SYRIANS are spending hours every day queuing for fuel and bread as severe shortages and below-freezing winter temperatures add to the difficulties facing president Bashar al-Assad’s regime as it struggles to provide basic services.
The economy is buckling under the strains of civil war and sanctions that have sapped state finances, devastated Syria’s cities and left its industry and infrastructure in ruins. A power cut on Monday plunged Damascus and parts of the south into darkness, a stark reminder that the regime is increasingly unable to keep the economy moving and Syrians fed and warm.
Underscoring the damage wrought by the conflict, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation yesterday said wheat and barley production in Syria dropped to two million tonnes last year from 4-4.5m tonnes in normal years.
Monday’s blackout, which affected wealthy areas in the heart of the capital where rationing is normally less severe, was the latest in a series of infrastructural failures that the regime has blamed on the rebels.
While Damascus’s 2.5 million residents have grown used to frequent power cuts, this week’s was the first to encompass the entire capital since the uprising began in March 2011.
The misery and suffering has been heightened by winter, with people queuing for hours in the cold for basics. In the countryside, trees have been felled and even furniture burned in a bid to keep homes warm.
On a recent day in the poor Damascus district of Rukneddine, more than a 100 people stood outside al-Ameed bakery waiting to get 1.35kg (3lb) of subsidised bread for 15 Syrian pounds (14p). Nowadays, Syrians can choose between subsidised bread or standard bread known as “touristic,” which is abundant but four times more expensive.
One woman said she waited for four hours to get a pack of subsidised bread.
“I can’t afford to pay more than that. My children need every penny,” she said. Wearing a scarf around her head, the woman said she recently starting working as a cleaner to help raise her children after her husband was killed by a shell last year.
Yaman, a 12-year-old boy, left school after his father was killed and his mother wounded when their home in the Damascus suburb of Douma was hit by a shell. He now makes a living standing in line to get bread, then selling the flat, round loaves to people who don’t want to queue.
“Those who don’t want to pay the high prices can go and stand in line,” said Yaman, dressed in jeans, a shirt and flip flops on a cold January day as he held five packs of bread. The government has fixed petrol at about 50p a litre, but shortages mean residents must queue up to six hours to fill up.
“There is almost no diesel in the city,” said one taxi driver.
Cooking gas, too, has become a precious commodity, and people must wait more than two weeks to replace an empty bottle at the government rate of about £5 or pay as much as four times that on the black market.
“The situation is catastrophic in most of Syria,” said Dubai-based economist Samir Seifan. “The economy is paralysed. Whole sectors are paralysed, especially the industrial sector.”
Despite this, most analysts say the regime can survive for at least another year. Mr Seifan said one reason was assistance from Iran, said to have given billions of dollars since March 2011. “If this stops, there will be an economic collapse,” he said.