The road to Damascus from the Lebanese border leaves nobody in doubt who has won the war that’s cast a dark shadow over the Middle East for eight years. “Welcome to victorious Syria,” a billboard says with a picture of a beaming President Bashar al-Assad superimposed over the country’s red, white and black flag.
Instead of a frenzy of reconstruction and the promise of revival, Syrians have found themselves fighting another battle. Weary and traumatized from the violence, they’re focused on trying to survive in a decimated economy that shows no signs of imminent revival and with no peace dividend on the horizon.
The United Nations estimates the country needs more than $250 billion in aid to get the economy going again, the kind of money its wartime allies, Iran and Russia, are incapable of providing. The U.S. under Donald Trump, meanwhile, has been turning the financial screw on its adversaries, this week ending embargo exemptions for buyers of Iranian oil.
The government in Tehran, which extended credit lines for Damascus in the past few years to buy oil and support the economy, is under renewed American sanctions that forbid passage of aid ships to Syria. The countries that can help, including oil-rich Gulf states, will not extend a hand to a nation allied with Iran, their rival.
The impact on Damascus, where the war ended a year ago with the defeat of the fighters in towns around it, is staggering.
The city usually throbs with life in the spring, carts overflowing with fresh green almonds, Damascenes smoking shisha in outdoor cafes and families enjoying picnics. It felt lifeless on a visit this month. Vendors in the city’s old bazaar complain of miserable sales. Pubs that bustled with diners were largely empty. Increased power cuts have forced shops to get generators. Traffic is light. Morale is down.
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Lines of cars stretching for miles wait hours to fill their tanks with the 20 liters of gasoline that Syrians in government-controlled areas are allowed every five days. The last shipment of oil from Iran, which was sending up to 3 million barrels a month, came in October before sanctions were resumed.
“I thought once the war ended, our currency would become stronger and our living standards better,” said Saeed al-Khaldi, who transports vegetables across the sprawling city. Damascus’s population has almost doubled since the war started, to over 6 million, as civilians fled violence in other regions. “Instead, we’re living from one crisis to the other.”
The gasoline crisis spells disaster for al-Khaldi. Having lost his furniture store and two homes on the outskirts of the capital in 2013, he’s about to lose his livelihood again. “I spent 19 hours yesterday waiting to get 20 liters of gasoline,” al-Khalidi, 63, said recently on a cool breezy day in Damascus. “It’s not enough to get me around.”
Nearby, Salem Saleh, a 50-year-old government employee, was leaving the vegetable market empty handed.
“I came to buy fruits and vegetables but didn’t because everything is so expensive,” said Saleh. He said he had expected one kilogram of potatoes to cost 300 Syrian pounds (less than 50 U.S. cents). It was selling for 400 pounds because of increased transport fees due to the gasoline shortages. Saleh, who makes 70,000 pounds a month, said he couldn’t afford the 100 pound difference. “The prices are too high for our income.”
The difficulties highlight some of the post war challenges ahead for Assad, who has reclaimed most of the terrain held by the rebels with military help from Russia and Iran. Gulf money that poured into Lebanon after its 1975-1990 civil war helped restore areas completely devastated by the violence.
In addition to the Iranian embargo, Syria has been under sanctions since the government’s violent crackdown on protesters in 2011, crippling its oil industry and squeezing an economy that was already corrupt and mismanaged.
“He has almost won the war in Syria, but he cannot capitalize on the victory mainly due to his partnership with Iran,” said Ayham Kamel, head of Middle East and North Africa research at Eurasia Group. “The Iranians can send plenty of troops to die for Assad and his regime, but what they cannot do is send in funds.”
According to UN estimates, 83 percent of Syrians live below the poverty line, this in a country where bread, petroleum products and staples like tea, rice and sugar are subsidized by the government.
“In Syria, poverty is soaring, basic service infrastructure is damaged or destroyed, and the social fabric is strained to the limit,” said Achim Steiner, a UN administrator, said last month.
An example of the enormity of the destruction can be seen in the town of Ain Tarma in eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus, the capital. Like other towns around the city, many of the neighborhoods on its periphery have been turned to rubble.
Building after building lie in ruin, roads are damaged and an eerie silence hangs over its streets, punctuated by the songs of passing birds. Ain Tarma, known for its tanneries and textile and button factories, fell to the Assad regime a year ago. Since then the area around its main street has been rehabilitated enough for around 25,000 of its 150,000 residents to return, said Sameeha Faris, who works at the municipality.
Schoolchildren gathered around a man selling cotton candy outside one of the two schools that have been repaired. A picture of the president with “And Assad has won” hung on a pole across from a kiosk selling soft drinks. But before other neighborhoods are rebuilt, residents have no homes to return to.
The government is portraying the hardships as part of the ongoing conspiracy against Syria for standing up to the West, including the U.S. “This is collective punishment,” Mustapha Hammouriyyeh, head of the state fuel distribution company, told government-run Al-Ikhbariyya TV recently while discussing the gasoline crisis.
“Syria will never yield to pressure,” said Fayez Sayegh, a former member of parliament. “Syria believes in dialog and it clings to the sovereignty of its territory and the independence of its national decision.”
Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, said the Trump administration is much more aggressive than under Barack Obama, using more secondary penalties that target those doing business with sanctioned individuals or companies.
In November, the U.S. Treasury Department added a network of Russian and Iranian companies to its blacklist for shipping oil to Syria and warned of significant risks for those violating the sanctions.
“It is a conscious policy of the American government to try to strangle to death the Iranian government in Tehran and the Syrian government in Damascus,” said Ford, who’s now a fellow at the Middle East Institute.“They don’t want to fight a military war with the Syrian government, but they’re perfectly willing to fight an economic war.”
Ford likened the situation in Syria to the one in Cuba after the economy collapsed in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. Cuba had financial difficulties, “but the Castros are still there,” he said.
The Syrian government is maintaining the façade of normalcy it has kept throughout the conflict. Morning shows discuss tips on growing indoor plants. An international horse festival was held this month a few days after the city celebrated its cultural festival. But it does little to mask the anxiety.
“The situation is very bad,” said Ghiyath Dayyan, 47, who sells children’s clothes in the old Hamidiyyeh souq. “No one is thinking about clothes. They’re thinking about how to provide money for food, for the rent, for their children’s education.”
Dayyan’s sales have dropped to a quarter of what they were even three years ago. “I try to attract customers by offering discounts, up to 30 percent, but even that is not helping much.”
Mansour Saad, 49, who runs Pub Sharqi in the old city, is offering his lowest prices for beer—less than $3—and pizza. But that’s not attracting more business. “I cannot make any more offers,” he said. Jeweler Nicholas Farah, 54, said he’s mainly selling to men planning to get married and can afford a minimum of $600 for an 18-carat gold set. His business is also down to a quarter of what it was before the conflict.
Malek Mazaal, 35, opened Tiki Bar on the biblical Straight Street two years ago. The first year was bad because of rebel shelling targeting the area from eastern Ghouta. Then things picked up until the sanctions on Iran were reimposed. He’s taking in around $600 a month instead of the $2,000 he’d hoped to make.
“Before, a diner would order a bottle of wine and come over every day,” said Mazaal. “Now they come once a week and order a glass.”