[Marxism] Josh Landis on the economic roots of the Syrian revolution

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Aug 13 12:59:58 MDT 2012


Monday, August 28, 2006
A Personal Memo - By EHSANI2

I have just returned from a three-week vacation to Syria. I must admit 
that I have struggled to think of something incisive to write about. 
What possible insight can I offer readers of this forum I thought? Given 
my personal interest in economic matters, it made sense for me to 
concentrate on this topic first. I will conclude my note with the 
inevitable discussion of non-economic issues as well. I warn the scores 
of regime supporters here: The truth is sometimes painful to hear.

One tends to often read statements like “Syrians” are behind Bashar and 
are keen to maintain the status quo. Others may offer a different 
picture by proclaiming that “Syrians” are very unhappy with the regime 
but are afraid to say so in public.

But which “Syrians” are we referring to here?

In the personal opinion of this writer, Syria is made up of two separate 
countries: Syria 1 which contains close to one million people and Syria 
2 which contains the remaining 19 million.

Syria 1 is made up of the affluent, highly connected industrialists, 
merchants and very high Government officials. Given the high standard of 
living of this group, one would expect them to support the regime and 
the current status quo. While most may admit that that progress has been 
slow, they are quick to point that given the circumstances, the country 
is on the right track. They highlight their latest cell phones, home and 
office Internet connections as well as their brand new cars as 
irrefutable signs of the economic and social advances that the country 
has been experiencing as of late. My suspicion is that most readers of 
this forum fall in this group. My Syrian friends and I certainly do too. 
Seen from their prism, the Syrian economy seems prosperous judging by 
the superb outdoor dinners, number of servants, lovely homes, fancy 
cars, latest cell phones, rising land values, and monopolistic businesses.

Life could not be more different for the 19 million people of Syria 2. 
As I opined in the past, Syria’s Baath has caused enormous economic 
damage to this country. It is clear that this silent majority has 
suffered the brunt of this grave economic mismanagement. This is evident 
in this group’s salary levels. If they were lucky enough to have jobs, 
salaries of this group is likely to be around Syp 10,000 ($200) per 
month. Their average family size is 6-7 (four to five children). They 
all seem to feel that what they really needed was an extra $100 per 
month before things would be “fine”. Almost a year ago, the Government 
has stopped offering new jobs in its vast public sector. You now need a 
huge connection to land such a job. What was truly amazing to me was how 
valuable people considered a job with the Government. A stable income of 
$200 was the envy of those aspiring to find such positions. Taxi drivers 
were an interesting case to study. 90% of them do not own their vehicles 
but are hired to drive it for close to 8 hours a day. Asked how much 
they expected to make on a daily basis, the level of Syp 300 ($6.0) was 
often cited. When asked how many children they had to support with this 
salary, an average of five children always seemed to be the answer. This 
does not mean that members of Syria 2 do not move up the income ladder. 
Highly technical machine technicians cited to me figures approaching Syp 
20,000 ($400). Private Bank employees (newly commissioned ones) expected 
closer to $500 a month. Our highly connected and very entrepreneurial 
area “Mukhtar” is able to draw in close to Syp 40,000 (he sells gas 
cylinders on the side). Though not statistically accurate, it is my 
observation that close to 19 million lives in this $200 to $400 per 
month world.

What can $200-$400 buy this group is the obvious next question. It is 
perhaps best to answer this by offering these anecdotes:

A close friend of mine has recently started a small chain of coffee 
shops (call it a Syrian Starbucks). I frequently visited it during the 
past 3 weeks. A double espresso was my usual order at a cost of Syp 150 
($3). Two such orders a day cost me what my taxi driver earned in 8 
hours of driving in a boiling non-air-conditioned Iranian or 
Chinese-made vehicle. Remember that this had to cover his cost of 
shelter, food, medical bills, and school supplies for all 6-7 members of 
his family.

Eating out in Syria is relatively cheap. Before I left the country, my 
wife and I invited 10 of our best friends out for dinner. The food was 
amazing. The bill was Syp 8,000 ($160). Given what I would have paid for 
this overseas, I considered the outing an excellent value of money. For 
the record, my poor taxi driver will have to drive for 27 days to be 
able to afford this meal (his family can expect no money in the meantime).

I am sure that lots of readers are going to argue that every country has 
its haves and have-nots. So what is special about Syria they might ask?

What distinguishes Syria is how its middle class has been squashed by 
the horrific economic mismanagement by the country’s economic 
leadership. $6 a day for 6 people (average family size) is the 
unmistakable result of this catastrophic system.

Every time I asked how they could possibly get by with such low income, 
the answer was “We have gotten used to it”.

A note on politics:

Contrary to what many people on this forum think, most of the people 
that I spoke to seem to think that the Hariri investigation is a massive 
cloud that continues to hang over the regime’s leadership.

Another thing that struck me was the low confidence that most people 
have in the personality of their young President. Even his loyal 
supporters seem to admit that he lacks the charisma and purpose of his 
late foxy father.

As for the regime’s ability to hold on to power, I found absolutely no 
evidence to indicate a weakening in the regime’s grip. Internal dissent 
was nonexistent.

Why have the 19 million people decided to accept living in such conditions?

I think the following quote by Karl Marx can answer this question best:

“The great mass of the French nation is formed by the simple addition of 
homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes.”


This visit to Syria has convinced me that the country’s economy is in a 
far worse position than currently believed. When Syria becomes a net oil 
importer by 2010, the current economic challenges will multiply. A very 
small minority of Syrians will continue to benefit from the current 
system and hence get even richer in the meantime. My own close friends 
are some of the richest people in the country. A number of them made 
hundreds of millions following the recent climb in land values. Money 
laundering was thought to be the main explanation behind the incredible 
advance in real estate. While it is easy to assume that Syria 1 is the 
reality of the situation, the truth is otherwise.

The vast majority of the population is likely to suffer even further 
going forward. Though inconceivable, their children may fare even worse 
than their horrific $6 payday. The population explosion has resulted in 
scores of unemployed men walking its major cities. Those residing in the 
rural part of the country have fared even worse. Their decision to 
locate to the big cities has made things even worse. It is my conviction 
that this regime cannot reform fast enough to arrest the decline in its 
economy and the standards of living of its citizens. Bashar’s last 
interview with Dubai Television was striking. His admission of complete 
isolation from the other Arab leaders was rather shocking. It is my 
opinion that the Hariri investigation may unsettle this regime to the 
point where its survival beyond one more year could well be questioned. 
My friends in Syria 1 sure hope that I am wrong. The potatoes that make 
up Syria 2 are hopeless, powerless and confused. They have been squashed 
for 43 years now. They have learnt to accept their fate. They know no 
better. I have heard and read all the commentary that Syria has won the 
recent battle. Most Syrians on this forum and inside the country have 
rallied around their leader and the flag. This is to be expected in such 
times. This writer, on the other hand, sees things differently. He sees 
a country in decay. A majority that is deep in poverty. Soaring 
unemployment is unavoidable. Significantly falling standards of living 
is inevitable. This is the picture of Syria that most refuse to hear. 
Their nationalistic genes have blinded them to these obvious facts on 
the ground. Regrettably, our once proud nation is in a state of despair 
and decline.

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