x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

An economic bloodbath will test Assad's staying power

Syria's elite still backs the regime, but the merchant class, while anxious about unrest and deterred by recent regional history, could turn against Bashar Al Assad.

The bodies keep piling up, and Bashar Al Assad endures. The video and photographs coming out of Syria are heart-breaking: even during a referendum on constitutional reform, images of the dead in Baba Amr continue to emerge. Men, women and children are shot to death and blown apart by shells. Homs is being bled dry, one body at a time, while the world watches.

The winds of the Arab Spring have shaken the throne of President Al Assad, but have yet to topple him. Saudi Arabia now speaks openly of arming the opposition; the United States has not ruled out the possibility.

The days of Mr Al Assad's rule are ending, but may yet be measured in months or years. He has lost his legitimacy in the eyes of many to lead the country but remains in charge of the army.

Yet an armed confrontation may not be the only way for Mr Al Assad to leave: the regime could yet implode. This could come in one of two ways, an internal coup (almost certainly by Alawite officers) or economic pressure leading to widespread protests.

The second remains more likely, if only because Mr Al Assad's father, Hafez, who came to power in a coup, spent his entire time at the helm attempting to "coup-proof" his regime. The fate of Bashar Al Assad could yet be decided by economics, not intervention.

Economics has played a significant, if little understood, role in the Arab Spring. In Syria in particular, as the instability has dragged on, the economy has been ravaged.

The first problem is household spending. In times of uncertainty, people immediately stop spending money on luxuries and start hoarding cash, bringing a huge fall in income for businesses. At the same time, the loss of any semblance of normality in daily life means that fewer people go to work, there is less economic activity, and consequently less tax revenue for the government.

Those who can are getting their money out. Capital flight out of Syria is at critical levels, as The National reported on Sunday, with an estimated 100 billion Syrian pounds (nearly US$2 billion) leaving the banking system since the start of the uprisings last year.

Worse, the regime has no way to replenish that liquidity. International credit is closed to it, while its few friends - Russia, say, or Iran - are unlikely to be willing to extend sufficient credit to the regime.

The economy is creaking, bringing severe hardship to many millions. The longer the uprising continues, the harder it will be to rebuild the economy; suppliers will have been replaced, tourists will continue to stay away and the underlying capability of the economy will be diminished.

Yet while Syria's economy is faltering, it is not collapsing. As corrupt and as stagnant as it is, as dangerous as these times are, Mr Al Assad could still hold on. It is not the economy per se that is his Achilles' heel, but the lack of any opposition who could manage it better.

The economy is key to the continued survival of the Al Assad clan. Since Bashar Al Assad took power in 2000, his gradual liberalisation of the economy has significantly enriched a business elite, many of whom fear what might come after. Even before he took over, during the long rule of his father, the merchant class centred in Damascus and Aleppo, the two main cities, looked to the regime to ensure stability, in return for political quiescence.

The concern of the business class is stability and growth; for now, Mr Al Assad still looks like their best bet. That is why Aleppo has largely remained quiet and why the government has clamped down severely on any signs of dissent in the capital Damascus. If the merchant class turns against the regime and take to the streets, it is unlikely that Mr Al Assad can endure long.

Why they haven't thus far is simple: the opposition is not a credible alternative. Consumed with political bickering, riven by ideological divisions and fuelled with the exile's mentality, they are not yet a serious alternative to Mr Al Assad's rule. For the merchant class this matters. They would rather endure a year or two of instability for a decade of quiet, than put their businesses in the hands of a squabbling, untested group.

Historical precedents loom large. For years after independence in 1946, Syria was rarely stable; governments lurched from coup to coup, until the Assad wing of the Baath party took control in 1970.

The other historical precedents are the countries on either side of Syria - Lebanon, ripped apart by 15 years of sectarian strife, and Iraq, devastated by sanctions, then invaded and now struggling to maintain even basic law and order. Syrians whose lives have been manageable under the Assads greatly fear the alternative.

Syria's neighbours fear it too: Lebanon and Iraq have been lukewarm about the resolutions of the Arab League, wary of the knock-on effects on their fragile nations.

The economic sanctions being imposed on Syria are unlikely to change the mind of Mr Al Assad. Yet economic pressure might sway the views of the merchant class on whom his regime depends, if an alternative can emerge.

If the opposition can persuade Syria's businessmen and women that their businesses - many of which were built up in the face of immense odds, in the teeth of hardship brought by the regime - would fare better without Mr Al Assad, the regime may crumble from within.



Follow on Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai