Not by bread alone in Syria

Like many basic commodities in Syria, bread is heavily subsidized by the government. But the war has disrupted production and created long lines.

Boy holds bread as others line up outside bakery in Aleppo 3 (photo credit: reuters)
Boy holds bread as others line up outside bakery in Aleppo 3
(photo credit: reuters)
The shelling in the Midan district of Aleppo did not particularly trouble Samir Batah.  It was the seven hour long wait to get a loaf of bread that had him angry and frustrated. “I spent most of my day here,” the 43 year old restaurateur griped.  “We do nothing but stand in lines now.”
With the battle for Syria’s largest city entering its sixth month, residents are quickly reaching the end of their patience.  In a country where war has become the basic staple of the day, people merely want a return to their monotonous lives even if that means Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime remains in power.
Batah comes to his local bakery every night around midnight.  When he does, he finds the crowds already jockeying for position.  The pushing and the yelling look like scenes straight out of a Wall Street trading pit. Except in Midan, the crowds are not looking to make a quick profit on IBM shares. Instead, they are merely trying to get a bag of pita bread.
Like many basic commodities in Syria, bread is heavily subsidized by the government.  But the war has disrupted production and created long lines. The problem is not the supply of flour which is abundantly available in the province. Rather it is the gas that fuels oven that is in scarce supply. With highways to regime controlled areas largely cut off by tanks and snipers, smugglers must take circuitous routes that turn a routine 45 minute trip into a 4 hour adventure. Their labors have padded the price of gas and bread with hazardous duty costs. A container of cooking gas that cost $5 before the war now runs for $55 while the few pita loaves that Batah and his family ate a day has skyrocketed from 21 cents to $2.80.
“The bread is becoming too expensive for us,” Batah complains. “Soon we will have to share meals with family.” It is not only the price of basic staples that has Batah and others reeling. With the war having paralyzed the economy, few people are working and everyone is relying on dwindling savings to support themselves.
For many though, just staying alive is difficult. Regime forces constantly shell residential areas and occasionally even bomb neighborhoods with fighter jets.  Last week the regime dangerously raised the stakes by launching SCUD missiles at rebel held military bases north of the city.  The notoriously inaccurate projectiles – 39 of which Iraqi forces launched at Israel during the 1991 Gulf War – risk causing more havoc in the built up areas of the city.
Fighters such as Muhammad Hilal though are not scared of the new weapon the regime has unleashed against them.  They have braved everything from tanks to fighter jets.  In mid-December, Hilal’s battalion called the Descendants of Salah al-Din captured the Infantry School north of Aleppo.  The strategically located base gave the rebels a link with the northern countryside and tumbled one more regime domino in a region where it has precious few left. 
“The regime is crumbling,” Hilal boasted.  “Look at what we were able to capture with only a few hundred fighters.”  The seizure of the sprawling school was indeed impressive.  Miles and miles of barracks dotted the compound. Burned out tanks destroyed by the rebels stood next to the rubble of training buildings.  Piles of overturned ammunition crates filled a half dozen rooms. 
Though the rebels are pushing out of the city, inside their offensives have grounded to a halt.  After quickly losing three quarters of the city within a few weeks, the regime regrouped and is now hunkered down in the western neighborhoods and controls the strategic Old City with its medieval citadel. 
But in the quarters the rebels have captured, they are struggling to replace the regime and the services it provided. The electricity has been out for almost a month and with the biting cold and daily drizzles of winter having descended, residents are scrambling to find anything to burn for heat. Families have sold off jewelry to pay for diesel fuel.  The less fortunate cart off wood from fallen trees in residential parks. In the Karm al-Tahan park, Faysal Mustafa is foraging for wood.  He often sends his children to scavenge, but the daily exposure to the rains has left one sick and another utterly exhausted. “This war has us all struggling to survive,” he explains as he gathers a few branches.  And with the coldest months of the winter yet to come and no end in sight to a revolution soon entering its third year, the uphill battle Mustafa and the other residents of Aleppo face is sure to become even harder to surmount.