To subsidize their meager paychecks, some receive remittances from relatives abroad. Some travel to Beirut to pick up their money after having it wired to the city; other countries still allow direct wire transfers to Syria. Others have been forced to take on second jobs. “I earn $50 a month”—a rate available to soldiers who complete 18 months of compulsory service—“which goes straight to covering my rent. I’m lucky because I have a side company, which allows me to live relatively comfortably, but others are not so lucky,” a senior government employee said.
Abu Youssef, a soldier in the Syrian army, has spent the last two years on a tour in Deir Ezzor, one of the most active front-lines against ISIS. When he’s not fighting, he, like many of his fellow soldiers, moonlights as a cab driver in Damascus. “I have a new baby and a wife to take care of,” he said. “My salary in the army is $50 a month. That’s not enough to take care of my family. So when I get time off, I drive a taxi.” Over the past year, he’s seen his family for a total of five days, he said. The rest of the time, he drives around Damascus trying to make money through his second job.
Refaat, a musician, used to perform at parties and festivals before the war. After witnessing six years of war where friends and family have been killed, he no longer feels motivated to leave the country to secure his future. “Why should I leave? I am dead inside,” he said. “Now I just wake up, do what I need to do, go home and go to sleep. This is my life every day.” To make ends meet, he performs odd jobs around Damascus, from manual labor to driving a taxi.
As a convoy of blacked-out SUVs roared past him, Refaat smirked. “I got offered a job with one of the ‘new bosses,’” he said—referring to the commanders of the pro-government militias now enjoying extravagant lifestyles thanks to their side gigs as war profiteers. They asked him to work with them and play at their parties. “I said no. If I work for them, then they own me, and I can’t work anywhere else. At least let me be free in my own self.”
Refaat’s story illustrates another reality of Syria’s brutalized economy. George Saghir, a Syrian economist based in New York, explained that people in both the public and private sectors have found ways to profit from it, with the aid of a sanctions regime designed for precisely the opposite effect. “They were some of the most punitive sanctions ever … not a single person abroad can do business inside Syria,” Saghir said. “The way the sanctions were written were certain to hurt the country’s economy and turn its business elites against the government.”
One of the more popular ways to make money is monopolizing the sale of things like mobile phones, cigarettes, or “luxury goods,” including brand-name clothes and foreign food products like candy, cheese, and Johnny Walker. While the government attempts to save foreign currency to import only necessary food products and medicine, including things like cancer medication and wheat, markets in government-controlled areas do not seem to be lacking in luxury imports. Prior to the war, Syria used to get about 95 percent of its medicine from local factories, most of which have now been destroyed.