Another day, another sham election. A decade since a brutal crackdown by the regime on anti-government protesters descended into one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of the 21st century, Syria is finally putting a devastating war behind it. Today, President Bashar Assad is up for reelection and will certainly “win.” But while the guns have largely fallen silent, a new set of challenges — and opportunities — is emerging. Today’s Daily Dose takes you behind the headlines to the bizarre economic model keeping Assad’s regime alive, the creatives trying to build a new Syria, the power players and icons of the future and the reasons why this cradle of civilization deserves your attention.
Stephen Starr, OZY Correspondent
The regime of Bashar Assad has survived the war in part through a cruel-but-calculated business savvy.
1. Surprise Export
The Assad regime is broke, thanks to Syria’s economy being battered by a decade-long war and strict Western sanctions. As a result, the country has emerged as ground zero for producing and exporting the dangerous narcotic Captagon, which gives a faster high than traditional amphetamine. Banned in America, Captagon is increasingly finding its way to raves in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Qatar, North Africa and even Italy. For Assad’s regime, it’s a smart way to earn critical revenue, while keeping loyalists who engage in the trade happy.
Like any smart business empire, the Assads and their allies believe in diversifying their earnings portfolio. To claw back some cash, they’re leaning on already traumatized Syrian refugees. Earlier this year, Syria introduced a law allowing it to seize the assets and property of all men (and their families) who fail to pay the up to $8,000 fee to avoid conscription into the military before they reach the age of 43. The country’s 12 million refugees — half of whom are internally displaced and half of whom live abroad — are trying to flee the crisis, so joining the military isn’t an option. Yet the penalty is too high for most families to pay, so everything they have left behind is likely to wind up in the hands of the Assad regime.
The heartrending levels of humanitarian suffering in Syria mean that aid agencies have come to play a crucial role in keeping people alive. So, the regime has taken the opportunity to worm its way into the coffers of international donors: As the conflict worsened in the suburbs of the capital, Damascus, in 2013-14, U.N. staff and officials moved into hotels in the city center that charged them massive sums. The U.N. paid out $9.5 million to the Four Seasons Hotel in 2016 alone. Guess who was a part-owner of the hotel at the time? The Syrian Tourism Ministry. By August 2017, the U.N. had also paid out an additional $8.5 million in contracts to Assad’s family and business contacts, arguing that it had few other options if it wanted a presence in Syria.
4. Using Influencers
The Assads have always understood the idea of brand management. Vogue’s 2011 puff piece entitled “A Rose in the Desert” on Syrian first lady Asma Assad and her gushing husband Bashar might have backfired (the magazine has scrubbed it off the internet), but the regime is now adopting one of the most effective tools of the social media age: influencers. It is inviting popular international vloggers and social media celebrities — some of whom boast millions of subscribers — to visit the country and share posts and videos depicting normalcy in cities like Damascus and Aleppo. Syrian opposition media and refugees have slammed them for normalizing life in a country that’s lost more than half a million people to chemical weapons and other attacks. But the strategy seems to be working: As the war winds down, more adventurous travelers are starting to return to Syria, bringing with them tourism dollars.
Trying to escape Syria can prove deadly: The regime doesn’t want you to leave, and most countries would rather not welcome you. But a growing grassroots ecosystem of local entrepreneurs has led to many young Damascenes choosing to stay in Syria rather than risk leaving. Take interior designer Rita Khoury, for instance. Khoury runs Cornerstone Design Office in the Old City’s Bab Sharqi district and takes on everything from designing the interior of pubs to crafting chic bags. Slowly but steadily, these entrepreneurs are bringing life back to a historic part of the capital.
2. Shooting Stars
Beloved for years for his rural Syria-themed satire series Spotlight, director Allaith Hajjo’s profile has rocketed even further after his 30-episode production Children of Adam was picked up by Netflix. For many artists, the suffering that comes with having to flee their land has also opened new windows to expression previously stamped out by decades of dictatorship. Award-winning filmmaker Sara Fattahi’s 2018 film Chaos has received rave reviews, while Aleppo native Avo Kaprealian’s claustrophobic, experimental film Houses Without Doors has shown the world a side of Syrian creativity it didn’t know existed.
3. Sanctions Bite … Ordinary Syrians
But for those who have stayed in Syria, the challenge of turning creativity into cash is real. Strict sanctions on Syrian and Lebanese banks and financial institutions make it hard for creatives to access the international banking system. “We don’t have a way to receive our payments in other currencies,” laments Khoury, whose bank accounts in Lebanon, a vital link to overseas clients, have been blocked. She also relays a story of a graphic designer friend who has lost access to their PayPal account — and all the funds in it.
4. Vaccine Woes
And while restaurants and cafés in many parts of the world are reopening, the absence of an effective national COVID-19 vaccine rollout means the chances of something similar happening in Syria anytime soon are low. As of March, only 5,000 doses of vaccine had been provided by China for front-line health workers in government-controlled areas. In April, the country received 256,800 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from the UN-backed COVAX initiative — a drop in the ocean for a country with a population of 17 million people. The Syrian capital’s restaurant scene had for years blossomed even amid the war, serving as an escape for scarred residents. Not any more.
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For years, the Tlass dynasty and the Makhlouf clan were among the most influential families in Syria, part of a close coterie around the Assads who built business empires. But the Tlass family defected at the start of the civil war and Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s cousin, has fallen prey to his lofty ambitions. Enter the likes of Hussam Qaterji and Samer Foz, a new set of loyalists. Foz is turning mountains of scrap metal from the destroyed city of Homs into rebar to be repurposed for constructing new homes. He has dipped his fingers into businesses ranging from pharmaceuticals and cement to agriculture – all while paying obeisance to Assad. He was a co-owner of the Four Seasons before it was shut down following U.S. sanctions against Foz in 2019. Meanwhile, Qaterji has shown his worth by buying wheat from ISIS-controlled territories to feed Syrians under the Assad regime.
2. Hafez al-Assad
As soon as he came into the world bearing the name of his brutal grandfather, the future of Hafez al-Assad, 19, was set in stone. In a country governed by the same family for almost 50 years, he’s next in line to run the dictatorship. The teen has represented Syria at Math Olympiad competitions in Brazil and Romania in recent years (though he apparently has not performed very well). “In these difficult times, a generation like ours can bring peace,” he said during the Brazil trip, his doublespeak exposing a worldview that’s little different from that of his murderous father. Last July, the U.S. imposed economic sanctions on Hafez to stop his family funneling money through him — a clear sign that Washington already has its eye on him.
3. Souzda Ammo
Her velvet vocals are yet to reach a wide audience, but it is likely only a matter of time. The Syrian Kurd from Afrin, a city in northern Syria bombed and occupied by Turkish forces in 2018, mixes Kurdish and Arabic in her refreshing and solemn music. Her collaboration with American producer Jay Denton and other refugees on the album For Home sees her turn to the themes of loss and endurance experienced by many Syrian Kurds who feel they were abandoned by the West following Kurdish forces’ central role in defeating ISIS. Recent performances on Kurdish television suggest Ammo has a bright future ahead of her.
4. Yusra Mardini
Her ability to swim saved her life. Now it’s giving her a platform to highlight a story of grit and survival shared by millions of refugees. She escaped Syria in 2015 as a 17-year-old and was smuggled onto a boat headed for Greece. But the boat’s engine failed, and Mardini had to swim for three hours in the Aegean Sea to survive. She did, and a year later she represented the Refugee Olympic Athletes Team at the Rio Olympics. Mardini has since been signed as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and is a face for the sportswear brand Under Armour. Now based in Hamburg, she’s busy prepping for the Tokyo Olympics in July – keep an eye out for her blazing smile on your TV screens this summer.
In Kurdish strongholds in northeastern Syria, a strategic battle for control of oil and gas fields is quietly playing out. U.S. troops are still stationed at a base called Green Village guarding several of these fields, and they have been involved in near-comical road rage incidents with neighboring Russian troops who are there for the same reason. Not terribly far to the north, Turkish troops are watching closely to see what happens next (because Turkey has almost no natural energy resources of its own). All the while, the Assad regime believes the oil and gas belongs to it, and it alone.
2. Regional Whack-a-Mole
Across territory held by the Syrian government, Iran has been quietly setting up military bases and arms depots as it attempts to establish a cross-border link with its militias in neighboring Iraq. But Syria’s other neighbor, Israel, has been watching every step, launching dozens of military strikes against any attempts by Iran to build up a presence in Syria. Damascus owes Tehran big time for helping it win the war. But Israel’s superior technology, including its drones and satellite imagery, means that in this particular game of cat and mouse, it is well ahead. Meanwhile, Moscow is aiming to further boost its influence in the region, most recently deploying nuclear-capable bombers to Syria for training exercises.
3. Stable Syria by 2025?
It’s unlikely. The political and military oppositions that took on the regime a decade ago have been roundly defeated, and there’s little appetite among international players for involvement in another conflict. But Syria remains a divided country territorially and ideologically, with Turkish and Kurdish forces in control of vast swathes of the north and northeast. Traditional Assad allies, including the 700,000-strong Druze community and elements of the Alawite minority, have been crushed by the economic crisis and years of rampant inflation — and have placed the blame squarely at Assad’s door. The future isn’t looking good — not for the Assads and not for Syria.