After the bombs: returning Syrians face a bleak future of poverty, hunger, queues for fuel and frequent blackouts

The Assad regime is ill-equipped to provide the most basic of services and its leader's intransigence could limit the influx of reconstruction aid

TOPSHOT - Syrian children queue to receive food distributed by humanitarian aid workers at a makeshift camp for displaced people, near the village of Yazi Bagh, about six kilometres from the Bab al-Salamah border crossing between Syria and Turkey in the north of Aleppo province, on February 7, 2018.  / AFP / Nazeer AL-KHATIB
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The video, viewed by thousands within hours of being posted, showed almost Dickensian scenes of poverty. Men, women and children clustered around a dustbin truck and, as it tipped its contents into a field in Amouda, a town near Hasakeh, the city controlled by Kurdish militias aligned with the US, they set to work picking over the assortment of rubbish, searching for scraps of food.

“We fled hunger and came here to survive,” one of the women said. “Now we search through the rubbish, just like we did before.”

With the war winding down in Syria after Russia's intervention propelled the country's dictator Bashar Al Assad to near-victory over rebels fighting to overthrow him, and a rush to normalise relations with Syria ahead of expected talks, a deeply tragic and desperate reality on the ground is being overlooked.

Many Syrians are struggling to find food and warmth and are impoverished, with a lack of access to basic resources that were once guaranteed by the government. Those inside the country seem to be faring even worse than those who fled, despite the relative stability within Syria's borders now that much of the fighting has abated.

A new report published last week by the World Bank highlighted just how dire their prospects are. An estimated two thirds of Syrians are living in extreme poverty, making what amounts to less than $1.90 a day.

While there are few reliable figures, more than half the population are thought to be unemployed and Syria’s GDP fell by 63 per cent between 2011 and 2016.

One study estimates that one-fifth of all residential buildings in 15 cities in the country were damaged in the war. In Tartous, a coastal city that saw relatively little fighting, about 18 per cent of people are “housing deprived”, meaning their homes are barely habitable.

Many Syrians are struggling to find food and warmth and are impoverished, with a lack of access to basic resources that were once guaranteed by the government

An estimated 5.5 million Syrians need some form of food assistance today and half of all households have reduced the number of meals they eat. Rolling blackouts have plunged even the capital Damascus into darkness and the price of basic food staples keeps rising precipitously to keep up with the fall in the currency’s value.

The scale of that deprivation is hard to comprehend. So consider a couple of recent stories emerging out of Syria, where a shortage of gas and basic services has forced many families to endure a harsh winter without the benefit of heating and electricity.

One story was about a robbery at a religious shrine in the coastal city of Banias, where the thief broke into the holy site to steal a single gas cylinder. And in a video highlighting the stark shortages, which went viral on social media, a Syrian man dressed a gas cylinder in a wedding dress and danced with it in a mock wedding ceremony, echoing the Arabic saying sharr al baliyyah ma yodhek: the worst tragedy is the one that makes you laugh.

The war has destroyed much of Syria but the shortages are also evidence of the war economy and banditry that continues to plague the country, including areas that have been reclaimed by the government or witnessed little violence.

The plight of civilians is often sidelined when realpolitik and the machinations of greater powers are at play

In the long run, they present a stark problem for the Assad regime. It is a sign that it can no longer afford even the basic guarantees that its citizens once took for granted. A common if simplistic refrain often heard in discussions about Syria is why citizens rose up if they had clean water, subsidised bread, healthcare and free education.

Now, the lines snaking around diesel fuel trucks, declining school enrollment rates and the flight of the country's doctors abroad belie a sad and dangerous truth – Syria's government can no longer provide for its citizens, who have already lost so much.

The plight of civilians is often sidelined when realpolitik and the machinations of greater powers are at play. Despite the shocking levels of poverty and hunger, even in areas that have seen little violence, not to mention the threat of detention by Assad’s security apparatus, European countries continue to uphold measures that deter those fleeing the war and actively encourage the return to Syria of those who sought refuge on their shores.

This short-term political expediency is nothing less than a cruel deliverance into further desperation, loss and dispossession.

But the other pressing question is this – what will happen when the guns and bombs fall silent? With its battlefield victories, Assad’s regime is loath to reach any compromise with its opponents. Its intransigence could limit the influx of reconstruction aid, of which some $400 billion might be needed.

If that happens, what then? The war in Syria may be winding down, with half a million dead and half the country displaced, all to keep one man in power. But if the hunger pangs persist and the warmth of homes keeps dissipating, what will an ensuing revolt of the poor and hungry look like?

One thing is for sure: an impoverished Syria is unlikely to remain peaceful or stable for long.