By Syrian Prometheus* for Syria Comment
Anyone who lived through the failed revolution of the 1980s, or the “incidents”, as we call them, will tell you that this current revolution still has a long way to go. Hafiz al-Assad, or “Senior”, used the iron fist for three years before he brought the people back under his firm control. It took a further seven years of severe isolation, privation, and an eventual rapprochement with the US over Iraq (Dessert Storm) before the populace began to experience a bit of relief – the economy loosened up and a measure of civic comfort returned to everyday life.
So, is this time different from the eighties? We have not even begun to reach the upper limit of civilian casualties and economic pain that this conflict will exact.
The economic costs of this revolution will be staggering. International banking institutions have already stopped accepting US dollar payments from Syrian merchants. No consideration is being given to the legitimacy and good reputation of individual merchants. It seems that banks have decided that sanctions against the Syrian government imply an embargo on private citizens as well. This is causing severe commercial dislocation as importers whose businesses are overwhelmingly denominated in US dollars scramble to pay in other currencies. By doing so, they are exposed to foreign exchange risks that they were not counting on. And these costs are only the tip of the iceberg. Merchants are being battered by the collapse in demand. They importing goods in much smaller amounts and selling under more restrictive terms that they used to. Only the most necessary staples have retained their markets. The velocity of money is slowing down to a crawl (much as happened during the financial crisis on the global stage in 2008). Reduced monetary velocity can only be offset by printing money to keep the economy primed to the same level. But, printing money is inflationary (not in a good way in this case). The next stage is likely to be stagnation. There are many bankruptcies looming. This, of course, means layoffs which will bring even less demand and will establish a vicious cycle of contraction, unemployment, and failure.
Many in Syria believe that this effort at revolution will be different from the revolt of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Conventional wisdom states that the telecommunication technology has changed the playing field, like it did in Egypt, and that the Syrian leadership must undertake a different calculus. The world is watching this time around. Yeah? So what?
Many in the opposition and the silent majority (cowards like me who yearn for a better future) observe that Syria’s isolation is much more severe than it was during Senior’s era of the eighties. That is true; Europe, the US, and much of the Arab World have declared their opposition to the Syrian regime and demand that the Assads leave power (I would like to know where to). With continued embargoes, sanctions, and economic pressures, the expectation is that the Syrian leadership will either be overcome by fear and throw down its guns, or develop a conscience when it notices that the sanctions are exacting a heavy toll on Syria’s most vulnerable citizens (Much as they did in Iraq between 1991 and 2003).
Sanctions are going to be a very interesting case study. They will provide a fascinating data base for future historians and policy wonks. Too bad that the Syrian people will pay the price with their innocent blood. In all likelihood, the regime has analyzed its odds carefully, both in terms of its monetary resources and its ability to turn up the level of pain.
It knows how much money it needs to pay for a protracted war against the population. To borrow a term from the “Godfather” movie, it is time to go to mattresses. The regime will:
- Liquidate its opponents in such a way as to provide the most horrifying abject lesson to those of us who are cowards and readily intimidated. This explains the daily tales and videos of brutish behavior.
- Wait for high-profile individuals to step out of line and make an example of them. The commercial elites are not only scared about losing their wealth and businesses that many have built up over generations of hard work, but they are scared of losing their lives.
- Wait. Then wait. And when you are done waiting, wait some more. This is a lesson that Senior probably drilled into Junior. European and US elections are coming up soon. Syria is likely to be demoted relative to other issues for US politicians. The “Pocket Book” is the number one issue over the next two years. The number two issue is…. Not sure there is a number two issue. Back to waiting; the regime will not be concerned with the numbers of casualties. It is said that one of its leading generals has mused about the expiration of a million Syrians during these trying times and was not greatly concerned.
- Sow the seeds of regional conflict. Reestablish the PKK connections. Push Hizbullah’s buttons in Lebanon. See if Hamas can start a fracas. It is always worthwhile finding out if other existential issues can distract the people and bring them back in line.
Syria is being shaken down by a regime which acts remarkably like an organized-crime racket. To assume that it would respond to the tools of diplomacy and public opinion is naively optimistic. It is a parasitic entity; it has latched onto its host and is not likely to know that it is in trouble until the host has died.
The regime is not going to respond to the delusional premise that peaceful demonstrations work. It is probably thinking about “fish-in-a-barrel”.
One way to stop the slaughter is to let the Sunni population arm itself. the Alawites have already done so. However, in a recent post, you have pointed out several reasons as to why that will not be the case. The BRICS will not permit it – being so concerned with the rule of international law. The West does not want another Afghanistan that much closer to home.
But, here is the rub, the Syrian on the street, being shot at, wondering where his sibling or parent has been locked up, feeling angst about impending starvation, and reeling about his family’s disastrously bleak prospects will not understand why he has been forsaken. HE WILL NOT FORGIVE!
Syria is already in a state of civil war. It just happens that one side has all the weapons.
The continued poverty and the absence of the rule of “fair” law will continue to corrode the social fabric of the nation. If anyone thought that corruption and graft were widespread today, just wait. Moral standards will become so twisted in the coming year and the need for survival so strong that the Syrian social contract will metastasize into something unimaginable. Society as we know it will collapse. A radical Islamization can potentially stave off such a collapse. But, it remains to be seen what brand of conservative Islam will prevail.
Couple the significant private sector slowdown with reduced receipts from oil and tourism and you will be staring economic collapse in the face.
Personal credit cards of all Syrians are no longer being processed.
I have often wondered about places like Saddam’s Iraq, North Korea and other similar locals. How could a country survive and move forward while millions are starving? How come the people do not leave the country and see how the rest of the world works and then bring back such exotic ideas as freedom, prosperity and self determination? How come the people have not risen up to throw off the yoke of a bankrupt ideology whose only purpose is to perpetuate itself through a cult of personality?
Well, the leader does not care about the people whose lives are nothing but value-less ephemeral playthings. Really, not one iota.
The populace is either too weak, too afraid, or simply does not know better. Things are so bleak that a father is forced to decide between doing what is right and feeding his starving children. One can argue that doing the right thing is the right thing to do. A small bit of sacrifice now is all that is needed to make sure that the value of future gains for the this person’s children and his neighbors are worth the price that is being asked now. Alas, this is not a rational matter. Given the immediate cost, this person will in all likelihood sell his soul to the devil before making the necessary sacrifices.
This is the wager that the Syrian leadership is making.
How does one get off this train wreck? Damned if I know. The regime has led us down a most destructive path. The damage is done. What remains to be seen is how high the price is going to be.
Stone Age, here we come.
* Syrian Prometheus is a Syrian-American businessman.