Electricity, the unconventional weapon of Syria’s war

Friday 14/08/2015
A workshop for repairing and maintaining power generators in Damascus.

Damascus - Conventional weapons are not the only tools being used to do damage and create severe hardship during Syria’s brutal civil war. Vital means of survival, in­cluding food, water and electricity, have been exploited to put pressure on opposing parties.
The darkness that gripped Da­mascus for a month is an example of using the “weapon of electricity” to subdue an enemy, in this case the Syrian regime.
The deafening noise of power generators mixed with the sound of intermittent gunshots and artil­lery have been part of daily life in Damascus and the southern prov­inces of Daraa, Quneitra and Swei­da, since rebel groups seized major pipelines in the province of Palmy­ra, cutting off flows of natural gas needed to operate power plants.
For the first time in more than four years of the conflict, electricity has been out for more than 18 hours a day in Damascus and 20 hours a day in southern provinces. The government has been largely silent about the subject, blaming “ter­rorists” for power disruptions and promising that “the situation will hopefully improve in a few days”.
“These ‘few days’ appear to be endless,” commented Mohamad Salman, a resident of the Mazze neighbourhood in Damascus. “It has been more than 20 days now that we have been living without electricity. We are tired of waiting for things to improve.”
“Why doesn’t the government speak out more frankly about the crisis? Probably because things are much more complicated this time and they do not want to commit to deadlines which they won’t be able to meet.”
According to Omar al-Shami, a government employee in Mahsa, 100 kilometres north-east of Da­mascus, armed groups seized con­trol of pipelines that transport gas from fields in rural Palmyra 20 days ago, cutting off 36-inch and 18-inch main lines at Mahsa. Those pipes supplied power plants in Damas­cus.
“The rebels are refusing to re­pump the gas before their demands are met,” Shami said. “They have made impossible conditions, in­cluding the release of prisoners held by the regime, the payment of big amounts of money and the withdrawal of government troops from the vicinity of the town.”
The government dispatched a ne­gotiating team to Mahsa to seek the assistance of local leaders to con­vince the armed groups to alleviate their demands. “The negotiations are still ongoing without obviously achieving any results,” Shami add­ed. Mahsa, in the Qalamoun region, was previously recaptured from the rebels by the Syrian Army with the backing of Lebanon’s Shia Hezbol­lah fighters and has since Novem­ber 2013 been run by local leaders. Shami said: “The town was living in relative peace, until it was infil­trated by tens of gunmen fleeing the army and Hezbollah offensives in Qalamoun area in the last few months.
“Most of the rebels controlling the pipelines are from outside Mah­sa, mainly from neighbouring vil­lages like Jayroud and Hidab.”
Sources at the Syrian Gas Com­pany pointed that clashes between the Islamic State (ISIS) and the army near the main gas fields of Jazal and al-Shaer in Palmyra resulted in re­duced gas production and further aggravated power cuts.
To compensate for the produc­tion loss, the government stopped the gas-operated Homs fertiliser plant in a desperate attempt to shift the gas to operate power-generat­ing plants.
Syrian Electricity Minister Imad Khamis revealed that Syria, which used to export electricity to Leba­non, Jordan and Turkey prior to the civil war, is producing 2,000 mega­watts (MW), a sharp drop from past production of 6,000 MW.
“The electricity infrastructure has been targeted dozens of times by terrorist attacks, sustaining ex­tensive damage,” Khamis told The Arab Weekly. “Nonetheless, the ministry’s technical teams have re­paired a lot of the damage, defying risks of being attacked by the ter­rorists, and we are ready to produce electricity as soon as plants are sup­plied with gas.”
Shortages in fuel and gas forced the government to stop 34 out of 54 power production units, Khamis said, estimating the losses of the power sector at more than $1.3 bil­lion.
Meanwhile, frustrated citizens have been expressing different views about the power crisis.
“We will not give up to the ter­rorists,” said Khaldoun Bacha, a resident of central Damascus. “In Aleppo, they have been suffering much more than us but they did not surrender.”
Bacha’s view was backed by Mahmoud Salloum, from the Mazze neighbourhood. “We will not give in to the pressures of the terrorists. What they have not been able to achieve by force and killing, they will not get by attacking gas installations, even if it means liv­ing without electricity for a whole year,” Salloum said.
But Salloum’s neighbour, Youssef Khaled, said he could no longer cope with the power cuts. “It is be­yond what one can bear,” he said “A quick and permanent solution should be found as soon as possi­ble.
“Is it not acceptable that Damas­cus, the oldest inhabited city in the world, is left in complete darkness.”
To Sleiman, a shop-owner in a central Damascus market: “It is the poor people who always pay the biggest price and suffer the most.”
“Tradesmen like me did not re­ally sustain losses. We turn our gen­erators on all day long and increase prices to compensate for the extra expenses. Nonetheless, a radical and decisive solution should be found,” Sleiman noted.
The “weapon of electricity” was one of many punitive measures that the government resorted to in order to subdue opposition-held areas of Ghouta Sharqiya, Ghouta Gharbiya and Moadamiyat near Damascus.
Despite a local “reconciliation accord” reached more than a year ago in Moadamiyat, the town still suffers from severe electricity cuts, prompting residents to tap pow­er from the adjacent Hay Sharqi, which falls under regime control.
“Enough is enough. It is not ac­ceptable to use electricity and the delivery of other services as a weapon against citizens,” Khaled said.