Written by Ben Hubbard and Hwaida Saad
In a private meeting with pro-government journalists, President Bashar Assad was asked about Syria’s economic meltdown: the currency collapse that has gutted salaries, the skyrocketing prices for basic goods and the chronic shortages of fuel and bread.
“I know,” he said, according to two people with knowledge of the discussion. “I know.”
But he offered no concrete steps to stem the crisis beyond floating this idea: Television channels should cancel cooking shows so as not to taunt Syrians with images of unattainable food.
As the 10-year anniversary of Syria’s civil war looms, Assad’s most immediate threats are not the rebel factions and foreign powers that still control large swaths of the country. Instead, it is the crushing economic crisis that has hobbled the reconstruction of destroyed cities, impoverished the population and left a growing number of Syrians struggling to get enough food.
The private meeting with Syrian journalists last month, which has not been previously reported, offered a rare, unvarnished look at a leader who seemed out of touch with the real concerns troubling his people and helpless to do anything about them. The New York Times was informed of the discussion by someone briefed by several of the journalists, and the details were confirmed directly by one of the attendees.
Even speaking in private, Assad stuck with the platitudes that characterize his public speeches. Wearing a dark suit and speaking with a professorial air, he blamed a range of forces for Syria’s woes: the “brutality” of world capitalism, “brainwashing” by social media and an ill-defined “neoliberalism” that was eroding the country’s values.
Lest anyone worry, he assured the journalists, Syria will not make peace with Israel or legalize same-sex marriage.
Those are not the issues most Syrians are worrying about.
Syria’s economy is worse than at any time since the war began in 2011. This month, the Syrian pound reached an all-time low against the dollar on the black market, decimating the value of salaries and rocketing up the cost of imports.
Food prices have more than doubled in the last year. The World Food Program warned this month that 60% of Syrians, or 12.4 million people, were at risk of going hungry, the highest number ever recorded.
Most Syrians now devote their days to finding fuel to cook and warm their homes, and standing in long lines for rationed pita. Power shortages are constant, with some areas getting only a few hours of electricity a day, barely enough for people to keep their cellphones charged.
Desperate women have taken to selling their hair to feed their families.
“I had to sell my hair or my body,” a mother of three said recently in a hair salon near Damascus, speaking on condition of anonymity, like others interviewed for this article, for fear of arrest.
Her husband, a carpenter, was ill and only sporadically employed, she said, and she needed heating oil for the house and winter coats for her children.
With the $55 she got for her hair, which will be used to make wigs, she bought 2 gallons of heating oil, clothes for her children and a roast chicken, the first her family had tasted in three months.
She cried from shame for two days afterward.
The falling currency means that doctors now earn the equivalent of less than $50 a month. The head of the doctors’ syndicate said recently that many were going abroad for work, to Sudan and Somalia, among the rare countries that allow easy entry for Syrians but neither of which has a strong economy. Other professionals earn much less.
“People’s concern, more than anything else, is food and fuel,” a Damascus musician said. “Everything is abnormally expensive, and people are terrified to open their mouths.”
The causes are multiple and overlapping: widespread damage and displacement from the war; sweeping Western sanctions on Assad’s government and associates; a banking collapse in neighboring Lebanon, where wealthy Syrians kept their money; and lockdowns to combat the coronavirus.
Assad has no easy way out. Most of the country’s oil fields and much of its agricultural land are in the northeast, which is controlled by Kurdish-led forces backed by the United States.
Syria’s closest allies, Russia and Iran, invested heavily to help Assad win the war, but both have their own economic problems and can offer little help. Russia has continued to provide substantial military aid to Syria but limited humanitarian assistance.
“The socio-economic situation in Syria today is extremely difficult,” Alexander Efimov, the Russian ambassador to Syria, told Russian news agency RIA Novosti this month. But sending support was “very difficult,” he said because Russia, too, was suffering from the pandemic and Western sanctions.
Last week, having arrested a young Israeli woman who had wandered into Syria, the Syrian government used her as a bargaining chip to obtain the release of two Syrian shepherds and 60,000 coronavirus vaccines, for which Israel paid Russia $1.2 million.
Despite these problems, Assad remains in control. After nearly a decade of fighting, the war has settled into a stalemate, with about two-thirds of the country and most of its population nominally under Assad’s government.
Now he’s looking ahead, hoping that winning a sham presidential election this spring will convince his foes to abandon hopes for regime change and accept him as Syria’s once and future leader. His office did not respond to a request to comment for this article, including questions about his meeting with the journalists.
Part of his strategy is keeping a tight lid on any hint of dissent.
Last month, Hala Jerf, a former news announcer on Syrian state television, posted a quote from Jean-Jacques Rousseau on Facebook in answer to the question, “What is the nation?”
“In respect of riches, no citizen shall ever be wealthy enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself,” she wrote.
She was arrested for violating the country’s “electronic crimes” laws.
There was even a tense moment at the private meeting with journalists when one asked how the president would handle the anger among his supporters over the poor economy.
A presidential adviser cut in angrily, but Assad allowed the man to speak and responded that he was aware of the people’s pain. But he offered only vague assurances that the situation would improve and no clear plans to help it do so.
Assad’s stylish, British-born wife, Asma, often makes public appearances suggesting that life in Syria is proceeding normally.
Recently addressing participants in a national science competition, she promoted online education, saying it “saves time, effort and money, as well as achieving justice” and could make information “available to all students in all regions,” according to the state news service.
Left unaddressed was how students would study online given the rolling electricity blackouts.
Not far from the Assads’ palace, one father of nine earns the equivalent of $5 a day selling vegetables. His simple produce stand, with boxes on the ground full of eggplants, potatoes and apples, provided for his family even during the war’s worst years.
But over the last year, he said, food prices had risen so fast that he had diversified his offerings to make ends meet. He made pomegranate molasses and pickled eggplants, but stopped when it became too hard to get cooking gas.
He is unable to afford school fees so two of his sons have dropped out. Another migrated to Germany and sends home enough money to pay the rent. Yet another son spends three to five hours a day waiting in line to get the family’s share of cheap, government-subsidized flatbread.
Even simple luxuries have grown scarce, he said.
“A few weeks ago, I bought a chicken,” he said. “My wife made three meals from it.”
Syrians once considered middle class have become poor.
Wassim, who works in a government ministry, said he and his wife’s salaries used to allow their family to easily afford bread, fuel, cooking gas and clothing, even a few years ago when the jihadis of the Islamic State controlled a swath of the country and battles were still raging.
But with the currency collapse, which began in late 2019, their income has cratered, forcing them to eat simpler food and buy secondhand clothing. He recently opened a perfume shop that he runs after finishing his day job to supplement his income.
That leaves him with little time to wait in line for bread, so he buys nonsubsidized bread which, at 35 cents for a bag of six loaves, is six times more expensive.
His struggles have left him with little patience for the government’s focus on political issues that do not affect his daily life, like the struggle against Israel.
“We hear daily statements from President Bashar al-Assad and his government on the resistance and national sovereignty,” he said. “But the government has closed its ears and eyes and doesn’t show any interest in our living conditions.”