The rapidly rising cost of living in Syria and widespread frustration with the government’s inability to halt the deteriorating conditions have led to some surprising—if still limited—displays of discontent in recent weeks, including critical posts on social media and even small demonstrations.
An unofficial report recently indicated the scale of the problem, suggesting that the cost of living for a family of five in Damascus had nearly doubled compared with a year earlier.
Qassioun, a weekly publication by the Syrian Communist Party, whose leader Qadri Jameel is close to Moscow, estimated that the average monthly budget needed by a family in Damascus to live a decent life had increased in December to SYP 732,000, up from SYP 380,000 in December 2019—a rise of 93 percent. Giving a sense of how quickly prices are rising, the same publication estimated the necessary budget to be SYP 660,000 in September.
The new figure of SYP 732,000 included SYP 376,500 for food, SYP 130,000 forrent, SYP 36,900 forfurniture, SYP 33,500 forhealthcare, SYP 32,540 fortransport, SYP 30,000 foreducation, SYP 23,000 forclothes, SYP 11,000 forcommunications, and SYP 58,560 foremergency and other expenses.
The budget line for food—accounting for more than half the total—has more than doubled from its level of SYP 147,000 at the start of last year.
Based on the currentblack-market exchange rate of SYP 2,870 per dollar, the cost of living stood at USD 255 per month in December, compared with USD 415 a year ago when the exchange rate was SYP 915 per dollar in the black market, reflecting significant deterioration in the pound’s value over the course of 2020.
Syria is suffering from a variety of crises affecting supplies of key commodities such as bread and oil products, in addition to the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
Last month, the Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Protection decreased the quantities of wheat flour distributed to the bakeries across the country by 16 percent, leading to a dramatic reduction in amounts available and causing longer queues at bakeries. Some local media also reported that the weight of each pack of bread was affected by the decision, with many people seeing a decrease in the weight of a bread pack to 0.8 kilograms, down from the previous 1.1 kilograms.
While unrest has been relatively limited, the deteriorating conditions and discontent over government measures have led to some unusual displays of discontent on social media and on the streets, even from government loyalists.
Prices of key commodities to increase
On January 17, the Federation of Syrian Chambers of Commerce said on its Facebook page that the Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Protection had allowed importers to add five percent of the value of imported goods to the cost in a bid to reflect the actual price of these goods in the market. This means that prices will automatically increase in line with the higher cost. The decision covers imports of key commodities such as sugar, rice, vegetable oil, milk, ghee, canned sardines and tuna, noodles, flour, sesame, coffee, halvah, tea, mate, and fodder.
The move came just three days after another decision by the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economy to require fodder importers to sell 30 percent of their imports at cost to the General Organisation of Fodder, up from the previous requirement of 15 percent.
In an earlier decision, the government also allowed local banks to purchase foreign currencies from the Central Bank at the official exchange rate to finance imports of soybeans seeds—which fodder importers also trade in—thereby expanding the list of permissible funded imports from the seven commodities that were allowed since last June. The list had previously included fodder but not seeds.
The two measures aim at limiting price increases. By purchasing more fodder at cost, the government can make more of the commodity available to the market at a lower price. The ability to fund imports of soybean seeds at the official exchange rate—which is lower than the black market rate—should also reduce market prices.
High prices of fodder across the country, as well as a shortage of vaccines, have led to the closure of hundreds of poultry farms, according to local media reports. On January 08, the price of each ton of fodder reached SYP 415,000, or around USD 332 per ton according to the official exchange rate of SYP 1,250 per dollar.
The government measures have sparked regular criticism on social media, and also led to a rare protest in a prominent regime stronghold in Qomhane, a town in the Hama countryside. The demonstration took place on January 03, and drew a small number of protesters, who held signs asking Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad for help, such as, “Leader of the nation, they have stolen the bread from our mouths. Save us.” (See photo below)
Despite the small numbers, the event was widely reported on social media, prompting the government to move to calm the town by excluding them from recent reductions in the amounts of flour made available. Officials suggested other provinces might also benefit from the exclusion, while the entire decision might be reversed after sufficient quantities are secured.
The government has made other moves to calm the discontent as well. On January 12, Minister of Domestic Trade and Consumer Protection Talal Al-Barazi dismissed Ziad Koussa, manager of the Directorate of Domestic Trade and Consumer Protection in Hama, replacing him with Riyad Zayoud.
Oil crisis grinds on
Syria’s oil crisis has meanwhile continued following recent increases in the price of oil products and reductions in the quantities distributed to petrol stations. Some recent media reports have indicated that new supplies arrived at the Banias oil port a few days ago, but this has yet to have a noticeable impact on the ground.
While there have been no protests related to oil product supplies, long queues have led to clashes between Syrians as they wait to fill up their cars, as well as widespread complaints and criticism on social media.
The fuel shortages have led to a decrease in the number of passenger microbuses available in many Syrian provinces. The government has also reportedly increased the annual fees for these vehicles to operate. A member of the Lattakia city council told local media last month that the fees paid for microbuses to renew their licences had been raised to SYP 62,000 from SYP 2,000 per year, while trucks now had to pay SYP 200,000, up from SYP 20,000.
Syria’s transport sector has already started seeing price increases, starting with Aleppo, where the local council announced on January 14 a new set of prices for transport service between Aleppo and other provinces. Public transport fares were already increased by 50 percent in the major cities last September.
Healthcare sector troubles
The increasing woes over poor living conditions have spread into Syria’s healthcare sector as well. The chairman of the Syrian Doctors Syndicate, Kamal Amer, was quoted by local media this month as saying that hundreds of doctors have left the country due to their poor salaries in Syria, which come out on average to around SYP 60,000 per month, worth about USD 48.
Mr Amer said many Syrian doctors were heading to Somalia and Sudan—especially new graduates—due to difficulties traveling to Europe and the United States. Somalia and Sudan had been among the very few countries that grant Syrians visa-free access or visas on arrival, although Sudan recently imposed visa requirements on Syrians as well.
Mr Amer’s statement comes after a social media campaign carried out by Syrian doctors to urge the government to increase their salaries, which are extremely limited compared to the rising cost of living. Thousands of doctors have left the country during the conflict, with the syndicate putting the figure at 7,000 as early as 2016.
Protestors in Qomhane town in the Hama countryside
Source: Qomhane-Now, Facebook page