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Syrians struggle with soaring prices, currency collapse and fuel shortages

DWANE BROWN, HOST:

In Syria, fighting in the civil war has become less frequent and the regime of President Bashar Assad has solidified its hold on much of the country. But even in places controlled by the government, Syrians are struggling with soaring prices, a currency collapse and fuel shortages. NPR's Ruth Sherlock spoke with a Syrian visiting Lebanon about how even the basics are hard to get.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Sitting in an old armchair outside the apartment block in Lebanon's capital, Beirut, where he now sometimes stays, this Syrian man tells me, through an interpreter, about life now in his hometown of Sweida in Syria.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) The line to get a bag of bread is three or four hours.

SHERLOCK: He says constant power cuts mean that dairy and meat products are often rotten.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) Most shops, they don't have enough diesel to run their generators to have their fridges running correctly all the time.

SHERLOCK: The Syrian man asks that we don't use his name because he fears that the Syrian regime, still a brutal dictatorship, might arrest him for speaking about Syria's problems with foreign media. Most of his family has fled Syria. He still goes back to Sweida to check on his property there.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: He says without power, classrooms are too cold for children to stay in school. Hospitals are so short of supplies that they sometimes ask the relatives of patients to find their own medications. And the poverty is extreme.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: He tells me of friends and neighbors who managed to keep their apartments through more than a decade of war.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) And now they're homeless, and they live in the streets and they're eating from the garbage. The amount of need that is there is beyond what people can help on an individual basis. And if you want to help everyone you want to help, then you will become like them. You will not be able to afford your own life.

SHERLOCK: The United Nations says more than 15 million Syrians out of a total population of around 22 million are in need of humanitarian aid. Samah Hadid from the Norwegian Refugee Council says this is more than at any other point during the conflict.

SAMAH HADID: People have to skip meals on a daily basis. They're skipping urgent medical procedures. They can't afford medicine. They have to send their children to work instead of school in order just to get food on the table. Countless parents have told us, time and time again, they lie awake at night, deeply worrying about how they're going to be able to purchase food the next day.

SHERLOCK: So why are things so bad now?

JIHAD YAZIGI: Obviously, you have the impact of the war, the combination of the destruction, migration, the breakdown of institutions and so on and so forth.

SHERLOCK: Jihad Yazigi, the editor-in-chief of the Syria Report, an online bulletin focused on Syria's economy, says the reasons are complex. The collapse of the banking sector in neighboring Lebanon in 2019 froze billions of dollars of Syrian deposits. Then there are the biting Western sanctions, often cited by Syrian leaders, and the impact of global inflation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

Corruption has made things worse. In some ways, the government has acknowledged the difficulties. It told workers they can save fuel by not coming to their offices on some days last month. The severe fuel shortage, Yazigi says, is partly because Iran, a long-time ally of the Syrian regime, is now limiting the supply of oil that Damascus depends on. Yazigi says the reason for this may be political.

YAZIGI: So the most likely explanation is the Iranians using their oil supplies as a means, if you want, to extract some concessions from the Syrian regime on a number of issues.

SHERLOCK: He says Iran, which fought with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the war, wants Damascus to give it more economic advantages in Syria, like more access to phosphate mines. And Iran is concerned about Syria rebuilding ties with regional countries like Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. While all these complex politics unfold, however, it is Syrian citizens who, having already survived more than a decade of war, are left to suffer.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.