Syrian businessmen signal revulsion with President Assad’s regime – Nour Ali*

Article  •  Publié sur Souria Houria le 29 août 2011

Syrian businessmen are reaching out to western diplomats, expressing revulsion for the Assad regime but also concern at the crippling effect of sanctions.

Diplomats say several businessmen from the merchant elite have approached western embassies to register their unease. « There are many businessmen coming to us to tell us how much they hate the regime, » said one senior western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Protesters continue to take to the streets in large numbers but have so far been unable to dislodge those in power, prompting them to look for any splits within the regime’s political, military and economic base. While the international community has targeted the economy with sanctions, protesters have circulated lists of companies to boycott. The US and EU have accompanied their calls for President Basher al-Assad to resign with economic sanctions.

« Business leaders are definitely moving because they are realising the regime may not be around forever, » said Adib Shishakly, a Saudi-based businessman.

Almost six months of protests against Assad have all but wiped out the tourist industry, which accounts for 12% of GDP, while the International Institute of Finance forecasts that the economy will shrink by 3% this year.

Neighbouring countries, including Turkey, have until now called onBashar al-Assad to reform rather than resign. But in a sign of rising tensions, Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gül, told Anatolia news agency on Sundaythat Turkey has lost confidence. His comments came a day after Iran warned the regime to heed protesters’ demands and the Arab League said it would send its leader to Damascus.

More than 2,200 people have been killed in the unrest since March, according to the UN, with thousands more detained. At least 10 more protesters were shot dead over the weekend, activists claim. An attack on a Damascus mosque on Saturday left its prominent sheikh, Osama al-Rifai, in hospital.

Businessmen have helped finance the regime and prop up the economy by keeping their funds in the Syrian currency. But it is unclear how much any shift within the business community would affect the uprising, which some claim has moved into stalemate.

Syrian economist Samir Aita said many businessmen had long deploredSyria‘s « crony capitalism ». Exiled businessmen Ali and Waseem Sanqar funded an opposition conference in Antalya in south-west Turkey, but other businessmen inside Syria have ignored direct politics, opting to donate money, food and medical supplies covertly or grant time off to protesters.

One businessman in Homs said: « I have sent food to Rastan and Telbiseh, but cannot do more than that. »

A second diplomat from a different embassy said the leading businessmen who came to talk to him appeared more concerned about being targeted by EU sanctions than abandoning the regime. The US and EU have targeted businessmen, such as Rami Makhlouf, the president’s cousin, who side with the regime.

The majority of unhappy businessmen, either those trapped in partnerships with regime figures or fearful of crossing Assad, may simply leave Syria or remain silent.

Assessments of the effect of the economy on the regime is unclear and will be slow, according to analysts. The EU is still considering sanctions on oil, which accounts for around a third of GDP.

The central bank has taken steps to limit foreign currency exchanges, but the regime says it will explore other markets. The Syrian economy was weakening long before the uprising started, but with its oil and agriculture, it is largely self-sufficient.

« Businessmen think of their business first and do the best for that, » said one economist in Damascus. « To get a real split, the opposition needs to prove it can provide a stable alternative. »

*Nour Ali is the pseudonym for a journalist based in Damascus