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Syria, dubbed the “Republic of Queues,” is still a hungry country ten years later.

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Syria, dubbed the "Republic of Queues," is still a hungry country ten years later.
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Syria, dubbed the "Republic of Queues," is still a hungry country ten years later.

Syria, dubbed the “Republic of Queues,” is still a hungry country ten years later.

 

Outside gas stations in Syrian cities, queues stretch for miles, with an average wait of five hours to fill a tank. People push and shove in bakeries during long, crowded lines to collect their daily quota of two bread packs per family.

Beggars approach motorists and passers-by on the streets of Damascus, begging for food or money. Medicines, infant milk, and diapers are also in short supply.

President Bashar Assad may still be in power, propped up by Russia and Iran, as Syria marks the tenth anniversary of the start of its uprising-turned-civil war on Monday. However, millions of people are being pulled further into poverty, and the majority of families are struggling to make ends meet.

Some have questioned whether Assad will withstand the sharp economic deterioration and frustration in areas under his influence as he prepares to run for a fourth seven-year presidential term in the spring. Poverty levels are now higher than they have been at any time during the 10-year war.

One woman in Damascus said, “Life here is a portrait of daily humiliation and pain.” Her husband was laid off from his job at an electronics store last month, and the family is now living off of scant savings that are quickly depleting. The woman clarified that she had taken up part-time teaching to augment her salary. She, like others, spoke on the condition that her name be kept secret for fear of arrest.

She said life had become unbearably difficult for her with two children and an elderly father to care for, and she was filled with fear for the future. She could smuggle in her father’s drugs from Lebanon until recently, but Lebanon is currently experiencing its own meltdown and shortages.

“When I go to the souk, I have to think about priorities and buy only the bare essentials for cooking. “I try not to look at other things that my kids might enjoy,” she said.

Syria has undergone unfathomable devastation as a result of a decade of war. More than half of the country’s pre-war population of 23 million people have been displaced, whether within or outside the country’s borders, in the world’s largest refugee crisis since World War II. The infrastructure is in shambles.

Assad was able to protect Syrians in government-controlled territories from unfathomable economic hardship for the majority of the fighting. The state kept gasoline, medicine, and other supplies flowing, and the currency afloat, even if just barely.

With Russia and Iran’s support, he has gained a decisive advantage in the war, his hold on areas under his control is unquestionable, and the uprising has been largely crushed.

However, the economy has collapsed with alarming pace. It was struck by a double whammy: fresh, far-reaching US sanctions levied last year, as well as the financial crisis in Lebanon, Syria’s key gateway to the rest of the world. On top of the strains of war, government corruption, other Western sanctions in place for years, and the coronavirus pandemic, that proved too much.

According to the United Nations, more than 80% of Syrians are now poor, and 60% are at risk of starvation. The currency has plummeted, with the black market rate now at 4,000 Syrian pounds to the dollar, down from 700 a year ago and 47 at the start of the war in 2011.

“When you bring all of these things together, it’s no wonder that food poverty and hunger are on the rise,” said Arif Hussein, chief economist at the United Nations World Food Program. “Not only in terms of breadth, implying a large number of people, but also in terms of width, implying that people are closer to hunger today than they have ever been.”

Residents who talked to The Associated Press in government-controlled areas paint a bleak picture. Several times a day, prices increase. Power, gas canisters, tea, sugar, rice, and bread are among the subsidized and rationed products that families now rely on electronic “smart cards” to obtain. They queue in long lines to get them, sometimes pulling, shoving, and fighting in the process.

Some people park their cars overnight at gas stations to secure a spot in line and return early the next morning to fill their tanks. To save money on gas, residents carpool or walk whenever possible.

THE QUEUE REPUBLIC

“It is the ‘Republic of Queues,’” said Ibrahim Hamidi, a Syrian journalist based in London who works for the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat and covers Syrian affairs.

Assad’s rule is not challenged, despite growing discontent, since people are preoccupied with their own survival, he claims. “They don’t have time to consider political problems. Since they are constantly busy, they have little time to think about change, the constitution, or reforms.”

Food prices have risen by 230 percent in the last year, and many Syrians claim they are too busy looking for basic necessities that are no longer affordable. For months, many families go without meat and fruits. People sometimes buy a single piece of produce at vegetable markets because they cannot afford more. A state employee’s monthly wage is currently $15-$20, down from about $170 a year earlier.

Many people in major cities organize their days around the energy schedule, since power is turned off for four hours for every two hours it is on, often even longer. In Syria, unlike Lebanon, where neighborhood generators have become institutionalized, only the wealthy can afford them.

With gas bottles in short supply during the winter, many people turned to toxic old wood heaters for heat, with children rummaging through garbage for something to burn.

The parallel crises in Lebanon and Syria have exacerbated each other’s impact. Whereas in the past, Lebanese would fly to Damascus to buy cheaper, higher-quality medicine, textiles, and other products, today, Lebanon’s subsidized goods, such as fuel and medicine, are smuggled to Syria, exacerbating the country’s economic crisis.

Rates of food, oil, cooking gas, and diesel only cover 10% of people’s needs, according to a Syrian media activist who goes by the nickname Omar Hariri. He claims that standing in line for hours has become “a way of life.”

He said, “I have a relative who got his turn for gasoline in January after two months of cold, and he was forced to buy from the black market at a much higher price.”

WALLS OF Land

The collapse of Lebanon’s financial system, US sanctions, and the pandemic, according to Syrian economist Samir Seifan, are all “factors that exploded at the same time.” He claims that since the regime no longer has any sources of revenue, it is printing money and fueling inflation.

Even Assad’s most devoted supporters have expressed frustration. One legislator recently asked why Iran and Russia were not assisting by sending oil and wheat.

The government has retaliated, arresting at least nine people in the last six weeks, including a famous state television anchor, for critical social media messages.

“The regime is attempting to restore the walls of terror, to remind people that they cannot criticize us even though they are loyalists,” Hamidi said.

Assad accuses the United States of being behind the sanctions, which he describes as economic warfare aimed at starving the Syrian people. Shifting regional trends are bolstering his optimism; some Gulf Arab countries that previously backed the Syrian opposition are now openly opposing the sanctions.

“The (Syrian) regime has not made a single concession in ten years of war. “The general consensus is that things can only get worse,” Hamidi said.

“There is no hope, no horizon.”

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