In Syria's Aleppo, Gas Shortages Add to Daily Woes
As soon as they spotted a truck distributing gas canisters, residents in the Syrian city of Aleppo formed a long queue stretching down the street -- a now-familiar sight due to crippling shortages.
Security forces and members of a municipal committee shuffled people around into an organized line, as men climbed into the back of the muddy lorry to hand out the cylinders.
The mayor of the Salah al-Din district wrote down the personal details of each person who received a gas canister that day.
Umm Bader was one of them.
A smile beamed across her face as she struggled to drag the heavy cylinder back home.
"I've been standing here every morning for the past three days," said the women in her 50s, wearing a long robe and a black veil.
"Today I was lucky," she said.
Since December, queuing for hours to buy gas has become part of everyday life in the Salah al-Din district.
The crisis has also hit other government-held cities in Syria, including the capital Damascus, sparking a wave of discontent.
Persistent power cuts and a spike in the price of fuel oil has forced residents to increasingly rely on gas to cook and heat their homes.
Swelling consumption and increased demand during winter has led to one of the most serious gas shortages in recent years.
The scale of the crisis prompted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to acknowledge the problem during a televised speech Sunday.
"There has been real suffering, which most of the Syrian people have felt," he said.
"There needs to be a change in the distribution system to take into account consumption and population density" in each province, he said.
- 'Punitive' sanctions -
In Aleppo, the mayor of Salah al-Din said just 200 gas canisters a day were reaching a district of 25,000 families.
"Salah al-Din is considered to be the most populated neighborhood in Aleppo," 44-year-old Hassan al-Jok said.
Electricity cuts and high fuel oil prices mean residents are relying mainly on gas for heating, causing "excess in consumption," he said.
"I expect the gas supply will improve as spring approaches," he said.
The mayor pointed to sanctions imposed on Syria as a reason behind the crisis, but said they only served to "punish" the population.
Since 2011, the United States and Europe have both slapped sanctions on imports including fuels, as well as Syrian individuals accused of financially backing Assad's regime.
In November, the U.S. Treasury issued a new advisory threatening penalties against "insurers, shipping companies, financial institutions, and others involved in petroleum-related shipping transactions with the Government of Syria."
That same month, the treasury moved to disrupt an international network "through which the Iranian regime, working with Russian companies, provides millions of barrels of oil to the Syrian government".
The General Competition and Anti-Monopoly Commission, a state body, said last month the gas crisis was linked to sanctions.
In a report published by the pro-government Al-Watan daily, it said economic sanctions were disrupting gas shipments to Syria, which imports up to 80 percent of its fossil fuels from allied countries.
- Bad for business -
Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Ali Ghanem told parliament last month work was being done to boost local gas production and to identify alternative sources to satisfy growing demand.
On average, Syria requires 130,000 gas canisters a day, according to official figures.
The government sells each cylinder at a subsidized price of 2,700 Syrian pounds ($5) but limited supply has forced residents to purchase gas from private vendors at more than double that rate, according to residents.
Local businesses and restaurants that rely heavily on gas are struggling to stay open.
In Aleppo's al-Hamidiyah neighborhood, the owner of a rotisserie chicken shop said he now closes his restaurant early.
"Ever since the gas crisis started, we have decreased the amount of food we sell and shortened working hours to avoid closing down completely," said 50-year-old Mohammad Fattouh.
"We can't wait in line for hours everyday to buy (state-subsidized) gas, so we are forced to pay more to get gas" from private sellers, he said.
Gas shortages are also a problem for Fattouh at home.
His wife, Umm Abdu, says she is cooking less and preparing salads instead to limit gas consumption.
"We're used to electricity cuts and fuel oil shortages but we're not used to not enough gas, which is a basic necessity," she said.
"Finding a gas canister has become yet another dream to add to all the other dreams of a simple Aleppo resident," she said.