Suha Ahmad lives on the outskirts of the port city of Tartus in north-west Syria. Her husband was killed in March while fighting on the government side in the war, her mother and father are dead, and she is the youngest in her impoverished family. ‘When my husband was killed, I was pregnant,’ she said, ‘and my parents-in-law decided to keep me with them and marry me to my husband’s youngest brother, which is the social norm here. But the idea disgusted me whenever I thought about it. I borrowed some money from a friend and had an abortion at a private clinic. After that, my parents-in-law expelled me from their house.’ She wanted to go back to her parents’ old home, but her brother had taken it over. He said he couldn’t afford to keep her – money was tighter than ever because of the calamitous economic situation following the US embargo – so she would have to look after herself. ‘Our areas have become like a jungle where nobody helps anybody else,’ she says. ‘I am staying in a mosque in a small room where carpets and furniture are stored, begging food from people.’
All over Syria people are increasingly desperate. Even before the latest US sanctions, imposed this summer, 83 per cent of the population were living below the poverty line. Late last year President Trump signed the Caesar Civilian Protection Act, named after a Syrian military photographer who had documented the government killings of thousands of people and smuggled the pictures out of the country. The new US law threatens sanctions against any individual or company in any country doing business with Syria and imposes what amounts to a tight economic siege on the entire population. The measures came into force on 17 June, but their impending implementation had already demolished much of what remained of the economy. The Syrian currency has collapsed and the price of basic foodstuffs like wheat, rice and bulgur has tripled while earnings remain the same – for those who still have jobs. The law is supposed to protect civilians by ‘compelling the government of Bashar al-Assad to halt murderous attacks on the Syrian people and to support a transition to a government in Syria that respects the rule of law’. This gives a soothing humanitarian guise to the sanctions, but is deeply misleading about their effect. Authoritarian elites, in Syria as elsewhere, are largely immune to embargoes and may even profit from them because they have the power to monopolise scarce resources. The poor and the powerless, the great majority of Syrians after nearly a decade of war, are those who suffer the full impact of sanctions. As Suha Ahmad was shocked to discover, even in a country where family loyalties are at the heart of the social system, people on the edge of starvation may no longer be able to afford to feed a single extra person. ‘Famine could very well be knocking on the door,’ the World Food Programme recently said of Syria.
Suha Ahmad’s family was always short of resources, but middle-class professionals are struggling to survive too. Hadeel Ali works at Tishreen University in Latakia. Like other Syrians quoted in this article, she doesn’t want her real name published: the university, she says, is ‘controlled with an iron grip’ by the intelligence agencies. Like many people in this part of north-west Syria, she is an Alawite, a member of the Shia sect to which Assad and most of the Syrian leadership belong. This would once have brought benefits in terms of jobs and salaries, but for those without strong political connections, religious allegiance no longer confers economic benefits. The Alawites have been the backbone of the government forces over the last nine years and have suffered heavy casualties in the fighting: a hundred thousand of them have been killed, 4 per cent of the community.
Hadeel has worked at the university for 15 years, but her salary is now forty thousand Syrian pounds a month – about $18. There are no other jobs available in a city which lost many of its men in the war. ‘I am still single and help my mother. My father died 12 years ago. I lost my brother four years ago in the fight against the opposition in Idlib.’ She has another brother, married with two children, who works in Latakia’s port for the equivalent of $30 a month – scarcely enough to meet the needs of his family.
In a country already worn down by war the Caesar Act came into force at the worst possible time, just as the coronavirus reached the Mediterranean coast. But most of the people interviewed for this piece (interviews conducted by necessity over the internet), however worried they are about the spreading epidemic, say it’s the sanctions that are doing the most damage. Suha Ahmad’s troubles are so dire that she didn’t even mention the virus. Hadeel did talk about it, but it is the deeper deprivation brought about by the Caesar Act that preoccupies her. ‘Imam Ali bin Abi Talib has a famous saying about poverty: “If poverty was a man, I would kill him,”’ she said. ‘We feel the same way. Poverty is squeezing us so badly that we cannot even afford breakfast.’ Extra food occasionally comes from her relatives, farmers in the countryside near Latakia who bring her fruit and vegetables. She gives the exact price of tomatoes, cucumbers and aubergines in the shops, prices which have doubled or tripled over the past three months, while grapes, apples and bananas have become prohibitively expensive.
The collapse isn’t only social and economic: it also affects personal safety. The area around Latakia has been dangerous throughout the war because it is near the frontline, close to the opposition enclave of Idlib. But, as Hadeel says, ‘theft and crime have increased in the region over the last two months. A colleague in my office lost her cousin last month because he was kidnapped by an unknown group who called her family and asked for 15 million Syrian pounds as a ransom’ – about $6000 – ‘but the family didn’t have the money to pay. He was found dead on the outskirts of a village in the Latakia countryside on the way to Hama.’ As crime spreads in rural areas, many people are trying to move into the cities, but can’t afford the rent.
Covid-19 makes things worse, of course. Hadeel says that many are now infected but that the government is hiding the true numbers: ‘I am living on the sixth floor of an eight-floor building and I know most of the residents. I know four families that have become infected in the last week and are semi-quarantining, except when the father goes out to buy food.’ There is little people can do to protect themselves: face masks and hand sanitisers are often unaffordable and hospitals are full. Hadeel is fatalistic: people in Latakia, she says, must try just to get on with their lives ‘and leave death, disease, poverty and war to God’.
Such signs of demoralisation in the pro-government Alawite heartlands around Tartus and Latakia may be encouraging for the proponents of the Caesar Act in Washington. But popular complaints, and even despair, aren’t going to destabilise Assad: the government had effectively won the civil war by 2018. By then the Sunni Arab armed opposition’s last big enclave in Damascus was being overrun by government forces. The only significant pocket of territory still held by the anti-Assad Arab opposition is in and around Idlib – and even that has shrunk to a third of the size it was in 2017 after repeated offensives by Russia-backed Syrian government forces. The aim of the US may no longer be to overthrow Assad – something that became impossible after the Russian military intervention began in 2015 – but to prevent him and his Russian and Iranian backers winning a decisive victory. In other words, the US and its allies will keep the pot boiling and exert maximum pressure through the Caesar Act, which has turned Syria into an economically isolated pariah state.
The strategy of waging economic rather than military war is hardly new. But under Trump it has become the primary weapon of American foreign policy. Despite all his bombastic threats against perceived enemies, he has yet to start a single war in the Middle East or anywhere else, relying more on the power of the US Treasury than the Pentagon. From an American point of view sanctions have much to recommend them: no need for the costly and risky military ventures that have so often gone wrong in the past. Unlike airstrikes, sanctions can be presented as a non-violent way of influencing the behaviour of toxic regimes for the better. In reality, as with the Caesar Act, they are the bluntest of instruments, inflicting communal punishment indiscriminately on whole societies. Arguments justifying the Caesar Act are much the same as those once used to sell UN sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, imposed after he invaded Kuwait in 1990 and kept in place for the next 13 years. They were meant to weaken Saddam and compel him to disclose information about his supposed weapons of mass destruction. In practice they did nothing to constrain his power or his control over Iraqi resources. He showed defiance by building giant mosques and palaces, and the WMD that he was said to be hiding turned out not to exist. But the sanctions did ruin the lives of millions of ordinary Iraqis and devastated the country’s infrastructure, human capital and economy. This was all fully evident at the time: Denis Halliday, the UN aid co-ordinator in Iraq, resigned in protest against sanctions in 1998, saying that between four and five thousand Iraqi children were dying unnecessarily every month, and that the embargo ‘probably strengthens the leadership and further weakens the people of the country’.
So it is in Syria now. Assad may be being squeezed economically, but he is making up for it by, among other measures, forcing pro-government businessmen to hand over portions of their vast war profits. He can also divert attention from his government’s corruption and incompetence by blaming the sufferings of Syrians on the Caesar Act, much as Saddam did in Iraq with UN sanctions a quarter of a century ago. In the early stages of the pandemic, Syrian state television boasted of the government’s fictitious success in combating the spread of the virus. In reality, hospitals were full, infections were spreading and it was widely believed by Syrians that the number of deaths was much higher than officials were admitting. These have been common failings internationally, but as the real effects of the virus have become hard to disguise the Syrian government has protected itself by taking a new propaganda line. Muhanad Shami, a hospital nurse in Damascus, says that ‘most programmes and news bulletins now show the country as weak in facing the pandemic because of the Caesar Act.’
Another political advantage for the Assad government is that the new sanctions are hitting all Syrians, regardless of political allegiance. The situation is especially miserable for people in anti-government areas, who are more vulnerable to anything that further degrades their living conditions. This is particularly true of the three million people living in the province of Idlib, the last enclave of the armed opposition. After years of air and artillery bombardment, cities and towns there have largely been destroyed, or are so badly damaged as to be uninhabitable, so a million people, mostly displaced from other parts of Syria, are now living in tents: there are around 1200 overcrowded camps near the Turkish border. People in the camps are relatively safe from the shelling and bombing that affects the rest of Idlib, but they are generally without work, sleep 15 to a tent, and use communal water tanks and bathrooms: conditions that make it impossible to stop the transmission of Covid-19. ‘The first case of the virus was registered in Idlib City in July and its spread at first was very slow,’ says Huda Husein, a teacher who lives there. ‘In the beginning people stayed at home, but now they go out, saying that all the region will be infected whether or not you wear a mask.’
Fighting has ebbed for the moment thanks to a ceasefire arranged by Russia and Turkey on 5 March. But it’s unlikely to last. Assad is clearly determined to take back Idlib, but would prefer the region to be rid of its anti-government population first. Bombed, starved and homeless, they will have nowhere to go but the camps on the border with Turkey, whose government is fearful of an influx of Syrian refugees. As elsewhere in Syria, the sanctions mean that everyday necessities have become prohibitively expensive for the inhabitants of Idlib, but a further blow came in June, when the local ruling authority – the so-called Government of Salvation, dominated by the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham – switched its currency from the Syrian pound to the Turkish lira. The change was made in response to the collapse of the Syrian pound, but Huda says it has made life even more difficult. Her salary as a teacher has fallen from the equivalent of $160 to $100 a month, while the price of tomatoes, potatoes, fruit and yoghurt has risen sharply. She believes that the currency switch ‘made 95 per cent of people in Idlib worse off and only 5 per cent, mostly traders and those working for international aid organisations, better off’.
Syria is today divided into three parts: the government-controlled area, covering most of the heavily populated regions; the small opposition enclave in Idlib; and, in the north-east, a large triangle of land where Kurdish, Turkish, Syrian government, Syrian opposition, Russian and American forces compete for control of roads and population centres. The arena where they confront one another is a plain east of the Euphrates River, with Turkey to the north and Iraq to the east. About two million Kurds and a million Arabs live here under conditions of chronic insecurity. Until last year, the area was dominated militarily by the Kurds, who had defeated Islamic State with US support. But with IS gone, at least for the moment, Trump declared last October that he would withdraw American forces, giving the green light for a Turkish invasion that seized a rectangular piece of territory inside Syria, expelling its Kurdish inhabitants or forcing them to flee. The Turkish attack and the subsequent ethnic cleansing in and around the border towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain was largely the work of Turkish-backed Syrian Arab opposition fighters from Idlib, Aleppo and Hama. Turkey has since deployed the same proxy forces to reinforce its allies in Libya and, more recently, on the side of Azerbaijan against Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Even by the standards of the Syrian civil war, the situation in the Turkish border enclave is dangerous and complicated. Jasem Hammad, a 42-year-old Arab construction worker who lives in Ras al-Ain with his wife and three teenage children, struggles to explain what is going on in his home town. He says that he left during the Turkish invasion in October and came back a month later to find that his house had been partly destroyed. ‘I came back with thousands of Arab families,’ he says, ‘but the Kurds did not return because those who did were abducted by the Turkish-backed Syrian militias.’ Jasem lives in what had been a mixed Arab-Kurdish district, but when a Kurdish neighbour tried to return to his house he was kidnapped and tortured by militiamen – he was released only after his family paid a $10,000 ransom.
Jasem says that Ras al-Ain has been divided up between the various Syrian anti-government militias: each controls a small territory and defends it vigorously against the others. There are frequent quarrels between them over the division of the spoils – especially the profitable takeover of hundreds of Kurdish houses and shops. Violence is routine: ‘When it is dark, I just stay at home,’ Jasem says. ‘There is shooting all night. Most of the houses where Kurds used to live have been looted and are without doors, windows and furniture.’ Recently an old Kurdish woman tried to visit her daughter’s house, which had been taken over by a militia fighter’s family from Aleppo. Next door, Jasem’s wife heard the militiaman driving the old woman away, shouting: ‘Tell your disbelieving daughter and her pig husband not to come back.’
There are many people in Ras al-Ain for Jasem to fear, but Assad and the Syrian government aren’t among them: government forces withdrew from Ras al-Ain in 2012 and haven’t returned. Yet the Caesar Act, which was supposed to protect Syrian civilians from Assad, is in practice completing the work of the Turkish invasion and driving the remaining inhabitants out of town. The streets, Jasem says, are empty and desolate: it looks ‘like a place where nobody lives and is full of ghosts’. Since July many have escaped to Turkey, though they have to use people smugglers to get them there since the Turkish authorities have closed the border to Syrians. A relative of Jasem’s and three other neighbours made it across to refugee camps; there, at least, they would be given food. His own real income has plunged: as a construction worker, he was paid the equivalent of $6 a day in April and May, but ‘now I am paid $1.50 a day, just enough to buy a meal for one person.’ The only bit of good news is that Covid-19 hasn’t yet reached Ras al-Ain. Jasem suspects that this is because the town is 90 per cent empty: too few human hosts remain for the virus to spread.
Posted on London Review of Books, vol 42, no 21, 5th November 2020