Economic Policies & Ideologies

Following his successful coup Hafez al-Assad diminished the socialist dimensions of Ba’athist ideology that promoted the welfare of the peasant populations while curtailing the power of the landowners and merchant classes. Instead, Assad launched several state run infrastructure projects and built industrial factories while simultaneously utilizing the revenue from oil production to fund public welfare programs such as free education and healthcare.

By the mid- to late-1970s, however, the economic conditions for a vast majority of Syrians had stagnated while wealth was being concentrated into the hands of well-established landlords and a new emerging bourgeoisie that included several Sunni religious leaders (alim, singular; ‘ulama, plural) many of whom were merchants and craftsmen. In addition, political repression justified by the imposition of Emergency Rule was commonplace.

These conditions led many groups to organize protests calling for economic and political reforms, including the League of Communist Action, various trade unions, and a coalition of Muslims including the Muslim Brotherhood.[1] This latter group organized around Islamist values that served as a counterforce to Ba’athist secularism and Alawi sectarianism. All efforts were thwarted by the regime, and sometimes brutally, as in the 1982 operation in Hama against the Muslim Brotherhood that resulted in between 10–20,000 deaths. (Similar to the contemporary situation, this was justified by the government’s assertion that the Muslim Brotherhood was an “extremist” organization).[2] This crackdown stifled dissent and empowered the traditional ‘ulama who were economically aligned with the rising elite.

In response to a debt crisis in the 1980s the government announced an era of economic pluralism (ta’addudiyya), which meant further liberalizing the economy by opening it more to the private sector. This move appeased business interests and government aligned Sunni ‘ulama whose religious organizations and charitable works were increasingly dependent upon patronage from the private sector.[3] The strategy of economic pluralism also served to marginalize a report by The General Federation of Workers Syndicates that blamed the crisis on Syrian dependence on the global market and called on increased government control over the economy to counter this trend.

Economic Policies of Bashar al-Assad

Liberalization of the economy through privatization continued piecemeal throughout the 1990s but was openly adopted by Bashar al-Assad in several policy changes initiated in the early years of his presidency. Most notably, the “social market economy” was adopted as the new economic model for Syria in June of 2005 during the 10th regional congress of the Ba’ath party. This model, however, was “social” in name only. In practice it signaled a full-scale adoption of neoliberal economic policies absent of state-supported measures to provide welfare protections. As a result, these policies led to a dramatic rise in unemployment, an increase in those living below the poverty level, and the concentration of the nation’s wealth in the hands of an increasingly smaller percentage of its citizens.[4]

During this period Assad also sought to strengthen his legitimacy among Islamic groups (including the ‘ulama) who were potential political allies in support of his economic reform efforts. The confluence of these factors created the conditions for the dramatic increase of Islamic led charities and organizations that were funded in large measure by private sector donors loyal to the regime-friendly ulama. These private sector donors are also known to have strong ties to the military, leading to what commentators such as Islamist Yasir al-‘Ayti have denounced as the “destructive triad” of interdependency and support between the regime, the ulama and business.[5] These intersections provide a platform for Islamist groups to offer a counter narrative that many who are consistently marginalized find compelling.

[1] Omar S. Dahi and Yasser Munif, “Revolts in Syria: Tracking the Convergence Between Authoritarianism and Neoliberalism,” Journal of Asian and African Studies, No. 47, Vol. 323 (2012), p. 9.

[2] Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation, (New York: Touchstone, 1990).

[3] Thomas Pierret, Religion and State in Syria, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013). See especially chapter four, “The Turban and the Chequebook: Political Economy of the Syrian Religious  Elite.”

[4] Dahi and Munif, “Revolts in Syria: Tracking the Convergence Between Authoritarianism and Neoliberalism”; Joshua Landis, “The Syrian Uprising of 2011: Why the Asad Regime is Likely to Survive to 2013,” Middle East Policy, Vol. XIX, No. 1 (Spring 2012); Majid Rafizadeh, “In Syria, Follow the Money to Find the Roots of the Revolt,” The Daily Beast, April 8, 2013, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/04/08/in-syria-follow-the-money-to-find-the-roots-of-the-revolt.html, accessed May 26, 2013.

[5] Pierret, Religion and State in Syria: The Sunni Ulama from Coup to Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 161–162.