By MICHAEL SCHREIBER
Mass anti-government protests have raged in Syria this year, gaining strength during recent weeks, as the country faces economic collapse. The center of the recent protests is in the south of the country—in cities such as Dar’a, where the 2011 rebellion first gained momentum—as well as in Latakia in the west.
Sections of the population who supported Bashar Assad’s regime during the height of the war are now deserting it. This includes portions of the Druze community, who have joined protests for over a week. One message to the regime from Druze in southern Sweida province stated: “We promised to keep things peaceful … but if you want bullets, you’ll have them.” Druze also participated in an anti-Assad demonstration across the border in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The New York Times commented on June 15, “Anger about sinking livelihoods has flared even among members of Mr. al-Assad’s Alawite minority, whose young men fought in large numbers with his forces only to find that they will share in the country’s poverty instead of reaping the benefits of victory. One Alawite man with relatives in the military said the currency collapse had made their salaries virtually worthless, with army generals earning the equivalent of less than $50 per month and soldiers earning less than a third of that.”
In January, demonstrators held up loaves of bread while chanting, “We want to live!” Now the protests have become more political. The call for Assad to leave office is frequently heard, as well as demands that Russian and Iranian forces halt their intervention in the country. A Syrian activist, Shoueb Rifai, told the British Guardian (June 12), “When your kids are hungry, you don’t think of strongmen, you don’t think of what Russia wants, you don’t worry about geopolitics. You blame the person who is in charge. And I see it happening on a daily basis, from people way up in the regime all the way [down] to the average loyalist.
“Assad’s biggest risk is no longer what Putin wants, or what Iran wants, or what regional powers are scheming. It is his own people, sitting in a pressure cooker.”
Some demonstrators have also expressed solidarity with the people of Idlib province, where for over a year government troops, aided by the Russians, have mercilessly bombed and shelled civilians in towns and villages held by rebel forces. Around a million additional people were displaced in the region in 2019.
Economic crisis out of control
After nine years of a war in which close to 700,000 people were killed, the authoritarian regime has succeeded in gaining military and political authority over most of the country. But restoring political administration hardly means that the country has become “stabilized.”
In fact, the economic situation in Syria has spiraled out of control; it is far worse than in 2011, when mass protests encouraged by the regional “Arab Spring” broke out. Inflation has skyrocketed from about 45 Syrian pounds to the U.S. dollar a decade ago to 3500 to the dollar on the black market at the present time. Efforts to stabilize the national currency have been further hit by Turkey’s decision to move the section of the country that it controls (encompassing 10 percent of the Syrian population) to the Turkish lira, and plans have been made to do the same in Idlib.
The unemployment rate rose to over 40 percent by the end of last year. Many small shops and other businesses have closed their doors. Some 80 percent of Syrians live in poverty, according to the UN. Hunger is rife in the country, as food prices have doubled in little more than a year. The average monthly salary is barely enough to buy two pounds of lemons. While the government has made attempts to distribute food supplies in some areas, it has failed to secure sufficient wheat supplies for the remainder of the year, and some NGOs are warning of the possibility of mass famine.
The economic collapse is due to a combination of factors, including the regime’s systematic destruction of the country’s infrastructure in the war and the displacement of some 12 million people from their homes—millions of whom are still living in refugee camps. The financial crisis in neighboring Lebanon (also rocked by mass demonstrations) has blocked many Syrians from drawing on their savings in Lebanese banks. Business relations have been churned up by corruption and disputes in top regime circles—including the feud between Assad and his billionaire cousin Rami Makhlouf.
Factors such as the COVID-19 crisis and the drought and searing temperatures caused by climate change also play a role in the economic downturn and the political unrest, and are likely to take more importance in coming months in exacerbating the hunger crisis. Health agencies are poorly equipped to treat people afflicted with the coronavirus, especially those who have been displaced from their homes and are living in overcrowded refugee camps or makeshift housing in places like Idlib and northern Aleppo provinces. In the last year, there have been at least 40 confirmed attacks on hospitals, according to Physicians for Human Rights, with at least 595 documented attacks on over 300 hospitals across the country since the start of the war in 2011.
Syria’s economic troubles are playing against the background of the deep worldwide economic recession and the move by the Trump administration to tighten its sanctions against Syria. The “Caesar Act, ” named after a Syrian police whistleblower who documented with his photographs at least 6700 instances of political prisoners who were murdered by the Assad regime, will come into force in several days. The act authorizes the U.S. president to order sanctions against any people or enterprises worldwide who support or do business with the Syrian government.
These issues will greatly cripple the country’s ability to gain investments to prop up the economy—and much less to acquire funds and credits for reconstructing the destroyed cities. The Times (June 15) quotes a Syria analyst in stating, “The Russians, the Iranians, the allies—they are not going to plow money into Syria. … They want a return on their investment.”
The Syrian government has organized a few pro-regime rallies while attempting to place the blame for the economic crisis entirely on the Western sanctions. But many are not convinced. One protester told Middle Eastern Eye on June 14 that he believed the government was primarily to blame for the economic problems. “The deliberate practices of the regime over the past nine years have led to a complete economic collapse and crazy increases in prices and starvation of civilians,” the demonstrator said.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the economic sanctions waged by the U.S. and imperialist governments in the EU will harm working-class and poor Syrians who are already under duress. The U.S. sanctions against oil trade with Syria, enacted in November 2018, caused the price of gasoline to balloon in the country, causing great discontent. Socialist Resurgence calls for an immediate end to the sanctions and all U.S. intervention into Syria.
A blow-up within the network of crony capitalism
On June 11, Assad fired his prime minister, Imad Khamis, who had been serving since 2016. No reason was given for the dismissal, but it would be reasonable to see Khamis as a scapegoat for the regime’s inability to deal with the economic crisis.
The tensions in Syria’s network of crony capitalism that is dominated by the Assad family blew to the surface this year after Assad’s business tycoon cousin, Rami Makhlouf, was charged with tax evasion. Makhlouf’s wealth expanded greatly through the privatization of Syrian state assets before the war. Later, lucrative war contracts gained by his links to the regime brought him even more wealth. In 2015, Makhlouf’s company, SyriaTel, the country’s largest mobile phone provider, was given a new 20-year license in which, for a one-time fee of 25 billion Syrian pounds, the company was granted a tax reduction for the next three years. SyriaTel’s tax burden was accordingly reduced from 60 percent in 2014 to 20 percent by 2018, which yielded huge additional profits.
But the favoritism bestowed on Makhlouf soon changed. In escalating actions taken in April, May, and June of this year, the Syrian government seized SyriaTel, demanded that Makhlouf resign from the corporation, froze his assets, and barred him from state contracts, while demanding that he pay $185 million in fees. The government also arrested about 40 SyriaTel employees and 19 from Makhlouf’s al-Bustan charity organization, stating that they would be released if Makhlouf paid the money and resigned.
Makhlouf’s businesses have been a target of some of the street protests. But Assad’s moves against Makhlouf may be seen not only as a sop to the Syrian people but also as part of an effort by his government, until now inconsistent, to offer concessions to émigré capitalists who lacked direct ties with the regime, in order to lure them back to Syria. In addition, some commentators believe that the campaign against Makhlouf is an overture to the Russian government and Russian capitalists who have considered investing in Syria; they point out that Makhlouf was closely allied with rival Iranian interests in many of his business dealings.
However, direct Russian involvement in the Makhlouf affair is hard to gauge. It could be a mistake to think that Russia would wish to go very far in rocking the boat against Syrian crony capitalism since they too are implicated in the corruption, as well as in sharing responsibility for Assad’s war atrocities. (In April, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta released two videos that document the torture and murder of a Syrian man by the Russian “Wagner” private mercenary company.) And for now, the Russians have no plausible replacement for Assad himself.
Makhlouf-controlled companies have also been implicated in the drug trade. Tons of hashish were exported from the Syrian port of Latakia in boxes of milk packed by a Makhlouf company, after being guided through sections of the country ostensibly patrolled by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia and by Syrian military units under Bashar Assad’s younger brother, Maher Assad. The smuggling came to light after Egyptian authorities found the hashish hidden in a ship docked at Port Said in late April. That incident was soon followed by a raid by Saudi Arabian security forces, who found over 40 million amphetamine tablets that had been ferried into their country from Syria in boxes belonging to another Makhlouf company.
In the meantime, Makhlouf, rather than just accepting his guilt and punishment, has lashed out at Bashar Assad in a series of videos, threatening in one of them that if pressure on him and his companies continued, there would be “divine justice because we have started a dangerous turn.”
Given the spiraling state of the Syrian economy, the population will likely soon be facing much worse hardships. There is no reason to think that the protest demonstrations will subside. Moreover, the Assad regime is weaker now than in 2011, having lost the allegiance of part of its base and facing war weariness in own forces and those of its allies. It will find it more difficult to repress the protests by violence.
The protesters in the streets have hopefully learned their own lessons from the last nine years of rebellion. “We now need a new revolution against the corruption of the Syrian opposition and government,” Safaa al-Sayyid, a Sweida resident using a pseudonym, told Middle Eastern Eye on June 15.
“Many criminals took advantage of the suffering of civilians in the name of the revolution, and in the end, after they destroyed the country, they reconciled with the regime,” she said. “Over the past years, the biggest loser has been civilians. Enough is enough, we want to live in dignity and this is our right.”