Syrians Grill Their Ministers for Answers

The Syrian Law Journal recently attended the British Syrian Society’s conference in Damascus in late May entitled The War in Syria: the Challenges and Opportunities. Its first observation after participating in the two-day event was that it was one of the first times in recent memory that Syrian citizens from all walks of life had the opportunity to come face to face with their government and grill ministers on their performance. It brought to the surface the concept of accountability, which had hitherto been limited more or less.

For Syrians, the more than six-year war was no longer an excuse for falling living standards and they needed real answers to solve their problems. There were times when tensions were high as members of the audience took to the microphones to pose some hard truths to their ministers. The fervor did not stop there as ministers themselves felt the heat of the moment and drove home the argument that Syria was subjected to an unprecedented war like no other before in its history. Syria’s resilience in the face of an international onslaught was something to be proud of and rightly so. Despite what at times resembled family squabbling so to speak, there was a realization among the spectators in the audience and the ministers on stage that the survival of their country depended to an extent on both of them uniting behind their strengths and working out their differences.

As head of the government, Prime Minister Imad Khamis took to the stage on the first panel. A former Minister of Electricity, he was never immune to criticism for the severe power cuts that Syria suffered from throughout the war. Electricity has always been a hot button issue and is heavily subsidized by the government. At the conference, he described the very dire situation the electricity sector faced during his tenure. After all, he had to oversee the rehabilitation of several facilities targeted by armed groups hell-bent on destroying Syria’s infrastructure. His successor at the Ministry of Electricity for his part explained how the government now generates 27% of electrical needs compared to 97% before the war due to terrorist attacks and oil and gas shortages.

The Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources informed the audience that Syria’s pre-war oil production of 385,000 barrels had dropped to just 8,000 barrels by 2017 while gas production had fallen from 21 million cubic meters to 9 million cubic meters. Before the war, Syria was the fifth largest exporter of phosphate in the world but now it does not produce any. With the advances made by the Syrian Arab Army and more territories liberated from armed groups, there is expected to be a recovery in all these sectors.

The Minister of Transport shed light on damage inflicted on transport networks including roads, rail, shipping and the aviation sector. He highlighted current rehabilitation projects, which are expected to improve the situation. Moreover, officials made it clear that legislation such as the Public-Private Partnership Law is aimed at encouraging investments in a variety of sectors including transport, electricity, industry and so forth. Nevertheless, they are realistic and appreciate that it will take time for investors to consider these options.

The next panel’s topic stirred emotions because it focused on the issue of corruption in state institutions. The Minister of Justice, a respected judge who was recently appointed to his position, explained that corruption increases in wartime. When asked what percentage of the judiciary he considered corrupt, he replied that it was impossible to speculate. He explained that there are a total of 1,777 judges in Syria and they preside over around 200 cases a day not least because lawsuits in conflict zones have been transferred to safe areas. According to the Minister, if a significant portion of those judges were corrupt, the judicial system would have collapsed by now. He mentioned that judges suffer from much of the same problems as ordinary citizens. Their incomes for example slid from a pre-war average of $1,300 to $1,500 (US) per month to $120 to $130 per month due to the depreciation of the Syrian Pound.

Heated exchanges on the issue of corruption in other governmental institutions continued. Members of the audience wanted to know what plans ministers had in mind to combat the spread of this disease and how they planned to hold corrupt officials to account. The fact that many of them have been accused of embezzling public funds and walking away from any liability would bewilder anyone who heard some of the stories at the conference. It was therefore not surprising when a significant number of people lined up behind the microphones not merely to ask questions but to vent in anger at such inaction. While more proactive legislation was proposed, it is clear that it is not enough as the fight against corruption may take the form of a generational battle.

On the subject of passing laws, some criticism was directed at the People’s Assembly for not playing an active role in the legislative process. Rather than take the initiative and propose laws, Syria’s Parliament only appears to debate bills sent to it by the Council of Ministers. Even if it seized the moment and drafted bills on its own, the role of the Baath Party’s Regional Command in scrutinizing and consequently delaying legislation may prove problematic.

Setbacks associated with the lawmaking process do not stop there. Enforcement of the laws was also deemed to be an area that requires attention. It was held that 50% of the objectives of laws are lost in the technical details of the executive regulations, which set out the rules for implementing them. The government also finds it discouraging when investors propose laws and amendments to legislation during the course of their projects to suit their own individual circumstances. Rather, laws are amended when gaps reveal themselves in practice just as in the case of the Local Administration Law. It was issued at the beginning of the crisis mainly to cater for the upcoming local council elections in 2011 and neglected other matters that later became apparent.

During the presentation on the health sector, statistics were provided on how many hospitals, health clinics and pharmaceutical factories were targeted by armed groups. Syria’s health industry was a remarkable success in the Arab world before the war. The audience heard that in 1970, 94% of medicines were imported compared to six percent that were produced locally. In 2010, 91% were produced locally while nine percent were imported. In addition, a video was played showing the destruction of the state-of-the-art Al-Kindi University Hospital in the city of Aleppo by foreign terrorists, which stunned onlookers and left them boiling inside. Not only was the war to blame for the state of the health sector but also economic sanctions, which make it incredibly difficult to import desperately needed medication to treat illnesses such as cancer.

Another obstacle hindering the supply of medicines in the markets is the Ministry of Health’s decision to cap the prices of pharmaceutical products. Such a practice makes it unprofitable in many instances for local producers to manufacture them due to the high costs associated with importing raw materials. There was dismay to hear that the Pricing Committee in the Ministry of Health needs on average six months to consider an incremental price hike, which could encourage more local and quality production to meet the demands of Syrians.

The following morning, the government’s economic and financial policies were the subject of debate. Officials on the panel included the Minister of Economy and Foreign Trade and one of his predecessors, the Minister of Finance and the Governor of the Central Bank. The depreciation of the Syrian Pound by more than ten times since the war broke out and access to finance were among the themes touched on by the Governor of the Central Bank. The fact that the Syrian Pound has been more or less stable for almost one year seemed encouraging. It was pointed out that in times of crisis, it is normal for a government to consider protectionist policies to stimulate local production. Moreover, the war is preventing long-term economic planning and leading to an increase in unintended expenses.

There was a brief period of tension as members of the audience disagreed with panelists on the methods to reverse the declining state of the Syrian economy. Ideas were thrown around and panelists attempted to explain their policies but at one point, passion got the better of them. With the issue obviously close to his heart and the frustration of the war evident in his tone, one panelist took to the microphone to give a rousing response that nobody could miss. Syria was in a state of war he proclaimed and the government knows what it is doing to navigate through the conflict. He went on to clarify that economic and academic theories might be helpful but in Syria’s case, the effects of the war demand other more practical solutions to meet the daily needs of Syrians. He concluded that the fact that Syria has been able to stand on its own feet in the face of massive hostility from various members of the international community should not be overlooked. The panelist’s response conveyed the message that members of the government, like the audience, have their own frustrations stemming from what is happening to their country.

The controversial subject of international sanctions could not be underestimated as well. It was explained that the American sanctions were drafted in such a way as to prevent both American and foreign nationals from dealing with Syria and supplying essential goods. While exemptions exist, the uncertainty surrounding them is preventing many businesses around the world from engaging with Syria for fear of compliance risks. While the European sanctions are more specific in nature, they are still having terrible effects on the country for similar reasons. As a result, merchants have to search for new suppliers as opposed to the traditional European ones.

Whereas in the past traders had access to financial facilities, nowadays they have to pay upfront to import goods into Syria with their own cash. The result is that this practice restricts their cash flow and access to goods. One consequence of the shortage in imports has been the rise in monopolists who are creating economic imbalances that are severely affecting the living standards of ordinary Syrians. The government’s own policy of import controls to protect the value of the Syrian Pound was considered another factor that needed review.

When some of Syria’s leading industrialists took to the stage, the message was clear. The industrial sector needs more support from the government after factories were ransacked and looted. The industrial sector was targeted during the course of this war because it is considered a central pillar of the Syrian economy. Bitterness towards neighbouring Turkey was on display for all to see not least because numerous factories in Aleppo were stripped down by armed groups and transferred across the border to Turkey.

Syrian manufacturers complained that they cannot compete with foreign producers who receive state aid from their own governments. In this respect, the significance of the Investment Law of 1991, which was replaced in 2007, was highlighted. One businessman explained that the Investment Law liberalized sectors of the economy for Syrian industrialists to benefit from while previously they were exploited by foreign producers. Once Syrians started supplying these markets in the 1990s, the foreign producers sought state aid from their own government to compete in Syria. In response, the Syrian businesses asked their government for help and the latter was responsive. The result was more competition through the establishment of new local companies and consequently, lower prices for consumers.

Businessmen want the government to adopt similar measures to its predecessor in the 1990s and protect its industries especially since Syria is embroiled in a war. The government could start by passing the new Investment Bill that has been promised for so long and which takes into consideration the economic effects of the conflict. State support could also take the form of exemptions from tax liabilities and the rescheduling of loan repayments for the time being.

The rest of the day focused on equally noteworthy subjects including urban planning, the role of local councils, housing, education and other initiatives. The audience was presented with a list of legislation that the government has enacted in the past to lay the groundwork for urban planning. It is considered to be a major objective of reconstruction not least because of the need to address the phenomenon of informal settlements across Syria, which was taken advantage of by armed groups. The Al-Razi Development in southern Damascus and the Baba Amr Development in Homs were cited as examples of urban planning initiatives.

As for education, the audience learnt that schools in conflict zones are being rehabilitated after the region in which they are located is liberated by the Syrian Arab Army. It was noted that a number of high school graduates did not take up their places at universities for a number of reasons, one of which is presumably because they migrated overseas. It was also made clear that military service obligations are having an effect on the ability of students to attend university and urgent legislation is thus required to address this predicament.

The British Syrian Society’s conference in Damascus gave Syrians a rare opportunity to directly grill their ministers for answers as they face another year of uncertainty brought about by this devastating war. There were moments of heated tension and passion while others of understanding and compassion. It became clear that the ministers themselves are not unlike the people as they face much of the same anxieties and concerns. Another theme of the conference was ironically one of hope. Even under the strains of a war no country has faced in modern times, there was a degree of normality as people in Syria carried on with their everyday lives in spite of the hardships. All these qualities- accountability, understanding, compassion, perseverance and so forth- by the people and their government can go a long way to restoring Syria if harnessed correctly. What was achieved at the conference in Damascus in setting the stage for greater internal accountability and healthy exchanges of opinions must be built on lest a rare opportunity for Syria and its people will be missed.