Cooking gas shortage hotly debated in Syrian parliament

Syrian MPs blame US sanctions and corruption for the shortages in Damascus

epaselect epa07239227 A view of a street decorated with lights in the mostly Christian-populated Bab Tuma neighborhood in the old city of Damascus, Syria, 18 December 2018, as part of the Christmas celebration preparations.  EPA/YOUSSEF BADAWI

Shortages of cooking gas, electricity and fuel have hit the capital Damascus hard this winter, prompting Syrian members of parliament to slam the government for its inability to tackle the crisis as locals complain on social media.

“Why are there no solutions as long as (the problem) is in the hands of the government and parliament? Why do we not solve this problem and end corruption?” complained MP Jamal Abou Samra during a special parliamentary session held on Tuesday

The session was aimed at discussing the gas shortage with the Ministry of Oil, according to a report published the next day by Al Watan, a Syrian newspaper.

“There needs to be strict control, especially as oil derivatives are sold on the black market at high prices”, Mrs Abou Samra continued.

One gas cylinder for domestic consumption now costs 8,000 Syrian pounds ($15) on the black market whereas the official price is 2,500 Syrian pounds ($4.8), two Damascus residents who asked to remain anonymous told The National. "Gas has become more valuable than gold or silver for me," said one resident.

Some tried to make a joke out of the dire situation by posting a video of a mock marriage between a man and a gas cylinder dressed in a white wedding dress covered with pearls.

Syrian actor Bassem Yakhour published a photo of himself on Facebook hugging two gas tanks earlier this week, prompting nearly 4,000 comments. "The crisis hasn't only befallen poor people like us but also artists," wrote one surprised Facebook user.

“The Ministry of Oil says that the reason for the crisis is the cold,” said another MP, Aboud Al Shawakh, during the parliamentary session. “We are in winter and cold is expected. The government should have alternative plans”.

Minister of Oil Ali Ghanem recognised that there were “many downsides” to the distribution of cooking gas. “They need supervision and increased efforts.”

Corruption and bad management may have contributed to the gas shortage, but some argue that the real explanation lies in recent US sanctions.

"The gas crisis is mostly caused by Western sanctions which prevent us from acquiring gas shipments for Syrian homes," Syrian MP Fares Shehabi, who also heads the energy committee in parliament, told The National. Syria needs to import half of its requirements.

“Demand increases in cold weather and recent toughened US sanctions have disrupted imports,” says David Butter, associate fellow at Chatham House.

In September 2018, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on petroleum shipments and financing to the Syrian government, and took additional measures in November against Iran, one of Syria’s main suppliers and allies.

But gas is not the only essential household item that has gone missing.

Fuel is also in short supply. Pictures have emerged on social media of hundreds of people standing in line to buy the rare commodity. A litre of diesel on the black market costs 350 Syrian pounds ($68 cents), nearly twice the official price, said one Damascus resident.

In parallel, electricity cuts have increased. “It’s strange. The electricity supply was better during the war,” one resident recalled. “This winter, it’s on for three hours and off for another three hours.”

After seven years of fighting, the Syrian government is increasingly viewed as having won the war. The last rebel stronghold near Damascus, Eastern Ghouta, was retaken in April last year. But Kurds and rebels still occupy significant chunks of Syrian territory.

Minister of Electricity Mohammad Zuhair Kharbotli blamed sanctions for "preventing power plants from purchasing maintenance parts" during a parliamentary session on Wednesday, reported the official Syrian state news agency Sana.

Shops have also been depleted of children’s milk.

"If you are in Syria and you own a bottle of gas, have the electricity on, and one bottle of children's milk then your situation is better than hundreds of thousands of other Syrians," wrote a journalist living in the Syrian capital on Facebook.

“Has the war really ended in Damascus?”