This article has been adapted from a presentation given at a recent forum on 10 years of the Syrian Revolution. View the panel here.
In giving an overview of the current situation in Syria today, with a vast array of issues that could be discussed, I will focus on two specific topics: the socio-economic situation, and Iran’s role and presence in Syria. The first reason for choosing these is to be forward-looking, as these issues are here to stay for the foreseeable future. Secondly, because these issues refute the currently popular discourse that Assad has won, and shows that his control over the country is incredibly fragile.
The socio-economic situation in the country is desperate and is affecting communities across Syria, with 83 percent of Syrians living below the poverty line and struggling to make ends meet or afford basic necessities. The United Nations World Food Programme reports
that food prices have increased by 376 percent since October 2019. The price of bread—a staple—has increased 247 percent since last year. There are shortages of basic foods and fuel and electricity blackouts are common. The Syrian currency has completely collapsed. The salary of a state employee is now equivalent to around twenty dollars per month as opposed to the four hundred dollars per month in March 2011.
This situation has caused wide-spread anger amongst the population, even among communities seen as being loyal to the regime. We’ve witnessed periodic protests against the regime due to the economic situation and a number of pro-Assad commentators have actually been arrested due to their criticism of the economic situation and the regime’s handling of it.
There’s a number of reasons for the current situation. The primary one of course is the whole-scale destruction of the country by the regime and its Russian ally; including physical infrastructure, housing, agricultural land and production facilities
Another is the scale of regime corruption and widespread crony capitalism which enriches the pockets of those individuals connected to the regime. This was a problem prior to the uprising and has since been greatly exacerbated. For example, many regime loyalists or family members of the president have been awarded lucrative contracts to construct luxury residential areas while a significant proportion of the population no longer has access to housing. Another example is a Russian company, Stroytansgaz, being granted 70 percent of all revenues generated from the production and export of phosphate which is equivalent to millions of dollars annually over the next 49 years. This takes money out of the country as a reward for Russia’s support of the regime.
The economic and financial crisis in Lebanon has also exacerbated the situation as many Syrian businessmen and individuals deposit savings in Lebanon. For example, the current wheat shortage was compounded by this because all the main wheat importers have bank accounts in Lebanon. Also, many Syrians were dependent on remittances from Syrian workers in Lebanon, many of whom have now lost their employment.
The situation is also further exacerbated by the current wide-ranging sanctions on the country which have increased since the United States passed the Caesar Act in late 2019. Unlike previous sanctions (which Syrians tend to support) which targeted those individuals affiliated to the regime—either political, military or security figures—these sanctions have been more controversial as they also target businesses and sectors dealing in oil, electricity, IT, and other sectors. Thus, they contribute to a shortage of goods and services that negatively impacts the civilian population. Whilst humanitarian aid is exempt from sanctions, many NGOs have reported being affected as people are very nervous with now to do business in Syria. Whilst some people are using the sanctions issue to rehabilitate the regime and not hold it accountable for its crimes, we need to be clear that sanctions are not the main cause of the current crisis.
Finally, the coronavirus pandemic has also had an impact because Syrians are totally dependent on humanitarian aid and donor countries are cutting their budgets because of the financial pressures on them at home.
I think it’s fair to say that parts of the country are now living under Iranian occupation. Iran has supported the regime since the early days of the conflict. It sees Syria as a key part of the so called ‘axis of resistance’ towards the US and Israel—a Shia bloc crossing Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean. So losing Syria would be a huge strategic loss to Iran’s interests in the region.
Whilst Iran has supported large numbers of fighters in Syria with sectarian Shia militias from Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, and have established numerous military bases; it has also been the main backer of the regime financially and economically. Since 2013 Iran provided Syria with credit lines to import fuel and other goods and is also a major trading partner.
Iran is expanding its presence in Syria and seeks to embed itself in Syrian society in a way that Russia does not. It also appears to be cementing its presence economically in order to ensure it maintains influence in the event of a peace deal which would call on foreign militia to leave.
Part of its strategy is buying up real estate in Damascus, Homs, Deir Al Zour and Aleppo. Properties of Syrians who have been displaced by the conflict are now inhabited by members of Iranian-backed militias and their families. Land belonging to displaced Syrians has been auctioned off at symbolic prices and the main buyers are members of Iranian-backed militias. This is compounded by the fact that due to the desperate economic situation, or in situations in which people are unable to return to their homes, people are selling their properties to Iranians. Lucrative contracts have been awarded to Iranian companies for reconstruction and infrastructure.
In Damascus, for example, people report there is a noticeable change in demographics in areas such as Bab Touma and Bad Sharqi, which previously had a large Christian community, is now dominated by members of Iranian militia. Shop signs and advertisements there are now often written in Farsi.
Iran also has a ‘soft power’ strategy that it is exerting by establishing Iranian cultural and education centers and encouraging people to convert to Shiism. This is paired with strategies to buy loyalty. Iranian militias are paying Syrian youth upto $700 per month to join while the Syrian army only pays $40. Whilst many Syrians cannot return to their home country, the regime has fast-tracked naturalization of foreigners to ensure Iranians and others can become citizens.
It’s clear that forced displacement of oppositional communities—and the re-population of those areas with communities perceived as loyal—was part of a deliberate strategy by the regime to change demographics in order to ensure a loyal constituency in the areas it controls. It appears that one reason there is a political stalemate is that the regime is buying time to create facts on the ground in its favor.
I’ll just finish by saying that anti-Iranian sentiment in Syria is at an all time high. Iranian policy in Syria (and Iraq) has vastly increased the Sunni sense of victim hood which is a contributing factor in the rise of groups such as ISIS. The Iranian presence has also led to repeated bombing by Israel on Iranian targets as it doesn’t want an Iranian presence on its northern border. The withdrawal of Iran would lead to a significant weakening of the regime and this is why the Assad regime has not won—it is completely dependent on foreign powers to run the country and cannot manage the massive economic crisis engulfing the country.