Syria’s Economy and Sanctions

Syria’s economic situation- particularly in areas held by the Syrian government- has only continued to deteriorate with time, and with this deterioration, living standards have continued to diminish. Perhaps the most familiar


Syria’s power dynamic is shifting

The process toward a Turkish-Syrian rapprochement may lose momentum as a top aide to Turkish President Recep Erdogan threatened to derail it. On Saturday, Ibrahim Kalin, presidential advisor on foreign policy, stated during a media briefing in Ankara that the


The earth moved over Turkey and Syria


The earth moved. What Turkey and Syria went through was doomsday in the strictest sense. They are currently facing not only the largest disaster of their history but also the largest on these lands in the past thousand years.

An earthquake is an intense shaking of Earth’s surface. The shaking is caused by movements in Earth’s outermost layer. On Monday 6th February, two massive earthquakes with a 7.9 and 7.5 magnitude hit south-eastern Turkey and south-western Syria.

According to reports, the death toll in Turkey and Syria now stands at 30,000 people, with more than 75,500 injured. But UN relief chief Martin Griffiths has said, “Turkey-Syria quake deaths to top 50,000.” Over 12,000 buildings have collapsed in Turkey alone, and, with many trapped beneath the rubble. We expect that these shocking figures will rise further, adding to the devastation in a region already roiling from years of conflict and economic and humanitarian crises.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared a three-month state of emergency across 10 provinces as rescuers in Turkey and Syria struggled to find survivours.  “Thousandsof people have been injured. They have lost everything and are traumatised by the terrible earthquake and the series of aftershocks,” explains Myriam Abord-Hugon, HI’s Syria program director.

“It is currently winter in the affected region and people are facing cold, rain and bad weather after losing their homes and belongings. There is an urgent need to provide them with aid.” The earthquake has affected 23 million people, including 1.4 million children, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

George Graham, Chief Executive of Humanity & Inclusion UK has said, “We expect a huge need for rehabilitation. Many of these injuries can worsen or turn into permanent disabilities if people do not receive appropriate rehabilitation services such as physiotherapy and prosthetic fitting. We know from responding to disasters in other countries that one of the heaviest legacies of this earthquake will be its psychological impact.”

He further added, “Surviving an earthquake can be a deeply traumatising experience – and it will be especially so for people who have already endured a decade of war in Syria. Psychological first aid will be an essential component of the emergency response.”

Earthquake rescue team from 75 countries including Bangladesh have arrived in Turkey and Syria. The team will cooperate with the local government, the embassy in Turkey, the United Nations and other agencies on missions, including setting up a temporary command, carrying out personnel search and rescue and providing medical aid, the international media reports said.

“There is not even a single person here. We are under the snow, without a home, without anything,” said Murat Alinak, whose home in Malatya had collapsed and whose relatives are missing.  He was wailing, “What shall I do, where can I go?”

Monday’s magnitude 7.8 quake, followed hours later by a second one almost as powerful, toppled thousands of buildings including hospitals, schools and apartment blocks, injured tens of thousands, and left countless people homeless in Turkey and northern Syria.

The sole border crossing used to shuttle life-saving aid from Turkey into conflict-ravaged Syria has seen its operations disrupted by the deadly earthquake that struck the two countries, according to the UN. “The cross-border operation has itself been impacted,” Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN humanitarian agency OCHA, told reporters in Geneva.

A spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Stephane Dujarric, said the Bab al-Hawa crossing itself is “actually intact.” However, the road that is leading to the crossing has been damaged, and that’s temporarily disrupted our ability to fully use it,” Dujarric said.

Now areas surrounding that one border crossing have suffered significant infrastructure damage, while the aid workers on the ground have been hit by the catastrophe.

Reporting from the site of destroyed multistorey building in the southern Turkish city of Adana, FRANCE 24’s Jasper Mortimer says rescue teams are working gingerly with winches to cut concrete slabs and clear the debris. “Every hour or so, they stop working and they tell everybody to shut-up. They then call down into the rubble, asking people to make a sound if they can hear them. Then after a few minutes, they resume work,” explained Mortimer.

The US military aircraft carrying the teams and equipment were to land at Incirlik Air Base in the southern Turkish province of Adana and deploy immediately to hard-hit urban centers to save as many people as possible, Allen said.

Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad has asked European countries to send aid. In an interview with the Lebanese Al Mayadeen TV, Mekdad said the sanctions are no excuse to avoid sending aid to quake-hit Syria. Syrian officials have long argued that western sanctions have harmed reconstruction efforts in areas where the 12-year conflict has subsided. The US and European nations have said that sanctions aim to pressure the Syrian government into a political process that could end the conflict. Al Mayadeen TV did not specify if the aid call was also for the opposition-held regions in Syria.

Hundreds of shipping containers were ablaze at the Iskenderun Port earlier last Tuesday, sending thick black smoke into the sky and shutting down operations, forcing freight liners to divert vessels to other ports.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called Syria’s Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday to offer condolences and support, their offices announced, in the first official exchange between the two leaders. Ahmed Fahmy, spokesman for the Egyptian presidency, said Sisi “expressed his sincere condolences” in the wake of the earthquake. “President Sisi reiterated Egypt’s solidarity with Syria and its brotherly people in this calamity. He also directed that all possible aid be provided to Syria,” Fahmy said.

Syrian state news agency SANA said “President Assad thanked Egypt for this position, which reflects the fraternal relations that bind the two brotherly countries.” While Egyptian state media noted the presidents’ call was their first since Sisi assumed office in 2014, the two countries have maintained relations during Syria’s 12-year war, unlike some other Arab countries who severed ties with Damascus. Egypt’s official position on Syria has called for “a political solution”, steering clear of discussing the fate of Assad himself, whose departure has long been demanded by several Arab leaders.

Turkey’s maritime authority said on Monday that the port, located on the Mediterranean coast in the southern province of Hatay, was damaged due to the earthquake. Turkish shipping agency Tribeca said some cargo areas of Limak port at the Iskenderun complex were still on fire and the terminal was closed to all operations until further notice. Container shipping firm AP Moller Maersk said all operations at the port have been halted until further notice.

Raed al-Saleh told Reuters urgent help was needed from international groups for the rescue effort by the organisation known as the White Helmets in rebel-held northwest Syria, where hundreds were killed and injured. “Every second means saving lives and we call on all humanitarian organisations to give material aid and respond to this catastrophe urgently,” he said.

Germany will provide an additional million euros to the Malteser International aid group and is working to make more financial aid available to other humanitarian partners helping quake victims in Syria, said Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.

Speaking at a news conference in Berlin on Tuesday with Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirsojan, Baerbock added that Germany is also pushing for humanitarian access to Syria. The United Nations children’s agency said on Tuesday that the earthquake and aftershocks that destroyed scores of buildings in Turkey and Syria may have killed thousands of children.

Ghana international winger Christian Atsu has been found alive after being buried under rubble by the earthquake, the vice president of his club Hatayspor told media on Tuesday. He had been reported missing in Turkey’s Hatay province.

In the southern Turkish city of Adana, about 200 kilometres from the earthquake’s epicentre, “about 10 buildings have collapsed, all of them high-rises, so there are victims here. There are rescue teams here, but it is stable enough and secure enough for the city to have become a hub for rescue teams arriving not only from all around Turkey but also internationally,” FRANCE 24’s Shona Bhattacharyya reports.

A large fire that broke out at a section of a port in an earthquake-stricken city in southeast Turkey is raging for a second day. Television images Tuesday showed thick black smoke rising from burning containers at Iskenderun Port on the Mediterranean Sea, in the city of Iskenderun. Reports said the fire was caused by containers that toppled over during the powerful earthquake that struck southeast Turkey on last Monday.

In Gaziantep, a Turkish city home to countless refugees from Syria’s decade-old civil war, rescuers picking through the rubble screamed, cried and clamoured for safety as another building collapsed nearby without warning. The initial earthquake was so large it was felt as far away as Greenland, and the impact is big enough to have sparked a global response.

In the city of Kahramanmaras in southeastern Turkey, eyewitnesses struggled to comprehend the scale of the disaster. “We thought it was the apocalypse,” said Melisa Salman, a 23-year-old reporter. “That was the first time we have ever experienced anything like that.”

Strained medical centers quickly filled with injured people, rescue workers said. Some facilities had to be emptied, including a maternity hospital, according to the SAMS medical organisation.

The earthquake piled more misery on a region that has seen tremendous suffering over the past decade. On the Syrian side, the area is divided between government-controlled territory and the country’s last opposition-held enclave, which is surrounded by Russian-backed government forces. Turkey, meanwhile, is home to millions of refugees from the civil war.

Bitterly cold temperatures could reduce the time frame that rescuers have to save trapped survivours, Steven Godby, an expert in natural hazards at Nottingham Trent University, told AP. The difficulty of working in areas beset by civil war would further complicate rescue efforts, he noted.

Currently, there are over a million people who are left without homes. There is also a great need to work in many fields, including the reconstruction of cities and psychological support.

They are at the bottom of the ladder, but great nations hold a great sense of endurance. We hope they will overcome this disaster and emerge stronger than before.

Syria’s power dynamic is shifting


The process toward a Turkish-Syrian rapprochement may lose momentum as a top aide to Turkish President Recep Erdogan threatened to derail it. On Saturday, Ibrahim Kalin, presidential advisor on foreign policy, stated during a media briefing in Ankara that the Russian push for peace did not mean that Ankara was abandoning the option of launching a new campaign in Syria. 

To quote Kalin, “A ground operation is possible any time, depending on the level of threats we receive.” But he also added, “Turkey never targets the Syrian state or Syrian civilians.” 

This may seem like crying “wolf.” But Kalin’s comments came two days after Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad said that any future talks with Ankara should aim for “the end of occupation” by Turkey of parts of Syria. 

Syrian Foreign Minister Fayssal Mikdad since said at a joint press conference in Damascus on Sunday with the visiting Iranian FM Hussein Amir Abdollahian that a suitable environment must be created for Syrian-Turkish meetings at higher levels if necessary, and that any political meetings must be built on specific foundations that respect Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and the presence of the armed forces as a real guarantor of the Syrian and neighbouring lands, and this is the thing that determines the possibility of holding such meetings. 

Abdollahian’s own remark was equally revealing: “Syria and Turkey are important countries in the region, and Tehran has distinguished and good relations with both of them, and when there were threats of Turkish military attacks against northern Syria, we worked to prevent that, and we are happy that the diplomatic efforts we made led to dialogue taking the place of war.” 

Plainly put, Tehran underscored that it has equity in any Syrian-Turkish normalisation. Arguably, Iran creates space for Syria to negotiate with Turkey. Iran is a balancer in the Syrian-Russian equations also, which has its complexities too. Basically, Tehran regards Damascus as part of the “axis of resistance” that is integral to Iran’s regional strategies. 

Significantly, this is also the thrust of a commentary recently by the influential NourNews which is wired into Iran’s national security establishment.

Indeed, Assad told Abdollahian that Damascus is keen on “continuous communication and coordination of positions” with Iran, especially since the latter was one of the first countries to stand by the Syrian people in their war against terrorism, and furthermore, such coordination is of the utmost importance today to “achieve common interests” when the two countries are witnessing “accelerated regional and international developments.”  

During Abdollahian’s visit, Syria and Iran agreed to renew an economic strategic agreement, which would be formalised during a forthcoming visit by President Ebrahim Raisi to Damascus. 

Apart from the crucial security role by tens of thousands of Iran-backed fighters in tilting the balance of forces in the Syrian conflict in Assad’s favour, Iran has also been a critical economic lifeline for Syria, delivering fuel and credit lines worth billions of dollars to help Damascus offset crippling Western-led sanctions. Syria and Iran signed almost a dozen economic deals in 2019 as part of the long-term strategic economic agreement to bolster their commercial ties.

Moscow may have pursued Ankara’s interests more in its relations with Syria lately. But Moscow’s shrinking strategic band width and diminished influence in Syria in the downstream of the Ukraine conflict does not translate as retrenchment. 

The redeployment of the Wagner Group from Syria’s southwest and far eastern regions to Ukraine, the transfer of a Syria-based S-300 missile defence system to Ukraine and even possible withdrawal of additional military assets from Syria can only be seen as tactical shift in Russia’s military footprint in Syria.  

Plainly put, Iran’s role is a factor of stability in the Syrian situation lest an empowered Turkey feels tempted to expand its presence in Syria. Equally, Russia also plays a trapeze act, leveraging its presence in Syria to encourage a conflicted Israel to navigate a precarious balance between its interests in Syria and its support for Ukraine and the West. 

The bottomline is that in the wake of the Ukraine conflict, the Syrian conflict’s power dynamic is dramatically shifting. On the one hand, there is a strategic “pull” toward a greater possibility of Damascus, Moscow, Tehran and Ankara working together to push US forces out of northeast Syria. 

On the other hand, the power dynamic with Russia may be shifting in Ankara’s favour lately. Erdogan’s capacity to hold Swedish and Finnish accession to NATO hostage; Erdogan’s intensified threats to launch another incursion into northeast Syria; Turkiye’s role as the sole custodian of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits which regulate the access to the Black Sea — these are factors that may encourage Erdogan to press his demands more forcefully once the Turkish elections slated for June get over and Russia’s primary leverage on Turkiye, which is economic rather than military, loses its potency. 

Make no mistake that Erdogan’s top priority will be the dismantling of the Kurdish project in northeast Syria. How Erdogan goes about it is the whole point. It may not be a bad thing for Russia since any such shift in the Syrian conflict landscape would ultimately cut down the Kurds, threaten the viability of the US-Kurdish partnership and eventually pressure the US to pull out of Syria. 

But the catch is, it may entail another limited Turkish invasion of Syria. Should Erdogan believe that his victory in the forthcoming election depends on another Syrian incursion, Russia will be unlikely to prevent the attack. Hence Moscow’s positive attitude toward Erdogan’s proposal on a trilateral meeting between Turkey, Russia, and Syria to address Turkiye’s security concerns. 

Any aggressive Iranian tactics at this point may weaken Russia’s capacity in fostering a Turkish-Syrian rapprochement. But then, the mitigating factor here is that in the present conditions under sanctions, Russia and Iran also have deepened their strategic ties well beyond their cooperation in Syria. 

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the semi-official Iranian news agency Tasnim reported on Sunday quoting an influential member of the Majlis that Tehran expects to take delivery of a number of Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets in the coming months plus “a series of other military equipment from Russia, including air defence systems, missile systems and helicopters.”

Su-35 is a 4++ generation twin-engine, super-maneuverable fighter jet and a game changer. It is for the first time since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 that Iran will be receiving advanced cutting-edge weaponry to boost its deterrence capability.  

Syria’s Economy and Sanctions


Syria’s economic situation- particularly in areas held by the Syrian government- has only continued to deteriorate with time, and with this deterioration, living standards have continued to diminish. Perhaps the most familiar indicator of this economic decline is the deterioration of the value of the Syrian pound: one U.S. dollar is now equivalent to more than 5000 Syrian pounds.

The continuing drop in the economic situation and living standards is in turn partly linked to what is one of the most contentious issues of Syria policy: namely, the imposition of extensive Western sanctions on the Syrian government in a bid to put economic pressure on it. The case for sanctions has been most concretely framed in terms of pressuring the government to accept a political ‘transition.’ Yet there is little evidence that this approach is having any success, as there is no sign that the government has made any concrete concessions because of sanctions. Nor has the government indicated any willingness to discuss a ‘transition.’

The sanctions are not the only reason or necessarily the main reason for Syria’s economic and living standards decline. Within government-held areas also, multiple opinions exist regarding the reasons for the downturn in quality of life: some follow the government’s line and complain that the sanctions (often dubbed the ‘economic siege/war on Syria’) are the sole/primary reason, whereas others hold a more complicated view and point to failings on the part of the government.

However, even among the latter camp, there is no suggestion of launching a new ‘revolution’ and mass protest movement in a bid to bring down the government, and while the criticisms of the government policies and corruption can be scathing, they often stop short of criticising the president Bashar al-Assad. Instead of a new ‘revolution’ and mass protest movement, the ongoing deterioration in the economic situation and living standards seems to me (based on my observations of friends inside Syria) to be just prompting more people to leave Syria in a bid to migrate to Turkey and Europe- something that is hardly seen as desirable for these states. Others head to countries like the UAE and Iraq in search of work.

While it should not be imagined that sanctions relief will lead to new economic prosperity for people in Syria, there should be more serious debate about sanctions, particularly when they become very sweeping and broad in nature. Specifically, what are the aims and goals? If there are concrete goals and aims, are they actually achievable through sanctions? If not, then what is the point behind them? Are they simply imposed to make it seem as though ‘something is being done’ and feel better about oneself? Is such catharsis appropriate in a policy context, particularly in light of their costs for the ordinary population? Should sanctions relief aimed at lessening the burdens on the ordinary population necessarily be equated with ‘normalisation’ and somehow giving money to the government?

The interview below was conducted on 29 October 2022 with a friend who resided in Idlib until not too long ago and currently resides in Jaramana, Damascus, where he has recently opened a store selling goods. This friend subscribes to the view that sanctions are the main cause of Syria’s woes in economy and living standards. The interview is slightly edited and condensed for clarity. Any parenthetical insertions in square brackets are my own.

Q: Can you speak about your shop and the types of goods you are selling and their prices?

A: I have rented a very small shop: 4 [square] metres approximately in a simple neighbourhood in the town of Jaramana. The value of the rent is 62,000 Syrian pounds [monthly] which equates to 12 dollars. Note that the renting of shops in the streets of Jaramana in Damascus countryside reaches 100 dollars. I have put on display in it some food goods and cleaning items only: i.e. very necessary items. The prices of the food goods in Syria are continually rising every week more or less because of the decline in the value of the Syrian pound. From here one knows that the purchase rate is declining daily.

Q: Could you give me the prices of some of the goods in your shop today?

A: Spicy sardines: 36,000 Syrian pounds. Litre of plant oil: 16,000. Kilo of children’s milk, the type of our milk: 27,000. Half kilo of handkerchiefs: 7,000.

Q: In your opinion and the opinion of the people of Jaramana, what are the reasons for the rise in prices?

A: Solely the economic siege on the state imposed by America and its followers, as well as what is known as the Caesar Law. In addition the American occupier’s occupation of the Syrian Jazeera area represented in the provinces of Hasakah and Raqqa and the richer portion economically of Deir al-Zor (because of the resources these areas possess) is certainly the reason.

Q: Can you speak about the impacts of the sanctions on your life?

A: They have almost entirely destroyed my life. Like me are 90% of the people of Syria and not only Jaramana. I used to receive a salary in 2010 of 18,500 Syrian pounds: i.e. what equates to 350 dollars. This was solely by the grace and efforts of Mr. President Bashar al-Assad. But what happened in Syria under the moniker of freedom was the beginning of the destruction of my precious state Syria. Let all know that I am a primary school teacher and I am not a political actor in my state. Rather I speak the truth and God is witness to my words.

Q: There are those who say that the sanctions and economic pressure will lead to a political transition and realisation of justice in Syria. What is your opinion on that?

A: I as a Syrian citizen speak for myself only. I say that this is a mistaken theory and will not hit the mark and will not bring about benefit. The Syrians have offered thousands of martyrs to protect Syria and its great president. They will not yield to material matters whatever the price may be. For the economy will improve if God wills by the efforts of the people and the government.

Q: Do you have a message to the West regarding the sanctions?

A: My message is political and not economic. Oh good humanitarian peoples, and I have no quarrel with your humanity. Rise up against your political rulers, tear them our from their roots, and make rule belong to humanitarianism in Europe. I also tell you: you must liberate yourselves from your servitude to America immediately before it’s too late. I mean here what the war in Ukraine will come to.

Q: And the sanctions must be lifted?

A: Of course Mr. Aymenn. When I ask them to be liberated and rid of servitude, the sanctions will of course be lifted.

Q: And you as a person displaced from Idlib originally, what is the truth of the situation there?

A: The truth I know well because I was living there until recently: the group of gangs large in number and supported by the same states that impose the economic sanctions on the state are the ones that rule a people who yearn for freedom: that is, freedom to live with the state, and not the freedom that their rulers and their supporters claim in Idlib and northern Syria. I am wholly confident that 85% of the people of Idlib and the north want to return to the Syrian state: their state in whose embraces they were raised and in whose universities they studied.