Abderrazaq Khatoun rests with some of his 11 orphaned grandchildren, in an encampment in the village of Harbanoush, in the northern countryside of Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib. File/Agence France-Presse
One can only hope that the Biden administration will heed the warning of UAE foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan that punitive US sanctions on Syria undermine Arab reconciliation efforts which could resolve the Syrian conflict and lead to reconstruction of the war-ravaged country.
So far, US President Biden and his foreign policy team have shunned dealings with Syria and left in place sanctions imposed since 2011 and ramped up under the Trump administration’s 2019 Caesar Civilian Protection Act. This destructive measure has, in a matter of months, deepened the suffering of Syrian civilians.
Adopted as Syria’s economy slumped due to the conflict and multiple crises neighbouring Lebanon, the act has dramatically driven down the value of the country’s currency, sent food prices soaring, reduced fuel supplies, and denied Syrians live-saving medications as COVID cases have risen. Caesar sanctions are beyond cruel and amount to collective punishment, which is illegal under international law and violate the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Sheikh Abdullah issued his warning ahead of the 10th anniversary of the unrest in Syria which, unlike Egypt’s popular rising, morphed into an armed insurrection and drew in external powers with competing agendas.
Syria’s “troubles” began when a group of teenagers in the southern city of Deraa spray-painted slogans from Egypt’s globally-televised uprising. The detention of the boys elicited demonstrations by family members which, by March 15th, had attracted hundreds of supporters. Unlike Egypt, protesters were not all peaceful.
Violence erupted in Deraa. Weapons appeared, banks were trashed, and offices of the ruling Baath party were torched in the city centre. The authorities responded with a harsh crackdown. Although the iron-fisted Deraa governor was rebuked and replaced, the country erupted in street protests fanned by local resentments and exploited by local and foreign actors.
Fearing the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood would take the lead, the government banned rallies and detained demonstrators. Damascus had every reason to be concerned about the Brotherhood which raised the flag of rebellion in the mid-1970s and was suppressed only in early 1982 during a brutal battle in the Old City of Hama.
Armed anti-government forces gradually took over the protests and transformed them into an insurgency fuelled by poverty and disaffection. In 2005 the Baath party adopted an economic liberalisation and reform programme for the creation of a “Social Market Economy” which expanded the private sector while maintaining state control of key sectors and was meant to offer a safety net for the poor. The private and public sectors benefitted but the safety net was forgotten. If the programme had worked as intended, this model might have pre-empted widespread discontent that fuelled the protests and the insurgency.
Five years of drought (2006-2011) had driven farmers from their land and forced them to settle in deprived areas on the edges of Syrian cities and a 2004 free trade treaty with Turkey flooded Syria with cheap, subsidised Turkish goods and shrank Syria’s manufacturing sector and put workers out of jobs, particularly in Aleppo and Homs. As a wise Syrian barber told Gulf Today during an interview in the working class Muadamiya suburb of Damascus in early 2012, anti-government gang leaders easily recruited teenage boys by offering them guns smuggled into Syria from Lebanon.
Turkey was the first outside power to intervene by forming the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in July 2011 by enlisting disaffected Syrian army officers and men with the aim of overthrowing the government. In August, Ankara founded the Brotherhood-dominated Istanbul-based Syrian National Council which was meant to take over, thereby extending the influence of Turkey’s leader Recep Tayyip Erodgan who fancies himself a latter-day Ottoman sultan. Others with different agendas followed suit and turned the Syrian insurgency into proxy wars.
Since the FSA was never a match for the Syrian army and the Council never had popular support in Syria, Erdogan has staked territorial claims by invading enclaves along the Syrian-Turkish border and forming a partnership with al-Qaeda’s Haya’t Tahrir al-Sham which controls the northwest Idlib province. Today, Syria is a shadow of its former self. While the government, backed by Russian warplanes and Iran-deployed militiamen, holds 70 per cent of the country, 25 per cent is occupied by US-sponsored Kurdish forces and five per cent by Turkey and allied radical groups. Fugitive Daesh fighters attack the Syrian army in the eastern desert area near the Iraqi border while in the south criminals kidnap and kill hapless civilians.
While armed conflict has devastated wide areas in most Syrian cities, ongoing economic warfare is punishing war-weary Syrian civilians who have no intention of rising up against the government and simply want a peaceful end to prolonged conflict and privation. Economic losses in commerce, tourism, and oil revenues are estimated at $1 trillion. The Syrian currency has dramatically fallen in value, reducing essential imports and preventing Syria from rebuilding. Since the UN has estimated the cost of reconstruction at $117 billion, Syrian will have to rely on foreign governments and international institutions. Syrian businessmen eager to return to normalcy cannot raise that kind of money. Sanctions have driven away potential investors. Without reconstruction of infrastructure, industries and devastated neighbourhoods and the return of fallow farmland to production of grain, fruit, and vegetables, Syria cannot recover and faces continued downward slide. Syria’s traditional economic partners, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq are already suffering major economic downturns. Worse off even than Syria, Lebanon is calling on international donors to provide $2.75 billion to provide essential humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees living in the country and Lebanese impacted by the Syrian economic crisis.
Although the government had accumulated funds for modest rebuilding, Damascus has no choice but to invest its slender resources in food and fuel subsidies and civil service salaries. The situation in areas administered by the government, where 13 million Syrians live, is somewhat better than in areas occupied by Turkey in the north and northwest and the US-backed Kurds in the northeast where the majority Arabs resent Kurdish domination.
Syrians at home and in adjacent host countries are struggling to put food on family tables.
COVID has added to economic and social miseries and enduring psychological trauma. Economic warfare along with COVID is boosting the death toll among the 115,000 civilians slain by the war.