Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Syria's Endemic Corruption

Exiled Syrian recalls the economic misery and corruption that prompted him to leave the country.
By Ghassan Ibrahim
  • In the last ten years, corruption is said to have become open. (Photo: Steven Damron/Flickr)
    In the last ten years, corruption is said to have become open. (Photo: Steven Damron/Flickr)

In Syria, if you don’t agree with the regime then you are considered to be against it - even if you are silent.

I graduated from Damascus university with a BSc in economics and took a post-grad degree in financial and economic policy, then went on to work as an economic adviser to leading businessmen in Syria. I also wrote the occasional report for the newspapers on the Syrian economy, where I touched on government mismanagement of the economy and much-needed reforms.

This was in a brief period following the death of Hafez al-Assad in 2000 when people were optimistic that his son Bashar could bring some change. But after less than two years, I lost hope that the regime could do anything other than go backwards. What they called reform was just organised corruption.

The generals and the people in power under Hafez had gained their money through bribery and the abuse of power. Bashar’s opening up of the markets just allowed these people to effectively use reforms for money-laundering. They cleaned up their money by investing it in new projects, and the corruption became more organised than ever before. Many investors could not get involved in any sector without paying someone for protection or giving a heavy percentage.

This was no longer secret – this was simply a part of life and of the regime. People were absolutely open about it, whereas under Hafez bribes were accepted under the table with some caution. In the last ten years, there has been open corruption.

It was difficult to leave, but I felt there were no opportunities for me in Syria. So I came to the United Kingdom, studied English, economics and media and began working as a freelance researcher in the politics and economy in the Middle East and North Africa.

In 2006, I established the Global Arab Network in London a news, information and research resource.

When I came here, even though I was not politically active and tried to distance myself from Syria, I was treated with great suspicion by the Syrian authorities because of my independent views - despite being silent on Syrian matters. They were very anxious to know who I was and what research I was conducting, along with my political outlook.

They sent a lot of agents to find out about me, as they do with most educated Syrians. It was easy to spot them. They have a standard way of operating – they don’t recruit the most intelligent people. I would be at an event or conference, alongside hundreds of other people, and they would come straight up to me and start a conversation and ask silly questions. For instance, are you an Arab? Where are you from? And then in an indirect way move on to my views on Hezbollah and Syrian policy, then try and find out when I was last in the country and where I travel to.

Most of the time, I did not pay much attention. As long as Bashar was in power, I believed that nothing would change or, rather, that the situation could only deteriorate. Poverty was increasing, there were no services – even health and education were worse than in Hafez’s time. In Syria, visiting a public hospital is the shortest route to death, and sending your children to government school is just a waste of time and results in a meaningless certificate. If you don’t invest huge amounts in your children, they will never get anywhere.

But the first day I saw people protesting in Dara’a and government forces responding with live fire, I knew the regime was over.

The reason the Syrian regime has survived for 40 years is that the Syrian people were convinced that the danger lay outside their borders and they needed to be united and sacrificed their rights and needs in order to protect their country. The regime was able to manipulate this to stay in power. Bashar misunderstood the source of his power. He thought it lay in his security forces, but in actual fact it comes from the people. Now it’s just a matter of time, even if the international community does nothing, because the people themselves have decided that the Syrian regime is finished. With the violence, Bashar’s mask has dropped.

One of the things which helped the regime is the lack of an organised opposition, the result of investing 40 years in targeting internal opponents and even those who left the country. I see the formation of a transitional opposition council as essential. Then the international community will recognise this new political body as legitimate and there will be more defections from the regime.

If the chaos increases, Turkey may be forced to take action to protect its own borders and establish a buffer zone. The Syrian economy is near collapse, it is unsustainable and I don’t believe that support from Iran or anywhere else will be enough to sustain it.

People know that if they stay in the streets, then they might die - but if they stop, they will be killed along with their parents, children and grandchildren. The regime will not let this dissent go unpunished. The costs of continuing are less than the costs of stopping. There is no other choice.

Ghassan Ibrahim is the editor-in-chief of Global Arab Network.

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