23 June 2015

Despite the carnage and destruction of the past four years, Syria’s economy and its administrative institutions have continued to function. However, this state of affairs is increasingly in jeopardy.


David Butter

Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme


Photo: Getty Images/Stringer.
Photo: Getty Images/Stringer.


The Syrian economy has been devastated by conflict to an extent that defies comprehensive numerical analysis. Nevertheless, any meaningful assessment of the Syrian crisis requires an understanding of the economic context. This study finds that, after four years of conflict, Syria’s economic output – as measured by gross domestic product (GDP) at constant prices – has more than halved in real terms. This comes in a context in which the country’s population has shrunk from 21 million to approximately 17.5 million as a result of outward migration (mainly refugee flows) and more than a quarter of a million deaths. More than one-third of the remaining population is internally displaced.

The conflict has pervaded all aspects of the economy. Agriculture has assumed a dominant position in overall production as other sectors have been devastated, but farm output has also been severely affected. Meanwhile, oil production under state control has dwindled from 387,000 barrels per day (b/d) to less than 10,000 b/d, depriving the government of one of its main sources of revenue. Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) controls oilfields with the capacity to produce some 60,000 b/d, although its refining operations in particular have been impaired by coalition airstrikes. Most of the other oilfields are located in areas under Kurdish control. Government-controlled refineries have been supplied with oil under an Iranian credit line to allow them to produce sufficient fuel for regime-controlled areas.

The majority of Syria’s power stations run on natural gas. Effective electricity generation capacity has fallen by more than 70 per cent since 2011. This is despite the fact that natural gas production, by official data, reached a record level in 2011 as a result of the start-up of two major projects between Palmyra and Homs. The conflict saw production fall by around a third by 2014. ISIS gains on the ground threaten to exacerbate the situation: should the group seize control of the area to the west of Palmyra, electricity production may suffer a further significant fall. Moreover, the capture of Palmyra by ISIS has put the government’s phosphate exports – worth some $100 million in 2014 – at risk.

Iran has assumed a dominant position in Syria’s trade relations, by virtue of its crude oil and other credit and investment programmes. Imports from Turkey fell sharply in 2012 and 2013 but have since recovered, partly as a result of the aid supplies through Syria’s northern border and partly as a result of new trade relationships – including sales by Syrian companies that have established themselves in eastern Turkey.

Syria’s economy has contracted by more than 50 per cent in real terms since 2011, with the biggest losses in output coming in the energy and manufacturing sectors.

The government of Bashar al-Assad has reined in subsidies on fuel and food as its budget operations have been undermined by the loss of oil revenue. The fiscal deficit (excluding subsidies) stands at 20 per cent of GDP by the government’s reckoning, which it has sought to finance largely through borrowing from the central bank and state-owned commercial banks. It is important to note that economic grievances, including popular resentment at market-oriented reforms, played a part in the 2011 uprising against the regime in Damascus. Although they were not a determining factor, increased poverty and inequality alongside the rise of a new wealthy business elite made for a combustible mix. The conflict has served only to exacerbate the situation: inflation surged to 120 per cent in mid-2013; and although it eased over the following 12 months, it began to rise once again in late 2014. The value of the Syrian pound has fallen very sharply as Syria has felt the impact of both the conflict and UN sanctions. As at June 2015, the official exchange rate had depreciated by about 78 per cent since 2011, and the black market rate by some 83 per cent.

Despite the carnage and destruction of the past four years, Syria’s economy and its administrative institutions have continued to function. However, this state of affairs is increasingly in jeopardy: while the regime continues to have an institutional presence of some sort across most of the country, such authority is ever more eroded as it loses ground to opponents that have all developed administrative structures in the areas that they control.

With the conflict showing no sign of abating, it is clear that the relationship between the state of the economy and its underlying institutions on one side, and the political and military position of the Assad regime on the other, will be a critical element in the conflict’s evolution. During the first half of 2015 the regime has shown increasing signs of strain on both the military and the economic fronts. This gives rise to the question as to whether a dramatic worsening in the economic situation may be the catalyst for the regime’s military collapse or for an externally imposed political settlement against Assad’s wishes, or whether further military setbacks might be the catalyst for the regime’s economic collapse.