Bitter Lemons: Can you speak some about the impact of international sanctions in Syria? Whom are they affecting?
Aita: They are affecting–in two major ways–the population more than the regime. First, there were sanctions from the [European Union], especially on oil and oil derivatives, imports and exports. Sanctions came at the beginning of the winter and hit very, very badly the population in a period when the weather was very cold. People could not heat [their homes]. Some of those who pushed for obtaining these sanctions were arguing that if you blocked the importation of gas oil, the tanks of the Syrian army will not function. My argument was that if [regime officials] have 2,000 tanks and they run them all day, this is nothing compared to the five million cars in the country. There will always be enough to run the tanks. This is not the right sanction.
The second thing [is that] the balance of energy for Syria before the uprising was negative, meaning that Syria used to import oil derivatives, meaning gasoline, in values much more than it exported oil. This, of course, hits the economy and makes things very difficult for the population and for the state. It doesn't really hit the regime guys who smuggle these products. There was no scheme like the one that was put in place in Iraq during its crisis, the "Oil for Food" program.
BI: Are some of the sanctions affecting the regime?
Aita: There were targeted sanctions against regime people, hitting the Assad family, their relatives, and some of the businessmen. These are good sanctions, if they are well-studied and well-designed. But the problem is, first, nobody is telling today how much money was seized in Switzerland, the US or wherever from Bashar Assad and his family. Nobody knows. No figures have been put out.
This is very damaging for the Syrian people–these sanctions are made in the name of the Syrian people and the Syrian people need to take this money back. How can they take this money back without knowing how much was seized and where? We had a meeting of the Syrian Democratic Forum, which is a civic political forum, and we asked the Friends of Syria and whoever is putting sanctions on personalities to declare how much they blocked and to be transparent. But [six months into the sanctions], no single figure has emerged.
The second issue is that not only are regime [figures blacklisted], but also businessmen. And sometimes one wondered who put the names, that there might be a fight between businessmen outside Syria and the businessmen inside Syria. Businessmen inside Syria are helping and advising [the opposition] much more than those outside.
BI: How can the average Syrian be expected to think about the uprising as the economy gets worse and what does this mean for the opposition?
Aita: The socioeconomic situation is one of the major reasons for the uprising. You have what I call a "youth tsunami" in Syria–300,000 people coming into the labor market every year. In the last 10 years, with all the [government] liberalization, the economy was creating 60-65,000 [jobs], which is really not enough. What is not said is that among those 65,000, there are only 8-10,000 real jobs, i.e., with a real contract and social security and so on. The rest of these are informal jobs, like that of [self-immolated Tunisian Mohamed] Bouazizi, who was university-educated. He was considered statistically as "working", not jobless, but he was only pushing a small [cart] to sell vegetables and fruits, which is a menial job. This is one of the major reason for the calls for "dignity".
The second thing is that Syrian society is an exceptional society, meaning that social networks are very, very strong. Syria received during the war in Iraq over two years, 2006 and 2007, 1.5 million Iraqis. [This is comparable to] 7.5 percent of the Syrian population. I don't know any other society that could receive such a flow of migrants without international aid. This is like saying France received four million people in two years, while France, because of 10,000 Tunisians who came here during the crisis in Tunisia and Libya, was shouting and changed Schengen [a border treaty that sets visa rules], etc.
But what is feared lately is that [Syrian] society has become really exhausted and some of its beautiful functions are deteriorating because of the political money and weapons that are being pushed by some countries, mainly the Gulf countries through Turkey. This is a big push–buying people for a cause, one cause against another. This is very dangerous. This is [making Syria resemble] Lebanon, where political money and foreign intervention have threatened not only to overthrow the regime, but also society.
The regime has already fallen, in my opinion. It cannot survive. But what is to be kept in society? If society collapses and, like [United Nations and Arab League envoy on Syria] Kofi Annan is saying, enters civil war, this is disastrous. But maybe some foreign countries want that.
BI: As an economist looking around the region, how can these societies, including Syria, lift themselves out of this situation where the demand for economic parity is so strong, but they remain in crisis?
Aita: Among Arab countries, you have two kinds: ones with population and ones with oil and money. The ones with population are all experiencing the youth tsunami, they are experiencing youth refusing to have dictatorships, or to have the son coming after the father if [the country] is a republic. Some countries have already initiated their transformation–Tunisia, Egypt. But already they are in trouble. They are indebted countries. They are hit by the situation of the transition and there is nothing to help them make this transition and stabilize.
What you can fear in Tunisia and Egypt is political money and, if you look at the details, political money is coming from the Gulf countries. It is pouring in at huge quantities. Some European diplomat told me about the Libyan crisis: who could imagine a year ago that it is now Qatar that is managing and controlling Libya? It looks like the Gulf countries failed to do things in the West and to build their industry of petrochemicals, whatever, and now they are buying countries.
Some countries have their thinkers, their institutions, and are behaving better than others during the transition, and some are really having a nightmare. The economy will be in trouble in Egypt for a long period, while the recovery in Tunisia could be easier. But even in Tunisia, there is no real push like what happened in Western Europe after World War II. There is no money in the US and Europe to help.
Some countries are in transformation but are not poor or not indebted–this is the case in Libya and in Syria. Syria had [foreign currency] reserves, which are declining sizably. It will likely be "bled" for a period and nobody is helping the situation to end. This does not necessarily mean by military means, but by sending the right message at the right moment and agreeing between the US and Russia on making the regime leave, instead of fabricating a false fight between the US and Russia to keep the situation in continuous degradation like it is now. In some sense, the countries that were not weak initially are weakened–maybe on purpose.
Will [democracy] happen? Sometimes I have doubts, especially when it is Saudi and Qatari media who are pushing for democracy. Can a non-democratic country push democracy in another country?
BI: What is your vision of the exit in Syria and are you optimistic about the opposition?
Aita: These days are very bad days for the opposition. They are very bad days for the Syrian National Council. It became a hope for the uprising for the people inside, but it failed to build democratic rules inside itself.
A few guys controlled the Syrian National Council completely from the beginning. There are [other] oppositions that are weaker. They have been hit first by campaigns of denigration by al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, the Gulf media that supported the SNC, but also they failed on their own [to answer the needs of Syrians].
The opposition is somehow discredited–all of it. The situation is becoming not talking politics but talking weapons; the outcome of this will be determined by the weapons. No one knows who controls the armed opposition and what it wants, except overthrowing the regime. But the question is not only [one of] overthrowing the regime, it is what other regime should be built.
BI: You sound very pessimistic.
Aita: Some other path has to be found, built on international experience with conflict resolution, to get out of this messy thing. The US should be involved, but peacefully not militarily. My information is that the US will not intervene but is encouraging the flow of weapons into Syria. If Syria enters civil war, the image of the US will be [very] bad, like after Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. It brought war, not peace, stability and democracy
Samir Aita is a writer, editor in chief of Le Monde Diplomatique Arabic Edition and president of Cercle des Economistes Arabes.