Nearly one year after the guns went silent in the suburbs of Ghouta surrounding the Syrian capital, basic services are lagging far behind their wartime performance and people are spending the winter in darkness and cold.

Prolonged electricity cuts are back and people complain that cooking gas, heating fuel and powdered milk for infants has vanished from the Syrian market.

The most severe problem for Syrians is the power shortages. Part of it is due to the exceptionally harsh winter, where demand is high for electric heaters, but it also due to a system stretched by the government’s physical comeback to entire villages and towns previously held by the armed opposition.

One year ago, electricity was abundant in Damascus, with streets lit through the night. That was only because authorities did not have to provide for places like Eastern Ghouta or the southern provincial capital of Daraa, both re-taken in mid-2018.

With the return of authority to liberated territories came an automatic need to provide their remaining residents, or those who were being ushered back in by the Russians, with basic services like electricity, heating fuel, water and cooking gas – all at subsidized prices from the government.

Even as the geography requiring services widened, technical and financial abilities remained the same.

Back to the ‘stone age’

Power rationing is back in Damascus, where residents receive electricity in rotating cycles: four hours of electricity, followed by a two-hour blackout. The cuts have forced families to return to giant generators, LED lights and candles.

This represents a major setback for Syrian and Arab investors, who have been encouraged to put money in Syria with assurances that the electricity problem – as they were told – was history. 

In Ghouta, for example, the rationing is more severe – three to four hours in a row, followed by two hours of light.

“Even in the most difficult of times, I refused to leave Damascus. I am now seriously thinking of applying for a visa to any country that will receive me. Eight years of my life is enough. I don’t want to continue living in the stone age!”

 

— Marwa, employee

Marwa Mustapha, who works at a toy store in the commercial district of Shaalan, said the cuts were making it difficult for small businesses to operate from day-to-day. 

“I live in Shaalan, which ought to be well-serviced,” but instead, “major power cuts are back, and they differ from one day to another.

“One day, we have power at 10 am. The next, we don’t get electricity until noon. Sometimes it goes off at 7 pm. Others, it is there until 10 pm. It’s just horrible,” she told Asia Times.

The degradation of services, the woman said, has pushed her to consider leaving after surviving through the war.

“I lived through this war with a brave face. Even in the most difficult of times, I refused to leave Damascus. I am now seriously thinking of applying for a visa to any country that will receive me. Eight years of my life is enough. I don’t want to continue living in the stone age!”

Gas lines

In addition to the lack of electricity, residents of Damascus complain they are unable to refill the natural gas cylinders they use for cooking. The gas is produced both domestically and imported from Iran, but due to the weather conditions, imports from Iran have been slow. In their absence, local factories have been unable to meet market needs.

The limited number cranked out by the public sector is being hoarded by war profiteers, who are selling a gas cylinder for 7,000-8,000 Syrian pounds ($14-16), although its fixed price is officially 2,650 SP ($5.30).

The result is long queues at distribution points throughout the capital, run by men with guns.

“We are fed up,” grumbled Fadel Tenawi, a resident of Souq Saruja, an ancient neighborhood located outside the Old City. “Just look at this line,” he said to Asia Times, pointing to a long line of men waiting to fill their gas cylinders. “I have been waiting since 7:30 am. It’s almost 3:00 pm. They just told me to come back tomorrow!

“I feel insulted like no time since the war started. Back then, everything was blamed on the ongoing battles. Now what excuse do they have for doing this to us?”

“I feel insulted like no time since the war started. Back then, everything was blamed on the ongoing battles. Now what excuse do they have for doing this to us?”

 

—Fadel, resident

 

When asked if he used a hotline created by the government to collect complaints about black market prices, he laughed: “I tried to call the number, and I got no answer!”   

Heating fuel has also been in short supply since mid-December, selling on the black market for 350 SP/liter. Its fixed price is 182 SP.

Smuggling from Lebanon

Even powdered milk for infants, an Iranian-made and Syrian subsidized Nestle formula known as Nan-1 and Nan-2, is absent from the shelves. Due to renewed US sanctions on Iran, regular supply has dropped and no alternative is produced by Syrian factories.

For substitutes, Damascus pharmacies have been importing smuggled milk from Lebanon selling for approximately $30 per box. That is a hefty price for a population where the average wage remains $100 per month and where families are known to have a minimum of 2-3 children.

The original product used to sell for 2,800 SP/box ($5.4), but it is nowhere to be found. “I have been to 12 pharmacies since the morning,” said Umm Mustapha, a housewife and the mother of four.

“Even the Lebanese milk is now finished. They are offering to sell me a Swiss-made product. God only knows what kind of storage it’s been in, and for how long,” she told Asia Times. 

Infants below the age of one cannot consume cow’s milk, she said, and are now deprived of powdered milk as well.

Asia Times spoke to a number of taxi drivers on the Damascus-Beirut Highway, who all confirmed that for the past two weeks, they have been buying powdered milk from Lebanese pharmacies, in very large quantities, and smuggling it to Damascus.

“Today, even Lebanese pharmacies are empty,” one driver said over the weekend. “We bought out their entire reserve.”