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This region cannot afford transformation of Syria into failed state

Apr 11,2019 - Last updated at Apr 11,2019

The Syrian peace process has stalled because Western powers which lost the war on the battlefield seek to win through sanctions and blockade. They have shifted from military means, intended to bring down the government, to economic pressure on the population to force concessions, which would, ultimately, lead to regime change through negotiations.

The harsh sanctions and blockade are designed to turn Syrians against Damascus, but most people, instead, blame the West. Many Syrians may have grievances against their government but do not hold Damascus responsible for fresh privations. This is because these have grown worse since December when the war was winding down and services had improved.

The Syrian people, not the government, are harmed by this policy, adopted in the vain hope that Syrians will again revolt and overturn their government. This will not happen. Syrians are weary of warfare. They largely blame Western leaders and their regional allies for the war and their present predicament. The government and its Russian, Lebanese and Iranian allies are regarded as pillars of the Syrian state, which could collapse into warring fiefdoms if the government were to fall.

When I last visited Syria a year ago, there was electricity throughout the day and night, seven days a week in Damascus and Homs. There were cuts during the day in Aleppo to enable manufacturers to operate but electricity returned during the night. The restoration of electricity was a major achievement for Damascus, particularly because power was restored while the war was still winding down.

Electricity in Damascus works for four hours and is cut for two hours. In the capital's countryside, power alternates between three hours on and three hours off. Fortunately, electricity comes and goes at specific times, making it possible for residents to plan their days, cook meals and wash laundry. When power is cut, battery-powered lights are used. Batteries are recharged when the electricity returns.

Until recently, businesses and homes could rely on omnipresent generators to provide power when the electricity was off.  No longer. There is no fuel, mazout, for generators. Streets no longer resound to the clack-clacking of these little motors, and pedestrians are no longer suffocated by their pollution. Most Syrians suffered a cold, wet winter without heating. Limited supplies of mazout go to hospitals, schools, universities and bakeries.

Syrians felt the lack of mazout during the unusually cold, wet winter and spring. My small hotel has had no mazout since December. Freezing showers in dark, chill bathrooms begin the day for many people and remind them the war has not ended.

Petrol and cooking gas are rationed. Syrians can purchase 20 litres of petrol a day using smart cards and a gas bottle from time to time with other smart cards. Travellers between cities receive extra petrol. Households cook when they have electricity and warm up food and make coffee with gas during power cuts.

Essential medicines, which used to be produced in Syria, are in short supply. Aleppo's pharmaceutical plants have either been destroyed or their equipment pillaged. For survivng firms, raw materials are not available. Spare parts for machinery cannot be obtained.

The main difference between this April and last is caused by the strict imposition of sanctions, particularly by the US Treasury Department, which threatens non-US firms and banks which seek to do business with Syria.  As usual, people subjected to sanctions find ways and means to survive, but at a painful cost to their physical and mental health.

Syrians count their blessings in small things. Thanks to the wet winter, markets and shops are filled with white truffles gathered in the desert by the bedouin and farmers. While driving betweens Damascus and Homs, using a special petrol ration, my companions and I saw dozens of men collecting truffles. Unfortunately for the gatherers, 1kg costs about $1.50. They earn little for their backbreaking effort, but people who love truffle stew benefit.

Now that the suburbs of Damascus have been cleared of armed groups of all types, and that the cities of Aleppo, Homs, Hama and Deir Al Zor have returned to Damascus' control, the government has turned its attention to tax collecting in order to provide salaries for employees and services for civilians. Several businessmen argued aggressive tax collecting is ruining trade and discouraging Syrian entrepreneurs at home and abroad from investing in new enterprises as well as reconstruction.

Reconstruction funds and materials are blocked by the sanctioning powers. Although $7 billion has recently been pledged for Syria, this is to be used only to provide food and other humanitarian aid for Syrians living inside and outside the country. While the government has been able to restore basic infrastructure in devastated and damaged cities, towns and villages, homes, factories, schools, hospitals and other essential facilities await funding.

Western policy is shortsighted. Until Syria is rebuilt, its people will remain dependent on foreign aid for food and other essentials but will not be able to reconstruct homes, farm their lands, recover businesses and, once again, become self-supporting. Meanwhile, the government will remain dependent on its chief allies, Russia and Iran, which fight Damascus' enemies, but cannot afford to rebuild the country.

The Western powers do not take into consideration that the Syrian war has taken its toll on their allies, Jordan and Lebanon, Syria’s neighbours, which depend economically on Syrian trade, tourism and land transit of exports to the Arab hinterland. This region cannot afford the transformation of Syria into a failed state like Iraq was by the 2003 US invasion and occupation.

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