Syria Expert Dr. Samer Abboud Explores the Causes of Upheaval

By Purnell T. Cropper | August 11, 2012

When Dr. Samer Abboud, Assistant Professor of History and International Studies, began his doctorate in Arab and Islamic studies, he intended to focus on illicit cross-border trade between Syria and Lebanon. But during a research trip to the Middle East in 2003, he was struck by remarkable developments in Syria—from the introduction of new financial institutions to the introduction of private education. “There was this gradual introduction of market mechanisms into the economy [and] the gradual withdrawal of the public sector from services and from a distributive role,” said Abboud during an interview with Dr. John Noakes on Aug. 3. Following another tour of the region in 2004, he began to investigate the effects of marketization in Syria—what it means for various communities and for the regime’s stability and security. His research on Syria’s economic and political transformation informs his analysis of recent events.

Though the Syrian uprising is often portrayed as purely sectarian—Sunni Muslims revolting against a minoritarian regime dominated by Alawite Shiite Muslims—Abboud says there’s more complexity to this explanation. He attributes the upheaval largely to structural changes in Syria’s economy, such as the privatization of agricultural land in the early 90s, which led to the depopulation of 200 rural villages and gave rise to slums near Syria’s main cities. Many other areas of Syria were hard hit by market reforms, creating a large segment of the population that was economically and politically disenfranchised. It is mostly these groups that have not benefitted from structural change in Syria that have led the protests from the beginning. “The brutality of the regime’s response invites more and more people to join the protests…. Of course there’s a sectarian element to it, but many of the reasons behind the protests is structural,” he said. “People are frustrated with their lack of economic prospects. There are many people who are on the extreme periphery of the marketization and policies. And of course it’s an authoritarian system, and there’s no means of mobilization other than on the street.”

Interview Highlights

How the Regime Broadened Its Influence

“Political elites started marrying people from the economic elite and security elites […] and what you had in the 80s was the beginning of a process of a kind of fusion between the political, economic and security elite. And then you started to see a lot of crossover. So you had the sons and daughters of political officials of the political elite who started entering into business. So one of the ways in which we can understand the process of marketization in Syria is the process of expanding the means of this group of people to accumulate wealth. So over time there was this bringing-in of different social forces that expanded the overall base of the regime. At the same time many of the minorities within Syria, such as the Christians or the Shiites or the Druze, their loyalty was cultivated in more strategic ways, not only through the economy but through their mobilization and other social institutions.”

The Prospect of Military Intervention

“I’m not convinced that military intervention could necessarily bring about the collapse of the regime in the way that it did in Libya because of the cohesiveness of the regime. Whether that changes in a year when oppositionists take control of more territory, we don’t know.  But I think many people who follow Syria and many people within Syria—even those opposed to the regime—are very much against intervention. I don’t think there’s a regional appetite for it, but the opposition in exile has now adopted it as its kind of principal policy. And I think that it’s a bankrupt policy because the oppositionists in exile have proven that they haven’t been able to effect political change—they haven’t been able to effect political transition or regime collapse. “They’re having these meetings in regional capitals and really not much is coming of it. They’ve had little impact on the ground, and I think they’ve adopted this strategy of pushing for military intervention which is the opposite of … the strategy that they adopted at the beginning. I think they’re pushing for this military intervention as a way to demonstrate their usefulness or their agency within this process, because they’ve proven quite incapable of effecting change.”

About Dr. Samer Abboud

Abboud received his Ph.D. in Arab and Islamic Studies from the University of Exeter’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, where he conducted research on the political economy of marketization in Syria. In his research and teaching, he explores a range of questions informing the fields of International Political Economy and International Relations, particularly in the context of the non-Western World. He has written extensively on Syria’s political economy and is the co-author (with Benjamin J. Muller) of the forthcoming Rethinking Hizballah: Authority, Legitimacy, Violence (Ashgate). Abboud also serves as a Fellow at the Center for Syrian Studies in St. Andrew’s Scotland, and in 2013 will be a resident fellow in Berlin at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, where he was awarded a fellowship under their Arab Transformation Fellowship program. He contributes to the Carnegie Middle East Center, a public policy think tank and research center based in Beirut, Lebanon.