Syria in ruins as war enters 9th year

1 / 2
A Syrian refugee who fled to Lebanon looks through a bus window as she returns to her country from the southern Lebanese village of Shebaa on April 18, 2018. (Reuters)
2 / 2
Syrian refugees stand in line for aid packages at Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, on Jan. 20, 2016. (Reuters)
Updated 18 March 2019
0

Syria in ruins as war enters 9th year

  • Despite the tide turning in favor of President Bashar Assad’s regime, he says the conflict ‘is not yet over’
  • The war has killed more than 500,000 people, displaced at least 12 million, and left the country’s economy and infrastructure in ruins

SYRIA: The Syrian crisis enters its ninth year this month, leaving in its wake a trail of death, destruction, destitution, displacement and division. 

The war has killed more than 500,000 people, displaced at least 12 million, and left the country’s economy and infrastructure in ruins.

Syrian President Bashar Assad said in a speech on Feb. 17: “We have this romantic view sometimes that we are victorious. No, the war is not over.”

Statistics and figures from Syrian Customs, provided by economist and financial advisor Dr. Humam Al-Jazaeri, show that the volume of foreign trade plummeted between 2010 and 2016 due to non-UN (US and EU) sanctions, the suspension of oil production, damage to physical infrastructure and the closure of border crossings with Jordan and Iraq. 

“A compliance buffer zone at financial institutions has been put in place voluntarily, especially by international banks, against transactions in goods and services traded with Syria, leading to a significant rise in international transaction costs, including the costs of shipping, insurance and financing,” he said.

“Due to non-UN sanctions, combined with the conflict, the capabilities of Syrian banks have been significantly eroded in facilitating international payments.”

The tide of the war has turned in the Syrian regime’s favor, with the bulk of the country back in its control, prompting some Arab states to begin normalizing ties with Damascus. 

Jordan reopened its main border crossing with Syria in October 2018, and Sudan’s President Omar Al-Bashir visited Damascus in mid-December, the first Arab ruler to visit the country since the war began in 2011. 

There is a growing consensus among Arab League countries about readmitting Syria to the regional bloc, after its membership was suspended seven years ago. 

Mark Gasiorowski, a political science lecturer at Tulane University in the US, told Arab News: “This is part of a process of rehabilitating the Syrian regime that has been going on for a year or so now, as the regime has increasingly been winning its civil war with extensive help from Russia and Iran.” 

Even though Arab states are reluctant to have any dealings with Damascus, “Syria is a key Arab state, and other Arab powers can’t afford to keep ostracizing it, as the US and EU countries can,” he said. 

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) forecast in December 2018 that up to 250,000 Syrian refugees could return to their devastated homeland in 2019, despite massive hurdles facing them. 

But the following month, the UN said conditions were not right for the safe and orderly return of large groups of refugees. 

The French and German ambassadors to Syria blame Damascus for “creating a climate of fear and injustice” that is preventing refugees from returning. 

They called on Damascus to “credibly end arbitrary arrests and prosecution,” and to “stop restricting the work of the UNHCR” so that “it can freely move within Syria to access and protect all refugees.” 

Damaged markets in the old quarter of Syria’s second city Aleppo. AFP

Meanwhile, the third Brussels conference on “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region,” held on March 12-14, noted that more than 11 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance. 

The conference pledged $7 billion for 2019 in aid for Syrians in the country and its neighbors.

Even though the security situation has improved with the defeat of Daesh, many parts of Syria remain a serious security concern. 

And while pro-regime forces have recaptured areas surrounding the capital, shortages of fuel, cooking gas and electricity have hit Damascus hard this winter, leading to rising food prices and transport costs. 

With persistent power cuts and a rise in fuel prices, residents are increasingly relying on gas for heating. Other major cities are also facing an energy crisis, including Aleppo, As-Suwayda, Hama, Homs and Latakia.

Locals have taken to social media to express their anger not just toward their living situation, but also Parliament Speaker Hammouda Al-Sabbagh’s claim that these complaints are “campaigns … managed by foreign parties.”

Social media activist Ahmed S. said: “The people’s rightful demands for the provision of basic products are popular demands that Parliament … must support, not consider them campaigns that are managed by foreign parties.”


Egypt begins vote on extending El-Sisi’s rule

Updated 20 April 2019
0

Egypt begins vote on extending El-Sisi’s rule

  • El-Sisi cast his ballot at a polling station in the eastern suburb of Heliopolis in the Egyptian capital
  • Supporters argue that El-Sisi has stabilized Egypt and needs more time to complete crucial economic reforms.

CAIRO: Voting began on Saturday in Egypt in a referendum on proposed constitutional amendments that would extend President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi's rule.
El-Sisi cast his ballot at a polling station in the eastern suburb of Heliopolis in the Egyptian capital, state television showed.  

Supporters argue that El-Sisi has stabilized Egypt and needs more time to complete crucial economic reforms. Critics say they fear that the changes will further limit the space for dissent. 

An amendment to Article 140 of the constitution extends the presidential term to six years from four. An outright bar on any president serving more than two terms will change to a bar on serving more than two consecutive terms. An additional clause extends El-Sisi’s current term to six years from four currently since his election victory in 2018, and allows him to run for a third term in 2024. 

The amendments provide for the creation of a second parliamentary chamber known as the Council of Senators. It would have 180 members, two-thirds elected by the public and the rest appointed by the president. 

Article 200 of the constitution on the role of the military is expanded, giving the military a duty to protect “the constitution and democracy and the fundamental makeup of the country and its civil nature, the gains of the people and the rights and freedoms of individuals.” 

The amendments also create the post of vice president, allowing the president to appoint one or more deputies. 

They task the president with choosing head judges and the public prosecutor from a pool of senior candidates pre-selected by the judiciary. They further create a quota setting women’s representation in Parliament at a minimum of 25 percent. 

Who is behind the amendments? 

The amendments were initiated by the pro-government parliamentary bloc known as Support Egypt, and according to the Parliament’s legislative committee report, 155 members submitted the initial proposal. On Tuesday, 531 out of 596 members of Egypt’s overwhelmingly pro-El-Sisi Parliament voted in favor of the changes. Parliament speaker Ali Abdelaal has said that the amendments were a parliamentary initiative and that El-Sisi may not even choose to run again. 

“This suggestion came from the representatives of the people in gratitude for the historic role played by the president,” the legislative committee report said. 

Proponents of the changes have argued that El-Sisi, a former army chief, came to power with a huge mandate after mass protests in 2013 against President Mohamed Mursi’s one year in office. With macro economic indicators improving, they say El-Sisi deserves more time to build on reforms. The legislative committee report said religious, academic, political and civil society representatives expressed strong overall support for the changes during a consultation period ahead of the Parliament’s final vote. 

What do opponents say? 

The legislative committee acknowledged some opposition to the amendments from members of the judiciary and two non-governmental organizations. Just 22 members of Parliament voted against the amendments. They and other opposition figures say a central promise of the 2011 uprising that toppled then-President Hosni Mubarak is at risk: The principle of the peaceful transfer of power. They say the amendments were driven by El-Sisi and his close entourage, and by the powerful security and intelligence agencies. They also fear the changes thrust the armed forces into political life by formally assigning them a role in protecting democracy. 

“If you want your children and grandchildren to live in a modern democratic country with peaceful transition of power, I do not think this is the amendment we would want,” one of the opposition MPs, Haitham El-Hariri, told Parliament this week. 

While Abdelaal said a wide range of views were given a hearing during the consultation period, opposition figures and activists say genuine debate on the amendments was impossible due to a far-reaching crackdown on political dissent. 

Egyptian officials deny silencing dissent and say that Egyptians from all walks of life were given a chance to debate the amendments, adding that all views were factored into the final proposals. Abdelaal also denied that the amendments prescribe a new role for the military. 

He told Parliament that the armed forces are the backbone of the country and Egypt is “neither a military or a religious state,” state-run Al Ahram newspaper said. “This is part of (El-Sisi’s) consolidation of power,” said Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations, an independent US-based think-tank. “From an institutional perspective, Egypt’s counter-revolution is largely complete.” 

What happens next?

Egyptians abroad start voting on Friday, while the vote inside Egypt begins on Saturday, meaning Egyptians have less than four days to read and discuss the changes following their approval by Parliament. Election commissioner Lasheen Ibrahim, who announced the dates of the referendum on Wednesday, did not say when the votes will be counted or the results announced. More than a week before Parliament’s final vote, posters and banners sprung up across the capital Cairo urging people to “do the right thing” and participate, some calling directly for a “yes” vote.