AMMAN — After nearly nine years of war, almost nothing unites Syrians -both opponents and supporters of the regime- other than the rapid decline in living conditions. Most significantly, the recent collapse of the value of the Syrian pound (SYP) against the US dollar has exacerbated harsh living conditions, leading to a significant rise in the price of basic commodities throughout the country.
But even before the recent collapse in the value of the SYP, a UN report on humanitarian needs in Syria from March 2019 noted that 83% of Syrians lived below the poverty line, with 33% of the population suffering from food insecurity.
The situation, however, is most dire in Idlib province, where millions of internally displaced Syrians remain stranded. Many of them have lost most of their possessions and are subject to targeting by government and Russian forces, and their allied militias.
Idlib province hosts approximately 4.5 million people, among them displaced people from other provinces. “About 80% of them live below the poverty line,” Muhammad al-Hallaj, the director of the local humanitarian organization, Response Coordination Group, told Syria Direct. Al-Hallaj attributes this to the unemployment rate which “exceeds 90%.” This means that any price increase, however small, dramatically affects residents of Idlib.
Forty-year-old Amr al-Hajj, displaced from Madaya in the Damascus countryside, has been directly affected by these economic changes in Idlib. Al-Hajj has been displaced more than once in Idlib due to government bombing. However, he was most recently displaced because his landlord doubled his rent from SYP 20,000 [$21.16] to SYP 40,000 [$42.32] (calculated at the exchange rate of SYP 945 to $1). Unable to pay rent, he left his house, he said, “with tears in my eyes.”
“I didn’t know what to do until I ended up setting up a tent on agricultural land in the city of Sarmada where many displaced families live, in bitterly cold weather with my three children and their mother.”
Al-Hajj suffers from paralysis in his left hand due to a shrapnel wound he sustained in Madaya. Because of his injury, he is unable to work, even if the opportunity arises. He resorted to “agreeing with the owner of a taxi to work as a driver in liberated areas [areas under the control of the opposition].” He explained that the owner of the taxi receives “half the fare of every passenger who rides with me. So I would earn nearly SYP 2,000 [approximately $2] for every day I worked.” Adding that he doesn’t work on a daily basis because “customers fear to ride with me because I only have one hand.”
Recently, al-Hajj’s work has completely stopped because of “the low mobility of people, and the high cost of transportation with high fuel [prices], which are related to the price of the dollar and the Turkish lira.” As a result, his family is limited to “one meal per day, comprised of olive oil and thyme.”
On December 2, 2019, activists circulated a picture showing an advertisement for a doctor’s clinic with the following written: “The examination [costs] $5, or its Syrian equivalent.” The picture enraged many residents of Idlib, as they felt it demonstrated greed and exploitation of people.
Imran al-Rahhal, who lives in Idlib, noted that the continuous depreciation of the national currency has resulted in “all food prices increased by 50%. Medical examination fees in the private sector have also increased, while some are paid according to the dollar exchange rate.”
Al-Rahhal, married with two children, works in a painting workshop for SYP 30,000 [$32] per month. Previously, he was “able to provide one meal per day for my family for SYP 1,000 [$1.05]. Now, even SYP 3,000 [$3.17] is no longer sufficient in light of the high costs we are faced with. This doesn’t even include the luxury expenses of buying new clothes for my children and expensive food.” As a result, he has to rely on using old clothes for heating purposes.
As al-Rahhal explained, “the price of one kilogram of bread reached SYP 300 [$0.32] compared to SYP 200 [$0.21] before the depreciation of the Lira. One kilogram of sugar is currently SYP 21,000 [$22.2] compared to previously being SYP 13,000 [$13.8], and a kilogram of rice is now SYP 700 [$0.74] compared to SYP 300 [$0.32].
Traders in northwestern Syria also see themselves as victims of the rapid deterioration in the value of the SYP. In addition to having to pay for imports from Turkey in dollars, they are also burdened by the high costs of transporting goods through border crossings because of higher fuel prices.
Abdo Fattah, the owner of a food shop in the city of Hass in Idlib countryside, explained that goods imported to the local market from Turkey are paid for in dollars but are sold on the market in Syrian pounds. As a result, “we face a loss in bank transfers,” Fattah told Syria Direct. He stressed that he sells commodities with a small profit without drastically increasing prices in an exploitative fashion. However, he explained that when his inventory runs out, he has to raise prices because “the price changes whenever I buy a new quantity of goods, with the value of the lira changing.”
Abdo al-Jumaili, a food retailer in the city of al-Bab in the northern countryside of Aleppo, also pointed to a noticeable decrease in “people’s demand for purchasing [goods] due to high prices.” People were “previously able to purchase their basic needs for SYP 10,000 [$10.58], but now this amount is only enough to buy one or two goods,” he told Syria Direct. Consequently, he noted, “our sales decreased and our goods were left unpurchased.” He used to import 10 tons of sugar during each food order, but now he suffices with half the quantity.
However, al-Rahhal believes “there are extensive exploitation and monopolism among the merchants of food commodities, such as sugar, oil and rice. Some of them increased the prices of their goods even though they already bought and stored them in warehouses when the exchange rate was SYP 500 per dollar.”
“Governments”: inaction or further burden
Northwest Syria is contested by two governments: the “Syrian Salvation Government” (SSG), affiliated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the dominant military faction in the region; and the “Syrian Interim Government” (SIG), affiliated with the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.
Since the sharp decline in the value of the currency, the SSG issued a decision to reduce the weight of a bag of bread in areas under its control. According to al-Rahhal, people “used to buy 875 grams of bread (10 loaves), for SYP 200 [$0.21], but today we buy 825 grams (9 loaves) for the same price.”
Al-Rahhal also explained that similar measures were taken concerning water and electricity. “We used to get water and electricity for three hours per day for SYP 6,000 [$6.35] monthly, whereas now it only reaches our homes for an hour and a half per day, for the same price.” He maintained that “the salvation government does not enact any laws that are not in its interests. As for the well-being of its citizens, that’s the last thing they think about.”
On the other hand, the SIG seeks to “preserve the purchasing power of citizens by not using the Syrian lira, so that residents’ savings in the local currency are not affected,” according to the Minister of Economy at SIG, Abdul Hakim al-Masry.
In an interview with Syria Direct, al-Masry also said that “the process [of replacing the Syrian lira with] the Turkish currency will be done through the salaries of workers,” adding that “we are seeking to add small banknotes of 5, 10 and 20 Turkish liras [around $1-3] in the markets in northern Syria to facilitate the daily transactions of citizens.”
In this context, the local council of the city of Azaz in the northern countryside of Aleppo issued a decree on December 10 prohibiting the circulation of the Syrian banknotes of 2,000 lira and specified one month from the date of the decree for those notes to be destroyed and replaced. This was accompanied by another decision to list the price of gold in Turkish lira, “in order to preserve the public interest and because of the instability of the price of the Syrian lira,” according to the statement.
Al-Masry acknowledged the inability of the SIG to control the prices of goods in the markets, despite its recent measures. He said that this was because “we are not on the ground,” adding that “the consumer must protect himself from the greed of the merchants.”
In the same vein, the head of the Syrian Economic Task Force, Osama al-Qadi, said that when it comes to the economy and living standards of the citizens, the role of the SIG is dependent on its level of empowerment. The SIG, he told Syria Direct, has autonomy “to a minimal degree, but it is not sufficient to guarantee economic stability for Syrians outside the control of the regime.” Consequently, citizens will continue to “suffer from the fluctuation of the Syrian lira, and bear the consequences of economic disasters and mismanagement of the economy by the regime until the interim government can manage the region economically.”
Al-Qadi noted that the circulation of the Turkish currency in northwestern Syria, in addition to the Syrian currency, “is a result of the fact that dozens of employees receive their salaries in the Turkish currency, as they resort to the most stable currency.” However, he warned that “this is not enough to ensure temporary economic stability without adding at least one billion Turkish liras per month,” in addition to “creating work opportunities, and activating economic development in this region.”
Likewise, according to al-Qadi, the SIG should “pay the salaries of tens of thousands of workers in the regions targeted by Turkey’s ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’ and ‘Operation Peace Spring,’ and in all of Idlib through the SIG’s Ministry of Finance,” since “any financial dealings for employees in the national army, health or education, far from what the government imposed, will weaken its role in managing cash and managing its resources.”
For the most vulnerable, nothing to lose?
The humanitarian situation in Idlib is so pressing that the recent increase in prices is not making living conditions dramatically worse for families already living in extreme poverty. Even before the current increase in prices, they were not able to purchase their basic needs.
Abu Basem, who lives in the town of Akhtarin in the northern countryside of Aleppo, currently lives with his elderly wife in a small, abandoned and damp basement. He has a daily food “consisting of bread, olive oil, and thyme and sometimes tomato paste,” he told Syria Direct. “We received charity after my son Basem was killed by bombing, causing us to lose our only breadwinner.”
Humanitarian aid organizations operate in northwestern Syria under both established programs and emergency programs. The World Food Program (WFP) is one of the established programs which distributes “60,000 food baskets per month in the region, the largest percentage of which go to border camps for IDPs,” according to al-Hallaj. As for the emergency programs, they depend on what local organizations can provide – often trying to meet the most urgent needs. In this regard, al-Hallaj added that “the Takaful al-Sham organization distributed fuel to displaced families in Sarmada, Kafrlousin, and Deir Hassan [in the Idlib governorate], and [the non-profit organization] Violet distributed fuel to 1,600 families in the city of Idlib.”
However, the number of people assisted by humanitarian organizations “does not exceed 40% of those in need in the Idlib province,” noted al-Hallaj.
Abu Basem lamented a similar sentiment: “if I found someone who helps me in this life and secures my food, there are many families and children who cannot find anything to eat.”
The report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Lauren Remaley, Rohan Advani and Calvin Wilder.