Eleven years of gradual economic reform have sputtered to a halt in Syria over the past six months amid nationwide revolts against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Gone are the halcyon years of a booming tourism industry, the headway made by the region’s youngest stock exchange and the foreign direct investment that had spiked since 2005 to reach $2.9 billion in 2010. Meanwhile, the expatriate Syrians lured back from corporate jobs in the Gulf and the West to join the fledgling financial sector have, by and large, packed their bags and left as the crackdown on demonstrators escalates. Between 2,600 and 5,400 have been killed, according to varying estimates, as Executive went to print.
The short-lived economic renaissance of sorts steered by Assad and Abdullah Dardari, a London School of Economics graduate and now former deputy prime minister, took a further blow when the United States and the European Union slapped multiple sanctions on prominent members of the Syrian regime and close economic partners in May, and imposed further rounds of sanctions in August and September that included the oil sector.
Tightening the screws
The EU has been selective in what individuals and entities it has targeted for sanctions.
On May 9 and May 23, members of the regime were designated, including President Assad and his maternal cousin, billionaire businessman Rami Makhlouf, whose portfolio includes Cham Holding and mobile operator Syriatel, and who the EU stated was targeted because he “bankrolls the regime allowing violence.” On September 2, the EU listed prominent businessmen and businesses for providing “economic support to the regime”, such as the presidents of the Damascus and Aleppo chambers of industry — respectively, Tarif Akhras, head of the Akhras Group, and Issam Anbouba, president of Issa Anbouba Establishment for agro-industry — as well as Cham Holding and certain subsidiaries, and the state-run Real Estate Bank.
On September 23, a further 15 regime members were added (bringing the total to 43 members of the regime and associated businessmen), as well as five Syrian intelligence and military directorates. A further six entities were added to the ‘banned’ list, including Addounia TV and Syriatel, as its licensing contract “pays 50 percent of its profits to the government.”
The EU moves allow for the freezing of the European assets of the individuals targeted and prohibits their travel to Europe. The latest sanctions also prohibited the selling, buying and export, directly or indirectly, of new Syrian banknotes and coinage printed or minted in the EU, to the Central Bank of Syria, as large amounts of Syrian currency had, until then, been produced in Austria. The September sanctions also prohibited financial loans, credit or joint ventures with listed persons or entities.
The US sanctions, issued May 27 and September 1, focused on military-linked businesses, Syrian hydrocarbon companies and Cham Holding, and prevent American companies from doing business with the figures in question. Sanctions were also renewed against the state-run Commercial Bank of Syria (initially blacklisted by the US in 2004 for financing terrorism), and Syrian-issued MasterCard and Visa cards have been frozen. The US and EU-blacklisted companies and individuals contacted by Executive refused to comment.
“Sanctions are not a silver bullet,” said Andrew Tabler, a Next Generation Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy (WINEP) and author of recently published “In The Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria.”
“They are more like ways you can find to ratchet up the pressure in very specific ways to try and bring about some breaks in the regime, for instance, in getting elites to move away from [it],” he said.
The economic sanctions are an obvious psychological blow to the regime and its cadres, but do not have the same impact as those on the oil sector, which accounts for an estimated 20 to 30 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
That said, while the latest sanctions have not directly targeted international trade outside of oil, wariness on the part of international shippers to trade with Syria and a sharp drop in domestic demand has seen cargo shipments at the port of Lattakia plummet, dropping 13 percent since the beginning of the unrest in March on the year before and 36 percent year-on-year in June alone, according to statistics published by the port’s operating authority. Reuters last month quoted shipping sources as saying volumes at the ports of both Lattakia and Tartous have shrunk as much as 40 percent in the first eight months of 2011, relative to last year.
Trade with strategic partner Turkey has also plunged, with Syrian exports to Turkey in June dropping 59.3 percent, to $48 million, from the same period last year, while Turkish exports to Syria declined by 18.1 percent to $113 million, according to Turkish government figures.
Trade with the US, however, has been negligible for years, with 2010 bilateral trade estimated at $928 million, or 2.4 percent of all trade, following the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003 that banned all exports except food and medicine, prohibited American businesses from operating or investing in Syria, blocked transactions on Syrian property and tightened the aviation sanctions first imposed in 1984. However, Syria was able to successfully bypass these earlier sanctions by re-exporting American goods through Jordan, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates. Where the US has hurt Syria is by limiting the leverage of Syrian banks internationally, and it could deliver a huge blow should it succeed in its efforts to put pressure on Turkey to also impose sanctions.
A bigger blow to Syria is the impact on trade with the EU; the economic bloc is the country’s largest trade partner and aid donor, accounting for 22.5 percent of Syria’s foreign trade in 2010.
But as a trade partner, Syria ranks low down on the major import and export list for the EU, accounting for just 0.2 percent of imports and 0.3 percent of exports in 2010, and ranked 50th of the EU’s trade partners, according to International Monetary Fund (IMF) statistics. Nonetheless, the sanctions have had an effect.
“While EU trade sanctions are limited to the oil sector, non-oil trade with Europe has been affected as European companies have been limiting their trade with Syria, and the Syrian government itself is encouraging Syrians not to trade with Europe,” said Nabil Sukkar, a former World Bank economist and head of the Syrian Consulting Bureau for Development and Investment in Damascus.
No investment ban
The EU sanctions have not included an investment ban on European companies doing business in Syria, although this could be the next step. “I think an investment ban is coming. But what impact will it have? The largest investment [by the EU] is in the petroleum sector,” WINEP’s Tabler said.
Italy, whose bilateral trade with Syria was worth $2.69 billion in 2010 and which is Syria’s fourth largest import partner, has managed to delay the enforcement of EU oil sanctions until November. The European Investment Bank has stopped all loans to Syria and EU aid programs totaling $185 million have been slashed by 62 percent. The aid had gone towards funding infrastructure projects and providing expertise to the private sector.
But Sukkar believes such a move by the EU is disingenuous. “The cut in EU aid to Syria, intended originally to support economic liberalization, will strengthen the tendency of the new government to bring back controls. So sanctions will be counterproductive, they will hurt citizens’ livelihoods and will help the reversal of Syria’s liberalization policies,” he said.
For the sanctions to work beyond the oil sector, other revenue streams need to be targeted, said Tabler, hitting more prominent businesses in Damascus and Aleppo, particularly those with ties to Western firms such as the Joud Group, which manufactures and distributes Pepsi under license, and the Attar Group, which handles distribution for multinational pharmaceutical companies and electronic and software companies Sony, IBM and Lexmark, as well as being the country sales agent for Alitalia.
Other businessmen that could be targeted — listed in a report by the US Congressional Research Service but so far not sanctioned by Washington — are Majd Suleiman, head of media conglomerate United Group and son of Bahjat Suleiman, a former General Security Director officer, as well as Firas Tlass, the son of former Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass and head of the MAS Economic Group. Reducing the profit margins of major companies paying taxes to the regime would dent the Syrian treasury.
While Sukkar is against the sanctions, he suggested that such specific targeting would make a mark.
“The impact on specific companies and individuals… will deter others from establishing business relations with establishment figures,” he said. “But the imposed sanctions will not topple the regime and will not cripple the economy. Instead it will create economic and social damage, affecting both government finances and citizens’ livelihoods.”
“We will forget that Europe is on the map”
The Syrian government has, unsurprisingly, played down the impact of the sanctions. At a press conference in Damascus in June, Foreign Minister Walid al-Mu’allem responded to the first round of EU sanctions by saying: “We will forget that Europe is on the map, and we will turn to the east, to the south and all directions that extend a hand to Syria.”
The Syrians have lived up to their word to look elsewhere for alternative trade partners. Over the summer, Syrian officials went on a mission to get trade agreements with Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia. Grain, for instance, has been purchased from Ukraine; a necessary import as Syria no longer produces enough food for its domestic consumption and agriculture output has not been as high as expected this year due to the ongoing drought in much of the country.
Russia has criticized the EU sanctions, and as of August continued to supply arms to Syria. In early September, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Russia was “a great friend of Syria” and “a country with which we have numerous economic and political contacts.”
Closer to home, the Arab League at the end of August called for an “end to the spilling of blood and for Syria to follow the way of reason before it is too late,” but has not gone as far as calling for an economic boycott or annulling Syria’s membership in the Greater Arab Free Trade Area. Damascus rejected the league’s statement, as did Beirut, signaling that bilateral trade with Lebanon will continue. Such support from Beirut, Moscow and its allies, albeit limited, does dampen the effectiveness of the US and EU sanctions.
“Syria will be able to mitigate the impact of sanctions through deepening economic ties with Iraq, Iran, Russia and other Asian countries. Also Lebanon will always accommodate Syrian business needs for financial transfers,” said Sukkar.
According to shipping sources in Beirut, trade with Syria has not been affected and is very much ‘business as usual’. Lebanese banks hold accounts for Syrian officials, including Rami Makhlouf, according to a banking source, although banks agreed, unofficially at a Union of Arab Banks meeting, not to carry out international transactions on behalf of Syrians, or provide alternative names or addresses. Meanwhile, Finance Minister Mohammed al-Safadi said following meetings in Washington and with the IMF in late September that it was not in the interest of Lebanon to be the financial hub of Syria, and that Lebanese banks have taken measures to align with the international sanctions. If upheld, this could also affect foreign remittances on behalf of Syrians.
If ties with Iraq cool, as Baghdad has recently hinted at, and Turkey joins in on the sanctions — Ankara has already intercepted arms shipments — the Assad regime will find itself increasingly isolated. “Syria would be surrounded. And it is not like Jordan has a lot of love for Syria,” said Tabler. Indeed, if Jordan closed its borders, this would have a major effect on Syrian trade with the Hashemite kingdom and Saudi Arabia, Syria’s third largest trade partner. The loss of Iraq as an export destination would be equally devastating, accounting for 30.3 percent of total exports, or $4.6 billion, in 2010.
If protests against President Assad continue, Syrians will have to “tighten their
belts”, according to Syrian Central bank Governor Adib Mayaleh
Sound as a pound?
Syria’s Finance Minister, Mohammad Jleilati, was trying to put on a brave face when he said on the sidelines of a meeting of Arab finance ministers in Abu Dhabi in early September that the economy will grow by 1 percent this year. A recent IMF report estimates Syria’s economy will contract by 2 percent, while the Institute of International Finance estimated the economy will contract at least 4 percent this year and the fiscal deficit will widen to more than 6 percent of GDP.
But Tabler and other sources Executive spoke with suggest the Syrian economy could shrink as much as 20 percent; tourism revenue (worth more than $8 billion last year) has almost completely vanished, the cities of Homs, Hama, Deir ez Zor and Daraa have been at a virtual economic standstill for months, banks are reporting steep declines in assets and trade is falling off. Syria has seen roughly $2 billion in capital flight this year, and the Central Bank of Syria (CBS) has had to spend at least $2 billion defending the Syria pound (SYP), according to CBS Governor Adib Mayaleh, though the official exchange rate has still slipped slightly, from SYP46 to the dollar in March to SYP48.41 in September.
CBS foreign reserves are officially at $18 billion, although sources peg that number nearer $15 billion, and Mayaleh said Syria has a $5 billion fund created several years ago for the specific purpose of supporting the currency during crises, although he did not make clear whether it was included in the total reserves. Syria also has an estimated 25.8 tons of gold reserves, according to the World Gold Council data, worth roughly $1.4 billion at average world gold prices at the end of last month.
The currency reserves will allow Syria to cover import needs for over 20 months, according to the finance ministry, but that also depends on countries staying friendly with Damascus and remaining willing to trade. Furthermore, international currency rates could cause Syria more fiscal woes than it is already facing, having lost access to the dollar on the global markets.
“Restrictions on money transfers in dollars, initiated from outside as well as by the CBS, have disrupted trade,” said Sukkar. “There will be further disruptions in trade if the EU imposes restrictions on transfers in euros. Then Syria will have to go to other convertible currencies, such as the [British] pound and the Japanese yen, both of which have been as volatile as the dollar and the euro over the past year.”
How well the central bank handles these challenges will be key to the continued funding of the Syrian regime amid increased economic isolation and the possibility of further sanctions.
A faltering economy and diving business prospects would undoubtedly erode support for the regime among middle class Syrians and the business elite — groups which, to this point, have largely backed the Assad government. But in the war of attrition that sanctions amount to, whether they have the desired effect of shaking the regime’s iron grip on power, or whether they harm everyday Syrians more than anyone else, are still open questions.
“[It] all depends on agricultural production, oil prices and how much overall economic demand has dropped,” said Tabler. “The real challenge is for the sanctions to hit the regime more than anyone else.”
|MAJOR TRADE PARTNERS 2010|
|Imports||Value||Percent overall trade|
|European Union||$4.85 bn||18.7|
|South Korea||$1.02 bn||3.9|
|Export||Value||Percent overall trade|
|European Union||$4.43 bn||29|
|Saudi Arabia||$769 mn||5|
|Top 10 Trade Partners (export and import)|
|European Union||$9.32 bn||22.5|
|Saudi Arabia||$3.7 bn||9|
|South Korea||$1.11 bn||2.7|
|Overall Total||$41.36 bn||100|
|Source: IMF, EU|