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An economic bloodbath will test Assad's staying power   

The National - 28 February, 2012
Author: Faisal al Yafai

The bodies keep piling up, and Bashar Al Assad endures. The video and photographs coming out of Syria are heart-breaking: even during a referendum on constitutional reform, images of the dead in Baba Amr continue to emerge. Men, women and children are shot to death and blown apart by shells. Homs is being bled dry, one body at a time, while the world watches.

The winds of the Arab Spring have shaken the throne of President Al Assad, but have yet to topple him. Saudi Arabia now speaks openly of arming the opposition; the United States has not ruled out the possibility.

The days of Mr Al Assad's rule are ending, but may yet be measured in months or years. He has lost his legitimacy in the eyes of many to lead the country but remains in charge of the army.

Yet an armed confrontation may not be the only way for Mr Al Assad to leave: the regime could yet implode. This could come in one of two ways, an internal coup (almost certainly by Alawite officers) or economic pressure leading to widespread protests.

The second remains more likely, if only because Mr Al Assad's father, Hafez, who came to power in a coup, spent his entire time at the helm attempting to "coup-proof" his regime. The fate of Bashar Al Assad could yet be decided by economics, not intervention.

Economics has played a significant, if little understood, role in the Arab Spring. In Syria in particular, as the instability has dragged on, the economy has been ravaged.

The first problem is household spending. In times of uncertainty, people immediately stop spending money on luxuries and start hoarding cash, bringing a huge fall in income for businesses. At the same time, the loss of any semblance of normality in daily life means that fewer people go to work, there is less economic activity, and consequently less tax revenue for the government.

Those who can are getting their money out. Capital flight out of Syria is at critical levels, as The National reported on Sunday, with an estimated 100 billion Syrian pounds (nearly US$ 2 billion) leaving the banking system since the start of the uprisings last year.

Worse, the regime has no way to replenish that liquidity. International credit is closed to it, while its few friends - Russia, say, or Iran - are unlikely to be willing to extend sufficient credit to the regime.

The economy is creaking, bringing severe hardship to many millions. The longer the uprising continues, the harder it will be to rebuild the economy; suppliers will have been replaced, tourists will continue to stay away and the underlying capability of the economy will be diminished.

Yet while Syria's economy is faltering, it is not collapsing. As corrupt and as stagnant as it is, as dangerous as these times are, Mr Al Assad could still hold on. It is not the economy per se that is his Achilles' heel, but the lack of any opposition who could manage it better.

The economy is key to the continued survival of the Al Assad clan. Since Bashar Al Assad took power in 2000, his gradual liberalisation of the economy has significantly enriched a business elite, many of whom fear what might come after. Even before he took over, during the long rule of his father, the merchant class centred in Damascus and Aleppo, the two main cities, looked to the regime to ensure stability, in return for political quiescence.
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