Syrians Struggle With Shortages As Economy Buckles

BEIRUT (AP) -

Grappling with severe fuel shortages and winter temperatures that drop below freezing, Syrians are spending hours in line every day for gasoline or a few loaves of bread at soaring prices as President Bashar Assad’s regime faces mounting difficulties in providing basic services to its people.

Syria’s economy is buckling under the twin strains of violence and sanctions that have sapped the government’s finances, devastated the nation’s cities and left its industry and infrastructure in ruins. A power outage on Monday plunged Damascus and large swathes of the country’s south into darkness, providing a stark reminder of how serious the regime’s challenges are to keep the economy moving — and its people fed and warm.

With the fighting settling into a bloody stalemate that looks likely to grind on for months, if not longer, the government’s inability to provide basic services is likely to fuel frustration and anger with Assad, even from supporters who are deeply distrustful of the rebels fighting to topple him.

Monday’s electricity blackout, which affected upscale areas in the heart of Damascus where rationing is normally less severe, was the latest in a series of infrastructural failures that the regime has blamed on the rebels. Late last year, the internet and most telephone lines were cut for days as the regime and rebels traded blame. And over the year, the country’s oil and gas pipelines, power stations and water pipes have all been attacked.

While Damascus’s 2.5 million residents have grown used to frequent power cuts, this week’s outage was the first to darken the entire capital since the conflict began in March 2011.

The winter months have brought misery and suffering to new levels, as the scarcity of food and fuel have meant people queuing for hours in cold weather for the most basic essentials, and others freezing inside their homes. In the countryside, people have resorted to chopping down trees and burning furniture to make fires to keep warm.

U.S. and European Union bans on oil imports, which went into effect last year, are estimated to be costing Syria about $400 million a month.

Before the uprising, the oil sector was a pillar of Syria’s economy, with exports — mostly to Europe — bringing in $7 million to $8 million per day.

This income was a key to maintaining the $17 billion in foreign currency reserves that the government had accumulated from a brief oil boom in the 1990s and maintained until last year.