Bashar Al Assad uses the past as proof of the Syrian people's self-sufficiency. But he has miscalculated their resilience - and how far they are willing to go to topple the regime.
Ghosts of economic crisis as Syrians weather this regime
The Occupy movements that swept across the United States and the world are concerned with the plight of “the 99 per cent”. As someone who was fortunate to grow up in Syria as part of the 1 per cent, let me tell you, in the winter, we were cold.
In parts of Syria now, society is sliding towards worsening violence with news dominated by the shelling of Homs on Saturday, and the failure of the UN Security Council to pass a resolution condemning the regime that night. Beneath the headline news, however, there is another difficult reality that has echoes from the past.
Before the recent shelling, videos showed desperate people in Homs lined up, waiting and hoping to fill coloured plastic jugs with a tiny amount of mazout, or heating fuel, recalling memories of a grim Syria in the 1980s when Hafez Al Assad clamped down on the economy and suffocated society with strict rationing. Imports were banned as Syria was declared “self-sufficient”. School field trips were routed to “pass by” villages to buy black-market items such as toilet paper, boxes of tissues and canisters of powdered milk smuggled in from Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan.
The bread lines at government-subsidised bakeries were endless. “Supermarkets” were small stores with sad rows of empty shelves. Bananas were a luxury for anyone. We wore our coats all day at school and warmed our hands during recess over a tiny stovepipe heater. People heated their homes (and still do) one room, one corner, at a time.
While the Syrian revolution nears its 11th month, Bashar Al Assad is determined to prove that he, contrary to the people, loved the 1980s. As he mimics his father’s trademark indiscriminate murder and torture, economic hardships have also become a blast from an unwelcome past. The country suffers from widespread shortages of mazout and other fuel. Electricity is cut off for hours every day. Prices of food are skyrocketing as the Syrian currency plummets.
During this uprising, we have lost thousands of people; in the last few days, hundreds more. The economic plight of Syrians is no surprise, because a president who has no problem shooting protesters and torturing dissidents would think nothing of freezing or starving the rest. But the weakened economy is what, many speculate, may be the final straw to break the ruthless regime’s back.
According to recent interviews in the Financial Times and Bloom-berg with the central bank governor, Adib Mayaleh, the regime intends to float the currency to stabilise the Syrian pound, which has lost almost 50 per cent of its value. Although Syria faces a real economic crisis, Mr Mayaleh claims the devaluation of the currency “is imaginary and a result of speculation”. In other words, it’s another conspiracy.
Mr Al Assad described the lean 1980s in his last speech: “We say to the generation which does not remember that stage ... do not allow the fear to control your heart as a result of the media war which is targeting you. Syria has undergone much more difficult conditions during which even the security situation was much more difficult.”
Those conditions were navigated by “self-sufficiency”, another throwback term for the regime. As Mr Mayaleh explained: “What we need to do today is increase the efficiency of this self-sufficiency, so it compensates for what we lost.” Using a Marie Antoinette tone that that he is fond of, he declared: “We can live without salmon ... I think we will have to give up the cake to eat brown bread.” The president was quick to reassure: “And we have olives.”
As US, European, Arab and Turkish sanctions tighten, Mr Al Assad responds with a lesson learnt from his father: isolate the country from the West and align with Russia. It may have worked at the Security Council, but his father’s old-school rules no longer function in a global market economy. The regime only builds a flimsy media facade of confidence, in Mr Mayaleh’s words: “We are ready to face it, sanctions will be pain, but they won’t kill.”
The regime uses the past as proof of the Syrian people’s self-sufficiency. But it has miscalculated their resilience. The Assad regime’s decades-long iron rule has created an iron-willed people who have learnt to live without heat, electricity, internet, cell phones, bananas and even salmon. One activist I spoke to in Deraa expressed his confidence: “The people are willing to sacrifice. An elderly woman on the street told me, ‘We lived under their feet for 40 years, we can live like this, fighting for our freedom, for a few more.’”
Every time he faces a crisis, Mr Al Assad pulls out his trademark phrase: “Syria, God protects her.” His supporters repeat it like parrots, relying on God to save them from the “evil” outside world.
These same people accuse the protests emerging from mosques on Fridays of being non-representative of secular society. They say that the chant “God is great” is evidence of sectarianism. But Mr Al Assad’s condescending motto purports to place Syria under God’s protection, absolving him and his followers of responsibility and accountability.
In most parts of Syria, snow is seen only a few times in people’s lives. When it falls, it transforms the landscape into a magical scene of optimistic joy. Last week, when snow fell on Syria, it covered the country with despair instead of renewal. The pristine white could not conceal the bloodstains beneath.
It reminded us of every Syrian who is cold. Like the thousands of displaced Syrians in Turkey who are huddled in refugee tents. Those people would rather live in a snow-covered tent in a foreign country than return to their threatened homes. Although their situation is dire, they choose the cold over oppression. They choose their own self-sufficiency.
It’s true, God protects Syria, and this year, God will heat her as well. Because our president never had the intention of doing either.
It’s going to be a long, cold winter. Spring cannot come fast enough.
The author is a Syrian-American who writes under the pseudonym Amal Hanano and has published a series of essays on the revolution at jadaliyya.com