By, Issam Khoury
Jan 31, 2019
Before Aya fell asleep, she uttered to her helpless mother, “cold…cold”. A few seconds later, she closed her eyes for the final time. This is the case of the young Aya, who died with her mother in an area controlled by the Syrian regime. Aya is the victim of the regime’s greed, which exploited the severe frost that swept through the region during the beginning of 2019.
Syrians have used diesel fuel for heating, but prices reached 185 Syrian Pounds (SP’s) per liter in the state fuel centers. However, this fuel is now scarce due to economic sanctions imposed upon the country, resulting in Syrians resorting to gas for heating. The price of gas in government centers is set at 2800 SP, or about $5.60, but the gas trade ‘Mafia’, which cooperates with Syrian Security, gets hold of gas canisters and cylinders before they reach government warehouses. They, in turn, sell the gas to consumers for 6,000 Syrian pounds, roughly $12. In the city of Lattakia, and in rural areas of Homs, a cylinder reaches as much as 4000 SP’s, equivalent to $8.
As a result of the shortage and scarcity of diesel fuel, along with skyrocketing prices, many families become dependent upon gas as a single means for heating. The average family requires two gas cylinders per month to ensure the minimum amount of heating, in addition to a third gallon for cooking. Ultimately, the cost of fuel per month is between $24 and $36. As the average income of the Syrian family is 30,000 SP’s, ($60) this alone devours half of the family income. For the desperate and displaced families who have lost their financial resources after the civil war broke out, they are forced to wait in long affronted queues at government distribution points. These queues often force some to wait an entire day to receive one gas cylinder.
Syrians are forced to wait in long lines like these for gas cylinders, Lattakia, Syria
International sanctions against Syria began in 2012, following the regime’s intransigence in achieving political change and taking up arms against protests launched by civilians in March 2011. These sanctions paralyzed Syrian economically for months. However, the regime soon invented new commercial channels that allowed it to evade economic sanctions through intermediaries in Lebanon and other countries. Here, businessmen are actively associated with the regime. Of course, this has led it to raise prices of various goods and give legitimacy to the Syrian regime, eliminating government support on fuel and bread which made Syrian markets linked to the dollar exchange rate.
This indicated the end of an era for state support in the local economy, and the beginning of the ‘market liberalization’ phase from the control of the Ministry of Supply, which monitors prices. Syrians, certainly, did not favor this approach, but they could not rebel. The government has made it clear that challenging popular mobilization would result in a charge of working for the imperialist West, or of being infected with the trait of radical Islamic terrorism. Since employees’ salaries have not risen in a proportion similar to the cost of living, young men had to work in armed militias in order to get what would provide them with a minimum salary for themselves and their family. The earnings of a militia member who supports the regime is between $50 and $80. Such a salary is hard to receive in state jobs during the first few years.
From this reality arose the so-called ‘war economy.’ The majority of those militias have set up checkpoints to search passing vehicles, and every barrier has its own financial provision. These barriers have become money-making opportunities for militia leaders, who distribute funds in the form of soldiers’ salaries and security services. Of course, this reality constitutes the foundation of an open corruption movement for all Syrians, but conquering these opportunists seems to be out of the question. They are the ones who control the Syrian economy today.
Caesar’s Law, the new US sanctions :
On January 23rd, the United States senate approved a series of sanctions affecting the Syrian regime, in a legislative draft titled “Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act’. The provisions of this bill will only be adopted after the ratification of the House of Representatives and the approval of President Donald Trump. The set of penalties under this decision are the highest to be issued by the US government towards the Syrian regime. The most prominent items are:
1- Sanctions against entities and persons who provide support to the Syrian government in the following points:
- Aircraft spare parts, and aviation fuel.
- Equipment or techniques that contribute to the expansion of the local production of Syrian natural gas, petroleum or petroleum products.
- Services in the framework of reconstruction and development of engineering capabilities.
2 – Sanctions against any entity or person working within the framework of militias which support the Syrian regime, even if they are linked to Iran or the Russian Federation.
3 – Sanctions against the Central Bank of Syria and all economic entities associated with it involved in money laundering.
4. All real estate transactions on the properties of the Syrian personalities associated with the regime, or providing it with economic or trading support, are prohibited in the United States.
5. No visas to enter the United States will be issued for persons associated with the Syrian regime or for those supporting it economically, politically or commercially. All previously issued visas to such persons will be canceled.
The bill is linked to a larger project that supports Washington’s allies in the Middle East. The draft resolution contains the following points:
1. Extend security and defense assistance to Israel for ten future years.
2- Strengthening US defense cooperation with Jordan.
3. Confronting the boycott of Israeli goods in the United States.
Hence, we recognize that the Caesar bill, upon approval, will not be aimed at the Syrian regime alone, but beyond it to include the influence of Iran and Russia in the region if they decide to continue supporting the Syrian regime. This certainly won’t embarrass Iran, who is already punished under the Trump administration after they abandoned the nuclear deal signed by President Obama. But it will carry a great burden on Iran in its support of the Syrian economy. This means an additional blow to Iran that could eventually push it to leave Syria and meet the Israeli – US – Gulf demand that Moscow has failed to achieve.
Who are the beneficiaries of the Cesar draft resolution, and who are affected by it?
The vote on the Cesar resolution was blocked since the President Obama era, in the interest of concluding the US nuclear deal with Iran. At that time, the draft resolution was important for the continued existence of the Free Army. But in 2019 , after the Free Army was turned into the “Euphrates Shield”, controlled and protected by the Turkish army north of Aleppo, and the collapse of the Free Army in Idlib following the control of al-Nusrah Front across the province and parts of the western countryside of Aleppo, the terms under this resolution, which prevent supplying regime air force and helicopters with fuel and spare parts, are no longer vital, especially as the Turkish government had concluded agreements with the Russians in reducing escalation and preventing Syrian air force from shielding Idlib. And as for areas of the Euphrates Shield, the Syrian Air Force does not dare challenge the Turks, who are able to shoot down Syrian aircraft with ease.
As for the prevention of granting tourist or diplomatic visas for Syrians linked to the Syrian regime to enter the United States, this has lost its impact after the closure of the Syrian embassy in Washington, where official representation on the Syrian mission is limited to the United Nations. However, it could prevent any official attempts in attempting to create communication bridges with public relations firms and study centers which may influence US policy toward Syria and the Middle East.
Therefore, the only effect of the bill, if approved, would be economic, and would make it difficult for the regime to import goods, playing a role in importing and manufacturing fuel. And the rest of the world, including Russia, will be forced to prevent fuel exports to Syria. So, the Syrian regime would be left with no one to trade with but the Iranians, who suffer mainly from US economic sanctions. The Iranians have recognized this. In January of 2019 they were involved in a series of economic agreements with the Syrian regime, to establish banks with joint funding beyond which both countries would remain undetected by the financial transfer system “Swift”, which is monitored by the United States. Iran and Syria are trying to circumvent US sanctions before they are issued. Of course, Lebanese banks will not be able to help both countries in transferring money when concluding business deals with other countries. But this may be done through companies owned by individuals linked to Syrian and Iranian security services, as part of money laundering deals created by Lebanese businessmen since the days of the Lebanese civil war.
Ultimately, economic sanctions will not have a great effect on the leaders of the Syrian regime and the businessmen associated with it. As was explained during the beginning of this article, those personalities have become adapted with financial crisis management for their economic benefit. This is because they deal with the Syrian state as if they were a militia, and not in compliance with an institution or system. This will be reflected on the street by a routine increase in prices and a decrease in the value of the Syrian pound, which marginalizes the income of the individual against the high price.
‘A Private War’ Marie Colvin, an American reporter who operated out of London, and Rémi Ochlik, a French photojournalist, were killed in a rocket attack on a makeshift media center in the rebel-held city of Homs in February 2012.
Of course, this may push the Syrian public to push back and establish a new stage of peaceful protests. Here, the army will likely not clash with civilians, as was the case in the 2011 demonstrations. However, the militias which benefit from these sanctions will suppress the people, as is currently happening in the experience of Venezuela. This will increase public anger over the Iranian presence in Syria to the extent that both the Syrian and Russian governments would realize that Iran needs to leave Syria and resort to the stage of a political settlement that will restore it to the international community. This will, of course, not take place overnight. It will take a number of years.