Another unhappy New Year for Syria’s suffering civilians

Sanctions placed on Syria in order to hurt regime figures have caused untold economic pain for many civilians from small business owners to internally displaced people fleeing the effects of the country’s brutal civil war. (AFP)
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Updated 07 January 2020

Another unhappy New Year for Syria’s suffering civilians

  • The Assad regime is not counting on an oil bonanza as it seeks to revive a moribund economy
  • Fuel shortages, sanctions and Lebanon unrest have contributed to the currency’s weakening

LEEDS, UNITED KINGDOM: The New Year in Syria has brought no relief from the paralyzing stress of tighter Western sanctions, a fuel crisis that has persisted for eight years and a weak currency that plumbs new depths every month.

The Council of the European Union announced on May 17 its decision to extend restrictive measures against the Syrian regime and its allies until June 1, 2020.

The EU sanctions list, from which a few names and entities already targeted by a travel ban and an asset freeze have been dropped, currently includes 269 people and 69 entities.

The measures are aimed at punishing President Bashar Assad’s regime and protecting civilians, but they are also inflicting pain on ordinary Syrians and pushing them deeper into poverty; impeding humanitarian aid; making the procurement of medical supplies almost impossible; and killing all hope that Syrians might have had of a rapid improvement in their lives.

Basimah, a Damascus-based computer programmer, put it this way: “The EU and America said the sanctions were designed to spare civilians, but what we see on the ground is that only ordinary people are adversely affected by these measures.

“It is us who are freezing during winter due to fuel shortages, not the government.”

Ghalia M. Turki, a social activist and entrepreneur, believes “it is almost impossible to start an online business as the sanctions prevent Syrians inside the country from making online payments.”

She is the founder of two startups, Blaze Marketing Agency and Magma Academy, and her team struggles to collaborate remotely. “Important project management applications, such as Trello and Slack, are banned for both individuals and groups, making it difficult for teams to collaborate online,” she told Arab News.

“In addition, many websites that provide online courses and training have been banned, making it very difficult to access educational resources, especially with the poor Internet connection we have.

“The need to use VPN applications means even slower connections.”

Armand Cucciniello, a foreign policy expert and former US diplomat who advises the American military, believes that the situation will get worse in 2020 before its gets better.

“As we move into a new year, the security and humanitarian situations remain priorities for international observers of Syria,” he told Arab News.

“First, the country, along with Iraq, could continue to be the scene of a proxy war between the United States and Iran. The recent air strikes by the US on two facilities linked to Iranian-backed militias that are responsible for injuring American military personnel are illustrative of the security aspect.

“Second, IDPs, especially those fleeing Idlib, will need assistance as Syrian forces, with the support of Russia and Iran, continue to battle Al-Qaeda-linked groups there.

“Lastly, the EU’s extension of economic sanctions on Syria is where the security and humanitarian aspects to Syria merge. Sanctions, by definition, mean the country will continue to be isolated by the West, while the humanitarian crisis may worsen due to their effects.”

The fuel crisis and the sanctions, combined with the protests in Lebanon, have contributed to a deterioration in the Syrian currency’s value, which hit a record low earlier in December.

Before the start of the civil war, the Syrian currency was worth about 47 pounds to the US dollar. The currency has deteriorated steadily from the outset of the uprising in 2011, but the decline has accelerated since the economic crisis in Lebanon took a turn for the worse in mid-October last year.

On Dec. 2, the currency sank so sharply that the US dollar began to be sold for 950 pounds by the Central Bank and to fetch 1,000 pounds on the black market.

“Prices have been outrageously and continuously rising, but our salaries remain unchanged,” said Nadia K., 29, a Damascus-based marketing manager. “The prices of imported medicines are especially expensive.”

Ali M., 27, a Damascus-based accountant, told Arab News: “There are four employed adults in my family of six, and we could barely make ends meet before the recent rise in prices. Now, some of us need to start looking for second jobs to be able to put food on the table.”

The US imposed additional sanctions last year on Syrian officials, including Assad, on the basis of evidence provided by a former photographer in the Syrian military police who fled the country reportedly with photographs documenting the torture and execution of civilians incarcerated by the regime.

The 2014 Syrian detainee report, also known as the Caesar Report, purports to detail “the systematic killing of more than 11,000 detainees by the Syrian government in one region during the Syrian Civil War … from March 2011 to August 2013.”

On Dec. 22, US President Donald Trump signed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019, approving additional sanctions on institutions and individuals doing business with the Syrian regime.

This act, which has been included as part of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020, targets individuals as well as governments accused of providing “financial, material, or technological support to the governments of Syria, Russia, or Iran in reconstruction efforts, military activities, and/or petroleum and gas production.”

Syria’s oil production has suffered significantly since the war began in 2011. The country produced in 2010 about 400,000 barrels a day of crude and other petroleum liquids, according to figures published by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).

FASTFACTS

24k - Syria currently produces 24,000 barrels of crude oil a day.

400k - Syria produced 400,000 barrels of crude a day in 2010, before the civil war.

$1 - The Syrian currency hit its lowest value since 2011 in early December, with 1,000 pounds fetching just one dollar on the black market.

Syria had 2.5 billion barrels of petroleum reserves as of January 1, 2011, according to an Oil and Gas Journal report, with the majority of these reserves concentrated in the east, near its border with Iraq and along the Euphrates River.

These days, the country produces 24,000 barrels of crude oil a day, according to figures cited by Mohammad Jeroudi, director of planning and international cooperation at the Syrian Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources, in an interview with the Russian news agency Sputnik in October.

Jeroudi also said that the ministry has a strategic plan for 2030 for all fields and that Russia will contribute greatly to the implementation of these plans. Whether the plan can compensate for the shortfall caused by the loss of major oilfields in eastern Syria, including the largest, Al-Omar, in Deir Ezzor, is a different matter.

Despite the uncertainty over its future, Syria’s oil is drawing covetous looks from more than just the Assad regime. On Oct. 23 Trump said: “We have secured the (Syrian) oil and, therefore, a small number of US troops will remain in the area where they have the oil. And we are going to be protecting it, and we will be deciding what we are going to do with it in the future.”

A few days after that, he said: “We’re keeping the oil — remember that.”

Michal Strahilevitz, associate professor of marketing at Saint Mary’s College of California and a behavioral economist, said that she was not surprised by the shifting focus of Trump’s interest in Syria, from fighting terrorism to securing oil, given his reputation as “a master at the game of spin.”

As the US heads into an election year, Trump’s main claim to being a successful president is what is happening with the economy, Strahilevitz said. “Actions that seem to be good for the wealth of the country fit with his efforts at having an image of being good for the economic well-being of the United States.”

The Syrian government is not counting on an oil bonanza as it seeks to revive a moribund economy. In an October interview with RT Arabic, Fadlallah Gharzeddine, assistant to the chairman of the Syrian Planning and International Cooperation Authority, claimed the 2020 budget, set at 4,000 billion Syrian pounds (about $9 billion), would create more than 83,000 jobs.

He provided a sector-wide breakdown of the allocations: 40 million Syrian pounds for the agricultural and industrial sectors; 50 million pounds for reconstruction; and 25 billion pounds for paying down public-sector debt to the General Organization for Social Insurance.

The optimism of Syrian officials, however, has little connection with the everyday lives of Syrian civilians as they face another bitter winter.

Asma, 32, a mother of two who is based in Damascus and who works in advertising, said: “I don't even want to think of my family’s future here. It frightens me. I believe the economic situation will continue to deteriorate.”

She added: “Winter has started, along with long hours of power outages. There is no heating fuel, no gas and no electricity.

“May God help us to survive yet another freezing winter during which nothing can keep us warm but layers of old clothes and blankets.”


First Russian airstrikes in three months hit northwest Syria

Updated 2 min 5 sec ago

First Russian airstrikes in three months hit northwest Syria

  • Action, aimed to target militants, triggers a fresh wave of displacement

BEIRUT/DAMASCUS: Russian airstrikes have hit Syria’s last major opposition bastion for the first time since a March cease-fire came into force, a war monitor said on Wednesday.

The Russian strikes on Tuesday evening and at dawn on Wednesday hit an area of the northwest where the boundaries of Hama, Idlib and Latakia provinces meet, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham alliance (HTS), led by Syria’s former Al-Qaida affiliate, and its hard-line allies enjoy a significant presence in the area, the Britain-based monitoring group added.

Home to some 3 million people, the Idlib region of the northwest is controlled by HTS and affiliated militant groups.

A Russian-backed regime offensive between December and March displaced nearly a million people in the region.

Some 840,000 of the nearly 1 million remain displaced, while some 120,000 have returned to their home communities since the cease-fire went into force, according to the UN.

The truce, which coincided with the coronavirus crisis, had put a stop to the relentless airstrikes by regime forces and their Russian allies that killed at least 500 civilians in four months.

The Observatory said the latest strikes were intended to push militants away from the key M4 highway in northern Syria, where Turkish and Russian forces often conduct joint patrols as part of the truce agreement.

They were also intended to push HTS and its allies further away from the Sahl Al-Ghab area in the north of Hama province, where government and Russian forces are present, it added.

The airstrikes triggered a fresh wave of displacement from Sahl Al-Ghab and the Jabal Al-Zawiya district of neighboring Idlib, the Observatory added.

Nearly half of the 3 million people living in the Idlib region have been displaced from other parts of Syria recaptured by the regime.

After holding barely a fifth of the country five years ago, Russian intervention has helped the regime reclaim control of more than 70 percent of Syria.

In the northwest, HTS and its allies control around half of Idlib province and slivers of territory in the neighboring provinces of Hama, Latakia and Aleppo.

The war in Syria has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced nearly half of the country’s pre-war population since it started in 2011.

The month of May saw the lowest civilian death toll since the start of the conflict nine years ago with 71 civilians reported killed, the Observatory said on Tuesday.

US sanctions

A new wave of US sanctions is about to hit the Assad regime this month.

The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which gained bipartisan support in Congress in December, envisages sanctions on Syrian troops and others responsible for atrocities committed during Syria’s civil war and funding for war crimes investigations and prosecutions. President Donald Trump later signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes the Caesar act, into law.

Caesar is a code name for a Syrian forensic photographer who took thousands of photographs of victims of torture and other abuses and smuggled them out of the country. The images, taken between 2011 and 2013, were turned over to human rights advocates, graphically exposing the scale of the Syrian regime’s brutal crackdown.

The bill applies sanctions to those who lend support to “the Assad regime’s military efforts” in the war, and grants authorities to the US secretary of state to support entities collecting evidence and pursuing prosecutions against those who have committed war crimes in Syria.

It gives the US another means to punish Bashar Assad and his allies with sanctions. Washington has already imposed sanctions on Assad and a number of his top officials, but the new authority allows foreign companies to be targeted if they are found to be supporting repression.