With Ramadan set to begin Wednesday (March 22), Syrians in both regime- and opposition-held areas of the country are facing their hardest time yet, as the war enters its 13th year amid the fallout of February's devastating earthquake.
Syria's economy, which is already under severe strain as a result of the protracted war, is expected to contract by 5.5%, partly from the earthquake, the World Bank said Monday.
The earthquake and its aftershocks killed more than 50,000 people in Syria and Türkiye, and displaced millions more, AFP reported.
It is expected to cost the Syrian economy $5.2 billion, including physical damages of $3.7 billion and losses of $1.5 billion, the World Bank said, with recovery and reconstruction expected to cost $8 billion over three years.
In regime-controlled areas, rising prices -- partly a result of Russia's ongoing war on Ukraine -- have made preparations for Ramadan especially tough, as many struggle to afford the basic items for their iftar table.
"Ramadan will be gloomy in Syria this year," said Damascus public school teacher Asma Ramadan, who brings home just 125,000 SYP ($50) a month from her job -- not enough "to cover the basic needs for even a week".
"My husband is a self-employed construction worker," she told Al-Mashareq, but he is not able to work much because of the scarcity of new projects, so she is the family's main breadwinner.
"The government isn't providing any type of assistance," she said. "On the contrary, going to work is a huge burden in itself for employees because of the insanely high transportation fare."
"Unfortunately, the Ramadan table this year will be restricted to the essential items," she said. "There won't be the multiple dishes, appetizers or meals that Syrians once were accustomed to. Desserts and drinks will certainly disappear."
Food prices soar in Syria
In the run-up to Ramadan, business has been slow and the lack of customers and "never-ending power outages" have forced many shops to close their doors, said Damascus food store owner Eqab al-Azain.
Daily sales provide for only a small portion of expenses, al-Azain said.
"All prices went up by 100% in the month preceding Ramadan, including for beans and grains -- a vital source of sustenance for many families," he said.
"The price of a kilogramme of bulgur has gone up from 3,000 to 8,000 SYP ($1.20 to $3.20), while the price of lentils has increased from 4,500 to 10,000 SYP ($1.80 to $4)," he said, adding that the same applies to vegetables.
As for fruit, it has become a luxury that only the rich can afford and subsidised foods are "a thing of the past", al-Azain said.
"Many families in and around Damascus don't have the money to afford even the basic meals," said Damascus relief organisation volunteer Nevin Othman.
Many rely on humanitarian aid as their primary source of food.
Meanwhile, the living conditions in opposition-controlled Idlib "are perhaps more difficult", Idlib activist Musab Assaf told Al-Mashareq.
"After the earthquake tragedy and because of the absence of assistance from the Syrian government, there have been unprecedented price hikes, aggravating the poverty and suffering at displacement camps," he said.
A complicating factor that has made things even more difficult for Idlib residents is that the region gets most of its food imports from Türkiye.
After the tremor, Assaf said, "the humanitarian organisations that operate in Türkiye started to buy the items in the market to help those affected by the earthquake, and thus exports to Idlib decreased".
Many residents of rural Idlib have been foraging for edible plants like chicory to cook and eat, he said, "as they’re free and help secure a meal for the family".
Solidarity, not normalisation
Syria was expelled from the Arab League in 2011 over its violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations.
Analysts now say the diplomatic momentum generated in the earthquake's aftermath could bolster the regime's relations with Middle Eastern countries that have so far resisted normalisation, AFP reported.
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad -- who has attempted to leverage the crisis to shake off his pariah status -- on Sunday paid a rare visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has pledged more than $100 million in earthquake aid.
Emirati analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdulla said the UAE "is convinced, along with many Arab states, that the time has come to reconcile with al-Assad ... and see Syria return to the Arab League and the Arab fold".
Last month, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, which also sent quake aid, said a consensus was building in the Arab world that a new approach to Damascus would be needed to address humanitarian crises including the quake.
But other nations remain firmly opposed to any kind of normalisation.
In a March 16 statement, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States marked the 12th anniversary of the Syrian uprising in which "the Syrian people peacefully rose up to demand their freedom and dignity".
"Almost a quarter of a million Syrian civilians have been killed since then, the vast majority of them by the al-Assad regime, which met its people's demands with atrocities that continue today," the statement said.
It noted that many of the 10,000 Syrians killed inside the country and in Türkiye in the earthquake had sought refuge there after fleeing the al-Assad regime.
"We remain committed to supporting Syrian civil society and ending the human rights violations and abuses the Syrian people have suffered -- from the al-Assad regime and others -- long before the earthquakes struck," the statement said.
"We are not normalising relations with the al-Assad regime, nor are we funding reconstruction of the damage inflicted by the regime during the conflict," it said.
Sanctions on the Syrian regime will not be lifted, the joint statement said, although emergency exemptions to sanctions were issued to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian and disaster relief to earthquake affected areas.
"For the benefit of the Syrian people, we will not normalise until there is authentic and enduring progress towards a political solution," it said.