Syrian Death Toll Mounts as Sanctions, Strike Tighten Squeeze on Economy

Syrian army defectors clashed with state security forces as activists staged a strike in a drive to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

Security forces killed at least nine people today in Homs and the northern province of Idlib, Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said by phone from London. More than 76 people died in the previous three days, Mahmoud Merei, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, said in a phone interview from Syria.

Heavy clashes between the army and defectors in the southern province of Daraa, where the uprising against Assad began nine months ago, were reported yesterday by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. At the same time, a strike and international sanctions are increasing economic pressure on the government.

“This appears as another attempt by the regime to push the crackdown to a conclusion,” said Chris Phillips, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London.

Most of the violence in recent days took place was in the central city of Homs, the suburbs of the capital, Damascus, and in Daraa, Merei said. Municipal elections today, part of what the government describes as its reform efforts, are unlikely to yield a turnout of more than 5 percent, he said.

Economic Cost

“The general strike took place in several Syrian cities and has terrified the regime as the Hama governor threatened to seal off the stores in the city and forces threatened to set these stores on fire,” Ali Hassan, spokesman for the Syrian Revolution Council, an opposition group, told Al Arabiya in an interview.

Syria’s $60 billion economy, which grew 5.5 percent in 2010, may shrink 2 percent this year, the International Monetary Fund said, while the Institute of International Finance said the figure would be at least 5 percent. The government expects growth of 1 percent, Finance Minister Mohammad Al-Jleilati said in September.

“The economy is already in a very difficult position the strike will worsen matters,” Phillips said. “Its main purpose is more an attempt by the opposition to show their strength to try to persuade other members who are sitting on the fence to join them.”

Arab Leaders Ousted

The protests against Assad followed the ouster of leaders in Egypt and Tunisia. Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi was overthrown by opposition forces backed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed last month to resign in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

More than 5,000 people have been killed opposing the government and the number of detainees has reached about 15,000, according to the Syrian National Council, an opposition umbrella group. The United Nations has said at least 4,000 people have died.

The council said the UN is unable to prevent the government from “killing its innocent citizens and shedding their blood in front of the whole world,” according to an e-mailed statement yesterday in which it called on other countries to intervene.

Arab League foreign ministers will discuss Syria in a Dec. 17 meeting at its Cairo headquarters, Egypt’s state-run Middle East News Agency reported yesterday, citing an unidentified diplomat.

The league on Dec. 3 ordered a freeze on the assets of 19 Syrian officials, a ban on their travel and a reduction in flights to Syria if the government refuses to admit international monitors and release political prisoners.

Foreign Investment Drops

Foreign direct investment in Arab states has fallen as much as 24 percent this year as political unrest swept the region, according to the Arab Investment & Export Credit Guarantee Corp., which insures such funding against non-commercial risks.

Foreign financing will shrink to between $50 billion and $55 billion in 2011 from $66.2 billion last year, the group said in an e-mailed response to questions.

Suncor Energy Inc. (SU), which supplies about 10 percent of Syria’s natural gas, said yesterday it plans to withdraw expatriate workers from the country and cancel supply contracts following sanctions imposed by the European Union.

Gas operations with General Petroleum Corp. in Syria were suspended, Calgary-based Suncor said in statement. Targets for total production this year and next haven’t been adjusted, it said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Massoud A. Derhally in Beirut, Lebanon at mderhally@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net

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