Syria’s situation at the beginning of 2023 continues to be deeply miserable. In December 2022, President Bashar al-Assad published a draft budget (Law No. 46) of 16.5 trillion Syrian pounds. As official media reportedly celebrated the figure, a 24% increase from the previous year, the Asia Times retorted that there is no reason to celebrate Syria’s new budget. Indeed, due to the depreciation of the Syrian currency against the US dollar, the draft budget is worth some $3.6 billion (compared with $5.3 billion in 2022), a constant decrease compared to the last few years. The Wall Street Journal added that Iran has restricted the supply of cheap oil and had doubled the price Syria pays for crude, triggering a Syrian fuel shortage as its economy falters. Iran’s aspiration to become a regional power broker suffered a new blow from its struggling economy. It is hampering Tehran’s ability to supply cheap oil to cronies in the region, such as Syria. Charles Lister indicated that Iran’s doubling of the fuel price made available to Syria is a significant development, but the switch from credit to cash is far more critical. In 3 months, Assad-held areas have witnessed a 30% & 44% rise in food & fuel costs. 90% of Syrians live under the poverty line & 70% are dependent on aid. Everything has been cut, and the draft budget slashed subsidies for essential commodities even more.
On the other hand, the regime’s Captagon trade seems to be a great success, estimated in the tens of billions of US dollars. Local sources indicated that Syria’s National Security Bureau issued a new decision (Decree No. 12/8 dated 2 January 2023) to redeploy forces of the Fourth Division (led by Bashar’s brother Maher Al-Assad), approximately a year and a half after its withdrawal from the southern region, along Syria’s border with Jordan (legal and illegal border crossings), under the pretext of preventing exit and loss of money and goods. The decision stipulated the formation of joint checkpoints of 4th Division units with regime security units (customs & intel units from the Military, Air Force, State security, and Political security) to carry out checks and monitor secondary roads, smuggling routes, and the border region. The deployment of units from the 4th Division has already raised concerns among residents due to the potential of renewed targeted killings against regime opponents (the 4th Division is known to have carried out dozens of assassinations against opposition activists known for their hostility to the Syrian regime & Iran). Across the border, the Kingdom of Jordan is also disturbed by a potential increase in drug smuggling into its territory should the Nassib crossing be under the control of the 4th Division (its officers are known to supervise the production of Captagon & other drugs in Syria).
Sources claim that the return of the 4th Division in southern Syria comes as a regime’s response to the US bill against ‘Assad’s Captagon Trade’ and Russia-Jordan rapprochement and could be a way to pressure further other Arab states to normalize relations with Bashar finally. Along with the possible détente between Assad and Erdogan under the Russian umbrella in the north, security-related pressures & détente could be seen as an exit strategy for the regime to its economic and political calamities.