A crippling fuel shortage piles extreme hardship on war-weary Syrians

Special A crippling fuel shortage piles extreme hardship on war-weary Syrians
A young Syrian worker sells heaters as winter approaches in Raqqa, scene of some of the worst fighting of the conflict. (AFP)
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Updated 25 December 2022

A crippling fuel shortage piles extreme hardship on war-weary Syrians

A crippling fuel shortage piles extreme hardship on war-weary Syrians
  • Latest crisis, which began to bite in early December, has paralyzed life in regime-controlled areas 
  • Experts say sanctions have impoverished the population while failing to bring Syria closer to peace

LONDON: “Syria is dead, desperate for someone to pull the plug.” This is how Nour, a 26-year-old nutritionist from Homs, summed up the situation in her home country, more than a decade on from the outbreak of a civil war and amid a worsening economic crisis.

A shortage of fuel, which began to bite harder with the onset of winter, has paralyzed life in regime-controlled areas of Syria, including the capital Damascus, forcing authorities to suspend or reduce many essential public services.

On Dec. 5, the government almost doubled the price of fuel overnight. Daily power outages now last up to 22 hours on average, even in the capital’s upmarket neighborhoods. Many residents cannot afford to heat their homes as winter temperatures plunge.

Syrians queue to fill their tanks amid a fuel crisis that has sent living standards plummeting. (AFP)

Although the fighting between the government and rebel factions has subsided in recent years, Syria remains the site of one of the world’s biggest humanitarian crises, with millions of civilians still displaced, infrastructure in ruins, and much of the population living below the poverty line.

Syria’s isolation has deepened with the imposition in 2020 of the toughest US sanctions ever targeting the regime of President Bashar Assad.

“The current fuel crisis in government-controlled areas is not a novel aspect of the conflict economy in Syria,” Mohammad Al-Asadi, a Germany-based research economist at the Syrian Center for Policy Research, told Arab News.

The SCPR has tracked several major fuel shortages since 2020, but, according to Al-Asadi, “the current shortage is the most economically and socially impactful during the last couple of years.”

Syria’s Ministry of Internal Trade recently announced plans to sell industrial and commercial diesel at 5,400 Syrian pounds a liter — up from 2,500 Syrian pounds in late November — while petrol will be sold at 4,900 Syrian pounds a liter.

The price of fuel distributed through the state-owned Syrian Petroleum Company will remain at 2,500 Syrian pounds per liter.

The pent-up demand for fuel has had an adverse impact on the value of the Syrian pound, which hit a new record low on Dec. 10.

The dollar exchange rate on the black market surpassed 6,000 Syrian pounds for the first time, while the central bank’s rate stood at 3,015 Syrian pounds. In 2011, when the civil war began, the official rate was 47 Syrian pounds.

Reports say diesel and petrol shortages have resulted in severe overcrowding at bus terminals in both Damascus and outlying areas, as the government cut fuel allocations for minibus services — the cheapest mode of transport available to Syrians.

The situation is similar in Homs, geographically the largest governorate of Syria.

“After 1pm, minibuses stop operating, and we take any vehicle we find on the road to commute home,” said Nour. “Passengers sometimes get into fist fights over seats on minibuses and shared taxis.”

Khaled, a 21-year-old accounting student who gave only his first name, earns about 50,000 Syrian pounds a month from waitering. A shared-taxi trip from Zabadani, Rif Dimashq, to the Mezzeh highway in Damascus — a distance of just 48 km — cost him 6,800 Syrian pounds earlier this month.

By contrast, Khaled told Arab News: “I paid 3,300 for the same journey in mid-November.”

In practical terms, high inflation has meant a cost-of-living crisis, with prices of goods increasing across the board but real wages remaining stagnant.

“A computer programmer can make about 800,000 pounds a month in the private sector, but this is barely enough for rent, basic goods and transport costs,” a Damascus-based journalist, who asked not to be identified, told Arab News.

In December 2021, the minimum state salary was around 93,000 Syrian pounds, according to Shaam Times, a government-affiliated news website.

SCPR researcher Al-Asadi expects the national fuel shortage “to last as long as the multi-level fragmentation in the country lasts” — a state of affairs he says authorities are unlikely to address.

A Syrian man fills a container as he sells diesel beside a road amid a fuel crisis in northeastern Syria. (AFP)

“None of the local political powers in Syria has made real efforts to overcome deep socioeconomic challenges facing the country, including energy and fuel shortages,” he told Arab News.

“After 12 years of conflict, most efforts are still dedicated to directing the remaining financial, physical, and human resources to serve activities related to the war economy at the expense of restoring the normal economic cycle based on production.

“Hence, investments in alternative energy solutions have received little interest during the last decade.”

Oil revenues accounted for between 5 and 7 percent of Syria’s gross domestic product prior to the civil war. Total reserves are estimated at 2.5 billion barrels, with at least 75 percent of these reserves in the fields surrounding Deir ez-Zor, outside the regime’s sphere of control.  

The Assad regime has repeatedly accused US forces deployed in the Kurdish-majority northeast of the country of “looting” Syrian oil, thereby contributing to the fuel shortage.

On Dec. 1, the Syrian state news agency SANA claimed that a convoy of 54 tankers, “loaded with plundered oil,” was spotted in Al-Yaarubiyah, in Hasakah province, traveling through the Al-Mahmudiyah border crossing into Iraq.

Northeast Syria has been largely self ruled since regime forces withdrew from the area in 2011 to fend off the uprising elsewhere in the country. 

In the summer of 2014, Daesh militants exploited this power vacuum, seizing control of several major towns, including Raqqa, and many of the region’s lucrative oilfields.

“Without an inclusive political arrangement, conclusive solutions for such shortages remain far away,” said Mohammad Al-Asadi, Research economist at the Syrian Center for Policy Research. (Supplied)

A coalition of Arab and Kurdish militias, later dubbed the Syrian Democratic Forces, soon dislodged the extremist group with US military support, taking charge of the oilfields.

The Autonomous Administration of North East Syria (AANES), which assumed control of these territories, began selling this oil to neighboring countries and to the Assad regime.

In 2019, President Donald Trump announced he was withdrawing US forces from northeast Syria but leaving a small contingent to secure the oil. 

In the same month, it was announced that US troops would be deployed to Deir ez-Zor to help the SDF retain control of oil fields from Daesh.

Often unable to secure enough fuel supply from its Iranian allies, the Assad government has pressured the AANES to provide more fuel to regime-held areas by withholding essential supplies like food, medicine, and building materials. 

In a 2021 report, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said that while the US administration has denied looting Syrian oil, it has implemented a “morally and legally dubious plan,” which involved supporting its Kurdish allies by keeping the oil “out of the hands of the Assad regime” and “helping to refine and sell it.”

The general consensus of Syria analysts is that the modest US involvement is not the primary cause of the current fuel crisis.

“Although sanctions and oil looting from the oil-rich eastern areas to the neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan region contribute to deepening the fuel crisis in the country, these are not the most important factors,” Al-Asadi told Arab News.

“The key drivers for the renewed fuel crisis — and all similar socioeconomic challenges — cannot be disconnected from the nature of the political economy that has prevailed in the country during the last decade, particularly aspects related to political fragmentation, subordination to foreign political actors, and dominating major resources and investment opportunities by allies.”

To make matters worse, aid workers say the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February this year pushed the humanitarian crisis in Syria to the back burner.

After spending about two weeks in Syria in November, Alena Douhan, the UN special rapporteur on human rights, claimed that the current US, EU and UK sanctions “may amount to crimes against humanity.”

A Syrian man sells fuel at a makeshift roadside stall outside Raqqa. (AFP)

Douhan called for the immediate lifting of the sanctions as they “harm human rights and prevent any efforts for early recovery.”

Even some critics of the Assad regime say economic sanctions have done little to bring Syria’s warring parties closer to a political solution, all the while further impoverishing the population.

“The Assad regime is not going anywhere, so many observers increasingly question the utility of sanctions that harm not only the regime, but the Syrian people as well,” David Romano, professor of Middle East politics at Missouri State University, told Arab News.

“While there are provisions for things like export waivers for items of humanitarian importance for the Syrian people, in practice, the American and European sanctions on Syria have seriously harmed an already crippled economy — country wide,” he said.

On Dec. 5, residents of Suwayda in Syria’s southwest took to the streets to protest against falling standards of living. The demonstration quickly escalated into clashes with local security forces, leaving two people dead and eight injured.

“Ordinary people’s suffering is expected to increase,” said Al-Asadi. “(Particularly) workers relying primarily on transportation to secure their livelihoods, such as farmers, taxi and microbus drivers, and workers in the delivery sector.”

Owing to rising transportation costs for many commonly traded goods and services, he expects the current fuel shortages “to last until mid-January 2023 at least,” inflationary pressures to increase, and many businesses “to face major interruptions. Although some oil tankers are expected to reach Syria during the coming few weeks, the amounts supplied may not be sufficient to overcome the crisis.”

Instead of finding solutions to the fuel crisis, the government is shifting “the burden of the conflict to households,” Al-Asadi told Arab News, adding that “without an inclusive political arrangement, conclusive solutions for such shortages remain far away.”

Sudan army chief warns UN that war could spill over in region, seeks action against RSF backers

Sudan army chief warns UN that war could spill over in region, seeks action against RSF backers
Updated 22 September 2023

Sudan army chief warns UN that war could spill over in region, seeks action against RSF backers

Sudan army chief warns UN that war could spill over in region, seeks action against RSF backers
  • Army chief Burhan asks UN to take action against RSF’s backers
  • RSF leader says ready for cease-fire and comprehensive talks
  • War has killed over 7,500 people, displaced more than 5 million

UNITED NATIONS: The heads of Sudan’s rival military factions gave competing addresses to the United Nations on Thursday, one from the podium at UN headquarters in New York and the other in a rare video recording from an undisclosed location.

Army leader Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, speaking at the United Nations, called on the international community to designate the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) as a terrorist organization and to counter its sponsors outside Sudan’s borders, warning that months of war could spill over in the region.

RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, said in a video message that his forces were fully prepared for a cease-fire and comprehensive political talks to end the conflict.

Most of Hemedti’s recent communications have been audio messages, and his whereabouts have been a source of speculation.

In the video released on Thursday shortly before Burhan spoke, Hemedti appeared in military uniform, seated behind a desk with a Sudanese national flag behind him as he read out his speech. His location was not clear.

“Today we renew our commitment to the peaceful process to put a halt to this war,” Hemedti said. “The RSF are fully prepared for a cease-fire throughout Sudan to allow the passage of humanitarian aid ... and to start serious and comprehensive political talks.”



Both sides blamed the other for starting the war that erupted in mid-April in Khartoum and has spread to other parts of the country including the western region of Darfur, displacing more than 5 million people and threatening to destabilize the region.

Saudi Arabia and the United States have tried to secure a lasting cease-fire in Sudan but the process stalled amid parallel international initiatives in Africa and the Middle East.

Tentacles of Wagner group

Burhan, the de facto ruler of Sudan since a 2021 coup, alluded to the rival RSF'S ties with Wagner, the Russian mercenary group hit by Western sanctions over alleged abuses in Africa.
“The danger of this war is now a threat to regional and international peace and security as those rebels have sought the support of outlaws and terrorist groups from different countries in the region and the world,” Burhan said.
“This is like the spark of war, a war that will spill over to other countries in the region,” he said.
“Regional and international interference to support these groups is crystal clear by now. This means that this is the first spark that will burn the region, and will have a direct impact on regional and international peace and security.”
War broke out on April 15 after the collapse of a plan to integrate the army and the RSF.
The fighting in Sudan has killed at least 7,500 people, according to the NGO Acled, and displaced some five million people, dealing a new, devastating blow to efforts to bring democracy to Sudan.
Burhan has increasingly been traveling around the world in what are seen as efforts to burnish his legitimacy.
At the United Nations, he urged world powers to designate the Rapid Support Forces, or RSF, as a terrorist group.
“They have committed all sorts of crimes that give grounds for such a designation,” he said.
“Those who have supported killing, burning, raping, forced displacement, looting, stealing, torture, trafficking of arms and drugs, bringing mercenaries or recruiting children — all such crimes necessitate accountability and punishment,” he said.
The United States earlier this month imposed sanctions on RSF leaders including senior commander Abdelrahim Hamdan Daglo, the brother of the group’s leader, over alleged abuses including the killing of the governor of West Darfur.
But the United States and other Western powers have also been strongly critical of Burhan.
Alongside RSF leader Daglo, Burhan in 2021 sidelined the civilian leadership that had been part of a transitional power-sharing deal following mass protests that brought down longtime dictator Omar Al-Bashir.
“We are still committed to our previous pledges to transfer power to the people of Sudan with great national consensus and consent,” he said.
“The armed forces would leave politics for once and for all.”


Syria’s Assad steps out of diplomatic freeze with high-level China trip

Syria’s Assad steps out of diplomatic freeze with high-level China trip
Updated 22 September 2023

Syria’s Assad steps out of diplomatic freeze with high-level China trip

Syria’s Assad steps out of diplomatic freeze with high-level China trip
  • Talks with Xi Jinping to focus on Syrian reconstruction
  • He will also attend opening ceremony of Asian Games

JEDDAH: Syrian President Bashar Assad on Thursday began his first visit to China since 2004 and his latest attempt to end more than a decade of diplomatic isolation under Western sanctions.

Assad arrived in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou aboard an Air China plane in heavy fog, which Chinese state media said “added to the atmosphere of mystery.” Assad last visited China in 2004 to meet then-President Hu Jintao. It was the first visit by a Syrian head of state to China since the countries established diplomatic ties in 1956.

China — like Syria’s main allies Russia and Iran — maintained those ties even as other countries isolated Assad over his brutal crackdown of anti-government demonstrations that erupted in 2011, leading to a civil war that has killed more than half a million people, displaced millions more, and battered Syria’s infrastructure and industry.

Assad will attend Saturday’s Asian Games opening ceremony before leading a delegation in meetings in several Chinese cities. 

He meets President Xi Jinping on Friday.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing on June 23, 2004. He was the first Syrian head of state to visit China since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1956. (AFP Photo/File)

Being seen with China’s president at a regional gathering adds further legitimacy to Assad’s campaign to return to the world stage. 

Syria joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative in 2022 and was welcomed back into the Arab League in May.

Faced with a crippled economy and little to show so far from his efforts to rebuild ties with Arab states, Assad is keen for financial support. 

But any Chinese or other investment in Syria risks entangling an investor in US sanctions under the 2020 Caesar Act that can freeze assets of anyone dealing with Syria.

“In his third term, Xi Jinping is seeking to openly challenge the US, so I don’t think it’s a surprise that he is willing to … host a leader like Assad,” said Alfred Wu, an associate professor at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. 

“It will further marginalize China in the world, but he doesn’t care about that.”

The visit comes as China expands its engagement in the Middle East. 

This year Beijing brokered a deal restoring ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran. 

That detente was followed by Syria’s return to the Arab fold at a summit in Saudi Arabia in May, ending more than a decade of regional isolation.

Analysts expect Assad’s visit to China will focus, in part, on funds for reconstruction. 

“Assad intends for his trip to China to convey a sense of international legitimacy for his regime and paint a picture of looming Chinese support for reconstruction in Syria,” said Lina Khatib, director of the Middle East Institute at SOAS university in London.

Syria signed up to China’s vast Belt and Road trade and infrastructure initiative in January 2022.

Assad’s meeting with Xi “is expected to revolve around convincing China to aid Syria’s economic recovery,” said Haid Haid, of the Chatham House think tank in London. 

China pledged $2 billion in investments in Syria in 2017, but Haid said the funds had “yet to materialize.”

(With Agencies)

Mideast peace only possible when Palestinians get full rights: Abbas

Mideast peace only possible when Palestinians get full rights: Abbas
Updated 21 September 2023

Mideast peace only possible when Palestinians get full rights: Abbas

Mideast peace only possible when Palestinians get full rights: Abbas
  • President urges states that have not yet recognized state of Palestine to do so immediately
  • Calls for peace conference that ‘may be last opportunity to salvage two-state solution’

LONDON: Those who think peace can prevail in the Middle East without the Palestinian people enjoying their full rights are mistaken, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said on Thursday.
Addressing the UN General Assembly, he said Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory “violates the principles of international law and legitimacy while it races against time to change the historical, geographical and demographic reality on the ground, aimed at perpetuating the occupation and entrenching apartheid.”
Abbas said his country remains hopeful that the UN will be “able to implement its resolution demanding an end to the Israeli occupation of our territory and realizing the independence of the fully sovereign state of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital, on the borders of June 4, 1967.”
He added that Israel continues to attack his people, and its “army and its racist, terrorist settlers continue to intimidate and kill our people, to destroy homes and property to just steal our money and resources.”
Abbas said Israel “continues to assault our Islamic and Christian sacred sites … especially the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque, which international legitimacy has recognized as an exclusive place of worship for Muslims alone.”
He added that Israel is digging tunnels under and around the mosque, threatening its full or partial collapse, “which would lead to an explosion with untold consequences.”
He urged the international community to assume its responsibilities in preserving the historic and legal status of Jerusalem and its holy sites.
He also requested an international peace conference in which all countries concerned with achieving peace in the Middle East would participate.
“I ask your esteemed organization and Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to call for and undertake the necessary arrangements to convene this peace conference, which may be the last opportunity to salvage the two-state solution and to prevent the situation from deteriorating more seriously, and threatening the security and stability of our region and the entire world,” Abbas said.
He also urged states that have not yet recognized the state of Palestine to do so immediately. “I call for the state of Palestine to be admitted to full membership in the United Nations,” he said.
“There are two states that the entire world is talking about: Israel and Palestine. But only Israel is recognized. Why not Palestine?
“I can neither understand nor accept that some states …are reluctant to recognize the state of Palestine, which the UN has accepted as an observer state.
“These same states confirm every day that they support the two-state solution. But they recognize only one of these states, namely Israel. Why?”

Morocco sets aside nearly $12 bn for quake recovery

Morocco sets aside nearly $12 bn for quake recovery
Updated 21 September 2023

Morocco sets aside nearly $12 bn for quake recovery

Morocco sets aside nearly $12 bn for quake recovery
  • Fund to be used for reconstruction in places affected by the September 8 earthquake

RABAT: Quake-hit Morocco’s government announced on Wednesday a budget of more than $11 billion for reconstruction, rehousing and socio-economic development of areas hit by the deadly disaster.
The 6.8-magnitude earthquake hit Al-Haouz province south of Marrakech on September 8, killing nearly 3,000 people and injuring thousands more.
The government said in a statement it was setting aside 120 billion dirhams ($11.7 billion) to help 4.2 million inhabitants affected by the quake over a period of five years.
The funds would be used to “rehouse affected people, reconstruct homes and restore infrastructure,” said the statement published at the end of a meeting chaired by King Mohammed VI.
The earthquake razed thousands of homes in central Morocco, including the High Atlas mountain range, forcing families to sleep out in the open with winter around the corner.



Kuwait affirms countries’ right to maintain independence, territorial sanctity

Kuwait affirms countries’ right to maintain independence, territorial sanctity
Updated 21 September 2023

Kuwait affirms countries’ right to maintain independence, territorial sanctity

Kuwait affirms countries’ right to maintain independence, territorial sanctity
  • Kuwait’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sheikh Jarrah Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah emphasizes nonintervention in states’ internal affairs and the need for conflicts to be resolved peacefully
  • Al-Sabah delivers address on safeguarding global peace at UN Security Council session on margins of 78th UN General Assembly

NEW YORK: Kuwait’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sheikh Jarrah Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah affirmed countries’ right to maintain sovereignty, independence and territorial sanctity in a speech during a UN Security Council session.
Addressing a session on safeguarding global peace on the margins of the 78th UN General Assembly, Al-Sabah emphasized nonintervention in states’ internal affairs, resolving conflicts peacefully and abstaining from the use of force, as well as people’s right to self-determination, and encouraging respect for human rights.
Kuwait News Agency reported on Thursday that the deputy foreign minister underlined the significance of the UN charter’s goals and principles, especially the “role in defending small countries.”
Al-Sabah said that due to a range of issues, the global order is facing its toughest test since the UN’s establishment in 1945.
“The international community has no choice other than uniting to face regional and international challenges.
“Kuwait renews its rejection of using force or resorting to threats in the relations among states,” KUNA reported Al-Sabah as saying.
Al-Sabah called for Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty to be respected.
“We call on the parties (of the Ukrainian conflict) to abide by the rule of the international law and the humanitarian law in respect of protecting civilians, facilitating safe and rapid delivery of humanitarian aid to those in need,” he told the UN session.
Al-Sabah also called for the Black Sea grain deal to be renewed.