Recently, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to take bold reform measures before it’s too late and then later added, “It’s already too late, in fact.” While the secretary general left the meaning of “too late” purposely vague, the implication is that Syria’s current government will not be able to hold on to power. International isolation, economic sanctions, and never-ending protests will not lead to a change in government. However, the resulting total economic paralysis and the Syrian government’s inability to feed or pay its people will.
By the end of June, business activity in the country was down by half. Even the relatively protest-free cities are suffering heavily. While the regime has tried hard to ensure that every day life continues in Damascus, restaurants and stores are increasingly empty and entire neighborhoods have been cut off and besieged by security forces. Security in Aleppo has reached the point where it is described as being a virtual prison. Meanwhile, the cities Hama and Homs are totally paralyzed by the protests.
Individuals are suffering, and Syrians have already dipped deep into their savings. In one sobering story, a businesswoman in Latakia said that she has been paying her employees in order to help them survive even though her business sits idle. She had already dipped into her own personal savings to help her employees in mid-August and feared that she would not be able to continue paying them for much longer.
Internationally, the al-Assad regime has isolated itself. Even allies such as Russia and Iran have criticized the ongoing crackdown. The European Union has implemented, among other sanctions, an oil embargo against Syria. The EU is Syria’s largest trading partner and one third of Syria’s export income comes in the form of oil exports, almost all of which are sold to EU countries. Shortly after this embargo was declared, the EU added four prominent Syrian officials to their sanction list, one of whom is Christian, while the other three are Sunni. The move is believed to be a means to drive a wedge between Sunni merchants and the ruling regime. It has succeeded, at the very least, in creating an immense fear in the business community of being targeted.
The key threat, however, is a currency collapse and food shortages. Syria’s foreign currency reserve is rapidly dwindling without a market for its oil reserves. The government has also tried dramatic wage increases to stem the protests, but this is putting further pressure on the government to pay money that it simply does not have. The minister of finance publically announced that the government had enough wheat and sugar to feed the country for five years just a few weeks after the head of the Central Bank said Syrians will have to tighten their belts and the country will have to eat brown bread. While food supply and foreign currency reserves are unknown, these kind of assurances are troubling, to say the least.
It is impossible to guess when the regime will fall, but the seeds have been sown. Much has been made of how Bashar al-Assad’s regime survived after its isolation in the wake of Rafik Hariri’s assassination, but then the regime did not face a cycle of unending protests and violence, economic devastation, and near total international isolation. Eventually the regime will fall, either because it will no longer be able to feed its people or pay its people, or both.
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