x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Damascus runs out of bread as winter approaches

Food and fuel crisis sweeps Syria, as rebels and allies gather for summit in Morocco to solidify international support to overthrow Assad regime. Phil Sands reports from Damascus

Syrian children wait in line for food to be distributed at a refugee camp near the Turkish border, in Azzaz, Syria on December 9.
Syrian children wait in line for food to be distributed at a refugee camp near the Turkish border, in Azzaz, Syria on December 9.

DAMASCUS // When Syrian opposition groups and their allies gather in Morocco today, their first task will be to solidify international support for the rebels seeking to overthrow the regime of Bashar Al Assad.

But not far down the agenda will be the need for aid as winter sets in and the humanitarian situation for many Syrians both inside and outside the country worsens.

The growing urgency over food and fuel supplies was underlined yesterday when bread ran out in Damascus. Merchants said flour had not been delivered by the government, which is in charge of providing heavily subsidised bread. There is no indication of how long the shortage may last.

At the Friends of Syria meeting in Marrakech, the United States is expected to follow Britain and France in recognising the new Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces (SNC) as the sole representative of the Syrian people. European foreign ministers indicated on Monday that they too will do so. "It is the right time to upgrade the SNC today," the German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle said. "We think it will be an important means to promote the process of erosion in the regime of Assad."

Concerns about the ability of anti-Assad forces to form a credible alternative to the regime in Damascus, as well as the presence of Islamists among the insurgents, have slowed international recognition of Mr Al Assad's opposition.

But an opposition meeting in Doha last month seems to have persuaded Washington and resistant European capitals that the opposition is sufficiently unified and Islamists sufficiently in check to merit such recognition.

As it stood poised to extend recognition to the SNC, the US took action yesterday to isolate one faction of the Syrian insurgency, issuing sanctions against the leaders of Al Nusrah Front, an Al Qaeda-linked rebel group, as well as militia groups supporting the Syrian regime.

Recognition of the SNC by the US and the EU - and the loosening of purse strings expected to follow - could not come soon enough for the rebels and for inhabitants of areas inside Syria they control.

The Syrian economy has disintegrated, as central government authority collapses across vast swaths of the country.

Central Damascus has been insulated from the very worst impact - food remains available, although prices have soared - but yesterday morning there was no bread to be found, even in wealthy central areas such as Abu Rumaneh and Shalaan, where most goods have remained available for those able to pay inflated black-market rates.

"There is no bread at all, there is no flour. It's a problem everywhere in the city now," an Abu Rumaneh store manager said after his daily delivery of fresh bread failed to arrive.

In the battle-hit suburbs such shortages have become common, with huge morning queues at government-run bakeries, which frequently shut down after a few hours when their limited flour supply is exhausted, often turning people away empty-handed.

Yesterday's bread shortage in the heart of Damascus has added to the growing sense of its being a city under siege, increasingly unable to remain aloof from the suffering felt in other parts of Syria.

In the rebel-held areas, including parts of Homs, Idleb and Deir Ezzor, hundreds of families live in abject poverty and survive on insurgent handouts.

"Twenty-one months into the revolt - with large swaths of territory slipping from government control - we can no longer speak of just one Syrian economy," Jihad Yazigi, director of the Syria Report economic website, said. "Now we have a mosaic of economies."

The current amount of humanitarian aid to Syrians is difficult to determine. The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are among the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council that have supplied an unspecified amount of help.

The United Kingdom has committed more than £40 million (Dh236 million) to humanitarian efforts in Syria and in neighbouring countries.

The US says it has contributed more than $200 million (Dh918 million), as well as $50m in communications equipment and training courses aimed at building what it calls "civil society".

US assistance has reached one million Syrians across the country, said Lisa Hibbert-Simpson, a press officer with the US Agency for International Development, the US government's aid and development arm.

Representatives of Syrian-run aid organisations along Turkey's nearly 900-kilometre border with Syria hope the trickle of aid in the pipeline will soon expand to a flood.

Yakzan Shishakly is a co-founder along with other Syrian Americans of the Maram Foundation, which provides humanitarian aid to 12,000 internally displaced Syrians who fled to the olive groves outside Atmeh, a Syrian town near the border with Turkey.

A day's supply of water for the encamped Syrians costs nearly US$400, according to Mr Shishakly, a Damascus-born Syrian who moved to Houston, Texas, to attend university. Blankets, baby food and medicine are also in great demand, he said.

Until now, the Maram Foundation has relied on private donations to finance its work. Mr Shishakly is hopeful the situation will soon change.

"Two months ago there were a lot of claims they were working, but they were not. But now I can see that things are moving, slowly, but at least they're finally moving."


* Justin Vela reported from Antakya, Turkey. Additional reporting by Associated Press and Agence France-Presse