Emirati Cash Lands in Syria, but It Can't Save Its Crumbling Economy

Money from Iran and the UAE winds up in the coffers of security forces and militias, while civilians are short on fuel for food and heating, and rarely have electricity

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A picture taken with a drone shows tents of internally displaced Syrians in Northern Aleppo countryside, Syria, December 19, 2020.
A picture taken with a drone shows tents of internally displaced Syrians in Northern Aleppo countryside, Syria, December 19, 2020.Credit: Mahmoud Hassano/Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

A Syrian Tupolev plane laden with dollars landed last month at the al-Mazzeh military airbase near Damascus. It came from the United Arab Emirates, and according to reports on the al-Khalij Online website, the person responsible for the delivery was Bushra al-Assad, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s sister.

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A resident of Dubai, Bushra Assad is the widow of former Syrian intelligence head Assaef Shawkat, who died in an explosion in 2012. Moreover, she is a close friend of Dahi Halfan, commander of the Dubai police force and the man in charge of internal security, who oversaw the operational aspect of the cash delivery.

After the plane landed, presidential guard soldiers delivered the precious shipment to the cellars of the central bank in Damascus. A few days later, the bank began flooding the market with dollars with the aim of stopping the collapse of the Syrian pound, for which the exchange rate is now close to 3,000 to the U.S. dollar.

Internally displaced Syrians warm themselves around a fire at a camp in the Northern Aleppo countryside, Syria, December 17, 2020.Credit: Mahmoud Hassano/Reuters

The Emiratis aren’t just confining themselves to financial aid to the Assad regime; they are also training Syrian pilots as well as intelligence agents in their territory, according to reports in Western and Arab media. This training contravenes the American law known as the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which prohibits cooperation with the Assad regime in any area, especially with regard to military affairs.

Until now, there was knowledge of extensive aid that was coming and is continuing to come from Iran. The estimates range from $30 billion to $100 billion since 2011, some of this in credit lines Iran is extending to Assad and some in direct cash transfers and oil shipments. However, these funds are sucked into government agencies, particularly the coffers of the security forces and the militias operating in areas controlled by the regime, and don’t reach the civilian population.

Shoppers walk past shops in the northern Syrian city of Raqa, the former Syrian capital of the Islamic State group, December 20, 2020.Credit: Delil SOULEIMAN/AFP

Subsidized prices, nothing to buy

In Syria, apparently, they are celebrating the festival of lights every day of the year.

Needy citizens receive smart cards for purchasing their fuel rations and subsidized basic commodities, but these are either insufficient or not allotted in timely fashion. Thus, for example, every citizen is entitled to 100 liters (26.5 gallons) of fuel oil a month at the government price, but even this minuscule amount does not always arrive at the filling stations that have become daily meeting places for dozens of drivers who wait in line for the last drops. Every citizen is also entitled monthly to two liters of cooking oil and one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of rice, the price of which is 560 Syrian pounds (about $0.20), less than half the market price of about 1,400 Syrian pounds.

A drone picture shows a camp for displaced Syrians near the town of Kafr Lusin by the border with Turkey, in Syria's rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib, December 15, 2020.Credit: Aaref WATAD/AFP

A large part of the consumer goods is sold by government trade agencies that instead of helping citizens act as a competitive element in the market. Thus, for example, the government has set the price of mutton at 9,00 Syrian pounds per kilogram (2.2 lbs.) and for every deviation butchers are expected to pay stiff fines. At the same time, it allows its trade agencies, which control about 60 percent of the meat market, to sell it at the price of 13,000 Syrian pounds per kilo.

A survey of the gaps between the humanitarian needs and the actual funding conducted by the Syrian website Enab Baladi has shown that only about $1.9 billion of the $3.4 billion needed for humanitarian funding has arrived. The greatest gap is in the area of food security, more than 50 percent, followed by funding to fight the coronavirus pandemic, for which $179 million of the approximately $205 million needed to deal with its effects have arrived.

About two-thirds of the inhabitants of the areas under government control are living under the poverty line. The official figures indicate that the cost of living has soared by about 74 percent in 2020. A family needs about $304 a month to get by while the average monthly salary of a civil servant, and there are about 2 million of them, is about $24. It is difficult to imagine how such a family manages to live for even a week, never mind a month.

The situation varies between provinces. In the northern areas controlled by the opposition and the Kurds, life is more organized; food and fuel are available in reasonable quantities. These are the provinces where the oil is produced, some of which is sold to the Syrian government.

“Everyone finds his solutions,” one citizen told the opposition website Qasioun. “A teacher, an office worker, a bus driver – all of them have two or three jobs, whatever they can get. Some of them smuggle goods form the northern provinces to the south, others smuggle from Lebanon or sell to Lebanon, some of them steal and rob and some die of hunger.”

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is also the Saudi defense minister, arrives at the Future Investment Initiative FII conference in the Saudi capital RiyadhCredit: GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP

Iran's economic grip

The national budget for 2021 has been pegged at $2.7 billion, about 83 percent smaller than the 2011 budget and the lowest in the past decade. About one-third of it is designated for relief and subsidies, another considerable portion is earmarked for salaries and the rest for paying domestic and foreign debts.

The development allocation is a joke. There is effectively not enough money left in the state coffers to rebuild destroyed homes, repair roads or maintain the schools. The grandiose plans for rehabilitating the country require hundreds of billions of dollars, fantastical amounts. It is impossible to predict who will agree to provide that money to the Syrian regime, especially when there is no diplomatic solution visible on the horizon.

The country’s future is also mortgaged, some of it to Russian companies that won generous contracts for gas and oil prospecting and some in real estate assets that were sold at rock-bottom prices to Iran to service the country’s debt.

Internally displaced Syrian boys push a cart at a camp in the Northern Aleppo countryside, Syria, December 19, 2020.Credit: Mahmoud Hassano/Reuters

It appears that the dreadful humanitarian situation in Syria is of no interest to anyone. President-elect Joe Biden has thus far not presented any action plan to rescue it or any intention to intervene in Syria, apart from his opposition to withdrawing the American forces deployed there to protect the Kurds.

The single rescue path that might help Assad is in fact the Gulf states like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which could see the crisis in Syria as an opportunity to restore Assad to the bosom of the Arab world and to detach him from the Iranian teat.

Possibly the aid that Assad is getting from the Emirates is part of the same plan which the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, may join to help improve his relations with the United States, especially vis-à-vis Biden, who has not concealed his loathing of the crown prince. If this is their intention, they may find an encouraging partner in Russia, which desires to restore Assad’s Arab legitimacy and thereby his international legitimacy, so it can finally resolve the crisis.