People in both countries are taking to the streets to protest against high inflation and the collapse of the local currency. Washington’s punitive measures against Syria compound the two countries’ economic crisis amid the coronavirus emergency. As people become increasingly impoverished, trafficking and smuggling grow.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – Lebanon is already feeling the pinch of US sanctions against Syria, a few days before the Caesar Act[i] comes into effect on 16 June. Signed into law by US President Donald Trump on 21 December 2019, the legislation is indirectly affecting Lebanon since Syria is its only accessible neighbour on land.
At present, the border between the two countries is formally closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, unofficial trade and smuggling have never stopped, especially in places like Akkar or Tal Hmayreh, a village not too far from the Aabboudiye border crossing in northern Lebanon.
Some local Lebanese and joint Lebanese-Syrian groups, ostensibly farmers by trade, conduct smuggling operations with the Syrian provinces of Tartus and Homs. Their people cross the Nahr el Kabir River with all sorts of goods, going back and forth, with US dollars flowing from Lebanon into Syria and human organs going in the other direction. Others cross near Wadi Khaled, an area that links Lebanon’s Beqaa valley to Syria.
Only yesterday AsiaNews obtained documentary evidence of 200 tankers carrying diesel fuel from Lebanon to Syria (video 1), while on the same day long lines of cars were queueing up in Lebanon at service stations because of fuel shortages (video 2).
The same has happened to the US dollar, which is now trading for 5,600 Lebanese pounds, against 1,800 just eight months ago. As a result, and despite the government closing exchange bureaus for failing to comply with imposed quotas, non-traditional currency changers have appeared, buying and selling dollars, which then end up in Syria. As dollars are bought up, they are siphoned out of the local economy.
Meanwhile, despite COVID-19, protests intensified yesterday over the rising cost of living, which is directly correlated to the loss of value of the Lebanese pound against the US dollar.
As many businesses go under following months of protests, the pandemic-related economic lockdown, and now the rising dollar, the ranks of the unemployed is rising rapidly with poverty expanding across the country
Even though the Caesar Act is not yet in place, the situation in Syria is also catastrophic for ordinary people. Consumer prices are up and seasonal fruits have become a luxury for most.
The average salary of 60,000 Syrian pounds is not enough when a kilo of apricots can cost 2,000 pounds in a country like Syria that is still largely agricultural. At this time last year, the price was 1,250 lire per kilo.
The same is true for sugar which now costs 1,350 pounds per kilo. And bread is increasingly rare even though its price is subsidised by the government. Consumers often have to buy the so-called ‘tourist bread,’ which is more expensive since milk is one of its ingredients.
Like in Lebanon, the value of US dollar is now up In Syria, fetching almost 3,100 Syrian pounds on the black market despite a government crackdown. A gram of gold now goes for 105,000 Syrian pounds, the equivalent of almost two months of wages.
Despite government propaganda depicting a strong country, urging Syrians to tighten their belts for four more months until the next US election, most people appear tired of going without for so long. Yesterday, some took to the streets of As-Suwayda, southern Syria, for a fourth day of protest against the rising cost of living.
[i] Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act