Syria’s Economic Collapse: Violence without a Perpetrator?
Syria’s economic crisis has hit its worst point since the onset of the conflict, and Syrians are paying the price. In December, the Syrian lira fell to an all-time low against the dollar, and more than 90% of Syrians are living below the poverty line, unable to secure basic necessities and essential supplies amidst spiraling inflation and fuel shortages.
Syria’s economic troubles stem not only from the ongoing war, but from compounding factors including economic crises in neighboring Lebanon and Turkey, reliance on fuel imported from Iran or smuggled across the Lebanese border, international sanctions, the Central Bank’s damaging monetary policies and corruption, the impacts of the war in Ukraine and domestic agricultural shortages, and more.
SJAC has documented the impact of the economic crisis across government, Turkish, and SDF-held areas in Syria. The picture these interviews paint is bleak.
“Austerity has become the title of life”: Conditions in Government-Held Territory Worsen
Despite these harsh conditions, the Syrian government is imposing austerity measures that will only further the precarious economic situation faced by everyday Syrians. President Bashar Al-Assad’s proposed draft budget for 2023 shows a decrease of nearly 30% when adjusted for inflation. These cuts include reducing subsidies on essentials such as flour, wheat, and oil by nearly 40% in real terms, depriving millions of Syrians access to basic necessities.
Simultaneously, the government has raised the prices of gasoline, due to Damascus’ dependence on oil imported from Iran. A slowdown in these shipments has rendered fuel not just expensive, but widely unavailable. The resulting lack of power has affected nearly all aspects of life in Syria. Many streets are empty of traffic, while bus stations are overcrowded as residents cannot afford to drive or ride motorbikes. Schools are unheated in the winter, and even hospitals are struggling to maintain electricity.
For Syrians in government-held areas who cannot afford fuel, gathering and burning cardboard, plastic, and other garbage is the only option to survive. One interviewee described how “many families have had to keep warm and cook on old shoes.” Inhaling these toxic fumes causes health issues in the short term and farther down the line, yet medical care is highly inaccessible. Twelve years of conflict have decimated the country’s healthcare system, exacerbated by the targeting of medical facilities and personnel as a tactic of war. Many hospitals lack essential medicines and equipment, with pharmacies forced to sell what few medical supplies they can stock at “exorbitant prices” that few can afford.
Another interviewee explained that when his children became sick, he could not afford to take them to a doctor, both because the appointment would cost more than a quarter of his monthly income, and because he could not afford the price of renting a vehicle and paying for gas to go back and forth to the appointment.
Poverty in Abundance
In addition to the fuel shortage, interviewees across several regions communicated their reliance on other forms of aid, including monetary assistance, clothing donations, and food baskets, i.e., units of nutritional aid sufficient to feed a given number of people. Yet in no area of Syria were these aid packages able to fully meet families’ needs.
Whether in areas held by the Syrian government, Turkey and Turkish-backed forces, or the SDF, interviewees described corruption and bribery as impediments to accessing food baskets. Even for those who were able to receive them, the contents of the baskets did not provide recipients with enough nutrients for the duration of the intended period. For those living in rural areas outside of IDP camps, access to aid is even less reliable.
As these testimonies demonstrate, Syrians are exposed to unjust and violent conditions on a daily basis. Average Syrians should not continue to pay the price for the conditions generated by hostile economic policies, corruption, and war. Syrians deserve to live in dignity and have access to food, shelter, livelihoods, and protection.
Economic Violence: Between Justice and Humanitarian Action
The role of transitional justice in addressing economic violence — which includes violations of economic and social rights, corruption, and plunder of natural resources — is not as well understood as it is for physical violence. Yet, this does not mean that there is an absence of perpetrators who are responsible for the violent conditions facing Syrians, the suffering from which can be as miserable as violent conflict itself. For now, humanitarian action is the most feasible recourse for Syrians whose immediate hardships must be alleviated.
States currently imposing sanctions should recalibrate these policies to account for the severity of the humanitarian crisis and seek opportunities to alleviate the unintended impacts of these policies on Syrian communities. The international community should also offer strictly monitored aid to Syria and negotiate a relief mechanism with the Syrian government that can deliver essential aid to all areas of the country.
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