Power cuts and fuel shortages from sanctions take toll on Syrian economy

Blackouts and shortages have become entrenched in the country's daily routine, as the UN estimate the nine-month uprising has killed more than 5,000.

People queue to refill empty cooking gas cylinders in Deir Balaba near Homs last week.
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DAMASCUS // Regular power cuts, long queues at fuel stations and shortages of cooking gas are now part of everyday life in Syria, as sanctions bite and the economy grinds to a halt.

Nine months into a deadly uprising that has left more than 5,000 civilians and army defectors dead, according to the latest United Nations estimate, the blackouts and shortages have become entrenched in the country's daily routine.

Amid the growing hardship, many Syrians still refuse to believe such violence is actually taking place in their country. They are encouraged to downplay the depth of the country's crisis by the authorities, who continue to assure the public that the worst has now passed and that "Syria is fine".

But even those living in areas nominally insulated from the revolt, or those who would prefer not to notice it altogether, have not been able to ignore the fuel and power shortages.

"The other day I had to wait for almost eight hours to get diesel for my tractor," said a farmer on the southern outskirts of Damascus. "It is like a full-time job, the whole day waiting to try and get fuel, how am I supposed to do my actual work?"

His solution has been to send one of his young sons with a 25-litre plastic container, to stand in line for him at the local filling station, where he waits with dozens of other men and boys for the daily fuel delivery. Coaches, tractors and minivans, and a long, orderly line of plastic jerry cans stretch down the road.

Diesel is traditionally used to heat Syrian homes, but, in its absence, electric heaters have become popular. That, in turn, has led to a dramatic rise in demand for power - a 40 per cent increase, according to government officials.

The national electricity network, already working to its limits - power cuts in poorer neighbourhoods were not uncommon even before the crisis - has been pushed over the edge.

Many districts of Damascus, even those in upmarket neighbourhoods such as Mezzeh and Abu Rumaneh, now have regular blackouts.

Less affluent areas may have two or three a day, lasting up to two hours each. Power is often cut entirely to protest hot spots.

After weeks of denying any problems existed, last Wednesday the ministry of electricity launched a rationing programme, acknowledging the de facto rationing that had been under way for more than a month.

Those with money to spare have begun to buy small petrol generators to see them through the blackouts.

A resident of the wealthy Mezzeh villas district said his family had given up trying to find diesel for their central heating system and were now reliant on electric heaters. When the power to their block of flats cuts out, they wrap up in warm clothes and wait the hour or so until it returns.

"There is a big generator in the basement for the whole building but of course we can't really get the diesel we need to run that and it's so expensive to get it on the black market that we just don't bother," he said.

Shortages of cooking gas have also been pronounced, with long queues forming at local distribution centres when shipments are due in. While the official price for a 15kg cylinder remains about US$6 (Dh22), scare supplies mean the actual cost in many areas has risen to more than $10 and in some places as much as $20.

Officials are adamant that sufficient amounts of heating fuel have been stockpiled to see the country through the winter and they say any shortages are the temporary result of attacks on transport routes by armed insurgents or stockpiling by unscrupulous middlemen seeking extra profits.

A key question for both the authorities and the opposition is which side the public decides to blame. Activists hope support for the president, Bashar Al Assad, will be eroded by growing hardships, while regime loyalists expect protesters will be accused of recklessly sowing chaos as sanctions hit home.

So far, there is little indication as to where the majority is directing its ire.

"Now all the money I earn goes on paying for fuel for the car or the house and we don't always bother with heating any more because it's very expensive," said Abu Omar, a delivery driver who lives in Baramka, in central Damascus.

A critic of the regime, he said that while sanctions were directly causing the shortages and that the poorest Syrians were suffering the most, the authorities were ultimately to blame.

"If the elites would give us freedom and share some of their wealth and power with the ordinary people, we wouldn't be facing sanctions, so this crisis is their responsibility," Mr Omar said.

"The rich will be fine through this, they have enough money to last them 200 years even if they never earn another penny. It is the rest of us that will be cold and hungry if this continues."

The European Union, United States and Arab League have all imposed sanctions on key parts of the Syrian economy, including its oil and gas sector. Suncor Energy, a Canadian group, announced on Sunday that it was suspending operations in Syria as a result of the embargo, following similar moves by Shell and Total. Suncor was involved in supplying gas to Syrian power stations.

Regime supporters say western economic warfare and domestic insurgents have created the shortages.

"The Europeans and Americans have a conspiracy to ruin our lives so they have tried to blockade us," said a Christian resident of Damascus. "Syria is used to this and it will not break us."

Mtanois Habib, an economics professor at Damascus University and former Syrian oil minister, said sanctions were hurting the country, and that the poor were hit harder than the rich. But he warned against drawing too many conclusions.

"Those gambling on sanctions or economic collapse to make the people rise up against the regime will be wrong," he said. "Those who put the sanctions in place should not expect the regime to be toppled by them."

The latest estimate of more than 5,000 dead since the uprising began was announced late on Monday by Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The figure did not include soldiers or security forces killed by opposition forces, she said.

Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, yesterday accused the West of taking an immoral position by failing to stop armed members of the opposition while at the same time criticising Moscow for not condemning the crackdown by government forces.