This is Syria’s year of reckoning

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By Fawaz Turki

One suspects that Syrian President Bashar Al Assad has by now discovered for himself that, to insure the survival of his regime, he should have from the outset put his trust in the patriotic instincts of his citizens than in the mercenary ambitions of Iranians, Russians, Hizbollah militants and other proxies — trust he could have earned by responding to these citizens’ hallowed calls for social justice.
Now he looks around and sees the rug being pulled from under him, as Syria’s national currency goes to pot, his people go hungry and his erstwhile supporters go to the streets.
Meanwhile, the US is proceeding to tighten that metaphoric noose around his regime’s neck with its intended implementation of the Caesar Act this week, beginning June 17.
An economy in shambles, progressively suffering, year in, year out, conflict-related hyperinflation, with the national currency, the Lira, which had traded at 47 to the dollar just before the uprising erupted in 2011, is today valued at 3,500 to the dollar.
At a time when the regime is unable to absorb new shocks, the Caesar Act sanctions could devastate what is left of the country’s economy. And if you see a way around, through or out of these insurmountable dilemmas — and insurmountable they are — you are a more insightful analyst of Syria’s future than I am.
True Syria’s rich elite, a minority with deep pockets that owns virtually 90 per cent of the nation’s wealth, will be able to ride the storm, but the regime owes “the silent majority”, who had sided with it throughout the civil war, an explanation why they cannot afford to feed their families.
Silent majority
With an answer not forthcoming, stability is not either. And unquestionably this silent majority are beginning to feel the pinch, remaining silent no more, though clearly their protests appear to be generic, motivated more by aggravated economic distress than by lofty demands for social change.
When suffering is visited upon a people by, say, a trick of fate, these people don’t feel its ravages as they do when it is inflicted on them by what turns out to be, in the cold light of hindsight, the arbitrary excesses of their own leaders.
For nine long, unspeakably horrific years, children froze to death, bombs rained down on hospitals, schools and marketplaces, and refugees in the millions fled the carnage to the surrounding countries.
During those years — and live in infamy they will — a cumulative total of $232 billion in GDP, according to the World Bank, was lost to the conflict. And that’s a large chunk of capital for a developing country.
Economy in shambles
That, usually, is the time when, as street idiom has it, the chickens come home to roost: An economy in shambles, progressively suffering, year in, year out, conflict-related hyperinflation, with the national currency, the Lira, which had traded at 47 to the dollar just before the uprising erupted in 2011, is today valued at 3,500 to the dollar.
Thus traders pay more, and still more, for the dollars they need to buy imported goods, with serious consequences for the more than 80 per cent of the population, who live below the poverty line.
Yes, that’s how many Syrians do just that. (The news that President Al-Assad had confiscated the assets of the oligarch Rami Makhlouf, his cousin, reportedly Syria’s richest man, who owns half the country’s wealth, must have elicited bitter snickers from these ordinary Syrians.)
Through it all, Syrian leaders appear to live in a fantasy world, or at least a duplicitous one. In a news story reported in the website of the Middle East Institute, the oldest think tank in Washington, we read that in an interview in January with Al-Mayadeen TV, the Beirut-based pan-Arab channel launched in 2014, Syrian presidential adviser Bouthaima Sha’aban claimed that “Syria’s economy is now 50 times better than it was in 2011” and that the hyperinflation suffered by the Lira “is purely exchange rate”.
And in another news item, this one in the Financial Times, two months earlier, we read how President Al-Assad contended that during the war his government had “averted” the currency’s collapse by using “particular methods” of a “covert nature”.
If that’s not the best embodiment of gobbledegook, one wonders what is. Again we say, echoing Khalil Gibran, pity the nation. –GN