North Homs province, encircled by pro-regime forces, has displayed economic resilience in the face of siege. However, as winter approaches, provincial residents worry that heating costs might deliver a decisive blow to their fragile economy.
“I need 2 tons of wood for the winter at SP70,000 ($135), which is more than my salary allows,” Ghassan al-Mahmoud, an employee at an opposition civil affairs organization, told a Syrian Voice correspondent.
Like most civil servants in North Homs, al-Mahmoud earns around SP100,000 ($200) per month.
“For us, the employees, winter means suffering.”
Smuggling routes and ‘obscene’ prices
Residents of the northern Homs countryside benefit from the area’s geographical proximity to the regime-controlled Hama countryside. Smuggling routes between the two areas allow for foodstuffs and medical supplies to pass between the regions.
Since the beginning of the siege in 2013, the regime has encircled the opposition territories in Homs with barriers and checkpoints. Despite these “safety” measures, the government cannot monitor all of the backroads between the north Homs and south Hama countryside.
“We smuggle food such as sugar, oil, and canned goods as well as what medicine and clothes we can, securing what other essentials are needed to keep living our lives as normal as possible,” Abu Mustafa, a resident of opposition-controlled Rastan in Homs province, told the Syrian Voice.
“Smuggling into areas under siege is one of the most dangerous kinds of work. Anyone who does it can die at any moment or fall into the hands of the regime,” he continued.
Transporting goods into the besieged area requires one to cross from the north Homs countryside deep into regime-territory and back (approximately 30 km), according to a smuggler who requested anonymity.
Each trip brings back a very small load of supplies due to the crude methods used to move contraband, he added. As Abu Mustafa explained, smugglers rely on “primitive [transportation] methods, on foot for example, using animals or sometimes motorcycles,” according to Abu Mustafa.
Goods are not sufficient to meet the needs of the entire northern countryside, but it is a start, the anonymous smuggler remarked.
The hazards of the operation coupled with the small quantities of moved goods have resulted in steep price spikes and, in turn, civilian outcry.
A smuggler, requesting anonymity, spoke with Syrian Voice correspondent about the price spikes.
“One of the main reasons behind high prices goes back to the sellers inside regime-controlled areas. What they sell us is going into besieged areas, meaning they have total control over prices…we have no other sources that supply these goods.”
Faced with rigid pricing in regime territories, smugglers are finding it difficult to turn a profit.
“A smuggler purchases one liter of oil from a merchant in [regime territory] for SP350 ($0.65). He sells it for SP600 ($1.15 USD) and smuggles on average five liters per run. This means a SP1,250 ($2.40) profit.”
For smugglers, these profit margins can seem glaringly disproportionate with the nature of the work.
“It isn’t worth anything to the smuggler compared to the risks posed, the obstacles faced, not to mention the losses that come when goods are lost on the smuggling routes or confiscated at regime checkpoints.”
Prices in the northern Homs countryside are “obscene,” according to a Homs resident, a former regime civil servant who requested anonymity.
He explained that there is a lack of steady income as many have lost their jobs due to their “the inability to go to regime-controlled areas, fearing arbitrary detention.”
Agriculture and seasonal unpredictability
Agriculture is a relatively viable alternative to smuggling, but it is still subject to unpredictable seasonal harvests.
Rural farmers in the northern Homs countryside cannot even depend on staple crops such as wheat and olives to sustain them throughout the year.
“Every year I produce three tons of wheat and profit SP500,000 ($960) which supports me and my family for eight months, before the next harvest arrives,” Ahmad a-Saleh told Syrian Voice correspondents.
The head of a family of six, a-Saleh owns 10 dunams (approximately 2.5 acres) of farmland and his crop yield translates into only SP60,000 ($115) per month.
“SP60,000 doesn’t mean much considering the collapse of the Syrian pound, the exponential rises in prices. Without the assistance of some relief organizations, the situation would be much worse,” said a-Saleh.
A-Saleh needs SP30,000 each month for bread, SP8,000 for butter, SP11,000 for oil, and SP20,000 for sugar. At this point, the tally has reached SP60,000, before he even takes into account the price of vegetables, water, and electricity.
There are a small number of people in the northern Homs countryside working as employees in opposition-run civil institutions, which on average pay a livable salary of 200 USD.
“The monthly salary I make helps me to live a relatively decent life compared to many others,” says Ghassan al-Mahmoud, the civil servant.
However, the estimated cost-of-living in Homs (SP100,000 or $200 per month) only covers the bare necessities. It does not include the cost of heating which places a heavy financial burden on residents during the winter.
Translated by Tariq Adely