Syria is 3,000km away from Geneva, but sometimes it can feel like a good deal more that. On a 10-day visit to the country at the end of March most of those I met welcomed the partial ceasefire arrived at there with a diplomatic shrug. Then they started talking about money, or about how to get out.
After five years of conflict and crippling sanctions the Syrian pound has to plummeted to a tenth of its value. At the beginning of what regime supporters call “the crisis” and oppositionists now just refer to as “the war,” one dollar bought 50 Syrian pounds; now, on all sides of the Syria conflict, it buys barely 500. It’s a little bit less in official exchanges, but, as one taxi driver pointed out shortly before he asked me for a tip, “people only care about the black market now.” The average wage is about $50; prices have risen between five and 10-fold since the outbreak of hostilities, and wages have hardly risen at all.
None of it should be at all surprising. The relentlessly chipper propaganda from Syria’s Ministry of Information can’t conceal that the country’s already creaky infrastructure has largely been destroyed. For many millions of Syrians the daily humiliation of barely being able to feed their families are worse than the random chance of being killed by an airstrike or a mortar. In areas controlled by the regime, many are working two or three jobs, or borrowing from relatives; in rebel-held pockets, where conditions are much worse, most have fallen back on subsistence farming or handouts from non-governmental organizations.
It’s the women left behind by war who are bearing the brunt. Then there’s the millions of young people, barely employed and criminally ignored before the war, who are now heading for the exit to avoid being called up by the army or pressured into a rebel militia. Syria’s future is literally disappearing; a young and rapidly growing population before the war now risks becoming a country for old men and women. Angela Merkel’s generosity towards Syrian migrants, one 24-year-old Damascene told me in all seriousness, must secretly mask a plan to steal smart young Syrians—a cunning fix for Europe’s aging population.
The modest flame of democracy and freedom which flickered in Syria five years ago has now been more or less extinguished. On all sides, chaos and penury have successfully pushed people back into the arms of natural authoritarians like the Syrian regime, the large Islamist militias, the pan-Kurdish PKK, the Islamic State; at least they know how to keep law and order. For the Gulf States, which put up the seed capital for the lurch into all-out war, this was likely part of the point; people power can be infectious, and a drift towards democracy was a serious threat to their own creaky monarchical regimes.
Syria’s tragedy is that it’s fate has now been taken out of the hands of its people and handed to the very international powers who did so much to derail its revolt in the first place. Those endless rounds of negotiations in Geneva hotels are a boon to the hospitality industry there; which is a shame because the hotels in old Damascus are infinitely better, and criminally good value at the moment. A good many of the opposition politicians being hosted there (I know a few of them) will likely never return to the country; likewise most regime politicians are powerless and entirely inter-changeable. It’s the security men and their international backers who are calling the shots; the politicians on both sides in Geneva are only for show.
What can be done? The one thing Geneva can achieve is a kind of mutually assured exit—to force international powers out of the country and to bring to heel their armies inside the country. Among civilians, the hope is that the let-up in fighting will give them the time to breathe and to think about the leaders who got them into this mess. A good start would be to lift the noose-like grip of the sanctions imposed on the country by Britain, the United States and the European Union, which no Syrian, and certainly not the rebels inside the country, ever asked for. True, the Syrian revolt was initially spurred by a righteous anger at the crony capitalism surrounding the Assad family and the Syrian regime. But the last five years have added a vibrant underground market in everything from guns to kidnapping, and have made corruption and illicit trading infinitely worse. All the moralizing and the putting-of-people-we-don’t-like-beyond-the-pale has not only only pointed up the limits of European and American foreign policy (we no longer rule the waves); it’s also ground ordinary Syrians on all sides deeper into poverty.
Here’s one modest proposal for how to seize the initiative during the fragile ceasefire—lift economic sanctions on Syria in tandem with the release of the thousands of political prisoners who still languish in its prisons. Then commit the countries which sent money and guns to help Syrians to kill each other and destroy the country – from Russia to the Gulf States to the US—to match that with funds help rebuild it. The best defense against the extremism of Al-Qaeda and IS is wealth and opportunity. And if we want Syrians to stay inside the country, and those who’ve left to have any interest in returning, we need to offer them more than the absence of war. They need to know that their country has an economic future. It’s what most of them wanted in the first place.