Syria’s Bashar Al Assad is facing fresh threats to his beleaguered regime as the country cracks in the face of a burgeoning economic crisis. Protesters marched in the streets of Syria’s restive south on Sunday and Monday, almost a decade after demonstrations there ignited the country’s bloody revolution.
Al Assad – who has seen off the threats of the western-backed Free Syrian Army, and ISIS, is now at the mercy of a failing economy, as Syria's plunging currency sends everyday essentials sky-high, sparking dissent both within his regime and in recaptured towns and cities.
Videos posted to social media showed crowds gathered in the towns of Suwayda, and Tafas in Deraa chanting anti-Assad slogans on Sunday. Demonstrators returned for more on Monday, rallying against the Russian and Iranian interventions in Syria.
The Syrian lira has lost more than half its value since January.
This plunging currency coupled with systemic corruption and years of war has pushed record numbers into dire circumstances across the war-torn country. Salaries in government-held areas barely stretch to cover the cost of a bowl of fruit. The UN says that the number of food-insecure climbed to more than 9 million people last month.
The crisis has driven people onto the streets in the south, almost two years after the government finished battling rebels for control of the areas.
Abu Ismael, 30, who attended the demonstrations in Suwayda but declined to give his real name citing fear of retribution, told The Telegraph “I have lived through a decade of hell. Now all I can afford is a piece of bread. What sort of victory is that?”
Samir Aita, a Paris-based Syrian economist told The Telegraph that the economic crisis could spark a return of violence in pacified areas.
“There is a danger that, with the standard of living diminishing so much, and people being put into poverty, it will be chaos everywhere – even inside the government, it ends in more fighting – this time over the question of money.”
This crisis has raised new questions about the regime. Last month, Rami Makhlouf, a billionaire and among the government’s staunchest allies, publicly rebuked the government after he was ordered to pay millions in extra tax. The incident prompted speculation that Al Assad was facing increasing fissures within his fiercely loyal Alawite base.
As ISIS staked out and later lost its caliphate, and cities fell to the western-backed opposition, Syria’s lira remained largely stable. The economy stuttered, but it did not give out. Now, dependence on neighbouring Lebanon as a conduit for international trade and currency has left Syria floundering as Beirut deals with a financial crisis of its own.
“I don’t know anyone without a bank account in Lebanon,” said Aita.
“The Syrian middle class, and Syrian businessmen, all had deposits in Lebanon. They are estimated at $30-$40 billion – now, since the crisis in Lebanon began last year, all this is stuck in Lebanese banks, just like the Lebanese’s own money,” he added.
Damascus may face a further tightening of the screws later this month when a US sanction regime known as The Caesar Act is expected to be implemented.
Named after the pseudonym of a defected military officer who leaked thousands of images of torture carried out in regime prisons, the legislation gives increased scope to Washington to sanction those doing business with the Syrian regime.
Aita added that its effects were already contributing to the current crisis.
“Even if [President] Trump doesn’t execute it [The Caesar Act], it has been enacted by all the partners of Syria, including the Chinese, everybody is already taking precautions, there is over-compliance.”