Foreign Policy Blogs

The Class Clash

The ongoing coverage of the Syrian uprising has focused, mostly, on issues of sect, ethnicity, and political affiliation. “This is a sectarian issue! Sunnis vs Alawites vs Christians!!!” Or maybe…”It’s about Kurds vs Arabs!!!” Another favorite is…”It’s about Authoritarianism vs Islamism vs Liberalism!!!” Newspapermen seem to like fights.

The one issue that seems to be getting thrown under the bus, and what might just be most important in the Syrian context, is the issue of class.

Good ol’ Rami Makhlouf got me thinking. His comments to the NY Times are required reading, by the way. The title of the article in which these comments appear is “Syrian Elite to Fight Protests to the End.” (Italics mine) The article goes on to describe the Elite as a marriage between Sunni businessmen and Alawites, but I think the title is where the beef really is.

If you look at the locations of protests they are all occurring in the poorest regions of the country; the so-called poverty belt. If this was a sectarian issue, wouldn’t we be seeing some sort of correlation between sectarian demographic trends and protest locations? I mean Dera’a and Baniyas, two hubs of pro-opposition sentiment, don’t have much in common besides both falling within Syrian borders. Both have sizable Sunni populations. Both have failing economies.

If this were a Sunni issue, as many within the regime–including Makhlouf–would have you believe, wouldn’t the Sunnis of Damascus and Aleppo, and Hama (the ultimate Sunni stronghold) be out in the streets too?

I haven’t been to Baniyas. I have been to many of the areas that surround Baniyas, and the area is kind of, like, Alawite central. It’s coastal, and depends on what’s left of the Syrian oil and gas sector, not exactly a growth industry. Dera’a is rural. Like, really rural. They grow grapes there, at least they used to before the drought hit and all the wells dried up. What do these areas have in common then?

They are made up of Syria’s lower classes; those left behind by the banking boom, and the proliferation of cell phone providers, and the opening of swank nightclubs and restaurants which have become the status quo for the Syrian Elite Rami Mahklouf speaks of. They are not benefiting from Bashar Al-Assad’s economic reform program, which has dismantled many of the institutions of the Ba’athist state at great personal benefit to those in positions of privilege. Those who through proximity to power have a lot of skin in this game, and are behind the regime “until the end” as Rami put it.

Of course it’s pretty hard, some would say impossible, to untangle all this. The truth is that someone can be an Alawaite, an Arab, and an Autocrat–ah alliteration!–and swear allegiance to all three groups at once. But in the Syrian case the one thing that seems to be unifying the many forces which have coalesced behind the president, as well as the opposition to that presidency, is class consciousness. Pro-regime forces are all too aware that the benefits of their class could well be wiped away in a post-Assad world. The opposition knows it, too.



Walter Raubeson

Walter spent the last two years living and working in Damascus, reporting on the Syrian social, political, and cultural scene. Recently returned to the US, Walter continues to monitor Middle Eastern events with verve, and also gusto.

Having graduated from New York University's Masters Program in Political Science- International Relations-in September 2008, Walter's MA thesis analyzed the Lebanese political system; focusing on the impact of foreign intervention within Lebanon, particularly the roles of Iran, Israel, Syria, and the US.