01 November 2018, Syria, Ma'arat al-Na'asan: Syrians fill up barrels with fuel at a primitive oil facility, where petrol for cars and heating fuel are being extracted from crude oil purchased from wells controlled by the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces. Photo: Anas Alkharboutli/dpa

Long queues are obstructing traffic in the city of Damascus, as the Syrian government begins to ration gasoline for the first time in the country’s history.

The government has introduced a new “Smart Card”, fixing consumption at 450 liters of gasoline per month for every automobile, no matter the size. As of this month, only smart card holders will be able to fill up their cars at the current price of gasoline, which is 4,500 Syrian pounds per tank ($9 USD). Although this rate is subsidized by the state, it marks a 1,000% increase from the pre-2011 cost, when gasoline tanks could be filled for just 500 Syrian pounds.

Before the war, 500 Syrian pounds was equivalent to $10, so the price of a tank in terms of foreign currency has scarcely changed. However, the population still make their living in Syrian pounds, not US dollars. What once was an affordable cost is now out of the reach of many. Moreover, gasoline was always available in a country that produced 385,000 barrels of oil per day.

Those who do not obtain a Smart Card (which is free) or fail to renew it periodically will have to purchase gas at a so-called “free rate” that is yet to be set by Syrian authorities but is expected to be double the current price.

Gas station gunplay

The Smart Card has triggered ridicule and spite among Syrians who feel that the state is only complicating their lives and adding insult to injury with its ill management of economic affairs.

But people are nonetheless working to get hold of them.

“My neighbor waited for 6-hours to get her card” said Ibtissam, a resident of the West Mezzeh district of Damascus, where one of the new smart card offices is located. “I paid one of the local janitors 10,000 Syrian pounds ($20) to stand in line on my behalf. I have work and cannot afford such a wait; I am already spending long hours at the gas station.”

Syrian actors responded with a short comedy in mid-February, currently going viral on social media networks, depicting characters with smart cards for tomatoes, coffee, and even for hookahs (water pipes). The sketch wrapped up with a scene showing a patient at a hospital in Damascus, denied medical assistance because he did not have a “smart card for oxygen.”

The smart card is only the latest attempt by the Syrian authorities to combat gasoline shortages resulting from losses of territory, mismanagement, and international sanctions. Syria was slapped with European Union sanctions eight years ago, and in November of last year, felt the impact of US sanctions on Iran, its sole wartime supplier of gasoline.

In early 2017, Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis tried to counter the crisis by forcing the public sector to reduce its consumption of gasoline by 50%. Exceptions were given only to ambulances and vehicles operated by the Ministry of Defense.

Back then, gas station entry was regulated, with special days for odd numbered license plates, and others for even numbers. That did not work, due to the high number of people who refused to go away—regardless of their license plates—threatening gas station attendants with guns. The same scene is re-emerging today, as soldiers try to regulate gas stations, authorized to arrest attendants who fill up cars whose owners do not have a no smart card.

Security raises demand

The petroleum industry was once the pride and joy of the Syrian economy, and Syrians never experienced a chronic gas crisis. In 2010, oil sales generated $3.2 billion for the Syrian government, accounting to 25% of state revenue.

Over the course of the war that broke out in 2011, various armed factions seized control of key oil installations in the eastern provinces. The Islamic State group (ISIS) seized control of much of the country’s oil fields and used oil revenues to prop up its rule. But as the extremist group was forced to retreat, its militants burned oil fields in their wake, while others were bombed by US-led air strikes. By 2016, production had fallen to less than 0.05% of earlier levels. While the physical rule of ISIS is now down to a limited pocket of territory, it will take years to repair damaged installations. Production is currently at an all-time low of 14,000 barrels per day, which does not even meet domestic needs.

In addition, the vast majority of oil wells are currently under the control of Kurdish-led forces, including the largest, the al-Omar field which has a capacity of 80,000 barrels per day. The Kurds also control the second-largest, al-Tanak, which is capable of producing 40,000 barrels per day. Smaller, nearby fields are held by the Syrian military.

During the first six years of the conflict, Syrians did not feel the brunt of gasoline supplies being down, as travel had ground almost to a standstill. Entire swathes of land had been seized by the armed opposition and were thus avoided. Travel in government-controlled areas was minimal, as highways were unsafe or out-of-service. In the capital, few people went out after sunset, fearing lawlessness on the streets and mortars from the countryside around Damascus.

From 2013 to 2018, the government provided gasoline to four cities only, creating sufficiency despite the shortage, but by mid-2018, the area under state control had almost doubled, as entire cities and towns were re-taken by the army. Those areas included the sprawling eastern suburbs of Damascus, Daraa in the south, Palmyra in the isolated desert interior, and Deir ez-Zour on the Euphrates River near the border with Iraq.

Syrians who remain in the country are now relying on the government to ensure gasoline is supplied to all of these areas at affordable, subsidized prices. This is coupled with the additional demand for electricity and water, as well as salaries for police stations, hospitals, and schools.

Gasoline purchases and subsidies now cost the state 4 billion Syrian pounds (US$8 million) per day, according to government figures, the lion’s share of which goes to Damascus, which consumes 1 million liters per day.

In mid-2018, new challenges emerged after the Russian government, a key ally of Damascus, announced an ambitious project to bring home 2.8 million Syrian refugees from neighboring countries, peddling a line that the war in Syria was coming to a close and that it was time for them to return and join the reconstruction process.

Most of these refugees hail from parts of the country that have been partially or fully destroyed. They will only come back if basic services are restored.

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