Syrian trade fair shows road to recovery still strewn with debris of war
* Annual trade fair was shut for years amid fighting
* Western sanctions grip Syrian economy
* Government leans on trade ties with Russia and Iran
By Angus McDowall and Kinda Makieh
DAMASCUS, Sept 7 (Reuters) - Syria's government is
showcasing its ambitions for economic recovery and engagement
with foreign business at a trade fair, but glimpses of
devastated districts nearby show how far off full-scale
While companies from Syria's allies Russia and Iran are
present in numbers, others are sparse, deterred by Western
sanctions and continued ostracism of Syria as it prepares to
attack the last rebel bastion in a seven-year-old civil war.
"Today the Syrian army forces have gained a lot of momentum
... We think this year (the trade fair) will be very successful.
A lot of companies that were not in Syria last year came," said
Samer al-Debs, head of the Damascus Chamber of Industry, as the
fair opened on Thursday night.
Although South Korean cars are now trundling off assembly
lines in Syria, and there is electricity in Damascus for 20
hours a day, whole towns lie in ruins and millions are
sheltering abroad as refugees.
While global attention focuses on northwest Syria, where the
army is preparing to attack the last active stronghold of armed
rebellion - at the risk of triggering a humanitarian crisis,
according to the United Nations - Damascus is experiencing its
first peaceful summer in years.
President Bashar al-Assad retook the last insurgent enclaves
around the capital this spring through heavy bombardment after
years of siege, ending frequent rebel mortar fire on the city
Last year, one such mortar round struck the entrance to the
Damascus International Trade Fair as it opened for the first
time in five years, killing six people during an event the
government had heralded as a move towards economic revival.
The shrapnel marks are still visible, but the only sound of
an explosion on Thursday came from distant de-mining operations
in an area recaptured months ago.
On each side of the road to the fair - the main highway from
Damascus to its international airport - lie districts that were
recently on the front lines, and where most buildings seem
little more than concrete husks, their roofs caved in.
Inside the trade fair, companies display goods imported from
dozens of countries, including Japanese electronics and South
Korean Kia cars assembled in Syria under licence.
Still, in a sign of the fraught international realities
surrounding the war, the countries with most companies present
are Russia and Iran – Assad's closest military allies,
themselves also subject to Western sanctions.
In the Iranian pavilion, stalls displaying delicate silk
carpets stand next to others advertising industrial and
"There is technical, scientific and industrial capability in
Iran and it is in line with the demands present in the Syrian
market," said Iranian Ambassador Javad Turk Abadi.
Across the aisle in the Russian pavilion, one company was
selling armoured bulldozers for clearing unexploded bombs in
city rubble, and another was seeking contracts for electricity
cables in a country where the power network has been ruined.
The geopolitics are also clear in the flags along the
highway – which include not only those of Russia and Iran but
also those of Venezuela and North Korea, two countries at odds
with the United States and much of the West.
Attending the opening ceremony along with Syrian Prime
Minister Imad Khamis was the leader of Abkhazia, a breakaway
Georgian republic recognised by few countries apart from Russia
and Syria. Its flag, and that of another Russian-backed Georgian
breakaway republic, South Ossetia, fly near the entrance.
Western countries have said they will not aid reconstruction
without a political solution to the conflict, but as Assad
reclaims more rebel territory with Russian and Iranian backing,
the prospect of any deal with opposition groups is receding.
They have also said they will not ease sanctions; the
difficulty of trading with Syria is a constant refrain among
companies at the trade fair.
Money transfers are very difficult, complicating payments
for import or export, and foreign companies fear inadvertently
doing business with sanctioned individuals or entities.
Despite that, Syrian businesses appear to be finding ways
around the sanctions and growing, as the past few years of army
advances have brought Syria's most populous areas back into a
large contiguous zone of government control.
"Sanctions are always a problem. We're finding ways around
it ... we adapted ourselves to the situation," said Fares
Shehabi, head of the Aleppo chamber of commerce and industry,
who is himself on a European Union sanctions list for his
support for Assad.
(Reporting By Angus McDowall and Kinda Makieh; writing by Angus
McDowall; Editing by Kevin Liffey)
© 2018 Thomson Reuters. All rights reserved. Reuters content is the intellectual property of Thomson Reuters or its third party content providers. Any copying, republication or redistribution of Reuters content, including by framing or similar means, is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Thomson Reuters. Thomson Reuters shall not be liable for any errors or delays in content, or for any actions taken in reliance thereon. "Reuters" and the Reuters Logo are trademarks of Thomson Reuters and its affiliated companies.