On April 25, darkness descended on large areas of the southern Syrian provinces of Damascus, Quneitra, Daraa and Sweida. Local residents say it’s the result of a gas line cut by rebels from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, intended to put pressure on the government and show that they still retain power in southern Damascus.
For more than two weeks, residents say the electricity has been out an unprecedented 16 hours per day in some suburbs of Damascus, and 20 hours in the southern provinces. The rumble of electric generators now mix with the sounds of intermittent shots and artillery.
The Syrian Electricity Ministry has largely been silent on the subject, only announcing one day after the electricity was cut off in the city that the “power outage is caused by a terrorist attack on gas lines supplying power stations in Jeiroud area,” without mentioning the nature or scale of the attack.
“It seems things are more complicated this time,” says Mohammad, 63, a retired army officer living near Damascus, “and that is why they don’t want to make promises they might not be able to keep.”
Southern residents have begun to adapt to the new reality.
“We have not suffered huge losses [just] to surrender because of a mere power outage,” says Khaldoun, a civil servant from the al-Hijaz area in downtown Damascus. “My neighbors and I have overcome the electricity problem by purchasing an electrical generator for use during these prolonged periods of outage.”
On May 1, Electricity Minister Imad Khamis, a member of the Regional Leadership of the Baath Party, toured areas of the south that had once been under opposition control before being reclaimed by the Syrian army. Civilians here say this gave them hope that the government was paying attention to the area and that their lights might soon come back on.
During his visit, Khamis made statements from Qalamoun, which is largely under government control, in which he talked of building extra pylons to transport electricity from the coastal region to compensate for the shortage in the south, though the promise has not materialized. He also attributed the power outage to attacks on local gas lines, suggesting a bombing by “terrorists,” the government’s term for the opposition.
Power and gas lines have been targeted dozens of times during the course of the conflict by the Islamic Front, a group of rebel factions, in opposition-held eastern Ghouta, and in al-Bitaryeh, near Damascus International Airport. In those instances, the Ministry of Electricity repaired the damage caused by the attacks within hours.
Sources at the Petroleum Ministry say that the reason behind the power outage is that gunmen have seized control of an important point in Jayroud, a town located alongside the Arab Gas Line, a main pipeline to the southern suburbs and provinces. The sources also say that the Islamic Front has closed the valves and is using them as a bartering chip, refusing to open them before local government authorities meet a number of demands, including the release of a number of opposition detainees and negotiations for a cease-fire in the besieged Mlaiha area of eastern Ghouta.
But the government continues to blame the opposition for the electricity cuts. Mahmoud, an official at the Directorate of Health in rural Damascus, says that the regime “will never surrender or bow down to [acts of terrorism]. What they have failed to obtain by force and murder, they will not achieve by attacking gas lines.”
Local civilians are frustrated, but powerless in every sense of the word. “We cannot take this anymore. We need an immediate solution,” said Yousef, 28, a Damascus shop owner.
“Damascus is the oldest inhabited city in the whole world and we live in complete darkness. It is true that huge portion of citizens have bought electrical generators, but long rationing periods for more than 18 hours every day puts a huge financial burden on us.”