Syria's Assad Warns Of Dangerous Economic Climate The biggest threat to the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria is not the protests that have shaken the country recently. In a speech Monday, the president told supporters that the most dangerous thing they face is the collapse of the economy.
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Syria's Assad Warns Of Dangerous Economic Climate

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Syria's Assad Warns Of Dangerous Economic Climate

Syria's Assad Warns Of Dangerous Economic Climate

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NPR's Deborah Amos reports the financial pressures are increasing with the unrest.


DEBORAH AMOS: I'm standing on the Lebanese-Syrian border. In normal times, this is a busy place. But now, there are hardly any cars here, hardly anyone standing in line to cross.

U: Problem in Syria. Problem.

AMOS: The few who are crossing are Syrians looking for work in Lebanon. They stop at a local shop for a Coke and a bag of chips.


AMOS: There's no work since the troubles, they say. It's how they describe a protest movement that has swept the country.


AMOS: They don't even glance at the TV in this border grocery store - tuned to a channel that broadcasts Syrian protest videos all day long. Lebanon is one gateway for the Syrian economy, but cross-border trade has stalled, with long delays for security checks. Serious tourism industry has all but collapsed. Businessmen reached by phone in Aleppo, Syria's commercial capital, say there are widespread layoffs in private companies. Shops are empty as Syrians put off purchases at a time of uncertainty.

MONTAGNE: I go to Syria every week, I still - I have not stopped. I have been feeling that the economic activity, generally, has gone down by several notches.

AMOS: Shadi Karam knows as much as anyone about Syria. A Lebanese economist, he advised Syria's government on modernizing banks. He helped introduce the first ATMs and a stock market. And he predicts economic pressure could add to the unrest.

MONTAGNE: But the ranks of the people in the streets today may be augmented, may be inflated, by the ranks of those who are going to start protesting because the economic situation is affecting them, because they have been laid off, inflation is increasing. It's the economy, stupid, as they say, you know.

AMOS: And pressure is building in every sector, for example, agriculture, an important part of the domestic economy. According to business sources, the cost of getting produce to market has tripled, because main the highway from the north to the capital has been closed by the army. Farmers, says Chris Doyle, with the Council for Arab British Understanding, are suffering.

MONTAGNE: It's been extremely difficult to harvest the fruits and the vegetables to take them to market. This will have significant consequences for the regime.

AMOS: Another cost: government subsidies introduced in hopes of quelling the discontent. For example the price of diesel fuel subsidized way below the market price. But there are now reports of shortages, says Andrew Tabler, at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington.

MONTAGNE: Diesel fuel for Syria is the basic energy commodity that everyone uses, from farmers to those who are trying to heat their homes. All of these small signs point to a lot of market pressure over the past three months.

AMOS: And pressure on the central bank, says Shadi Karam. So far, Syria's currency, the value of the Syrian pound when exchanged for other currencies, has remained steady. In his speech to the country, Syria's president thanked private citizens for depositing dollars - some businessmen reportedly deposited millions - to help keep the currency afloat. They put their own cash in the bank to demonstrate support. But how much long can the bank spend dollar reserves?

MONTAGNE: The Syrian Central Bank's vital statistics, let's use that term, are a national security issue. I don't think anybody really knows how much reserves the Syrian central bank owns at the moment.

AMOS: A stable currency is a public measure of the economy, says Karam.

MONTAGNE: It's working, how long this policy will be sustainable, frankly, I would be at a loss to say.

AMOST: And time is against the regime.

MONTAGNE: When you have people dying on the streets every day, especially every Friday, time becomes very short, you know, it is unacceptable, unacceptable.

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut.


MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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