Daraa residents ‘paralyzed’ by economy in recession, collapse of opposition-era civil society and NGO networks

Daraa city on October 2. Photo by Mohamad Abazeed/AFP.

AMMAN: Ever since Um Muhammad lost her teaching job in June, getting by has meant cutting back on expenses, feeding her four children less and borrowing more and more money each month. Now, the loans are piling up.

Formerly an elementary school teacher for an NGO-operated school in Syria’s southwestern Daraa province, Um Muhammad’s family now lives off a $60 monthly salary that her husband makes by teaching in a local public school. And with cold weather approaching, the mother of four is unsure exactly how she’ll keep her family warm once the snow sets in in a month’s time.

“There are more necessities in winter,” Um Muhammad tells Syria Direct. “Clothes, heating, non-perishable food—and if someone gets sick, you’ll need even more money.”

Just weeks ago, Um Muhammad was making $150 each month—not enough to live comfortably, she says, but combined with her husband’s salary it kept the family afloat. They’d managed to get by for years, if only just.

But life in Daraa changed abruptly and irrevocably in June, when the Syrian government and its allies launched a major aerial and ground offensive against rebel positions across Um Muhammad’s native Daraa province, as well as neighboring Quneitra province. Within weeks, the entirety of Syria’s southwest was returned to government control for the first time since 2012.

The final offensive for Syria’s south ultimately laid waste to a years-long experiment in parallel governance and aid provision in a hugely symbolic area once known as the “cradle of the revolution” to a generation of Syrian activists.

With the Syrian government firmly in control of the region, all local and international NGOs in Daraa and Quneitra closed. Everything from civil society groups to aid schemes supplying healthcare and local security forces to Daraa and Quneitra simply ceased operations, including more than 150 organizations that shut down almost overnight.

Tens of thousands of civilians previously reliant on aid from international and local assistance suddenly were left without support, while employees found themselves without jobs as their employers evacuated staff to northern Syria and closed their offices altogether.

Now, thousands of civilians across southwestern Syria are bearing the brunt of a major recession left behind by the spontaneous dismantling of a local economy heavily reliant on NGOs and foreign-backed rebel factions. Both employed large swathes of the population and kept the region's war economy afloat by buying goods from local aid markets.

Without the millions of dollars of foreign aid flowing into Daraa and Quneitra’s marketplaces, civilians are bearing a heavy financial burden and struggling to get by.  

“We’ve hit the poverty line, now,” says Um Muhammad, describing how even getting together money for bread can sometimes be a challenge without a salary or aid from local charities.

“Our lives have stopped.”

Parallel systems

Activists and supporters of the Syrian opposition frequently refer to Daraa as the “cradle of the revolution,” after the first major protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad erupted there in spring 2011. Dozens of other Syrian towns and cities followed, as mass unrest fanned out across the country.

In the following months, the Syrian government would lose the majority of Daraa and Quneitra provinces to the newly formed Free Syrian Army (FSA), a burgeoning force of loosely affiliated opposition factions that enjoyed sporadic material and financial support from Western countries, Jordan as well as Gulf states.

Although battles frequently broke out in and around the rebel-held southwest, the region remained outside of government control for years.

Gradually, the web of dozens of foreign-backed projects formed an infrastructure that fulfilled critical societal functions. Dozens of local hospitals and medical points were administered by the Syrian Arab Medical Society (SAMS) and other organizations, US-backed NGOs funneled flour to bakeries across the region to feed civilians and a UK-led aid scheme established community policing in dozens of communities across the southwest.

Local opposition authorities even began printing their own family ledgers and ID cards, and open elections for a Daraa Provincial Council took place in June.

Most of these initiatives—as well as the salaries going to those who organized them—were run off funding from foreign governments.  

A vegetable market in Daraa city in 2015. Photo by Min Daraa al-Habiba.

With many of its institutions backed by foreign powers hostile to Damascus, Daraa would become an experiment in parallel governance easily accessible to states friendly to the anti-Assad rebellion.

And yet losing Daraa to the government meant that these institutions—military, political and humanitarian—crumbled almost overnight.

Nothing similar has emerged to take their place, say former opposition officials and civilians on the ground. Money pumped by NGOs into the local economy, by buying goods wholesale from vendors or staff spending their paychecks on groceries, has since disappeared.

“The economy in the south was heavily reliant on funding to rebel groups and NGOs,” a former member of the Daraa Provincial Council, now in Turkey, tells Syria Direct.

Dozens of NGOs employed a “significant” number of local residents in the medical, education and civil society sectors, he adds.

Though the Daraa Provincial Council never maintained complete records of foreign aid flows or its impact on the local economy, the former council member places the amount of foreign aid in the millions.

Daraa and Quneitra’s rebel fighters, making a livable local salary of $50–$75 in most cases, also put their salaries back into the economy. Some Western-backed rebel groups received as much as $800,000 each month to pay salaries and other expenses, the former council member tells Syria Direct.  

“Now that the money has stopped flowing, the entire economy has stopped with it,” he adds. “People cannot buy anything and there are no more jobs.”

Local economy ‘paralyzed’

Local businesses are especially feeling the crunch, according to Abu Mustafa, who worked as an accountant for a major NGO until June.

“Every business owner is complaining about a downturn,” he says. Fear of sudden changes in the exchange rate and general instability in local markets mean that residents are not investing funds into new businesses or rebuilding their damaged homes, the now-unemployed accountant explains.

“Whoever has the money is rebuilding, but there are people who can’t by food—what about them?” Abu Mustafa asks. “I haven’t worked in four months.”

Though the 35-year-old managed to save some emergency funds for his family before losing his job, they quickly ran out, and he was broke within two months. “We’re forced to take out loans to get by, and we have to cut back on food and drink.”

“These NGOs kept everything moving. Maybe nobody really noticed this until it stopped,” he says.

Abu Muhammad, a young father of three from Daraa’s western countryside, built his entire life around his work in an orphanage in his hometown. The roughly $150 monthly salary was enough to take care of his growing family.

For now, four months into unemployment, the 26-year-old is feeding his family by going into debt and cutting back on food, drink and other necessities. But Abu Muhammad is of military age and wanted for mandatory military service, meaning that he will likely have to leave his family early next year, he explains.

In July, Syrian males were given a six month grace period to settle their status with Damascus and prepare for military service. Now, less than three months remain until the deadline passes.  

“It’s my biggest problem,” he tells Syria Direct. “I’ll be taken to the army, and my family will be left without someone to take care of them.”

“Life here is paralyzed.”

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting. Follow Waleed on Twitter: @walid_ALnofal.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.