Economic sanctions make life hard - GulfToday

Economic sanctions make life hard

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

syria uncief 2

The photo has been used for illutrative purposes.

In the year since I last visited Syria, Damascenes have lived without the metallic report of mortars fired by insurgents landing in the city and its suburbs, the whistle of responding artillery shells and thud of bombs dropped on Eastern Ghouta. As the fighters surrendered and were transported to northwestern Idlib province last April, I interviewed civilian human shields who had escaped the siege mounted by the Syrian army. With the fall of Eastern Ghouta, the last of the areas around the capital to be recaptured by the army, the war on the capital, which did not suffer serious damage, came to an end.

Security has made Damascenes feel a sense of relief and freedom from instant death and injury. Check points are few and far-between, allowing traffic to flow reasonably smoothly around the city. Schools and universities are functioning normally. Popular restaurants are packed with people throughout the day and into the evening. In the dark of night youngsters roar along the narrow, twisting alleyways of the Old City, flashing the lights of their cars to warn pedestrians to get out of the way.  

Lavish wedding receptions are held by the wealthy at upmarket hotels and birthdays are marked at 19th century Ottoman mansions transformed into elegant restaurants. This weekend Catholic and Protestant Christians will celebrate Easter by attending church services in the Old City and elsewhere in Damascus. Next weekend is the turn of the Orthodox Christians. Damascus remains tolerant of all faiths. If extremist Daesh or al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra had won the war, there would be no freedom of religion in Syria.

All Syrians, not just citizens of Damascus, expected an improvement in their lives once the guns had fallen silent in the 70 per cent of the country ruled by Damascus. Instead they are under greater pressure than before. Although $10 billion (Dhs36b) has been pledged mainly by the US and Europe for reconstruction, not one cent has been delivered because these countries, having failed to bring down President Bashar al-Assad by military means, continue to pursue this goal by economic means. Punitive sanctions imposed by the West have severely limited supplies of petrol, cooking gas, and, above all, fuel oil, “mazout.” 

These sanctions do not target the government but harm Syrians at all levels of society, particularly the middle class and the poor. The Western aim is to turn the populace against the government and encourage revolt. This will not happen say Syrians consulted by Gulf Today. People do not want more bloodshed and destruction. They are tired and simply want to get on with their lives. Furthermore, whether loyalists or opponents of the government, Syrians see that it has continued to govern despite existential challenges. Government offices function, civil servants receive their salaries, banks are open, security is imposed, garbage is collected, water and electricity are provided.   

During the eight-year war, Damascus’ population was swelled by civilians escaping fighting in the city’s suburbs, surrounding towns, villages, contested Aleppo and the coast. Syrians from both government and insurgent-held areas braved fighting and kidnapping to come to Damascus to secure official documents and access medical treatment. When buses could not come from north-eastern Hasakah province, the government laid on cargo planes to bring civilians to the capital. No payment was asked.

These days, residents from Hasakah and Raqqa, occupied by US-supported Kurds, arrive by road although the journey takes many hours. My small hotel at the centre of the city currently hosts families from these provinces. Documents, identity cards, and other papers issued by the Kurds, rebel, Al-Qaeda, and Daesh bodies count for nothing. Whoever is in power, Damascus remains the country’s legal address, the focus of Syrian identity, and a symbol of survival against great odds. After all, Damascus, an oasis settled in the second millennium BC, vies with Aleppo by claiming the title of the “world’s oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.” 

In the 7th century AD Damascus became the first capital of the Arab empire and in the 12th and 13th centuries was ruled by the descendants of the warrior hero Salaheddin. His grave is in Damascus.

Damascus has played a major role in the modern history of the Arab region. Syrians who have studied their country’s history recall that in 1918 following World War I, the Arab revolt and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Emir Faisal, son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca, took control and established a government in Damascus in an attempt to pre-empt the division of the Arab world between perfidious Britain and France under the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement.

In March 1920 the popular Faisal was proclaimed king of Greater Syria by the Syrian National Congress but that July his forces were defeated by the French, who had been awarded a mandate to rule Syria and Lebanon, and he was expelled from Syria. When in 1921 he was made king of British-ruled Iraq, he invited Syrians to Baghdad to give his reign a pan-Arab colour and the blessing of Damascus. Faisal’s attempt to make Damascus the capital of the Arab state promised by the duplicitous Western powers inspired Egypt’s pan-Arab nationalist President Gamal Abdel Nasser to call Syria “the beating heart of Arabism.” 

Although the dream of Arab unity has faded since Nasser died in 1970, the Syrian government continues to seek pan-Arab action on regional issues, including Western intervention in the Syrian conflict and Israeli occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights and all of Palestine. It used to be said that the Arabs could not make war with Israel without Egypt or peace without Syria. The Arab ability to wage war ended in 1979 when Egypt broke with Arab ranks and concluded a separate peace with Israel. The Egyptian people’s opposition to the deal has meant this is a cold peace. After indirect negotiations between Syria and Israel, failed, regional peace remains elusive. Since the Arab world has not capitulated to Israel’s diktat, the Western powers want to remove Syria as a key regional actor — as they have Iraq — to achieve this objective.

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