Aleppo and Damascus Without Gas and Bread

A Syrian man, who set up up a business outside a destroyed petrol station, sells petrol in plastic containers in the al-Fardos neighbourhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on 9 December 2012. (Photo: AFP - Odd Andersen)

By: Anas Zarzar, Basel Dayoub

Published Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Scarcity and exorbitant black market prices have made the two essentials of fuel and bread hard to come by in major Syrian cities. As electricity fades in Aleppo and bakeries are overcrowded in Damascus, their residents must cope with a new reality brought on by war.

Syria’s winter and its chilling cold arrived swiftly this year and uncovered the real magnitude of the calamity faced by Syrians, who have failed in their desperate efforts to overcome the economic hardships and setbacks caused by the war.

The only topic discussed on Syria’s streets today – by opponents or supporters of the regime and those in between – is the fuel crisis. Diesel, cooking gas, and petroleum have disappeared. If fuel can be found, its price has reached insane levels on the black market with the total absence of regulating agencies. The price of diesel oil ranges between 65 and 150 Syrian Pounds (SP), about $1 to $2 per kilogram.

According to Syrian authorities, the crisis was caused “by armed terrorist gangs blowing up fuel supply lines in several governorates and the increased demand from citizens for diesel used in heating their homes at the onset of winter.”

The fuel crisis has in turn led to a bread and electricity shortage as citizens live in total darkness with little sense of security.

Waiting in Line for Bread

In the midst of chaos and indirect violence caused by the fuel crisis, the scenes of congested crowds outside the bakeries of Damascus and its suburbs are common. Thousands line up outside bakeries from the early morning hours until late at night to get their daily bread.

There are several theories as to what’s behind the bread crisis. Some described it as a result of the lack of fuel in both private and government-owned bakeries. Yet a brief discussion with citizens standing in a long line outside a Damascus bakery reveals other secrets.

“The war destroyed the bakeries in our quarter. Hundreds from our area come to this bakery to get their bread,” one of them told Al-Akhbar.

In Aleppo, however, bread is subject to theft. Since last Ramadan and the start of the war to liberate Aleppo announced by the opposition, the strategic supply of wheat in the city’s major silos was being stolen from railroads or highways.

Abdul-Qader Abu Mahmoud, from the city of al-Bab, said that large quantities of wheat were stolen from the city’s silos and sold to Turkish merchants. Some of it was then distributed to the citizens as a cover, but the citizens became angry at the opposition fighters who then stopped the sales to the Turks.

Some supporters of the armed opposition even demanded on their Facebook page that the fighters stop these practices, “which are detrimental to the revolution and contribute to the regime’s efforts to strangle Aleppo’s food supplies.”

In the last few months, hundreds of flour containers were stolen during clashes in the countrysides of Aleppo and Idlib. The government, nonetheless, is insisting on keeping the supply line open, even if it will be through the opposition fighters themselves.

A high-ranking official in the governorate informed Al-Akhbar of an “internal governmental decision to protect food security for citizens, where bread is a staple.”

The state’s loss of control has turned bread into a profitable trade. State bakery owners sell their subsidized shares of flour to privately owned bakeries at three times the price. The state bakery owners are reaping huge profits, in addition to their sales of extra subsidized mazot, or fuel, given to them at merely SP9 or $0.15 per kilogram.

The Baathist regime considers bread to be a red line and has been careful in the last decades to keep it at cheap prices. The price of one kilogram of subsidized bread does not exceed SP8 ($0.13), while barley and cattle feed is SP20 ($0.33).

No Fuel, No Transportation

The diesel crisis is more prominent in Damascus and has affected public and private transportation. More than one and a half million people visit the capital daily, requiring various types of transportation which mostly run on diesel.

Scenes of fighting, violence, and exchanging insults are becoming familiar at bus stations and inside buses. There is news of a strike by bus and taxi drivers working on the routes to the capital’s suburbs. Traffic police can no longer control violations.

Al-Akhbar spoke to Nazih Abu-Fakhr, 44, who has worked as a bus driver for the past 15 years. “We were forced to strike. The loss of petroleum, even from the government’s stations, brought our work almost to standstill. Our buses are parked in the stations, waiting for a new supply of fuel,” he explained.

“Owners of working public buses had to buy their fuel from the black market at varying prices,” he maintained. “I ask the decision-makers and Dr. Qadri Jamil [the Syrian assistant prime minister for economic affairs]: Where do these large quantities of diesel in the black market come from? Who benefits from this corruption after single-handedly raising the cost of diesel by 25 percent?”

This was used as a justification for bus drivers to increase the cost of tickets at their whim, almost to double the official price on many occasions.

The poor citizens can either pay the requested amount or remain standing at the station waiting for God’s succor. “There is no longer any space for manners or public ethics. If you leave your space for a woman or old man to sit at the bus or any other means of transportation, you will remain waiting for hours for another change,” explained Nidal, a university student who was forced by the congestion and hard shoving inside a public bus to get out at the nearest station, fearing he would be thrown out.

“In many cases, I prefer to walk for hours and travel long distances to find a vehicle returning to the city center and go back home. This could take three to five hours,” he added.

“The taxi meters and their changing rates do not take into consideration the many checkpoints in Damascus. Nor do they care for the bottleneck traffic jams and diversions of many of the capital’s main roads for security purposes,” said Abu Ahmed, 51, a taxi driver. He stopped using his meter and doesn’t care if he receives a ticket. “I estimate the cost based on the distance, the magnitude of traffic jams, and the number of security checkpoints which will stop me.”

Aleppo the Stricken

These are Aleppo’s worst days in a century. Total darkness, scarcity of bread and fuel, and unreal prices pending availability. Aleppo, the city that did not sleep until daybreak fell into total darkness last Wednesday night. That day, the price of one kilogram of bread exceeded SP150 ($2.50), 20 times its official price. Petroleum rose by four times its official price and mazot by eight times. A bottle of cooking gas is now 10 times its set price at SP4,000 ($67).

The current situation reminds the people of Aleppo of the Safar Barlik during World War I, when famine, disease, and road bandits plagued the area. The common thread between the two occasions, one century apart, is the looming Western intervention to secure “the liberty of people.”

Aleppo spent two nights without electricity for the very first time since it was first connected to houses at the beginning of last century.

A source in Aleppo’s electric company told Al-Akhbar that “maintenance crews are working to repair damage caused by a terrorist attack on the link to Aleppo close to al-Safira energy plant. This stopped supplies from the Syrian grid, following the loss of 1,050 megawatts in the terrorist attack on the line supplying natural gas to the station.”

The source held that most of the necessary spare parts were available at the station’s warehouses and the current will be linked back into Aleppo’s different quarters beginning next Friday at the latest.

As news spread of the sabotage of Syria’s largest power plant, the demand for petroleum used in electric generators began to rise. The price of one liter of petroleum jumped from SP100 ($1.67) to SP190 ($3.16), while the official price is set at SP55 (around $1). The price of mazot doubled from SP110 to SP225 ($1.83 to $3.75), while the official price is SP23 ($0.38).

Ever since the opposition declared the battle to “liberate Aleppo,” sources from the electric company also confirmed the killing of 17 workers and engineers from the company during maintenance operations on the grid, and transfer station.

Basel Dayoub reported from Aleppo and Anaz Zarzar from Damascus.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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