Syria on the Verge of Collapse?

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Syria’s southern province of al-Suwayda’, whose population primarily comes from the Druze minority, is currently witnessing protests on an unprecedented scale. Pictured: People protest in al-Suwayda’, Syria on September 5, 2023. (Photo by Sam Hariri/AFP via Getty Images)

Syria is clearly on the verge of collapse in terms of the economy and humanitarian situation.

The country’s southern province of al-Suwayda’, whose population primarily comes from the Druze minority, is currently witnessing protests on an unprecedented scale. While the province has previously seen protests motivated primarily by the country’s deteriorating economic and livelihood situation, these protests are now far more widespread in the province and larger in scale.

There has also been a definite paradigm shift in these protests: the main initial demands to improve the economy and livelihood situation were endorsed by the Druze community’s three leading religious authorities in Syria. Calls for the government to resign, for the departure of President Bashar al-Assad and a political transition are now stronger and more prevalent. In multiple localities in the province, which has formally been under government control since the start of the unrest and civil war in 2011, demonstrators have closed the Ba’ath Party headquarters and removed portraits of Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad.

While these protests are in themselves remarkable for the province in terms of the numbers participating, their persistence and how open the calls for political change are, they do raise the question about whether they constitute the potential for a real shift in Syria’s “status quo” since spring 2020. However much one might sympathise with the protests, they are probably unlikely to shift the situation in a significant way. The protestors, although immensely courageous, are too few, and have little leverage.

The current status quo means that Syria is effectively divided into three major zones: the majority of the country that is held by the Damascus-based government backed by Russia and Iran; the northeast held by the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (the second-largest zone of control); and parts of the northwest and north of the country on and near the border with Turkey, controlled by an assortment of insurgent factions that are backed by Turkey to varying degrees. What has kept the frontlines frozen since the spring of 2020 are the understandings between the main foreign powers involved in the war as well as policies of deterrence through the stationing of foreign troops in these zones of control. The most important in this regard seems to be the Turkey-Russia dynamic, whereas American influence is far more limited.

At the same time, all the major zones have been seeing low-level skirmishes along their frontlines and experiencing internal security concerns. The Syrian Democratic Forces, for example, which are dominated by Kurdish cadres linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party, are contending with an ongoing Islamic State insurgency and more recently have had to deal with an uprising among Arab tribal elements in the east. In a similar vein, the southern province of Deraa, which is next to al-Suwayda’ and formally came back in its entirety under Syrian government control in 2018, sees regular incidents of assassinations and bomb attacks, some of which can be attributed to Islamic State, while others, in terms of responsibility, remain murky.

For the Syrian government, however, it is not the military frontlines and internal security that are the main issue today, but rather the deterioration of its economy and the accompanying fall in standards of living. The clearest indication of this decline is the fall in the value of the Syrian pound. Since the onset of the war, it had been steadily falling, but took a sharp turn for the worse in late 2019. This steep decline has continued despite some brief hiatuses; the currency now stands at record low values versus the U.S. dollar. In 2010, the rate of exchange was around 50 Syrian pounds to the dollar, now the rate of exchange is hovering near 15,000 Syrian pounds to the dollar.

There is much debate about the causes of this downturn, but it seems clear that the decline can be attributed in significant part to the Syrian government’s economic isolation and its shortage of hard currency. Despite controlling the country’s most important cities and the sole access to the Mediterranean Sea along the northwest coastline, the government faces extensive Western economic sanctions; it does not benefit from the main oil assets held by the Syrian Democratic Forces and sees only marginal trade over the land border with neighbouring Jordan to the south. The Syrian government also has extremely little control over its extensive northern border with Turkey, which could be a major trading partner with the government.

The Syrian government’s isolation has also meant that its economy became ever more intertwined with that of neighbouring Lebanon, which is also facing its most severe economic crisis since the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990 and has also seen a sharp decline in the value of its currency.

In the meantime, the Syrian government has no real solutions to its economic woes. It has been offering up measures such as increasing the salaries of state employees, military personnel and pensioners while also cutting fuel subsidies. While the normalisation of relations between Arab states and Syria (foremost embodied in Syria’s return to the Arab League) has attracted considerable media attention, it is probably unrealistic to expect that this development will lead to a sudden turn-around in the Syrian government’s economic fortunes. The government is not going to be given handouts of billions of dollars in aid and foreign investment from Arab states or the international community at large in a short timeframe and for nothing in return from Damascus. In the meantime, any concept of normalisation with Turkey still has a long way to go, with a fundamental sticking point: that the Damascus-based government would like Turkey to agree to withdraw troops from Syrian territory, whereas Turkey appears to have no interest in doing so in the near- or even medium-term.

Few within government-held areas would deny that the economic and livelihood situation is difficult. It is common to see people there venting their frustrations on Facebook about the quality of services provided, the rising prices of goods, perceptions of corruption, and so on. Yet opinions about the causes of these woes are varied. Some blame the Western economic sanctions on Syria, others see the economic problems as created from within. Some impugn government corruption but consider criticism of Assad himself to be a red line: they seem to think that he is doing all he can to try to help the country — while being surrounded by corrupt officials. Unfortunately, trying to determine what proportion of people subscribe to which views is virtually impossible: no reliable polling data exist, and it is doubtful anyone could conduct such surveys under the present circumstances.

Yet qualitatively speaking, it can be said that in al-Suwayda’, criticism of Assad is less of a red line than in other areas that have remained under government control throughout the war. Besides the current deterioration of both the economy and living standards, there has long been resentment of a perceived marginalisation of the southern province in economic and developmental terms. In addition, there are grievances against conscription; conspiracy theories that the government colluded with the Islamic State to allow the group, in 2018, to attack the eastern countryside of the province while killing hundreds of Druze in the process; complaints about the spread of drugs in al-Suwayda’ and the use of the province as a gateway for smuggling them into Jordan. The government’s most recent economic decisions to raise salaries of state employees, military personnel and pensioners while cutting fuel subsidies provided a spark for protests in the province that are even larger than before.

It is nonetheless important to be realistic about what these protests can achieve. The protestors remain committed for now to sustaining a civil disobedience movement that is peaceful. There appears to be no plan to launch an armed rebellion and make the province a separate rebellious enclave akin to the Turkish-backed enclaves in the northwest. Moreover, the Syrian government is adopting a non-confrontational stance towards the protests. The government seems to have issued general directives to its security forces in the province to lie low and avoid opening fire or taking any repressive measures unless they are attacked.

In effect, these protests remain a peripheral rebellion in the grander scheme of things and are unlikely by themselves to bring down the government and lead to real change. There are really only two ways in which Assad can be brought down: either being militarily overthrown (not being contemplated by any international power) or if the elites propping up his rule decide that his presidency is no longer worth preserving. Despite the deterioration of Syria’s economy and living standards, it seems that those closest to Assad who could bring about his removal from within are either largely unaffected by the situation or possibly even benefitting from it.

To stand some sort of chance of realising change, the al-Suwayda’ protests would have to transform into a large-scale movement of protests and unrest across government-held Syria, including in areas such as the capital Damascus and the coastal regions that have served as key constituencies of support for the government throughout the war.

In turn, these protests raise the question about the efficacy of the ongoing Western sanctions on the Syrian government. A more optimistic portrayal would see the protests as bringing about the precise results intended by the sanctions: a deterioration in the economy and living standards, popular discontent with that deterioration, unrest, and thus some sort of pressure that would lead the government to agree to a peaceful political transition. Yet it is unlikely that these sanctions will accomplish those results. Instead, one finds an immiserated population that is unable to do much to better its own lot, with outbreaks of ultimately ineffectual protests, the continued outflow of people from Syria seeking to migrate to other countries in the region and Europe, and the persistence of the country’s division between its major zones of control.

A greater focus on stemming the country’s collapse in terms of the humanitarian situation could certainly help — if “middlemen” were left out. The United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) now faces a much larger shortfall in terms of funding requirements and actual funding for WFP’s operations in Syria, with the result that monthly assistance was cut to 2.5 million people in Syria in July. An important reason behind this reduction, according to the Syria Report, is a reduction in the American contribution to WFP’s global budget. Making up for that shortfall would at least provide some short-term relief.

Sanctions – no doubt well-intended to prevent governments from brutalizing their own people even further and to encourage the leadership toward a democratic form of rule – seem simply not to work. First, it is harder for a people who are starving to rise up against a dictatorship; they are often too busy looking for food and trying to survive on a daily basis, besides having an understandable fear of reprisals. Countries such as Russia and Iran, as we well know, find ways around sanctions; or else the population starves, while the leaders go on living in indifferent comfort.

Perhaps a more realistic approach might be as follows: rather than tying sanctions to vague hopes of political transition, sanctions could instead be linked to more specific concessions such as serious efforts to combat drug trafficking, the release of political prisoners, and so on.

Otherwise, sanctions often deliver just a punitive message, which, although understandable for dictators such as Assad, does not really accomplish anything in terms of accountability, change or bettering the lot of Syrians like the protestors in al-Suwayda’.

By: Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi – an Arabic translator and editor at Castlereagh Associates (a Middle East-focused consultancy), a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum, and an associate of the Royal Schools of Music. Follow on Twitter and at his independent Substack newsletter.

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