Syrians, caught up in the violent repression of anti-regime protests and by Western economic pressures aimed at halting bloodshed, are suffering the full impact of a shrinking economy, according to human rights groups.
In the heartland of revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, where near-daily protests bring clashes with security forces, “the people do not live a normal life. There is no normal commercial activity. Families survive thanks to the solidarity of their near ones,” says Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
In Jabal al-Zawiya in northwestern Idlib province, in certain neighbourhoods in the central city of Homs, in Banias and Latakia, and part of the southern province of Daraa “people lack money and are living in poverty”, says Abdel Rahman.
“Homes lack fuel for heating” because it is used for Syrian tanks deployed to crush protesters calling for freedom, said the rights activist.
“You have to be patient and wait between three and four hours to get a few litres of fuel,” complained a Damascus taxi driver who said he was now using an electric stove to keep warm.
“The regime is trying to tighten the noose around these regions with the aim of making them feel the impact of international sanctions” imposed on Syria, say anti-region protesters.
Economic activity is slowing down. The purchase of consumer items has gone to half-mast and hotels are empty.
“Three boutiques have closed and the employees been sacked,” said an employee in a watch shop located in a big hotel in Damascus.
Violence has hit the tourist sector which employs 11 percent of manual workers and represents 12 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and which in 2010 generated more than 7.6 billion dollars, according to Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Centre for the Middle East.
“External trade has fallen more than 50 percent, foreign investments have stopped, the flight of capital has accelerated,” particularly towards Dubai, said Salem.
Economic experts and Syrian businessmen speak of more than four billion dollars being transferred out of Syria since the anti-regime protest movement began in March, while the Syrian pound has lost 10 percent of its value against the dollar.
The European Union and the United States have imposed harsh sanctions on the country in an attempt to put pressure on the Syrian regime to halt the violent repression that has brought more than 3,500 civilian deaths, according to the United Nations.
One consequence means the regime faces a loss of revenue of nearly 450 million dollars a month since the European embargo in September on deliveries of Syrian petrol, say experts.
The EU buys 95 percent of Syria’s oil exports, providing a third of the regime’s hard currency earnings.
The EU is also preparing a freeze on credits by the European Investment Bank towards Syria, as part of a new series of sanctions.
In 2009, the bank granted loans of 275 million euros to the Syrian electricity sector and 50 million to improve urban infrastructure.
In September, Syrian Finance Minister Mohammad Jleilati forecast that growth should fall about one percent and acknowledged that EU sanctions would have “an impact on trade and industry.’
Syrian Central Bank governor Adib Mayaleh said late in August: “The first affected sector is tourism whose receipts have fallen 90 percent, and it is the citizen who will be the first to be touched. Transport, imports, industry, all are going to be increasingly perturbed, and unemployment and poverty are going to increase.”
Even before the protests began, the Syrian economy faced major challenges linked to poverty, which affected 14 percent of the 22 million Syrians, and unemployment which hits more than 20 percent of the workforce.
In September, the International Monetary Fund said it expected the economy to contract by 2.0 percent this year as sanctions were tightened against Damascus.
Its quarterly World Economic Outlook said Syria’s GDP will register a 2.0 percent contraction, compared to growth of 3.2 percent last year. The country’s current account deficit would also widen from 3.9 percent of GDP in 2010 to 6.1 percent this year.
In April, less than a month after protests began, the IMF had forecast 3.0 percent growth in 2011 and 5.1 percent in 2012.
Hammering home the impact on ordinary individuals, Syrian Economy Minister Mohammad Nidal al-Shaar early this month said that government subsidies on basic necessities like oil by-products, electricity and certain food products “are not going to last, the Syrian economy is passing through an emergency period.”