Despite the diplomatic achievement of Syria’s readmission to the Arab League in May 2023, the Bashar al-Assad regime currently confronts the most dire situation the country has seen in years. The catastrophic economic collapse in Syria, worsening humanitarian conditions, mass protests against the regime, and mounting criticism of Assad, even from within the Alawite community, all possess the potential to profoundly destabilise the Syrian regime and incite a fresh wave of violence amidst the ongoing and unresolved civil war.
The Unraveling of Syria’s Economy
Since May 2023 alone, the Syrian pound (SYP) has plummeted by more than 80% in value, hitting an all-time low. In practical terms, this has resulted in monthly civil servant salaries dwindling to approximately 12.5 US dollars (USD), while the UN estimates the average monthly cost of food in Syria to be around 90 USD. The challenge is exacerbated by rampant inflation, which has surged to 60% in the case of food, and the scarcity of basic medicines, whose prices were recently raised by the government by 50%. Diesel prices, on the other hand, have risen by over 200% in just two weeks. The current economic nosedive can be attributed to various factors, spanning from years of civil war, the ripple effects of economic collapse in neighbouring Lebanon, corruption, the economic mismanagement of the Assad regime, the impact of Western sanctions on Damascus, and the fallout from a devastating earthquake that struck the country in February 2023. It is also noteworthy that while Syria possesses oil reserves, the majority remains outside the regime’s control, as it is in the hands of Kurds in the country’s northeast. Furthermore, Assad has struggled to compensate for the diminishing economic aid from long-standing allies Russia and Iran. Despite Syria’s admission to the Arab League, investment from Arab nations has yet to materialise, and even Assad’s recent visit to Beijing failed to secure concrete financial commitments.
The Humanitarian Crisis
Approximately 12 million Syrians, nearly half the population, lack access to adequate food, with an additional three million at risk of hunger. Currently, nearly 90% of the Syrian population resides below the poverty line after enduring 12 years of civil war. The humanitarian situation has been further exacerbated by the joint decision of Damascus and Moscow to obstruct international aid from reaching the northwest of the country in rebel-controlled Idlib. The non-extension of a UN-sponsored humanitarian aid agreement for Syria in early June 2023 led to the closure of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, which served as the primary conduit for 85% of humanitarian aid entering the country. Nevertheless, likely under pressure from the deteriorating internal situation, Damascus later reversed its stance and permitted international aid to flow for an additional six months. Consequently, the first UN humanitarian convoy entered Syria via the Bab al-Hawa crossing in the first half of September following the agreement.
Mass Protests Against the Regime
The worsening economic and humanitarian circumstances have sparked numerous mass protests against the regime in recent months. In the last two weeks of August alone, over 200 protests occurred in government-held areas in southern Syria, involving approximately 10,000 people. Armed clashes between opponents and supporters of Assad have even taken place in and around Damascus, Aleppo, and Daraa.
The ongoing anti-government protests in Suwayda province are primarily led by the Druse minority, constituting approximately 3% of the Syrian population. Much of this community had not been openly critical of the regime until recently. Deteriorating socio-economic conditions drove the protesters to the streets in August. Even after more than a month, Assad has been unable to quell the unrest, with all indications suggesting that security forces have been instructed to refrain from intervening to prevent further escalation at a time when Damascus seeks to normalise relations with Arab countries. Meanwhile, protesters have stormed and looted the offices of the ruling Baath party and partially blocked the highway connecting Suwayda to Damascus.
Escalating Criticism From Within the Alawite Community
The protests have also elicited responses in Latakia province, considered an Assad stronghold and home to the Alawite community, from which the ruling family hails. Isolated criticism from this religious group, coupled with public calls for Assad’s removal from power, led to more than 22 arrests. However, these arrests have triggered a wave of solidarity on social networks in the country.
Syria Before (Another) Collapse
Despite Assad emerging as the unequivocal victor of the Syrian civil war and progressively legitimizing his regime on the international stage, Syria remains a highly volatile nation with the potential to descend into another round of armed conflict. Recent weeks have demonstrated that the challenges facing the country are not solely confined to Damascus. In the south, in Deir Ez Zor province, armed clashes have erupted between former allies, the Kurdish SDF and local Arab tribes, once again creating space for the resurgence of ISIS in the region. Turkey promptly seized the opportunity, as pro-Turkish SNA rebels in northern Syria initiated military operations against the Kurds in Manbij. The SNA’s involvement in the clashes has also been exploited by HTS jihadists to bolster their position in northeastern Syria at the expense of the SNA. From Assad’s perspective, the primary source of trouble, particularly this time, lies in the humanitarian and socio-economic realm. These issues are beginning to erode support for the Syrian regime, even within its traditional strongholds, such as the Alawite and Druse communities. Considering that a significant portion of the country’s population resides below the poverty line and faces the risk of hunger, it is alarming that as of September 2023, the UN’s humanitarian plan for Syria for this year, with a desired budget of USD 5.41 billion, has only secured 28% of the necessary funding.
This brief is supported by
NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division