Amid Syria protests, businessmen remain loyal to President Assad
The economic reforms of President Assad helped earn the loyalty of businessmen. Without their support, his government would be in far greater danger of collapse due to Syria protests.
Rana Issa, the owner of an advertising and marketing business in Damascus is struggling. She's had to lay off five of her 20 employees in the seven months of political and economic upheaval since Syria's antigovernment uprising began.Skip to next paragraph
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But unlike the street demonstrators, Ms. Issa doesn't blame President Bashar al-Assad's government for her woes. As a Palestinian, Issa expresses strong support for his government, which she says has afforded more rights to Palestinian refugees and their children than either Israel or other Arab countries.
“We feel secure with Dr. Bashar al-Assad as president,” she says. “He has achieved a lot of reforms. The opposition hasn’t given him enough time.”
Some Syrian cities have been persistently roiled by protests; today, at least 30 protesters were reported killed across the country – the highest toll in weeks – with the unrest focused in Homs and Hama. But the two biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, have seen much smaller demonstrations because the cities' business communities continue to favor the government, says Nabil Sukkar, a former World Bank economist who now heads an economic consulting firm in Damascus.
Drastic drops in tourism revenue and biting sanctions have taken a toll on the Syrian economy. While Syria's gross domestic product grew by 3 percent last year, the IMF predicts a negative 2 percent this year. However, large- and medium-sized businesses, which the West hopes to turn against the regime with its sanctions, remain largely supportive of the Assad regime.
Syria’s big business elite is closely intertwined with the ruling Baath Party through financial and family ties. Disloyalty to the government can mean not only loss of lucrative government contracts, but political isolation and even jail.
Mr. Sukkar says big business leaders are pragmatic. “They expect the unrest to end sooner or later. The regime is well entrenched. The Army is certainly loyal to the government.”
Decline in tourists hurts business, however
However, some small businessmen, suffering financially because of the tourism decline and sanctions spurred by the regime's crackdown, have shifted to the opposition.
The owner of a clothing business in Damascus’ main souk, or marketplace, says he used to be a strong supporter of Assad, but he blames the government for the collapse in tourism and the general decline in business activity. The business owner, who asked to remain anonymous, says he has had only one foreign customer in the last three months. They're usually the mainstay of his business.
“The souk is like a graveyard,” he says.
He now supports the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political party that has been active in the street demonstrations against Mr. Assad. The government accuses the Brotherhood of being an extremist group seeking to impose an Islamic state on Syria, but the shopkeeper considers them moderates, likening them to the elected Islamist government in Turkey.
The Muslim Brotherhood “wants an end to corruption,” he says. “Young people are fighting for their rights.”