The Syrian People's New Weapon Against Assad: Boycotts

Syrian protesters are calling on citizens to boycott products made or imported by friends of the regime, and are hoping foreign governments freeze investment in the country.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

"This product is not for eating, it's for killing," warns a picture showing a young Syrian holding a container of Nutella hazelnut and chocolate spread while his face is smeared red as if with blood. "I am boycotting it - and what about you?" the writing at the bottom of the advertisement asks.

An explanation is added: "Nutella chocolate - one percent chocolate and 99 percent humiliation."

A video still showing a soldier walking next to a tank in the Syrian city of Hama.Credit: Reuters

Why has the Facebook page of the Syrian protest movement decided to harass Nutella of all products? Because its importer, Habib Betinjaneh and his sons Tony and Iyad, announced support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Betinjaneh is also one of the biggest distributors of basic foodstuffs such as rice and sugar, a member of the board of directors of the one of the largest insurance companies in Syria, and a close friend of the Assad family.

Betinjaneh's eponymous company is not the only firm to be on the boycott list of the Syrian protest movement. Dozens of companies and businesses were named last week by the movement, which called on the citizens to refrain from doing business with them.

This included the car company controlled by Assad's cousin Rami Makhlouf, as well as companies owned by Firas Tlass, the son of former defense minister Mustafa Tlass, and the businesses of Habib Al-Houli, who was previously head of Intelligence in the Syrian air force and now serves as a special adviser to Assad. Also included on the list are dozens of companies owned by Majd Suleiman, including the Lebanese newspaper Al Balad - a fierce defender of the Syrian regime.

The organizers of the boycott say sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe have not had an effect on the regime and unless the citizens of Syria themselves begin a comprehensive consumer boycott against those with ties to Assad, the regime will be able to continue to pay for the acts of murder and to feel sure that it is able to survive.

The aspirations of the boycott organizers are much more far-reaching. They would like to see the freezing of foreign investments, and the cancellation of commercial agreements and future projects, especially on the part of Arab investors. Saudi Arabia, for example, pays for 22 agricultural and industrial projects in Syria and a few months ago, it loaned Damascus some $100 million; it also provides employment for thousands of Syrian workers.

Only two years ago, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia decided to renew ties with Bashar Assad after Riyadh cut them off four years earlier in the wake of the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. When the Saudi monarch visited Syria in 2009, he brought with him a huge commercial delegation which signed business deals with the Syrian regime.

But at the end of last week, Saudi Arabia joined in the important declaration by the council for cooperation of the six Gulf states which expressed scathing criticism of the Syrian regime. On Sunday, Riyadh recalled its ambassador from Damascus.

However, it is not merely Saudi Arabia that is a partner in the Syrian economy. In 2008, the Qatari real restate company, Qatari Diar, invested some $250 million in the construction of hundreds of housing units in the coastal city of Latakia, one of the focal points of the uprising.

Doha also sends millions of dollars to the Assad regime. One large project, a $6 billion electricity project by the Qatari electric corporation, was frozen by Syria after Damascus refused to give them a permit in retaliation for unfavorable coverage on the Qatari-based Al Jazeera television network.

Kuwait is also a massive investor in Syria, and Kuwaiti companies hold some 11 percent of the Syrian insurance market.

Turkey is also now threatening to apply sanctions of its own. The honeymoon of the past three years between the two countries which led to a huge increase in bilateral trade, from more than $2 billion to a peak of $5 billion, disintegrated following the civilian uprising and what Turkey's deputy prime minister described as "acts of terror."

In the past few days, Turkey sent Syria a "final warning" but the nature of this ultimatum is not clear: Does Turkey intend to freeze its investments in Syria, to withdraw Turkish companies from that country, or to lower its diplomatic representation in Damascus? For the Syrian regime, it is possible that even Turkish sanctions will not make a difference, but for the 21 million Syrian citizens who live off the foreign investments, such sanctions could heat up protests.

The scope of consumption in Syria (minus basic food commodities ) has dropped to almost half as unemployment has shot up from some 10 percent (the official figure ) to almost 20 percent. Syria has begun printing large amounts of money while Syrian capital of an estimated $20 billion is being smuggled abroad.

Citizens who took loans with government encouragement to buy new cars (the branch in which Makhlouf and his associates have control ) are no longer paying them and the Syrian banks (many of which have Lebanese partners ) are worried about collapse.

The boycott campaign by the protest movements in Syria might therefore turn into an effective tool against the regime, especially when the large merchants in the cities of Aleppo, Homs and Damascus - where the Sunni elites live who were granted far-reaching benefits in an attempt to win political legitimacy - begin to comprehend the nature of the "deal" they made with the regime.

But these economic considerations are coming up against a regime that has no intention of letting go, a regime that continues to speak of "national unity" and "foreign agents who are trying to cause the nation's collapse." The state will not hesistate to punish all those who violate the law. While the West is betting time will bring change, Syrians are being mowed down by the dozen.



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