Syria fuel shortages, worsened by U.S. sanctions, spark anger

By Sarah el Deeb

The Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrians in government-controlled areas who have survived eight years of war now face a new scourge: widespread fuel shortages that have brought life to a halt in major cities.

Cars line up by the hundreds outside petrol stations, and long lines of people waiting to buy rationed cooking gas begin forming before dawn. Taxi drivers are crossing the border to Lebanon to stock up on fuel — and then doubling their rates. Drivers can be seen pulling over because their gas tanks are empty.

The shortages are largely the result of Western sanctions on Syria and renewed U.S. sanctions on Iran, a key ally. But they have sparked rare and widespread public criticism of President Bashar Assad’s government just as he has largely succeeded in quashing the eight-year rebellion against his rule.

Western sanctions imposed after Assad launched a violent crackdown on Arab Spring protests in 2011 crippled the country’s oil industry, which once provided 20 percent of government revenues. Over the course of the war, Syria’s main oil fields fell into the hands of the Islamic State group and then U.S.-backed Kurdish forces.

Iran, which has provided vital military support to Assad, extended a $3 billion credit line for oil supplies beginning in 2013. Russia, another key military ally, has helped cover shortages in cooking gas.

But the Iranian aid appears to have dried up as the U.S. has restored tough sanctions following President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear agreement. In November, the U.S. Treasury Department added a network of Russian and Iranian companies to its blacklist for shipping oil to Syria and warned of “significant risks” for those violating the sanctions.

Syrian officials say oil imports stopped in October and have appealed for patience.

Syria produced 350,000 barrels per day before the war and exported more than half of it. Now it is down to around 24,000 barrels a day, covering only a fraction of domestic needs, said Mustafa Hassweiya, head of the state company for distribution of fuel.

“It is a vicious economic war against us,” Hassweiya told al-Ikhbariya TV station.

Earlier this month, the government limited fuel for private cars to 120 liters per month. On Monday, it limited the purchase of fuel to 20 liters every five days. Households are allowed one 8-kilogram (18-pound) gas canister every 23 days through a smart card system introduced last month.