The Normal in the Abnormal. The Economic Journalist Iflin al-Mustafa on the Situation in Syria

Read the interview with a preface by transform! europe‘s Political Coordinator Walter Baier.


A brutal civil war has been raging in Syria since 2011, one that is responsible for more than a half-million deaths up to the end of 2019. According to the UN’s refugee organisation UNHCR, out of a total Syrian population of 23 million 5.6 million have fled the country as refugees since the outbreak of the civil war, and another 6.1 million have lost their home and all belongings and are fugitives within their own country.

What began as a mass protest against corruption and for democracy and developed into an armed uprising, ended as an armed conflict between troops loyal to the Assad regime and a number of ethnically and religiously motivated armed groups, among them ISIS, which established its reign of terror in the part of Syria it controlled. The conflict could only be ended in 2019 with the help of the Kurdish YPG.

The civil war in Syria has become a proxy war, in which – along with Iran, Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia – the US, France, Great Britain, and Germany have also intervened. In 2015 Russia launched its massive military deployment to help Assad, which turned the tide of the war.

In the meanwhile, the policy of regime change under US leadership has clearly failed. The Assad government, whose police and secret services have been accused of serious violations of human rights, remains firmly in control. In the last contested province, Idlib, there is a ceasefire negotiated by Russia and Turkey.

The end of the war in a large part of the country certainly has brought relief to the population.

This state of normalisation is described in the following interview with Ilfin al-Mustafa, a Syrian journalist and political scientist who was put in touch with us by our Czech member organisation. She sheds light on the normality that may sound bizarre in the context of general destruction and the large number of victims but nevertheless represents an aspect of Syria’s complex reality.

Interview with Iflin al-Mustafa

From the social perspective, what kind of economy does Syria have?

Though it is a bit unfortunate, I have to say right here at the beginning that the Syrian economy, in fact, cannot be classified as having a specific identity. In recent years, several economic slogans have been promulgated, which involve both the ‘socialist’ and the ‘market’ economy, but they did not fit the reality. The fact is that the Syrian economy works in a way that serves the agenda of a certain class of influential people and officials in the country.

Before 2000, the Syrian economy was organised in a way that was socialist, but then turbulent changes took place, the outcome of which was the loss of the country’s economic identity. This came as a result of opening up the economy, with the arrival of foreign companies and banks and many economic concepts that may, from the point of view of the theory that justifies them be considered ideal but certainly did not work in the way they were implemented on the ground.

From a social perspective it can be said that Syria has a rentier economy.

Expressed in even more concrete terms, who (currently) has the upper hand – the ‘working class’ or the employers? And why?

The employers have the upper hand in Syria, even though it is assumed that the workers are guiding economic policies. But this is something that has mainly stayed at the level of slogans that, as far as employers are concerned, has no effect on reality.

The working class in Syria can only hear its own voice in trade union conferences and has been demanding its rights for years without making any fundamental change that would reflect their demands. Therefore, Syrian workers, faced with an absence of alternatives, simply have to accept their role of being people whose duty is to work. This situation makes them de facto hostages of the employers – who control the workers’ affairs.

Over the last decades has there been any development (and progress) in the social aspects of the economy that you feel are important? If so, to what degree has it brought Syria closer to being a welfare state?

Objectively, we can say that some progress has been made in the social aspects of the economy after the Syrian state adopted the concept of a social market economy. It was then able to reflect the social demands of citizens through employment opportunities and emphasising jobs in the public sector, which many Syrians consider a safe haven for their future. Work in the public (also called ‘government’ or ‘official’) sector gives the employee social guarantees in terms of insurance, pension, and official holidays, which makes many Syrians prefer civil service work.

On the other hand, the state failed to legislate strong labour rights for workers in the private sector. This was considered a ‘deliberate failure’, aimed at inducing employees to prefer working for the state in a public-sector position rather than in the private sector, despite the fact that wages in the official sector are normally much lower than those of the private sector.

What are the main entities officially tasked with the implementation (and monitoring) of the social agenda within the economic process and elsewhere? How efficient are they?

There is the Ministry of Social Affairs in Syria, which has, however, been merged with the Ministry of Labour; it is tasked with pursuing the social agenda. Its current activity has now been reduced to a minimum due to problems that had been accumulating already before the war. Follow-up and attention by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour and its institutions regarding the social situation in Syria are needed especially in the field of homeless children, women’s labour, elder care, unemployment issues, and, additionally, assisting Syrian university graduates with job opportunities. In numbers, the unemployment rate in Syria was 8% before the war and now 23%. The unemployment crisis is an additional factor prompting young people to get involved the Syrian war, whether on the side of the regime or of the armed factions, this reflecting a problem that the Syrian state failed to address despite economic indicators that signalled approaching demographic problems.

If some of these entities do not always completely fulfil their primary mission, then what are the entities you would praise for their effectiveness in making progress in the social sphere?

In the social sphere, the entities that continued to be really active in Syria were the mosques. They managed to be effective among a large section of Syrian society. This was the case already before the war; however, the creation of an effective religious environment that successfully contributed to the popular movement at the beginning of the events in Syria resulted from the absence of (state-supported) cultural and social activities in the Syrian countryside – which created the opportunity for religious figures to assume responsibility in this area.

What is the institution that looks after the rights of employees in Syria?

In Syria there is the Federation of Trade Unions and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour. These are the two main institutions concerned with the rights of workers.

To what extent are the rights of the employees an issue in Syria, and if they are, what does public debate about them look like?

In terms of its slogans and statements, the Syrian government prioritises the rights of employees, but this is belied by the facts. The rights employees are demanding are being implemented slowly, and, as we have said, we must differentiate between employees in the public and the private sector.

As for employees in the public sector, they enjoy – in addition to the rights defined by the Labour Law – rights related to wages and vacations, social insurance, dismissal mechanisms, filing a complaint in the event of injustice, as well as other rights.

By contrast, the private sector is based on a different modus operandi, despite being obliged to conform to the Labour Law and social insurance regulations. However, many employers in the private sector have been able to get around this in order not to have to pay compensation to their workers in the event of their dismissal, also ignoring the rights to vacation, wage increases, etc.

Consequently, all these issues are only addressed at the level of discussions at conferences and on Labour Day without really solving any of them. During the war, for example, the private sector fired a large number of employees without offering them any compensation, and the layoffs were arbitrary. Despite this, neither the Ministry of Labour nor the Federation of Trade Unions were able to take action to bring conditions of private-sector workers up to a normal level.

Can you briefly sum up how, from the social point of view, the condition of workers has evolved in Syria compared to the corresponding development in the West, where it is now, and what needs to be improved?

The only progress employees have made in Syria is winning the right to lodge complaints and have wage raises within the limits of what the state can provide, but this cannot be compared to levels in the West because Syria’s mechanisms of labour and production are different from those of the West.

To clarify, there are institutions in Syria whose work is administrative rather than productive, which means that these institutions have a much higher percentage of employees than such institutions really need. This raises another issue related to favouritism and protection, which is known as ‘disguised unemployment’.

In addition, if we compare working hours, Syrian law limits them to 8 hours a day; if we put this together with the (minimum) wage level, we find that workers in Syria work for less than 1 dollar an hour, while minimum-wage work in the West exceeds 8 dollars in some countries.

Looked at in terms of monthly wages, the current minimum wage in Syria is ca. 50 thousand Syrian pounds a month, with 800 pounds currently exchanging for 1 USD. Thus, the (minimum) wage has a value of 62.50 USD per month, which, when divided by working hours a month, comes to ca. 200 Syrian pounds, which equals 0.28 US cents.

The hiring mechanism must be changed, which to be really efficient has to be ridden of favouritism. At the same time, the employee’s work and production have to be tangible and create added value.

In terms of raising the wage level, I find that the problem is not the wages themselves but rather the low purchasing power of the local currency. I therefore think it unfair to support a one-sided increase in public-sector salaries, because this would simply be unfair to the rest of the working population.

This is in fact a thorny issue, one that obstructs any improvement in the life of Syrian workers. A solution might be to give benefits to workers by providing them with loans and helping them secure adequate housing that would be commensurate with their wages. All this must be worked on in order to alleviate the suffering of Syrian employees who depend on getting additional work after hours just to cover minimum needs.

What do you consider to be the most important achievements?

The achievements took the form of amendments to the Workers’ Law and some changes in retirement age, but these accomplishments do not meet all of workers’ needs. Another achievement is the employment opportunities that the state provided as support for the families of the soldiers killed in the Syrian war.

What is the role of trade unions in Syria and to what extent do the employees see them as useful?

The role of unions in Syria is to hold meetings, conferences, and organise committees to follow up on workers’ demands. The ‘usefulness’ of such meetings and conferences is that they listen to workers’ complaints and demands – but, unfortunately, without finding any radical solutions to their problems.

Leaving employees aside, how are other potentially vulnerable groups – such as consumers or retired people – protected and/or provided for? What are the programmes, institutions, or entities that are there to assist them?

Unfortunately, Syria lacks institutions for citizens not working in the public sector; there are no guarantees, no rights, no support for those who are employed by private companies, and those who are not fortunate enough to work in the public sector do not have an institution that guarantees them their rights and supports them in retirement. This is one of the major reasons for mass emigration of Syrians before and during the war. 

There were some attempts to launch private business projects, but these faced obstacles, especially in terms of their funding. Before the war, the Syrian state tried to pay attention to private-sector employees and established a commission to combat unemployment. Its role was to provide material support to those wishing to establish a special productive work project, but the recent events have put a stop to that initiative.

Sometimes – and not only in the Near East – the ‘extended family’ is thought to serve as a substitute, to some extent, for what in the West is managed by the social system (retirement and healthcare systems, social security, etc.). Is this to some degree true of Syria, and if so where do you see the advantages as well as disadvantages of such a traditional approach?

In Syria, the Workers’ Law establishes the rights of employees such as pension, health insurance, and sick leave. It obviously is good for the employee, since wages do not cover their real expenses.

But there are still many gaps to be filled. For example, health insurance does not cover all the medical items an employee may need. The state, of course, cannot act like a charitable society because it would be a loser in the end, but it must provide guarantees of a decent life for the worker as their main principle and purpose.

Before the war, getting a job in the public sector was a positive advantage for people; the economic situation was different and life was better than today in terms of people’s ability to cover their daily needs. But, as a result of the war, now even the position of public-sector workers is just as bad as the workers in the private sector.

Is there any political player (political party, faction, movement) in Syria that has social progress as its primary agenda? If so, how does it then translate into concrete actions?

In Syria, before 2011, political action was confined to a few parties, mostly joint under the umbrella of the National Progressive Front. This included, among others, also the Communist and Socialist factions. The most prominent of them was nevertheless the Baath Party which also controlled all labour junctures across the country.  

But in general, the Baath Party was the main player in Syrian society, and its legislation was implemented in Syria politically, economically, and socially.

If we want to evaluate what the Baath Party brought about in Syria, we can see that the events of 2011 in Syria came as a result of accumulated mistakes and the ill-considered decisions of a number of political, economic, and social actors across Syria.

The most important of these were neglect of the Syrian countryside, the aggravation of unemployment, the monopoly of political action through one party, and the exclusion of other parties.

Moreover, the other parties were operating within the frameworks allowed by the state, and if we dig deeper into the mechanism of their work and the principles they followed, we’ll see that they were also suffering from many problems. This is one reason why they weren’t able to achieve any tangible results in changing the social situation in the country.

Syria is now emerging from a lengthy, multi-faceted conflict. As such, it has to cope with a badly affected economy and shifted priorities. How does the post-conflict reality affect social policies? What are the social priorities of the government?

Everyone realises that the war in Syria was cruel and destructive and that it not only destroyed the country’s social fabric but also created a situation in which political divisions between supporters and opponents of the regime devastated the country.

But to revive social life in Syria, all parties, both the government and opposition parties must vigorously support social policies.

Priority must be given to settlements and reconciliation as well as the recognition by the conflicting parties that ending the war and working to rebuild Syria demographically is more important than obtaining political advantages.

The Syrian government must give guarantees to Syrians wishing to return to their cities and regions, so that they can feel safe. These guarantees must be worked out in the form of a law, and that would also be a basis from which to launch social policies.

In addition, the government has to conceive real value-creating work projects that will help Syrians rebuild their regions by providing assistance and facilities.

I am aware that all this is not so simple, but this is where I can locate a possible beginning of the restoration of social life in Syria after the war.

Are there, besides the Syrian expats, any international entities that are consciously helping Syria deal, or cope, with the situation, assisting it in setting priorities in the social sphere?

Of course there are humanitarian NGOs, civil-society and international organisations, that are making efforts to preserve what is left of social life in Syria.

However difficult it may be to predict what forms future Syrian social policy will take, how do you imagine what it might look like? Is there a ‘social future’ for Syria? What will (or should) it look like?

Predictions at this stage are very difficult because the political and military situation in Syria is still unstable and it is unclear where political and security conditions will be in the future. The social future in Syria depends on political stability and economic recovery, and if this isn’t achieved, Syrians cannot be optimistic that the social climate will return to what it was before the war.

Optimism is important, but the current economic situation threatens to become a social catastrophe fuelled by poverty, ignorance, and unemployment. For this reason, an absence of emergency solutions to the social situation in Syria will make Syrians suffer still more. I even do not rule out the possibility of repeated waves of popular protests against living conditions, but this time with the unrest coming from areas that were pro-regime due to the regime´s failure to compensate those who were on its side during the war years and give them a better life and improved economic conditions. 

The anti-corruption campaign carried out by the Syrian government against businessmen such as Rami Makhlouf, Muhammad Hamsho, and Tarif al-Akhras did not help the state significantly reduce the causes of such public anger, for Syrians do not have confidence in their government nor can they discern any signs of economic recovery.

Do you wish to make any concluding comments? Any message to the readers?

The bottom line is that preserving what remains of social life in Syria requires extra efforts by everyone. The first step is ending the war as well as the political conflict behind it. Second, the separation of religion and state is essential, and achieving it is one of the first tasks on the way to solving Syria’s problems.

Thank you for the interview!

About the author: Iflin al-Mustafa is a Syrian economic journalist and a graduate of the Faculty of Media at the University of Damascus. As a journalist for over ten years, she has focused on news and issues central to Syrian society and Syrians, as well as the most important issues at the local, Arab, and global levels. Concentrating on economic topics, she is a writer and author of economic treatises for various media, as well as al-Azmina and Researches Journal, which translates into Arabic internationally significant articles on economics. She is the author of the books Economics and Journalism and Crisis, or How Others Dealt with their Economic Problems.