Syria Table of Contents
A coppersmith plying his trade in a suq
Courtesy Mona Yacoubian
A settled beduin family living in Al Qamishli
Courtesy Susan Carter
In the mid-1980s, Syrian society was in a state of flux. The social, political, and economic developments of the preceding two decades precipitated profound changes and realignments in the social structure, but the implications and probable outcomes of these changes were not entirely clear. This uncertainty arises from the division of Syrian society by vertical cleavages along religious and ethnic lines, as well as by horizontal cleavages along socioeconomic and class lines. Minority groups tend to segregate themselves in their own neighborhoods and villages. Although within a minority group there is a high degree of integration and homogeneity, the group as a whole is often ascribed a certain social status. Traditionally, Syrian society has been divided between landlords and tenants, between urban dwellers and rural peasants, and between a Sunni elite and minority groups.
Until the revolutions of the mid-1960s, a syndicate of several hundred Sunni Muslim extended families living in Damascus and Aleppo had dominated life in Syria. Some of these families were of the Sharifan nobility, which claims genealogical descent from the Prophet Muhammad. Most had accumulated great wealth and wielded virtual feudal power as landlords possessing vast agricultural and real-estate holdings. Others made fortunes in industry and trade in the late ninteenth century. Another component of the ruling class was the ulama (sing, alim). This group consisted of religious scholars, Islamic judges (qadis), interpreters of law (muftis), and other persons concerned with the exposition of Sunni Islam. Prosperous Sunni bazaar merchants allied with the great families occupied the next level in the social heirarchy.
The Syrian elite was at the forefront of anticolonial struggle against the Ottoman Empire in World War I and later against the French Mandatory regime. At independence in 1946, Syria's first government was dominated by the old ruling class. However, the elite had never been a monolithic entity, and the new parliament was splintered by factionalism, feuding, and generational differences. These divisions provoked a military coup d'état in 1949 that ushered in a new era in Syrian society.
The armed services and the Baath Party were the mechanisms for the rise of a new ruling elite. Although military service traditionally had been disdained by the old Sunni elite, a military career was often the only avenue of upward mobility open to rural minority group members who could not afford an education. Such men enlisted in disproportinate numbers and came to dominate the officer corps and the enlisted ranks of Syria's armed forces. Likewise, disenfranchised elements of society joined the Baath Party. These dual trends culminated in the 1963 Baath Socialist Revolution and the 1970 takeover by the military of the Baath Party.
The land reform legislation of 1963 and the nationalization of larger financial, commercial, and industrial establishments virtually eliminated the economic and political power base of the old elite. At the same time, the new elite, comprised of the upper echelon of military and civilian leaders, consolidated its position by cultivating the support of peasants and the proletariat, who benefited from the new economic order. The regime's socialism eroded the position of the bazaar merchants while its secularism removed power from the ulama.
After coming to power in 1970, President Hafiz al Assad reversed or relaxed the more strident socialist economic measures instituted in 1963. His expansion of the role of the private sector led to the emergence of a relatively small, but highly visible new class of entrepreneurs and businessmen who made fortunes in real estate, importing, and construction. This class, nicknamed in Syria "the velvet generation," includes higher- ranking government bureaucrats and their relatives who have capitalized on their official positions to monopolize lucrative government contracts. It also has assimilated many members of the old Sunni elite, who have been coopted by the Assad regime and have accommodated themselves to the new elite. To some extent, the old and new ruling classes have merged through business partnerships and marriages that combine the money and prestige of the old elite member and the power and prestige of the new elite member. Despite a well publicized anti-corruption campaign, patronage and favoritism have remained important forces in Syrian society.
Under Assad, rural peasants have reaped significant gains in their standard of living, primarily through government transfer payments and grants of land redistributed from the original upper-class owners. However, land reform has not been entirely successful in transforming the social structure of the countryside. In many cases, farmers who had previously depended upon their urban landlords to give credit for financing their crops until harvest and to deal with the government have drifted back into similar relationships with urban interests. The landlord's role as an influential advocate and local leader has not been filled by elected Baath Party representatives. In other cases, rich proprietors have begun to regain control over agricultural land and reconstitute large estates.
Since the 1963 Baath Revolution, the approximate middle of Syrian society has remained remarkably stable, both as a percentage of the workforce and in terms of the standard of living and social mobility of its members. Because Syria has not yet developed a large industrial sector, it lacks a true proletariat of wage-earning factory workers. The number of persons employed by private and public sector industry in 1980 was 207,000, or 12 percent of the working population, according to statistics compiled by the Syrian General Federation of Trade Unions. This approximates the size of Syria's "working class."
Syria compensates for its lack of a large proletarian class of industrial factory workers by a large and flourishing group of artisans and handicrafters who produce basic commodities such as soap, textiles, glassware, and shoes in small cottage industries. This group is a main component of Syria's traditional middle class, which also encompasses small proprietors, tradesmen, and white-collar employees, and has remained at about 30 percent of the population.
Since the 1963 revolution, a new and upwardly mobile class of teachers, scientists, lawyers, technocrats, civil servants, doctors, and other professionals has slowly emerged. This new upper-middle class consists of men and women who rose from the old lower or middle classes by virtue of technical or secular higher education.
Even before the revolution of 1963, secular education had become a criterion of status among many ordinary Syrians, especially as higher education ensured a virtually automatic entry into admired and well-paying occupations. The importance of education in this context will probably grow.
Values taught in the schools and emphasized in the media reflect those of the group controlling the government and have gained some currency. Nevertheless, the traditional conservatism of the peasants as well as the economic problems of daily survival that have not been alleviated by changes in government policy militate against any sudden change in the values or way of life of the masses.
As in other Middle Eastern countries, Syrian society has for millennia been divided into three discrete systems of organization based on ecological factors; these are the town, the village, and the tribe. Although closely interrelated, each fosters a distinct and independent variation of Arab culture. The cities of the Middle East are among the most ancient in the world; urban life has been integral to the society of the region throughout recorded history. Therefore, the townsman and his role are well known to all segments of the population. The tribesman, or beduin, although suffering irreversible changes since the mid- twentieth century, has also been a widely known and admired figure throughout history. The peasant farmer, or fellah (pl., fellahin), although less admired than the townsman or the tribesman, also occupies a position of recognized value.
The members of each of the three structural segments of society look on the others as socially distinct. This social distance is symbolized by easily recognized differences in clothing, food, home furnishings, accent, and custom; intermarriage between village, town, and tribal families is usually considered irregular.
Traditionally, the cities have been an expression--at the highest level of sophistication and refinement--of the same Arab culture that animated the villages. As Western influence grew, however, during the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, the social distance between the city and village increased. Western customs, ideas, techniques, and languages were adopted first in the cities, especially by Christians, while the villages remained ignorant of them. The introduction and adoption of elements of a radically alien culture opened a gap between the city and the village that has not narrowed with time. Only in recent years have modern transportation and mass communication begun to bring the countryside once again into the same cultural orbit as the cities.
Although the town, village, and tribe are socially distinct, they depend on each other for services and products and so are related by overall functional ties. The town supplies manufactured, specialty, and luxury products; administrative and governmental services; education and higher learning; sophisticated culture; law and justice; and financing. The village supplies agricultural products; and the tribe provides protection and navigation for caravans, travelers, and traders in the desert. As more and more villagers become educated and move to the cities, and as the beduin surrender their sole mastery of the desert to motor vehicles and the police power of the modern state and begin to adopt a sedentary life, the traditional distinctions will continue to blur.
Data as of April 1987
Syria Table of Contents