The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘No life’ in Syrian cities as fuel crisis plunges country into darkness

Syrians queue up to fills their tanks outside a gas station in Syria's Idlib province on Dec. 15. (Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images)

BEIRUT — In Syria’s third-largest city, it takes Mohammed’s family a week to do a load of laundry.

“There’s no specific time for the electricity to come,” said Mohammed, speaking by phone from Homs, in the west of the country. “Sometimes it comes for an hour, sometimes it comes for two hours, sometimes it comes for 10 minutes. Sometimes it doesn’t come, at all, all day.”

Mohammed’s mother washes most clothes by hand, leaving those that need heavy-duty washing in the machine, which whirs back to life whenever the power returns.

Already battered by years of war and deprivation, Syrians are now suffering through a crippling fuel crisis. Extended electricity cuts have sunk most of the country into a near-constant blackout. In the capital, Damascus, some neighborhoods receive as little as 15 minutes of power every 24 hours; in more central areas, closer to the presidential palace, the lights stay on for longer. With gasoline also in short supply, main thoroughfares are often devoid of traffic, and the Syrian-Lebanese border has become a thriving black market for fuel.

A time lapse of satellite imagery from July 2017 to July 2022 shows waning electricity usage in and around Damascus as Syrians face a crippling fuel crisis. (Video: NASA)

In Homs — and across the country — life has come to a virtual standstill. “It’s a city of ghosts,” Mohammed said, speaking on the condition that only his first name be used, fearing government reprisal for speaking to foreign media.

Most Syrians rely on generators for electricity, but those also require fuel. Families who can afford them have turned to large, expensive batteries that are hooked up to solar panels. Many aren’t so lucky.

“People are burning slippers, nylon, plastic bottles for heat. It makes me want to cry,” Mohammed said. “You can see people on the street, gathering plastic from garbage bags, even the garbage bags themselves, and burning them.”

In recent years, during colder months, children have died of asphyxiation after their parents burned plastic and fabrics to stay warm. So far, this winter has at least been mild.

Mohammed’s family has a battery, but it’s only strong enough for LED lights. He charges his phone on a power bank, which he recharges at the house of a relative who saved up for a couple of solar panels. When he went to visit a doctor, she charged him double — once for the checkup, and again for turning on the generator.

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To keep the bulky batteries running, the men of the family carry them downstairs and connect them to the car to charge.

“Most people are using [the car] this way,” said Mohammed, joking that the vehicle itself has barely moved because of another related shortage: gas.

In late November, Syrian Oil Minister Bassam Tohme blamed the crisis on delayed shipments from “friends,” a reference to Iran, which has been supplying President Bashar al-Assad’s government with oil since 2013. That month, Iran was set to increase its oil exports to Syria from 2 million to 3 million barrels a month, Syrian newspaper al-Watan reported.

“What was being imported was according to need only,” Tohme told state TV, saying the cash-strapped country now imports 90 percent of its fuel.

During the course of a 12-year civil war, Damascus lost most of its oil-rich northeast — including the country’s largest oil field, al-Omar — to Islamic State militants, and then to Kurdish armed groups backed by the United States.

Its dependence on Iran for oil, bought on credit that few others will extend to a country still under Western sanctions, puts Syria at the mercy of forces beyond its control. Tohme pointed to an incident last April, when Greece detained an Iranian-flagged ship and part of its oil cargo was temporarily confiscated by the United States.

Syrians are looking to neighboring Lebanon, where gas may be expensive but is at least readily available. The strip of land that connects the two countries has become an informal marketplace where dusty plastic bottles filled with the fluorescent greenish-yellow liquid are freely bought and sold.

This black-market fuel “has provided relief to people,” said one Syrian driver who ferries people between the two countries. He described cars bearing Lebanese license plates lined up along the side of the road in this no man’s land; drivers openly siphon the gas from their tanks and sell it to those driving into Syria.

“If you cross the Syrian [border] the price changes, and your profit becomes better,” he said.

The driver, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the illicit dealings, said Lebanese customs officers, long known not to accept bribes, now make money off the trade.

Syrian taxi drivers, who still receive subsidized gas, have taken to hawking it on street corners. Shops secretly hoard containers and sell them to those who know to ask — like an exclusive off-menu item.

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On Facebook, Syrians’ preferred social media site, groups dedicated to finding open gas stations are now crowded with offers to sell gas in old sunflower oil containers and water gallons. Lebanese gas fetches slightly more than Syrian fuel. Sellers post the grade and price, along with their location — delivery is naturally not offered.

In a sign of palpable public anger, pro-government outlets are increasingly carrying news of the crisis. “Total paralysis due to lack of fuel … no life in the streets of Syrian capital,” read one headline this month. The report from Al Mayadeen, a Lebanese channel that covers Syria extensively, said microbus stops in Damascus were overcrowded as people rushed to take the only affordable method of transportation. “Damascus seemed almost bereft of cars even at peak [rush] hours during the day,” the report said.

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The government has been forced to acknowledge the fuel shortages and implement a series of stopgap measures. The country’s General Sports Federation has indefinitely postponed all soccer and basketball matches. Last month, public servants were given two additional days off per week. In October, officials announced they would make daylight saving time permanent in an effort to conserve power, leading Syrians to ridicule them on social media.

“They couldn’t provide petrol and gasoline for winter, so they decided to go and cancel all of winter,” one Hama resident commented. “So tomorrow we’ll be cold for an extra hour,” another wrote.

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