The Syrian uprising is now over a year old. So far, it has been bloody, divisive, and inconclusive. According to new UN figures, 9,000 people have already died during the uprising. This statistic does not include the many Syrians imprisoned and brutally tortured by the Assad regime; nor the Syrians gravely injured in the indiscriminate firing on civilian areas; or the children left with deep emotional and psychological scars that will long outlast this conflict.
In the face of the regime’s sustained murder of its own people, the international community has been at a loss over how to react. One way – supported by Turkey – has been to call for the economic embargo of Syria, bringing the Assad regime to its knees through loss of revenue.
There are still Western chains operating in Syria today, including Costa Coffee, Cinnabon, United Colours of Beneton, and KFC. Arguably, the withdrawal of such companies from the Syrian market would send a clear signal to President Bashar al-Assad to stop the killing, or face economic isolation. This, however, is the wrong course of action.
Syria is a complex situation, requiring more than a withdrawal of Western chains to create a solution. All such a withdrawal will accomplish is a denial of employment to ordinary Syrians, thereby exacerbating an already grave unemployment situation. It will add to the increasing sense of isolation for the Syrian people, who feel that they have been forgotten by the world and left at the mercy of Assad.
The prospect of such a withdrawal also raises the question of whether we now expect multi-national chains to be the barometer of domestic political affairs; thereby becoming traders in only morally irreprehensible countries. Is this a realistic prospect and can it be sustained without causing deep harm to the economies to nations and people affected?
One argument for the exit of foreign companies being proposed, is that Western chains in Syria are high-end service providers. In a country with deep poverty, only the upper-middle classes would have access to such companies. So, if we remove this pleasure, they too will rise and protest against the Assad regime. In reality, those most likely to be hurt by such a withdrawal would be the ordinary Syrians workers who would be rendered jobless. Not the ideal result in any given scenario.
During the French Revolution, Marie-Antoinette famously said of starving French peasants demanding bread: “Let them eat cake." Revolution ensued and she was decapitated. Today the situation is reversed. If we do not allow Syrians to eat at Cinnabon, drink at Costa Coffee, and dine at KFC, then we are arguably destroying part of the weak Syrian economy and thereby exacerbating future economic issues.
Certainly, Syria as a nation will outlast al-Assad’s regime. Tehrefore, can we justify weakening a section of its economy on the basis of the short-term goal of his removal? Indeed, the resolution to this crisis has to be diplomatic and political, but not through piecemea withdrawals of western chains that might very well hurt the very people they would be trying to help.