In recent days, the fuel crisis in Regime-held parts of Syria has worsened. However, the Syrian Regime has also clamped down on those speaking out about its poor handling of the situation.
For much of the weekend, Regime-controlled cities across Syria have witnessed long queues of cars and people lining up around petrol stations amidst growing shortages of fuel. Although the fuel crisis has been in progress since the better part of last summer, the situation has become particularly dire over the last few months owing to a number of factors such as the unusually-cold winter and the increased motorist traffic as a result of checkpoints around Damascus and elsewhere being removed.
The international situation doesn’t help. Iran has been a Regime lifeline for much of the war, especially when the Syrian oil fields were under ISIS control. But sanctions have tightened the capacity for Iran’s exports. Similarly, 90% of the Syrian oil is now controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Although the Regime has purchased oil from the SDF-held areas at times, such imports are a rarity amidst continued mistrust between the two sides.
The Regime, meanwhile, has imposed quotas and caps on the subsidised fuel available to ordinary Syrians. Last week, these caps were slashed by half, with taxi drivers hit particularly hard due to many of them running out of fuel before a day’s work was completed.
Many Syrians have responded to the crisis with a mix of weary acceptance and black humour, with some scenes including people smoking nargileh in their cars stuck in the gridlock. But behind the humour, there are signs of discontent. Even loyalist social media has been brimming with complaints, with many commenters criticising the handling of the crisis and noting that life has gotten harder despite the current cessation in large-scale conflict across the country.
One might view it with scepticism that the loyalist social media is raising complaints about the conditions – poverty, inequality, corruption – that the rest of Syria rose up against in 2011. However, the rebel threat – including the constant shelling in and around Damascus – was a means for the Regime to deflect its own failings and keep the loyalists who feared the Opposition on side. For those loyalists that stuck with the Regime through the worst days of the war, they now feel that they have “proven” their loyalty enough to raise complaints over what they view as legitimate issues.
Unfortunately, this is not how an autocracy functions. When it finds its power or narrative threatened, it will not hesitate to turn on its most loyal followers. Such seems to be the case behind the arrest of Mohamed Hershou, director of the loyalist page Hashtag Syria and the al-Ayyam Newspaper. Hershou was arrested last week in Damascus after criticising the Ministry of Oil over the handling of the crisis, as well as referencing the wide-spread fears among Syrians that the subsidies could be cut entirely. The arrest came few months after the manager of the loyalist Damascus Now network, Wissam al-Teer, was arrested. His fate remains unclear, with rumours of his death circulating, as well as rumours of him being “uncovered” to have been a spy, a charge rejected by those close to him.
With growing shortages and a worsening economy despite an apparent “victory”, what does the future hold for Syria?
On the one side, the events of the past month in Sudan and Algeria show that autocrats cannot afford to keep their power amidst continued failure of governance, falling living standards and obvious corruption, especially when such problems start impacting their core supporters. Both countries have also shown that brutal civil wars are not necessarily an obstacle to (relatively) peaceful transition, although both cases also highlight that behind every autocrat, there is a system that will happily dispose of the autocrat if it furthers continued control. Unsurprisingly, many Syrians have been galvanised by the events there, hoping that it could help reignite the original goals of the protest movement.
On the other side, the picture is a lot grimmer. There is no reason to believe the Syrian Regime will relinquish power – even through reforms – after spending eight years fighting tooth and nail to keep it. Indeed, in October 2018, the Regime passed Law 31 that expands the role of Ministry of Religious Endowments, leading to fears, especially among the Regime’s secular supporters, that it is looking to re-impose and reinforce its legitimacy through increased religiosity. Whether such a fear is legitimate or not remains to be seen. But it is an eerie mirror of the nominally-secular regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq imposing similar methods under the Faith Campaign of the 1990s to buttress flagging legitimacy amidst a, war-weary economy.
The exact outcome remains to be seen. But from where we now stand, the Regime “victory” seems to be a rather self-defeating one.