War by other means

Syria's economic struggle

Syria’s hopes for recovery remain frustrated by the country’s shift from armed conflict to economic struggle. Secure in its military victory, Damascus now faces an uphill battle for economic survival. A hollowed-out state increasingly self-finances through graft and predatory governance, while failing to provide even basic support for ordinary citizens and businesses. Such tactics keep the system afloat even as they undercut the economy’s ability to restart.

The regime’s foreign adversaries compound these woes through new rounds of economic punishment. As tightening Western sanctions inflict ever more tangible pain on Syrian society—from crippling fuel shortages to a powerful chilling effect on even benign investments—their political objectives grow more nebulous and implausible. Damascus’ allies are only somewhat more helpful: Determined to keep the regime intact but with no visible interest in a broader revival, Russia and Iran are laying claim instead to their share of the country’s dwindling resources—from oil and phosphates to maritime trade.

Ordinary Syrians are left to suffer the consequences and improvise solutions of their own. Increasingly isolated, they remain relentlessly entrepreneurial in navigating an ever more corrupt and stifling economic climate. While that endurance alone will not fuel a large-scale recovery, it is Syria’s best chance for a partial, tentative stabilization after almost a decade of economic freefall.

Brittle boomtowns

War has both gutted Syria’s economy and reconfigured the economic activity that remains. While swathes of the country have been destroyed and depopulated, others have absorbed their people, businesses, and economic capacity. Dozens of businesspeople across Syria testified to this chaotic transfer of wealth, which has spurred limited economic growth even as it introduces new forms of socioeconomic dysfunction.

Syria’s coastal cities are perhaps the starkest and most consequential embodiment of this trend. Having remained comparatively stable throughout the war, the cities of Latakia and Tartous absorbed wave upon wave of displaced people from Homs, Aleppo, and Idlib—an influx that both strained and buoyed the region’s economy in a time of stagnation. A hotel manager in Tartous—whose economy has for decades relied on tourists visiting the coast’s Mediterranean beaches—stressed the paradox: “The period from 2012 to 2017 was a bad time for tourism. But even so, all the hotels and resorts were rented out by displaced families.” 

The influx both strained and buoyed the region’s economy

Newcomers included traders and industrialists from Aleppo and Homs—two erstwhile transit hubs and manufacturing centers laid low by siege and bombardment. Such individuals frequently brought their small- and medium-sized businesses with them, palpably accelerating the region’s economic activity. A resident of Latakia described how a street that comprised only shuttered shops before 2011 now buzzes with activity, thanks to Aleppans who rented and re-opened every last storefront.

This upsurge in commercial activity marks a major historical shift, as Syria’s economic center of gravity had long been distributed along the north-south axis from Aleppo to Damascus. That shift has triggered multiple disruptions, not least in the form of competition between the newly arrived and pre-war laborers and businesspeople: “Carpenters from Homs and Aleppo work harder and are more experienced than the locals here,” said a Homs native who moved his furniture shop to Tartous in 2013. “So they compete with the locals and often push them out of the labor market.”

Another fault-line divides established elites and wartime profiteers seeking to launder their wealth in the regular economy. This particular schism takes on an unmistakable sectarian hue, as predominantly Alawi nouveaux riche break into markets historically controlled by Sunnis and Christians. Yet this shift also fuels pragmatic collaboration, in a symbiotic relationship where longstanding business figures contribute their expertise while upstarts supply fresh cash and connections to the security apparatus. A Christian restaurant owner in Tartous city summed up this dynamic, in a tone that conveyed his own sectarian bent:

Historically, Sunni families have run Tartous’ restaurants, coffee shops, and hotels. Christians ran wine stores as well as those restaurants serving alcohol. In the last two years, more and more Alawi security officers and militia leaders bought restaurants, cafes, and wine shops from Sunnis and Christians.

I’ll leave Syria someday soon and expect to sell my shop to an Alawi. I’ve received multiple offers from Alawis already. They have plenty of money to buy it, but can’t run it like I do: I have much experience making high quality food and wine, and these people have money only. As a result, you see Alawi officers buying up restaurants but keeping Sunnis and Christians as managers and chefs, while most of the waiters and cleaning staff are young Alawis.

Although some coastal Alawis have successfully cashed in on Syria’s conflict economy, most have been plunged into misery and work menial jobs simply to get by. A community that was downtrodden before the war has been further impoverished by Syria’s overall economic malaise, as well as the death, disappearance, or debilitation of countless young men who formed the backbone of the regime’s security apparatus. The result is a complex tapestry of inequality and frustration: While the coast’s established business owners chafe at rising competition from displaced people, an expanding Alawi underclass finds itself more neglected than ever—despite sacrificing tremendously in defense of the regime.

The result is a complex tapestry of inequality and frustration

Those displaced from Homs and Aleppo also converged on the city of Hama, in central Syria. The latter was largely spared by the conflict, and thus took on growing importance as an administrative hub: As the provincial capitals of Idlib and Raqqa fell from government control, Damascus relocated those cities’ state offices (along with staff and resources) to Hama, which thus became the de facto capital of three provinces. Meanwhile, the city’s strategic positioning—at a crossroads between areas controlled by the regime, the rebels, and the Kurdish Autonomous Administration—rendered it a hub for transit and trade. An Aleppan industrialist, speaking from his factory just south of the city, recounted his own move:

I came to Hama in early 2014 when the clashes in Aleppo reached [the industrial zone of] Sheikh Najjar. Hama is a stable city with a perfect location. I know hundreds of traders and industrialists who were displaced from Aleppo and restarted their businesses here. Lots of traders from Homs, Idlib, and Raqqa also opened companies in Hama and now buy their materials from Hama-based suppliers.

A textiles trader and Hama native echoed this point, noting the irony that locals often seem to benefit from new arrivals even as they resent them:

My profits increased more than tenfold during the war. Every day, there are traders and shop owners from Raqqa and Idlib who come to buy garments and textiles in bulk to sell in their hometowns. My brother has a real estate office and most of his clients are displaced people. My brother-in-law has a big ice cream shop, which also mostly sells to displaced people. Everyone here is making money off the displaced, even while complaining about them.

This uneasy growth represents, in part, the inheritance of Hama’s bloody history. The city bore the brunt of the regime’s repression of a Muslim Brotherhood-led insurgency in the 1980s, and still bears the scars. This legacy helped deter Hamwis from fully casting their lot with the 2011 uprising, and continues to shape a tense relationship between original residents and newcomers—many of whom are civil servants employed by the state. “Hamwis don’t trust these outsiders,” remarked a grain trader and member of a deep-rooted Hama family. “They consider them loyalists and informants.” Political sensibilities overlap with social schisms between Hama’s urban, conservative population and displaced constituencies that tend to be more rural and secular. “The people of Hama are very religious,” added the same trader. “The newcomers are Sunni like us, but they’re not devout.”

Those tensions are further informed by a historic strain of competition between Hama and Homs, which lies just 45 kilometers to the south. In a striking mirror-image of the present, it was Hama’s destruction that allowed Homs to flourish in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, Homs—which was at the vanguard of Syria’s 2011 uprising—remains economically paralyzed following its own ruinous showdown with the regime. Some Homsis look bitterly at their northern neighbor, which has profited from the very war for which they paid dearly.

Some Homsis look bitterly at their northern neighbor

Meanwhile, Homs itself has been reorganized in ways that add to many residents’ frustration. As the regime’s siege and military campaign flattened swathes of the city’s predominantly Sunni western quarters and commercially vital old souq, Homs’ internal center of gravity shifted toward its mostly Alawi eastern quarter. The latter has witnessed its own miniature boom, as fighters and militia leaders have sought to reinvest their spoils. An NGO worker from an Alawi neighborhood described the area’s transformation:

Eastern Homs has thrived, but in a very brittle way. It’s mainly militia figures who open a shop with the few thousand dollars they made looting, despite having no idea how to run a shop. They go out of business and are replaced by someone else who doesn’t know, either. The whole system is based on theft, but at this stage there’s nothing left to steal. So decline is coming.

Much of Syria’s wartime growth feels similarly ephemeral, as entrepreneurs rush to spend ill-gotten gains in response to rapidly changing demands. “Just as trade and services produce quick money,” remarked a Syrian economist, “construction is absorbing a lot of cash—but that will create a bubble.” By contrast, Syria’s industrial sector—integral to any large-scale recovery—has bleak prospects, for lack of investment, expertise, and government support. “Industry will be a hellish sector to work in for years to come,” added the same economist. “Reviving the industry would take partnerships between the nouveaux riche and those old industrialists with expertise.” For now, many of the latter remain in exile.

A skeleton state

Amid this economic free-for-all, Syria’s state—far from providing structure or guidance—contributes to the turmoil. A degraded and cash-strapped government abstains from all but the most perfunctory forms of governance, focusing instead on funding itself in ways that push the country deeper into a downward spiral. At the heart of Syria’s crumbling state is its embattled bureaucracy, which is so severely underpaid and under-resourced that civil servants can only live by taking on multiple jobs and engaging in diversifying forms of petty corruption. At best, well-intentioned government employees do their jobs inadequately as a result. A government firefighter described his situation:

The government wants soldiers, not employees. They don’t really care how ordinary citizens are living. Our salaries don’t exceed 20,000 pounds [approximately 40 dollars], so really we’re working for God more than anything else. I’m the leader of a fire brigade and I still have to work as a taxi driver and depend on support from my family. Everyone in the brigade has another job.

The state bought our fire suits through a corrupt contractor, and you can tell the suits are basically plastic. In a serious fire I think they would melt on our bodies. We only have one driver for our firetruck, so if he’s not around when we need him, there’s nothing we can do.

This deterioration has diverse and far-reaching implications for an economy originally built on socialist principles and which still relies on intensive state intervention in sectors such as industry, energy, trade and agriculture. Even in some areas it has controlled throughout the conflict, the state has retreated from a host of essential functions such as providing key subsidies and ensuring core municipal services like waste management. A state-employed agronomist remarked on the declining support to agriculture on the Syrian coast:

Greenhouse farmers in Latakia and Tartous are mostly from families with ties to the army, security services, and loyalist militias. Those farmers have been calling for the government to supply them with heating oil, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides. The government has given them nothing.

Where the state retains positive economic functions, it does so in selective and self-serving ways. In 2019, for example, Damascus reasserted its traditional role in purchasing wheat at fixed prices from private farmers, despite the latter’s concentration in areas controlled by the Kurdish Autonomous Administration. This move—and its extensive coverage by state media—was eminently political, reflecting Damascus’ effort to reestablish economic influence in northeastern Syria while reducing its own reliance on imported wheat. In another telling example, a resident of the Damascus suburb of Harasta noted that his neighborhood, unlike many others, had been cleared of rubble and now enjoys free, 24-hour electricity. Indeed, it is adjacent to the strategically vital M5 highway and contains or abuts multiple military sites. A top-tier regime crony is rumored, moreover, to have slated the area for redevelopment.

As the state retreats, citizens are left to navigate an ad hoc process of privatization in which the government intervenes to extract resources—in an extreme version of Syria’s liberalization drives in the 1990s and 2000s. Municipal councils in Douma and other ruined areas of Eastern Ghouta provided a stark illustration in late 2018: “If people want to remove rubble, they must rent bulldozers from the municipality at their own expense,” said a real estate broker from Damascus. “The municipality deals only with the main roads. Municipal workers are known to damage buildings by removing rubble carelessly, so people prefer to do it themselves anyway.”

Citizens navigate an ad hoc process of privatization

The bureaucracy’s shrinking capacity coincides with its growing propensity for graft. Syrians from all walks of life—including civil servants themselves—consistently grumble about a metastasizing culture of corruption. They occasionally joke that Syrian society is now responsible for subsidizing the state, in a stark reversal of the Baath regime’s socialist roots. A factory owner described this dynamic, and the resulting disruptions:

Government employees now meddle in everything. A low-level employee from the Electricity Directorate can walk into my factory and inspect every inch of it without giving a reason. The same is true of employees dealing with water, phone lines, taxes, health, environment, local administration, and customs.

Just a few days ago, four employees from customs came to my factory shouting and demanding to see our entire facility, even the kitchen. I asked why they were being so rude; they responded that they have the authority to check anything and arrest anyone. Eventually I paid a bribe. Before that, a committee from the Environment Directorate came to the factory to check if we were using harmful substances. If I hadn’t bribed them, they could easily have fabricated a report and shut my factory down.

The state’s extractive tendencies extend from the bottom to the top. Even as government bodies have largely ceased to function as architects of economic policy, they continue to interfere in sectors that present opportunities to siphon money back into state coffers. “The regime is making life harder for everyone,” said one businessman. “As a manufacturer, I was recently required to purchase a million stickers from the government to place on my products to prove they were made in Syria. It cost me 14 million pounds [approximately 30,000 dollars] at a time when I’m already struggling to break even.”

Extractive tendencies extend from bottom to top

These simultaneous processes of withdrawal and interference are particularly evident in the import-export sector. As Syria has become increasingly isolated and unproductive, exports have plummeted and reliance on imports from neighboring states as well as from Russia, Iran, and China has deepened. Among other problems, this trade imbalance piles onto the shortage of foreign currency reserves created by American and European sanctions.

Damascus has coped with this pressure by micromanaging the flow of imports, concentrating rights with select individuals and ratcheting up various fees. In the most striking example, the much-anticipated reopening of Syria’s border crossing with Jordan in late 2018 ushered in a brief uptick in trade which was quickly stifled by a reported eight-fold increase in dues on trucks transiting from Jordan. From Damascus’ perspective, such restrictions limit private importers’ ability to expend foreign currency and increase prospects for high-level corruption. Yet they also cancel out the revenues from partial trade normalization, while undermining the very exporters Syria needs to bring in foreign currency. An exporter of foodstuffs described his difficulties:

The Syrian government wants us to export and makes it relatively easy for us to do so. The problem is with imports: We need raw materials from abroad, but it’s very difficult to get approval to purchase them legally. Only a few, well-connected importers can easily bring goods in through the ports. As a result, lots of factories turn to smuggling from Lebanon, which requires paying lots of bribes.

In parallel, Damascus imposed a requirement in 2019 that all exporters sell their dollar profits to the Central Bank of Syria at the official exchange rate, in a bid to shore up the government’s access to foreign exchange. A businessman who exports clothes to Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and the Gulf explained how this new law amounts to forcing exporters to subsidize the state:

The Central Bank now demands that we sell back our dollars to the government at the [artificially strong] official exchange rate of 435 pounds. In the gray market, the rate is 615 pounds—and that’s the rate at which we buy all our raw materials. That means we lose almost 200 pounds on every dollar. We are working for a government that gives us nothing in return: no subsidies, no materials, nothing.

Friends like these

By and large, Syria’s most vital economic allies are only adding to these structural failures. On one side, Moscow and Tehran are vital to keeping Syria’s economy afloat, through desperately needed shipments of fuel and wheat alongside an overall strengthening of trade relations as all three countries seek to circumvent Western sanctions. Cheaply-made Russian and Iranian products have gradually permeated Syrian markets. China has remained a key trading partner, but likewise has shown no tangible movement toward large-scale investments.

On the contrary, Russia and Iran look to recoup their expenditure in Syria by appropriating growing shares of its remaining assets, in a process that amounts to mortgaging the country’s economic future. Most striking is Russia’s deepening influence over Syria’s oil, gas, and phosphate resources. An oil engineer from Homs described this process:

In early 2018, Russian companies started entering Syria’s oil and gas sector. Those companies signed contracts with the Syrian government whereby they will invest in and operate oil and gas fields, taking about 25 percent of the profits—while previously the Syrian government ran everything and took all the revenues. Russia wants to monopolize this sector and pushes the government not to issue contracts to any non-Russian companies.

Syria’s seaports also represent prime real estate for Russian and Iranian encroachment. In early 2019, Syrian authorities granted a Russian company a 49-year lease on the commercial port of Tartous, drawing criticism even from loyalists who accused Damascus of giving away vital economic infrastructure. Tehran has reportedly been vying for a similar role, through discussions between the Syrian government and an Iranian company seeking to take over management of Latakia’s seaport. If successful, this takeover would both entrench Iran’s economic influence and invite new sanctions-related woes. A manager with an international shipping company described the risks:

The Iranian bid for the port puts the Syrian government in a difficult position. It’s very hard for the government to say no, but it’s impossible for them to say yes: Giving an Iranian company control of the port is like shooting yourself in the head, because Western companies cannot deal with the Iranians. They would immediately have to stop shipping there.

The fog of sanctions

As Damascus and its allies eat away at what remains of Syria’s economy, Western governments accelerate this degradation through their own economic policies. American and European sanctions have piled up in layers, targeting a mix of regime-aligned figures and business sectors deemed relevant to Damascus’ war effort. Their ripple-effects, however, extend to virtually every Syrian who lives inside Syria—and many who do not.

This hardship relates, at the most basic level, to shortages of fuel and other inputs needed for business activity from manufacturing to agriculture. Targeted sectoral sanctions here combine with Western measures taken against key trading partners, namely Russia and Iran. “Ties with Iran bring more sanctions to Syria,” grumbled a Damascus-based engineer. “Syria and Iran are both strangled, so one can’t help the other. There’s a Syrian proverb that says ‘A corpse can’t carry another corpse.’”

Compounding that economic pain is Syria’s excommunication from a global financial system in which the dollar reigns supreme. “New York controls the world’s banking sector,” remarked a banker in Damascus. “As a result, Syrian banks can only transact with other banks inside Syria or via special deals with Russian and Iranian banks. But Russia and Iran can’t fill the gap, because they themselves don’t have independent and professional banking sectors.” 

That pariah status has pervasive knock-on effects. It is excruciatingly difficult, for example, for Syrians in the country to open foreign bank accounts or to transfer money between Syrian and foreign banks. Even Syrians abroad suffer on this front, as their nationality alone convinces many Western financial institutions that providing them with basic services could incur greater risks than their business is worth.

Pariah status has pervasive knock-on effects

Western-funded Syrian NGOs are thus forced to devote precious resources to assuring their funders that they will remain far away from any transactions that could possibly run afoul of sanctions. Funders themselves must do the same, with legal compliance the overriding priority for any intervention. The slightest misstep—such as including the word “Syria” in the memo of a bank transfer—can trigger endless complications. As a result, Syrian staff are largely paid in cash or via semi-formal money transfer systems known as hawala.

Such difficulties take on new proportions for businesses operating in Syria, even for those engaged in the most innocuous of activities. A Damascus-based trader in foodstuffs described his own difficulties: 

It used to be easy to import goods from Russia and Eastern Europe via the ports in Latakia and Tartous. Sanctions make it harder and harder to transfer money to European and even Russian banks, so we increasingly have to rely on partnerships with Lebanese traders who import to Beirut in their names and then ship it across the border to Damascus. I expect we will depend more and more on such partnerships as the sanctions get harsher.

Just as sanctions force Syrian businesses into convoluted workarounds, they form a powerful deterrent to foreign companies and expatriate Syrian businesspeople who would otherwise consider entering the market. This has as much to do with sanctions themselves as it does with over-compliance: Corporations often avoid even legitimate activity in heavily sanctioned environments, rather than incur the risks and administrative costs of wading in. The shipping company official sketched these complexities:

American sanctions make life very difficult. We have an entire desk devoted to this issue and which for every single transaction must say: “You can do this,” “you can’t do this,” “this transaction must be in this currency.” Sometimes you simply have to decide that the profits from the shipment are not worth the risks.

To be sure, many Western sanctions are warranted. Measures targeting specific regime insiders and high-level cronies are both well-deserved and useful, generating a measure of accountability for those most closely bound up with war crimes. They also represent a financial and logistical nuisance for those individuals and the regime more broadly.

Global discussion of sanctions has been remarkably glib and binary

Yet the more sweeping “sectoral” sanctions present a far more ambivalent picture, arguably crossing the line into collective punishment. That line would blur further in the event of the passage of the proposed “Caesar Bill” in Washington: legislation that would dramatically widen the circle of individuals hit by sanctions, thus amplifying their already powerful chilling effect. Once passed, such measures become tremendously difficult to reverse: Syria is still subject to American sanctions passed in the 1980s, which endured even through phases of diplomatic rapprochement.

Given how much is at stake, global discussion of sanctions has been remarkably glib and binary. While Damascus’ supporters paint sanctions as the primary obstacle to economic recovery, its rivals often minimize—or ignore outright—the ways in which sanctions exacerbate civilian suffering. The latter tendency among Western policymakers and commentators is reinforced by hardline oppositionists in Syria’s diaspora, who are often at the forefront of calls for more aggressive punishment—with little regard for the cost. A more moderate Syrian activist in Washington analyzed: “There’s this complete and utter disconnect from conditions inside Syria. People are blinded by how much they hate the regime.”

Similarly disturbing is the logical disconnect between escalating sanctions and stated policy objectives. Western rhetoric today frames sanctions around goals which range from the unlikely to the absurd: Some European states still hope that continued financial pressure will force Damascus to accept some form of political settlement, which would in turn allow for economic recovery and thus the return of refugees. American policymakers, for their part, link sanctions to a political transition, while tacking on the whimsical demand that Iranian forces be expelled from Syria. Given the implausibility of such goals, sanctions increasingly resemble a policy of economic punishment by default.

Hollowing out

These factors add up to layer upon layer of stress weighing down upon a society under-equipped to cope with the pressure. Syria’s hollowing out goes beyond jaw-dropping figures on death, destruction, conscription, and displacement: It has eroded society’s very ability to regenerate what was lost.

Syria’s agricultural sector provides a window into Syria’s self-perpetuating downward spiral. Rural communities across Syria have proven remarkably adaptable throughout the war and small-scale agricultural production has shown signs of bouncing back faster than more capital-intensive spheres like industry and energy. Yet farmers from Deraa to Homs to Hassakeh underscore the enduring challenges posed by plummeting human capital—from unskilled laborers to specialized professionals. A farmer in rural Hama lamented crippling emigration:

You can’t have farming without farmers. I would guess that a third of our village has left. And the situation remains unstable, so people are continuing to leave. I personally plan to emigrate with my family in the coming months. Most others have similar plans. I can’t honestly say that I think anyone will be left in a few years. If emigration continues at this pace, it will wipe out the area’s agriculture entirely.

An ongoing brain drain has likewise pared down government institutions—responsible for bolstering agriculture and other key sectors—in ways that further complicate the prospects for recovery. “Our qualified accountants and managers left for Turkey, the Gulf states, and Europe,” said an employee with Syria’s Agricultural Bank, a government entity extending loans and subsidies to farmers. “Low government salaries discourage university graduates from coming to work for state-run banks, when they could make double in the private sector. New employees are mostly the widows and daughters of martyrs.”

Even as violence abates across most of the country, the scourge of conscription promises to keep Syria’s young men out of the labor force for the foreseeable future. “I have no dreams or plans,” said a third-year student in Damascus University’s Faculty of Agricultural Engineering. “My only dream is to avoid military service. Male graduates have two options: Join the army or leave the country.”

Compounding this issue is the degradation of the education sector, which has itself been drained of human and financial resources while sinking deeper into its own cycle of corruption and mediocrity. “Instructors have very low salaries, so they’re focused on finding bribes or gifts to support their families,” said the same student. “Some will sell students the answers to an exam in exchange for a smartphone or a bottle of whisky.” A professor in the same faculty added:

Since 2011, about a third of my faculty’s professors left the country. Young professors fled to avoid military service. Older, experienced professors emigrated because they found better opportunities abroad, or simply to get their conscription-aged sons out of Syria. Graduation rates are very low, because male students don’t want to graduate: They deliberately fail in order to delay military service.

This pattern, whereby the gutting of Syria’s work force is reinforced by the degradation of essential support structures, is replicated across all sectors. A plastics manufacturer in Aleppo’s industrial zone of Sheikh Najjar described his predicament:

Factory owners are trying to reopen, but face huge challenges—from the shortage of electricity and fuel to the lack of trained working hands. All the experienced workers have been displaced to rebel-held areas or Turkey. When I talk with other industrialists, they tell me they want to reopen but they can’t find male workers—and, when they do, security services come and arrest them. Before 2011, I had two hundred workers. Today I have twenty men and a few women and children who work in cleaning, packing, and making tea and food for what’s left of the crew.

Indeed, the devastation of Syria’s male work force has had the transformative side-effect of thrusting women—and, to a lesser extent, children—into the forefront of economic activity, as families find ways to make ends meet in the absence of male breadwinners. Women have thus assumed an expanding role in virtually every sphere, from the civil service to manual labor to entrepreneurship. “Women play an increasingly prominent role in small-scale business, start-ups, and NGOs,” said an academic in Damascus. “It’s less risky for a woman to be in such a position: She’s not at risk of conscription and can move more easily across checkpoints. Meanwhile, 70 percent of those employed at my university are women.”

Stagnation locks Syrians into a wartime limbo

This evolution is bittersweet. While some women naturally cherish the shift toward greater financial and social independence, others lament the exhaustion and anxiety that come with working multiple jobs to feed their families. “We depend on ourselves now, addressing our own needs,” said a middle-aged woman from the ruined Damascus suburb of Daraya. “In the past, everything was brought to us at home. We used to live in luxury.”

Compounding this ambivalence are the social tensions that accompany such rapid change, and the looming question of whether the positive components of this shift will endure as the conflict abates. The same academic noted her concerns:

I’m fearful for the sustainability of this development in the long-run. On one hand, small-scale businesses run by women are largely dependent on funding related to foreign aid programs—they aren’t self-sustaining. On the other, society’s view of these changes is worrying. Men will admit that women working is, for now, the only choice. But there’s this perception that the issue is out of their hands, which exacerbates tensions within families and society. So there’s still much work to be done on this front.

Moreover, Syria’s continued stagnation places women at the center of an economy in which most can aspire to little more than survival. The imperative to fight for even a minimal stream of income often locks women and men alike into a sort of wartime limbo, where they cannot so much as return to the hometowns from which they were displaced. A woman in the Damascus suburb of Jaramana explained that she would like to return to her hometown of Qadam, but remains anchored to Jaramana by the need to keep working:

I currently live off cleaning jobs, in a school during the week and in private homes on weekends. I can’t return to Qadam because I won’t be able to find such work there. If I did go back, I would have to commute to Jaramana via three different buses, so would spend all my time and money on the road.

Syria’s sprawling complex of foreign-funded aid programs aims to rein in such hardship, including through a wide range of capacity building and employment-generating interventions. While desperately needed, such programs often incur unintended side-effects: Well-paid jobs with UN agencies or NGOs tend to suck talent out of other sectors and into a job market whose very existence depends on political decisions taken in faraway capitals. In the process, the aid sector has created another tier of wartime nouveaux riche, whose high salaries are as integral to Syria’s fragile economy as they are galling to the majority who remain mired in poverty.

Two steps forward, two steps back

Syria’s deepening economic conflict bears ominous echoes of its military one. Indeed, every protagonist is forging ahead with the same approach it has maintained throughout the war. At the center of the melee, Damascus is gradually shifting its nihilistic campaign of self-preservation from the military arena to the economic one. The regime, from the beginning, has sought to survive not by staking out any positive agenda for the future, but by unleashing the most violent elements and impulses within its ranks to terrorize the country into submission. That process is now shifting from one stage to the next, as former militiamen and the security services embed themselves in an ever more sophisticated economy of predation.

Even Western incoherence has been strikingly consistent

Moscow and Tehran, for their part, have remained unwaveringly committed to preserving the regime in its current form—even as they chafe at its shortcomings and, in Russia’s case, pay extensive lip service to the prospect of reform. All such promises have gone spectacularly unfulfilled: As Damascus flouts one Russian-brokered ceasefire and reconciliation deal after another, Moscow has proved either unable or unwilling to fundamentally alter the regime’s behavior. Russian mediation thus functions less as a vehicle for change than as a political smokescreen enabling both the regime’s intransigence and the West’s dithering.

Indeed, even Western incoherence has been strikingly consistent. Actors that once pursued half-hearted military intervention in hopes of forcing an unlikely political solution now double down on economic punishment in pursuit of the same implausible endgame. As governments experiment with different forms of pressure in hopes of reaching a breakthrough, they often fail to reckon with the collateral damage inflicted upon Syrian society. Critically, some Western actors are indeed grappling with ways to rein in sanctions’ side-effects while supporting Syrian society through diverse forms of economic and humanitarian assistance. Yet there is much work to be done before such efforts would offset the fallout from isolation.

Society, true to form, has remained adaptable amid nightmarish circumstances. Adaptation often takes corrosive forms, however, as desperate individuals survive through desperate means—from looting and corruption to the spread of kidnapping, prostitution, and drug trafficking. Yet this adaptive response also manifests in quiet, persistent forms of innovation and entrepreneurialism. Factory owners who once weathered siege and bombardment by smuggling assembly lines to neighboring provinces will weigh the potential benefits of restarting business in their home cities. Traders squeezed by Western sanctions and regime intrusions nonetheless capitalize on improved freedom of movement, as violence ebbs and checkpoints dwindle. Farmers struggling to access key inputs—such as fertilizer, which sanctions target as an ingredient in chemical weapons—save or borrow to buy cows, which produce organic manure.

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Such actors fulfill a host of indispensable functions, even while struggling to make ends meet. Business owners in particular provide not just employment but life-saving forms of social support—from charitable donations to direct financial assistance to families of deceased employees—at a time when the state has ceased to provide either livable salaries or meaningful social welfare. They help sustain a trickle of foreign currency into the Syrian economy and thus prevent the Syrian pound from sliding still deeper into inflation. Barring some fundamental change on the part of Damascus, its foreign allies, or its adversaries, small-scale enterprise will drive whatever partial recovery Syria has in store.

30 September 2019

This essay was penned collectively by Synaps’ Syria team.

It was produced with kind support from the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.


The content of this publication does not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.

Responsibility for the information and views expressed in this publication lies entirely with the authors.

Illustration credits: Sebastian Wallroth Unusually quiet even for a Friday by Wikipedia / licensed by CC; Syrian pound by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.

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