Dr Khaled was queueing for petrol when he got an urgent call – a patient was bleeding from an artery. Normally, he would drive straight to his hospital in Damascus to help, but leaving now would mean giving up the position he had held for 18 hours in the queue. “If I don’t refill my car I might as well just stay home,” said Dr Khaled, who called his brother to take over the spot while he rushed to hospital on foot. “This patient could have died, not because of my shortcoming but because it was my responsibility to fill the car,” said Dr Khaled, who did not want his real name to be published.
After years of intense fighting which killed half a million people and ensnared world powers from Moscow to Washington, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime accused of war crimes and arbitrarily jailing thousands without trial – now controls two-thirds of the country. Fighting has subsided across much of Syria except in the north-west, where Russian jets back Mr Assad and Turkish troops support opposition fighters.
But the hours Dr Khaled spent queueing illustrate the extent of Syria’s economic collapse, which has been aggravated by pandemic-related lockdowns, the Lebanese banking crisis and the regime’s international isolation. Western financial sanctions prohibit fuel sales to Syria, meaning the only country it can buy oil from is Iran. A minor oil producer and once a wheat exporter, the government is so cash strapped that last month it reduced subsidies on the one staple Syrians could just about afford – bread. The price of bread produced by government bakeries has doubled to 100 Syrian pounds.
Even before it cut subsidies, people living in regime-controlled areas – in effect, much of the country complained that bread and fuel shortages, as well as endless queueing, had become a fact of life in a country previously classified as “middle income”.