Petrol Rationing Hits War-Weary Damascus Cab Drivers

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After his tank ran dry, Syrian taxi driver Abu Sammy had to get out and push his car with a passer-by's help to a long queue at a Damascus petrol station.

"It's really tiring," said the driver after wheeling his taxi to the pumps in the east of the capital, one hand on the steering wheel.

The lines at the stations were the latest sign of a fuel crisis hitting regime-held parts of war-torn Syria, as the government set a cap on the daily consumption of subsidized petrol.

Abu Sammy said his car trouble was par for the course after months of endless queuing for scarce cooking gas and fuel oil.

"Our destiny is to wait in queues," he said, sitting in his taxi at the petrol station in the capital's Zablatani district.

"After gas, it was fuel oil. After fuel oil, now it's petrol. What it'll be tomorrow, we've no idea," he said.

Syria's government has been facing a flurry of international sanctions since the conflict started in 2011, including over the import of petroleum-related products.

On Saturday, the ministry of petrol and mineral resources said it was temporarily slashing the daily cap on subsidized petrol by half, from 40 to 20 liters per vehicle.  

On Monday night, pumping stations said they received another memo from the ministry instructing them to further half the supply of fuel to 20 litres every 48 hours. 

Taxi driver Abdu Masrabi anxiously watched the petrol nozzle filling up the tank of his yellow car, waiting for it to shut off, indicating he'd reached his quota.

"It's not nearly enough," said the 67-year-old with a greying beard, speaking to AFP even before Monday's decision.

- 'Tiny amount' -

"I work with this taxi, driving it around all day," he said, after queuing for four hours to fill his car up with his permitted share.

"Now I've managed to fill it up with this tiny amount, I'll drive home and go back to work tomorrow," he said.

A reduced supply of fuel will limit his ability to ferry passengers around, Masrabi said, but he needs to work every day.

"If I stopped working I wouldn't be able to feed myself or my children."

On Monday night, Ali Ghanem, the minister of petrol and mineral resources, said the temporary cap would not effect the monthly allowance of subsidized fuel.

Motorists were still entitled to 200 liters of subsidized fuel every month, he said.

The latest decision is meant to limit the amount of fuel each vehicle can consume on a daily basis, "to allow for a larger number of citizens to fill their tanks on any given day," he said during a tour of petrol stations in the capital. 

But Damascus residents fear the state-supported monthly petrol allowance could also drop.

Speaking to journalists on Saturday, Prime Minister Emad Khamis said most Syrians consumed an average of 120 litres a month.

"This is the quantity that should be subsidized... anything above that will be sold at the normal rate," he said.

- 'Buying time' -

After a series of victories against rebels and jihadists since a Russia military intervention in 2015, the regime now controls almost two-thirds of Syria.

But the country's main oil and gas fields remain out of government control in the northeast of the country, and Western nations are working to hamper oil-related imports.

In November, the U.S. Treasury issued a new advisory threatening penalties against those "involved in petroleum-related shipping transactions with the Government of Syria."

It also moved to disrupt a network "through which the Iranian regime, working with Russian companies, provides millions of barrels of oil to the Syrian government."

Premier Khamis struck out at the measures as yet another way of trying to attack Syria. 

"The war is not over yet and enemies are trying to compensate what they have lost politically and in the field through economic war against our country," the premier said.

Lines hundreds of meters long have formed near petrol pumps in recent days as Syrians rush to obtain their subsidized share.

But while some drivers complained they needed more cheap petrol, others said their main worry was time wasted crawling in queues.

Hussam Antabli said he recently filled up on non-subsidized fuel for twice the price -- 9,000 Syrian pounds (around $20) -- just to avoid hours of waiting.

"I'm buying time at that price," he said.

"I'd rather work than wait."

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