Having just returned from Syria a few days ago, I can confirm that the situation on the ground there is very disturbing,
though perhaps not in the way that many might assume. As it stands, the government remains in control over most of the country—including the economy—despite the best efforts of propagandists to say otherwise. Yet if the Syrian economy worsens, and if the crisis there comes to involve more and more groups—both inside and outside the country—there is a growing possibility that what started as a conflict between the Syrian government and a ragtag group of rebels will become a powder keg that could escalate into a regional war and possibly even an international confrontation.
Already, tourism has collapsed in Damascus and much of the country’s economy has become stagnant. Nevertheless, Syria’s historical self-sufficiency, coupled with help from the likes of Russia and Venezuela to meet shortages, means that the economy is not in dire straits. What is clear, however, is that the violent instability facing the country (whatever its origins or aims) is exacerbating a shaky economy that was weak even before the crisis blew up last year. Today, money is coming into the country from many sources, including Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, among other nations who are supporting one or more of the various players. Yet such political inflows of funds have a tendency to eventually do more harm than good.
Some of those inflows, for instance, are funding propaganda, which serves to exaggerate Syria’s genuine problems—economic and otherwise—as part of a great spectacle to sway world opinion. This includes Saudi money coming into Syria via Lebanon to fund demonstrations, with people getting $30 a day to protest—in front of cameras and microphones, of course. That isn’t to say that there aren’t many genuine demonstrators with real grievances; at the same time, the government habitually stages its own propaganda shows, also inducing people to whoop it up for the media. Such stage-management, along with fake torture videos and a host of other propaganda stunts, provide false justification for or against outside meddling, with some Europeans and certain people in Washington pushing for various military options, and a broad group led by Russia and China, but also including many in the region, calling for diplomatic solutions to the crisis.
Riad al Khouri, a Jordanian political economist who lives and works in the Middle East, is a strategic adviser to the
William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
The above article was published in thedailybeast.com on June 22nd, 2012.