Sowing the Seeds of Dissent: Economic Grievances and the Syrian Social Contract’s Unraveling

By Suzanne Saleeby

Over the past ten months, the international community has gazed awestruck at how Syria’s uprisings have swept through a nation once viewed as pacified by a repressive regime. An analysis solely focusing on the brutality of the Assad regimes, however, elides some of the economic roots of popular unrest, particularly those stemming from the rural poor. As a result of four years of severe drought, farmers and herders have seen their livelihoods destroyed and their lifestyles transformed, becoming disillusioned with government promises of plentitude in rural areas. In the disjuncture between paternalistic promises of resource redistribution favoring Syria’s peasantry and corporatist pacts binding regime interests to corrupt private endeavors, one may begin to detect the seeds of Syrian political unrest.

The drought that has devastated these cities is not a consequence of climate change alone or mere demographic shifts that Malthusian anxieties might suggest. The current water crisis in Syria is largely a result of deliberate, top-down decisions. Within the history of water usage itself in Syria may be found a deeper narrative telling of the relationship between the Syrian State and the people it governs. State allocation of resources demonstrates more about shifting and complex networks of power in Syria than of natural and unchanging conditions.

A deeper look into resource inequity as opposed to mere resource scarcity illuminates the ongoing social and economic stratification that have helped push to Syria’s foreground specific political grievances. Although political repression may have fuelled a steady undercurrent of dissent over the last few decades, the regime’s failure to put in place economic measures to alleviate the effects of drought was a critical driver in propelling such massive mobilizations of dissent. In these recent months, Syrian cities have served as junctures where the grievances of displaced rural migrants and disenfranchised urban residents meet and come to question the very nature and distribution of power.

To understand how economic factors have catalyzed dissent in Syria, we must first trace the gradual disintegration of the social contract between the Syrian regime and rural poor. Baath Party leadership has historically sought to tether itself to a mythology of humble, industrious young men from Syria’s rural periphery, toiling their way to power to improve the lots of their brethren. The party appealed overwhelmingly to the country’s middle peasantry in its proclaimed disdain of powerful economic interest groups that had hoarded the country’s wealth at the expense of those who tilled its land. Hama, host to some of the most brutal regime repression of dissent to date, provides a particularly instructive example, as it was one of the principal sources of the party’s membership as well as the site of the country’s first popular agrarian movement.

Moving towards the establishment of a statist economy during the 1960s and 1970s, early Baathists focused on massive land distributions from oligarchical landowners to peasants and small landholders, thereby reshaping the hierarchical structure of Syrian society through populist rhetoric and policy. As Hanna Batatu shows, even in his youth, Hafez al-Assad (1971-2000) played a major role in nationalizing “the Régie,” a French-owned tobacco company that held a monopoly over this commodity in Syria for decades.

As Syria’s first ruler of peasant roots, Hafez vehemently reminded the country’s populace in a 1980 address. He stated: “I am first and last—and of this I hope every Syrian citizen and every Arab outside of Syria will take cognizance—a peasant and the son of a peasant. To lie amidst the spikes of grain or on the threshing floor is, in my eyes, worth all the palaces in the world.” Such discourse suggested that the new regime would place country’s peasants at the top of its policy agenda, but in fact saw the rural poor as tools in promoting a nationalist agenda first and foremost, with actual household needs being met only as an afterthought.

Hafez thus disseminated nationalist propaganda across the country to remind the populace of how he, with the help of the Baath party, had reclaimed the nation’s wealth from big landowners and industrialists. Lisa Wedeen describes how the late president fostered his own “cult of personality” by erecting symbolic monuments across the country. A noteworthy example is the currently drought-affected town of ar-Raqqa’s statue portraying Hafez, whose base displays juxtaposed images of peasant, woman, and worker. Such fixtures sent a powerful message that the Hafez regime would deliver social(ist) justice and transform the fate of the Syrian peasantry for the better. In the recent destruction of monuments portraying the late president in cities like Daraa, however, one sees the degree to which the legitimacy of the al-Assad cult has decayed.

Another means that Hafez and his son Bashar utilized to secure their legitimacy was the construction of massive national development and irrigation projects. Hafez incorporated food and water self-sufficiency into his national security strategy by way of national development endeavors such as the Euphrates Basin Development Project (EBDP) in the Jazeera region. By establishing dam schemes that promised irrigation and electricity to both agricultural hubs and urban centers, the Baath regime enhanced its popularity nationwide.

By the mid-1990s, around fifty-six percent of households along the Euphrates Basin enjoyed running water, 92 percent had access to electricity, and twenty-nine percent were using modern sewage systems. These tangible improvements were signs that the regime offered both a voice and a support system for those who had long suffered from economic want and disenfranchisement. They sent a clear message that the dark experiences of their forbearers would not be repeated. Syrians came to associate greater access to services with major increases in peasant literacy, a broader spread of technical skills across the countryside, and an expansion of educational facilities in rural areas. As Batatu writes, peasants’ perceptions of expanding social and economic development across Syria’s rural periphery “decreased their resistance to Baathist recruitment drives.” Moreover, Syrian agricultural endeavors served to boost the country’s image as a modern state under Baathist regimes to the international community.

Both Hafez’s and Bashar’s emphasis on the cultivation of “strategic crops” such as wheat and cotton are prime examples of the ways through which the State sought to ensure control and legitimacy. Jessica Barnes stresses the large increase in land area cultivated with cotton during the 1990s, making the crop Syria’s second largest export, only after oil. Excessive usage of irrigation methods on such non-food industrial crops increased the salinity of farmland and thus exacerbated today’s water scarcity crisis in rural areas. At the same time, the regime’s emphasis upon food self-sufficiency as a matter of national security has resulted in an increased usage of irrigation methods for wheat, particularly in the face of decreased rainfall.

Bashar’s more recent policies have aimed to modernize irrigation techniques and agricultural technology. Such a process has proven difficult in practice, however, as farmers can scarcely afford to update agricultural tools and irrigation infrastructure. This is largely due to a historical dependence on subsidies, escalating grain prices internationally, and less availability of loans to farmers during the global economic crisis. Inefficient irrigation systems that should have been better managed in years past have hence remained in place and have continued to squander Syria’s dwindling water resources.

Nevertheless, notions of “development,” which would allegedly propel Syria towards food self-sufficiency, have been built upon a political façade. Not only did irrigation projects inefficiently use what water was available and exhaust those few remaining resources, they promised a state of food security that Syrian land could not singularly provide. Over the past decade, Bashar al-Assad has attempted to propel Syria along the Chinese path of development, in which political stability through one-party rule is relentlessly maintained while modernization through market-based reform is pursued. This was reflected in the June 2005 Baath Party Congress’ announcement that Syria would adopt a “Socialist Market Economy.” This change took place alongside soaring global grain prices, increasing food imports and declining oil outputs amidst rising Syrian demand for fuel. Unsurprisingly, unemployment soared to between twenty and twenty-five percent by 2008.

Moreover, infitah under Hafez evolved into subsequent agricultural privatization endeavors that Bashar has pursued, representing corporatist schemes through which the most powerful and wealthy have skimmed off profits from private investments and projects. “Mixed-sector” agricultural ventures that the government does not manage itself, through which public sector industrialists are able to obtain profits and prestige where total privatization would not permit, exemplify such endeavors. The culmination of this quasi-privatization lies in companies such as SyriaTel, business entities where economic opportunity and jobs could abound, but that have instead served as models of corruption and control. Images of subjugating, hierarchical relations between big landowners and corrupt industrialists thus remain vivid figures in Syrian national memory, and perhaps never truly perished despite the previously mentioned “reforms.”

Efforts by the state to promote private investment, as shown by government sale of large tracts of land to private agribusiness entities, have also had toxic environmental and human consequences. Not only has the national government failed to adequately regulate agricultural activity in dry areas during the past decade, it has fomented irrigation practices which contribute to desertification. Although the state imposed a law in 2005 that prohibited the drilling of illegal wells, such forms of water supply abound despite ever-diminishing groundwater reserves. Well water quality also lacks regulation, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports, as wells contaminated by salt and nitrates often make drinking water unfit for human consumption. With forty-seven percent of wells going out of service in the ar-Raqqah region, for example, farmers must often rely on private contractors for water, the latter of which often undergoes insufficient treatment.

In this environment of agricultural deregulation, farmers’ unprotected property rights enable herders to overgraze increasingly fragile and parched lands. Privatization has corroded customary law over boundary rights, which the State has also failed to protect. Where Bashar’s current regime has provided assistance, however, it has exacerbated the water scarcity crisis in dry areas. Higher local and international demand for meat and dairy products in recent years has resulted in grazing and the cultivation of grain and barley used exclusively for cattle and sheep feed. By providing subsidized feed to herders, the State has encouraged them to maintain larger herds than their natural environment can sustain. Similar to subsidized “strategic” crops, subsidized feed has superimposed a myth of prosperity over a reality of desertification and soil degradation. Moreover, it has served as a piecemeal and ineffective state measure of fomenting popular support in rural regions that clearly neglects historical issues of land tenure, environmental responsibility, and resource equity.

Accordingly, I would argue that a critical impetus in driving Syrian dissent today has been the government’s role in further marginalizing its key rural populace in the face of recent drought. Numerous international organizations have acknowledged the extent to which drought has crippled the Syrian economy and transformed the lives of Syrian families in myriad irreversible ways. IRIN, the UN humanitarian news service, reported that drought had affected all of 1.3 million individuals. The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) reported that 800,000 Syrians have seen their incomes drop by 90 percent, as they have watched the lands from which they historically drew their livelihoods dry up.

Furthermore, with between two and three million Syrians living in extreme poverty, school enrollment dropping by as much as eighty percent in areas such as the northeastern region of Hassakeh, and around 500,000 families internally displaced as a result of drought, it is no surprise that popular unrest has increased in recent months. Disease resulting from a lack of clean water and malnutrition spurred by prolonged diets of only sugared tea and bread are phenomena increasingly seen across Syria’s parched landscapes. Those who have lost their livelihoods during the drought are not merely environmental refugees, but individuals disillusioned by rhetoric, policy, and development projects that had promised reform but delivered policies which only escalated the current resource crisis.

It is logical to conclude that escalating pressures on urban areas due to internal migration, increasing food insecurity, and resultant high rates of unemployment have spurred many Syrians to make their political grievances publicly known. One might look to the city of Deir ez-Zor, one of Syria’s most dangerously dry areas, to locate deeply rooted seeds in the harvest of dissent. The northeastern city experienced one of the strongest sieges by the Syrian army at the beginning of Ramadan after popular uprisings spread across its parched expanse. As a local activist told Syria Today, the citizens of Deir ez-Zour “are suffering and complain that they have had no help from the authorities who tell them what type of crops they have to plant, and have a monopoly on buying up what they produce.” Also among the cities whose residents’ livelihoods were most crippled by recent drought was Daraa, historically a “bread basket” of Syria. Additionally, Hama remains a major destination for drought-displaced farmers despite suffering its own water scarcity woes. In all three centers of popular uprisings lie important narratives of livelihoods lost and families left wanting.

Agricultural policies by the al-Assad regimes have also helped assemble new constellations of power in which minorities such as women are shoved to Syria’s socioeconomic fringes. With so many male heads of household migrating from drought-affected farms to urban areas to pursue alternative income strategies, their wives, sisters, and daughters must often take up informal work in addition to preexisting family responsibilities. Women accumulate such duties despite sparse state recognition of their contributions to the economy’s agricultural sector and without protective mechanisms such as labor laws to ensure their safety. They are thus deeply embedded in a patriarchal system due to a loss of autonomy in which they must increasingly rely upon the State whose decision-making processes determine the extent to which these families’ products will compete in international markets.

Bread may not be the ultimate driver of dissent in Syria. Particularly in the face of a repressive security apparatus and an outright denial of many civil and political rights by the regime, a desire for human dignity indeed lies at the top of Syrians’ list of demands. Nonetheless, the legacy of poor agricultural policies, years of crippling drought, and socioeconomic transformation have had undeniable effects on the Syrian social contract. Furthermore, this look at the role of agriculturalists in shaping Syria’s political destiny demonstrates that educated urban youth are not the only players in propelling the Syrian revolution, even if they are its primary activists. The al-Assad regimes’ compact with the rural poor which has been promised, shattered, and converted into public-private alliances which further stratify the country economically cannot afford to be overlooked. Whether Syria faces further alienation by its Arab neighbors, internal threats of increased repression, or total regime change, the international community must fully take into account the role of economic factors in shaping citizen loyalty and dissent., February 16, 2012