Humanitarian and economic disaster averted for now

Mon, May 14, 2012, 01:00

SANCTIONS AND unrest are the chief causes of deprivation in Syria, a Damascus-based diplomat has told The Irish Times.

He said sanctions were having a more malign impact than fighting, adding that there was “no major humanitarian disaster” in Syria comparable to the crises of other countries beset by war, plague and natural disasters.

Food supplies are adequate but delivery to contested areas has been disrupted by violence and many people do not have money to buy more than essentials.

“Everything is available in the market, but bread is a problem because only one bakery is working,” said a woman from a devastated area of Homs.

During a visit to the rebellious city of Douma northeast of Damascus, this reporter found the central market well stocked with meat, vegetables and fruit.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has appealed for $27 million (€20.9 million) for food parcels for about 100,000 people and household equipment for 25,000 whose dwellings have been damaged or destroyed.

Assistance will also be extended to displaced Syrians, most of whom have found shelter with family members, in villages or in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo, which have remained relatively calm during the unrest.

A bread shortage could result if sanctions on transactions by Syrian banks prevent Damascus from buying enough grain. Syria, a former exporter of wheat, imports about half the grain consumed. Traders in Beirut report massive sales to Syria of grain, which is not on the list of banned items but is indirectly targeted.

Life in Damascus is almost normal. There is a two-hour daily power cut and there are no queues at petrol stations. Syria is exporting crude via Iran, which also provides refined products, deepening the Damascus-Tehran connection that western powers seek to disrupt.

Restaurants and cafes are busy, shops are open and street vendors offer a wide range of goods from China, labelled “made in the UAE”, revealing that middlemen in the United Arab Emirates are not bothered by sanctions.

The latest EU ban on luxury goods is meant to target members of the regime and wealthy supporters. However, shops in the elegant Cham City Centre mall in the Kafr Soussa district of the capital are well stocked with wedding dresses from La Sposa in Barcelona, Reebok and Adidas runners and Benetton summer fashions. The supermarket has the full range of goods found in western counterparts. Wealthy Syrians and merchants can also resupply at the Lebanese town of Chautara near the western border or they can drive to Beirut.

Economist Dr Nabil Sukkar said the situation was deteriorating and prices were rising. While the Syrian pound had “stabilised at around 70 to the dollar”, the country’s reserves, $17 billion to $19 billion at the start of the crisis, now stood at about $12 billion.

Sukkar observed that Syria could not be compared to Argentina between 1999 and 2002. “The economy is not collapsing yet . . . We don’t have such high unemployment, inflation and shortages . . . Crops are fine, the harvest is fine.”

He added that the situation was very different from the strategic crisis of 1986 when Syria went bankrupt. At that time, Syria had a centrally controlled economy. “Now the private sector buys goods and supplies the market.”

Ironically, economic disaster seems to have been averted for the time being by the free-market reforms that sparked the unrest by making the rich richer and the poor poorer.