Enab Baladi’s Investigation Team
Ahmed Jamal |Mourad Abdel Jalil | Dia Odeh
The Syrian regime has promoted that its “war on terrorism” is about to finish, after a year during which it regained control over large areas of Syria, deluding the citizens of the areas under its control that its “military victory” would turn into a state of improved living conditions, from which they have been deprived for eight years.
The regime has raised the people’s expectations, but made no effort to meet such expectations. It has rather left the citizens in a strenuous confrontation with gas and fuel queues, and at the mercy of few electrical recharge hours.
The cold winter that most Syrians have suffered in the regime-controlled areas turned into a state of popular rage. The voices of protestors have risen, and the government of Imad Khamis has faced a wave of criticism and accusations of corruption and failure to meet the people’s needs.
For the first time, the president has not been exempt from the citizens’ blame. Most of the people reproached him and called him to look after them and rid them of the corruption of “some” government officials.
This rage has been fueled by the regime’s summoning of citizens for reserve military service, which included even men over the age of forty. This has further been exacerbated by dozens of incidents that reflected the lack of safety that the regime had previously promoted for its return through its ministers and official media.
In a state of rage of those supposed to be “the popular incubator,” the Syrian regime’s supporters do not seem to be counting on their government or their president, and do not have hopes that their living conditions would change.
In this report, Enab Baladi will monitor the most prominent phenomena and events that reflect popular turmoil in the regime-controlled areas. The report will also try to identify the reasons for the Syrian regime’s failure to respond to popular demands, despite the Iranian-Russian support it enjoys.
Instead of bringing warmth, gas is igniting public raging
Gas queues and concerns about getting the “blue container” have become the first and most popular issue in Syria in recent weeks, turning into the biggest crisis the Syrian people have suffered during the winter, in addition to other severe crises such as the absence of fuel and electricity and the extremely high prices.
Social media websites have been flooded with stories about the absence of gas from the Syrians’ houses. These websites even organized competitions over the longest queues between Lattakia, Homs and other areas, through the posting of videos on these websites showing hundreds of citizens waiting for a gas container and reflecting endless suffering in front of official selling outlets.
The longest gas queue in the city of Latakia, which has recently been heavily circulated in social media websites, prompted the Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Ali Ghanem to visit the city and take a look on the distribution of gas to the citizens, calling to increase the production. The pro-regime Sham FM radio station stated that the minister’s visit was under the insistence of Prime Minister of Syria Imad Khamis after his denial of reports on the gas queues crisis in the Syrian cities.
Some artists, such as Bassem Yakhour and Nizar Abou Ajar, tuned the state of gas scarcity into a satirical comedy, standing in gas queues in some neighborhoods of the capital Damascus and taking pictures.
The efforts of the Syrian regime government have not succeeded in containing the crisis. The price of one gas container in the black market has reached 10,000 Syrian liras and sometimes 15,000 Syrian liras, while the official price is about 3,000 Syrian liras.
Competition over prices
The prices of foodstuffs in the Syrian governorates, especially the capital Damascus, have significantly increased since the beginning of this year, on the backdrop of the fall of the Syrian lira against foreign currencies.
Most of the prices of foodstuffs and vegetables have increased by about 15 percent, following the fall of the Syrian lira, according to Enab Baladi’s reporter in Damascus.
|According to Transparency International’s report, issued at the end of January, Syria and Somalia have been in the last two positions on the Transparency Index as one of the most corrupt and least anti-corruption countries around the world for 2018.
The report stated that Syria, which has been witnessing a state of conflict and instability, remained at the bottom of the list of corruption, dropping by 13 points over the previous eight years, and gaining 26 points in 2016 and 13 points in 2018.
The report also revealed that the regression of human rights situation in Syria, in addition to the instability of government institutions and the absence of supervision contributed to the spread of corruption in the country.
The corruption index is based on certain behaviors such as bribery, embezzlement of public funds, the exploitation of power for personal interests and nepotism in the civil service.
In light of the economic crisis Syria has been facing, the Syrian lira has recorded a significant decline against foreign currencies, especially the USD, reaching 530 liars per one USD since the beginning of February.
According to the reporter, most of the foodstuffs’ prices per one kilogram increased from 50 to 100 Syrian liras per one item.
However, pro-regime al-Watan newspaper quoted, on 5 February, the Director of Prices in the Ministry of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection, Mays al-Beitmouni, as confirming that there has been no increase in the ministry’s bulletin of prices of basic foodstuffs and commodities.
Al-Beitmouni explained that what is happening in the markets is “just an effect of the psychological factor as a result of the daily fluctuations in exchange rates, as some traders in the markets raise prices in parallel with the increase of the exchange rate.”
The statements of the Director of Prices increased the sarcastic comments of Facebook users. User Ahmed Shibli commented on a post on al-Beitmouni’s statement on Aleppo’s Zahraa neighborhood News Network Facebook page, saying: “if these statements are true, they are either contemptuous of people’s minds or the person who issued the statement lives in another planet.”
Concerns over reserve military service and lack of security
Al-Assad’s forces have raised the ceiling of age for those who are required to perform the reserve duty, and added new lists, which were issued at the end of last year, containing the names of about one million Syrians.
Enab Baladi quoted some local sources in the countryside of Damascus, saying that “all the names, which were taken off from the lists during last November, were re-inserted, along with new names that were requested for the first time.”
The lists containing the new names summoned for the reserve duty include Syrians who were born in 1976, 1977, 1978 and 1979.
Many video recordings were circulated on social media platforms, showing the recruitment of hundreds of young Syrians for the military and reserve duty in the recruitment centre of Mezzeh municipality in Damascus.
Due to intensive security pursuits of those wanted for reserve duty and compulsory military service, young people can be barely seen walking in the streets of Syrian cities. These young men are actually hiding for fear of being arrested and getting trapped in losing battles, as well as losing their jobs and sources of income.
The calls for reserve duty came at a time when the military operations slew down after the Syrian regime took control last year of Eastern Ghouta, Daraa, and the northern countryside of Homs.
Despite the regime’s continuous announcements of “military victories”, the Syrian authorities did not slow the recruitment wave down or improve the security situation in controlled areas.
The city of Damascus has recently witnessed cases of kidnapping, especially against women. These incidents end up mostly by recording the offense against unknown suspects. As such, the infamous disappearance of Aya al-Qasti who was lost in the Mezzeh neighborhood last June, which caused the girl’s parents to plead officials, demanding them to search for the missing girl during the previous days. The family’s mobilization for Aya’s disappearance came after complaining for the local police forces that had not conducted the sufficient amount of investigations according to the girl’s family testimony.
The “Enough with Impunity” Facebook page, specialized in documenting cases of corruption in Syria, has accused the Syrian Ministry of Interior of neglecting on sensitive issues such as the case of the missing girl.
The Facebook page has recorded dozens of similar incidents which occurred in Damascus as well as in the rest of the Syrian governorates under the control of the regime, during the previous year and until today.
Smart cards distress Syrian citizens
Since last year, the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources has imposed a smart cards system in fuel stations in most of Syrian cities to restrict the consumption of fuel for governmental and private vehicles. However, the new system was not sufficiently implemented as these stations are not ready to serve people, in addition to recurrent practices of impunity inside such facilities.
According to Enab Baladi’s monitoring, the smart cards system is a new phenomenon for Syrians, as the system’s mechanism of operation is still somewhat unfamiliar to many citizens. Thus, so many citizens are wondering about the proper way to use the cards, in addition to the regulations and conditions of filling their cars’ tanks with fuel.
According to some videos circulated on Facebook, fuel stations refuse to provide anyone with the fuel without the smart card, which has resulted in a wave of discontent among a number of citizens including soldiers on their way for duty, who documented similar incidents in Latakia governorate.
The smart card system has also complicated the process of buying some specific types of fuels, which prompted many to purchasing those materials from the black market, but at very high prices.
The restricted provision of fuel from petroleum stations to smart card holders only, has led to a significant increase in fuel prices. Thus, in the southern region, one liter of fuel costs 400 Syrian pounds, while the fuel stations sell it for 250 Syrian pounds.
The scarcity of fuel in the markets and its elevated cost have forced Syrians to rely on electricity and gas as a means of heating in the harsh winter months, especially since the price of fuel cannot be easily afforded with regard to the monthly income of the Syrian citizen, which may or may not be enough to cover daily expenses in a decent manner.
The price of a 200-litre barrel has reached 40.000 Syrian pounds, which approximately equals the average income of the Syrian citizen.
Poll: The tension will lead nowhere
In an opinion poll published on social media platforms, Enab Baladi asked about the feasibility of this public discontent about the services crisis in Syria and whether it would lead to changing the situation. 1,330 social media users responded to the question.
75 percent of the respondents thought that this popular discontent will not lead to any results, while 25 percent believed that it might be a glimmer of hope.
Most of the comments on Enab Baladi’s Facebook page have linked the Syrian people’s silence about the massacres, which the participants blamed the Syrian regime for, and the raging about the services crisis. Mohamed Qoul Agasi wrote: “The Syrian people have been hit with bombs and no one spoke. I don’t imagine that a little bit of gas would break the Syrians’ silence.”
Though Sama al-Bardan does not believe that such popular discontent would lead to a tangible result, she viewed that the proliferation of a culture of criticism towards the government and the growing belief in the state’s responsibility for these problems is a positive sign, as citizens will always remember that government employees are required to fulfill their duty serving the people and not the opposite.
Abu al-Mu’tasim went on to say that this crisis is meant to keep the Syrian people busy with the daily mission of providing daily necessities and maintain a general state of ignorance in the country so that no one will challenge or contemplate the possibility to up-rise against the state officials. He added that there is a grand scheme to enslave the next generation as they did with the previous ones who were denied their freedom and will.
Far from reality: Regime’s officials respond to the citizens
The fruitless way the Syrian regime officials have been dealing with the services crisis and the deterioration of living conditions, as well as their repeatedly failed promises to end these problems, have resulted in intensifying feelings of resentment among the Syrian citizens, sometimes, and a wave of public mockery of those officials’ unrealistic statements, at other times.
During its meeting, mid-last month, the Council of Ministers of the Syrian regime, promised an imminent solution of the crisis of oil derivatives, and reassured the Syrian people that the crisis is “on the way to recede”. On Friday, the 18th of January, the Council of Ministers renewed these promises after the arrival of two carriers carrying 4400 tons of liquid gas to the Port of Banias on the Syrian coast.
However, the crisis has continued and the waiting lines for gas became even longer, causing the Syrian Prime Minister, Imad Khamis, to apologize to Syrians in the People’s Assembly on 20th January. Khamis stated: “The government would not hesitate for a second to apologize to a people who fascinated the world with their patience, faith, and devotion to their homeland.”
“The increasing US and Western sanctions on the region and on friend countriess (Iran) prevented the entry of the ships loaded with petroleum products,” said Khamis, referring to the current economic sanctions which he described as “unjust” and targeting Syria, for they have caused delays and difficulties with the arrival of imported goods, foodstuffs and exported oil, in addition to shortages in these goods and other major problems.
Facebook is the culprit
Meanwhile, the Head of the People’s Assembly, Hammouda Sabbagh, accused third parties, which he kept anonymous, of being responsible for the campaigns launched on social media websites criticizing the regime and its government. He had previously asked Khamis to hold an emergency meeting with those responsible for the issue of the energy crisis in order to define and set responsibilities, but the government rejected his request.
During the opening of the ninth session of the Council, on 20th January, Sabbagh said that “online campaigns intensified through Facebook and social media websites, and most of them are managed from abroad, and unfortunately they trick the ones inside whether intentionally or unintentionally. They promote for and work to spread such campaigns along with all the mess they might trigger among the ranks of public opinion. ”
He also added that “when it fails to use coarse force, the enemy resorts to soft power, and its most important tools is psychological warfare and the spread of the propagation of discord among national institutions, especially the People’s Assembly and the government. Misleading and lying and dissemination of incorrect information, are tools in this war.” He pointed out that some websites in Israel are well-known for provoking sedition and escalating psychological warfare against the Syrians.”
“Syria is fine”
Over the past weeks, websites crowded with citizens’ angry publications as a response to a number of regime officials denying the existence of crises in Syria. During a speech at a session on Tuesday (22 January), MP Maw’id Nasser expressed his anger over the increase in prices, saying: “we have had enough!” and the head of the People’s Assembly responded saying: “Wakil Allah (pray to God)”.
The statement, which the citizens considered as the most cynical, was uttered by the Minister of Finance, Mamoun Hamdan who declared during an interview broadcasted by the Syrian television that the crises were triggered by social media websites managed from abroad, and there is no gas, oil or bread crisis in Syria. This has triggered the anger of Facebook users who believed this statement is flouting the Syrian people.
In addition, the Head of the Latakia Gas Department, Osama Adira, said that there is no gas crisis in Latakia governorate, in response to the video that depicted citizens queuing for gas bottles in Latakia Tetraporticus. He stated during an interview with Sham FM, in early February, that the video is falsified and there is no such queue in Latakia.
Many statements urged PM Imad Khamis to send the Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources, Ali Ghanem to inspect the crises on the spot. According to the Ministry’s account on Facebook on 4 February, the minister stressed that the government introduced additional quantities on regular supplies and also worked on monitoring procedures involving the distribution process.
Blame it on the government while “Mr.President” is a red line
In early 2011 the people of the city of Homs cried “the people want to overthrow the governor, who happens to be Iyad Ghazal, known as the “governor of the city” and the man behind “Homs Dream”;, the project which was previously met with a public rejection and caused him to be dismissed by the Head of the Syrian regime president Bashar al-Assad. Civilians were subject to security forces and anyone who would confront the “state”, will be arrested. Then, the demands shifted from overthrowing the governor to overthrowing the Syrian regime.
Since that time, the name of Iyad Ghazal, which overwhelmed the people of Homs with taxes and fines, has been associated with the poor services and popular demands in Syria from time to time. The approach comes from allowing citizens to criticize any official in the “regime government” without mentioning al-Assad, who is considered as a red line and anyone who criticizes him is subjected to arrest or murder for “weakening national sentiment” and “harming the prestige of the state.”
Today, the popular demands and discontent are revived, but in all the Syrian cities and with different circumstances. In the past, the Syrian regime reacted to such situation using force and turned it into a war against “terrorism” and the state as a whole. At the present time, the regime seems to adopt an intelligence approach which is based on allowing citizens to express themselves through social media websites, and allowing them to criticize the government and ministers but on the condition of not mentioning al-Assad’s name and senior officials who make crucial decision in the state, and control all entries and exits.
“Acting out” through social media websites
Mohammed al-Abd Allah, Director of the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center, believes that the way Syrian regime is currently handling the popular discontent is not related to freedoms, tolerance, and democracy.
During an interview with Enab Baladi, he pointed out two main issues. The first is that the current level of services in Syria has become low, standing in queues for long hours for a bottle of gas and the loss of life basic needs give the impression that the citizens have had enough with this situation.
People who support the regime and have been silent and fearful in the last years cannot stand living in hunger, especially since the poor living conditions do not seem to be temporary, but would last for a long time, in terms of fuel, gas and other services.
“The regime allowing people to criticize the living conditions is a way of acting out, as long as the demands are limited to criticizing the governor, the government, the ministry of economy and services, away from mentioning the president and leading figures,” al-Abd Allah said.
The second issue that al-Abd Allah referred to is that the Syrian regime benefits from turning the community against the US sanctions.
He explained that after the adoption of “Caesar” law (the law of Caesar) by the US Senate, the regime media machine blamed the sanctions, claiming that America is trying to punish the Syrian people. Al-Abd Allah pointed out that “the regime is trying to take advantage of the sanctions to get rid of the crisis services, but it will not succeed because there is an external declaration from America that sanctions came first have nothing to do with the crises.”
The US Senate approved the majority of “Caesar” law, which provides for sanctions on the Syrian regime and its supporters, and the law received the approval of 77 votes against the opposition of 23 votes, and was among a set of laws on the Middle East, approved by the Senate in early February 2019.
Under this condition, the law will be passed to the US House of Representatives for final vote and then transferred to the Presidential Office, where it will be signed by the US President, and then becomes effective.
With this method, the Syrian regime allows people to express their opinion through social networking sites and to criticize the government’s work so that the process remains only “gossip, grumbling and senseless talk,” according to al-Abd Allah, who touched upon a method followed by the regime that is similar to the Jordanian situation. When taxes are levied, citizens have resentment against the government officials, and later al-Assad appears in a heroic role to dismiss them.
Al-Abd Allah ruled out that citizens take to the street in the areas of the regime to criticize the living conditions, as the feeling of fear among the people is great even today, and if that happened, al-Assad will seize the opportunity to resolve the crisis by dismissing the political figures who “do not have the ability to act or make a decision.”
Is there a limit to freedom?
From the viewpoint of the Syrian lawyer, Anwar al-Bunni, the regime has not granted and will not provide greater access to freedom either before or at the present time, and basically it does not understand and does not recognize freedoms. Accordingly, it may recruit some people to reduce tension “as he used Duraid Lahham previously and others, and Wissam al-Tair for example”, considering that “whoever you are, you will be overthrown when you get out of the plan.”
Al-Bunni told Enab Baladi that “what the regime does not realize is that the Syrians, including those who support it can no longer live the period before 2011. (…) Resentment will increase. It is a revolution that will not stop even with the loyalists because it was against conditions suffered by all Syrians.”
The Syrian opposition figure, Riad Na’san Agha considers that the way the regime deals with the criticism of citizens at present is far from freedom.
He explained in an interview with Enab Baladi that the situation has become more difficult than in previous years, and naturally it will generate cases of resentment that the regime cannot suppress among its supporters. Some of the “sharp criticism” of particular supporters of the regime may reflect a state of internal conflict between the influential parties.
According to the Syrian opposition figure, criticism also reflects what we hear and notice of the fragmentation of power centers between loyalty to Russia and allegiance to Iran. He pointed out that “some supporters have begun to realize that their bet on tyranny is void. However, the silent ones who fear the danger of expressing their true positions, and who constitute the majority of the people at home are the ones suffering today from the loss of life necessities.”
Why Don’t Russia and Iran solve service crises?
The support provided by the most prominent allies of the regime, Russia and Iran is not limited to military field, but has amounted to economic support. However, the service crisis in the Syrian regime controlled areas today has not been met with solutions by the regime or by its allies.
Against the backdrop of the gas crisis, Russia and Iran did not meet any of the needs of citizens, knowing that they are among the first countries that have the largest reserves of natural gas.
According to the 2018 World Energy Statistics issued by the British Petroleum Company (BP), published by Anadolu agency in June last year, Russia was ranked first among the countries with the largest reserves of natural gas, confirmed in 2017, with 35 trillion cubic meters. Iran was in the second position with 33.2 trillion cubic meters.
The economic analyst, Younes al-Kareem, explained to Enab Baladi the reasons for not importing gas from Iran and Russia, and considered that “Iran prevents the provision of gas to Syria through Iraq (land) and through Lebanon via Hezbollah, under the pretext that the regime is unable to pay the money and the credit loans granted to it. This is meant to push the regime to succumb to Iran’s demands at the political and economic levels.
Russia also prevented the supply of gas to the regime. It also controlled the waterfront through its military base in Tartus, which prevents the arrival of gas ships to Syria, keeping them at sea, in an attempt to pressure the regime and push it to make international concessions in its favor, and to ensure the strong return of Russia as victorious at the international scene.”
Al-Kareem attributed the reason for this to “the conflict of interest between the two countries within Syria in an attempt to control it, and the attempt of each party to pressure the regime to control the real contracts in the economy and control sovereign contracts, as the ones agreed upon are contracts of understanding. This proves the shares of both parties in the reconstruction process and their legitimacy to exist economically in Syria.”
The economic analyst said that the problems began to exacerbate in Syria after the severe pressure on the regime, whether by its allies, or by the inability of Arab countries to provide assistance because of the simultaneous European and US sanctions.
In addition, “the suspension of donor support for opposition projects, and stopping the flow of foreign exchange for the benefit of the regime, led to the lack of liquidity to provide supplies through smuggling,” according to al-Kareem.
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