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Global Express

Report from Syria – a Sociologist’s View

July 19, 2012

The following reflections are based on my experiences in Syria, where I lived and worked for almost 3 years in Homs and Damascus. This included work-based visits to different towns (Al Sweida, Aleppo, Lattakia, Tartous, Hama) and to different villages, enterprises, universities and vocational training-centers, religious centers, and offices of state administration, ministries. I had an uncountable number of interviews and conversations with ordinary people, employers, workers, foreign experts, military persons, professors, students, and families. Talks were conducted with religious believers including Alevis, Sunnies, Christians, Druses, Kurds, as well as with Communists, with members of Al-Baath Party including high ranking functionaries, ministers, businessmen and administrators, with Bedouins, with workers in refineries, in textile, construction and chemical enterprises, with young and old, women and men, teachers and students and people working on social projects, with refugees from Palestine and Iraq.  All these experiences gave me insights into daily life, into the social problems of Syrian people, into official politics and into the social contradictions within the Syrian society. The reflections that follow don’t meet the standards of science but nonetheless provide a basis of discussion.

Sociology in Syria and Arab countries

Abdulkadr Irabi has written: “The main directions of an Arab sociology, which we can characterize as academic, empirical, social-anthropological and political sociology, are geared to western sociological theories. The development of Arab sociology with its own theories and methods does not exist except for some basic approaches. The character of current Arab sociology is focused more on socio-technical issues than on critical aspects. The task of a critical analysis of Arab society is not realized.”[1] In Syria no sociology is free of state paternalism. Nor is sociology as a scientific discipline really taught at universities in Syria or in other Arab states. There are only some leading professors at the American Universities of Cairo and in Beirut. The first efforts to develop sociological instruction and research at Damascus University were made by Abdel-Karim in the 1950s, probably influenced by French sociology. But these efforts were suppressed after the Assad regime came to power.

After Hafiz Al-Assad came to power by military coup in 1971, social science disciplines (such as sociology, business management, political science, national economics) did not really exist. Instead, for more than 40 years interpretations of social phenomenon in Syria were based on the Koran, sometimes the Bible, and frequently, on the statements of the omniscient Al-Ba’ath Party's central committee. Party officials, the government, the ministries of education and the universities did not support the development of independent sociological research. This is also one of the reasons for the surprisingly tumescent protest wave during the Arab spring. In addition, the long lasting influence of the Soviet model continues to suppress the development of sociology. To be sure the Central Bureau of Statistics, linked to the Prime Minister’s office, did produce the more or less useful report on social developments, dilemmas and contradictions, but such efforts to use official statistics to produce reports derives from the Soviet model and also to deliberate disinformation  as regards Israel.

Social and political background of social conflicts in Syria

One of the main reasons for internal strife in Syria is the growing dissatisfaction among the younger generation without prospects.  Based on the last population census in 2004, 61.4 % of the female and 61.7% of the male Syrian population were under 24 years of age. Approximately 35% of the young people between 20 and 25 years have never had a job. For individuals between 25 and 29 years, the number of job-seekers was a little over 18%. These numbers only include jobseekers who were officially registered in the Ministry of Labor’s statistics.[2] Moreover, the statistics primarily looked at job seeking in the higher paid public sector. The number of young people assisting their parents in small businesses in agriculture, trade and handicraft, was not included in this statistic. My own personal observations of the explosive situation in labor bureaus among the mostly young jobseekers, suggest that the official statistics grossly underestimate the unemployment rate.

The nepotism of the presidential regime and the corruption is at the same time obvious. Because of the unstable relationship between the Alevi religious minority and the Assad clan, there is a strong link between social and religious conflicts. Alevis were often not accepted by other religious groups such as orthodox Muslims. The majority of farmers in Syria are Sunnites. However, the old Assad regime tried to make compromises of proportional representation between the different religious groups while suppressing all religious conflicts. For instance, the elected rector at the Al-Ba’ath-University in Homs had to be Sunni, from Homs and definitely an Al-Ba’ath party member. One of the pro-rectors had to be Christian. In this way, the old Assad regime tried to contain potential religious conflict.

Alevi party members played an important and dominant role in government administration. In addition, Kurdish and other tribes’ representatives, as well non party members were placed in high ranking government positions. But all these political efforts to stabilize the power of the Assad clan, were ultimately unable to address the country’s internal social conflicts, particularly between the old political elite and the young generation. Coercive pressure wielded by the security forces has for a long time been a good record of the social conflicts. The government under the young president Bashar Assad started to slowly open Syria up to the market economy and enacted a number of administrative and civil society reforms. The young generation was able to learn more about life in other places, particularly European countries, through the internet and other media. These new insights impacted attitudes and lifestyles among Syrian youth. For example, more and more, young female students began attending universities in jeans and none-traditional burkas.

An officially promoted Syrian nationalism, reinvigorated by the conflicts with Israeli as well as against the US presence in the Middle East, was still not strong enough to quash internal social conflicts in Syria. Hundreds of thousands of emigrants who had lived and worked in Europe and the US brought back other value systems and information that conflicted with the Syrian government’s propaganda. A Syrian colleague captured the psychological climate in the following manner: “You are a foreigner and thus you can openly give your opinion and criticize far more than we Syrian citizens can.” Although I was born in East Germany and know how such a system works, I tried not to cause trouble for my colleagues by officially quoting from their undercover talks. He knew that he was being observed and controlled by the Syrian secret service. Nonetheless, friends and colleagues have spoken with me at length about the internal problems of Syrian society.

Up until recently, a degree from a Syrian or foreign university guaranteed work in public enterprises, administration or scientific establishments; today, these sources of employment for young, educated people are beginning to run dry. The less educated farmer youth—mostly Sunnites—have even fewer job opportunities. In addition, the presence of more than four million refugees from the Palestinian territories and Iraq, who lack any real chances at integration and gaining employment, further intensify the social tensions in the country.

The corruption and nepotism of the Alevi ruling classes are obvious and deepen social tensions. Production and trade licenses in profitable areas are exclusively granted to representatives of this ruling class. All of these well-known facts were the reasons behind the social explosions that took place during the Arab Spring.

A Telling Example of Nepotism and Corruption

The lack of effective environmental protection was one of the reasons for establishing the German-Syrian environment studies center at the University in Homs, in cooperation with the University for Applied Sciences in Dresden. The Center supervised a lot of Master’s students’ projects in the field, such as recycling cotton wastes and building rubble, developing sanitary landfill as well as water preservation in the region of Homs. Irresponsible handling of natural resources, out-of-date industrial equipment, the use of water-intensive agriculture in cotton production, as well as the mismanagement of fertilizers and pesticides, have together led to desertification and the pollution of air, water and land. The fast growth of the population has necessitated more food production and intense use of natural resources.

One of the most polluted areas in the country is the industrial region of Homs. So both university partners tried to cooperate in this field of environmental studies without interfering in the internal politics of the Syrian government. Pollution in this highly industrialized region was mainly caused by combination of an out-of-date old refinery, fertilizer productions, sugar enterprises, slaughterhouses, cement production and enterprises for the repair of military tanks. The outflow into the Homs Orontes-river (Arab Al-Ahsi) from the lake, created by the old dam, was so polluted that this second largest river of Syria had no animal or plant life beyond the dam.

To protect the dam lake we developed a plan to establish a conservation area around the lake and implement inexpensive and realistic measures to reduce air, water and soil pollution. However, the governor and other politicians favored unrealistic mega-solutions, over our proposal.  For example, they proposed completely closing down the fertilizer production in Homs and building a new gigantic fertilizer production plant near Syria’s most important touristic attraction—the ruins of Palmyra in the desert. The idea was propelled by the need to invest billions of US dollars. In order to deliver the water for a production complex in this new industrial area, the officials considered creating a new channel from the Euphrates River. These plans were remarkably similar to the investment of millions of US dollars in the treatment of industrial water in the Hassia industrial city free zone, a project that largely failed.

Our proposed easy and cheap solutions for environmental protection and for the preservation of water resources competed with the gigantic ideas and megaprojects of politicians. We could not understand why our ideas were not taken up. Finally, we discovered that nepotism and corruption precludes easy and realistic solutions. It was far more profitable for politicians to promote expensive solutions than to support the easy and cheap measures of environmental protection and water saving. The Arab Spring and the beginning of civil war prematurely ended all negotiations. Neither our easily feasible solutions nor the governor’s gigantic projects were realized. Before these events, politicians preferred to talk a lot and to do nothing at same time. There are high incidents of cancer among children, workers and citizens in the surroundings of the Homs industrial area. Perhaps, the continuing inactivity of the politicians was also among the reasons for the social explosion and heavy fighting in Homs during the Arab Spring.

The Short-Term Outlook

Certainly, the civil war has destroyed the basics of environmental protection and of economic development in Syria for a long time. No Syrian has profited from this war and it has been the civilian population that has been most heavily impacted. There seems to be some foreign interest in destabilizing social life in Syria. For example, we observed personally some salafist mission from Germany and from other regions during our last stay in Homs. All foreign and some ultra-religious interventions have increased the social tensions instead of addressing the immediate and long term problems.

Today there is only one hope: the ruling circles must devise a new constitution and hold elections, and reach a compromise between the fighting parties. Only a peaceful solution to the social problems can lead to positive future developments. The economy has already been negatively affected. I believe that only the UN-observing missions—forces that are really interested in political compromises—and realistic people can halt the violence.

Hopefully, the ruling class and the Al-Ba’ath Party circles are really interested in political compromises. Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq have shown that foreign interventions only deepen the conflicts and do not provide any real solutions for any internal social problem. Such interventions only serve to worsen the situation for the civilian population and deepen existing problems, instead of bringing a stop to civil war and addressing long term needs. Further, they lead to religious fundamentalism and do not effectively quell terrorism. The newest bombing activities of Al-Qaeda in Syria have confirmed this observation.

[1] Irabi, Abdulkadr. 1982.  “Zum Stand der gegenwärtigen arabischen Soziologie.” Zeitschrift für Soziologie, Heft 2, Jg. 11, S. 167 -182.
[2] “Statistical abstract.” Syrian Arab Republic. (2005) p. 79 -102.

Volkmar Kreissig, former Head of Environmental Studies Center, Al-Baath University, Homs, Syria
for Global Express, July 19, 2012

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