An onerous year for Syria
DAMASCUS - 2015 was the worst and most destructive year yet for Syria in terms of economic, social, human and ecological losses. It witnessed the expansion of the self-styled Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria after Iraq’s and Russia’s powerful military intervention against the Islamist militants, buttressing the positions of regime forces of beleaguered Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Also, France and Britain joined the US-led coalition carrying out air strikes on ISIS targets in Syria following the deadly Paris attacks on November 13th. By the end of 2015, Syria’s skies were jammed with foreign air forces combating militant terrorism, using destructive weapons, including cruise missiles, and causing more destruction and heavy casualties.
While opposition groups succeeded in gaining control of Idlib province in northern Syria, more territory fell into ISIS hands in the country’s interior, including UNESCO World Heritage site Palmyra and eastern rural Homs.
The bloodiest battles in which government troops, backed by Lebanon’s Shia group Hezbollah, and Iranian and Iraqi combatants, sustained the highest losses occurred in rural Damascus, Quneitra and Deraa. The army managed to recapture several towns in the area but at a very high human cost, both among civilians and the military.
Lawyer Mahmoud Merhi, the head of the Arab Organisation for Human Rights in Syria, noted that 2015 witnessed the highest number of casualties since the outbreak of the conflict. “The number of victims has augmented tremendously during this year,” he said, stressing that casualties estimated at more than 200,000 at the end of 2014, increased tremendously in 2015.
Although no accurate estimates could be possibly obtained, Merhi said it is believed that more than 350,000 people, mainly civilians including women and children, have died since anti-regime protests in March 2011 were ruthlessly repressed by Assad and degenerated into a fully fledged civil war. The war has produced more than 700,000 wounded, according to Merhi, in addition to 4 million refugees who sought shelter abroad and 7 million internally displaced.
According to a report by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research: “By the end of the year, Syrian refugees will become the biggest refugee community in contemporary history.” By mid-2015, Syria had lost more than 8% of its population, almost 49% were forced to move from their homes and 1.37 million chose voluntary migration, the report said.
Most Syrian cities and regions have been devastated by the conflict, leaving large agricultural areas without cultivation, especially in the provinces of Raqqa, Deir ez- Zor and Hasakah, Syria’s main centres for wheat production. Some 70% of the country’s wheat comes from the region, which is largely controlled by ISIS.
Syria’s wheat production in 2014- 15 stood at 2.8 million tonnes, well below its pre-crisis production of an average of 3.5 million tonnes, which was enough to satisfy local demand and permit substantial exports, according to chief statistician at Syria’s Ministry of Agriculture Haitham Haidar.
The drop in production, despite good rainfall in 2015, was largely due to loss of agricultural land to ISIS and the fact that “all dangerous and unsafe areas in other regions were not farmed”, Haidar said.
On the military side, the main development occurred later in the year with Moscow’s direct involvement in the Syrian conflict, conducting extensive air strikes and long-range missile attacks on ISIS positions. Opposition groups charged that Russia strikes were targeting them as well in a bid to bolster Assad.
“The powerful intervention proved to Washington and Europe that Moscow decided to bet all its cards in Syria and that it will not allow the regime’s collapse, at any cost,” Syrian strategist Hassan Hassan told The Arab Weekly.
“Russia’s military role in Syria helped the regime forces recapture hundreds of square kilometres from the opposition, especially in rural Latakia and Aleppo,” Hassan said. “Ending the 3-year siege of Kuwaires air base (near Aleppo) was the biggest regime victory in 2015 and would not have been possible without the Russian bombardment.”
Five years of a destructive conflict has decimated the Syrian economy, depriving the country of all its resources and destroying its infrastructure, including factories, schools and hospitals in addition to residential areas.
Moreover, Syria’s oil, gas and archaeological sites have been systematically looted. ISIS, which relies heavily on oil and artefacts smuggling for income, is also resorting to primitive methods for refining oil, seriously endangering the environment.
The conflict also devastated large areas of forestry, orchards and groves, especially in the provinces of Latakia, Hama and Idlib. It is estimated that forestry, which covered 576,000 hectares of Syria’s surface of 18.5 million hectares, receded by more than one-third, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. Green areas were lost due to fierce fighting as well as tree cutting by mafias selling firewood for heating in areas short of fuel and diesel.
Deputy Minister of Economy Hayyan Sleiman estimated losses in the industrial sector at 60%, more than 85% in agriculture, 96% in the tourism sector and 100% in expat remittances, due to international sanctions imposed on Syrian banks, in addition to $2 billion of income losses from oil and electricity.
“Syria’s economic losses have exceeded 6,000 billion Syrian pounds ($300 billion) so far,” Sleiman said.
“Despite their magnitude, these figures are not final and can only be updated after terrorists are eliminated.”