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Western destructive sanctions on Syria cannot be imposed forever

Sep 04,2019 - Last updated at Sep 04,2019

Damascus' International Fair and the liberation of northern Hama and southern Idlib from Al Qaeda-affiliated insurgents have lifted morale in the Syrian capital and elsewhere in the country. More than a hundred thousand Syrians have visited the fair, the 61st, daily since it opened with a spectacular sound and light show on August 28. More than a million will have toured the exhibits when the fair closes tomorrow.

The participation of Emirati and Omani delegations despite US threats of reprisals was welcomed, as Syrians regarded their presence as the beginning of the end of their country's isolation in the eastern Arab world. UAE attendance reinforced the reopening of the federation's embassy in Damascus last December.

The fair, the first in the region, has been a major annual commercial and social gathering since the initial exhibition was staged in 1954. It was planned as a one-off trade exhibition but was so successful that organisers made it an annual event. The fair was cancelled for five years, from 2012 until 2017, due to the war in Syria. The original location was in the middle of the new city, stretching along the Barada River from Omayyad Square to the National Museum. The fair was a great occasion, which drew talent and visitors from all over the world. Arab stars who performed at the fairs included the incomparable Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum, Abdel Halim Hafez, Lebanon's Fayrouz, Sabah and others. When the fair was revived in 2017, a rocket struck close to the main gate, killing five and wounding a dozen persons. Nevertheless, the fair received 1.3 million visitors that year.

The fall of Eastern Ghouta to government forces in April 2018 turned last year's fair into a celebration of the liberation of the capital from rocket and mortar fire that had plagued the city since the war began. Forty-three countries participated in that fair, which was located at a new, much larger site on the highway to the international airport. Around 1.8 million flocked to this fair.

This year, 30 countries and 1,700 companies have participated. Foreign firms came from Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Brazil, the Philippines, Russia, Iran, China, Cuba, South Africa, Algeria, Iraq, North Korea, Venezuela and North Macedonia. The Czech Republic is the sole European Union exhibitor. Despite temperatures of 36-39ºC, businessmen and women, couples with children, and individuals pack the fair ground. Already suffering from US and other sanctions, defiant Russian, Chinese, Cuban and North Korean firms are determined to do business with sanctioned Syria.

The liberation of northern Hama and southern Idlib provinces have boosted the prospects of Hama city and nearby Aleppo, which are already in better economic shape than the capital. They rely on the countryside for farm produce and other items. Hama is bustling, shops are open for families outfitting their children for school. Term begins this week with girls in hot pink shirts and boys in blue.

Unfortunately, security in Deraa has deteriorated since this correspondent visited the area in April.  Armed groups have attacked government forces and fight each other, kidnap and rob. Refugees and displaced persons who had settled in and around Deraa city are fleeing the violence. Insurgents are receiving aid from outside the country.

Here in Damascus, the situation has improved since the last fair despite sanctions. Electricity is cut for only two two-hour periods daily and water flows through the pipes. Security is good. Subsidised petrol and cooking gas are rationed, forcing many to buy these essentials at high prices. Markets are filled with abundant fruit and vegetables. Shops selling cosmetics offer smuggled foreign-made creams and shampoos. However, life is difficult for diabetics and Syrians needing heart, thyroid and cancer medications, which are not available. Sanctions are a cruel weapon as they harm the poor and middle class but not the wealthy and powerful.

In the evening, the sons and daughters of the rich flock to expensive cafes in the diplomatic quarter and Old City to smoke shisha, snack and drink coffee, tea and juice. High-end shops are selling designer clothing from Europe.

The Syrian lira has lost value, the exchange rate to the US dollar fluctuates daily. Salaries of civil servants, teachers, professors and other public employees are low, while prices of everything are rising. While education is free, public schools are overcrowded and public hospitals are largely staffed by young doctors, as more experienced professionals have their own clinics.

Sanctions prevent expatriates and foreign governments and firms from investing in Syria's reconstruction. The government can afford to rebuild only infrastructure; civilians with limited means must reconstruct homes and businesses.

Dr. Nabil Sukkar, an economist and financial consultant, told this correspondent that Lebanese and Syrian businessmen have set up facilities in Lebanon's western Bekaa and the port city of Tripoli in order to launch reconstruction. Lebanon's struggling economy will also benefit from investment in Syria, he said. The Syrian government is drawing up a 10-year recovery plan, to be implemented in two five-year stages, but details have not been released and funding will have to be found. Destructive sanctions cannot be imposed forever.

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