As news outlets around the world report on the fall of eastern Aleppo, it is important to remember that the Syrian government’s two-year siege, not the bombing campaign that began in September, was ultimately the city’s downfall. Although underreported, a near-complete lack of fuel in eastern Aleppo exacerbated nearly every hardship condition and contributed significantly to residents’ eventual surrender.
Fuel is one of the most prized commodities in eastern Aleppo because an absence of fuel exacerbates the crisis of virtually every other basic necessity. Without fuel, first responders like the Syria Civil Defense forces cannot reach the scene of an airstrike quickly enough to treat victims or operate the equipment needed to remove the rubble to find survivors, and medical clinics cannot power the generators needed to treat patients who do arrive alive. Families do not have enough electricity to heat their homes as the weather gets cold, and transportation across the city is at a standstill. Water is more difficult to pump to residents when stations are cut off from the electricity grid, and fuel shortages contribute not only to the skyrocketing prices of limited foodstuffs, but aid workers in eastern Aleppo also report that a lack of cooking gas makes it difficult to cook even the food they provide as assistance.
Fuel was doubly cut off in eastern Aleppo by official Syrian government policy and as a result of the ongoing conflict with the Islamic State (IS), which limits the extraction and sale of fuel at its source. For months, fuel for eastern Aleppo was purchased from the Islamic State by middlemen who shipped the fuel to Afrin, a predominantly Kurdish town 40 miles (65 kilometers) north of Aleppo. It was then transferred to the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, who oversaw its delivery to eastern Aleppo.
But local reports indicate that no fuel tankers have approached eastern Aleppo since August 20, 2016, when fighting flared up over supply routes. Since the September 19 attack on a UN aid convoy that marked the start of another month of aerial bombing, no tanker truck driver has been willing to try to break the siege. Fuel reserves stored in eastern Aleppo are now more or less depleted, and the Syria Civil Defense forces and others report it is virtually impossible to procure fuel there.
That no one can purchase fuel in eastern Aleppo is by design. For the past year, pro-Assad forces have tightened sieges around pockets of opposition-held areas with the intention of forcing their submission. In the second half of 2016, these starvation campaigns began resulting in negotiated surrenders. The population of Darayya, a neighborhood of Damascus once considered a symbol of the 2011 uprising, shrank from 250,000 to approximately 5,500 people by the time it surrendered in late August. Then Waer, a neighborhood of Homs that shrank to about 75,000 people according to UN estimates, also surrendered in early September. In the trajectory of the Syrian conflict, the surrender of eastern Aleppo would be a regime victory on an as-yet unheard-of scale: not 5,500 or 75,000 residents, but 250,000.
Yet residents of eastern Aleppo found a way to survive their present fuel crisis—at least temporarily. Using a process learned from residents of Ghouta, a Damascus suburb that has been under siege for years, eastern Aleppo residents are melting plastic that had been accumulated at warehouses for years as part of a recycling campaign. This home-cooked process involves taking tons of plastic, burning it in barrels until it melts, cooling it, and melting it again. When that substance cools, they are able to extract what can be used as diesel fuel (called mazout, a dirty fuel mixture) to heat homes and power generators, though it only rarely works for cars.
But this melting scheme only works because warehouses have stored years of plastic rubbish. According to field reports by First Mile Geo, there are about 30 total locations where fuel is sold in eastern Aleppo. Each can sell between 20 and 50 liters of this homemade diesel fuel per day for 1000-1700 Syrian pounds per liter ($1.82-$3.10 at black market rates of approximately 550 pounds per dollar). An informal mapping of these locations suggests that only about one out of five locations for fuel sales is open, which places greater strain on residents to find a sale location even if they could afford the fuel in the first place.
The government of Bashar al-Assad is now betting that eastern Aleppo’s post-surrender outlook will be brighter—if only because these aspects of daily life will not be as much of a struggle. In eastern Aleppo today, people are using available fuel as sparingly as possible if and when they can acquire it. There is a lot of experimentation with mixed fuels (for example, mixing mazout diesel with refined gasoline) in the hopes that this can allow residents to operate machines like cranes, which are used to rescue civilians trapped in the rubble of bombed buildings. The Syrian government is keenly aware that Syria’s war is being waged as much with services and salaries as it is with bombs and bullets. In the wake of this new offensive, they will quickly mobilize state services like electricity to newly captured neighborhoods, hoping that residents like a heated home in the winter enough to ignore their political gripes with the Assad government.
Fuel shortages are evidence of the success of the Syrian government’s siege tactics in Aleppo. But while sieges have been a military tactic for years, and have been particularly biting in the past six months, access to fuel is much more complicated across Syria. For example, fuel can be collected by local production—such as in the oil-rich eastern provinces of Hasakah and Deir Ezzor—and it can still be bought in Idlib and northern Aleppo, but it is much more difficult to access in areas that are heavily controlled by Syrian government forces or along frontlines such as those in Daraa or the Damascus suburbs. And it may be that these shifting lines of access can determine not only the future of the Syrian government’s siege warfare in terms of where the next sieges will be, but also their relative chances for success.
Eastern Aleppo is about to fall, with dramatic consequences for the outcome of the Syrian conflict. It will demonstrate that the Syrian government can execute a brutal siege more complex than the smaller-scale starvation campaigns in Damascus and Homs, where there were about ten times fewer residents than in eastern Aleppo. Despite the resiliency of eastern Aleppo, the siege and resulting fuel crisis exacerbated hardship beyond the city’s breaking point.
Nate Rosenblatt is an analyst with First Mile Geo and MS/PhD student at Oxford University, where he is researching the impact of urbanization in Middle Eastern cities. Follow him on Twitter @NateRosenblatt