Syrian regime paralyzed amidst cascading financial crises
Regime-controlled areas of Syria are buckling under an unprecedented socio-economic and financial crisis, as currency collapse, vanishing fuel reserves and endemic administrative disfunction have brought economic and political life to a virtual standstill in recent weeks. As conditions have worsened, rising public demonstrations, anger and occasional violence have further undermined the Assad government’s authority, to a degree unseen since the most intense years of the armed conflict.
Syria has been experiencing the most severe fuel shortages in its modern history, with supplies dropping by over 80%. Fuel prices on the black market, the source for the vast majority of available fuel in Syria, now stand at an astronomical $3 per liter. This means that an average public sector salary of $22 per month is insufficient fill the fuel tank of a typical vehicle. With transport costs so high, Syrian employees are increasingly opting to stay home rather than pay for commutes to work that exceed their daily earnings.
This economic strain on civilians is all being compounded by an electricity crisis, with most of the country left in darkness while public electricity flickers for only a couple hours per day. Approximately 50% of commercial stores and factories have shuttered, unable to operate without power or transport their employees to work.
In a desperate attempt to save face and limit signs of public revolt, the regime announced public holidays across the second half of December.
The current crisis comes as the Syrian pound has plummeted to new historic lows, losing almost 75% of its value against the dollar over the course of 2022. The pound’s collapse has been just one manifestation of regime breakdown in recent months, as electrical production has plummeted and officials have desperately slashed budgets as part of an aggressive austerity campaign that has pulled subsidies from a range of goods and services—one of the last crucial lifelines available to Syrians. As public finances have collapsed, the regime has increasingly turned to Syrian businessmen and the wealthy for involuntary “donations,” seizing at least $20 million in assets in order to plug gaping holes in the budget and triggering a further exodus of capital from the country as a result.
The fuel crisis is just the latest and most dramatic chapter of this story. A longstanding agreement with Iran, which has allowed the regime to purchase crude on credit, has faltered as shipments have stalled in recent months. At the same time, international crude prices have jumped amidst a global tightening of supplies precipitated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While approximately 30 tankers of oil continue to arrive daily from areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the inflows fall far short of making up for declining shipments from Iran.
Further instability ahead
The collapse of the Syrian pound has been steady over the past year, further decimating Syrians’ ability to afford food and fuel, especially as the regime has implemented aggressive austerity measures that have cut the majority of people off from subsidy assistance. With over 90% of the population living below the poverty line, according to estimates, the vast majority of Syrians now survive on a combination of remittances and humanitarian aid.
This untenable situation has spawned widespread public backlash and criticism, even among traditionally loyalist or nominally neutral communities inside regime-held Syria. This public anger has erupted into protests across several regime-controlled areas since December, most notably in Suwayda and Daraa, where violent acts of defiance and regime crackdowns have resulted in deaths among both regime forces and civilians. Although protests so far have been localized and largely spontaneous, the continued deterioration of living conditions leave regime authority in its most precarious point in years, with rising civil unrest all but certain in the months ahead.