Letter from Damascus: The impact of sanctions

Feb 2, 2024
Flag of Syria and Australia

A Syrian friend in Damascus was commissioned to translate Bridge of Clay, a tender, beautiful novel by Australian author Markus Zusak. As it is not an easy novel for a Syrian who has never lived in Australia to translate, my friend and I have had quite a few WhatsApp calls to discuss tricky bits in it; for example I’ve described backyards with Hills Hoist clothes lines.

I have recently lodged a petition to the House of Representatives asking the government to suspend Australia’s sanctions on Syria and also for a Friends of Syria group to be set up to assess if the sanctions breach the human rights of Syrians and if they are justified: can we trust the narratives for war on Syria? (The petition is open for signatures until 15 February 2024. It is on the Parliament of Australia website: Petition EN5846 – Help ameliorate the humanitarian crisis in Syria by suspending sanctions. Please consider signing it.)

Last Thursday, on our most recent call, I asked my friend if she could write an article about the impact sanctions were having on the people of Syria. She said she would discuss it with friends and get back to me.

Her letter from Damascus arrived today.

29 Jan 2024

At a quick glance, an observer would not believe that Syria in 2024 is a country that has been through over a decade of economic hardship, yet the veneer of normalcy is quickly dispelled if one were to pause and see how people are actually living.

Damascus, the capital, has become the focal point of the economic crisis affecting the country, as more people flock to it from other parts of the country in search of work or better living conditions. Sadly, those who come here from other cities, towns, and rural areas to study or find work are faced with the realities of an overcrowded job market, and ludicrous disparity between income and cost of living.

Rents have skyrocketed in the past years, with even the most humble single-room accommodations within the city itself costing around USD 75 to 100 per month, with the alternative being living in the several suburbs around the city and having to put up with costly and crowded public transportation to commute to work or college.

The rent may not seem high by international standards, but that doesn’t take into account that the top-paying public-sector job only nets a salary of around USD 20 per month, with the private sector not faring much better with entry-level jobs barely paying over USD 25-50 per month, and when one considers that the vast majority of people in the Syrian job market are supporting families, even single young people who are supporting siblings and retired parents, it paints a bleak picture when one considers the costs of rent for a family house, let alone the cost of food, clothing, and other necessities.

Due to the sanctions that hinder the flow of fuel to the country, both the energy and transport sectors are in a dire state.

In most areas, electricity is only available for 3 hours a day at most, with some areas in the country not seeing power for more than one hour per day, and constant increases in petroleum and diesel prices have made public and private transportation alike a luxury most people can’t afford.

Furthermore, the increasing fuel prices combined with the lack of electricity are causing constant increases in the prices of basic commodities produced locally, as transporting goods keeps getting more costly, and as factories are forced to rely on fuel-powered generators to keep production going. This has had a massive impact on food production, as agriculture in this semi-arid country relies on irrigation, which needs electricity and fuel, and so does the livestock sector, with cattle and poultry farms constantly raising the prices of animal protein products due to the increasing production costs.

Indeed, eggs and dairy products are becoming prohibitively expensive and almost a luxury, let alone chicken, beef, and mutton, which have become a luxury to the vast majority of the population.

The issues related to fuel aren’t limited to these two sectors; as electricity is not a viable option, most people are forced to rely on fuel for heating in winter, which can get get very cold in the semi-arid Syrian climate, with most people not being able to afford to operate more than a single heating device in their homes, if they can afford such a thing at all. Of course, with electricity barely available, fans and air-conditioning barely have any effect in summer which are scorching in Syria. During the past few years, the months that see extremes of high and low temperatures are seeing higher mortality rates, especially among the elderly.

Another factor related to sanctions and the embargo that is affecting the health and longevity of Syrians is the constantly-rising cost of pharmaceuticals.

Due to the high and ever inflating exchange rate (that is also a result of the embargo and sanctions), importing medicine has become limited to high-priority products that cannot be manufactured locally, often leading to shortages in certain types of medicine, while local pharmaceutical companies are constantly raising their prices due to the rising costs of electricity, fuel, and importing raw materials, making medicine excessively expensive, especially for one of the most vulnerable segments of society: retired elderly people; for example, in December 2023, one retired school principle with no life-threatening medical conditions and a pension roughly equal to USD 10 per month was shocked to discover that the monthly costs of his medicine has increased from USD 2 to USD 6 in a single round of price increases that month.

Indeed, the effects of the embargo and sanctions on food security in Syria have led to widespread malnutrition, as the vast majority of people that are estimated at around 90% of the population can’t afford to eat healthily, with most people having to rely on government-produced flatbread as the main source of nutrition, along with other dry carbs like rice and bulgur.

Fruit is also prohibitively costly, despite there being a considerable volume of local fruit production, because the cost of cultivating and transporting fruit makes it too expensive for most, and sometimes shipping fruit is too expensive for farmers and middlemen to even bother with it, causing tons of fruit to rot in farms as transporting them to markets would cost more than any profit the farmers would make.

So, how are people surviving? A large number of families get on by relying on money sent by expatriated relatives, who wire them money on regular basis, yet even this process is hindered by the sanctions that make it difficult for some expats in certain countries to send money to their elderly parents to buy food, forcing them to rely on back channels and black-market mediators who take considerable commissions.

Other than that, recent years have seen a large number of qualified and skilled Syrians who have not opted to immigrate resorting to working remotely for employers in other countries, often having to go through several hoops to circumvent the embargo and sanctions, and forcing them to accept paltry wages compared to international rates.

As an example, a skilled web or mobile developer would have to work full time for around USD 200 per month, and spend the rest of their waking hours working as freelancers for foreign companies just to make ends meet for as little as USD 5 per hour, and these are the lucky ones, along with other high-demand jobs like designers and marketing.

People with less lucrative professions that are finding offshore employment, like copywriters, translators, and other professionals who can work online, have to make do with rates that are not measured in dollars, but rather in cents. Indeed, most middlemen who recruit Syrians offer them vastly unfair and paltry wages, knowing full well that many people are desperate for any way to boost their odds of survival.

Make no mistake; the economic situation for the average civilian in Syria is quite bleak, and there are no indicators that promise a reprieve or improvement, as all the aforementioned issues are intrinsically tied to the embargo and sanctions, so unless they are lifted, all that awaits the Syrian people is more adversity and silent suffering.

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