By Mishal Khan
The ongoing Syrian crisis has taken 465,000 lives, injured a million, and has displaced over 12 million of its population. The war was born out of discontent for the Syrian government led by Bashar Al-Assad. The conflict started in 2011 and is now close to a decade long stretch, lasting longer than the two world wars. However, a recent economic crisis is threatening Assad’s stronghold over the country. Could this economic crisis change the course of events in Syria?
According to the United States Central Intelligence Agency, the Syrian economy “declin[ed] by more than 70% from 2010 to 2017.” According to the agency, the economy continued to fall, and the effects have been devastating on the population. Currently, 1 US Dollar is equal to 500 Syrian Pound. High inflation has made it difficult for an average family to survive. Many have chosen to immigrate under challenging conditions to provide a better living standard for their families. CIA claims that the number of Syrian refugees increased from 4.8 million in 2016 to more than 5.4 million. The economic ramifications due to Covid-19 have worsened the situation, and protestors have once again taken to the streets to demand stability in Syria. These protests resemble the demonstrations that marked the beginning of the Syrian civil war. The economic crisis has also created a rare rift between the ruling class in a manner that has never been seen before. To understand the importance of this shift, it is crucial to examine the events that set this crisis in motion.
The root of the civil war starts from the Arab Spring in 2011. After Tunisia and Egypt’s presidents lost their power, many pro-democracy activists in Syria became hopeful that a similar fate could be achieved in their country. Inspired by the Arab Spring protests, many Syrians took to the streets for peaceful demonstrations. These protests were tranquil largely because people feared the police might arrest them. Khaled Yacoub Oweis, a senior correspondent for Reuters, describes the scene stating, “for the first time, placards other than those glorifying Syria’s ruling elite and the ‘historic achievements’ of the Baath Party are being raised in the towns of the strategic Hauran plain south of Damascus. A single word is etched on them – Freedom.”
Previously, Assad had shut down protests due to censorship, but this time his efforts were futile as the movement kept getting stronger. To take back control, Assad sent armed troops upon the protestors. Under Assad’s guidance, the troops cruelly responded to the demonstrations by killing and imprisoning many protestors. This marked the beginning of civil unrest in the country. In the aftermath of the peaceful protests, former military members reported a new rebel group. The group was called The Free Syrian Army, and their goal was to overthrow the government. Syria also suffered from droughts in 2007 and 2010 that exacerbated the city’s poor living conditions, furthering poverty, and social unrest. Syria was slowing slipping into war, and the economy had begun its descent.
Although the unrest’s initial start was to overthrow the oppressive government regime, a sectarian war was also brewing. While most Syrian Muslims are Sunni, members of the Alawi sect, a group that Assad is a part of, primarily dominated power positions in the country. This created further divisions between the two groups. Foreign intervention has also played a significant role in the division of the country. In the middle-eastern region, the Shia-based governments of Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon based Hezbollah have supported Assad.
On the other hand, Sunni majority countries of Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia have supported the anti-Assad factions. World powers such as Russia, France, and the United States have also participated in the conflict by carrying out attacks against ISIL, an Islamist military organization declared as a terrorist group by the United States. ISIL has carried out terrorist attacks on American and French soils, and the countries have retaliated by launching attacks. The majority of ISIL headquarters are located in Syria, which is why the country has become the focal point of attacks.
These events bring us to the present day where Syria’s economic downfall has ramped up. However, there has been a shift in how this situation is turning out compared to the previous years. As mentioned previously, Assad’s sect largely dominated positions of power in the country and kept the wealth amongst themselves. However, due to the economic crisis, the elite are now penniless and speaking up against Assad. According to Reuters, Syrian tycoon Rami Makhlouf, a long-time ally of Assad, spoke up against the president in a rare move. In a video posted on social media, Makhlouf called Assad’s state security forces “inhumane.”
According to Reuters, this was a significant event because Makhlouf had helped Assad avoid Western sanctions on his military equipment and goods. Without Makhlouf backing Assad’s military purchases, Assad’s security forces could possibly weaken. If the once brutal security forces that Assad so heavily relied on have become fragile, his rule could be standing on shaky ground. Reuters states that “Makhlouf’s public defiance showed that a threat to Assad’s iron rule may ultimately come, not from the battlefield, but from once-loyal allies and Syria’s collapsing economy.”