Syria’s growing urban-rural rift

The class divide in Syria is not new. Rural regions as well as the urban working class have always felt disenfranchised.

It was clear – those who were crossing into Lebanon over the past week or so to escape the fighting in Damascus were either supporters of the government or simply those who didn’t take part in the uprising.

They arrived in fancy cars – others headed to hotels. They were in shock – very few actually believing that the violence over the past year and a half finally reached their doorsteps.

A few hundred metres from the Manaa border crossing, Syrians who also fled the fighting were taking refuge in a school. Many of them from Homs – the capital of their revolution, and Deraa – the cradle of their revolution. None of them crossed into Lebanon through the official borders. They used illegal routes because “we would have never been able to pass the Syrian army checkpoint because of where we are from,” Abu Mohammed from Homs told me.

And there is resentment here. Not just against the Syrian authorities but the urban elite. “All they care about is making sure nothing happens to their fancy cars and apartments,” Abu Mohammed’s wife told us referring to the people of Damascus.

Her son, Ashraf didn’t hold back either.

“Let the people of Damascus and Allepo suffer the way we did. We suffered a lot in Homs and other areas. We lost our homes. They didn’t see dead bodies everywhere. Let them endure what we did.”

Four of his brothers are still in Syria fighting alongside the armed opposition.

The class divide in Syria is not new. Rural regions of the country as well as the urban working class have always felt disenfranchised, marginalised, and ignored. Neoliberal policies by President Bashar al-Assad have somewhat been blamed for the widening divide between the rich and poor. Of course there are the allegations of corruption and the fact that the “privileged few” – those close to the regime’s inner circle have exploited the country’s wealth at the expense of the population.

And that population, many feel are the Sunnis. “It was always the Alawites who would be given jobs… Who would be sent to universities abroad… They were given everything by the state,” Abu Mohamed said.

Some have described the uprising as a revolution against a regime dominated by the minority Alawite sect who silenced any form of dissent. Others say it was an uprising by the poor who have suffered as a result of Assad’s neoliberal economic policies.

Assad did forge an alliance with the Sunni merchant class allowing them to profit in exchange for ignoring Alawite dominance of the military and security forces.

These are people – mainly based in Damascus and Allepo the two largest cities – who may have a lot to lose because of the instability.

“I think the people of Damascus are scared of the revolution which started in countryside. They were watching it on television over the past months and they saw how bloody and vicious it was. So they are afraid for their families,” said Stephen Starr, one of the very few journalists based in the Syrian capital during the first year of the revolt.

“They don’t necessarily support the government but they fear the alternative… They don’t know what the rebels will do. For them stability is more important.”

But Starr, who believes the revolution was mainly a rural uprising, says the “silent majority” may finally take sides. “The more brutal the regime, the more chances they will lose support.”

When rebels managed to take control of several districts in Damascus earlier this month, thousands and thousands of people fled. They didn’t stay behind to join the fight. Rebels did manage to get support from areas sympathetic to the opposition.

“The rebels who started the last wave of attacks are not from these areas. They are using the districts as bases to launch attacks against security forced,” Starr explained. “But there is a link here. Those districts – Harasta, Qaboun, Midan… Since the start of uprising they have been protesting. These areas are working class neighbourhoods. It is an economic reason on why it all started.”

But the security forces have so far managed to force many of the opposition fighters to retreat to the suburbs.

And now all eyes are on Allepo as both sides vow to win “the battle for the city”. So far, rebels who mainly came from the countryside have set up base in areas where they have support – Salaheddine, for example.

They remain outnumbered and outgunned but the army is also stretched thin fighting on many fronts.

Ultimately, the rebels will need the urban centres to rise up with them to even have a chance to face the state’s power.

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