But a crackdown on protests that
activists say has killed at least 850 people has thrown parts of the
country into violent unrest, and most embassies advised their citizens
to leave at once.
In the streets where Arabic students and
backpackers used to buy Oriental knick-knacks, there are only
plain-clothed security forces and grumpy shopkeepers.
National Museum in Damascus, for years a joke with visitors for its
enigmatic signs and gloomy displays of priceless Roman statues, is
currently getting a facelift, and workers are busily painting and
decorating bright new galleries.
But aside from Syrian art
students drawing in the sunlit sculpture garden, there are scant
visitors to admire the new look, nor are the bored attendants expecting
many this summer.
"People do want change, but Syria was growing,"
said one young man in a ceramics shop in Damascus. "Now was not the
time to bring down the government -- this year was going to be such a
big year for Syrian tourism." He and many other shopkeepers said
business was terrible. Hotel owners have had to fire waiters and
The death of tourism is only the first sign of the economic devastation that recent upheaval has inflicted.
Bashar al-Assad inherited power from his father Hafez in 2000, Syria
has undergone a degree of economic liberalization; it has built trade
relationships, particularly with Europe and neighboring Turkey, and
encouraged private banking and business.
The national GDP has
more than tripled from $20 billion in 2000 to over $60 billion last
year. For many people, particularly the urban middle classes, life has
The proliferation of banks and credit allowed
people to buy things -- cars, houses, electric goods -- that they could
not previously afford. Fewer trade restrictions have meant that there
are far more of these goods on the market, from China and Turkey among
The main architect of the more open economy was Abdullah
al-Dardari, deputy prime minister for economic affairs since 2005, who
speaks English and was popular with the reformists at the World Bank and
the International Monetary Fund.
But he was not so popular among
poor Syrians. Oil revenues in Syria are drying up fast, and the reforms
were paid for by withdrawing fuel subsidies and state provision of
education and healthcare.
"Of course people feel they have been
hurt by the gradual withdrawal of the state from areas they used to be
involved in," said a Damascus economist who asked not to be named. "The
gap between Syria's rich and poor has grown as the economy has
Many protesters also cite endemic corruption as a primary grievance, pointing out that friends and relatives of the president control huge chunks of the economy.
Dardari was not part of the new government hastily
assembled by the president when he unveiled concessions to the
protesters, a move that the economist called "highly symbolic." The
message, he said, is that Syria is moving back toward the old social