Over the past five years Syria entered a vicious cycle of a depreciating economy after a drought destroyed the wheat crop that the Baath regime had always boasted would guarantee food self-sufficiency for the country’s 22 million people.
“The drought put thousands of farmers out of work in the northern regions, adding to the number of unemployed in major cities such as Aleppo and Damascus,” said Syrian opposition activist Ghaith Ne’esa when describing the political situation in Syria.
Syria’s unemployment rates have reached 14 per cent of the work force and the tourism industry has collapsed since the outbreak of the revolution because “millions of Arab tourists have refused to travel there because it is neither safe for Syrians or non-Syrians,” he added.
Bashar Al-Issa, a political analyst living in Paris, said that many of the leaders of “Syrian commerce left the country for Lebanon or Cyprus, while the upper and more wealthy echelons travelled to the West. I know families from Damascus that sold their real estate and went to live in Beirut.”
Syria’s wealth have heavy investments in the banking, tourism and real estate sectors in Lebanon as partners with Arab or Lebanese investors. Meanwhile, the political leaders in Damascus are accused by the opposition of investing their illegally accumulated wealth in real estate in Lebanon and Amman.
“The more pertinent measure which will topple Al-Assad is extensive privatisation, which Bashar adopted after he came to power ten years ago,” explained Al-Issa.
Syria became socialist during the union with Egypt, by the decision of Egypt’s former President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Syria seceded through a coup in 1961 after the “nationalisation decrees.” Once the Baath Party came to power in 1963, it declared socialist principles and struck an alliance with the Soviet Union that helped Syria build an expansive industrial base. But Bashar Al-Assad saw to its privatisation when he took power in 2000 after the death of the former president, his father.
“Thousands of workers lost their jobs because of privatisation and joined long unemployment lines,” explained Al-Issa. “In recent years, they were joined by farmers and those fleeing drought. In this way, cities became surrounded by millions living in poverty belts in what are known as ‘random districts.’”
The regime has been accepting more foreign investments from Arab countries, Turkey and Iran and the Syrian economy has been suffering from inflation.
However, “recent economic decisions to cut the price of fuel and some staple foods are useless, because Syrians took to the streets out of pride and for their lives,” according to Ne’esa. “If the uprising is unsuccessful in toppling Assad, then the failing economy will do the deed.”