Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Syria's wealthy business owners face war-time squeeze

Many wealthy businessmen in Syria continue to support President Bashar al-Assad. But some have expressed frustration or have fled abroad, as the conflict in their country and its economy worsens.?

By Aya Batrawy,?Associated Press / October 17, 2012

A Free Syrian Army fighter, (l.), helps traders as they remove their stock from their shops, at the souk of the old city of Aleppo city, Syria on Sept. 24. Wealthy Syrians say the violence from the 19-month civil war has pommeled their businesses, but the squeeze from a complex array of sanctions is the noose slowly strangling their country's buckling economy.

Hussein Malla/AP/File


Syria's wealthy, long cultivated by President Bashar al-Assad as a support for his regime, are seeing their businesses pummeled by the bloody civil war. Factories have been burned down or damaged in fighting. International sanctions restrict their finances. Some warn that their companies are in danger of going under, worsening the country's buckling economy.

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Assad may not have lost the backing of Syria's business elite, but some are losing faith. Many of those who can have fled abroad, hoping to ride out the turmoil, which is now in its 19th month and is only getting worse as rebels and regime forces tear apart the country in their fight for power.

Several businessmen interviewed by The Associated Press say resentment is growing against Assad over the crisis ? but they also aren't throwing their lot in with the rebellion. They are hunkering down, trying to salvage their companies.

One young businessman said his family factory in the suburbs of Damascus was damaged Wednesday, with windows blown out and part of the ceiling was destroyed when warplanes hit rebels in a neighboring building. Its several hundred employees had to hide in the basement until fighting eased enough that they could be bused out to safety.

"I feel that they are both just as bad as each other," he said of the rebels and the government. "I could have died today because they (the rebels) were across the street from us and they (the planes) could have bombed us."

Syria's economy has been heavily hurt by the conflict, which activists say has left more than 30,000 dead. Inflation has risen to at least 36 percent. The currency has dropped around 50 percent, now trading at 75 pounds to the dollar on the black market, according to the factory owner. The government estimates economic losses at $34 billion ? almost half the gross domestic product ? though the opposition puts the losses at nearly three times that amount. Fuel shortages have become widespread as the regime burns through hard currency to import diesel and oil at the same time that it finances the war effort.

Though the economic blow has been hard, "we are not at the stage that the rug has been pulled from under the regime," said Anthony Skinner, head of Middle East and North African division at Maplecroft political risk consultancy.

Assad has so far been able to keep his head above water with financial support from top ally Iran, he noted.

"The question is whether this is sustainable in the longer term and I don't think it is," Skinner said. "What Assad is counting on at present is a bare-bones economy that is able to fuel his armed forces."


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