Tue 14 Jul 2020

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Syrian regime tightens grip on Damascus merchants

Minister of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection of the Syrian regime’s government, Talal al-Barazi on a visit to the Damascus Chamber of Commerce – 15 June 2020 (Damascus Chamber of Commerce).

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Enab Baladi – Murad Abdul Jalil

“For the first time after 47 years, the Minister of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection paid a visit to the Damascus Chamber of Commerce (DCC) when he was first appointed before we asked to meet him,” with this statement the president of Damascus Chamber of Commerce, Ghassan al-Qalaa, welcomed the newly appointed minister, Talal al-Barazi who answered him back by saying that “both in the past and the present, Syria was accustomed to initiatives by Damascene merchants aiming to help their country and its citizens”

Talal al-Barazi’s attending most important economic activities and meeting with the major traders in Damascus, on 15 June, as well as his statements which  were described as “transparent” by members of the Damascus Chamber of Commerce, was not a coincidence or merely a periodic visit to the chamber. But it was under the aim of urging merchants to participate in solving the economic crisis and “emphasizing their role in assisting the state institutions with expertise and support.” According to him.

However, the “national discourse” al-Barazi used to “boost the merchants’ vigor” was translated into a familiar form of discourse used by the regime’s government against merchants for years through “extortion, threat and intimidation” to pay “financial royalties”.  In case a merchant refused to comply, they will be charged with “money laundering and tax evasion”, in addition to property confiscation as was the case with Rami Makhlouf, Bashar al-Assad cousin, in the past few weeks during the struggle over the “Syriatel” company.

Repel the evil deed with one which is better

Al-Barazi’s visit comes in conjunction with the severe financial hardships and the economic crisis ravaging the Syrian regime. This led to a deterioration in the value of the Syrian pound which hit unprecedented low records and exceeded three thousand Syrian pounds per US dollar. This collapse in the Syrian value was affected by a number of factors, most prominently the crisis of Lebanese banks considering Lebanon the regime’s economic gate to the outside world.

In addition to the impacts of the “Caesar Act” which came into force on 17 of the current month. the act imposes economic sanctions on 39 individuals and entities, notably Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma al-Assad, additionally to two members of his family, Maher and Bushra al-Assad as well as well-known businessman Mohamed Hamsho.

With the appearance of signs of protest through closing shops and suspending the commercial activity, the regime’s Syrian government mobilized to develop plans and support for economic sectors. Additionally, to searching for other sources of currency, either in the Syrian pound or US dollar. Consequently, the regime’s only resort was merchants through two ways.

The first way was through asking a number of traders to pay millions of Syrian pounds, according to information obtained by Enab Baladi from sources close to some Damascene traders in conjunction with threats of seizing and confiscating their funds.

Sources familiar with these threats said that the Syrian regime has asked, in the last few weeks, a number of merchants to pay millions of pounds; however, some of them refused these requests under the pretext of lacking cash flows. Later, they were forced to sign papers under threats, including a written declaration that they steal money from the state through smuggling goods and products. In addition to evading the payment of taxes and avoiding financial penalties by the government, even if they were paid before. This was followed by issuing a decision to seize and confiscate their money.

The same source added that some traders stopped their businesses and closed their shops, while others left their country after confiscating their money.

In 2019, the Ministry of Finance in the Syrian regime’s government has announced the provisional ‎seizure on movable and immovable properties of a large number of traders and people under 10315 decisions, according to statement by Deputy Minister of Finance in the Syrian regime’s government, Bassam Abdel Nabi, to “Aliqtisadi” website in 28 September 2019.

In September 2019, the Ministry of Finance has also issued a decision to seize the assets of a number of officials and businessmen, including some from Damascus; most notably al-Fattal family. The decision included “Anas al-Fattal company and his partner Muhammad Osama al-Fattal”, as well as the assets of prominent member of the Damascus Chamber of Industry and its countryside, Anas Muhammad Aziz al-Fattal. In addition to the director of “al-Fattal Business”, Muhammad Hatim Muhammad Aziz al-Fattal. The ministry attributed its decision to securing the rights of fees and fines of the public treasury.

“Boosting vigor” to fill the void

In return, there was a  clear rapprochement between the Minister of internal trade, Talal al-Barazi, and Damascene traders, through praises, as al-Barazi said, according to “al-Watan Online” website, that he is “boosting traders’ vigor (…) to fill the economic void,” he added “we must all contribute in order to fight the economic war and the people attempting to weaken the Syrian economy, ”he added,“ I am sure that more than 95 percent of Damascus merchants will take initiatives and help us face these conditions.”

Following his speech, a group of traders have launched many of initiatives, such as selling at cost for a week and reducing the prices of certain goods by up to 50 percent. In his return, al-Barazi has launched a one-month initiative in which he holds meetings in the Chamber of Commerce, without mandatory attendance each Saturday. The initiative aims to discuss the traders’ issues and concerns and attempts to offer them solutions in a manner that can have a positive impact on prices and markets, as he put it.

For his part, Ghassan al-Qalaa, the president of Damascus Chamber of Commerce, said that “this is his first time to encounter a government official talking in the Damascus Chamber of Commerce on behalf of merchants, and addressing the private sector in this tone without threats or intimidations.”, as reported by the website of “Syriandays”.

As for the Secretary of the Chamber, Mohamed Hamsho, he considered that “al-Barazi’s way to address traders comforted not only merchants in Damascus but in all of Syria,” he added that “this would build bridges between the merchants, producers and the government,”.  Meantime, the board member at the (DCC), Hassan Azqul, said that “the transparency of the Minister of Internal Trade today can be regarded as a reconciliation between traders and the ministry.”

Reconciliation with Damascene traders

These moves indicate that the regime is fully aware of the importance of Damascus traders’ role in its current crisis, which reminds us of a similar behavior by Hafez al-Assad, according to what the British writer and journalist Patrick Seale mentioned in his book entitled “Asad -Struggle for the Middle East”. Patrick said that “(former President Hafez al-Assad) has learned from the difficulties encountered by Salah Jadid (a former leader of the Ba’ath Party). Thus, and in order to give his regime a stability, he must come to terms with the Damascene merchant class, or at least avoid alienating him entirely, and this policy has paid off.

However, this process of “reconciliation” may be through threats and intimidations, as it happened in eighties of the last century, when merchants of al-Hamidiyeh market in Damascus struck and closed their shops in protest against the security branches conduct with cities of northern Syria, especially Hama.

Seale added that “the government was in immediate danger of losing control over everything, al-Assad found an ally called Badr al-Din al-Shallah, the president of the Syrian Union of Chambers of Commerce, who was in his eighties back then. He then brought together all prominent shopkeepers and urged them to stop the strike and keep their shops open. This move has turned things upside down, in the regime’s favor.

But al-Shallah’s request came after Hafez al-Assad threatened him to blow up the entire “al-Hamidiyeh” market if the strike continued. This urged al-Shallah to go immediately to “al-Hamidiyeh” market and ask merchants to end the closure, according information obtained by Enab Baladi from a source, who held major positions in the Syrian institutions and was close to al-Shallah back then.

However, during the past years, the regime’s relationship with merchants has witnessed a kind of ambiguity, as they were accused of supporting the regime and preventing its economic collapse in order to protect their interests. In return the regime deliberately threatened everyone who refuses to deal with it and refuses to pay royalties. This explains why some of the major traders left the country, such as the president President of the Syrian Federation of Chambers of Industry and the Damascus Chamber of Industry, Imad Gherwati, whose money was seized and confiscated later.

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