Friday, 28 February 2020

As Syria's economy collapses, how much more can people bear?

As Syria's economy collapses, how much more can people  bear?

 Dani Qappani:

 'Speaking during a television interview on a Syrian state TV channel in mid-January, Bouthaina Shaaban, the Political and Media Adviser to the head of the Syrian régime, claimed that the Syrian economy is fifty times better than it was in 2011.

 As usual with Shaaban's speeches, Syrians' reaction was one of disbelief.

 With the Syrian economy in an unprecedented nose-dive, even while Shaaban made this claim, and the value of the Syrian pound reaching 1,000 to one US dollar, all but Assad's super-rich elite are struggling to meet their most basic daily needs, not just in areas controlled by the Syrian régime and its Iranian militia allies, but nationwide.

 Even before Shaaban's ill-conceived claims, the worsening economic conditions, among other factors, had already led to widespread discontent even in traditionally régime loyalist areas.

 In the majority-Druze province of Suweida in south Syria, local people held demonstrations condemning the régime's corruption and incompetence with banners bearing slogans like 'We Want to Live' and 'The Syrian Media is Fake'.

 The economic crisis has further increased the already heavy burden on Syrians still suffering from the consequences of the war that has spanned nine years to date.

 The régime has effectively bankrupted the country to maintain power. Many of those who survived the relentless bombing by Syrian, Russian and Iranian air and ground forces that reduced whole villages, towns and city neighbourhoods to rubble, now have no choice but to return to their destroyed areas.

 They have to accept the régime's 'security agreements' and try to start afresh amid the ruins of their homes, with no sign of hope, improvement or freedom on the horizon.

 "It's been outlawed for people to even carry any dollars in their pockets, so how should someone try to exchange it in an open manner?!" said Mahmoud Al-Ahmad*, the owner of a currency exchange bureau in the city of Damascus.

 "This is due to Bashar al-Assad's decree banning foreign exchange trading – those who do so face security prosecution, possibly imprisonment or heavy fines. This issue wasn't considered important [by the régime] previously with no decree banning it but with the issuance of the decree, it became impossible.

 "We exchange dollars in a private way, not according to the exchange rate from the Central Bank, but rather according to the market price; if the price of one dollar in the central bank is 700 Syrian pounds, and in the market 1,000 pounds, we exchange it at 950 or 900 Syrian pounds," Al-Ahmad added.

 Asked about the reason for the decline in the exchange rate of the Syrian pound against the dollar, he said, "There are many hidden reasons. It seems to me that Russia and Iran have reduced their foreign exchange support for Syria – what is certain is that the movement in Lebanon is a major reason.

 "The Syrian merchants were bringing foreign currency, especially dollars, from the banks of Lebanon, and with these banks lacking cash liquidity, merchants could no longer take their money from there. There is no doubt that the Caesar Act sowed fear in the hearts of merchants and régime supporters, which prevented them from dealing in cash in Syria."

 Although the accelerating pace of events in neighbouring Lebanon constitutes one of the causes of the financial meltdown in Syria – due to the closure of the Lebanese banks used by Assad's régime to transfer money from abroad in order to avoid the sanctions imposed on it – the Syrian régime itself bears the greatest responsibility for this deterioration in economic conditions and in every other aspect of life.

 It is difficult for non-Syrians to conceive the endemic corruption at every level within the Syrian state, where the régime's government and all state institutions work solely under the orders of the security services overseen by Assad and backed by Iran and Russia.

 The sole concern of Assad and his backers and, therefore, of all state bodies, is restoring absolute control over Syria's land and people, who are treated, in effect, as chattels to be subjugated through terror, intimidation and silencing of any dissent.

 Corruption is, thus, an innate part of a system based on exploitation and self-enrichment, with this culture of impunity at every level affecting all aspects of life, further increasing the economic hardships for the vast majority.

 Among the worst affected are the hundreds of thousands of Syrian women who have been left widowed or whose husbands are imprisoned or 'disappeared' by the régime for participating in the revolution.

 With no family breadwinner and with young children to raise, these women have been forced to find any work, usually in menial, low-paid jobs due to the lack of employment opportunities.

 Samar B*, a resident of Damascus whose husband was detained by the régime some years ago, now lives with her two children, her mother, and her sister.

 "The [monthly] salary that I earn from the government job is $60 after the last increase, and my sister's salary from her job is about $50," she says.

 "The rent for the house we live in isn't high compared to other homes, and is around $60 per month. The cost of living for us is about $100 per month, while the bills are $20.

 "I work for 13 hours a day so I can support my family. I think that the deteriorating economic conditions are due to several reasons, the first of which is that the régime has gone bankrupt after it sold the country to foreigners. Also, oil returns aren't used for our benefit, and the ports were sold to Russia. Eastern Ghouta was a major source of currency for the régime, but the state treasury has been depleted for years to come," she adds.

 "I don't think that the situation is going to improve; on the contrary, it's in an accelerating deterioration. But I am happy because the supporters of the murderous régime are also starving today."

 However as much as the situation deteriorates, it's unlikely that the people in Damascus will break their silence or protest in the near future. The situation in Damascus is very different to that in Suweida, which has largely been spared the bombardment, arrests and siege endured for years in Damascus.

 In the traditionally loyal Syrian coastal areas, where a majority still supports the Syrian régime, the situation is a little different.

 Ahmad. N* is a resident of the city of Latakia, where he runs a shop. "Things are worse here than before," he said.

 "My wife and son were forced to work in order to be able to keep us afloat financially. With the rise in prices due to the fall in the price of the Syrian pound compared to the dollar, not everyone is able to secure their needs, or even buy basics.

 Even supporters of the régime, despite Bashar al-Assad's ruling preventing the circulation of the dollar under penalty of punishment, people are still dealing in it more than before, due to the instability of the lira price. Everyone is pessimistic about what will come. The continuation of the war and its cost, the state's failure to assume its responsibilities towards the citizens, and the widespread corruption, in addition to the security services' control of everything, has made our area a treacherous forest that's very difficult to live in. We see death coming to us, and there is nothing we can do!"

 It is no secret to anyone that the Syrian economy began to crumble since the US president signed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act in late December last year.

 Also known as the Caesar Act, it is a United States legislation that sanctions the Syrian régime, including Bashar al-Assad, for war crimes against the Syrian population. However, the bill has not been passed into law yet.

 But even without the Caesar Act, the dire conditions for most Syrians would not have improved.

 The Syrian régime's monopolising and exhausting of all the state's resources to fund its war against its own the people, and the selling or giving away most of these resources to its backers in Russia and Iran to pay for their support, was the final straw for an economy already buckling under the decades-long damage by the Assad régime.

 The war has effectively compounded the existing status quo, wiping out the already precarious middle class, leaving two classes in Syria – the Assad's and their small wealthy elite of family and beneficiaries, and the crushed majority.

 For the Assads, as always, every solution to the problems besetting the nation lies in punishing and extorting this already crushed majority further. Instead of proposing solutions to renovate, rebuild and improve the nation, based on study, research, analysis and a positive vision of Syria's future, the régime is intent on further persecuting the people.

 While the Syrian people are still, as always, expected to endlessly suffer, fight and/or die to protect this status quo, to accept foreign occupation and 'ownership' of their nation, and to view imprisonment torture and 'disappearance' as the natural price of any dissent, the régime elite continues to live in extravagant luxury with a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars plundered from the Syrian people deposited in offshore accounts around the world.

 For Assad's inner circle, the terrible suffering of the majority of Syrians is a faraway inconvenience that doesn't affect their lives any more than those of any wealthy American or Russian. Assad's children and those of his elite will live in luxury in grace-and-favour homes in Russia, while ordinary Syrians die.

 We don't yet know whether the collapsing Syrian economy, the worthless currency and atrocious living conditions will push Syrians to rise up again against the régime and its bloodthirsty sponsors, or if the régime will perhaps try to win international favour by abandoning its war against the people after the Caesar Act goes into effect.

 But after reducing a nation to rubble and ashes, selling its resources to foreign states, killing or dispossessing over half its population and leaving the survivors in penury in order to cling to power, one thing is near certain, Assad's morally and fiscally bankrupt régime is living on borrowed time.

 *False names have been used to protect the identity of those who face persecution for any condemnation of the régime'

Syria Weekly: Hard economic times test the patience of Assad loyalists

Idlib: 'I'd rather suffer bombs than Assad'

Huda Khayti in Idlib

 ' "I'll call you back later," says a hurried Huda Khayti as she cuts short our interview on the situation in Idlib. Then she hangs up. This is the how our communication has been going for days, as bombs — dropped by Syrian government forces — rain down on Idlib. Khayti, the director of the Women Support and Empowerment Center Idlib, promises to find a new place from which to call, one she hopes will be safer.

 This happens repeatedly, several times a day. Finally, hours later, the phone rings again and she tells me she is fine. "That's the way life is in Idlib, in the city but also across the whole region. It has been that way for years. No one is safe here. But I have a good network," says the 40-year-old Syrian. "We have a kind of early warning system for air raids — we can literally smell the bombs and we can pretty well tell where they will hit." She says many residents have developed a sixth sense for attacks over the years.

 Khayti has lived in Idlib since the spring of 2018. At the time, all those opposed to the Syrian government, whether members of the democratic opposition or militant rebels, were brought to Idlib province — controlled by the Islamist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham — far away from the Assad régime.

 "I had never been to Idlib. I had no idea what to expect," says the women's rights activist. But she knew it was just a matter of time before Syrian President Bashar Assad — bolstered by Russia and Iran — would try to capture the last rebel stronghold in Syria. Neighboring Turkey, on the other hand, has thrown its weight behind Assad's adversaries.

 Since Syrian and Russian forces began their offensive on Idlib last December, some 900,000 people have fled the province, most of them women and children. Today, people continue to abandon their homes and their villages. Roads leading north to neighboring Turkey are jammed with cars full of people forced to flee for their safety, some for the third or fourth time.

 Khayti got a taste of just how gruesome such battles can be back in her hometown of Douma, and then in eastern Ghouta, outside Damascus. "I'm from Douma. I survived one of the régime's poison gas attacks. I know what it's like to live and cower under a hail of bombs," she says. "But every bomb they drop on us here in Idlib only steels my resolve, and confirms to me that it was right to stay here and fight for Syria and for the Women's Center."

 Khayti grew up in Douma before moving to Damascus to study French literature. She says her own personal revolution began in 2011, when she realized Assad's government was restricting women's rights and bullying its own people.

 It was then that she started three women's centers in eastern Ghouta, where women could take workshops on a number of different subjects ranging from gender-based violence and first aid to English and women's rights. She says all of the centers in eastern Ghouta were bombed. One of those bombings killed a colleague and her child. Khayti's brother was also killed, devastating her and her family. Her voice becomes melancholy as she speaks of her family. "We did a lot together — we ate together, we depended on one another — we were all very close."

 Khayti says her parents, six sisters and one surviving brother are spread out across the globe, with some in Turkey and others in Canada. Only a handful of relatives are still in Damascus.

 "I can't go back to Damascus. I'm certain that I'm on one of the régime's blacklists," she says. That is because she was in favor of the revolution from the very start. She is against Assad and for régime change — for a democratic Syria. She says the revolution deepened her understanding of civil rights and women's autonomy. "I truly believe it was right to stand up and protest."

 Khayti was alone when she came to Idlib with others from eastern Ghouta and Douma in 2018. Her parents and her brother had already fled to Turkey. Her voice trembles whenever she speaks of them. But then it grows more confident again: "I wanted to stay in Syria, to go to Idlib. There is a cross section of Syrian society here. Refugees from Homs, Aleppo, eastern Ghouta, but also people from right here in Idlib. I spent three months trying to find out as much as I could about society here — what the people needed. Soon, I was able to win people's trust."

 And Khayti is unshakeable in her mission. With support from the aid group Medico International she quickly built up the Women Support and Empowerment Center Idlib, once again offering courses on a variety of pertinent subjects. She says Islamists in Idlib leave her and the group of regional women she works with alone.

 On the telephone, Khayti explains that the center is in the heart of the city, near the market. She says the location makes it easy for everyone to reach and that she sometimes has as many as 25 visitors a day. Though, she adds, depending on how heavy bombings are on any given day, that number may be as low as three.

 Life is particularly difficult for women during times of war. The economic situation is disastrous, many have experienced violence and others are traumatized. Infrastructure such as medical care and schools are also wholly lacking, forcing many mothers to teach their children at home. Some subjects like English are available to mothers at the center.

 Still, Khayti says they can't plan for the future. "We have to take things as they come each day — whether at home or in the center. There is no such thing as normal everyday life, the bombardments can start at any time."

 Despite her situation, the revolution goes on for Khayti. She says her fight to help improve the situation for women has nothing to do with where she happens to be at any given time: "I'm here because I know it's the right thing to do. I want to stand up for the Syria I want to live in."

 Khayti lives by herself. She never married and she has no children. "I'm only responsible for my own life," she says, "but I really miss my parents." When she decided to relocate to Idlib she had to make a promise to her father. When they parted, he pleaded with her: "Please don't break my heart. I don't want you to suffer the same fate as your brother." Khayti says she thinks of her father's words often.

 "If Assad's troops do eventually take Idlib I'll have to flee to a refugee camp in the north and try to get across the Turkish border. I can live with the bombs, but I can't live with the thought that Assad will be in charge of Idlib and the whole of Syria." '

Huda Khayti decorates a wall with paint in IdlibHuda Khayti speaks in front of a group of people