Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, August 20th, 2008
IDAF's Observations on his Month-long Trip Around Syria
For Syria Comment
My Dear Friend Ehsani (who wrote up his own observations of Aleppo in the previous post),
While I fully agree with many points you raise, I think that you also agree that what you described is just part of the picture… a considerable part nonetheless. The economic lens you use is solid, however, one would need to apply a social one at the same time to get the full picture.
I would argue that the grim picture you paint is not the complete one, neither of Aleppo nor of Syria in general. During our three hour chat in the “packed” fancy cafe in Aleppo (which charges $4.5 for a cup of chilled coffee, similar to what Starbucks charges in places like Dubai) we discussed positive and negative changes in the city compared to a year ago. It might be indicative to note that the number of those fancy cafes and restaurants in Aleppo and Damascus has tripled compared to a year ago (they are always packed, despite the fact that they charge outrageous prices compared to the average Syrian income).
This year I managed to get a long good vacation in Syria (around 30 days). In a less romantic –and less socialist- take on ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’, I managed to break my earlier record and drove close to 2500 KM in less than 10 days around 7 of the country’s 13 muhafazat (governorates). I avoided “autostrads” (highways) and opted instead for the curvy and mostly mountainous village routes. I can confidently claim that I formed a semi-comprehensive picture of the developmental status through observation and talking to people in the western side of the country (which holds the majority of the country’s population). Those I talked to included remote villagers who were Sunnis, Christians, Alawis and Ismailis as well as urban Syrians in cities including Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Idlib, Lattakia and Tartous. This mini-research can complement the indicative anecdotal experiences posted here by Ehsani and other commentators.
To say that the changes occurring in Syria are only positive would be ludicrous. Similarly, to portray the situation in only negative terms is equally misleading. As expected in any country going through dramatic changes on the economic and social levels, reality is a mixed picture of the good, the bad and the ugly as Averroes wisely suggests. For example, the most impressive developments I noticed were on the infrastructural level. They included hundreds of miles of modern highways under construction around the country. Many are nearing completion and almost ready to be put in service (mostly done by mega Kuwaiti companies).
Similar modern transportation and infrastructure improvements are being undertaken in the eastern parts of Syria including bridges over the Euphrates. In addition, urban planning is becoming more systematic. For example, traffic within the cities has improved noticeably (especially in the most crowded roads in Aleppo, as Ehsani can confirm). There is now a new ruthless traffic law and a policeman or two literally on every corner. Taxi drivers will now refuse to drive you if your refused to put your seatbelt on (otherwise they would have to pay a fine of 2000 lira on the next corner, or pay triple the bribe they can afford). Brand new fuel-efficient and less-polluting public busses are running around the large cities instead of the old fuel-guzzling and carbon-spitting dinosaurs. The Damascus airport is one huge round-the-clock expansion workshop. A brand new train system is now connecting the major cities and even expanding to Turkey. Based on my first-hand experience, the new train carriages are similar to those in Europe (however, the railway is not as quit).
Just 50 KMs outside Aleppo in Idlib governorate, Turkish businessmen are trying hard to purchase every piece of land they can get their hands on as there’s a new Syrian-Turkish Free Trade Zone about to be built in the area. The smart landowners are refusing to sell so far until the new highway is finished. In Tartous, the brand new shiny corniche is packed with fancy cafes and families on picnics. The Dubai-like cafes and night spots on Latakia’s corniche could easily be confused with those in Beirut sea-side. Driving around the mountains, one could not but notice the large number of brand new 4 and 3 stars hotels mushrooming in addition to the smell of the new asphalt connecting the remote villages.
Damascus has defiantly had the lion’s share of the development and investments. I insist that I’m pleasantly surprised with the cleanliness of the touristic neighborhoods in Damascus (including the old city). The city received a comprehensive make-over in preparations of the Arab League Summit earlier this year and in preparation for the “Arab Capital of Culture” year-long festival. Cultural events are packed (Ziad el-Rahbani’s series of concerts with his 50 man orchestra inside the ancient Damascus castle was simply out of this world). The earlier remarks by Observer and those of Ford Prefect are largely representative of the scene in Damascus. As for mega real estate projects, they are mainly taking shape around Damascus and along the coast (as promised Ehsani, I’ll email you some information on the new mega projects on the coast of Tartous).
My point from the above text is the following: Stating that infrastructure is not improving all around Syria is misleading. The whole country feels like an enormous development project. It will take years to transform it from a 1960s socialist Greece, repressive Spain or under-developed Turkey into a clean modern EU tourist heaven. Meanwhile, many painful social changes will take place, including the fluctuation of corruption levels and the economic injustice for those segments of society who will slip between the government safety nets. One notable example is an example based on the removal of oil subsidies noted by Ehsani.
The government announced the removal of heating oil subsidies and instead introduced a 2 level support system: A coupon system where the poorest segment of families will get the oil virtually for free. The second is that each family in Syria (rich or poor) will get one ton (1000 litters) of heating oil per year in old subsidized prices (similar to prices in the last 40 years). This virtually includes every family with a family certificate (daftar ‘a’ilah), which includes almost every single person in the country. A ton of heating oil (which costs around 600 dollars in new market prices in Syria) a year is enough. Every family will pay only $180 instead. You want more you can buy it at market prices. This was also coupled with the introduction of sever punishments for smugglers (up 10 years in prison and huge fines). I drove along the villages on the Lebanon border in Tartous and Homs and noticed an unprecedented number of boarder patrols (”hajjaneh”) on the back of trucks fully camouflaged. However, some segments in society are still overlooked in the subsidies and the government is adjusting accordingly. Of course, businesses who used to get the fuel virtually for free are adapting accordingly which will lead to inflation and increase in prices. In turn this should lead to more increases in salaries until things get close to the regional or global average.
Now back to pollution, corruption and development in Aleppo. Based on my observation, I’d say that large cities like Damascus and Aleppo have been divided into areas of urban development for prioritization. The more attractive the neighborhoods to business and tourists, the cleaner you’ll find it and the faster its infrastructure is developed. For example, by the end of my vacation, a new sewage system was being installed in the higher-end residential neighborhoods in Aleppo, the streets have been widened and redesigned in those areas. A hole in the street would get fixed in 2 days in these neighborhoods compared to maybe 2 weeks in the less touristy ones.
However, I drove in the less advantaged Jalloum and Farafrah neighborhoods in Aleppo and I can say that they are much, much cleaner than they were at the end of the nineties. The standard of the roads is of course less than that in the richer parts of the city. But creative solutions are being put in place. During the last 25 years, has anyone dreamed that the old Quweiq river of Aleppo would be revived after Turkey blocked it in the 60s? The river is now gushing with a relatively good level of water derived from the Euphrates dams.
With regards to corruption and taxes, one indicative example in Aleppo this year is the closure of the largest restaurant compound in the highend part of the city which was usually packed day and night for the last 15 years. According to rumors, the mega businessman who owned it refused to pay the huge taxes he owes the governorate of Aleppo. Other rumors say that he refused to pay the appropriate bribe to one of the big guys this year to overlook the taxes. I believe the truth is in both rumors. The businessman probably wanted to continue not paying taxes and thought he was powerful enough to not pay that senior official the new increased annual bribe. This is probably the case for most businesses in the country. The culture of paying taxes is lacking. One would bribe a senior official with a similar “fee” to gain his loyalty rather than pay the government taxes he owes.
The tax system is indeed broken and fixing it will be no walk in the park. The disgruntled businessmen in Aleppo you talked to Ehsani in the prestigious “Nadi Halab”, will only get further disgruntled when the tax system is fixed. I still believe that the solution will require a major cultural shift and massive awareness campaigns. If everyone in the country was to know that Rami Makhloof is paying X millions in taxes (even if he wasn’t) then most people would find it easier to adjust. Ehsani, you might want to expand on this?
The bottom line is that Ehsani’s well-thought analysis and observations paint a large part of the picture. Others’ observations complement it. The full picture is not as grim and not as rosy as many of us would like to think. It’s a mixed one, similar to social and economic development everywhere else in the world.
Report: Syria test fires series of long-range missiles
By Yuval AzoulayHaaretz
Syria has recently test launched a series of surface to surface missiles and rockets, Channel 2 news reported Monday.
The test launch was detected by Israel's radar systems, including the Oren Yarok (green pine) and Oren Adir (magnificent pine) radars which activate Israel's Arrow anti-ballistic missiles, Channel 2 reported.