Amid Syria's currency crisis, a new round of US sanctions against the Assad regime is due to come into force shortly. As life is getting worse for people in rebel-controlled Idlib, many still support the sanctions. Why?
"Madness." One word suffices for Mona to describe the world around her. As she passes through the streets of Idlib City on her way home from work, she sees many desperate people standing in line — at a pharmacies, at bakeries, desperate for some bread, desperate for medication. All of which cost thousands of Syrian pounds.
But what is money now worth? Little or nothing. Mona sees scenes that are new to her, even after nine long years of war: "I'm frightened that many people here will starve. What can I say? It feels as though we're suffocating."
Suffocating? That's right: suffocating. There is, it seems, never time to draw breath.
For months now, DW has been in contact with Mona and other inhabitants of Idlib province. It's not easy because the country's last main rebel-held territory is under siege. But they managed to send us impressions from everyday life via WhatsApp.
After intense fighting there was a moment of hope in early March when a fragile truce came into force. But what came next was the coronavirus. And now a new catastrophe is looming, with the Syrian pound (SYP) plummeting in value against the US dollar (USD).
For days, Syria's currency has been in free fall. The black market price for $1 has gone as high as 3,000 SYP. A year ago, it would have been 600.
There are many reasons for the drastic drop in value. After so many years of conflict, Syria's economy is at rock bottom. Worldwide uncertainty and global economic downturn due to the coronavirus pandemic is only adding to the agony, as does the financial collapse of neighboring Lebanon, where Syria traditionally does much of its international business.
For Mona, there is something else that is also crucial: "One factor in these developments are the new sanctions against the Assad regime," she says. "And the Caesar Act will soon be introduced."
The Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act, or Caesar Act for short, is a raft of far-reaching sanctions passed by the US Senate towards the end of 2019. It is named for the pseudonym of a Syrian officer who leaked thousands of photos of atrocities committed in Syrian prisons. The toughest US sanctions yet, the Caesar Act targets private individuals and companies that do business with the Assad regime. The measure is due to come into force on June 17.
Mona thinks that fundamentally it is the right approach: "Many people in Idlib support the package. And we believe the measures will weaken the regime. At the same time, of course, things will only get even worse for the local population. The economy is struggling and the currency is crumbling." In recent days the price of bread has doubled. A lot of traders are not even opening their stores for business. Economic life in Idlib is effectively being driven to a halt.
Comparatively speaking, Mona herself is doing all right. The 25-year-old is married and works for an international relief organization. Her salary is paid in US dollars. But she, too, is feeling the squeeze. As the local currency loses value, prices rise dramatically. Meat is off the shopping list: "out of the question," she says. And there are no vegetables at home, either. The electricity grid goes down regularly. All she has are some staples like rice and flour.
In the hospital in the small town of Aqrabat, not far from the Turkish border, Dr. Sameeh Qaddour says he is not yet feeling the full thrust of the pain of economic and currency decline: "For the time being, we're still relatively well-equipped," says the 48-year-old physician. His hospital specializes in orthopedic and reconstructive surgery and the dollar is the official currency.
To avoid bottlenecks in procuring medication and other medical supplies, Qaddour and his colleagues seek to find partners willing to support the clinic: international organizations and smaller aid projects. What the hospital really needs, the doctor underlines, is a "robust medical supply chain."
What he witnesses outside the hospital disturbs him. People no longer have any hope; they have given up believing that there will ever be an end to their suffering. "Everybody has more worries than before. Fear of hunger. Fear that the war will again flare up and force more people out of their homes."
Like Mona, Qaddour supports the Caesar Act sanctions: "But deep down inside we no longer really believe that it will persuade Assad and his allies (Ed. note.: Russia and Iran) to stop killing people and adopt a different political strategy." Instead, the measures might make things even worse for ordinary people. After all, the Caesar Act also means more inflation and more poverty.
That is, it seems, simply the way it is. Qaddour adds a sad smiley to his WhatsApp message.
Living below the poverty line
Mohamed rarely uses smileys in his messages. The 25-year-old is among those who have lost everything because of the Syrian war. His family home was destroyed in an air raid. They were forced to flee and, like almost a million others, he found himself living in a makeshift refugee camp in the north of the country close to the border with Turkey. He has now been there for over a year. Ask him how he is doing, it will be a one-word answer, probably "good." Everybody is well. Nothing to report.
Life in the camp is monotonous and depressing. Nobody has much money. But the collapse in the value of the Syrian pound is nevertheless a hot topic for Mohamed: "Most people in northern Syria are living below the poverty line," he says in a voicemail.
There are hardly any jobs in the region and the massive increase in prices is certain to create more poverty. Mohamed says that will only mean one thing: "things will get even worse for everybody in Syria, regardless of whether they are here in the Idlib region or in territory controlled by Assad and his forces."
Still, the situation in the Idlib region is especially complex. It is the last province in the hands of Syrian rebel forces. The area is controlled by Islamist militia, mainly fighters loyal to the Hayat Tahir al-Sham (HTS) group that emerged from the Al Nusra Front. Because forces loyal to the Assad regime control the south, all goods destined for Idlib have to be imported via the Turkish border.
Foreign currencies are increasingly scarce in and around Idlib as the Turkish lira is becoming the preferred means of payment. Many international donors have withdrawn from the region for fear of using their funds to support militants. The currency crisis has only made things worse.
The HTS is also in a funding crisis and on the lookout for new sources of cash. Which explains why the Islamists have repeatedly imposed new and arbitrary taxes, for instance on electricity or international aid supplies. It has stirred up considerable anger among the people of the region.
Anger against Idlib militias on the rise
For several days now, there have been demonstrations in Idlib against the HTS militia and its policies. Mona shares the criticism of HTS: "I don't support anything that they get up to. Nothing. I'm against all the armed groups."
When evening comes and she opens the window in her city-center apartment, Mona can hear the honking of horns and the battlecries of the desperate, the despondent and the angry, all giving vent to the hatred they feel. Hatred of Assad. Hatred of Islamist armed forces like HTS. "Just a couple of days ago there was a demonstration right here in this vicinity," says Mona. About 500 protesters, she guesses: "They were shouting 'Down with the regime! The regime is to blame!' and !The militias are to blame! Protest against the situation!'"
Yet she is doubtful the protests will change anything: "Still, it's the only thing people can do. They're terrified of starving." They have no idea what is going to come next, writes Mona. The currency crisis in Idlib has made the situation "unpredictable." Sometimes, she adds, she feels completely powerless. Completely helpless. "And then I think I'll collapse and not get up again."
DW's Abbas Al Khashali, Peter Craven, and Kyra Levine contributed to this report