Kai Ryssdal: Foreign ministers from the Arab League met today in Cairo to try -- once again -- to stop the government crackdown in Syria. The league said it's ready to give Assad's opponents what it called "all kinds of political and material support." If that sounds like a gesture born largely out of frustration, it probably is. A week ago, China and Russia vetoed a U.N. resolution along the same lines.
Syria is by far the longest running set of protests in the Middle East -- going on a year now, with no clear end in sight. Joshua Landis runs the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Thanks for being here.
Joshua Landis: It's a pleasure.
Ryssdal: There is more talk everyday of what to do about Syria. Remind us what's already been done -- there are sanctions in place, right?
Landis: There are heavy sanctions in place. The United States had sanctions on Syria for three decades, but Europe joined in sanctions, and Europe provides almost 50 percent of trade with Syrians through the EU. And Europe stopped all energy imports and exports; companies like Shell withdrew; the commercial bank of Syria had been sanctioned -- that means no letters of credit can be issued by the commercial banks that were honored in the international community. So there is a lot being done. The currency of Syria has collapsed by 50 percent. It went from 47 pounds to a dollar to 72, 73. So Syrians have lost half their purchasing power.
Ryssdal: So I mean, the Syrian economy before any of this started was not doing fabulously well. I imagine now that everything from the means of production to large industrial operations must be nearly crippled.
Landis: They are. You know, the tourist industry: completely shut down. Most hotels: shuttered. Now, businesses are laying off. Nobody is buying. Economic activity, we believe, has fallen by about 50 percent. So everything is groaning under this rapid shutdown. People are not repaying their debts. I talked to one leading Syria lawyer -- he said in the last eight months, he's done no real business deals. Everything is about closing businesses; foreign businesses trying to get out of Syria, liquidate and giving severance payments to all their Syrian employers, employees. So that's what's going on in Syria: People are trying to get out of the market. And the Syrian economy is rapidly declining.
Ryssdal: You talk to people in Syria, I would imagine, regularly, right?
Landis: Yes I do.
Ryssdal: What do they tell you? What's it like?
Landis: They're very frightened. My in-laws, they can't fuel oil; their life savings is wasting away; and they see greater and greater violence. So they don't know what's coming. My brother-in-law, who runs a little shop, it's a dress shop of 60 seamstresses, making clothes in France. They can't get banking because the banking system has been gummed up with sanctions. They can't make payments and write checks back and forth between France. He has to do it all on his own personal name, because that hasn't been sanctioned yet. But they're waiting for more sanctions, and they're worried that they're going to have to lay off all their workers and that they'll close up shop.
Ryssdal: Joshua Landis is the director for the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. His blog that he writes is called Syria Comment. Josh, thanks a lot.
Landis: It's a pleasure, thank you.