Islamic State only the latest group to fill vacuum left by long Ba'athist retreat in Syria

An international Red Crescent aid truck sponsored by Syria’s government. Syrian Arab News Agency/EPA

Black-clad fighters, suffering refugees and Western warplanes overhead – these are the mainstays of Iraq and Syria coverage as the Islamic State (IS) continues its campaign. Notably absent from debates is how today’s Iraq and Syria emerged from their own national histories, and not just out of foreign meddling – from Sykes-Picot to Bush and Blair.

In Syria, a critical aspect of that national history was the 1960s rise of statist policies of land and wealth redistribution, and then their gradual rollback in the 1980s and 1990s. And as the Syrian state preferred to serve a small elite in the 2000s, Islamist actors – not IS-style extremists, but respectable middle class ulema (clerics), alongside their allies and relatives in small business – rose in importance, influencing much of Syrian society.

As the savvier commentators on the IS have pointed out, despite its murderous excesses, the organisation’s appeal for the Sunni populations living under it is based on stability and the provision of public services. In that respect the IS fits into a longer history of increasing Islamist service provision dating back to the 1990s, as the Ba'athist state retreated.

From colonialism to socialism

Syria emerged into national independence in 1946 following three decades of French Mandate rule. The French era had been characterised by military intervention, constitutional manipulation and the co-option of landowning social elites.

Those same elites, as in many former colonial territories, then inherited the colonial government’s system, adapting it for their own purposes. They ran Syria in the first few years of independence. Subsequently, a series of coups from 1949 until the early 1960s brought to power administrations that were steadily more socialist and more committed to land redistribution and nationalisation.

Notable reforms in 1958 and especially 1965 saw landless rural labourers become the owners of their own small farms, at the expense of the landowning classes for whom they had previously worked.

The impact of these changes on Syrian society cannot be overstated. In the 15 years after 1960, millions of Syrians who drove state buses, worked in state factories or sat at desks in the state bureaucracy all discovered a previously unknown economic security. In return, many of them gave their support to a secular Ba'athist regime. It was a government increasingly dominated by members of the once poor, rural Alawi minority who had built careers in the military. Hafez al-Assad, Syrian president from 1971 to 2000 and father of current president Bashar al-Assad, came from this Alawite community.

Privatisation increased inequality

That authoritarian balance began to change in the 1980s, in the context of the international debt crisis and domestic budget cuts. Internally, the infamous regime crackdowns against provincial Islamists in the Syrian town of Hama – whose activists were more critical of the government than their Damascene colleagues – left a deep chill on Syrian society.

As German economist Hans Hopfinger and others have documented, an infitāh (opening) of the economy meant that by 1990 private investment exceeded its declining public rival. In the 1990s, the Syrian state further cut its budgets and privatised the economy, weakening the public sector and monopoly industries.

As political economist Bassam Haddad has shown, the result was that Syrian society became more fragile. Jobs, particularly in the civil service, became scarcer and futures more uncertain. It was harder for young people to get married or start a family in decent conditions, even as the population increased. Inequality rose. Wealth was increasingly concentrated in select networks of state officials, the security service and big businessmen. So were state contracts.

Charities step into the void

As a result, private providers, notably Islamic charities, stepped into the hole left by the state’s new focus on the elite. They provided education and healthcare to the middle and lower middle classes, and, importantly, offered dowries for young people to get married.

Researchers Thomas Pierret and Kjetil Selvik have brilliantly shown how such charities, rooted in the social tissue of the Sunni business classes, retained a real measure of independence from the government, rather than becoming its instrument.

As a result, Islamism, which in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Syria had been ferociously crushed by the government in Hama and Aleppo, returned to the political scene and rebuilt its social strength. It did so at the most basic level by partnering with business to organise the charitable support of education, marriage and health. These services were needed. As Pierret and Selvik note, by 2004, 10.36% of the population (almost two million Syrians) were living on less than $2 a day. As political scientists Laura Ruiz de Elvira and Tina Zintl have argued, it was partly due to this context of increasingly privatised and Islamised service provision that the revolt against the Assad regime occurred in 2011, leading on to the horrific civil war.

The subsequent dynamics of the war, with its sectarian radicalisation and external actors, are well known. But the craving for a state that is able to provide effective public services – as the Syrian state of the 1960s and 1970s did, despite its authoritarianism – is a long-term legacy of Syria’s contemporary, national history, not just a result of the current, ruinous war.