DAMASCUS – This installment of our monthly report from the Syrian capital looks at the return of the school year, electricity and the Arab Pharmacists Union to Damascus, and the dire situation in the suburbs.
Return of Services and Fighting
In mid-September, electricity cuts ended in Damascus for the first time in roughly five years, restoring 24-hour power to residents.
In an interview with Alwatan newspaper, minister of electricity Mohammad Zuhair Kharbotli claimed the power situation would improve around the country by winter as a result of new deals with Iran and the Syrian army’s advance on gas fields formerly controlled by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).
Another development that led many residents to wonder if the war was in fact winding down was the sudden decrease in the cost of certain goods. For some of these goods prices had climbed between six and 10 times higher over the previous six years. The cost of chicken decreased by 30-40 percent in one day, and oil prices saw a gradual decrease of 20 percent by the month’s end. Prices remained roughly the same for other goods.
These slight improvements in the capital, however, were juxtaposed with renewed conflict and lack of access to basic goods and services in the Damascus suburbs. Despite the alleged return of electricity to the suburbs for 10 days, a worsening siege in the Eastern Ghouta has left hundreds of thousands of people without adequate supplies. Many are suffering from malnutrition. A convoy entered the area on September 23, according to the United Nations, but the opposition said the move was largely “symbolic.”
Fighting was renewed in certain areas of Douma, despite its inclusion in the de-escalation zone agreement. On September 26, Russian and Syrian airstrikes and artillery shelling began targeting areas of Eastern Ghouta for nearly five days, as opposition forces launched mortar attacks on government-held areas in Damascus. Civilian deaths and injuries were reported on both sides.
Arab Pharmacists Union Returns to Damascus
The 108th conference of the Arab Pharmacists Union was held in Damascus on October 16, after a seven-year absence from the capital.
The APU is an Egypt-based organization, and its return to the Syrian capital pointed to a possible rapprochement between Cairo and Damascus. Representatives from Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Tunisia, Jordan, Palestine, Algeria and Yemen reportedly attended the conference, according to the state-run SANA news agency.
“The [Arab Pharmacists] Union has been keen to be present in Damascus to assert national unity and stress that … Syria and the Arab countries, particularly Egypt, are one country,” said Muhei Obeid, chairman of the union and head of the Egyptian Pharmacists Syndicate, according to SANA.
Back to School
The school year began in Damascus on September 13, without the usual talk of the high cost of supplies or lack of education for many Syrian children.
This year, there were widespread objections from parents and teachers regarding the Ministry of Education’s newly released education materials. Within a few days, pictures and scans of textbook pages were widely disseminated over social media, with many describing the new materials as “naive” or likening it to ISIS propaganda due to its increasing focus on Islam. In one reading lesson, for example, the reason given for one tree bearing more fruits than another is “the creation of Allah.”
The objections prompted the People’s Assembly, or parliament, to question Hazwan al-Waz, the minister of education. Some Syrians even called on residents of Damascus to hang a red flag on their balconies as sign of protest, but none have been spotted so far.
A Briefly Unified Syria
On September 5, the streets of downtown Damascus were filled with cars and people waving Syrian flags, whistling, honking car horns and shouting “Syria, Syria.” For the first time since the conflict broke out in 2011, this show of unity was not rooted in politics, but in sports.
The Syrian national football team finished the Asian World Cup qualifiers with a 3-1 win over Qatar, and a dramatic draw with Iran thanks to renowned striker Omar al-Somah, whose last-minute goal propelled the Syrian team to the FIFA World Cup qualifying playoffs for the first time ever.
The occasion unified Syrians from all sides. Residents of the capital celebrated in the streets, and inhabitants of rebel-held Eastern Ghouta published photos showing their support for the team.
This unity, however, was short-lived. Many withdrew their support after the pro-regime TV channel Sama interviewed the team. During the interview, al-Somah and Firas al-Khatib, who were excluded from the national team’s lineup for several years because of their antiregime stance, thanked President Bashar al-Assad for what “he provides for sports and athletes,” and for breaking the ISIS siege in al-Somah’s hometown of Deir Ezzor (which took place on the same day as the Iran match.)