The destroyed Al-Safir hotel in the ancient Christian town of Maalula, northeast of Damascus, after government forces took control of the town from rebel fighters, April 14, 2014.
April 20, 2014 by AFP
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Easter Sunday visited the ancient Christian town of Maalula, which his troops recently recaptured from rebels, state television said.
"On the day of the resurrection of Christ, and from the heart of Maalula, President Assad hopes all Syrians have a happy Easter, and for the reestablishment of peace and security throughout Syria,” the channel announced in a caption at the bottom of the screen, without showing images of the visit.
It added that Assad had inspected the Mar Sarkis (Saint Sergius and Bacchus) monastery, damaged in recent fighting. It said the damage had been caused by “terrorists,” using the regime’s term for rebels.
"Even the worst terrorists cannot erase our heritage and civilization," state television quoted Assad as saying.
"Like other Syrian sites of heritage and civilization, Maalula will always resist in the face of the barbarity and obscurantism that are targeting the country."
Founded in the fifth century, the monastery is one of the Middle East's oldest. It is dedicated to two Roman Christian soldiers who were killed by emperor Galerius because of their faith.
The Facebook page of the Syrian presidency posted a picture of Assad — who has rarely appeared in public since the uprising began — standing next to a Christian priest. He held what appeared to be damaged friezes showing the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ.
Throughout Syria’s conflict, the Assad regime has sought to portray itself as the protector of the country’s religious minorities against a revolt it says is led by foreign-backed extremists.
The Syrian opposition dismisses such claims as part of a divide-and-rule strategy which is also aimed at deterring the West from providing greater support to the rebels.
Syria’s uprising began in March 2011 as a peaceful revolt against the Assad family’s four-decade rule but escalated into an insurgency and then a civil war when the regime launched a brutal crackdown.
As the war has intensified, claiming an estimated 150,000 lives, it has also grown more sectarian, with jihadists flocking to the ranks of the Sunni-led rebellion andLebanon's Shiite Hezbollah movement fighting alongside the regime.
With the backing of Hezbollah’s battle-hardened fighters, Syria’s army took control of Maalula last Monday.
Located north of Damascus, Maalula is one of the world’s oldest Christian settlements, and its inhabitants still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ.
Rebel groups including Al-Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, had taken control of Maalula in early December. They kidnapped 13 nuns and traded them for women prisoners held in regime jails in March.
Syria’s large Christian minority has sought neutrality throughout the three-year war, and has viewed the rise of powerful jihadist groups among the rebels with growing concern.
A Syrian woman prays as she attends a mass of an Orthodox Easter at the Roman Orthodox patriarchate in Damascus. (Reuters)
Damascus, April 19, 2014 by Reuters
The sound of battles echoes from the outskirts of the capital as Christians in Damascus celebrated the Easter weekend, briefly ignoring the conflict for the yearly ritual.
At the gates of Saint George Syrian Orthodox Church - just a few minutes walk from a school where a mortar attack killed several children and injured dozens earlier this week - incense was burning as several uniformed and armed men stood patrol before Good Friday evening services. They joked with each other and did not check ID cards or handbags as people entered.
Inside the ancient city walls of the Old City where the church is located, the cobbled streets bustled with evening shoppers and diners, a rare sight reminiscent of pre-war
However, a traditional procession that usually sees hundreds of worshippers follow an effigy of Jesus on the cross accompanied by drums and a church band was cancelled.
Christians, many belonging to ancient denominations found only in Syria, form about 10 percent of the country’s population. Most fear the rising power of Islamist groups within the rebel movement fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, although many are also wary of the authorities.
Only a small percentage of Christians have taken up arms on either side of a civil war that broadly pits minorities, in particular Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, against the Sunni Muslim majority.
Two Armenian Syrian women chatted with others in the courtyard of the church. Asked if they felt optimistic about the events in Syria, they launched into a short debate.
“No, I don’t feel good at all. I’m sad and I’m here to join Christ in his pain,” said Rula Khoury.
Khoury’s friend, Tamar Barashelian, disagreed.
“No, we can’t just be sad and stay at home all the time and get depressed. I overcome my sadness and force myself to go out and continue with life,” she said.
Like other Syrians, many Christians have been displaced, seen their sons killed in fighting or been forced to flee mandatory military service in Assad’s army.
Many support the government, which says it is protecting the country from foreign-backed Sunni Muslim militants who will persecute non-Sunni minorities, including Christians.
The pastor’s wife, among a group of women expressing pro-Assad views, said: “I can forgive any Syrian who shed Syrian blood. But I won’t forgive the Arab countries that conspired to kill us.”
Another woman said: “The Syrian Army is always victorious.”
There are also Christians who oppose the authorities but they generally keep a low profile, especially in Damascus where government surveillance is common. Syria’s exiled opposition includes a few prominent Christians, while others identify with a small grassroots movement called the Third Current which condemns violence by both sides.
Churchgoers on Good Friday were relaxed despite the occasional sound of government shelling, now so routine in Damascus that hardly anyone flinches at the sound of blasts in rebel-held districts surrounding the city.
Inside the church, the congregants prayed in Syriac, an ancient Semitic language spoken in the pre-Islamic Levant and closely related to the old Aramaic probably spoken by Jesus.
In the interior courtyard, the church scout group marching band mingled. One young couple, recently engaged, leaned on the courtyard wall and accepted congratulations.
“I was blown away when I heard. Rami and Juliette? Who knew you were an item? Congratulations my dears,” one young man told the couple before he shook their hands and kissed them.
More than 150,000 people have been killed in the civil war, a third of them civilians. Millions have fled the country.
The conflict has been broadly stalemated for months, with the government generally dominant in Damascus, the main central cities and western, coastal regions of Syria, while the rebels hold wide swathes of the north and east. Hardline Islamists have become more prominent among the rebels, alienating many who once supported the call for greater democracy.
Later in the evening, the mood on the road out of the Old City returned to its usual tenseness, and additional shelling could be heard. Traffic was jammed as usual at several checkpoints, where nervous armed men vet each car for bombs.
Passengers inside an idle minivan waited their turn in silence to show ID and be searched, their faces solemn and tired, their windows rolled down in the warm breeze.
A popular folk song played on their radio. Its chorus repeated the words: “Beautiful is my country. Beautiful is my country.”
April 23, 2014 by John Jackson
Over three million Syrians, inside their own country but many close to its borders, are in urgent need of food and medical aid. Just on the other side of those borders in countries like Turkey, sit the UN’s emergency supplies for Syria. In some cases the distance between the people and the aid is just minutes away. But it sits undelivered because five UN agencies will not cross Syria’s borders without consent from the Assad regime — consent that is continually denied. This week, the UN’s most important humanitarian agencies are confronted with an historic opportunity to truly realize the reason for their existence.
On February 22nd, the UN Security Council passed a unanimous resolution that requires the regime in Syria to allow “rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access” for UN agencies, including aid across its borders. The regime has not complied and continues to use starvation as a weapon of war. Every 30 days since the passing of that resolution the UN’s head of humanitarian affairs Valerie Amos must report on its implementation. The second report will be delivered today. It will confirm that the regime has largely ignored the resolution by arbitrarily denying UN agencies permission to provide cross border aid to opposition held territory. A number of governments (including the UK), legal scholars and human rights organizations have concluded that this constitutes a breach of International Humanitarian Law. As such, the UN has the legal right to cross the border without consent from the regime. Now is not the time to wait for unanimous legal opinion, because unanimity will never come. Now is the time to start the trucks and drive that aid to the millions who need it. But instead, we wait.
There is no doubt that these agencies are hesitating because there are serious calculations to be made. They must be debating how the regime might react to cross border aid without consent. No one is naïve enough to think that they are in an easy or simple position. But no calculation they currently have to make can result in a sum greater than the lives of those three million people. These lives must not be sacrificed to political expediency.
The Syria Campaign has launched a petition targeting the heads of the five agencies: Anthony Lake (UNICEF), Ertharin Cousin (WFP) and Antonio Guterres (UNHCR), Valerie Amos (OCHA) and Margaret Chan (WHO). It gives us all the chance to tell these five leaders that they have our backing to send the trucks in, to deliver food and medicine and to be on the right side of history.
The price of not acting will be to fail yet another people who are heroically hanging on by a thread for their very survival. It will add to more frustration and disillusionment with the UN and its ability not only to act, but to act effectively. Simply put it will further damage the standing of the UN for many around the world who still hope for its success. But, if they seize this moment and deliver what is vitally needed for our brothers and sisters in Syria at the their time of greatest need — they will remind us all of their reason for being.
April 22, 2014 by Brooklyn Middleton
At the same time the world is applauding the Syrian regime for reportedly shipping out 80 percent of its chemical weapons and as Bashar al-Assad announces he will run in presidential elections slated for 3 June, new reports emerge that Damascus has reinvented a way to massacre its own people: barrel bombs packed with toxic chlorine gas dropped from helicopters.
In what could prove to be a truly worst case scenario, it appears the Assad regime has carved out a way to continue waging chemical warfare that is less deadly than the major East Ghouta attack but still effective at targeting large areas.
Inaction of the international community
Despicable as the developments are; they are also entirely predictable. The collective soft response to the chemical bombardment on East Ghouta – which killed at least several hundred people and injured thousands more on 21 August – has set a precedent. Therefore, there is a high probability the international community will ultimately ignore smaller scale CW attacks.
More simply, it is nearly impossible to imagine the world will do much of anything in response to gas attacks that kill only a few - but terrorize an entire population – when the fact remains that a well-documented massacre was recorded and Assad, with Moscow’s help, negotiated himself out of any actual consequences.
As for the planned sham elections, there is no doubt Assad’s well-fed supporters will turn out to vote while other entire areas - relying on grass for sustenance - will likely not cast a single ballot.
Inarguably, Assad has become a mastermind at reinventing ways to kills his own people – systematic starvation, indiscriminate barrel bombings, and continued lower scale chemical weapon attacks – with few damning repercussions from world powers.Brooklyn Middleton
The New York Times headline referred to it as “A Show of Democracy Amid Destruction” yet the notion of any anything resembling a democratic election in Syria in its current catastrophic state would be laughable if it was not so ineffably tragic; entire pockets of the population are being intentionally starved to death and denied critical aid. Meanwhile, Assad – despite no opponent in sight - hangs campaign posters.
Inarguably, Assad has become a mastermind at reinventing ways to kills his own people – systematic starvation, indiscriminate barrel bombings, and continued lower scale chemical weapon attacks – with few damning repercussions from world powers.
Negotiating allows Assad power
The primary reason for his unremitting innovativeness can be attributed to the fact that world powers have continued to negotiate with him. They’ve allowed gestures of pseudo-cooperation to be declared as genuine.
This was recently demonstrated when Assad briefly allowed food to enter the besieged Yarmouk refugee camp in January. This was done after four months of intentionally preventing aid from reaching the camp, resulting in dozens of preventable deaths due largely to starvation.
It was during the very beginning of the Geneva II conference that aid began to once trickle into Yarmouk, proving the Assad regime could have facilitated this all along. But as soon as it no longer served a relevant political purpose, the rebel and civilian filled camp was once again choked off; Yarmouk is now currently starving to death – literally – again.
Meanwhile, despite having a known deadly history, chlorine gas – unthinkably – was not included on the chemical weapons list the Assad regime provided to The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
Once again, half measures – accepted as legitimate - are triggering deadly consequences for Syrians.
Renewed chemical attacks
On 11 April, an all too familiar scene unfolded: Syrian activists videotaped and uploaded footage to social media of several men convulsing on the floor as medical professionals gathered, frantically placing oxygen masks on their gasping faces as half a dozen young children looked on.
This specific scene reportedly showcased the immediate aftermath of a chlorine barrel bomb dropped from a helicopter on the rebel-held village of Kfar Zeita, Hama province, located approximately 125 miles north of the capital. A baby and a 70-year-old man were reportedly the only two casualties but at least another 100 people were injured in the attack.
The Assad regime mouthpiece Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) blamed the al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front for the attack – without - as Eliot Higgins points out – countering the on the ground claims that the toxic agent was delivered via barrel bomb dropped out of a regime helicopter.
Further, Syrian rebels allege that regime forces waged at least four chemical weapon attacks in April alone.
French President Francois Hollande noted that France has “a few elements of information” that chemical weapons have again been used by the Assad regime but that Paris has yet to obtain any solid proof.
Dismissing the already set precedent of known chemical weapon usage by Assad forces is essentially tantamount to waiting until the regime commits yet another massacre.
Chlorine gas must be added to the official chemical weapons list and it must be exported or destroyed along with the remaining 20 percent of the declared arsenal. But if this fails to happen – and it likely will – the Assad regime has little reason to fear for repercussions.
The elections must be decried for the sham they are and the Assad regime must continue to be pressured to comply with a political transition - but if they are not and if he does not – the Assad regime has little reason to fear for repercussions.
March 1, 2014 by Ella Wind and Prof.Omar S. Dahi
The Syrian economy did well in several macro-economic indices in the past decade, but suffered from growing corruption, social exclusion and the rise of a corrupt oligarchy. A lack of political liberalization and accountability contributed to the Syrian uprising, which has been followed by a dramatic decline in the country’s economy as violence has intensified. Syria’s fragmentation has also given rise to warlordism and local economies based on theft and smuggling
The war in Syria constitutes a dramatic rupture in both the political and societal dynamics that preceded it. However the longest lasting and most profound impact may be on the economy of the country. The humanitarian crisis inside Syria and the refugee crisis in the neighboring countries are both now global catastrophes. The pace of the crisis so overwhelmed expectations that both the Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response (SHARP) and Regional Response Plans of 2013 — dealing with humanitarian assistance inside and outside Syria, respectively — had to be revised several times mid-year. Domestically, the economic changes brought about since the start of the Syrian uprising in March 2011 fall under two main categories. First, the war has resulted in the severe deterioration of the economy as a result of destruction of lives, physical infrastructure, capital flight and the imposition of sanctions. Secondly, Syria has seen the rise of a war economy and warlordism around the competition for natural domestic resources, foreign funding, and smuggled goods by warring militias and civilians inside the country.
Government response to uprising
When the protests in Syria first broke out, the previous economic team and government of Naji al-Otari was relieved of its duty and replaced by a new government that represented more career Ba’athists who were proponents of the public sector. The government announced it would increase salaries and subsidies as well as restore support for manufacturing and agriculture. However, these policies offered too little, too late. Rather than undertaking large-scale investment that would benefit Syrians across the board, the regime sought to target its presumed bases of loyalty among civil servants, workers in state-owned enterprises and the government bureaucracy at large. That half-measure, coupled with the regime’s unwillingness or inability to discipline the main objects of popular loathing, such as the president’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, indicated that the regime had gone immediately into survival mode rather than seriously addressing the underlying grievances of the uprising. Frustration mounted as the government stumbled back and forth between different policy directions, such as in 2011, when they imposed a ban on all but a select few imports, a policy that was quickly revoked just one week later. Furthermore, the security crackdown, resulting in declining tourist and trade revenues, and eventually, the crippling oil embargo imposed by the EU, made these promises unsustainable.
The 2012 reshuffling of the government saw many top government posts given to Ba’athist loyalists and other figures more supportive of statist economic policies (like Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Qadri Jamil), although some of the top key posts remained the same. Overall, the regime has come to rescind on its previous tentative shifts towards some neo-liberal figures who were not necessarily active members of the Ba’athist party, retreating back into the statist policies in place from before President Bashar al-Assad came to power.
As unrest grew and the situation became more unmanageable, the government’s economic policies retreated further into survival mode, neglecting long-term investment in lieu of directing funding towards the fortification of the military. A June 2012 meeting of President Assad with the government of Wael al-Halqi definitively marked the beginning of a transitional period in which the government became fully committed to the pursuit of a war economy to the neglect of other government functions. In his speech to the new government, Assad declared: “We live, as I said in my speech to the parliament, in a true situation of warfare in all its aspects […] and when we are in a state of war, all our policies […] and all sectors must be oriented in order to win this war.”
Government spending up to the first quarter of 2013 saw a decline in public investment of 75 percent, while more than $4.85 billion was re-budgeted towards military expenditures. Furthermore, public spending on health, budgeted at $7.5 billion in 2010, was reduced to $5.2 billion in 2011, and by 2012 dwindled to $4.4 billion, even as the need for public health expenditures became more urgent. Nevertheless, Syria’s $27 billion 2012 budget was the biggest in its history, motivated by a desire to fund state jobs and maintain subsidies on essentials. Despite this, throughout 2012 in many areas around the country civilians or organized opposition groups began to undertake government functions in some areas, as trash piled up in the streets uncollected and government schools, hospitals, and other public service institutions were shut down.
However, in the face of the country’s near-total economic ruin, the government has maintained a rather impressive degree of resilience, which can be attributed to the financial support it continues to receive from its two biggest allies, Russian and Iran as well as the re-orientation of government expenditures toward basic goods provision and a cut in investment and import demand on foreign exchange. In 2012, Syria began to release banknotes printed in Russia into circulation to replace old currency, but also to ensure its ability to continue paying government salaries and other expenses. According to Deputy Prime Minister Jamil, in an interview with the Financial Times in June 2013, $500 million in monthly aid was being sent to Syria from Iran, Russia and China in the form of oil and credit. Just one month later, Syria and Iran signed a deal for a $3.6 billion credit facility that would allow the Syrian government to import oil products, this on top of a previous $1 billion credit line to Iran which allowed Syria to engage in some limited trade. These deals open the way toward increasing Iranian investments in projects around the country, and assuming Assad stays in power, guarantees Iran and Russia top priority in reconstruction projects.
In 2013, it was reported that over 2 million government workers across the country are still receiving salaries. Some of these employees are even located in rebel-held areas in Aleppo, Deir Ezzor and elsewhere. Salaries are arranged to be sent in cash by trucks, through meetings organized by communicating with rebel groups via fax and messenger. Mudar Barakat, a government employee, explained in an interview with The New York Times that government employees “come with the terrorists” to pick up their salaries.
For now, the government appears to have pinned its hopes on using these lines of credit to weather the storm, by taking a more active role in buying daily goods, tightening price controls, maintaining state employee wages and sealing off Syria’s economy from all but its most reliable allies.
Freefall in the economy
By the end of the second year of the conflict, Syria’s economy had already suffered devastating losses. GDP losses at the end of 2012 stood at 664 billion Syrian pounds (SYP) — around $24.1 billion, or nearly half of Syria’s total GDP in 2010. Since then the rate of economic deterioration has in fact been growing at an alarming pace. A report from the Syrian Center for Policy Research (SCPR) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency estimated that by the end of 2012, Syria’s human development indicators had fallen back 20 years since the beginning of the crisis. The same report went on to say that by the first quarter of 2013, Syria had fallen back 35 years on the Human Development Index, meaning the rate of destruction in just three months was almost comparable to that of the two previous years since the beginning of the uprising. Finally, more than half the population of Syria is now considered to live in poverty, as 6.7 million Syrian citizens fell below the poverty line as a result of the crisis, and 3.6 million fell below the line of extreme poverty.
Losses have been greatest in the sectors of transportation and communications, manufacturing, mining, and internal trade (both wholesale and retail). The tourism sector, previously comprising around 12 percent of the GDP, has unsurprisingly seen a complete collapse. The higher losses in these sectors are indicative of the process of de-industrialization and large-scale capital divestment from the country. Declines in production have been relatively lower in construction (due to an illegal housing boom), government services and agricultural output. Nevertheless, agricultural output has greatly declined, compounding the ill effects of the serious drought that has afflicted Syria since 2003.Wheat yields, long a major source of food security, have shrunk over the last several years by 30-50 percent, and the livestock and poultry sectors have suffered badly, according to a June 2012 UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, fueling a rise in the prices of meat, milk, chicken and eggs by as much as 300 percent in some areas. The FAO concluded then that the “household-level food security of about 30 percent of the rural population,” was under severe threat. It is clear that Syria will be paying the socio-economic costs of its civil war long after the any cease-fire may be achieved.
One obvious cause of the degradation of the economy is the physical damage to infrastructure that has brought production in many places to a complete halt. Entire blocks of residential and commercial areas have collapsed under bombing, and shelling has gutted markets and streets. In June 2013, Local Administration Minister Omar al-Ibrahim declared that physical damage to public infrastructure amounted to $15 billion worth of damage, and some contested this figure as an underestimate.
The full extent of private damage is unknowable, but as an example, some estimate that up to 75 percent of the production facilities in Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital, were no longer in operation in August 2013. Some factories were bombed, while others burned down or were taken over as rebel military centers. Many others were cut off from access due to the precarious security situation in surrounding neighborhoods.
Indeed, the mere fact of dividing the country into government-controlled and rebel-controlled areas (not to mention competition over territories within factions of the opposition) has been hugely deleterious to the economy, as the unified national economy is fragmented into small, incoherent local economies incapable of providing the range of goods and services needed for those living in these areas.
Accompanying this decline has been a concomitant process of capital flight. Syrian expatriates were estimated to hold over $60 billion in assets that for the most part were not repatriated into the Syrian economy. Syria had already suffered from severe “brain drain” as many of the most educated and skilled citizenry were more attracted to migrate for opportunities to work and study elsewhere.
With the beginning of the conflict, the declining value of the SYP compelled many Syrians to withdraw their money and convert to dollars or other less-inflationary currency. The central bank attempted to alleviate the pressures on the SYP, but dwindling foreign currency reserves minimized any efforts in this area, and the value of the SYP has continued to decline gradually over the course of the past three years, losing about 70 percent in a span of two years according to official sources, with inflation at about 120 percent. By 2013, data reported by Syria’s private banks painted a grim picture of the banking system and the extent of capital flight. According to data from six of Syria’s 14 private banks, profit losses amounted to between 40 to 95 percent, in contrast to what had been regular increases in both overall deposits and total profits in every year prior.
But in the past six months, the government has managed to turn the tide of this trend through two channels of action: coercion from its security apparatus, and aid from Iran and Russia. The latter two came through with several deals to boost the Syrian currency through an influx of dollars, as well as a flurry of credit and aid deals; while in June 2013, the government announced a crackdown on black-market money traders. For the first time two years, the SYP began to rise against the dollar, and black-market prices were reported to match the official rate set by the Syrian Central Bank. While Syria’s allies appear to be absolutely committed to providing economic support, whether the government will be able to maintain this policy in the long term will depend in large part its ability to maintain an environment of fear for black-market traders, even as large parts of the country remain out of government control.
The longer the course of the war, the more we can anticipate that Syrian wealth will be put to use elsewhere and eventually entrenched in investments there. Similarly, Syria’s human capital — its citizenry who are leaving the country at a rate of thousands of people per day — will surely become increasingly tied to their places of relocation, and less likely to return to Syria following the end of the conflict.
As the regime proceeded with its brutal crackdown, there were calls for economic sanctions from the US and European governments, as well as the Arab League and activists inside Syria who were horrified by the violence inflicted upon the protest movement. Though the precise impact of sanctions is hard to discern, it is clear that they have not achieved their goal of isolating the regime, but have certainly played a role in exacerbating the economic crisis.
Although economic sanctions on Syria did not start with the 2011 uprising, the implementation of EU sanctions following the harsh measures taken against protesters struck a hard blow to the Syrian economy. According to the European Commission, Brussels has levied 17 sets of “restrictive measures” against Syrian nationals, government entities or private companies, including the suspension of Syrian government participation in the Euro-Med regional cooperation initiatives and the European Investment Bank’s loans to Damascus. The most onerous measures — by amount of lost revenue — are the import bans on crude oil and petroleum products. The EU has also halted investment in the oil industry and construction of electrical power plants in Syria, and stopped supplying the Syrian Central Bank with banknotes and coins, which had previously been minted in Austria. Since the imposition of sanctions, Syrian enterprises and regional partners have signed virtually no new export contracts. The only production and export that has occurred has been in fulfillment of existing export contracts exempt from the sanctions.
One impact of the sanctions has been an acceleration of the depletion of Syria’s foreign exchange reserves. The government has drawn heavily upon these stores of cash as oil revenue dried up. According to a report by the SCPR, the sanctions caused 28 percent (or roughly $6.8 billion) of the losses to GDP in 2011 and 2012. The report also concluded that the sanctions had the worst impact on the lower social classes, given the rise in prices of food staples such as bread and the higher cost of heating oil. The cost of sanctions on the regime itself in Syria has been mitigated somewhat by the government’s ability to maintain strong economic relations with other countries who have not imposed sanctions, as well as by an extensive degree of self-sufficiency in food production (a strategy launched under Bashar al-Assad’s father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad).
Emerging war economy
As the war in Syria has dragged on, many areas of the country have seen the inevitable development of a “war economy” based on competition over smuggled goods and black markets, control over natural energy resources in the Northeast, and foreign funding flows, whether intended for humanitarian or militaristic purposes.
The roots of the smuggling economy — especially along the Turkish and Lebanese borders — can be traced back to before 2011 when smuggling of goods across porous borders was a practice with a long history — due to price differentials caused by heavily subsidized foodstuffs in Syria, shortages in Syria caused by government bans on imports of various products, or taxed products such as foreign cigarettes and beer. These illegal economic links were fortified by the rise of armed opposition militias and the fragmentation of the country into government- and rebel-controlled areas, which necessitated the rise of local, informal economies rather than a unified national economy.
However, this is not to say that only opposition groups participate in these informal economies. Reports indicate that the looting of homes and properties following government sieges on rebel-held areas has also encouraged the participation of security forces themselves in smuggling and informal economic activities. Furthermore, there is a great deal of illegal trade between rebel and government-backed groups in terms of looted and smuggled goods, as well as natural resources. While the political lines may seem to be completely impassable between the two sides, the economic lines are anything but. Beyond selling these goods on the black markets across the border, different groups barter with one another to obtain the necessities of daily life, along with weaponry and military equipment.
If trading looted goods has been a shared point between government and rebel groups, the issue of how to divide spoils from looting homes and businesses has often been a point of fierce contention between rebel brigades, especially in shared military operations between competing groups.
The Turkish border in particular has become a focal point of smuggling in recent years, attested to by numerous journalistic and academic accounts. The Orontes River, which runs between Syria and Turkey, is used by both smugglers and refugees as a point of transport and crossing. Many of the items smuggled out of Syria are essentials — food, goods and machinery looted from homes and factories, gas for heating, and wood — contributing to the escalating prices for these goods within the country, a trend which has been somewhat tempered by the government’s recent crackdown on food exports. In the other direction, weapons to rebel groups are smuggled in with aspiring fighters and supporters of the rebels, along with humanitarian aid and medical supplies sent across the border from the numerous NGOs now operating in the south of Turkey, despite the official restrictions on these groups’ abilities to work inside Syria. Similar dynamics are at work across the Lebanese and Iraqi borders. According to Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, a journalist who has been covering the black market economy in the country for the past two years, an AK-47 worth $150-200 in Iraq may be sold for over $1,500 in Syria.
Oil and natural resources
Control over oilfields in Syria’s northeast and natural gas plants throughout the country has been a focal point of fierce fighting between regime forces, Kurdish militias and Islamist militias. In November 2013, it was reported that a group of Syrian rebel brigades, including the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, had seized Syria’s largest oilfield from government forces. Despite fierce competition over these valuable natural assets, production of the fields was reported to have fallen by more than 95 percent by July 2013, and the pipelines running out of the country have been shut down. However, in the wake of rebel takeovers of oilfields, some displaced Syrians have been moving to the oilfields to work in operations on primitive refineries where they boil small quantities of diesel in vats over an open fire. One report indicated that a group or individual in control of an oilfield could expect to make around SYP 5 million per day (roughly $35,000).
Natural gas, an important source of electricity in Syria, continues to flow to the Syrian government. The regime’s adaptation to war economy in this regard is striking. In a rebel-held gas plant in Jandar, south of Homs, gas still flows freely to the government in exchange for its continuing provision of salaries for some 400 technical and white-collar staff at the plant. Even fuel resources held by Jabhat al-Nusra are reported to be resold to the regime at close to cost, and the rest is resold on black markets in the rest of Syria at a substantial profit.
In the past two years or so, some rebel brigades, rather than receiving funds channeled through the Free Syrian Army (FSA) affiliated Supreme Military Council (SMC), or depending on trade in looted goods, have become intensely concentrated on appealing directly to private outside donors. These private donors, most of the time either Syrian expatriates or wealthy individuals and clerics in neighboring countries, also prefer to fund their specific favored brigades directly. Funds outside of the distribution channels of the SMC were estimated to be at least in the tens of millions of dollars by the end of 2013. All this contributes to a continual forming and re-forming of fighting units and shifting alliances, based on outside interests in particular battalions.
Fundraising among rebel brigades has becoming a highly sophisticated, and often times surprisingly open process. Some fighters speak openly with journalists about the way in which groups with higher media profiles — counted in YouTube hits, Facebook “likes,” and Twitter followers — receive the largest share of the donations. “They taught us, hit, film it: I’ll support you,” says a fighter in an interview with TIME. In some videos on YouTube, fighters thank their sponsors for their generosity, with a few brigades going so far as to name themselves after a Gulf sponsor: One rebel group in eastern Syria now calls itself the “Hajjaj al-Ajmi Brigade,” in a tribute to the Kuwaiti sheik of the same name. Rebels with a strong social media following spread posts calling for donations, announcing drop-off points in neighboring countries. Similarly, prominent fundraisers, especially clerics with large followings further spread these videos and also produce their own videos showcasing the weaponry they provide to brigades in order to attract smaller funders to join in on their donations to their brigades of choice.
The proliferation of outside funding sources and ability of funders to provide support to their preferred brigades directly all but guarantees the continuing fragmentation of the armed opposition, as fighters continually try to court their current myriad donors while keeping their eyes open for new and more lucrative sources of outside funding.
The war in Syria has set the country’s economy on a dramatically different course over the past three years. The economy has given way to a process of rapid deindustrialization and enormous losses in virtually every indicator of socio-economic development. The Syrian government has hunkered down into a budget prioritizing war efforts, slashing public goods and services but still managing to keep significant numbers of employees on the government payroll through financial support from some of its foreign allies. Physical destruction of infrastructure, widespread capital flight and strict international sanctions have all contributed to bringing the national economy into total collapse. But on the ruins of the failed national economy, a war economy is rapidly emerging. Illegal construction is booming. Warlordism, smuggling and black markets have become in many areas the main way to obtain goods and services, so much so that even the government takes part in the black market economy. Competition over funds from outside the country among rebel groups is rampant, while both the government and rebel groups fight over natural resources inside the country. The economic dynamics that have emerged are certain to echo for generations, and will influence the future outcomes for the country long after the conflict ends.
Children played under a barrier at a checkpoint in Homs, Syria. The government has said that it is on the verge of fully controlling the city. CreditSergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
April 22, 2014 by Anne Barnard
On the edge of the Old City here, children play beside a house blown open by shelling. An antique wood-framed mirror leans against the wall, so that soldiers can watch for threats from around the corner. A block closer to one of the city’s last front lines, trash, rubble and rusted cars litter streets of charred and sagging buildings.
The government retook this neighborhood, Bab Sbaa, from insurgents more than a year ago. But few of its residents, once a mix of Christians and Sunnis, have ventured back. Government supporters whisper that insurgents could attack again. And some opponents say they prefer to remain in still-restive areas despite the shelling, rather than live among the military checkpoints here, where soldiers peer from storefronts converted to miniature army posts.
Now, as insurgents who long held much of the Old City make what could be their last stand against withering bombardment, and the government declares it is on the verge of fully controlling the city, Homs — not for the first time — represents an important turning point for Syria. If the government is victorious here, it will control a devastated landscape, a physically fragmented and socially divided city where many community bonds, not just houses, have been destroyed.
A government victory in this battle would serve to lay bare the more vexing challenge confronting all Syrians after more than three years of civil war: how to stitch the country back together.
For both sides, Homs, a central Syrian crossroads city with a diverse prewar population of one million, is crucial to the future. The government hopes it will be a showcase of rebuilding and reconciliation. The exile opposition coalition, condemning the continuing blockade of the Old City, last week called Homs “key to a democratic solution for a united Syria.”
But achieving either side’s vision will be a challenge. At least several hundred thousand residents remain displaced, inside or outside Syria, where the few lucky ones with Internet access broadcast nostalgia for their city and its reputation for stubbornness and humor. Those who remain inhabit neighborhoods that feel like islands — some intact but fearful, others in ruins, linked by avenues that few travel at night — and are increasingly sorting themselves by sect and political affiliation.
Homs has long been regarded by government opponents as the capital of the revolution. It held some of the earliest and largest protests in 2011, drawing violent crackdowns. Government opponents here were among the first to bear arms, and the Syrian Army first unleashed heavy artillery here, in the Baba Amr district. In this way, Homs offered a foreshadowing of what awaited the rest of the country.
Lately, Homs has become a center of the government’s strategy of blockading and starving insurgent-held areas. A February cease-fire, which included an amnesty, allowed 1,500 civilians, subsisting on grass and leaves, to depart the Old City, and brought brief hope that Homs might find a path to common ground.
But the challenge is to overcome not just the shattered infrastructure, but also the deep resentments that come from being bombed, starved and run out of the city. The amnesty alone left hard feelings on all sides. Some government supporters are enraged that hundreds of fighters, some of whom had killed their relatives, have been allowed to go free since February.
A Syrian Army soldier opened an anti-sniper curtain. The government hopes that Homs will be a showcase of rebuilding and reconciliation. Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
“This is natural,” the Homs governor, Talal Barazi, who has lost a cousin in the fighting, said in a recent interview. “Initially, we said we had to take revenge on these armed groups. But if you have a bird’s-eye view of the benefit of the country, reconciliation is more important than individual emotions and interests.”
But with some civilians and former fighters who accepted the evacuation still detained by the government for background checks that were part of the deal, fears of reprisal remain. The Homs prison is full of young Syrians arrested as long as two years ago for acts such as delivering medicine and food to demonstrators.
The amnesties also sowed division within the opposition. As bombs fell on the Old City last week, a woman there accused those who left of betraying others for “a shwarma sandwich and a bottle of yogurt.”
“Through two years of patience we were one hand,” the unidentified woman lamented in a video posted online. “They left just for the sake of a water pipe or a cigarette. May regrets be upon you — the blood of Homs men will be chasing you until the day of resurrection.”
Outside the neighborhood, trust is also in short supply. From her rooftop in the government-held Zahra neighborhood, Saada Qassem can see the Old City skyline, ragged like a mouthful of broken teeth. Somewhere in there, her son disappeared two years ago while driving a taxi — kidnapped, she believes, because he, like President Bashar al-Assad, belongs to the Alawite minority. More recently, a bullet from that direction grazed her young grandson’s sternum, and a neighboring street was hit by one of many insurgent car bombs.
Across the street lives a woman from the Sunni majority that dominates the opposition, married to an Alawite man. Her Sunni relatives face shelling and food shortages, but she cannot bring them to her neighborhood, she said; they would not be welcome amid the rising sectarian divisions.
A boy stood behind anti-sniper barriers in Homs. Several hundred thousand of the city’s residents are displaced, and those who remain are sorting themselves by sect and political affiliation. Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
Still, recent history here provides some glimmer of hope. United Nations staff members have praised Homs administrators for trying to serve all areas, carrying out water projects amid conflict at the cost of workers’ lives. Syrian Arab Red Crescent workers here have risked and lost lives to aid both sides.
And early in the rebellion, demonstrators here called for sectarian unity, and Christians remained in the Old City. One, Leena Siriani, who later fled to Damascus to escape the shelling, said local rebels never disturbed her and fixed her street’s electricity after battles.
But her husband said he suspected sectarianism because demonstrators demanding democracy and an end to corruption gathered at mosques. (The protesters said mosques were the only place groups could legally meet.)
“Don’t you think the Christians were living in the same country and the same corruption has been practiced on them?” he asked.
Others say insurgents attacked Christians from the beginning. Abu Nizar, one of the few who stayed in Bab Sbaa throughout the unrest and who would only give a nickname for security reasons, said fighters, including longtime neighbors, threatened him and demanded he pay a tax for non-Muslims.
“They said, ‘You should join us or go,’ — there was nothing in the middle,” he said, showing visitors the holes in his living room wall used by rebel, then government snipers.
Each side blames the other for fueling sectarianism. Now, all but a few of the Old City’s tens of thousands of Christians are gone, along with most of its Muslims.
In their place are men with guns, on both sides, with vested interests in continued conflict. Elia Samaan, a Homs native advising the Reconciliation Ministry, said that after dark, a front line near his home becomes “a supermarket,” where pro-government militiamen sell overpriced cigarettes to insurgents.
“Each one is a rooster crowing on his rubbish pile,” he said, citing a proverb. “Now that they have guns, will they agree to go back to their old lives?”
File - A Syrian stands in the rubble of a destroyed buildings from Syrian forces shelling, in the al-Hamidiyyeh neighborhood of Homs province, Syria, June 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Lens Young Homsi)
Beirut, April 22, 2014 by Diaa Hadid
Weakened Syrian rebels are making their last desperate stand in Homs, as forces loyal to President Bashar Assad launch their harshest assault yet to expel them from the central city, once known as the capital of the revolution.
Some among the hundreds of rebels remaining in the city talk of surrender, according to opposition activists there. Others have lashed back against the siege with suicide car bombings in districts under government control. Some fighters are turning on comrades they suspect want to desert, pushing them into battle.
“We expect Homs to fall,” said an activist who uses the name Thaer Khalidieh, in an online interview with the Associated Press.
“In the next few days, it could be under the regime’s control.”
The fight for Homs underscores Assad’s determination to rout rebels ahead of presidential election now set for June 3, aiming to scatter fighters back further north toward their supply lines on the Turkish border.
Assad’s forces are building on gains elsewhere. They have been able to almost clear rebels from a broad swath of territory south of Homs between the capital, Damascus, and the Lebanese border, breaking important rebel supply lines there. Rebels have also capitulated in several towns around Damascus amid blockades that caused widespread hunger and suffering.
Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, is a crucial target, linking the capital with Aleppo in the north. But rebels still control large areas of the countryside in the north and south and have consolidated around the Turkish and Jordanian borders.
“A total loss of Homs would represent a serious loss to the opposition,” said Charles Lister, visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.
“The military has maintained a steadily significant focus on Homs precisely due to this importance,” Lister said.
“This has been all been part of a very conscious strategy of encircling, besieging and capturing areas of strategic importance.”
For over a year, government forces have been besieging rebels in the string of districts they hold around the ancient bazaars in the city center.
Just over a week ago, troops loyal to Assad escalated their assaults on rebel districts, barraging them with tank and mortar fire and bombs dropped from military aircraft. Syrian forces have so far advanced into two areas, Wadi al-Sayeh and Bab Houd.
Online video footage showed explosions as projectiles smashed into buildings, sending up columns of white smoke. Angry rebels are heard shouting that they have been abandoned and singing that only God can help them. The footage corresponded with other AP reporting on the events.
Activists said it was the fiercest assault since last summer, when regime troops retook the rebel-held neighborhood of Khaldieh.
The death toll from the fighting is unknown, because neither side reports losses.
Rebels in Homs have been deeply weakened by months of blockade around their strongholds and the loss of supply lines from Lebanon in March, after Syrian forces seized the border town of Zara.
Hundreds of fighters surrendered during a series of U.N.-mediated truces that began in November. An estimated 800-1,000 fighters left alongside hundreds of civilians who were evacuated from rebel-held parts of the city, according to activists and an official in Homs province.
The rebels remaining in the city are predominantly from the Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, and other Islamist factions.
One rebel fighter in the city, who uses the name Abu Bilal, estimated that 1,000 rebels remain.
An activist in Homs, Abu Rami, said rebels wanting to leave had affected the spirits of others struggling under the blockade.
“They tempted them with food and drink, and saying, ‘Don’t you want to see your families?’” he said over Skype from the city.
“[That] really did weaken hundreds of them, and it affected the morale of the rest of the rebels.”
Dozens more fighters are now trying to surrender, according to Abu Rami and Khalidieh. The fighters reached out to contact the governor of Homs, Talal Barazi, and Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar, who handles such cases.
“We asked the regime if we could surrender and leave for the countryside,” said Khalidieh.
“So far we don’t have a clear answer,” said Abu Rami, who is opposed to leaving but is helping to mediate on behalf of others.
Barazi’s office said there was “absolutely no contact” with gunmen. It was not immediately possible to contact Haidar.
Some rebels have escalated suicide car bombings in government-controlled areas dominated by Alawites. In April alone, at least five such attacks killed more than 60 people, one of the bloodiest months for residents, a local reporter there estimated. The most recent killed 14 people Friday.
“We are killing them, those rotting carcasses,” said Abu Bilal.
The bombings have another aim, he said, claiming that they could spark further fighting and prevent any truce that would allow rebels to desert,Abu Bilal said.
“Some of us are against those deserting. We are fighting so they can die in it,” said Abu Bilal.
Homs’ saga traces the arc of Syria’s uprising.
It quickly embraced the uprising against Assad’s rule after it began in Deraa province in March 2011. Tens of thousands joined anti-Assad protests in Homs, winning it the nickname of “the revolution’s capital.”
“We carried the spark of the revolution and made it a flame,” Abu Rami said.
After pro-Assad forces violently cracked down on demonstrations, some protesters took up arms, transforming the uprising into an armed rebellion.
Most recently, on April 7, a masked gunman killed a widely respected elderly Dutch priest, Jesuit Father Francis Van Der Lugt, who lived in a monastery in a rebel-held district, choosing to live alongside civilians who were unable to leave.
Khalidieh said fighters had to be saved now that Homs was lost.
“We are more scared that the regime will kill everybody than we are worried about the fall of Homs,” he said.
But Abu Rami said he would rather die.
“If they come, then we are all going to be martyrs,” he said.
“We can lose an area, and we can regain it. But the most important thing is not to kneel.”
Saint Quen, April 23, 2014 by AFP
They ended up there penniless after wandering from country to country for months.
Yahya, Aziz and 150 other Syrians swapped the brutality and death of a war zone for hand-to-mouth survival in a small park in a working-class suburb of Paris, squeezed in behind a hotel just a few meters away from a busy ring road.
Some come from Homs, others from Aleppo or the Syrian port city of Latakia, leaving behind the violence of a three-year conflict that has now claimed more than 150,000 lives and forced around half the population to flee their homes.
"We stay here all day. At night, some manage to get hotel rooms paid for, others sleep in cars or at the mosque," says Yahya, a former dental technician from the central city of Homs who speaks French fluently, pointing to refugees lying down on mattresses in the park in Saint-Ouen.
The 44-year-old, who refuses to give his surname, “abandoned everything” along with his wife and children after Syria erupted into violence in 2011, leaving behind a pretty villa and relinquishing any hope of returning.
Lebanon, Algeria, Egypt, back to Algeria, Morocco, Spain and finally France: “We knocked on every door,” he says, grey hair cut short, black jumper worn out.
It’s a similar story for Aziz, 54, who left Syria at the end of 2012 with his six children and wife.
The family crisscrossed Europe before ending up in the park, which has become his “headquarters.”
"I also lived in Homs, in the Baba Amr neighborhood [a rebel area besieged by the army]. Everything has been destroyed there," Aziz says.
During their first few weeks in France, the family slept in a hotel. But for several days now, they have been camping out in a car.
- Millions of desperate refugees -
Yahya and Aziz are but drops in the ocean of Syrians fleeing their ravaged country.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), at least 2.6 million Syrians have registered as refugees in neighboring countries in the Middle East, many of them in tiny Lebanon which is staggering under the weight of the crisis.
By contrast, Amnesty International said late last year that just 55,000 Syrian refugees had managed to get to what it called “Fortress Europe” and claim asylum in the EU, many heading for Germany or Sweden.
For its part, France has taken in around 3,000 Syrian refugees since the beginning of the conflict.
In Saint-Ouen, residents and activists have come to the help of Yahya, Aziz and the others, raising funds to pay for hotel rooms and collecting clothes and medicine.
"They’re living day-to-day, in diabolical conditions. They have a few blankets, that’s all," says Khadija Bouehetta, a local resident.
The first Syrians arrived at the park in January but, as word spread and temperatures grew more mild, their numbers have grown since the start of April.
Local officials said they would send a team to the site this week to help them put together asylum requests, needed to try to get the refugees basic services such as housing and health care.
In the meantime, volunteers have set up a table not far from the refugees where they serve food. A line forms, women and children first.
"We bring them food every day. Today it’s couscous," says Bouehetta, who worries about the sanitary conditions on the square, "especially for the children."
Among the refugees, several have health problems, including Nawal Alsafar who suffers from a skin disease and whose two-year-old son, born without hands, is feverish.
"I arrived a few days ago, I don’t know anyone," the mother says via an interpreter.
Last week three pregnant women were taken to hospital following a visit to the square by a doctor.
NGOs and France’s Green party are urging authorities to do more to help the families while they wait for their asylum requests to be processed.
So far their appeals have fallen on deaf ears but Yahya says he still has hope.
"We must start again from scratch, we lost everything. But we Syrians work hard. I have confidence in France."
On Monday, the Syrian government made it official: Presidential elections will take place on June 3, despite the civil war that has been devastating the country for the past three years.
The news didn’t take many by surprise. President Bashar al-Assad’s term in office is almost over, and it appears he’s already began campaigning. Many don’t expect any surprises from the election either, with the opposition calling the election farcical and White House spokesman Jay Carney saying Assad was “making a mockery of his own pretensions to be a democratically elected leader.”
For journalists, activists, and observers of the Syrian war (many of whom can remember Assad getting 97 percent in a 2007 election), it’s a grim yet ridiculous moment. Over the past few days the hashtag #AssadCampaignSlogans has sprung up, that taking a macabre look at an election that will be held after over 100,000 have died, with little real alternative to Assad’s Ba’ath Party, and while accusations of state use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons still resonate.
"My family has megatons of experience" #AssadCampaignSlogans— Free Syrian (@redstatemuslim) April 21, 2014
"Because Syria can’t barrel bomb itself." #AssadCampaignSlogans— Nader (@DarthNader) April 21, 2014
"Vote for the blood Ba’ath". #Assadcampaignslogans— Ahmed Kadry (@AhmedKadry) April 21, 2014
Keep the Homs Fires Burning #AssadCampaignSlogans— AletheiaLibya (@AletheiaLibya) April 21, 2014
Harnessing chemicals to build a brighter future. #AssadCampaignSlogans— Murtaza Hussain (@MazMHussain) April 21, 2014
And another tweet from last week that takes aim at the lack of choice for voters:
For many more, check Twitter.
The Hague, April 22, 2014 by AFP
Syria has handed over 86.5 percent of its chemical weapons, the global chemical watchdog said on Tuesday, amid new claims that Damascus may have launched attacks with an industrial chemical earlier this month.
The latest update comes five days before a self-imposed cut-off of April 27, by which Damascus aimed to have its stockpile removed from Syrian soil, ahead of a June 30 deadline to destroy it.
A further consignment of chemicals was delivered to the main Syrian port of Latakia on Tuesday, raising “the overall portion of chemicals removed from Syria to 86.5 percent of the total”, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said in a statement.
"Today’s consignment was the 17th to date and the sixth consignment since April 4, making a significant acceleration in the pace of deliveries to Latakia this month," the Hague-based OPCW added.
Upon arrival, the chemicals were “immediately” put onto cargo ships and “removed from the country.”
"This latest consignment [is] encouraging," said OPCW director general Ahmet Uzumcu.
"We hope that the remaining two or three consignments are delivered quickly to permit destruction operations to get under way in time to meet the mid-year deadline for destroying Syria’s chemical weapons."
Under the terms of a US-Russia brokered deal reached last year, Syria has until the end of June to destroy its chemical weapons if it wants to ward off the threat of US air strikes.
The agreement was reached after deadly chemical attacks outside Damascus last August which the West blamed on President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
However, new claims have emerged that the regime may have launched attacks with chlorine gas this month, including in an opposition-held part of the country.
Both government and rebels are trading blame for an attack in opposition-held Kafr Zita in the central province of Hama earlier this month.
Activists have also reported other chlorine gas attacks, most recently on Monday in the northwestern province of Idlib.
The latest claims, cited by the United States and France, come as Syria plans to hold a June 3 presidential election, which the United Nations and the Syrian opposition have condemned as flying in the face of efforts to end the country’s three-year war.