Syria After the Uprisings: How the Assad government prevented its imminent collapse

Syria After the Uprisings: How the Assad government prevented its imminent collapse
Book Club: Joseph Daher analyses the resilience of the Syrian regime and the failings of the uprising in his latest book Syria After the Uprisings.
6 min read
20 August, 2019
Daher describes how Bashar al-Assad implemented a wave of neoliberal economic reforms [Getty]
"We have to understand the reasons why this regime sustained [itself] until today, despite being very weak at one point," begins Joseph Daher, Syrian-Swiss professor at Lausanne University in Switzerland and activist.

Daher, who also blogs on his website Syrian Freedom Forever, recently published his latest book, Syria After the Uprisings: The Political Economy of State Resilience with Pluto Press. 

Feeling that the often myopic analysis Syria focusing on sects and geopolitics has been far too dominant, Daher decided to turn into his political economic research into a book.

"Politics and economics are not separate and completely interlinked," he said.

Syria After the Uprisings looks at the roots of popular uprising, but does not acclaim them entirely to "civil liberties and democratic rights".

"[These values] are important and we have to defend [them]," he tells The New Arab. "But in my view, Syria and other countries have suffered decades of inequalities and neoliberal policies."

Daher argues that the areas where uprisings were sparked were "mostly mid-sized towns" that were growing in population, citing poorer neighbourhoods of major cities Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs, and rural areas.

In his book, Daher describes how Bashar al-Assad implemented a wave of neoliberal economic reforms following after succeeding his late father Hafez al-Assad in 2000. 

In addition to empowering a "business class" that comprised of members of the ruling family and its supporters, Daher says that the government crushed any attempts of workers or peasantry unions to stifle dissent against widening inequalities.

Many impoverished rural areas were so underdeveloped to the point where many join the army for the lack of an economic alternative.

This also applies to Alawite areas, who Daher says benefitted at times from sectarian bias, but whose working class and rural populations were especially neglected as well.

Following the militarisation of the Syrian uprising, which led to the establishment of a wide array of opposition militias, the regime appeared to be on its last legs at one point.

It wasn't until the infamous Battle of Quseir in the summer of 2012, where Russia and Lebanon's Hizballah played a crucial role in what appeared to be a slow pushback by the government.

That being said, the emergence of the Islamic State group (IS) and its takeover of major cities in Syria and Iraq, the Kurdish-led PYD cantons across northern Syria, and opposition-held areas in Idlib, cities in southwestern Syria, and neighbourhoods of some major cities, meant that there were far less resources for the Syrian government to keep its economy together.

"State resilience when it comes to its economy is mostly due to foreign assistance," Joseph Daher continues. "And you can see the [economic] crisis today."

Daher says that the support from key allies Russia and Iran are not limited to political and military support, but also economic since the early days of the conflict.

In 2013, Iran granted $3.6 billion in credit for the Syrian government to import oil products from Tehran. Beyond aid and loans, business deals are also in the mix. Last year, Russia and Syria agreed to have Russian companies restore the country's destroyed energy infrastructure and lead the development of natural gas offshore.

However, the Syrian government maintained public institutions even in territories that were not under its control.

In his book, Daher cites that some 300,000 Syrians living outside government-held areas were beneficiaries of government salaries and pensions. He argues that this kept large swathes of the population under the government's authority. The ability to maintain some of these services in areas where opposition-held areas struggled to do so helped maintain the state's legitimacy, Daher adds.

Normalisation and reconstruction

The ongoing restoration of political and economic ties from former regional foes in the region reflects "uprisings being crushed throughout the region," Joseph Daher explains. "Though Sudan and Algeria are exceptions."

In December 2018, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, both vocal opponents of Assad and the Syrian government, reopened their embassies in Syria, six years after shuttering diplomatic ties. Two months prior, Assad said in an interview with Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Shahed that several Arab and Western countries are preparing to re-establish diplomatic ties. 

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Daher says that while Bahrain couldn't have restored ties with Syria "without Saudi Arabia's approval", he feels that a potential domino effect of restoring ties and bringing Syria back to the Arab League will be halted by the United States and sanctions.

"US pressure is holding Saudi Arabia [back] from normalising ties and bringing Syria back to the Arab League, as it continues to tighten sanctions," Daher said. "Normalisation has slowed down massively."

He also believes that this is halting the reconstruction process from other countries following Russia and Iran's lead to restore the Syrian economy.

"With threats of sanctions, you have many international and regional states withdrawing from investing in the Syrian reconstruction," he said. "Lack of funding is thus still an issue."

Outside of the regional race to win bids in reconstruction projects in Syria, Daher sees Turkey, which occupies a northern enclave, and Syria coordinating in the future over the Kurdish-led PYD. 

"We could see security coordination [between Turkey and Syria]," he said. "Turkey withdraws with some [retained] influence… with the Syrian government cracking down on any armed mobilisations from the PYD."

The PYD, which developed a semi-autonomous federation across northern Syria in the midst of the conflict, has started to butt heads with the Syrian governments over the past couple of years.

The Syrian government, prior silent about these developments, have described PYD and affiliated groups as an "illegitimate foreign force", and denied to allow the federation to exist within Syria. Kurdish forces, backed by the US in eastern Syria have accused Russia several times of targeting them in airstrikes

Refugees welcome?

Daher addresses the refugee situation in Syria After the Uprisings, which the UNHCR says is the largest ever in its mandate.

Both government officials and international aid organisations, such as the Danish Refugee Council, have claimed that areas reclaimed by the Syrian government are safe for refugees to return and contribute in the reconstruction; however, the author says that is only a small part of the story.

Areas reclaimed following sieges or intense battles are yet to be rebuilt, and reclaimed areas based on reconciliation agreements are still facing tension.

"[For example] the vast majority of East Aleppo has been destroyed," Daher said, adding that state services are still not up-and-running there.

"You [also] see cases of dissent in Daraa, because reconciliation agreements were not respect, such as services not returning or former FSA [Free Syria Army] members getting arrested."

Daher also looks at the economic conditions within Syria that hinder conducive and safe refugee returns.

"The manufacturing sector suffered massively," he explained. "The agriculture sector, [which is] the country's main economic sector, [also] has extreme costs in damages." He also described a difficult situation of high unemployment coupled with the inflation of basic goods. 

Another elephant in the room according to the author is the task of absolving informal pro-government militias.

"A pro-regime militant earns more than a university professor in Damascus," Daher said, explaining that the economic incentives could restrain many Syrians from joining the formal labour force for some time.

Despite a new chapter looming for Syria, Daher says that the core issues in Syria have yet to be solved.

"No democracy, no social justice… the main problems that caused the uprising are still here."

Kareem Chehayeb is a Lebanese writer and musician based in Beirut.

Follow him on Twitter: @chehayebk

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