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

Syria Weekly: Hard economic times test the patience of Assad loyalists
An economic crisis and lack of state support have forced Syrians to take matters into their own hands.
5 min read
25 January, 2020
Syria's Chamber of Commerce participated in Our Lira, Our Pride [Getty]
Protests rocked regime-controlled areas of Syria this week as joblessness and rising prices push millions of struggling Syrians into poverty. The country is faced with myriad economic challenges, which are rooted in the nine-year war and a rigid regime, where corruption and terror are fundamental to its survival. 

As the country is left devastated from eight-years of war, sanctions, a list of foreign creditors, and little hope of reconstruction money coming in, Syria appears locked in poverty for the foreseeable future.

Among the areas of Syria witnessing deteriorating economic conditions is Suweida, a Druze-majority province, which has largely stayed loyal to the regime - and sometimes neutral - in the war, but has been hit by inflation, insecurity and unemployment. 

Dozens of protesters blocked the main road in the provincial capital this week, shouting slogans against the regime and demanding action to tackle the deteriorating economic situation, according to Enab Baladi

Syrian state news agency SANA acknowledged the demand from protesters for higher living standards but failed to mention widespread anger in the southern Syrian province over a myriad of issues, not just economic ones.

Suweida is still traumatised by the 2018 bomb and gun attacks by Islamic State group militants, which left at least 260 people from Druze villages dead, the vast majority civilians. 

The regime was blamed for failing to defend the province from the militants, with the jihadists controlling a pocket of territory close to the province's borders. Others believed that regime forces were deliberately pulled out of the region to allow the massacres to take place.

Anger has lingered since, compounded by the worsening economic situation with little sign of improvement in the future. For a region that has sacrificed so much in the war only to see living standards drop, there are evident frustrations at the status quo.

Our Lira, Our Pride

The plunging Syrian pound has been the main concern for Syrians in regime areas recently. The lira has reached a record low of 1,200 to the dollar on the black market, forcing the regime to take stringent measures to prevent its further collapse. 

Bashar Al-Assad announced that traders dealing with any currency other than the Syrian pound would be liable to seven years hard labour. The presidential decree "upped the penalty for anybody who deals in anything other than the Syrian pound for payments, or any kind of commercial transaction".

Syrians have been hit by widespread shortages of everyday commodities and fuel, further compounded by widespread corruption. 

Prices of basic goods have shot up by 20 and 30 percent since October, according to The Financial Times, which is related to the deteriorating economy and a shortage of dollars.

One pro-regime economist told the business daily that a sharp reduction in foreign aid for rebels and opposition areas has affected Damascus. 

The foreign funding inadvertently made its way into the wider Syrian economy due to smuggling and other exchanges with regime areas.

As mentioned in the Syria Weekly before, the currency crisis is also rooted in the economic woes in neighbouring Lebanon. 

During the war, Lebanese banks have provided safe havens for thousands of Syrians and allowed dollars and other hard currency to enter the sanction-hit Syrian market. 

For a region that has sacrificed so much in the war only to see living standards drop, there are evident frustrations at the status quo

Lebanese banks have placed capital controls on some accounts due to general instability and the economic situation, which has restricted Syrians' access to their own cash and restricted the supply of foreign capital and imported goods into Syria.

Such conditions have led to catastrophic effects on the Syrian pound, with the regime urging Syrians to rely on the local currency to prevent its deeper slide into oblivion.

Regime loyalists have been mobilised with the "Our Lira, Our Pride" initiative, a campaign aimed at encouraging Syrians to use the local pound over more trusted currencies such as dollars and gold. 

The idea is that businesses offer services and goods at reduced rates to reduce the disparity between the lira and dollar, in a bid to bring the price of ordinary goods back to affordable levels. 

Haircuts, bags of vegetables, gym membership, furniture, phone chargers and even shisha have been on offer at the massively reduced rate of one lira - a coin which on the black market would have value of less than 0.1 US cent. 

Pro-regime media have reported that the campaign has led to Syrians rummaging around their cars and between sofa cushions for the long-abandoned coin. 

The campaign and other factors has seen the lira strengthen to 1,000 liras to the dollar on the black market, but few consider it the future for economic stability.

Stepping in

In Daraa, southern Syria, ordinary citizens are also stepping up to provide services where the state is unable or unwilling to. When the regime took control in 2018, local services that had been provided by opposition councils were cut.

According to a Chatham House report by Syria researcher Haid Haid, limited public services to these areas are being used by the regime to reward loyalists and punish those perceived as potentially hostile to the regime. 

It has left thousands of Syrians having to pay regime officials to connect their homes to sewage pipes or the local power grid - a bribe that very few Syrians can afford given the paltry salaries most earn.

One example given in the report was a resident in Inkhil, Daraa, who earns just $2.25 a day, but had to pay around $45 to connect his home to the local electricity grid. 

Local groups have stepped forward to fund local infrastructure projects by launching crowdfunding appeals, the report added, but relying on donations will not be a sustainable model for long.

Meanwhile, the opposition province of Idlib remains under fire and suffering from one of the worst humanitarian crises during the war. 

Around 350,000 Syrians - mostly women and children - have fled their homes since the start of a new Russian and Syrian regime assault on the opposition province, which began in December, with a massive shortage of shelter, medical care and food. 

The International Rescue Committee has warned that an additional 650,000 Syrians could be forced to their homes given the escalation of violence, which has extended to West Aleppo province. 

Whether in regime or opposition areas, all ordinary Syrians are paying the price for the nine-year war and the determination of the Assad regime to stay, nominally, in control.

Syria Weekly is a regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Weekly in your inbox each week, sign up here

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin