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Syrians, Not The Regime, Feel The Sting Of Sanctions
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Syrians, Not The Regime, Feel The Sting Of Sanctions

Middle East

Syrians, Not The Regime, Feel The Sting Of Sanctions
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On a Friday morning, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Syria faces more pressure to stop its violent crackdown on protestors. The United Nations says more than 3,000 people have been killed on the streets, including 14 people just yesterday. Activist groups say clashes took place between troops loyal to the government of Bashar al-Assad and others believed to be army defectors. Hoping to further isolate Syria, the Europe Union is blacklisting the commercial Bank of Syria. NPR's Deborah Amos is in Damascus and is asking if those sanctions could change Syrian policy.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: In downtown Damascus, open air shops line the street in the Midan neighborhood. A government escort is with me for every interview about the sensitive question of sanctions. Hassan Shagharouri runs a sweets shop, and I ask him if prices are rising.

HASSAN SHAGHAROURI: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: No, he says, everything is perfect. It's the same answer at Bishar al Kassam's electronics shop.

BISHAR AL KASSAM: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: What you are saying is that no one is affected by the sanctions? It's just - nothing's changed.

KASSAM: (Through translator) It remains as it was.

AMOS: The answers are so upbeat that even the government escort shakes his head and says, I don't know why they're all lying to you.

Every Syrian has felt the pain. For the poor, eggs and meat are now out of reach. For the well-to-do, international banks have stopped processing personal credit cards. For merchants there is a collapse in demand, says Nabil Sukkar, a former World Bank official who runs an independent research center in Damascus.

NABIL SUKKAR: There is tremendous depression because there is still no light at the end of the tunnel.

AMOS: It's not just the sanctions, says Sukkar. The uprising has had an even bigger impact on the economy. The uncertainty has shut down tourism and dried up foreign investment. And there's another price to pay for the massive government crackdown - the army has been deployed in Syrian cities for months.

SUKKAR: Of course for that military operation, which the money has to come from our budget.

AMOS: A shrinking national budget. The European Union's ban on Syrian oil comes into force in November. Syria has to find new buyers for a product that makes up one-third of all state revenues, so the economic pain is expected to get a whole lot worse.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

AMOS: A birthday celebration at one of the capital's trendy cafes. This street in Damascus is a symbol of the economy built by a young president over a decade in power, with a row of brand name coffee houses, restaurants and designer clothing shops.

Bashar al-Assad opened the economy, enriched a business elite, and created a consumer culture in Syria. He reversed the command economy when he inherited the presidency from his father and gained legitimate support, says Peter Harling with the International Crisis Group based in Damascus.

PETER HARLING: Many people saw in Bashar at least someone who could introduce a certain atmosphere of liberalism, access to imported goods of a quality which was inexistent(ph) under his father.

AMOS: But now the economic crisis threatens to push the country back to the 1980's with long lines for locally produced goods, says Harling.

HARLING: The problem for the regime is that this is a prospect which its base of support, what's left of its base of support, resents.

AMOS: But that resentment could backfire if Western sanctions hurt average Syrians more than the regime, says newspaper editor Waddah Abd Rabbo.

WADDAH ABD RABBO: When you hear the European or the American, they tell you that sanction would not affect the Syrian people. It's not true, because we are all affected by the sanction. Normally the regime are not affected by all this.

AMOS: The regime can rally the country, demand sacrifices with an anti-American campaign, says Rabbo. Most Syrians are unprepared for this economic disaster. The regime, he says, has a system in place.

RABBO: These people know exactly how to live with sanction. They adapt. They adapt their life on sanction.

AMOS: Those in Western capitals waiting for the regime to crack under the pressure, he says, have a long wait.

Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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