Syria's Economy and Sanctions: Interview
Syria’s economic situation- particularly in areas held by the Syrian government- has only continued to deteriorate with time, and with this deterioration, living standards have continued to diminish. Perhaps the most familiar indicator of this economic decline is the deterioration of the value of the Syrian pound: one U.S. dollar is now equivalent to more than 5000 Syrian pounds.
The continuing drop in the economic situation and living standards is in turn partly linked to what is one of the most contentious issues of Syria policy: namely, the imposition of extensive Western sanctions on the Syrian government in a bid to put economic pressure on it. The case for sanctions has been most concretely framed in terms of pressuring the government to accept a political ‘transition.’ Yet there is little evidence that this approach is having any success, as there is no sign that the government has made any concrete concessions because of sanctions. Nor has the government indicated any willingness to discuss a ‘transition.’
The sanctions are not the only reason or necessarily the main reason for Syria’s economic and living standards decline. Within government-held areas also, multiple opinions exist regarding the reasons for the downturn in quality of life: some follow the government’s line and complain that the sanctions (often dubbed the ‘economic siege/war on Syria’) are the sole/primary reason, whereas others hold a more complicated view and point to failings on the part of the government.
However, even among the latter camp, there is no suggestion of launching a new ‘revolution’ and mass protest movement in a bid to bring down the government, and while the criticisms of the government policies and corruption can be scathing, they often stop short of criticising the president Bashar al-Assad. Instead of a new ‘revolution’ and mass protest movement, the ongoing deterioration in the economic situation and living standards seems to me (based on my observations of friends inside Syria) to be just prompting more people to leave Syria in a bid to migrate to Turkey and Europe- something that is hardly seen as desirable for these states. Others head to countries like the UAE and Iraq in search of work.
While it should not be imagined that sanctions relief will lead to new economic prosperity for people in Syria, there should be more serious debate about sanctions, particularly when they become very sweeping and broad in nature. Specifically, what are the aims and goals? If there are concrete goals and aims, are they actually achievable through sanctions? If not, then what is the point behind them? Are they simply imposed to make it seem as though ‘something is being done’ and feel better about oneself? Is such catharsis appropriate in a policy context, particularly in light of their costs for the ordinary population? Should sanctions relief aimed at lessening the burdens on the ordinary population necessarily be equated with ‘normalisation’ and somehow giving money to the government?
The interview below was conducted on 29 October 2022 with a friend who resided in Idlib until not too long ago and currently resides in Jaramana, Damascus, where he has recently opened a store selling goods. This friend subscribes to the view that sanctions are the main cause of Syria’s woes in economy and living standards. The interview is slightly edited and condensed for clarity. Any parenthetical insertions in square brackets are my own.
Q: Can you speak about your shop and the types of goods you are selling and their prices?
A: I have rented a very small shop: 4 [square] metres approximately in a simple neighbourhood in the town of Jaramana. The value of the rent is 62,000 Syrian pounds [monthly] which equates to 12 dollars. Note that the renting of shops in the streets of Jaramana in Damascus countryside reaches 100 dollars. I have put on display in it some food goods and cleaning items only: i.e. very necessary items. The prices of the food goods in Syria are continually rising every week more or less because of the decline in the value of the Syrian pound. From here one knows that the purchase rate is declining daily.
Q: Could you give me the prices of some of the goods in your shop today?
A: Spicy sardines: 36,000 Syrian pounds. Litre of plant oil: 16,000. Kilo of children’s milk, the type of our milk: 27,000. Half kilo of handkerchiefs: 7,000.
Q: In your opinion and the opinion of the people of Jaramana, what are the reasons for the rise in prices?
A: Solely the economic siege on the state imposed by America and its followers, as well as what is known as the Caesar Law. In addition the American occupier’s occupation of the Syrian Jazeera area represented in the provinces of Hasakah and Raqqa and the richer portion economically of Deir al-Zor (because of the resources these areas possess) is certainly the reason.
Q: Can you speak about the impacts of the sanctions on your life?
A: They have almost entirely destroyed my life. Like me are 90% of the people of Syria and not only Jaramana. I used to receive a salary in 2010 of 18,500 Syrian pounds: i.e. what equates to 350 dollars. This was solely by the grace and efforts of Mr. President Bashar al-Assad. But what happened in Syria under the moniker of freedom was the beginning of the destruction of my precious state Syria. Let all know that I am a primary school teacher and I am not a political actor in my state. Rather I speak the truth and God is witness to my words.
Q: There are those who say that the sanctions and economic pressure will lead to a political transition and realisation of justice in Syria. What is your opinion on that?
A: I as a Syrian citizen speak for myself only. I say that this is a mistaken theory and will not hit the mark and will not bring about benefit. The Syrians have offered thousands of martyrs to protect Syria and its great president. They will not yield to material matters whatever the price may be. For the economy will improve if God wills by the efforts of the people and the government.
Q: Do you have a message to the West regarding the sanctions?
A: My message is political and not economic. Oh good humanitarian peoples, and I have no quarrel with your humanity. Rise up against your political rulers, tear them our from their roots, and make rule belong to humanitarianism in Europe. I also tell you: you must liberate yourselves from your servitude to America immediately before it’s too late. I mean here what the war in Ukraine will come to.
Q: And the sanctions must be lifted?
A: Of course Mr. Aymenn. When I ask them to be liberated and rid of servitude, the sanctions will of course be lifted.
Q: And you as a person displaced from Idlib originally, what is the truth of the situation there?
A: The truth I know well because I was living there until recently: the group of gangs large in number and supported by the same states that impose the economic sanctions on the state are the ones that rule a people who yearn for freedom: that is, freedom to live with the state, and not the freedom that their rulers and their supporters claim in Idlib and northern Syria. I am wholly confident that 85% of the people of Idlib and the north want to return to the Syrian state: their state in whose embraces they were raised and in whose universities they studied.