Electricity, the unconventional weapon of Syria’s war
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.