Successive news reports have been leaked about the meeting that was held in the Damascus presidential palace and chaired by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in the presence of his brother-in-law and Syrian Deputy Defense Minister, Assef Shawkat, and a carefully selected group of the most prominent businessmen in Syria. This was an extremely tense and stormy meeting which represented a humiliation of the Syrian businessmen who were subject to explicit violent threats that required no interpretation, namely that either these businessmen and merchants clearly and explicitly support the regime and comprehensively refuse to support or finance the revolution or face the consequences!
Dire threats of the complete destruction of Damascus were issued. The threats included the historical and commercial district of al-Hamaidiya and the well-known Gates of Damascus, which would all be destroyed and levelled to the ground in the same manner as the Baba Amr district of Homs, and in the same manner that the famous district of Kelaniya was destroyed and witnessed horrible and bloody massacres in the 1980s.
The al-Assad regime had established strong, sensitive, precise, strategic and long-lasting relations with Syria’s businessmen and industrial sector whereby the regime was keen to offer them “benefits” in order to secure their support for the future.
The regime knew that the Syrian character has been one that is “based” and indeed completely “absorbed” in trade from time immemorial. In fact, trade is a primary part of the character, identity and history of the Syrian people, and so a Syrian person anywhere - whether at home or overseas - is known for his excessively pragmatic handling of issues in certain situations and whenever necessary. Hence, al-Assad, both the father and the son, have exploited this idea and skilfully drawn upon it. They would often bring businessmen into their inner circle, urging them to benefit from Syria’s closed market economy in order to make substantial profits. This all was happening in a climate where genuine competition was absent, whilst employment and other business issues could be fixed or resolved by government intervention. Yet, this state of affairs cost these businessmen dearly, whether in the form of funding and supporting numerous prominent influential figures and their lifestyle, or in the form of funding government officials’ private projects for unknown security and intelligence purposes.
It is well known that illustrious and prominent Syrian merchants and businessmen are working - behind their amiable facades - to the advantage of well-known officials, in what can be seen as marriage of convenience, however a marriage that lacks customs, laws and system because for these businessmen, the end justifies the means. This is why al-Assad is today witnessing an increasing number of businessmen defecting from the regime; a phenomenon that did not receive the same media coverage given to the defections from the al-Assad regime's army.
Businessmen, merchants and manufacturers now are backing the revolution and are offering financial and spiritual aid, whilst others have fled the country and are attempting to pressure the regime, either via media appearances or by publicly siding with the governments championing the Syrian revolution. Others have preferred to work secretly from outside the country, continuing to serve as a useful aid to the revolution in a number of different ways.
Capital, by its very nature, searches for a partner in government that can guarantee its safety. Yet, we must not overlook the fact that any situation must have a category of beneficiaries, and so the danger, insults, humiliation and the exorbitant cost which the Syrian business sector have had to pay – especially when considering this category as one that is accustomed to “calculating” issues beforehand – have all caused businessmen to discover that they are now facing a losing proposition. Hence, for them, the entire issue needs to be reconsidered. This was a good reason for the regime’s current “hysteria”, for it is now receiving blows from all sides, both domestically and abroad. Aleppo and Damascus - the most important economic bases in Syria – have also risen against the regime after the agricultural sector and villagers in Homs, Hamah, Deraa and Deir al-Zour previously did so.
The economic defections will serve as a new source of pressure against the regime and will thwart its ability to manage the economy. This represents a genuine dilemma for the Syrian regime whose options are disappearing and whose support base is shrinking.
In the early months of the revolution, the regime attempted to seriously “reassure” its economic base by granting them unprecedented privileges, turning a blind eye to all the fines and sanctions in order to shore up support. However it was the Syrian working class who had been harmed by the regime, and who were responsible for inciting this revolution. Many of them were killed, injured or detained, and this ultimately made it impossible for Syria’s businessmen to continue aiding the regime and they have therefore chosen to side with the revolution. This is another nail in the coffin of a regime that should have been put to rest long ago!
The writer is a prominent columnist. The article was published in Asharq Al Awsat on May. 12, 2012