Mortgaging Syria’s future

Kobane_0Four years after the beginning of the Syrian uprising, now largely turned into a civil war and a proxy regional conflict, the state of Syria’s economy and society is dire.

A recent report, produced by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, a Damascus-based organisation, with support from UNDP, puts numbers on this disaster.

In the past four years, the Syrian economy is estimated to have lost more than $200bn, or the equivalent of four times its gross domestic product the year before the uprising; unemployment is estimated to be above 57 percent, from 11 percent in 2010; four out of five Syrians now live in poverty; and, in the space of only four years, life expectancy has fallen from 75 to 55 years.

Some business sectors have been almost totally decimated, such as tourism and oil production, while manufacturing, which has suffered from tremendous destruction, theft and looting, is only worth a fifth of its value prior to the uprising.

This destruction is accompanied by profound changes affecting Syrian society including a massive migration of both financial and human capital, dramatic demographic shifts, a fragmentation of communities and social ties, a rise in criminality and a deep sense of loss of dignity.

In addition to the consequences of the conflict that are already felt, others have serious implications for the long term and are already mortgaging future recovery efforts.

The Syrian government, now largely unable to fund itself, is accumulating an increasingly significant debt in order to import oil products and grain, to pay the salaries of its civil servants and, mostly, to fund its war effort. Someday, this debt, both domestic and foreign, including from countries such as Iran, will have to be paid back by the Syrian people, on top of the massive financial effort that will be required for a reconstruction drive.

Physical assets that have been destroyed, including productive capacity such as factories, machinery, power plants, irrigation canals, tourist sites and residential buildings, will require a very long time to be restored given the decline in the financial capacity of the government and capital flight.

Many of the most prominent Syrian businessmen have now relocated across the region and in some cases they have started to play an important role in their host countries. In Turkey for instance, more than 25 percent of companies opened last year by foreign investors were by Syrian businessmen. Having invested money, built a workforce and opened new markets, many will find it difficult to return when the war ends.

Even more worrying is the disappearance of the Syrian middle class. Business managers, academics, doctors, engineers and professionals of all other specialities have found refuge in Europe or in the Gulf. Having established themselves in these new countries and in need of clear long-term prospects, they will be the most difficult to entice back. With their departure, Syria has lost a significant amount of accumulated human capital, which will need decades to recover.

One other burden for Syrian society will be to undo the many new activities and networks that have sprung up with the retreat of the rule of law and the decline of the central state. Massive interests have been built up around the war economy amongst the warlords, and the networks and the institutions it has created. This too will be difficult to reverse.

Finally, geographic and political fragmentation is becoming increasingly entrenched, breaking down traditional economic and trade networks. Many of what were temporary and shifting front lines have now become quasi-borders between different parts of the country. The division of the city of Aleppo since the summer of 2012, between a western part controlled by the government and an eastern part controlled by the opposition, is one of the best examples of this.

Another is the north of Syria, which is one of the most fragmented parts of the country, with the government, the Kurds, the Islamic State, the Nusra Front and various brigades affiliated to the Free Syria Army sharing territorial control. As almost all production has stopped in that region, it has largely turned to Turkey, rather than to other parts of Syria under government control, for the supply of essential goods. As a result, Turkish exports to Syria last year were close to their record level of $1.8bn reached in 2010.

This shift, together with the rising foreign debt, highlights the growing dependency of the Syrian economy towards external actors.

Given the magnitude of the Syrian catastrophe, it seems difficult to see any light at the end of the tunnel or to offer any policy advice other than asking for an immediate end to the fighting, a prospect that seems as far away as it has ever been since the uprising began.

To an important extent, the Syrian uprising was a revolt of the most fragile, disenfranchised and poor segments of its society. Four years after their cry for change, these parts of the Syrian population are also those that have paid the heaviest price of the war and have only become poorer, and more fragile and distressed. On today’s anniversary, there is very little to celebrate and, unfortunately, very little to hope for.

This article was originally published in Middle East Eye on March 15, 2015

Getting Syria back to work

The Syrian government’s admission in early December that the actual rate of unemployment in the country was anywhere between 22 percent and 30 percent testifies to the depth of the social crisis the society has gone through in the last three decades. The new estimates, provided by Radwan Habib, the minister of labor and social affairs, are at least twice the previously acknowledged rate of 11 percent. According to Habib, the new findings are the result of a field survey conducted by his administration. The fact that the range is so wide — from 22 to 30 percent— raises questions on the quality of the survey, but there is little doubt that the new figures are a more accurate reflection of the situation in the job market than the previous data based on the number of people registered with job offices. According to most analysts, the Syrian economy needs to be growing by 7 to 8 percent a year for its unemployment level to stabilize. This very high threshold is a consequence of the rise in productivity and in the size of the workforce, which increases on average by 3.5 percent every year. People entering the job market today were born 20 years ago, when the population growth rate stood at above 3 percent. Meanwhile, female participation in business activity is also on the rise and increases the number of people seeking to enter the job market – currently estimated at around 200,000 per year.

Indeed, since the early 1980s Syria’s gross domestic product (GDP) has almost never been sufficient to accommodate its expanding workforce. Put another way, Syria has witnessed almost 30 consecutive years of unemployment growth. The challenge before the government — the current one or any forthcoming one — is therefore huge: How to create the conditions for the economy to grow fast enough to meet the demand for jobs.

One solution to the problem would be to focus not only on the level of growth but on its quality, on how to attract investment in the sectors of activity that are most labor-intensive and potentially generate the most added value, such as agriculture and manufacturing.

This new policy would represent a shift from the priorities of recent years, when Syria’s decision-makers focused on trade liberalization and the development of the services industry. Indeed, finance, tourism, trade and transport, in addition to real estate, have been the main engines of growth in the last few years. Although Syria has much to gain from a strengthening of its services sector, the neglect of farming and industry has cost it dearly in terms of employment, and prevented it from building a strong production base. A lot has already been written on the catastrophic performance of the Syrian agricultural sector, which suffered from several consecutive years of drought starting in 2007 and from poor policy-making decisions, including a steep increase in the price of agricultural inputs when farmers were most in need of help.

The consequence of all this has been to force tens of thousands of farmers from their ancestral lands and to reduce the contribution of the sector from around 25 percent of GDP to 19 percent in less than a decade. Free trade agreements with Turkey and the Arab world, as well as a general reduction in custom tariffs, have also led to an ‘invasion’ of foreign-made products that put countless industrial plants and workshops out of business and consequently thousands of people out of their jobs. The textile sector, one of the most labor-intensive industries, has been particularly hit by the lifting of the ban on garment imports.

The resolution of this predicament is obviously not only an economic or social issue for the government but it is also political. Unsurprisingly, many of the protests taking place across the country since March 2011 are occurring in the areas most hit by poverty and neglect, such as  Daraa, located at the center of an agricultural plateau in the south of the country, and the poverty belt around Damascus.

There must be no illusions. A happy end to the current protest movement, including the establishment of a democratic political system, will not mean an end to Syria’s economic woes. Syrians must recognize the tremendous challenges ahead and adopt a new economic development strategy that puts employment at its center.


Note: This article appeared first in the January 2012 edition of Executive Magazine