- Interview by
As part of a series on the devastating civil war in Syria, Jacobin spoke to Rabie Nasser, a Syrian economic analyst who works with the Syrian Center for Policy Research.
We discussed the social and economic disaster in the country, the role global and regional powers have played in the war, and how Syria may one day be rebuilt.
How has the conflict affected Syrian development?
In general we regularly produce reports on the socioeconomic impact of the crisis. We use different methodologies. But essentially we make a comparison between our baseline scenario — as if the crisis had not happened — and what has actually transpired.
Basically, the economy has been systematically destroyed. First, Syria’s capital stock is lost. There has been direct destruction as a result of the armed conflict, and there is currently a great deal of idle capital in Syria due to the security conditions. The second point is the loss of human capital, either because of displacement, migration, or because of death and injury. We have lost a lot of skilled workers. And we have lost a huge amount of human capital in Syria.
Third, there has been a loss of infrastructure: there was a huge infrastructure for health, education, telecommunications, industry — we have lost it, and we have lost the networks between some Syrian markets and other markets both inside and outside Syria.
Furthermore, especially after the armed conflict began, people migrated out from Syria, and there has been outflow of capital, especially private capital. The only reliable remaining network for the economy has been government salaries. The government continues to pay its salaries. So this is one part of the economy that continues to function. The other part is the agricultural sector, which continued producing well until last year. But then it took a turn for the worse, and as a result food security deteriorated greatly in the country.
All the basic pillars of the economy have been partly destroyed. And these used to be, at least to a large extent, its sources of growth. This is one aspect of the economic problems.
The other part is the creation of a violence economy — a lot of people have started to contribute to the fighting, and they now have incentives from smuggling, killing, and widespread theft across the country. And the institutions which had been central to long-term growth are in bad shape. And of course this social movement, which started as a peaceful movement, has been diverted from the main road and now we are facing a loss of social capital.
Furthermore, there has been a deterioration in social services, such as education. We have lost some of Syria’s main strengths, like an educated population. Now most of the new generation is outside the educational system, and outside the reach of the health services, too.
Fragmentation within Syria as a result of the armed conflict is pervasive, and now we have the phenomenon of fundamentalism. We call those contributing to the armed conflict subjugating powers. They are not just inside Syria. They are inside and outside, and they are financing and supporting the influence of tyranny and fundamentalism.
This is destroying the social fabric of the Syrian people, the culture of Syria, and of course destroying the idea of a future. Most people are trying to leave the country, and so stabilization is not possible.
One of the things you mentioned is that the formal economy has deteriorated sharply and unemployment has increased. So how are people surviving?
Well, there is more than one coping strategy available to the Syrian people: the first are government subsidies and salaries. Of course, there has been a deterioration in the purchasing power of salaries, but this is one source that has endured. Another source is agriculture, the people try to bring more land into agricultural production if they can, because of the security of this means of securing their subsistence.
A third is transfers from outside the country. Families and relatives send money, so this is support from outside. The fourth and most dangerous is the economics of violence. A lot of people pay money from inside and outside the country to fuel the conflict. So many people are forced to work as soldiers in this conflict because they need a source of income after they have lost everything. These are the pillars.
You’ve mentioned that the conflict is institutionalized and that there’s both internal responsibility and a lot of external responsibility. So can you talk more about what that means and which parties are responsible?
On the international level, there are what we call “subjugating powers.” Without these subjugating international powers Syria could not have afforded three years of this destruction. Syria’s GDP is three times lower than it was in 2010. Any country which has sustained such a huge loss cannot function anymore — they cannot continue to provide services.
Yet we continue to fight inside the country, in many different regions. This is fueled from outside the country. On the international level, the United States is the main supporter of the opposition. Politically, they support the allies of the opposition, and they support transfers of money and soldiers, and of course of weapons.
Russia, from the other side, is supporting the other subjugating power, which is the tyranny in this country. This is the international umbrella, which is essential for this conflict to continue. The other sub-powers are the regional powers. Iran is the main regional supporter of the regime, and the Gulf countries and Turkey support the opposition.
We think that the most dangerous power in the region — and there is a silence around the world about it — is the Gulf countries. Because they are exporting a very dangerous culture. It is a kind of marriage of tyranny and fundamentalism in one regime. They don’t care if Iraq is destroyed, if Syria is destroyed, if whole social fabrics are destroyed. They don’t care if there is any stability at all in the region. We think that they are not just providing financing for the conflict. They are also financing fragmentation through this extreme religious ideology.
Of course, Israel is a subjugating power in the region which has directly destroyed the peoples’ expectations and well-being through occupying and conducting systematic violence against Arabs. So we think these are the main international and regional powers who want to keep this conflict going.
So one thing you’ve also said is that the state structures and institutions are weakened but some of them are still intact. Does this offer any path for economic reconstruction, does the state have a role in economic reconstruction if the conflict stops?
So far there is one advantage: we have not seen complete institutional collapse. There are a lot of state institutions that can be reactivated, because there has not been complete collapse. It could be a reconstruction like what happened in Lebanon, or to a lesser extent in Iraq. It’s very complicated to find a decent exit to this conflict. However, if things continue as they are there is no possible reconstruction.
If the regime thinks that by military operations they will finish this crisis, and they will continue as they do now, as a completely tyrannical regime, they will not reconstruct the county. The country needs, first of all, rebuilding, social capital, a new social contract with the participation of the Syrian people.
Otherwise the deterioration will continue. We need to rebuild the institutions — so far the subjugating powers are not ready to do this. Neither the opposition powers, nor the regime.
So is there any possibility for demilitarization in the short term or in the medium term?
If there is no real exit from this conflict, and no hope of rehabilitation — if both parties continue with their current mentality of ignoring every priority of the Syrian people, there is no path to reconstruction. We need a decent exit. And this means putting the priorities of the Syrian people on the table.
That does not mean ignoring the priorities of different parties. It means putting the priorities of the Syrian people on top: a vision of democracy, accountability, justice, and inclusive development. That would open the door for all people in Syria to have a real dialogue, and to participate in reconstruction, so people can come from outside the country, resettle in their cities, work, and participate. Otherwise I can’t see a real exit scenario from this catastrophe.
In a recent report from May 2014 you wrote, “There are a growing number who although they are suppressed by all parties involved in the armed conflict reflect the interests and aspirations of the massively marginalized population.” Can you talk about who these groups are, and if there is any way to support them?
First of all, I think most of the Syrian people, normal Syrians, don’t want the armed conflict. They don’t want to continue with the same politics or the same political regime. This feeling is widespread across Syria. There is a huge social movement, which started in March 2011, and most want inclusivity, want justice, and they can’t see these things in the political opposition or the destructive Islamist armies, nor with the continuing behavior of the regime.
So we think that there are a lot of grassroots initiatives. The people want a different country, they want different tools. But the real question is how to organize. We need different kinds of institutions, ones which believe in the power of people. And we need to build creatively for the future. This is not an easy job. We understand that the political powers and the financial powers have a real weight on the ground. But we think the people are the main source of power for the future.
We need to create new kinds of institutions to support and raise up people’s opinions and views, to build a bridge to the future. This is what we try to do, here at the center.
Is there anything that people on the outside, especially people in the United States, can do in terms of helping the Syrian people find their way out of this situation?
That is a very important question.
But the main issue is not for the American people to help Syrians. It’s not about supporting the Syrian people. It’s really about how to look at the powers that are controlling the international arena. We think that if you ignore what happened in Gaza, and you ignore what happened in Syria, this is one issue.
But another important issue for the American people, is that this government will do the same thing inside United States if they need to. This kind of tyranny — or this kind of subjugating power — will not hesitate to do what they’ve done in Syria to any human in the world. You can’t support killing another human and be decent inside your country. To erect this kind of contradiction, or dichotomy, between behavior inside and outside the country is false.
If there is any challenge to these tyrannies, to these international powers, they will do worse inside their country. We are all under the pressure of tyranny in the world. So we need to think about different institutions. It’s not about what happens in other countries, because what happens in other countries is a reflection of the kinds of institutions you have at home.
So do you believe the US should end its current role in the armed conflict?
A real solution for the catastrophe of the Syrian people, which is a reflection of a failure of the current global system, is an international social movement. But not a movement directed or controlled by donors. We need a real social movement, one that could limit the power of tyrannies, and try to support people and their needs. Otherwise I don’t think the government of the United States or Russia will support a decent exit.
If they had wanted to do it, they could have done it before. But I don’t think these kind of regimes want to support an exit at all. We count on the people around the world.
We think a real international social movement could support us and build new institutions in their societies that would protect their rights, expand their choices, and increase the pressure on subjugating powers for a major shift in international relations. I don’t know, actually, what sorts of institutions could absorb, or support, or organize such a social movement. We need new tools for the people to express themselves and their interests.