Civil war in Syria: How conflict erodes trade
Published 18 October 2019
Trade during the Syrian civil war had plummeted in the country. The longer conflict persists, the harder it will be to rebuild the economic mechanisms and institutions necessary to encourage post-war economic growth.
Syria has a turbulent history. Numerous nations, factions and leaders have wrestled for control of the country at turns over the last 100 years. The present conflict, a civil war raging for eight years now, has drastically affected Syria’s trade by destroying infrastructure, displacing its productive workforce, and weakening business confidence in the region. The World Bank estimates the current conflict has produced a cumulative loss in Syria’s GDP at US$226 billion as of 2017, an amount equal to four times Syria’s GDP in 2010.
Syrian trade throughout history
The region now called Syria was home to one of the most ancient civilizations on earth. Evidence of early trade relations dates as far back as 10,000 BC. Many of the greatest human achievements had their origins in the area known as the Cradle of Civilization. Its location on the Silk Road enriched Syria with wealth and strategic importance during the Roman Empire.
Throughout the 20th century, Syria experienced French control, uprisings, nationalization, regional wars, and conflict among rival factions. The economic outlook for Syria seemed to be improving in the 1990s and early 2000s. The World Bank considered it a fast-growing, lower-middle-income country. Syria’s main exports were crude and refined oil and information and communications technologies. Syria also enjoyed a healthy travel and tourism industry.
Impacts of the civil war
The civil war has either eliminated or drastically reduced all of Syria’s main trading industries, exacerbating the suffering for Syrian civilians. In 2010, exports totaled around US$19 billion. By 2016, they had fallen to US$555 million. Syria’s ranking as a global exporter fell from 88th in 2011 to 141st in 2015.
Sanctions, destruction and displacement
A consequence of the conflict, Syria is subject to numerous sanctions by the United States, Canada, European Union, Arab League and Turkey. These include embargoes on investment, blocks on trade in key industries such as oil, financial services and precious metals, and the freezing of assets. The aim of such sanctions is to pressure Syrian leaders to end the conflict, but average Syrians also suffer the economic fallout.
As in any war, destruction is rampant. Mortar fire and airstrikes have damaged and demolished key infrastructure for trade. Bridges, grain silos, roads and other economically significant assets are strategic targets for both sides. Access to fuel and electricity is limited, denying Syrian businesses the productive factors necessary to produce goods to trade as well as the means to transport them. Schools, food sources and medical buildings have also been targeted. As of 2017, seven percent of housing stock has been destroyed, and 20 percent damaged. Trade necessarily takes a back seat when citizens struggle to have their basic physical needs met.
Given the dire circumstances, over half the country’s pre-war population has been displaced either internally or externally. According to recent estimates, over five million refugees have fled Syria. It’s a human tragedy with immediate and long-term implications. As the workforce collapses, goods are no longer able to be produced, and trade grinds to a halt.
Distrust, uncertainty and disassociation
Businesses are wary to engage in nations experiencing conflict. The Syrian Civil War is complex and associated with a corrupt regime causing suffering for its citizens. International sanctions create a legally uncertain environment. Even if it is possible to engage in trade with Syrian firms, there is no guarantee that in a month or a year it will still be possible — new sanctions may be imposed or the factory producing the goods could be targeted. These risks substantially raise the cost of engaging in trade with Syria.
Adding to Syria’s economic woes is the curtailment of economic development assistance. The World Bank Group ceased all Bank operational activity with Syria at the onset of the war. Previously it provided technical assistance and advisory services on private sector development, human development, social protection and environmental sustainability. Although not directly related to trade, much of this support helps local businesses and the economic health of communities.
Why trade matters for Syria
Any kind of conflict can have negative effects on trade, directly by destroying factors of production and dislocating people, and indirectly by causing uncertainty and breaks in connectivity with global supply chains. Reduced trade invariably damages the economy, causing individual suffering which can foment more unrest. Nations become trapped in a vicious cycle.
This seems undoubtedly to be the case in Syria, where the destruction of trade has meant economic suffering that aggravates the humanitarian crisis. The longer conflict persists, the deeper the separation from global society, and the harder it will be to rebuild the economic mechanisms and institutions necessary to increase trade and encourage economic growth.