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Syrians Face Bread Shortages As Regime Struggles With Economic Difficulties

NOEL KING, HOST:

Syria's president Bashar al-Assad appears to be keeping a promise that he made to retake every inch of the country with brutal force. People in the areas he controls are suffering economically as well. Here's NPR's Alice Fordham.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: A few weeks ago, when people still did such things, I went to a smoky cafe in Lebanon's capital, Beirut. A lot of Syrians go there. I was looking for people to tell me how life is in Damascus now.

(CROSSTALK)

FORDHAM: I met Manal, who told me her life is harder than when there was a hot war around the capital.

MANAL: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: A tank of gas costs two weeks' salary. The Syrian pound has sunk to its lowest-ever level against the dollar.

MANAL: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: Manal says she's not talking politics; just telling me how daily life is. She can hardly pay the rent. She doesn't tell me her last name for fear of the consequences of complaining about the government. Food prices have risen out of control.

MANAL: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: The government has tried to help with ration cards, but it's not much.

MANAL: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: Two kilos of sugar in a month, a kilo of rice and 200 grams of tea. That's for the whole month, for the whole family.

MANAL: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: Since I spoke with her, people are going hungrier in Damascus. Pictures on social media show long lines for bread. The government admits that bread is low quality. And this is new. People in government-held areas of Syria lived under a repressive regime but, generally, had just about enough to eat and free access to things like health care. Now evidence is mounting the government can't afford to keep up its end of that deal, hence the bread shortages.

JIHAD YAZIGI: Syria has been facing difficulties importing wheat for the past few months.

FORDHAM: Jihad Yazigi is the editor of The Syria Report, about economics. He explains one reason Syria has trouble doing business is because of international sanctions on its brutal government, even if the sanctions should technically allow things like buying food.

YAZIGI: But a lot of Western banks and companies are reluctant to deal with Syria.

FORDHAM: It used to have a workaround, going through banks in neighboring Lebanon. But now there's a Lebanese banking crisis, so the Syrian government is struggling to do things like buy wheat because vendors don't believe it can pay its bills. But Yazigi thinks that underlying the cratering of Syria's economy is corruption and cronyism.

YAZIGI: The looting, the organized looting of the country and, overwhelmingly, at the hands of the regime.

FORDHAM: And people are angry.

YAZIGI: So yes, you have a lot of frustration. You see it more and more expressed on social media. That's something interesting.

FORDHAM: Some think this could create pressure for the Syrian government to make some changes, become less repressive or make peace deals with rebels. But some think even new U.S. sanctions starting shortly won't work.

ALI KHWANDA: I don't think it will have much of an effect on the Syrian regime as much as it will have an effect on the Syrian population.

FORDHAM: Ali Khwanda is a Syrian businessman who's worked with the U.N. on economic development. He thinks President Assad and his supporters don't care much about the economy as long as they're in charge.

KHWANDA: I think the state will exist in one form or another regardless of how fast or how efficiently the country recovers or gets reconstructed.

FORDHAM: For regular Syrians like Manal, struggling to support her family, hard times look set to continue.

Alice Fordham, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.