By AYA BATRAWY, Associated Press
CAIRO (AP) — Syria's wealthy, long cultivated by President Bashar Assad as a support for his regime, are seeing their businesses pummeled by the bloody civil war. Factories have been burned down or damaged in fighting. International sanctions restrict their finances. Some warn that their companies are in danger of going under, worsening the country's buckling economy.
Assad may not have lost the backing of Syria's business elite, but some are losing faith. Many of those who can have fled abroad, hoping to ride out the turmoil, which is now in its 19th month and is only getting worse as rebels and regime forces tear apart the country in their fight for power.
Several businessmen interviewed by The Associated Press say resentment is growing against Assad over the crisis — but they also aren't throwing their lot in with the rebellion. They are hunkering down, trying to salvage their companies.
One young businessman said his family factory in the suburbs of Damascus was damaged Wednesday, with windows blown out and part of the ceiling was destroyed when warplanes hit rebels in a neighboring building. Its several hundred employees had to hide in the basement until fighting eased enough that they could be bused out to safety.
"I feel that they are both just as bad as each other," he said of the rebels and the government. "I could have died today because they (the rebels) were across the street from us and they (the planes) could have bombed us."
Syria's economy has been heavily hurt by the conflict, which activists say has left more than 30,000 dead. Inflation has risen to at least 36 percent. The currency has dropped around 50 percent, now trading at 75 pounds to the dollar on the black market, according to the factory owner. The government estimates economic losses at $34 billion — almost half the gross domestic product — though the opposition puts the losses at nearly three times that amount. Fuel shortages have become widespread as the regime burns through hard currency to import diesel and oil at the same time that it finances the war effort.
Though the economic blow has been hard, "we are not at the stage that the rug has been pulled from under the regime," said Anthony Skinner, head of Middle East and North African division at Maplecroft political risk consultancy.
Assad has so far been able to keep his head above water with financial support from top ally Iran, he noted.
"The question is whether this is sustainable in the longer term and I don't think it is," Skinner said. "What Assad is counting on at present is a bare-bones economy that is able to fuel his armed forces."
The businessmen interviewed by AP spoke on condition they remain anonymous and that some identifying details of their industries not be specified for fear of repercussions for talking about the situation in Syria.
They all come from the country's Sunni Muslim elite, which Assad ensured prospered as he carried out free market reforms over the past decade. The reforms transformed the long isolated nation, bringing in foreign businesses and chains and greater consumer goods, though it also sharply increased the gap between rich and poor. While the rebellion has largely been fueled by the Sunni majority, the elite have stuck by Assad for most of the conflict.
The businessmen say they are caught in the middle — both of the fighting and of Western sanctions they say hurt them more than the regime itself. The civil war has made it difficult to distribute goods since roads are cut off, warehouses have been shut down and 24-hour operations have been slashed to eight hours in places where it is too risky for employees to travel at night. Numerous factories have had to close or reduce production. A pharmaceutical company in Aleppo was also recently burned down in the city's fighting, said a businessman with close ties to the owners.
The owner of a plastics factory said his wife and children fled to London three months ago when the worst fighting yet hit the capital Damascus. Initially, he stayed behind but eventually followed them to London.
He knows others who have left and now have little access to their local accounts and are unable to operate their businesses. That has fueled resentment of Assad, he said. Still, there is also a fear of what may happen to Syria if his regime collapses.