The figures emerging from Syria are grim. Two months ago, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that by their conservative count some 93,000 people had been killed in since the insurgency began in March 2011. Today it would be fair to assume that the figure has crossed the 100,000 mark.
Since the beginning of this year Syrians have been fleeing their country at the rate of 6000 a day. In Jordan alone there are now 550,000 Syrian refugees. The UNHCR chief, Mr. Guterres says that his organization has registered some 1.8 million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries. It is almost certain that the number of unregistered refuges who have found shelter with friends and relatives is such that the total number will exceed 3 million
Within Syria the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that some 4.5 million have been displaced… By the UNHCR’s estimate some 6.8 million refugees abroad or within Syria need «urgent help» and UNHCR would require more than $3 billion for the rest of this year to provide such assistance. Such vast sums are of course becoming more and more difficult to collect from the usual donors.
The state of Syria’s war wracked economy is, to say the least parlous. Its foreign exchange reserves have fallen from $18 billion to around $ 3 billion. The Syrian pound which had an exchange rate of 47 to the US dollar has now fallen to 330. Eggs, according to one consumer were available at 24 Syrian pounds per dozen but now cost 120 Syrian pounds. The United Nations has estimated that the impact of the war on the economy has been about $80 billion with production having shrunk by 35%, the tourism industry a substantial contributor having collapsed and unemployment now being at over 50%. . Western economists say that with inflation running at almost 90% Syria has joined the rare band of countries suffering hyperinflation comparable to what the Germans experienced in the 1920s.
Today Syria’s economy, long admired for having a negligible national debt, is being kept afloat by a $1 billion loan credit line from Iran and the supply on credit of some $500 million of oil brought in by Russian tankers. As the war drags on Syria will need more loans and even then may be unable to maintain the food and energy subsidies that had been the hallmark of the socialist economy.
Perhaps most ominously from the perspective of an eventual recovery there has been a massive brain drain from Syria. Egypt has 70,000 registered Syrian refugees but according to unofficial and probably more accurate estimates there are some 140,000 Syrians in Egypt today. Press reports from Egypt talk of the creation of areas in Egypt’s cities that are now referred to «little Syria» populated by Syria’s middle class businessmen and professionals. Many of these refugees believe that they are in Egypt only temporarily but there are others who have transferred all their assets to Egypt including entire factories.
A Middle East expert at the London School of Economics maintains that «the entire professional class has basically migrated» and opines that without their return reconstruction and even reconciliation will not be possible. The question is, will they return, or will this on a larger scale create a generation of exiles exactly as happened in the early 80’s after an unsuccessful uprising against Bashar’s father. (It would perhaps be fair to say that the present leaders of the insurgency, who came out of exile, were those who had left Syria during the Hafez Assad crackdown that had devastated the city of Hama. The turmoil of that period occasioned by an uprising of Sunnis led by the Muslim Brotherhood was however in relative terms inconsequential when compared to the devastation that the present conflict has wrought).
On the ground the position of the government forces appears to be improving. They can be said to be holding on to urban areas- roughly 30 to 40% of the total area but with some 60-65% of the population while the insurgents hold about 60-70% of the territory and a much smaller part of the population. Now however Assad’s forces are making advances. After they were able apparently with the support of Hezbollah forces from Lebanon to take Qusayr, they are now, it seems, on the verge of capturing Homs a city that they have had under siege for more than a year.
There is no doubt that this military triumph after a series of setbacks was owed to the assistance provided by the battle hardened Hezbollah Shia militia and that illustrates the sectarian problem the Syrian conflict is causing not just in Syria but throughout the Arab and perhaps the Muslim World including the Muslim Diaspora in Europe.
Hezbollah’s assistance to Assad forces in terms of the acknowledged physical presence of Hezbollah fighter alongside the Syrian army is a comparatively new phenomena but assistance by way of weaponry and training has been flowing both from the Hezbollah and from Iran. Latest estimates suggest that the Hezbollah has about 10,000 fighters in Syria now and Robert Fisk, one of the western journalists respected for his knowledge of Middle East politics, stated in the British «Independent» newspaper that the Iranian authorities, presumably the Supreme Leader, sanctioned the movement of some 4000 Islamic Revolutionary Guards to Syria just before the presidential elections in June. These will of course be in addition to the large number of «civilian and paramilitary forces» that have been in Damascus for some time to guard the mausoleum of, Sayyeda Zainab a much revered and much visited shrine and one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Shias. The rocket attack on the shrine on Friday 19th July ,which is said to have killed the much-respected custodian of the shrine, will further inflame passions and reinforce civil clamour in Shia ranks around the world for sending more forces to protect the shrine.
The presence of a large number of Iraqi Shias in Syria has of course been well documented. In June, a BBC correspondent interviewing an Iraqi recruiter of Shia volunteers was told that 6000 to 7000 fighters had gone to Syria to fight along side Assad’s forces. While there are many Iraqi Shia groups seeking a role in Syria, primarily to protect the Sayyeda Zainab shrine, it seems that the most prominent has become the Abu Fadl al-Abbas which has upwards of 10,000 volunteers – all of them Shia Muslims, most of them from Iraq. Other reports suggest that three main hardline Shia groups, the Mahdi Army, the Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and the Kataaib Hizbullah, are sending volunteers to Syria at a rate of 50 per week but this number is likely to increase after the reported attack on the shrine in Damascus.
The Iraqi government has professed neutrality in so far as the conflict in Syria is concerned but its actions on the ground, for understandable reasons are not quite compatible with this declared policy. The new Iraqi Ambassador to the USA, in lobbying for the early delivery of the F-16s that the US is supposed to supply to the Iraqi air force said that they were not in favour of allowing the use of their airspace by Iran for the supply of assistance to Syria but without a well equipped air force were not in a position to enforce a ban. This argument has not won many adherents the belief being that Iraq was deliberately turning a blind eye because of the apprehensions Iraq’s Shia dominated government entertains about the results of a opposition victory in Syria. This was clearly articulated by on February 27th this year by Prime Minister Maliki when he warned that «a Syrian opposition victory would lead to the breakout of a civil war in Lebanon and divisions in Jordan, as well as a sectarian war in Iraq».
For Iraq another concern is that sectarian rhetoric has intensified in the Sunni majority provinces of Iraq lying along the Iraq-Syria border with Free Syrian Army flags and banners being on prominent display. The Al-Qaeda dominated group called the Islamic State of Iraq has now joined hands, despite the differences that have emerged as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant as the extremist Sunni organisation bringing together the Sunni dissident of both Iraq and Syria and the foreign fighters who have reached Syria and joined the Jabhat al-Nusra.
One must note that in the eyes of the orthodox Shias and this means the clergy in Iran and Iraq and the Hezbollah, the Alawites are not Shias and many would even term them heretics. From their perspective they are in Syria not to defend in religious terms the Alawite regime but the Shia shrines. Their support for Assad is grounded entirely in reasons of state. Syria is Iran’s only Arab ally and the conduit for Iran’s support for the Hezbollah. But in the eyes of the world this has now become a battle between the Shias and Sunnis.
To sum up for reasons of religion and even more so for reasons of state the Shias of Lebanon, Iraq and Iran are assisting in a very coherent manner the Assad regime. On the other side the Sunnis too have been galvanised to support the Syrian opposition, which is no longer seen as a rebellion against a dictatorship but as a struggle by an oppressed Sunni majority against a Shia minority regime. The Sunnis however do not have the same coherence and their international support is also divided.