Economic disaster adds to Syrians' woes

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Published July 07, 2013

| AFP

Damascus taxi driver Abu Ali works practically non-stop but barely makes ends meet, like many Syrians who are struggling to weather the economic effects of the bloody conflict raging in their country.

"Prices are exorbitant, my earnings are barely enough to feed my family," the father of five says, adding that he has limited his spending to key necessities.

"I don't have the means to cover other expenses. We're getting by on the minimum."

His story is a familiar one in Syria, where anti-government protests that began in March 2011 descended into a bitter civil conflict that has ravaged the economy.

"The war has impoverished the great majority of Syrians and led to a serious reduction in their purchasing power," says Jihad Yazigi, editor in chief of the economic news and analysis site Syria Report.

According to the official press, the cost of basic items has risen by between 200 and 300 percent since the uprising began.

The last figures for inflation, published in December 2012, put it at 55.2 percent.

The Syrian pound, meanwhile, has been in an unchecked freefall, losing three quarters of its value since the uprising began and falling from 50 pounds to the dollar to more than 200.

Salim, a government employee, complains that the 15,000 Syrian pounds ($75) he earns a month barely covers his food.

"My salary is worthless," he says.

Mustafa , a demoralised toy shop employee, is suffering the same problem.

"Our currency is no longer worth anything," Mustafa laments.

The government has raised the cost of fuel on multiple occasions, contributing through a knock-on effect to the rise in the cost of most other items.

Ahead of the fasting month of Ramadan, expected to begin around July 9, Mustafa has stocked up on rice, sugar and oil "before the prices go up again".

"Everyday the prices increase," one mother says in despair after spending 1,300 Syrian pounds ($6.50) on a chicken that would have cost her just 250 Syrian pounds ($1.25) a few months ago.

"You have to queue up just for a bag of bread, and of poor quality as well," adds Omar, in front of a Damascus street kiosk.

The violence in Syria has pushed more than 1.7 million people abroad, and more than four million others are displaced inside their country.

It has also brought international sanctions against Syria, which are aimed at putting pressure on the regime in Damascus, but have had knock-on economic impacts that effect all Syrians.

Each twist in the conflict brings new economic shocks, Yazigi said.

"The sudden fall in the Syrian pound against the dollar last week was probably tied to US President Barack Obama's decision to arm the opposition," he said.

For some, the only option left is begging, and a World Food Programme survey of seven Syrian governorates found at least nine percent of the 105 families they talked to admitted resorting to begging in April and May.

The survey also found 82 percent of those interviewed had decided to cut their food costs by buying less fresh produce and meat.

On the macro level, Syria faces a massive economic crisis, experts say.

Investments and tourism stand at practically zero, and oil production -- a major source of foreign currency for Syria -- has plummeted by 95 percent.

Foreign trade alone fell by over 97 percent in 2012, and the World Bank says Syria's GDP dropped by 30 percent last year, and anticipates another 10 percent drop in 2013.

But the Syrian regime has had some help from allies. Iran has extended lines of credit worth $4 billion to help prop up the government, which insists the economy is coping.

Syria' state news agency SANA quoted Raslane Khadour, an economic expert, saying the country's economy remained strong "despite the crisis... and the sabotage operations launched by armed groups," using the regime's term for rebels.

He pointed to a recent hike in the salaries of bureaucrats as "evidence that the economy is resisting and can weather the negative consequences of the crisis".

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