Amin stepped into the shower in his home in a suburb of Damascus after putting wood logs in the heater to warm the water to bathe. The bathroom was lit with a lightbulb connected to a battery. As he undressed, he saw the black marks still visible on his body. Ten months have passed since he was held in detention in one secret police facility after another and tortured for suspected anti-regime activity. Memories of the torture rushed through his mind as he showered. He got dressed and stepped out into the frigid house. The power was off. As temperatures dropped to around freezing across Syria, the electricity is cut off for much of the day. Like most Syrians, Amin cannot afford to heat his home.
The latest economic crisis in Syria is hitting the population hard. Syrians have been beset by currency depreciation, soaring prices for basic goods, and energy shortages that have left people to freeze in the harsh winter, leading to growing and increasingly vocal discontent. People are struggling to make ends meet, as has been made clear by interviews conducted over the phone and via messaging apps with a diverse group of civilians and combatants in different areas under Assad regime control — Syrians like Malak, a state employee; Camilla, a Christian student; Oubab, an Alawi supporter of the regime; and others. Many have resorted to working second jobs (some of them illicit), reducing consumption to the bare minimum, even for necessities like food, heating, and healthcare. Multiple interviewees described seeing more child laborers, beggars, prostitutes, and people scavenging through dumpsters looking for food than ever before.
These conversations reveal that despair over the economic situation cuts across boundaries of political loyalty and even encompasses the regime’s base. Syrians, whether regime supporters, opponents, or apolitical, express anger toward those on top who are enriching themselves while people starve. Most Syrians do not trust the government’s ability to dig the country out of the current crisis, but just as many see little hope for an alternative or think the regime will collapse or reform due to economic pressure — the belief underlying the wide-ranging sanctions imposed by the West.
The trigger for the latest depreciation of the Syrian lira in December and January is the economic crisis in neighboring Lebanon, on whose banking system Syria depends. On Jan. 12, 2020, the lira traded on the black market below 1,000 lira to the dollar for the first time. The currency has depreciated further since, causing the price of basic goods such as sugar, tea, and vegetables to shoot up. All areas of Syria have been deeply affected by the economic crisis, but areas under Damascus’ direct control have witnessed a particularly sharp rise in prices due to dependency on trade with Lebanon and lack of access to other currencies, such as the Turkish lira and U.S. dollar, which are used more widely in areas under the control of the opposition, the Turkish-backed factions, and the Syrian Democratic Forces.
The recent depreciation of the lira and subsequent decline in living standards follow years of economic deterioration in Syria. The lira lost about 95 percent of its pre-war value against the dollar as exports plummeted, foreign direct investment cratered, and tourism all but vanished. The destruction and unraveling of business ties underpinning Syria’s useful economy (replaced by a war economy and profiteering), mass flight of the educated elite, and physical destruction of the country all contributed to the economic crisis. Sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union played a less significant role, but their impact is felt particularly in the energy products sector, contributing to shortages of fuel. The sanctions on the banking system imposed by the Arab League, the EU, the U.S., and other countries also increased Syria's dependency on Lebanon as a trading and banking hub, making it more vulnerable to economic shocks in the small neighboring country.
The poverty is crushing. 83 percent of Syria’s population was already living below the poverty line before the latest depreciation-related crisis. Even the supposed victors of the war, those deemed to be regime “loyalists,” are living in misery. As Oubab, an Alawi supporter of the government who lives on the coast, explained, “People are down to the basics, they are not cutting entertainment or things like this. For the vast majority, all of this is gone. They are cutting what’s on their table for breakfast.” Loubna, a state employee who lives near Qardaha and is also a member of the Alawi sect, described the situation in her community: “People can’t even afford to buy bulgur. Coffee and tea are considered a luxury now. Extremely poor people would wait until the end of the day for leftover vegetables, almost rotten, to take them from shops — something that animals would barely eat. In the city [Latakia] I witnessed children and women scavenging through the garbage for food.”
Syrians are now forced to choose between spending money on sustenance and addressing urgent medical needs. The state is unable to provide proper services, even in major hospitals in the capital, which provide the best care available in Syria. “I work in one of the largest hospitals in Damascus, [and] the state does not have the capacity to provide it with medical equipment,” said Abdul Raham, a doctor. “Medical gauze, injections, intubation tubes, many types of medicine, and other medical goods are missing and the patient is required to bring them if they want to receive care. We tell them to go to the pharmacy nearby and buy it.” Wissam, an accountant living in Damascus whose father is a dentist, reported that “recently, some of my father’s patients told him they can no longer come because they don’t have enough money. They apologize and say they prefer losing their teeth rather than failing to buy food for their children.”
The winter cold is hitting the population particularly hard. As in previous winters, the country is experiencing prolonged electricity shortages, but this winter, due to a severe shortage of fuel products (especially gas and diesel), conditions are even worse. “There are sometimes fights that end in death between people waiting in line for gas, diesel, and bread. The police break them up by firing into the air,” reported Malak, a state employee who lives in Deir Ezzor city, destroyed by years of Syrian and Russian air force bombing. Camila, a Christian student residing in Damascus, said, “People here only shower once or twice a week for lack of warm water and electricity.”
Oubab, the regime supporter, described how the population is dealing with the lack of electricity and shortage of gas: “People cover up, using extra blankets and wearing more clothes. If you are lucky and have space in your home, you would burn some chunks of wood.” Oubab is lucky, because he at least has some gas: “But I don’t want to waste the cylinder I have because I’m not sure I’ll be able to get another one soon. We have children coming to visit some days, so we save it for when they come. I just hope the winter ends soon.”
The fuel shortage is also affecting public transportation, widely used by poor and middle-class Syrians who cannot afford their own vehicle or private taxis. Many are now forced to rely on walking instead. Bassam, a student from Hama who studies in Damascus, now usually walks to the university, 25 minutes away, due to the lack of buses. “It’s better to walk than to wait for a bus for one hour or maybe even two,” he said. “The drivers always complain about the government not providing them with enough fuel,” said Bassam. Some drivers simply stop working, while others purchase fuel on the black market, but prices there are three times as high as the fuel sold by the state.
The fuel crisis is affecting daily life in more subtle ways, forcing uncomfortable male-female interactions in the gutted public transport system. When the buses do come, the competition to land a seat is fierce, creating tense moments. “I don’t know how to describe to you the scene when men and women, in a conservative society, scrambled for a seat on the bus, as if it was going to heaven,” Bassam joked.
Rebellious communities particularly affected
The physical and economic devastation of Syria is having an especially severe impact in former rebel-controlled communities reconquered by the regime and its allies. These areas were devastated by years of heavy bombing and have not seen any major reconstruction. The regime does not prioritize reconstruction or restoration of services in these areas, and instead pressures the UN to funnel projects to areas it deems “loyal.” Services, such as water, electricity, and healthcare, have improved only marginally since the armed opposition was expelled, with some exceptions. In some areas, such as eastern Ghouta, even those who prefer the regime and remained behind complain things have gotten worse, due to the cutoff in support provided to these communities by international humanitarian NGOs operating cross-border.
Omar, who lives in western Daraa in a town once controlled by the rebels and later by an ISIS affiliate, reported that many locals cannot even afford the subsidized bread sold in government bakeries. Bread costs 50 lira (5 cents), “but people cannot even afford that. Some families simply are unable to afford daily subsistence.” Electricity comes on for two hours after being cut off for 12 hours, a significantly worse situation than areas that witnessed little fighting: the average there is two hours of electricity after a four-hour cutoff. People cannot afford to heat their home and schools don’t have heating either, reported Omar.
Significant restrictions on freedom of movement remain in some areas that were once under rebel control. For example, men in eastern Ghouta cannot leave unless they receive security approval, which is often not granted, even to patients suffering from life-threatening illnesses who need care only available in nearby Damascus. This means that men in the area who fail to obtain security approval are cut off from the capital, where many Ghouta residents once worked.
The presence of arrest or conscription warrants for large numbers of men in formerly rebel-held areas creates another layer of isolation or disconnection between areas that have historically been economically interconnected. Amer, a former rebel with Fursan al-Jolan, an Israeli-backed Free Syrian Army faction, decided to remain in Jubatha al-Khashab after the regime’s takeover, relying on promises that once he went through the process of “settling his status” with the regime, he would be in the clear. “But they lied to us. They arrested people who left Jubatha at checkpoints. Their fate is still unknown.” Amer and other young men in the village remain trapped inside, where work opportunities are incredibly scarce. “I worked one day per week in the olive groves. I received 2,000 lira (less than $2) daily. This is nothing. And now they don’t need workers anymore” because the olive picking season is over. And yet leaving Jubatha and seeking work in Damascus or elsewhere could mean arrest and torture.
The regime’s reduced ability to support the agricultural sector is preventing locals trapped in their towns from relying on agriculture as a source of income. Hamoudeh, a former rebel in a different faction backed by Israel living in Heet, southern Daraa, is also unemployed. Despite the richness of the soil in the area, there isn’t much work in agriculture because “the government is not providing enough fertilizer like before, and diesel is extremely expensive.” When asked if he can go work in Damascus, he laughed, “I can’t even go to Daraa city and you’re talking about Damascus!” Hamoudeh went through the so-called reconciliation process with the regime and “settled his status,” but then “it turned out that I am still wanted by multiple secret police branches.” So, “we are just scraping by to earn enough to get a packet of cigarettes,” he said.
In the face of these challenges, Syrians have been relying on the ingenuity and social solidarity that have gotten them through the war thus far. Interviewees described planting vegetables in home gardens or on balconies to reduce reliance on purchased goods. Malak in Deir Ezzor city said, “People are building ovens for wood, which they use for heating, and then we cook on top of them too. We also started making bread at home to save money.” Jassem, a regime opponent who lives in the Daraa countryside, said that his uncle who lives in their town and is relatively well-off “asked me and a group of activists to identify families in need and purchased diesel for them, of course without taking any credit for it, as our religion [Islam] prescribes.” Donations have also come from residents of the town who live in the Gulf.
Profiteering, corruption, and sectarianism
The sharp decline in the value of state salaries is prompting state employees to take second jobs, but also to demand bribes, or increase the amounts they were already extracting. Maher, an employee at one of the UN organizations in Damascus, believes that the reason for the crisis is corruption: “I see millions in UN funds that are supposed to go for aid instead going for bribery. This money could have helped the population a great deal.” According to Hussein, who works for a technology company but also as a waiter to help make ends meet, “Bribes increased a lot recently. We used to pay 4,000 lira (just under $4) each month to an employee in the Ministry of Finance” in exchange for paperwork that allows the company to import products and carry out transactions in dollars, but “recently, he asked for 6,500 lira ($6), and other employees are doing the same.”
“The practice of demanding bribes has become widespread to a scary degree in all of Syria’s cities,” said Bassam, the Hamawi university student and regime opponent. Small kickbacks are often necessary to facilitate paperwork: “In all government institutions … employees are refusing to provide service unless you give bribes.” Bribery affects more important matters as well, says Bassam: “Based on personal experience, I can tell you that judges in civilian cases are asking for bribes to affect their rulings.”
Regime supporters, opponents and those in between who reside in regime-held areas blame profiteers close to the regime for contributing to the crisis. The ostentatious display of wealth of the profiteers, and particularly their children, is the subject of much anger on social media and in private. “High-ranking officials, they and their families, have more rights. They roam the city in fancy cars and do whatever they want. Half of the country is dying from hunger, while the sons of officials are arrogantly showing off their wealth,” said Hassan, an Alawi resident of Lattakia.
“In my job, I see how some people come and pay up to 120,000 lira (over $100) in one night, which is double my monthly income,” said Hussein. He supports neither the regime nor the opposition and had to get a second job as a waiter in a fancy restaurant in a posh part of Damascus, which, according to him, serves “terrible food.” “They come for the social status of this place. Most of them are Alawi, young men and women who are not from Damascus. They come with fancy cars and bodyguards and it is obvious they are from warlords’ families.” He says he has to wake up every day at 7am and walk for 40 minutes “because public transportation is expensive and I can’t find a seat most of the time.” He then works from 8am until 10 pm between his two jobs.
The overrepresentation of members of the Alawi sect among the impoverished state employees, now increasingly relying on bribes to make ends meet, and among the profiteers close to the regime, is stoking sectarian rumblings among some Sunnis. Three Sunnis interviewed for this report incorrectly claimed that electricity is more widely available in coastal (Alawi) areas of Syria compared to major Sunni towns such as Hama and Damascus. The key role played by Alawi men in combat on behalf of the Assad regime means that a disproportionate share of them have been killed throughout the war. To reward its loyalists, the regime provides jobs in the public sector to the immediate relatives of “martyrs,” further boosting the representation of Alawis among state employees. The benefits they accrue from these jobs are minimal, but for impoverished Sunnis, the Alawi state petty bureaucrats demanding small kickbacks are creating further resentment. Bassam, who is Sunni, lived in a neighborhood in Damascus with an Alawi majority. He believes that “demanding bribes is a way for Alawis to overcome their living conditions, especially if you keep in mind that most state employees are members of the sect.” While no statistics are available about the sectarian background of state employees, it is unlikely that members of a sect that makes up at most 13 percent of Syrian society can account for most state employees.
Syria’s economic breakdown endows the wealthy and well-connected with massive power to shape the economy to their advantage, extracting whatever is left in Syrians’ pockets. They are not the ones being targeted in the police raids on price-gougers though. Oubab, the regime supporter who lives in a coastal city, described how prices fluctuate rapidly in the market. “Anyone can price anything for whatever price he wants. You go buy 10 eggs with 500 lira, only to find out they’re now selling them for 600. Prices jump daily for no clear reason. Sometimes it’s not related to the dollar.” He explained, “If you have a chicken farm, the biggest one in Tartus, and you are close to regime officials, you may wake up and say, okay, I think I will increase the prices today by 20 percent, because why not?” As small and medium-sized businesses face financial ruin due to the crisis, “the government will go after the small shops, not after the guy who increased the prices in the first place.” He added, “All Syrians are left to do is joke about how Syrians chickens are getting paid in U.S. dollars.” But “for those profiteering, things couldn’t be better,” he remarked bitterly, as he watched his breath condense into vapor in the cold air inside his home. The temperature was close to freezing and the electricity was out.
“People responsible for this situation are those in the upper echelons,” said Loubna, an Alawi state employee, speaking from her home near Qardaha, the birthplace of Hafez and Bashar al-Assad. “Frankly, it’s him [Bashar] and his family, immediate or extended. They don’t care about the people. Also, maybe those few extremely powerful merchants and businessmen.”
The economic crisis has made Syrians increasingly dependent on the regime. Long lines stretch outside state bakeries, which sell bread for 50 lira (5 cents), as more and more citizens cannot afford to purchase bread from private bakeries or shops, which sell it for 100-150 lira (10-15 cents). In an attempt to deal with the crisis, starting in February 2020, the Syrian government began distributing subsidized food products such as sugar and rice using smart cards. These were introduced in August 2019 to sell, at first, petroleum products such as benzene and diesel and, later, cooking gas. The card allows holders to purchase 60 liters of benzene per week for private cars, 150 liters for taxis, and 400 liters of diesel and one cooking gas cylinder for families. The new regulations allow families to purchase up to three kilograms of subsidized rice, four kilograms of sugar, and one kilogram of tea per month — quantities that are insufficient for a typical Syrian family. The regime also took punitive steps, making trade in any other currency punishable by seven years of hard labor, and even banning discussions or reporting on the real (black market) exchange rate. Police raided and closed shops of “profiteers,” most of them small traders struggling to survive.
Opponents of the regime, naturally, do not believe the state can handle the crisis, but even those who prefer the Assad regime over other alternatives see the latest steps as mere band-aids on a gaping wound. “I think after they [the government] fell into this deep hole they cannot really solve anything. The hole is very deep. They are utterly incapable,” said Loubna, the Alawi state employee. “Syria is a failed state, worse than Somalia,” said Oubab, who supports the regime. “Everyone thinks that there is nothing that can be done to fix it. The future plans of most people are to leave the country, or help their kids leave the country when they grow up.”
Sanctions have played a role in Syria’s economic hardship, but they have been largely secondary to the effects of the regime’s self-cannibalizing military and economic policies. These have been felt most acutely in the energy sector, where they have contributed to shortages of fuel. In December, the U.S. Congress passed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which imposes sanctions on companies involved in reconstruction and Syria’s energy sector, as well as any entities involved in the war effort. The impact of the law will likely be felt in the medium and long term, according to economic experts, preventing reconstruction and the return of direct foreign investments. The thinking among U.S. officials, articulated in public and private, indicates that they believe that a popular uprising is unlikely to emerge in Syria. Instead, they are hoping that immense economic pressure is “eventually going to take money away from the war machine,” and that the declining value of state salaries will starve the regime into collapsing from within.
The war machine does not appear to be significantly affected, as the regime channels its limited resources to combat. “God help the people who don’t have heating in this cold weather,” said Jamil, a Syrian Army soldier posted in Palmyra. He was sitting in a warm room, heated by diesel provided by the Army. His family back home in Homs city, where he participated in the peaceful protests in 2011 as a child, was not so lucky. He survived six years of siege under the regime, yet did not appear to be contemplating defection — his family relied on his meager salary for survival. Those who defect from the service are shot dead, if caught, and their relatives are arrested. Laith, a member of a pro-regime Syrian militia, reported that while Syrians are struggling to feed themselves, their service rations have not been affected. The use of fuel for transportation has been restricted, but only far from the front lines. At the beginning of February, the Syrian government announced it was increasing the rations of Syrian Army soldiers by 33 percent.
Abdul Rahman, a doctor employed in a state hospital for a monthly salary of $70 and an ardent regime opponent, does not believe the sanctions will be effective, however. “Even people who hate the regime will not defect from it. We have lost hope in the countries that abandoned the Syrian people, including the United States.” In Iraq, following the imposition of sanctions and years of war, the Iraqi dinar depreciated to such an extent that monthly public worker salaries were worth just $2-3 between 1993 and 1999. State employees worked multiple jobs and slacked off at their official place of employment, but no mass defections occurred.
There do not appear to be cracks in the leadership of the regime, even as they increasingly complain to confidants about challenges in carrying out their business dealings. Those at the top of Syria’s economic pyramid continue benefitting from the war economy and the growing impunity it affords. Looting of areas recaptured from the rebels or ISIS has been systematized to a great degree, benefiting ordinary soldiers, but even more so, high-ranking officers and businessmen. The top raw material export from Syria in 2017 was copper — in a country with no copper deposits. Syrian regime forces systematically rip copper pipes, cables, and wiring from areas they loot. To extract underground power cables, soldiers set gasoline alight on the asphalt to melt it and make it easier for bulldozers to dig the cables out. The smoke from the burning asphalt can be seen for miles.
Even once the war is over, the core of the regime’s oppressive apparatus, the secret police and military police, will likely be able to continue sucking the population dry. A major source of income for members of the secret police is accepting enormous bribes in exchange for information, promises of proper treatment, or release of political detainees. Umm Abdallah, a former resident of Maarat al-Numan, spoke of selling her family home to pay a bribe to secure the release of her son, only to find out in 2019 that he was killed under torture five years earlier. The military police often arrests men wanted for military service for the purpose of extracting bribes from their relatives in exchange for their release.
“The sanctions will cripple almost everyone, but Bashar and his crew,” said Laith, the pro-regime militiaman. When asked about the challenges the elite is facing in doing business, he responded, “Everyone is of course struggling at some level. These people are struggling, but they still have a suit on while poor people have no clean or warm clothing to put on.”
The lower rungs of the regime and state apparatus do not appear to see any alternatives, but sustained financial pressure could potentially lead to a palace coup if those around Assad come to believe that they would be financially better off without him. The crippling sanctions regime placed on Baghdad in the 1990s led to an increase in coup attempts, particularly among officers from al-Anbar, increasingly marginalized by Saddam. All the coups failed. While coups are difficult to predict, the leadership of the Syrian regime, dominated by secret police commanders, is invested in maintaining the repressive apparatus, in whose crimes they are all deeply implicated. The Damascus regime also created multiple secret police branches and various militias to prevent any one actor from amassing too much power and being able to overthrow its head.
The widespread dissatisfaction with the regime’s economic policies has become more visible, yet is circumscribed by a clear red line that those living in regime-held areas see no benefit in crossing, namely calls for a change in the regime itself. Many of the interviewees mention that complaining, online and offline, about services and corruption has become normalized and even speaking about the role of the regime in the crisis is becoming more acceptable. “People have started cursing the regime in the streets,” said Omar, who lives in western Daraa. Comments on pro-regime Facebook pages and groups also often include quite explicit criticism of the regime for its economic policies and corruption. Protests also broke out in Sweida, a Druze-majority area under loose regime control, and there have been small protests in Latakia city and Damascus as well.
The protests and online comments, however, pertain to the government’s economic policies, and do not call for political rights or regime change. They are simply demanding better living conditions, foreswearing what seem like the unachievable goal of political change. Such change is even seen as a threat and source of destabilization for a beaten down population that craves stability above all else after years of war. On the second day of protests in Shahba, Sweida, when a protester shouted “we want to call for freedom,” the microphone was quickly taken away from him. The protesters wanted to focus only on their simple chant, “we want to live.” Others avoid calls for the fall of the regime due to fear. Even those in Sweida who merely called for improvements in living conditions avoided showing their faces in photos posted online.
Nearly all of those interviewed, regardless of political preferences, did not believe a new uprising is likely. “Any protests in Syria will be met with maximum force right away. They are preparing for every scenario and now have much better experience” at crushing protests, said Oubab. In the eyes of his community, he says, the destabilization of the regime through sanctions is intended to install an opposition that is hostile to the mere existence of Alawis. “We will not accept the opposition no matter how bad things get. The opposition is basically threatening us with genocide.”
“People are demoralized. They think that by imposing sanctions, these countries, including the United States, want us to move into the streets, only to be killed,” said Abdul Rahman, the doctor who lives in Damascus and has been jailed multiple times for anti-regime activities. Camila, the Christian student in Damascus, believes that that “the people who are still living in Syria in government areas are too scared to do or say anything, and eight years of living like it has made people numb to it. The people who were brave enough to speak up either lost their lives or had to leave Syria.”
*All names of Syrians in the report have been altered to protect them from regime reprisal.
Elizabeth Tsurkov is a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Follow her on Twitter @Elizrael. Suhail al-Ghazi is a Syrian researcher based in Istanbul. Follow him on Twitter @Putintintin1. The views expressed in this piece are their own.
Photo credit should read LOUAI BESHARA/AFP via Getty Images