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Karl Sharro: A Human Flood from the Baath State

Karl Sharro is a Syria Deeply columnist, London-based architect and Middle East commentator. He blogs at the wildly popular and Tweets @KarlreMarks.

Written by Karl Sharro Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

In neighboring countries, the impact of Syria’s conflict is being described predominantly as a “human flood.”

Seventy thousand killed.  More than one million refugees. The toll of the Syrian uprising continues to increase with a relentless mathematical predictability.

Despite the large numbers of refugees that have sought shelter in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey, the “human flood” tag isn’t innocent: the arrival of the refugees has been cynically exploited by local politicians keen to benefit from the resentment towards displaced Syrians.

But there’s more behind this attitude than nationalism and xenophobia. There’s a traditional aversion in Levantine cities towards the rural hinterland and its inhabitants that is now feeding this misanthropic view of Syrian refugees. The Arab Times recently described fleeing Syrians as “rural mercenaries [who have been] recruited to fight against their country.”

This attitude is also ingrained within Syria itself, as became apparent in Aleppo with the arrival of the predominantly rural rebels into the city. But the clash of urban and rural cultures long predated the fighting in Aleppo.

Syrian peasants historically had to fight to work their way into the national consciousness and political life, as the late historian Hanna Batatu illustrated in an excellent book on Syria’s peasantry.

This isn’t only about social attitudes, however. The Baathist state failed to alter the life prospects of the country’s rural inhabitants in a substantial manner despite its attempts at extending infrastructure and services to rural areas.  The late Syrian filmmaker Omar Amiralay astutely documented the ambiguous impact of the Baath’s rural development projects on villagers’ lives, highlighting the gap between the official self-congratulatory narrative and the reality of the villagers’ marginal existence.

In 2003’s “A Flood in Baath Country,” Amiralay developed this theme as a metaphor for the Baathist ‘deep state’, as he revisited the Euphrates dam which featured in his early work. Four decades into its existence, the party and its leaders had clearly formed no real allegiances in Syria’s inland regions. Despite its omnipresence, it remained a remote and detached entity as reflected in the repetitive slogans the people used throughout the film to talk about it.

Around there, the Baath could command only a scripted, mechanical form of loyalty that would in time be revealed to be rather tenuous. The people had perceived the Baathist state much like the way in which they experienced the construction of the dam and its huge artificial lake; as an external event that reshaped their lives but over which they had no control.

Of course that feeling of impotence was mirrored in other parts of the country. Under Assad Sr. the Baath had consolidated its control over public life and decision making ruthlessly. Nearly everyone in Syria was processed through the same state institutions, the schools, the pioneers’ organizations, the army, but at the end it was people from rural areas who had the fewest prospects open to them.

But the formal standardization of young people’s formative years couldn’t mask the Baathist state’s failure to envision a productive role for the country’s “margins.” Hundreds of thousands of Syrians were employed as cheap labor in Lebanon, with the Syrian regime actively ensuring that they would remain docile and prevent them from organizing to demand basic employment rights.

This was but one aspect of the pragmatic management of a growing rural population that was perceived as a burden. This tendency became more apparent under Bashar al-Assad, as his economic “reforms” diverted the emphasis of economic activity more sharply towards the center and Syria’s uneven development became more pronounced.

The Baath gestures towards the peasants — including mobilization through the Peasants Federation and the allocation of large number of parliamentary seats for peasants — were tokens. The official insistence on celebrating of the role of peasants could not mask the grim reality in rural Syria.

From 2006 to 2010, a severe drought exposed this reality, and with it, the Baath’s grand failures. The drought is now discussed as an unavoidable natural phenomenon, but in reality, its severe impact was a product of the lack of resilience and absence of effective development policies.

The drought accelerated outcomes that would have materialized within the next few years, as a large rural population was maintained at subsistence levels with very little prospects.

Despite its pseudo-socialist rhetoric, the Syrian regime — like most of its Arab counterparts — played an active role in keeping the masses down and eliminating their collective threat. It was a function that the Syrian (and Arab) elites inherently supported, driven by suspicion towards what they perceived to be a backward, undifferentiated multitude.

The sight of this multitude erupting now is their worst nightmare. To them it’s an uncontrolled human flood. On social media, you will see them referred to as barbarians, as hordes. The emphasis is always on the numbers, the inexhaustible supply of “savages.”

In depicting this conflict as an uncontrolled human eruption, the real causes and motivations are being swept away. Without acknowledging those causes there can be no possibility of even conceiving of a resolution.

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