BEIRUT, Lebanon – In a private meeting with pro-government journalists, President Bashar al-Assad was asked about Syria’s economic crisis: the currency collapse that drained wages, soaring prices commodities and chronic shortages of fuel and bread.
“I know,” he said, according to two people familiar with the discussion. “I know.”
But he offered no concrete measures to stem the crisis beyond this idea: TV channels should cancel cooking shows so as not to taunt Syrians with images of inaccessible food.
As the tenth anniversary of the civil war in Syria approaches, Mr. al-Assad’s most immediate threats are not the rebel factions and foreign powers that still control large swathes of the country. Instead, it is the crushing economic crisis that has hampered the reconstruction of destroyed cities, impoverished the population and left growing numbers of Syrians struggling to obtain enough food.
The private meeting with Syrian journalists last month, which was not previously reported, offered a rare and unvarnished look at a leader who seemed disconnected from the real concerns troubling his people and unable to do anything about it. their subject. The New York Times was informed of the discussion by a person briefed by several reporters, and the details were confirmed directly by one of the attendees.
Even when speaking in private, Mr. al-Assad has remained true to the platitudes that characterize his public speeches. Dressed in a dark suit and speaking with the air of a professor, he blamed a range of forces for Syria’s woes: the “brutality” of global capitalism, the “brainwashing” by social media and “neoliberalism”. »Ill-defined which eroded the country’s values.
Lest anyone worry, he assured reporters, Syria will not make peace with Israel or legalize same-sex marriage.
These are not the issues that preoccupy most Syrians.
The Syrian economy is worse than at any time since the start of the war in 2011. This month, the Syrian pound hit an all-time low against the dollar on the black market, decimating the value of wages and driving up the cost of imports.
Food prices more than doubled last year. The World Food Program warned this month that 60 percent of Syrians, or 12.4 million people, are at risk of going hungry, the highest number on record.
Most Syrians now spend their days finding fuel to cook and heat their homes, and waiting in line for rationed pita. Power shortages are constant, with some areas receiving only a few hours of electricity a day, barely enough for people to keep their cell phones charged.
Desperate women have started selling their hair to feed their families.
“I had to sell my hair or my body,” a mother of three said recently at a hairdressing salon near Damascus, speaking on condition of anonymity, like others interviewed for this article, for fear. to be arrested.
Her husband, a carpenter, was ill and was only employed sporadically, she said, and she needed fuel oil for the house and winter coats for her children.
With the $ 55 she received for her hair, which will be used to make wigs, she bought two gallons of heating oil, clothes for her children and a roast chicken, the first her family has tasted in three. month.
She cried in shame for two days afterward.
The decline in the currency means doctors now earn the equivalent of less than $ 50 per month. The head of the doctors’ union said recently that many were going to work abroad, in Sudan and Somalia, among the few countries that allow easy entry for Syrians but none of which have strong economies. Other professionals earn much less.
“People’s concern, more than anything else, is food and fuel,” said a musician from Damascus. “Everything is unusually expensive and people are terrified of opening their mouths.”
The causes are multiple and overlapping: widespread damage and displacement due to war; sweep away Western sanctions against the government and associates of Mr. al-Assad; a banking collapse in neighboring Lebanon, where wealthy Syrians kept their money; and lockdowns to fight the coronavirus.
Mr. al-Assad has no easy way out. Most of the country’s oil fields and much of its agricultural land lie in the northeast, which is controlled by Kurdish-led forces backed by the United States.
Syria’s closest allies, Russia and Iran, have invested heavily in helping Mr. al-Assad win the war, but both have their own economic problems and can offer little help. Russia continued to provide substantial military aid to Syria but limited humanitarian aid.
“The socio-economic situation in Syria today is extremely difficult,” Alexander Efimov, Russian Ambassador to Syria, told Russian news agency RIA Novosti this month. But sending support was “very difficult,” he said because Russia was also suffering from the pandemic and Western sanctions.
Last week, after arresting a young Israeli woman who had wandered into Syria, the Syrian government used her as a bargaining chip to secure the release of two Syrian shepherds and 60,000 coronavirus vaccines, for which Israel paid. $ 1.2 million to Russia.
Despite these problems, Mr. al-Assad remains in control. After nearly a decade of fighting, the war has reached a stalemate, with around two-thirds of the country and most of its population under the rule of Mr. al-Assad.
Now he looks to the future, hoping that winning a mock presidential election this spring will convince his enemies to abandon any hope of regime change and accept him as Syria’s former and future ruler. His office did not respond to a request for comment for this story, including questions about his meeting with reporters.
Part of his strategy is to keep an eye out for any hint of dissent.
Last month, Hala Jerf, a former Syrian state television news anchor, posted a quote from Jean-Jacques Rousseau on Facebook in response to the question “What is the nation?”
“When it comes to wealth, no citizen will ever be rich enough to buy another, nor poor enough to be forced to sell,” she writes.
She was arrested for breaking the country’s “electronic crime” laws.
There was even a tense moment in the private meeting with reporters when the question was asked how the president was going to deal with his supporters’ anger over the bad economy.
A presidential adviser intervened angrily, but Mr. al-Assad allowed the man to speak and replied that he was aware of people’s pain. But he offered only vague assurances that the situation would improve, and no clear plan to help him do so.
Mr al-Assad’s elegant wife, of British descent, Asma, often makes public appearances suggesting that life in Syria is going smoothly.
Speaking recently to participants in a national science competition, she promoted online education, saying it “saves time, effort and money, as well as does justice” and that it could make the information “accessible to all students in all regions,” according to the state press service.
How students would study online was not addressed given the ongoing blackouts.
Not far from al-Assads palace, a father of nine earns the equivalent of $ 5 a day selling vegetables. His simple fruit and vegetable stand, with floor boxes filled with eggplants, potatoes and apples, provided his family even during the worst years of the war.
But over the past year, he said, food prices had risen so rapidly that he had diversified his offerings to make ends meet. He made pomegranate molasses and pickled eggplant, but stopped when it got too hard to get cooking gas.
He cannot afford school fees, so two of his sons have dropped out of school. Another emigrated to Germany and sent home enough money to pay the rent. Yet another son spends three to five hours a day queuing for the family’s share of cheap, government-subsidized flatbread.
Even simple luxuries have become scarce, he said.
“A few weeks ago I bought a chicken,” he says. “My wife made three meals of it.”
Syrians once considered middle class have become poor.
Wassim, who works in a government ministry, said his and his wife’s wages made it easy for their families to afford bread, fuel, cooking gas and clothes even a few years ago when Islamic State jihadists controlled part of the country. and the battles were still raging.
But with the currency collapse, which began at the end of 2019, their income crumbled, forcing them to eat simpler food and buy second-hand clothes. He recently opened a perfume store which he runs after completing his day job to supplement his income.
This leaves him little time to queue for bread, so he buys unsubsidized bread which, at 35 cents for a bag of six loaves, is six times more expensive.
His struggles have left him with little patience for the government’s focus on political issues that do not affect his daily life, such as the fight against Israel.
“We hear daily statements from President Bashar al-Assad and his government on resistance and national sovereignty,” he said. “But the government has turned a blind eye and shows no interest in our living conditions.”
A New York Times employee contributed reporting from Damascus, Syria.