Over the past few years, they rode a wave of market reforms that spurred the country’s economic growth. One mark of Bashar al Assad’s reign was the sudden appearance of shopping malls, boutique hotels and private banks in Damascus – all practically absent from Syria until his reforms took effect in 2004. That new prosperity boosted stability, thickening ties between the regime and business leaders, while cementing their shared interest in a stable Syria.
But with the start of the revolution, attention turned to whether and when those business leaders – the executive class in Damascus – would abandon Assad.
Now, it seems they largely have. The death toll and brutal abuses by the regime have pushed them away.
“I don’t know any of them who are still for Assad…they’re all against what’s happening,” says one prominent businessman based in Damascus. “They don’t believe Assad anymore,” he adds. “Every time he turns up on TV his ratings drop.”
He named a number of business families, with empires from automotives to manufacturing to soft drinks, who’ve openly denounced the regime. One of those families was materially helping the rebels, until members of their own clan were abducted by security forces – a message that even the biggest merchant families aren’t out of the regime’s reach.
“The regime has lost large segments of the business community, but it doesn’t make much of a difference for them,” says Jihad Yazigi, editor-in-chief of The Syria Report, an online business magazine.
In other words, as Syria’s government fights for its survival, the business elite have become largely irrelevant. They aren’t supporting the regime like they used to, and yet that hasn’t been the game-changer many thought it would be.
“Has there been a shift in the business community? Absolutely,” says Ayham Kamel of the Eurasia Group.
“But even in a scenario where they were all against him, that would not be decisive,” he adds. “The military, intelligence, and the security services are decisive, and the majority of them are still loyal.” It’s that support which enables Assad to keep up his crackdown, as he tries to take back chunks of Syria that are now under rebel control.
Business, in Political Limbo
Even though they’ve shifted away from Assad, the business community is in political limbo: not with the regime, but not comfortable with the alternative. The Sunni business elite, while religiously conservative, do not want a future Syria led by the Muslim Brotherhood. And the opposition leaders they see abroad don’t inspire their confidence.
“The likes of the Syrian National Council are irrelevant to us inside Syria. We don’t know these people or what they represent,” says the Damascus businessman. “A deal will have to be struck” with the regime, before business leaders openly endorse political change.
Some business families have been hedging their political bets.
“I know of businessmen who’ve supported both the rebels and the government at the same time, for many months,“ Yazigi says.
At a time when picking sides could be lethal, there would have to be a clear winner before they openly place a bet.