Assad's New Syria: A Police State With Rampant Poverty and a Playground for Superpowers

As the Syrian crisis enters its ninth year, the grievances that caused the initial outbreak of mass protests — corruption, political repression and inequality — have only gotten worse

Men inspect the damage after an airstrike on the rebel held al-Qaterji neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria September 25, 2016
ABDALRHMAN ISMAIL/ REUTERS

Eight years after the start of the Syrian uprising, the civil war sparked by the regime’s violent crackdown on Syrian protesters appears to have been decidedly won by President Bashar Assad. In the first months of the uprising, when pro-regime militias were sent to suppress and arrest protesters, they would routinely graffiti walls with the saying “Assad or we burn the country” — in other words, accept the rule of the Syrian president or face destruction.

Eight years into the crisis, Syria’s economy is in tatters, half of its population displaced, hundreds of thousands of Syrians are dead, many of Syria’s cities and towns lie in ruins. Yet on top of this pile of ashes Assad sits comfortably, quite secure in his grip on power.

In areas reconquered by the regime — or as the regime euphemistically describes it, areas that “reconciled” and whose residents “returned to the bosom of the nation” — the Syrian police state is back, more aggressive than ever.

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During 2018, regime forces backed by the Russian air force and supported by pro-Iranian militias were able to retake multiple rebel-held pockets and areas, such as eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus; the northern Homs countryside; and the entire area controlled by the opposition in southern Syria, including the area adjacent to the Golan Heights.

The majority of local residents in those pockets chose to surrender to the regime rather than be displaced from their homes to rebel-held areas in Idlib and Aleppo, which are subjected to occasional Syrian regime and Russian airstrikes and shelling.

A rebel fighter gestures as he shoots his weapon during clashes with forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad on the frontline of Aleppo's Sheikh Saeed neighbourhood May 23, 2015
REUTERS/Hosam Katan

In 2011, Syrians took pride in “breaking the barrier of fear.” But fear now prevails, as the various branches of the regime’s secret police launch raids and arrest suspected disloyal elements. Many of those arrested are former activists, rebels, health and rescue workers, and civil society leaders. Syrians who wish to prove their loyalty to the regime, obtain power through it or simply settle personal scores inform on others to the regime.

Suhail al-Ghazi, a Syrian analyst based in Istanbul, told Haaretz that Syrians are informing on each other “because they have been doing it for years or because they need money or favors from the regime.” In areas recently recaptured by the regime, “some locals were always pro-regime and stayed there to work as informants or just could not leave. Now they have the chance to take revenge on the majority of civilians who apparently held a more favorable view of the opposition,” Ghazi explained.

Endemic poverty, corruption and war-profiteering

Most of Syria’s population now lives below the poverty line. Across all parts of Syria unemployment rates are high, as the normal economy has been disrupted by years of war and the mass flight of businesspeople and capital out of the country. Syria’s middle class has largely disappeared — many of them fled to neighboring countries or Europe, while others are now living in abject poverty, along with most Syrians.

A small group of war profiteers linked to the various armed groups have been able to enrich themselves by trading in oil, weapons, antiquities, stealing aid, and smuggling people and goods in and out of the country and into besieged areas, while most Syrians struggle to survive. Nearly two-thirds of Syrians are dependent on aid for their subsistence. Basic services like electricity, cooking gas, clean water and health services are lacking in many parts of the country.

Reports coming out of areas under regime control indicate that corruption has never been worse. The general lawlessness, rise of war profiteers and impoverishment of civil servants — whose salaries have not kept up with the devaluation of the Syrian pound — are all exacerbating corruption, which was systemic even before the uprising started and in fact was one of the reasons for the outbreak of public discontent.

Map showing number of Syrian refugees in neighboring countries and charts showing change in the number of refugees by month
Reuters

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a resident of Latakia — an area where many of the regime’s leadership and their relatives reside — told Haaretz: “You have corruption everywhere. Bribing was common before the war, but now it is endemic.”

He described the ostentatious displays of ill-gotten wealth: “High-ranking officials, they and their families, have more rights. They roam the city in fancy cars and do whatever they want. Half of the country is dying from hunger, while the sons of officials are arrogantly showing off their wealth. With money you can do everything. This is not new, but it has become more obvious because of the lawlessness prevailing in Syria.”

No mass return or reconstruction

At least 6 million Syrians have become refugees throughout the civil war, most of them residing in countries neighboring Syria. In 2018, Assad’s main backer, Russia, intensified its engagement with countries hosting Syrian refugees, encouraging them to send back refugees, alongside hefty sums of money to allow for the reconstruction of the country, necessary for the return of refugees.

Recognizing that Syrian refugees would not be safe if they returned, European countries largely ignored these calls. However, Lebanon and Jordan — which together host about 3 million Syrian refugees, who are straining their budgets and causing social tensions — are increasingly pushing Syrians to return by adopting policies depriving refugees of residency and preventing their integration into the local labor market.

Despite these coercive policies and a generally unwelcome environment in countries where most Syrian refugees reside, few among them are volunteering to return to their homeland. Reports indicate that several refugees who have returned to Syria have been arrested and killed under torture. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which avoids criticizing the Syrian regime to maintain access to the country, has resisted pressure to certify that those returning to Syria will be safe.

Many Syrians are not returning because they have no homes to which to return or lack documentation to prove they own their properties. Damascus is also expropriating properties through a series of laws intended to dispossess opposition supporters and displace communities perceived as disloyal from central locations in major cities. Those communities, such as Baba Amr in Homs, and Qaboun and Basateen al-Razi in Damascus, are being replaced by luxury apartment buildings, whose developers are intimately tied to the inner circle of the Assad regime.

The Syrian regime is broke. The country’s budget, almost in its entirely, is devoted to providing basic services and paying the salaries of state employees — a crucial constituency for the preservation and stability of the regime. Syria and its backers Iran and Russia — aptly named the “Axis of Insolvency” by journalist Gregg Carlstrom — cannot afford to reconstruct Syria at an estimated cost of at least $250 billion.

Donor countries are largely deterred from pouring money into Syria until some form of political transition occurs. Investors are disinterested in rebuilding the country due to immense corruption, fear of sanctions and the limited opportunities to make a profit, since the purchasing power of most Syrians is at an all-time low. This means Syria and its economy will be in a shambolic state for years to come, as most local residents can not afford to rebuild their homes, let alone invest in rebuilding infrastructure and factories.

Reliance on Iran and Russia

Through its brutal suppression of the armed rebellion, the regime has been able to terrorize most Syrians into submission. However, rebels continue to hold Idlib and its environs, and launch occasional attacks beyond the front lines. The threat of a small-scale insurgency in areas formerly controlled by the rebels and ISIS is already materializing in the eastern desert and Daraa. Throughout the war, the regime ceded much of its sovereignty to Russia, Iran and local militias in exchange for support for its armed forces.

Read more: New Assad Statue Triggers Protest in Cradle of Syrian Revolt

As fighting subsided, Damascus disbanded some of the auxiliary militias tied to pro-regime businessmen and war profiteers. The Syrian Army, never a formidable fighting force, is exhausted after years of war and relies on mass arrest campaigns to draft Syrian men into its ranks. With the exception of elite army units largely made up of Alawite men, such as the 4th Armored Division and the Republican Guard, the Syrian Army is largely made up of forced conscripts who perform poorly in the battlefield. As a result, Damascus continues to require the support of both pro-Iranian militias and Russian advisers on the ground and the Russian air force, at least until the last pockets of the insurgency are quashed or cease to pose a threat.

Russian troops at Hemeimeem air base in Syria, March 15, 2016
Vadim Grishankin,AP

While Russia and Iran are united in their goal of keeping the Syrian regime in power, they also wish to convert their military contribution to increase their influence in the country — at times at each other’s expense. Moscow and Tehran are working to establish and expand military structures that are aligned with them: In Iran’s case, militias linked to Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force, many of them operating under the umbrella of the Local Defense Forces; Russia, on the other hand, is working to professionalize the Syrian Army, while supervising the formation of the 5th Assault Corps.

Both countries are also seeking to secure profit-generating ventures, few of which are available in Syria and are largely concentrated on the extraction of Syria’s limited reserves of national resources.

As the Syrian crisis enters its ninth year, the grievances that caused the outbreak of mass protests — corruption, political repression and inequality — remain entirely unaddressed. In fact, by all metrics conditions inside Syria have gotten worse. But the outbreak of a new uprising is not on the horizon as Syrians are exhausted after years of war and yearn for stability.

Throughout the years of the civil war, Syria shifted from being a conflict between local forces to an arena of regional and even global conflict. As fighting subsides, these power plays by foreign actors — particularly between Russia, Iran and Israel — will likely intensify, largely relegating Syrians to the role of victims and spectators.

Elizabeth Tsurkov is a Research Fellow specializing in Syria at Israeli think tank the Forum for Regional Thinking. She can be followed on Twitter @Elizrael.