The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Assad may have won the Syrian war, but now he’s battling the economy

Rapidly deteriorating economic conditions spurred rare protests Jan. 15-17 in Sweida and Latakia, two Syrian cities under government control. (Video: Sweida 24)

BEIRUT — The main threat facing the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad as he regains control over most of his war-torn country is not military but economic.

And the popular discontent over Syria’s rapidly worsening economic troubles is palpable.

So far this year, the currency has plunged to half its value in 2019. The prices of some consumer goods have doubled, and those of staples such as meat and vegetables are up as much as 50 percent, according to official estimates. The government plans to ration sugar, rice and tea via a “smart card” system, ­introduced last year to ration oil products at subsidized prices.

The steep drop in the Syrian currency is largely the result of an economic crisis next door in Lebanon, said Samir Aita, a ­Syrian economist based in Paris. The Lebanese pound’s value has fluctuated in the past few months; it lost two-thirds of its value against the dollar last week before recovering slightly.

“Lebanon was Syria’s only lung,” Aita said.

Lebanon is a hub for Syrian traders and business executives, a place where they can open bank accounts, access dollars and buy up small goods to take back to Syria, which is under heavy sanctions. “Austerity in Lebanon will be a disaster for living conditions in Syria,” Aita said. “We are going toward famine as a result of Lebanon’s crisis.”

Syria’s troubles are compounded by U.S. sanctions on Iran, which had provided Syria a lifeline with oil shipments. Even more significantly, Syria is under sanctions from the United States and its allies aimed at pressuring the Assad government out of power. So far, Syrians say, that embargo has done little but rob them of a normal life.

The crisis has provoked small signs of dissent, a rarity in the police state.

Even the al-Watan newspaper, effectively a government mouthpiece, weighed in, reporting the fall of the currency with the headline: “Amid governmental silence . . . the black-market dollar surpasses 1,000 pounds.”

On a cold day last week in the Syrian city of Sweida, dozens of people gathered outside a municipal building and chanted: “We want to live! We want to live!”

Although protests are common in rebel-held areas of Syria, Sweida is under government control. No police arrested protesters. No bullets were fired.
No one told the demonstrators to stop, according to videos and an activist who participated. No one deemed them terrorists or paid agents, as usually happens with protesters.

Instead, the Syrian state news agency SANA reported the event in one line: “A few people gathered in the President’s Square, known as ‘traffic square,’ in central Sweida city and started chanting . . . objecting to the ­reality of living conditions.”

The protests, which have refrained from calling for the government’s ouster, continued for days, according to the activist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution.

“People are expressing their discontent,” the activist said in a telephone interview. The building economic pressures have driven people into the streets, uniting those who oppose the government and those who support it, albeit in small numbers, she said.

“The economic situation in Sweida is dependent on expatriates,” she said. As in other places in government-held areas, many of the town’s onetime inhabitants now reside in Lebanon. They send back money and bring back small goods, but many young men have started returning home from Lebanon because of the economic crisis there, the activist said.

About 83 percent of Syrians live under the poverty line, the United Nations estimated last March. The black-market rate for the Syrian pound, which stood at 47 pounds to the dollar just before the start of the civil war in 2011, has hit a record low in 2020, surpassing 1,000 pounds to the dollar.

The price of meat, vegetables, fruit and canned goods increased 30 to 50 percent in the last quarter of 2019, according to a report by a governmental economic committee in Damascus province. The cost of medical treatment is also up.

The government, in the meantime, has warned against hoarding dollars at home, and an official decree outlawed using dollars as currency. The state has launched a campaign urging people to buy local products to revive the economy, and government salaries have been raised 10 percent in a meager attempt to keep up with inflation.

Economists, business executives and traders who support the Syrian regime are calling on their government to step in to prevent the situation from deteriorating further. Abdul Nasser al-Sheikh Fattouh, vice president of the Federation of Syrian Chambers of Commerce, spoke of an “economic resistance” approach.

“The exchange rate will not improve and the lira will continue to devaluate in the future,” he told The Washington Post in a written statement, unless the government stimulates production by supporting small and medium-size businesses and ­relieves their debts and grants them loans with subsidized interest rates. The Syrian pound is also referred to as the lira.

“The exchange rate keeps jumping up and down with little to no intervention from the ­government, as if the country is not going through an economic crisis,” Ammar Youssef, a ­Damascus-based economist, said in a phone interview. The central bank must intervene and announce an economic emergency status, he said.

Hassan Jawad, head of the ­Regional Office of the Arab Exporters and Importers Union, said in a phone interview that the government lacks a clear economic policy. “Syria succeeded militarily, so the countries that conspired against it had to resort to an economic siege through which they can pressure the people to rise against their government,” Jawad said.

In Washington, Congress recently approved a package of ­severe sanctions, dubbed the Caesar Act, that targets officials, military personnel and anyone responsible for war crimes committed during the Syrian civil war. These additional sanctions effectively paralyze trade with Syria and prevent any entity from contributing to the country’s reconstruction.

The sanctions, which have not yet taken effect, were celebrated by many — including victims of Assad’s prisons and those who have fled the violence — but the package threatens what little stability ordinary citizens in ­Syria have left.

“Sanctions benefit those in power,” said Aita. “It doesn’t hit those in power, unless it reached to the point where it destroys the class that protects the regime.”

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