Syrian government must address the people’s grievances
While the Syrian government is attempting to put the civil war behind it, protests continue to erupt in some parts of the country, posing a significant challenge to the leadership in Damascus.
Even though the civil war, which broke out in 2011, has not yet been fully resolved, the Syrian government appears to be entering the next phase, which is seeking regional and international rehabilitation and attempting to reintegrate itself into the global financial system. Syria’s readmission to the Arab League in May and the latest diplomatic rapprochements between Damascus and other regional powers are likely to be just the start of a long process that will hopefully help to resolve the crisis in the country.
But any widespread protests in the country could create obstacles for the government’s rehabilitation efforts. For example, protests have recently been witnessed in Suwayda, with women playing a prominent role. Suwayda is under the control of government forces and it is the heartland of the nation’s Druze minority, which has attempted to avoid being dragged into the civil war. Protests have also taken place in the north (Aleppo and Idlib), the south (Deraa), government strongholds along the Mediterranean coast, the capital Damascus and the northeast (Deir Ezzor, Hasakeh and Raqqa).
As a result, it is critical for the Syrian leadership to address people’s grievances in order to facilitate the country’s rehabilitation process. But in order to accomplish this crucial goal, the people’s most pressing grievances must first be identified.
Any widespread protests in the country could create obstacles for the government’s rehabilitation efforts
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
While the conflict has ended in many parts of the country, this key development has not translated into economic recovery for the overwhelming majority of the Syrian people. In fact, many people believe that the economy has become worse since the fighting dissipated. Sawsan, a mother of three who works as a secretary at a doctor’s office in Damascus, pointed out: “We are very grateful that the civil war has ended and we do not constantly hear bombs and bullets in the suburbs of Damascus anymore. We thought that when the conflict and fighting finishes, we will go back to the old days. But the financial situation keeps getting worse and it is surprising to many of us that it is more difficult to make ends meet now in comparison to a few years ago during the war.”
The economic shock of a war can often be long-standing and its real impact is only revealed after the war ends. On top of that, the February earthquake, which inflicted an estimated $5.1 billion of damage in Syria, has further exacerbated the situation caused by more than a decade of civil war. Even before that disaster, more than two-thirds of the Syrian population needed humanitarian assistance, according to UNICEF, due to the “worsening economic crisis, continued localized hostilities, mass displacement and devastated public infrastructure.”
First and foremost, the Syrian government must enhance people’s purchasing power. This means addressing three core issues: inflation, the devaluation of the currency and unemployment.
The problem is that the Syrian currency keeps losing its value at a fast pace, making any wage raises trivial
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Inflation is reportedly now at its highest ever level. While Syria’s average inflation rate from 1957 to 2020 was about 11 percent, it last year reached 139 percent — higher than countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola and Libya. This placed Syria fourth in the world in terms of highest inflation rates, only ranking behind Venezuela, Sudan and Lebanon, according to World Population Review. To put this in perspective, Syria’s inflation rate is about 40 times higher than the average in the Arab Gulf states. The likes of Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Oman are among the countries with the lowest inflation rates in the world. It is worth noting that a healthy and standard rate of inflation is about 2 percent to 3 percent per year.
Before the civil war, the unemployment rate nationally was almost 9 percent. Some areas in Syria have recently experienced unemployment rates that have reached a staggering 85 percent. Prices have increased by more than 800 percent in the last two years alone, with nearly 90 percent of the Syrian population now living below the poverty line. The government did recently double pension payments when it cut fuel subsidies, but the problem is that the Syrian currency keeps losing its value at a fast pace, making any wage raises trivial. At the start of this year, the exchange rate was 7,000 Syrian pounds to the US dollar, but it recently hit an all-time low of about 14,000 pounds to the dollar, which means it has lost more than 80 percent of its value in less than a year.
What is the best policy for the Syrian government to take on key issues such as unemployment, inflation and the dire economy? It is a step in the right direction that the Syrian leadership is attempting to reintegrate itself into the global financial system and bring the country out of isolation. More fundamentally, however, Damascus needs to invest significant political capital in the reconstruction of the nation’s infrastructure, as this can play a key role in creating jobs and improving the economy. This means attracting investments from other countries as well.
In a nutshell, as the Syrian government seeks regional and international rehabilitation, it is critical for the leadership to address its people’s economic grievances.
- Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. X: @Dr_Rafizadeh