The Syrian economy is struggling increasingly with fears of foreign currency flight and crumpling investor confidence. This week, Syria's central bank announced further restrictions on selling foreign currency to stem its outflow, limiting Syrian citizens to purchasing no more than $100 each only twice a year.
The official exchange rate remains at S£47.5 to the dollar, but the black market dollar rate has soared to S£52.5. Western diplomats in Damascus deduce that national foreign currency reserves are depleting rapidly.
They expect the Syrian economy and the value of the Syrian currency to decline even faster now that US President Barack Obama finally decided Thursday, Aug. 18, to tell Bashar Assad "to step down in the wake of a brutal government crackdown that has killed hundreds of people in his country" and ordered all Syria's assets and bank accounts in the US frozen.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources say that all of these are clear signs that the Syrian middle class is starting to lose faith in Assad. If he can't provide them with what Assad rulers have given them for 40 years, namely, economic stability, they will abandon him. He therefore stands to lose the support of Damascus, the capital, with a population of 4.3 million and the financial hub of Aleppo (six million inhabitants). They may well throw their support by the popular uprising against the regime.
Even Bashar Assad could hardly survive mass desertion of some 80 percent of the population. (The rest are Alawites and Kurds.)
Only the army would inspire middle class trust
Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies and associate professor at the University of Oklahoma, who has lived many years in Syria, one of the few Western academics with real insight in complexities of Syrian politics, wrote this week:
Syrian businessmen are a conservative and self-interested lot. They have a refined disdain for peasants and tribesmen alike; neither are they big on leftists, philosophers, religious fanatics, or zealots of any stripe. Indeed, Syria's merchants and capitalists have rather high regard for themselves and few others. In their eyes, they are the true guardians of the Syrian nation….
Before they will help overthrow the Assads, they need a safe alternative. They are not going to embrace — not to mention fund — a leaderless bunch of young activists who want to smash everything that smells of Baathist privilege, corruption, and cronyism. After all, who are the CEOs of Syria?
According to our sources, responsible leadership that would inspire trust in the middle class could only come from one place, the Syrian military.
Therefore, if the Assad regime is squeezed hard at home, the Americans, Saudis and Turks continue to the turn the screw on him – as separate items in this issue have described – and the economy crashes, the next event in Syria may be a military putsch to push the president out.
Have the generals already deposed Assad and left him as a puppet?
Some Washington circles are already speculating that the coup has quietly taken place and that Bashar Assad has been reduced to a PR front for the army junta now ruling Syria, among them his brother Maher Assad, who commands the presidential Republican Guard and the 4th Syrian Division, and brother-in-law Gen. Assef Shawkat, the deputy chief of staff.
Those circles surmise that the president is now a puppet with some of his tougher relatives pulling the strings.
If this is true, it would mean that generals representing Syria's diverse sects – Alawite, Sunni, Christian, Kurd and Druze – have joined forces to preserve the unity of the army and nation.
This theory is challenged, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources report, in some US and Arab intelligence quarters. If Assad is a marionette controlled by the Syrian generals, how come he was allowed to lay waste to one Syrian city after another in the past two weeks in a mad fit of rage?
The questions awaiting answers are therefore:
1. Will he be overthrown in a military coup and meet the same fate as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak in Cairo?
2. Will the Alawite, Sunni, Christian, Kurd and Druze generals manage to work together or will they fight? If the latter, Syria faces the nightmare of religious and ethnic civil war.
3. How much support will a military junta muster from the middle class? And will the people fighting for democracy accept their authority?