x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Aleppo merchants abandon a regime that fails on stability

Syria's business community quietly opposes the Assad government, which is yet another nail in the regime's coffin.

Syrian businessmen are increasingly leaving the country in pursuit of markets to sell a backlog of goods stockpiled during the eight-month uprising. This month I met merchants who had rented shops in Istanbul’s bazaars to sell jewellery and fabric. Mostly from Aleppo and lured by the lack of entry visa requirements, these merchants are paying monthly rents the equivalent of $1,800 to $2,500 (Dh6,600 to Dh9,200) and selling goods worth hundreds of thousands of dirhams.

As the Arab League took its strongest stance yet against Damascus yesterday, it is clear that the Assad regime is severely weakened. Conversations I had with merchants also disproved the widespread belief that the business community is a bastion of support for the Baathist regime. The regime is trying to keep middle-class merchants out of the street movement. But the majority of traders in Aleppo, I was told, have become convinced that the only way for business to get back to normal is for the Assad regime to fall. Although such an attitude is understandable, it is – and will remain – passive.

This point of view has materialised only recently. About a month into the anti-regime protests, businessmen were directing their hostility towards the street movement as they began to feel the effects.

The protests have had a colossal impact on businesses in Aleppo, which is known as Syria’s industrial capital. The city’s main domestic market is Al Jazira region, which includes the governorates of Hasaka, Deir Al Zour and Raqqa. The city has about 32,000 industrial production centres, ranging from small businesses to major factories, but since it was named the “capital of Islamic culture” in 2006, businesses have shifted towards tourism and property. As money was invested in tourism, big hotel chains including the Carlton and Sheraton came to the city.

When I visited Aleppo a year ago, the Carlton Citadel Hotel had just opened. The hotel was built on the site of an old palace near the Aleppo Citadel, a well-known tourist attraction. Because of the protests, there are few tourists in the city and such hotels are losing million of dollars a year just in rents and maintenance. The slump in the tourism industry means that associated businesses are losing too. Other cities that Aleppo relied on as markets have become protest hot-spots. And wealthy people tend to hoard their wealth in times of unrest, instead of spending it on luxury items like jewellery.

A broad section of the wealthier classes had hoped that the regime would quell the protests quickly before business deteriorated further. But as the violence spread across the country and the death toll reached the thousands, hostility towards protesters began to turn into sympathy and pragmatism.

One of the merchants in Istanbul said leading business figures in Aleppo now want the regime to fall sooner rather than later.
Although it is unlikely that the silent wealthy class will join the protests, the new attitude strongly indicates that the protest movement has entered into a new phase: the beginning of the downfall of the regime.

It has long been argued that the Baathist regime holds power partly because of the loyalty of the business community. The argument is flawed. Businessmen who directly benefit from the regime are a small oligarchy. In recent years, the majority of businesses suffered in the same way that the agricultural sector did. Many businessmen in Aleppo, for example, closed down their factories after the government told them to relocate to a centralised industrial zone in 2009. The new zone barely accommodated half of the existing businesses.

Dissatisfaction within the business community is as deep as in the agricultural sector, which has been neglected by the regime for many years and suffered from inflation as “reforms” focused on raising the salaries of government employees.
It is not that the business community supported the Assads; if anything, it supported stability. It was passivity, not loyalty, that kept it outside the protest movement. It is also worth mentioning that a large number of merchants have quietly supported the opposition, whether inside the country or abroad.

Another fallacy is that the relative lack of unrest in Aleppo and Damascus reflected support for the regime. In fact, military repression has focused on these population centres, providing a powerful disincentive against taking to the streets.
But if the business class remains silent, as it seems probable it will, what is the significance of the new attitude? The change gained momentum almost at the same time the Syrian National Council was officially formed in October. The political situation in Syria had apparently reached a stalemate: protesters continued to take to the streets, and the regime continued its bloody crackdown. International pressure seemed to have no effect.

That stalemate meant that the regime had reached a glide state; it had lost control over much of the country, but kept on going because it had not been knocked off course. What was needed was a push. Just a few weeks ago, the opposition did not seem able to deliver, which was a recipe for a lasting stalemate and even economic disaster.

But for the first time since the protests began, the Syrian opposition now seems to have taken the lead. Burhan Ghalioun, the head of the Syrian National Council, gave a keynote speech before the Eid holidays outlining a vision for a post-Assad Syria. He said that the council would not rule out any option to topple the regime, potentially including foreign intervention. More importantly, the regime seems to have become more defensive and so will make more mistakes and anger more people inside Syria and within the regime itself.

For the regime to fall and the bloodshed to end, the opposition needs to keep pushing. The new attitude of the business community, the increasing international and Arab pressure on the regime, the military defections – even if in negligible numbers at present – and the persistence of protesters are all signs that the regime is slowly but surely slipping off the cliff.

hhassan@thenational.ae