Syria’s darkest hour is now

When Alan George wrote the book Syria: Neither Bread nor Freedom in 2003 following the death of President Hafez al-Assad, he could not have known that this title would perfectly sum up the situation in Syria today. Ten years since the start of the uprising, Syria’s situation is worse than ever, while the world is looking elsewhere.

Syria’s worst year

The night is pitch-black. A photo shows a spotlight shining on people squeezed together inside an iron cage. Some are standing, some are squatting – all are staring anxiously. At first glance, one might think this is a picture from a prison cell, but it is in fact the queue for bread rations in Syria last autumn.

While the cage was subsequently removed, the queues for bread are still long. The government has issued smart cards allowing citizens to buy bread and fuel at subsidized prices. One can wait an average of eight hours to get the daily bread ration and around 48 hours to fill up a vehicle with fuel. In today’s Syria, if you lose your place in the queue, you sleep hungry. There is a sense that hunger is the new weapon of choice for the regime.

‘This is the worst year we’ve faced since the start of uprising’ is a line I heard repeatedly when I visited government-controlled Damascus in late 2020. The shrinking middle class complain that ‘during the bombing and shelling, we were not humiliated to get food’. According to the World Health Organization, the war has left almost 90 per cent of the population below the poverty line. Since 2011, the value of the Syrian pound has collapsed dramatically (the black market value of $1 is 4,000 SYP today, compared to 50 SYP in 2011) meaning that the average Syrian public worker salary is only enough to buy one kilogram of meat. While most Syrians have attempted to cut their expenses by buying only the essentials, for many even the essentials are out of reach.

Ruling over wreckage

Of course, this is all happening against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic. Although this has affected economies around the world, in Syria it has made the situation go from bad to catastrophic.

In Damascus, hardly anyone wears a mask. It is a mixture of war exhaustion and a sense of helplessness. People are struggling to get enough food to survive and don’t care very much about the virus. ‘We are dying anyway, who cares about corona’, one woman told me. People looking for leftover produce at vegetable markets or searching through rubbish bins are now increasingly common sights.

Everything the Syrians revolted against in 2011 has become much worse. The economy is collapsing, one-party rule has turned into mafia-style rule with many different factions, and the tight grip of the security forces now also include regime thugs, militias and warlords. In the past people used to say that every Syrian has a security officer looking over his or her shoulder. Now every Syrian also has someone stealing their bread, dignity and life.

Even regime loyalists who dare to complain about current conditions are punished and sent to prison. In the past few weeks at least 150 loyalists have been detained.

The Syrian regime claims to have won the war. Some outside observers agree, which is highly problematic. Assad’s ‘victory’ is nothing more than the regime ruling over the wreckage of Syria. While the regime claims it wants to restore sovereign rule over the country, the reality is that Syria is a divided country where influence is shared between the regime and the US, Russia, Iran, Turkey, as well as Kurdish and Islamist groups. Each of these players control a bit of the country and, in turn, the fate of Syrians who have no say in their present or future.

The cash-strapped Assad regime – subject to international sanctions and having drained the foreign currency resources – is now attempting to extract whatever it can from its citizens, even those who have fled the country. Every Syrian has to pay $100 cash upon entering the country and anyone who has not served in the army – and does not want to – must pay compensation of up to $7,000 to be exempted from service. In cases where Syrians abroad don’t want to come back and refuse to pay, or cannot pay, the compensation, the Syrian authorities will confiscate any property belonging to their family within Syria and any legal documents they may need, such as passports, will be suspended until payment is made. The list of similar examples is long, adding to the already huge suffering of the 9 million internally displaced Syrians and the 6 million who fled and sought refuge around the world.

No light at the end of the tunnel

Damascus lies in darkness with no fuel and no light at the end of the tunnel. There is no hope for a Syrian salvation from within. There is also no international will to find a solution or even the power to implement resolutions already agreed by the UN, a body many Syrians see as having failed them.

The regional situation has also changed. The rapprochement between Israel and the Gulf countries, among other regional issues, means that Syria is now less of a priority for regional actors like Saudi Arabia. The world is also busy with its own problems. The new US administration, for example, will likely focus more on internal affairs and other priorities in the Middle East, such as Iran.

While the world battles the social and economic impacts of coronavirus, Bashar al-Assad is getting ready to run for a fourth presidential term that would keep him in power for another seven years. The power and influence of his wife, Asma al-Assad, is also increasing. It is believed that she was in fact behind the sidelining of Rami Makhlouf, the president’s cousin and telecoms tycoon.

Syria needs a revolution today more than ever. Although Syrians don’t want to lose hope, those within the country are hungry, drained and fearful, while those outside it are divided. The opposition has failed to deliver change. Civil society is still proactive and doing impressive work providing humanitarian assistance and lobbying the international community. However, the attention of the international community has shifted away from Syria and its role is now largely limited to providing food and basic aid.

There is a generation of children born during the war, some born in Syria, some in Europe and some in refugee camps. Unless there is renewed international commitment, real change in Syria may not happen in their lifetime.