Report

The Assad regime is extorting its own supporters

After years of war, Syrians are now under enormous economic pressure, creating a deep malaise even in pro-regime areas.

In Damascus, a giant portrait of Bashar al-Assad. Louai Beshara / AFP

It seems that the Syrian regime does not reward its loyalists. On the contrary, as the conflict enters its ninth year, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his clan are under financial strain, and in recent months began extorting the population living in controlled areas under its control.

Hopes of reconstruction in a country devastated by 8 years of war are diminishing by the day, and the Syrian government is feeling the full blow of international sanctions. Meanwhile, the regime seems to be punishing the population by extracting astronomical fines and taxes in an effort to shore up its finances under the weight of an acute economic crisis that has unfolded even as the military, backed by Russia and Iran, has gained a decisive upper hand.


Taxes and fines

In recent months, the Syrian government’s Consumer Protection Bureau has visited several districts in Damascus in an effort to control prices. When the Bureau found goods with untraceable origins and without invoices, store managers were sanctioned and fined, many times twice: first by customs and then by the government.

"I know several shops and small neighborhood stores that decided to close because they cannot find the required sums,” says Fares*, a Syrian businessman. For example, a grocery store could be fined up to 10 million Syrian Pounds (close to $20,000), a huge amount for a small establishment.

Businesses are also subject to flat-rate taxes, in addition to income tax, which have increased by 5 to 10 percent since the beginning of the year. The Ministry of Finance is using a calculation system based on pre-war profits that plays with currency inflation rates to maximize the amount of money it is able to collect. For example, if a business declared a profit of 200,000 Syrian pounds in 2011 it was equal to about $40,000. Companies are still expected to pay tax based on that pre-war profit in dollars, but because of the exchange rate and inflation, it is now equivalent to around 20 million Syrian pounds. In addition, companies are being penalized and held accountable for back taxes. “It's enraging,” says Mahmoud, a pro-regime merchant in Damascus who spoke to L’Orient-Le Jour (OLJ) via WhatsApp. “But we cannot say anything. If this goes on, I will close shop, and I’m seriously considering leaving this country.”

Inflation has also exploded in recent years. A kilo of meat, that used to sell for 2,000 Syrian Pounds before the war, now costs 10,000. A canister of gas was 2,500, but its official price is now 8,000, and because of the booming black market economic, can cost up to 16,000, according to Mahmoud. Adding to the difficulties, despite inflation, wages have not increased, and there is an acute shortage of fuel and gasoline. To address the situation, the government has introduced “smart cards” that can be used to purchase 20 liters of gas per week for cars and 200 liters of fuel per month for families.

Given the situation, Georges, a Syrian with a business both in Damascus and Beirut, is reluctant to return to his country. "With all the taxes I have to pay and the high cost of living that is becoming unbearable in Damascus, I’m seriously considering staying in Lebanon. Plus, in my field, there is an embargo from European suppliers, and Syria is now drowning in Russian products and merchandise. I have nothing left to do in Damascus,” he says, declining to identify what products he sells to maintain his anonymity.


Dissatisfied population

"The regime and its supporters have accumulated such wealth that they could rebuild the country from that alone,” says Fares, the businessman. Apart from the traditional clique surrounding Bashar al-Assad, like his cousin Rami Makhlouf, a new circle has recently emerged. One of its rising stars is Samer Foz, a businessman who is a target of US sanctions. The race for wealth by the regime aims to help relatives affected by international sanctions and also to finance pro-regime militias and buy their loyalty.

With military conflict winding down, many militiamen have turned to smuggling goods for the black market or have become middlemen for regular citizens desperately seeking to reduce the weight of the new taxes, Fares explains.

All in all, a whole system has been put in place to allow the regime to continue making profit at the expense of a population that is increasingly hemorrhaging money.

The strategy risks alienating some of the regime’s strong supporters. "Even [Assad’s] most ardent supporters are getting weary. At the peak of the war, they still hoped that the regime would win and the conflict would end. Today, the future is completely bleak. People are desperate,” says Fares. "And the worst part is that they saw what the regime did to those who opposed Assad, so nobody dares to say anything.”

Today, around regime-controlled areas, some are fed up and starting to show it. In early February in the governorate of Hama, the population and pro-Russian militiamen prevented a customs patrol from entering two traditionally pro-regime villages, Kamhana and Rabiaa. The patrol was there to fine warehouses storing illegal goods from Turkey. And earlier this week, demonstrations took place in Daraa, the southern cradle of the uprising against the Syrian regime. Hundreds of people took to the streets to protest the installation of a statue of Hafez al-Assad. "The regime spends millions making statues instead of helping the population,” a participant in the demonstrations told OLJ at the time.

* All names have been changed for security reasons


(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 15th or March)




It seems that the Syrian regime does not reward its loyalists. On the contrary, as the conflict enters its ninth year, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his clan are under financial strain, and in recent months began extorting the population living in controlled areas under its control.

Hopes of reconstruction in a country devastated by 8 years of war are diminishing by the day, and...

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