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Ordinary Syrians will bear brunt of sanctions

Arab League observers are due to arrive in Syria on Thursday as part of a plan to halt violence. That is after one of the bloodiest weeks since the beginning of the unrest, with more than 200 people having been killed in the last few days.

The US has renewed its call for President Assad to step down, warning of new international measures unless it withdraws security forces from the streets. Syria is already suffering under a set of sanctions.The unrest in Syria has been ongoing for nearly ten months now, but the capital, Damascus, has remained largely sheltered from the conflict. In fact, in the bustling center, it seems like business as usual. But as winter sets in, the winds of change have been blowing a little stronger. The Arab League has imposed tough economic sanctions, and their effects are being felt even in Damascus.In a poor area in the suburbs of the capital, Um Firas’s family struggles to make ends meet. In order to support his wife and son, who has learning difficulties, he sells fava beans for a living, barely making 150 Syrian pounds a day – about US $3.And now, the fuel for his vending cart has become harder to get hold of, with shortages due to the economic sanctions driving petrol prices up.“There are fewer products available and the prices are being pushed higher,” Um Firas told RT.“There have been fights over gas. We have been trying to manage by cutting back as much as we can. Sometimes, when we can’t afford it, we just don’t eat.”The economic situation in Syria is one of the areas where President Assad had been seen to be making progress, albeit slowly. But for a population which had started seeing the results of economic opportunity, blocked financial transactions, fuel shortages and power blackouts have now become the norm.“Because of the economic sanctions, people rush to stockpile fuel and gas just in case,” a local resident explains. “People are a little bit afraid of the fact that water or gas might run out, and this is why you see these queues.”Put in place by the Arab League, it was hoped the sanctions would force the government’s hand when it came to ending the violence in the country. But inside Syria, many feel it is everyday people who are being punished. And it is feared there could be even darker financial times ahead.“The share prices on our stock market are slowing down,” says Mamoun Hamdan, a CEO at Damascus Securities Exchange. “It’s affected by some laws. For example, the increase of the capital of all private banks in Syria and the increase of interest rates of the banks are affected indirectly by the decisions of investors.”An advance team from the Arab League will be paving the way for an observer mission due at the end of the month. Much of the opposition, though, remains skeptical about whether even that will bring about any real change.For those caught up in the worst conflict areas, change cannot come a moment too soon. It is imperative too for families like Um’s, who are finding life under the sanctions increasingly desperate.

‘They won’t encourage Assad to act differently’

Sibel Edmonds, founder of the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition, says sanctions will only provoke violence in Syria, causing deeper restlessness in the conflict-ridden country. “And this is what we have been doing from our base in Turkey, from dropping leaflets to actually having defectors working with the US and NATO, trying to provoke violence,” Edmonds says.

She adds that what the US is doing will not calm the situation, or encourage Assad to change his actions.

“I’m not a big fan of Bashar Assad, but neither am I a defender of Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. Even with Egypt – what was it: we were absolutely supporting Mubarak’s regime, and then we changed our stand, and started putting our NGO friends – and these are the US government's friends – to actually support, fund and direct the uprising.”