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02/27/2013

Syria's angry merchants backing the war: one view from Amman

Syria refugees

A Syrian refugee tries to get a signal to make phone calls at Al Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq. (REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed )

I am in Jordan this week looking at the Syrian refugee crisis.

Just today, 5,339 crossed the border into Jordan, according to the latest figures from the UN refugee agency. A total of 300,000 Syrians are now in Jordan and the kingdom has become a listening post for the war.

You see the cross-section of Syrian life here, from Islamists to the secular middle class and everyone in between.

But one class that is largely missing is the wealthy merchant class, particularly those from Damascus and Aleppo who formed the backbone of the economy. Most of them have gone to Dubai, Cairo or Beirut.

Here is an observation from Labib Hamkowi, a Jordanian professor I met today who is also a businessman in the oil and gas sector:

When Hafez Assad, an air force officer seized power in 1970 and set up the dynasty his son Bashar is now struggling to hang on to, he struck a deal with the merchants, Hamkowi told me.

“Hafez told them they could keep their businesses but he would govern Syria. The merchants agreed to the arrangement. Now, when his stupid son took over his people wanted to make money. He took control of 65 per cent of all business contracts.”

This included everything from telecommunications to soft drinks. Hamkowi continued: “This class of merchants are angry and some are financing the anti-regime side. The religious forces are at the front of the war but unimportant in one sense. Fundamentally this war is about economics.”

Hamida Ghafour is a foreign affairs reporter at The Star. She has lived and worked in the Middle East and Asia for more than 10 years and is the author of a book on Afghanistan. Follow her on Twitter @HamidaGhafour

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