Wheat and fuel shortages overwhelm Syria

Dr Khaled was queueing for petrol when he got an urgent call — a patient was bleeding from an artery. Normally, he would drive straight to his hospital in Damascus to help, but leaving now would mean giving up the position he had held for 18 hours in the queue.

“If I don’t refill my car I might as well just stay home,” said Dr Khaled, who called his brother to take over the spot while he rushed to hospital on foot. “This patient could have died, not because of my shortcoming but because it was my responsibility to fill the car,” said Dr Khaled, who did not want his real name to be published.

After years of intense fighting which killed half a million people and ensnared world powers from Moscow to Washington, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime — accused of war crimes and arbitrarily jailing thousands without trial — now controls two-thirds of the country. Fighting has subsided across much of Syria except in the north-west, where Russian jets back Mr Assad and Turkish troops support opposition fighters.

But the hours Dr Khaled spent queueing illustrate the extent of Syria’s economic collapse, which has been aggravated by pandemic-related lockdowns, the Lebanese banking crisis and the regime’s international isolation. Western financial sanctions prohibit fuel sales to Syria, meaning the only country it can buy oil from is Iran.

A minor oil producer and once a wheat exporter, the government is so cash-strapped that last month it reduced subsidies on the one staple Syrians could just about afford — bread. The price of bread produced by government bakeries has doubled to 100 Syrian pounds.

Even before it cut subsidies, people living in regime-controlled areas — in effect, much of the country — complained that bread and fuel shortages as well as endless queueing had become a fact of life in a country previously classified as “middle income”.

A man welds a wood stove, as Syrians prepare for the upcoming harsh winter season © Anas Alkharboutli/dpa

Syrians bag up coal which will serve later as a crucial source of warmth during the winter © Anas Alkharboutli/dpa

With bread in short supply, in part because of falling vital imports, squabbles over wheat prices and wildfires, Mr Assad has acknowledged that Syria’s economy is in a historic freefall.

These are “harsh and difficult times that Syria has never been through since its independence” in 1945, he said this month during a rare public visit to Syria’s former economic powerhouse Aleppo. This is “the worst bread crisis . . . since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011”, said Nicholas Bodanac, a research director at Mercy Corps, a humanitarian organisation.

Though entire cities were besieged and bombed during the height of the conflict, previously “we have not seen this level of want in Syria”, said Amjad Yamin, an advocacy director for the charity Save the Children, who is based in Amman, Jordan. “It has never been to this level across the entire country.” At least 80 per cent of Syrians are impoverished, says the UN.

Critics argue that government corruption and the Syrian regime’s crony capitalism have allowed profiteering to flourish and undermined the economy. Mr Assad instead blames international sanctions, which have squeezed the regime since it cracked down on protesters in 2011. And last week he said that billions of dollars of Syrian money stuck in neighbouring Lebanese banks was actually “the core of the issue”.

It is not known how much Syrian money has been trapped in illiquid Lebanese banks since the lenders, seeking to avoid a bank run, imposed informal capital controls in late 2019. Lebanon had acted as a vital financial artery for Syrians.

Bankers and politicians estimate Syrian deposits in Lebanon are worth tens of billions of dollars — a minimum $20bn, according to Mr Assad — money which Syria wants, but is unlikely to be able to retrieve. 

President Bashar al-Assad, right, and first lady Asma Assad, centre right, speak with people during their visit to the Producers exhibition in Damascus © Syrian Presidency Facebook/AP

It is also “unlikely that the Syrian government will meet its annual need of 2.5m tonnes of wheat”, said Mr Bodanac. Syria’s main wheat-producing land is in the north-east, which is controlled by a Kurdish administration that has rowed with Damascus over grain prices. Meanwhile, farming in regime-held areas have been hit by a spate of deadly wildfires. Imports from Russia have dived as the Kremlin has sought to safeguard its own supplies during the coronavirus pandemic.

In September, the government stepped up bread rationing but these allocations are so small that Khaled has started to share his with co-workers who earn less: “I lend them my card, they buy for themselves four bundles” of bread instead of two. 

While other food is available, the collapse of the currency has fanned inflation, forcing families to cut back on meat and even fresh fruit. The cost of an average family shop is 90 per cent higher than it was six months ago, according to the UN. “We are used to this stuff now,” said Amr, 50, who works in an office and typically spends two hours a day waiting for government-subsidised bread, four times cheaper than in a normal supermarket. The plunge in the currency means his salary now equates to $40 a month, just 10 per cent of what it was worth before the pound collapsed.

“Definitely many things we deleted from our diet,” said Amr, who has four children and cares for his elderly parents. “If you want to buy chicken now, it’s 10 times what it used to cost.”

Like many Syrians, he is deeply disillusioned by corruption and has little faith that officials can solve the problems. “I don’t have any hope in things changing,” said Amr, “except in God.”

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