eastern Europe facing xenophobic cops and gangs.

If the term Pyrrhic victory ever had an application, surely it describes Assad’s over the plebian masses. In the process of crushing the revolution, he left the country moribund. In pursuing his narrow interests, he has even turned against his cousin Rami Makhlouf who was the country’s wealthiest man. Perhaps, it is a case of closing the barn door after the horse has escaped. Makhlouf kept billions stashed away in banks that were in Mossack Fonseca’s portfolio. If the Syrian government had simply enforced a progressive tax, that money could have helped the poor farmers and spared the country a bloody civil war.

If you read Sam Dagher’s “Assad or We Burn the Country“, you will concludes that Assad was as crazed in his own way as Stalin. He saw everyone as a possible threat, including Manaf Tlass, the head of his praetorian guard. Lately, Makhlouf has taken to YouTube to plead his case against possible seizure of whatever assets he has not concealed.

This spectacle reflects the rot and instability in the foundations of a dictatorship that survived a 9-year civil war only through genocidal-like violence and reliance on Russian military prowess. In pursuing victory at all costs, Assad has left the country fractured and prostrate, like a carcass being torn apart by rival factions, including the Iranians who helped keep Assad in power. Even with his control over most of the country, he still lacks the manpower to pull Idlib into his prison-like state.

The conditions can only worsen. With Russia and Iran suffering from a decline in oil prices, they are not able to bail out the country. On top of that, the coronavirus advances on a devastated country whose medical facilities were pulverized by war.

While the reports have an apocryphal quality, there have been repeated rumors that Putin is tired of Assad. There’s some question as to who would replace him if the rumors were true. In a country that lacks democracy, there is little opportunity for men and women to rise to essential posts based on talent alone. In a mafia-like state, where cronyism is the rule, the future is dim indeed.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.