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Syria: Currency crisis worsens situation in Idlib

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Shortly before new US sanctions against the Assad regime, the Syrian pound plummets. An economic catastrophe also for the people in the rebel-held Idlib. Nevertheless, they support the sanctions. 

“Madness.” Madness. In a word, Mona describes what she is currently observing around her. When she drives through the streets of Idlib City after work and sees people queuing in front of pharmacies or bakeries. To at least be able to buy a loaf of bread or an urgently needed medication. For thousands of Syrian pounds. Money that is suddenly no longer worth anything. There are pictures that Mona has never seen in spite of the nine years of war: “I’m afraid that many people will starve. I don’t know what to say. It feels like suffocation.”

Choking because there never seems to be time to take a deep breath.

DW has been in contact with Mona and other residents in the Idlib province occupied by Islamist rebels for months. They send us their impressions, their pictures via WhatsApp.

After heavy fighting, they found hope in early March when an armistice, albeit a fragile one, came into force. But the brief relaxation was quickly replaced by the worry about the coronavirus. And now a rapid catastrophe threatens due to the rapid fall in the exchange rate of the national currency.

The Syrian pound (SYD) rushes into the basement every day, for a dollar you sometimes had to pay more than 3000 SYD on the black market and in the exchange offices. For comparison: a year ago there were 600.

The reasons for the currency decline are complex: the Syrian economy, which has been ailing due to the war, the measures against the coronavirus, the economic crisis in neighboring Lebanon, through which Syrian private individuals and companies traditionally conduct international business.

Mona: Many people in Idlib support sanctions against Assad

Another point is particularly important for Mona: “One reason for this development is new sanctions against the Assad regime,” she says. “The Caesar Act will be introduced soon.”

The Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act, or Caesar Act for short: This name hides a list of sanctions adopted by the US Senate at the end of 2019. It is named after a photographer who documented tens of thousands of human rights violations in Syria. The sanctions are aimed at people and companies doing business with the Assad regime. They come into force on June 17th.

Syria Idlib |  Mona al bakkoor (name cannot be given) (private)Mona: “I’m afraid that many people will starve”

Mona thinks the sanctions are fundamentally correct: “Many people in Idlib support the package. We think the measures weaken the Assad regime. But at the same time, of course, the population is also suffering from the poor economic situation and the currency decline.” Bread prices have doubled in recent days. Many retailers would never even open their stores. Economic life in Idlib City, the provincial capital of the same name, has largely come to a standstill.

She herself is still comparatively well. Mona is 25 years old, married and works for a foreign aid organization – her salary is paid in US dollars. Nevertheless, she also feels the consequences of the currency decline. She cannot currently afford meat, it is “unaffordable”. She also does not have vegetables at home, there is no constant electricity. She only stocks basic foodstuffs such as rice or flour.

Dr. Sameeh Qaddour: The sanctions won’t end Assad’s killing

In the Acrobat hospital right on the Turkish border, Dr. Sameeh Qaddour did not immediately see the decline of the Syrian pound. “At the moment we are still reasonably equipped,” says the 48-year-old doctor. The dollar is also the official currency in the clinic, which specializes in orthopedics and reconstructive surgery.

In order to prevent bottlenecks in medicines and medical materials, Qaddour and his colleagues are looking for partners to support the clinic: international organizations and also small aid projects from abroad. What the hospital needs, says Dr. Qaddour is a “robust medical supply chain”.

Syria Idlib Dr.  Sameeh Qaddour Hospital Anesthetist (private)Dr. Sameeh Qaddour: “Everyone has more worries now”

What he sees beyond the hospital worries him. People would lose hope that their suffering could ever stop. “Everyone is now more worried than before. They are afraid of hunger, of a resurgence of the war, and of more displacement.”

Just like Mona and many others, Dr. Qaddour sanctions the Caesar Act. “But inside, we don’t believe that Assad and its allies will end the killing and move to a political course.” Instead, the measures would further exacerbate the living situation of society. The Caesar Act also means more inflation and more poverty.

That’s the current situation. Behind this Whatsapp message, Dr. Qaddour a sad smiley.

Mohamed: The majority of people live below the poverty line

Mohamed rarely uses smileys when he writes.

The 25-year-old is one of those who lost everything due to the war. His family’s house was destroyed in an air raid – they fled. Like almost a million other people, he lives in the makeshift refugee camps in the north near the border with Turkey. For over a year now. When asked how he is doing, he always answers briefly, usually in one word: “good”. Everyone is healthy, there is nothing new. Everyday life in the camp: monotonous, bleak, sad.

Syria Turkey border refugee Mohamed (private)Mohamed rarely sends smileys from Idlib

Hardly anyone has money here. But the pound’s decline is still an issue for Mohamed. “The majority of people in northern Syria live below the poverty line,” he says in a voice message. There are hardly any job opportunities in the region anyway, and now poverty is even increasing due to the enormously rising prices. And that – Mohamed continues – “has a negative impact on all people in Syria. No matter whether here with us or in the areas controlled by Assad.”

However, the situation in the Idlib region is particularly complicated. The last province held by Syrian rebels, near the Turkish border, is under the control of Islamist militias. They are mainly fighters from the Hayat Tahir al-Sham (HTS) group, which emerged from the Al Nusra front. Since the Assad troops are in the south of the province, all goods for Idlib must be imported across the Turkish border. The Turkish lira is already being used more and more as a means of payment.

Foreign exchange is scarce in and around Idlib. Many international donors have withdrawn out of fear of supporting extremists with their money. The currency decline is making the situation even more dramatic.

The HTS is in need of money. And that’s why he’s increasingly looking for ways to get cash quickly. For example, the Islamists arbitrarily increased taxes several times – for example on electricity or international relief supplies, which further fueled the anger of the population.

Mona: Discontent with the militias in Idlib is growing

For days there have been repeated demonstrations against the actions of Hayat Tahir al-Sham in Idlib. Mona shares the criticism: “I do not support anything that has to do with them. Never. I am against any armed group.”

When she opens the window in her apartment in the city center in the evening, she hears the horn and the war cries of the exasperated people shouting their hatred through the darkness. On Assad and on the HTS. “A demonstration was just around here a few days ago.” Around 500 participants were there, she estimates. “They shouted out loud: Overthrow the regime! The regime is to blame, and the militias are to blame. Protest the situation!” 

Mona does not believe that the protests will work. “Still, it’s the only thing people can do. They’re just scared to starve.” You have no idea what could come next. The situation in Idlib had simply become “unpredictable” due to the decline in the national currency. Sometimes, Mona writes, she just feels powerless. “Then I think I’ll break down.” 

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