Militias offer guns and status to disaffected young
Syria’s economic expansion has benefited a minority but not the poor, who are easily recruited to the rebellion, writes Michael Jansen
WHILE MANY domestic factors have contributed to the crisis in Syria, widespread corruption and the lack of economic opportunities for the growing population head the list.
A Syrian economist who blogs under the pseudonym Ehsani on the Syria Comment website argues that “insufficient economic growth coupled with widespread corruption . . . is a lethal combination”. He cites a 2006 memo in which he said there were “two Syrias”, the comfortably off Syria of one million people and the poor Syria of 19 million.
Although these figures may be too stark, they reveal why the revolt erupted 17 months ago.
Over the past six years, Syria’s population has risen by several more millions, but the country’s economic expansion has not benefited the urban and rural poor. The urban poor live in pockets of poverty in the country’s large cities and towns or on the edges of these cities. The rural poor dwell in villages in the countryside. Those who have abandoned their farms due to drought and low produce prices migrate to urban slums a few minutes’ drive from districts where the wealthy and middle classes live in well-appointed apartment buildings, shop in glitzy malls and sip $4 dollar cups of cappuccino in chic cafes.
Desperation and resentment breed cannon fodder for the rebellion while radicalisation is produced by satellite television, mobile phones, the internet, fundamentalist preachers who rail at the godless secular regime and the successful uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
Undereducated, unemployed youths and men are vulnerable to recruitment by local militias, which began by offering weapons and now provide both arms and money that give men standing in their families and societies.
These militias are often led by tribal, clan or neighbourhood toughs who have been engaged in smuggling goods across Syria’s borders. Army defectors give weapons training to recruits while Sunni fundamentalists who preach “Islam is the solution” give the revolt a religious colouration and a sectarian dimension.
Armed rebels live largely in poor communities, and their activities attract harsh retribution. Inevitably, the poor bear the brunt of the violence. By contrast, leading activists in the political opposition are generally educated or professional middle-class men and women.
The vast majority of Syrians caught in the crossfire between the armed elements and the army can do nothing to stop the violence or defend themselves.
Some estimate that 25 per cent of the populace is with the government, 25 per cent with the revolt, and the rest simply want an end to the troubles and a negotiated solution.