Just after the Syrian regime seemed close to finally winning the battle against the opposition, problems of governance and economic policy emerged to muddle the fate of Syria’s almost nine-year crisis. As regime and Russian forces try to dislodge the opposition from Idlib province in northwestern Syria, serious developments concerning the Syrian economy and the ongoing discussion about a United Nations-sponsored constitutional document indicate that the Syrian people are likely to continue to suffer from the debilitating effects of the conflict.
Economic Collapse as an Alternative to Reconstruction
The Syrian regime has spent the last year focusing on the rewards of reconstruction activities in Syria, encouraging the European Union and regional countries to look for ways to invest in projects in the country. President Bashar al-Assad himself has put together a list of allies, at the top of which are Russia and Iran—countries that will have priority in undertaking such projects. What matters for the regime was and remains how these potential participants can contribute to reconstruction and whether they have the economic wherewithal to achieve it.
But what happened has been exactly the opposite: the Syrians who have been waiting for reconstruction are surprised by the recent free fall of the Syrian pound. This has been an unwelcome development in their lives since several regional and international interventions have taken place on Syrian soil in addition to countless attacks, abuses, detentions, and violations by all actors in the conflict that have resulted in widespread displacement and injury and the death of hundreds of thousands.
At the end of November, the Syrian pound traded at 790 to the US dollar and is expected to hit 1,000 to the dollar in the next few months. This represents virtually a total collapse of the currency. It is noteworthy that in 2011, the dollar was equivalent to 47 Syrian pounds. This means that perhaps as many as two million (1.5 million in 2011) employees in the public sector—the main driver of the Syrian economy—lost the actual value of their salaries. At the same time, the inflation rate is skyrocketing, which is an expected development in light of the largely unsupported Syrian pound at present. The foreign currency reserves at the Syrian Central Bank collapsed from $16-18 billion in 2011 to a precipitous level that prompted the government to stop propping up the price of the pound. At the same time, with 83 percent of Syrians below the poverty line, tax revenues have completely collapsed. Further, revenue from oil is no longer under the command of the Syrian government because the United States and Kurdish forces control the oil fields in northeastern Syria. The Syrian government became a net importer of oil after it lost control of the oil fields with the beginning of the civil war.
Revenue from oil is no longer under the command of the Syrian government because the United States and Kurdish forces control the oil fields in northeastern Syria.
The political factors that drive the Syrian economy make the Assad regime seem more isolated than ever. Its war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against the Syrian people brought on economic sanctions, and these may have exhausted the regime’s political maneuverability. Russia, which wants to break the isolation of the Assad regime, is thinking more about profits than about helping the Syrian government. With the outbreak of mass demonstrations in Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran, Assad’s isolation has increased, especially since these regimes have supported him politically and financially in the past, especially Iran. At the same time, the Syrian government and business community have relied on Lebanese banks to circumvent the sanctions; however, the new policy imposed by Lebanese banks to avoid a collapse of the banking sector limits cash withdrawals by Syrian businessmen. In fact, they were among the first to suffer because without access to hard currency, they cannot run their businesses.
Does this mean that the Assad regime will care about the economic difficulties and the suffering of the Syrian people? This is doubtful. The Syrian regime has been self-serving and did not care much about the wellbeing of the Syrian people. Its policy of extermination through torture or siege is well documented. It has even used chemical weapons more than 50 times against Syrian civilians, according to Human Rights Watch. To be sure, then, the collapse of the Syrian economy will not lead to any political transition.
No Light at the End of the Tunnel
The Syrian people will pay the price of the collapse of the Syrian pound. This will create more despair and add more pain to their suffering. They already do not enjoy any state services such as electricity or rely on any provisions in terms of infrastructure, especially in the areas that went back under the control of the Syrian government after it defeated the armed Syrian opposition there.
Despite these developments on the Syrian political and economic fronts, the United Nations special envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, briefed the UN Security Council on November 22 that he was very optimistic that the Constitutional Committee meetings in Geneva would bring the change that Syrians are seeking. The idea of the Constitutional Committee was born two years ago as a follow-up to the Sochi conference held in Russia in January 2018, which involved Russian President Vladimir Putin himself, as a way to reach a political solution in Syria. Most of the Syrians were very skeptical of the idea because it replaces the sequence of the political transition spelled out in Security Council Resolution 2254. It called for a national ceasefire to allow for a transitional government then free and fair elections so that Syrians elect their representatives at a constitutional assembly and write their new constitution.
After less than two meetings of the members of the Constitutional Committee, the United Nations decided to suspend the conference due to the failure to reach a minimum consensus among the participants about the agenda.
Unfortunately, after less than two meetings of the members of the Constitutional Committee, the United Nations decided to suspend the conference due to the failure to reach a minimum consensus among the participants about the agenda, let alone the constitution itself. The Syrian regime’s delegation insisted that Syria does not need a new constitution but is open to some reform in some of its articles. On the other hand, regime representatives were keen on criticizing what they called the Turkish aggression in Syria and supporting the Syrian army’s operations––the same army that is accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. The opposition delegation refused the government’s condition, seeing that they do not advance the cause of writing a new constitution. Then, the United Nations decided to call off the meetings—another in a long list of initiatives that failed to address the demands of the Syrian people and to stop the bloodbath in Syria.
This puts the spotlight again on the role and the responsibility of the United Nations in Syria. Clearly it has failed to achieve any meaningful outcome; over the last nine years it has shamefully funded the Assad regime through different projects, allocated funding to the state-sponsored militia (the shabbiha), and coordinated the enforced transfer of Syrians in the city of Homs and other parts of the country.