Smoke rises over Saif Al Dawla district, in Aleppo, Syria.
Image: © Manu Brabo / AP/Press Association Images

Syrian voices on social media helped me attempt to understand the terrible costs of war

As the ceasefire in Syria falters, Kieran Chapman takes to Reddit to find the thoughts of those on the ground on the economic costs of the conflict

Social media is a powerful tool. It can broaden our perspectives and put previously hidden events in front of our eyes in real time. This power is never more apparent than during a catastrophe or conflict. For the best part of a decade, media coverage of war has been accompanied by images from civilians in the streets with camera phones and Twitter accounts.

reddit screen shot
The Syrian Civil War subreddit on reddit
I live in old Damascus and it’s considered relatively safe. I just don’t go out after 9 pm. I never leave the city because I fear Nusra roadblocks in the countryside. I ignore all the sounds of explosions and don’t watch the news to calm my nerves. I have a car battery that I charge and save for the daily blackouts so I can spend my day on the internet.

All the quotes in blue are from Syrian citizens posting on the subreddit /r/syriancivilwar. If you’re not familiar with the website reddit, it’s comprised of thousands of subreddits, each devoted to a particular topic. Started in May 2013, /r/syriancivilwar has attempted to document the events of the war. It's attracted subscribers from around the globe, including many based within Syria itself. Forty thousand people now follow the subreddit, discussing the situation on the ground every day.

I first became aware of it after reading a fascinating AMA (‘ask me anything’ - a sort of Q&A hosted on reddit) with a Syrian citizen living in Syria several years ago. Since then, the forum has been one of my go-to places for a local source on what’s really happening.

I want to leave as soon as possible. But I sure hope I can come back someday and spend the rest of my life back here.

After the collapse of the ceasefire earlier this week, renewed debate has begun around the prospects of the peace process. With uncertainty still rife, there's an important question to be answered - when the war does eventually end, what does the future look like for Syria?

The human cost of the war is undoubtedly the greatest tragedy, with a quarter of a million killed in the violence and millions displaced or forced to flee the country altogether. But what about the economic cost? The question might seem insigificant, even insensitive, at a time like this – but the state of Syria's economy in a post-war era will impact the lives of millions of its citizens for decades to come.

So what did Syria's economy look like before the war?

The Syrian economy traditionally had agriculture as its backbone, with around 25% of the population employed in the sector. The country was fostering a growing middle class and opening itself to outside investment and trade. The government invested in public services, using and profits from the oil industry.

GDP had been growing year on year up until around 2008, when severe droughts began to cause problems for the agricultural industry. Some suggest these droughts are part of what helped to fuel the initial rebellion, alongside a continuous sense of unease amongst the working class that the cost of living was outstripping wages.

The government provided universal healthcare as well free schooling. Medicine was cheap, food even cheaper. The government fixed the price of oil, diesel, and propane by subsidizing it, making them all readily available to the population.

And what about now? Certain key indicators of how the economy is doing give us a broad picture of the effect of international sanctions, internal failure to distribute resources, and the damage done by the war itself:

  • Unemployment is estimated to be over 50% (up from 14% in 2011)
  • Nearly 70% of the population are living in extreme poverty, unable to secure food and basic non-food items
  • The country’s production, measured by GDP, has halved
  • Inflation is rampant with the cost of basic supplies skyrocketing. For example, bread has reportedly increased in price 230% in government-held areas and up to 6500% in rebel-controlled zones
  • 1 in 4 schools have closed due to damage or being repurposed
  • Over half of all hospitals have either closed or are partially functioning
  • 5 million refugees have fled the country, with Syria losing valuable skills and knowledge as a result

Source: IMF Working Paper, 'Syria's Conflict Economy', 2016

Food was very scarce. The regime withheld everything and when they let it in it was not enough. I’d say less than 20% of what was supposed to get in. We often resorted to eat grass, tree leaves and, believe it or not, tree bark.

So what’s the plan of action to help the Syrian economy recuperate when the war ends? And how big a role will the international community play in the rebuilding process?

It's virtually impossible to add up the cost of a war, but one estimate says it'll take $180 bn of investment just to restore Syria's GDP to pre-war levels. Whoever emerges in charge of Syria at the end of the conflict will almost certainly have to rely on foreign financial aid to begin building the country back up again.

There is a brain drain in Syria and that will get worse. Homeless, unemployed, hungry, the refugees returning will be a heavy burden. Schools, hospitals, bridges, factories, and farms have been destroyed.

Currently the likeliest candidates are Russia, Iran and possibly China, with Russia having already signed nearly $1 billion worth of construction contracts. Lebanon has also expressed an interest in funding and participating in the rebuild, putting to use the country’s experience of having rebuilt their own capital of Beirut after 15 years of civil war.

US and European contractors may also try and get involved, securing lucrative contracts of their own as they have done in Iraq and Afghanistan. With all this uncertainty the only certainty is that a huge amount of capital is needed and it may well be decades before Syria makes a full recovery.

Understanding economics isn’t just about getting to grips with GDP and international trade. Platforms like /r/syriancivilwar can provide a first-hand insight into the human cost of economic change. It’s by using a variety of information and sources together that we’re perhaps better able to understand the economy and the role it plays in the lives of every single person in Syria and beyond.

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