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Private generator networks expand around Damascus as state gives way to war profiteers

The use of private generators for electricity has been widespread for years in Syria, but expanded around Damascus in recent months amid signs of regime authorities moving to increasingly codify and regularize the informal trade.

7 September 2023

PARIS — Tareq Abu Muhammad is cutting costs. In August, he had to choose what electric appliances he could afford to keep using in his home outside Damascus. He settled on a small television and one lamp. He used to also run a water pump for two hours a week, and a refrigerator for around three hours a day. Then the cost of the power he buys from a private generator network went up. 

Abu Muhammad is one of many Syrians who rely on electricity from private generators, known locally as “amperes.” To make up for spotty or absent public power, they subscribe to networks of the large-capacity, fuel-powered generators and pay each week or month according to how many units of electricity (measured in amperes) they consume.  

After reducing his use, Abu Muhammad—a public sector employee who lives in the Damascus countryside city of Jdeidat Artouz—pays around SYP 35,000 for his weekly supply ($2.40 according to the parallel market exchange rate of SYP 14,300). Before, he paid around SYP 100,000 ($6.90) per week, he told Syria Direct

Syrians began to rely on the ampere system for electricity months after the revolution broke out in the spring of 2011, as the regime pursued a policy of depriving areas in revolt of basic services such as electricity and communications. 

Damascus regained control over opposition-controlled areas of central and southern Syria in recent years, but the use of amperes has continued. Official institutions are not able to provide people with the electricity they need, and power rationing leaves many without electricity for many hours a day. 

The price of one ampere of electricity currently ranges between SYP 5,500 ($0.38) and SYP 7,000 ($0.49), Syria Direct found. Just how much informal power costs varies according to the subscriber’s location and the price of mazot diesel fuel in the parallel market. 

While reliance on amperes electricity has been widespread for years, the use of the informal networks has expanded in recent months, sources involved in the trade in the Damascus area told Syria Direct. Even greater uptake is possible, given signs of the regime and its provincial authorities moving to increasingly codify and regularize the trade.

On June 20, the Syrian Prime Ministry sent a letter to the Ministry of Local Administration and Environment calling on it to direct provincial governors to scrutinize the sale of amperes and refer “violators” to the competent judicial authorities. 

Days later, the office issued a clarification, stating that “violators” referred to “those who practice the sale of electrical energy generated by diesel units and sell them to citizens (amperes) without permission from the administrative unit and governor, and without approved foundations and standards.” 

For several years, the Damascus government has avoided formally acknowledging the ampere system, and officials have stated on several occasions that they have no intention to legitimize it. So while the Ministry of Electricity’s latest message appeared to acknowledge the amperes system, it remains a subject of controversy within government circles.

Amperes conquer Damascus and its countryside

In most parts of Damascus and Reef Dimashq provinces, electricity comes for approximately one hour every five hours. In some areas, like the East Ghouta suburbs—besieged by the regime from late 2012 until spring 2018—state electricity can arrive for an hour a day, and sometimes not come at all for days in a row. As a result, residents do not rely on the public grid, but use it as an energy source to supplement the amperes system. 

As access to the government-supplied electrical current deteriorates—seemingly without end—turning to the black market for electricity has become a pressing need for many families in most Syrian provinces controlled by the regime. 

At the end of May, before the June memo issued by the prime minister’s office, the al-Shaalan, al-Hamra and al-Salihiya markets in the heart of Damascus began to rely on the amperes system. The markets obtained permits to do so, Samir Dakak, a member of the Damascus Provincial Council, said at the time. 

Dakak told pro-regime newspaper al-Watan that he did not expect the use of amperes to spread throughout various parts of the city because private generators require large spaces like gardens to be installed, and could not be regulated by provincial authorities. 

Nearby East Ghouta faces a far more dire electricity situation. In the town of Hamouriya, electricity comes for an average of one hour a day, punctuated by at least three outages, 47-year-old farmer Abu Samer said. 

“The long outage makes the amperes a matter of urgency,” he added, speaking on condition of anonymity. Residents use the generators’ electricity “to operate water pumps used to draw water from artesian wells, especially given the absence of an underground state water network to pump water to people’s homes.”  

“You can’t do anything in the hour when the regular electricity usually arrives,” Abu Samer said. Instead, residents mainly rely on the amperes “to charge mobile phones and batteries used for lighting.” 

Abu Samer needs three amps of electricity a week to charge his phone, and one to power a single lamp. “If we wanted to use the washing machine two times in a week, we’d need five amps,” he said. “As for the refrigerator, that’s been arranged for a long time. We don’t turn it on.” 

One amp of electricity in Hamouriya costs SYP 6,500 ($0.45), while the price of one liter of mazot used to operate the generators costs SYP 11,000 ($0.76). 

Some 23 kilometers southwest of Hamouriya, many families in the city of Sahnaya have recently had to use generator electricity to draw public drinking water to their household storage tanks using electric pumps. The municipality provides drinking water “during the period when power is out,” Abu Weam, who works as an electrical technician with an amperes company in Sahnaya, said. 

“The public power cut coincides with the arrival of drinking water to the Dumar project and Sahnaya— Monday from 9am to 2pm,” he told Syria Direct, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Abu Weam accused state-affiliated water institutions of colluding with the owners of private generator networks to provide the flow when power is cut, “forcing people to install amperes to run water pumps.” Three sources from the Sahnaya and Damar project area made similar allegations, which Syria Direct could not confirm. 

Abu Weam bases his perspective on a dramatic increase in the number of customers he services by connecting them to the amperes network. Over the past four months, he noticed an increase of around 90 percent. 

Government controversy

In October 2022, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued Law No. 41 of 2022, which amended some of the provisions of Syria’s Electricity Law No. 32 of 2010 and opened the electricity sector to private investments. 

Under the new law, the Syrian Minister of Electricity may grant licenses for investors to implement conventional electricity generation projects. Investors are not obligated to purchase electricity from Syria’s state power utility.

At the time, the law was seen as legalizing the work of private generator networks. Minister of Electricity Ghassan al-Zamel came out with a statement in which he denied that amending the electricity law meant legalizing the amperes. He noted that the law allowed investors to sell medium-voltage electricity to support manufacturers, while the amperes sell low-voltage electricity. 

However, the minister’s statement contradicted the amendments to the law, which included a paragraph indicating that an investor could, after obtaining a license, sell subscribers low-voltage electricity using private networks. This applies to the case of amperes in the market. 

Then, this past June, the prime ministry’s letter appeared to leave the licensing and administration of this sector to provincial councils and local administrations. The message resulted in a state of confusion and “bewilderment,” as Muhammad Haidar, a member of the Executive Office of Reef Dimashq, said in early August during a television appearance on the state-funded Syrian Satellite Channel. “There is no license for this service” in his province so far, he said, adding they are still “developing standards for administrative units to regulate this service.” 

In the same broadcast, Damascus Province Director of Property Affairs Hussam al-Din Saffour said “an executive committee was formed to monitor and control this situation after the latest memo [on June 20]. On that basis, we moved to form a committee and set foundations and standards for licensing this type of generator.” 

Saffour explained that his province set a number of requirements and standards in place regarding the generator capacity, quality of connecting wires, protection, noise, pollution and additional services from providers. Once a license application is submitted, “a technical committee of five experts will study it and submit it to the executive office to issue a license. The matter will then be referred to a specialized committee for site selection and fee payment,” he said.

Saffour noted that provincial authorities in Damascus province alone had received around 500 license requests as of August 7. 

But these solutions do not appear satisfactory to the Ministry of Electricity, which in response to Damascus province’s measures to grant licenses for generator operation said in May that it had not given approval for ampere networks in Damascus and some provinces. 

The Ministry of Electricity’s Director of Renewable Energy Fund Support, Zuhair Makhlouf, said the ampere system arose without the ministry’s approval out of “the need for electricity.” Damascus province has limited licenses for amperes to be used by the industrial sector, not to provide electricity to private citizens.

Still, recent developments indicate that the regime—at least in part—is taking steps towards “codifying the work of large generators, which came after codifying the generation of private electricity for companies and allowing them to connect the product to the local grid,” according to Karam Shaar, director of the Syria Program at the Observatory of Economic and Political Networks. 

What is happening in Syria today is “an extension of Law 41,” Shaar said. But so far, “there is no significant investment in these fields, as most investors are hesitant due to the instability of Syria’s economic situation.”

Who runs the market? 

Syria’s Assistant Minister of Electricity for Energy Research and Quality, Adham Balan, said in the August 7 broadcast on Syrian Satellite that the main problem standing in the way of the availability of electricity in Syria is providing the fuel and natural gas needed to run most of the country’s generating stations.

“We are trying, with the Ministry of Oil, to find a way to provide energy carriers,” he said. “If we could improve fuel imports from the Ministry of Oil, we would have the capacity to produce 5,200 megawatts [a year]. Currently, we are producing 2,000 megawatts a year.”

Electricity production in Syria is down more than 40 percent, Shaar explained. “The fundamental problem with electricity in regime areas is the inability to obtain energy to run generators. Getting out of the bottleneck requires obtaining the fuel and mazot needed to operate the stations.”

But at a time when Syria is experiencing a strangling fuel crisis, ampere generators continue to operate routinely in the black market. This is despite the fact that they consume 20 percent more fuel than electricity generators at stations falling under the Syrian Ministry of Electricity, Balan said on Syria Satellite. 

To secure fuel, the owners of ampere generators tap into various channels. Some are related to government corruption, and the involvement of officers and officials who supply the market’s generators with fuel. Generator owners also buy from fuel stations that sell subsidized rations to people other than their intended recipients. Some people also sell their own fuel rations to ampere owners to make a profit and meet their other needs as living conditions in the country deteriorate.

Abu Weam, the home electrician who works at an ampere electricity company in Sahnaya, said the generators owned by his employers consume large amounts of fuel. He does not know precisely how much, but “every day, a 16-meter truck loaded with barrels of mazot arrives by way of a 4th Division officer.”

Opposition media sites have also accused 4th Division officers of controlling the ampere electricity trade in Aleppo province, and pointed to Hafez Munther al-Assad—Bashar al-Assad’s cousin—as controlling the market in coastal Latakia province. In May, the Sawt al-Asima website reported that 4th Division officers were involved in the ampere trade in Damascus through their support of traders involved. 

Golden lines

The Damascus government began to exempt certain electric supply lines from rationing, which are known among Syrians as the “golden lines,” in 2016. It expanded the practice in 2018. These lines provide power from state institutions and are entirely or partially exempt from power cuts. They power specific commercial facilities and public service facilities—such as some hospitals and major bakeries—as well as security and military institutions, presidential palaces and the homes of officials and influential figures. 

One kilowatt of rationing-exempt electricity used for household consumption or touristic purposes costs SYP 800 ($0.05), while power used for industrial, craft and commercial purposes costs SYP 450 ($0.02). 

Figures within the Damascus government have accused the Ministry of Electricity of corruption by providing lines exempt from rationing to influential figures in exchange for illegal payments. 

In March, the General Staff of the Army and Armed Forces issued a circular warning all military personnel to not allow any person to encroach on electricity lines exempt from rationing that power military institutions. 

“Through monitoring, it was found that some people and office owners were illegally drawing electricity from state institutions exempt from rationing,” the message read. It implicitly referred to the involvement of officers and officials in selling electricity from military barracks to industrial facilities and housing units nearby, since these lines can only be encroached upon by those with access. 

“Some of those with golden lines, whether officials, traders or manufacturers, sell the electricity through ampere subscriptions,” one journalist living in a western Damascus suburb, who asked not to be identified for safety reasons, told Syria Direct. He confirmed that a number of shop owners in his neighborhood buy electricity by the ampere from these lines. 

While one kilowatt of electricity costs its intended industrial recipients SYP 450 ($0.02), it is “sold to people for SYP 6,000 [$0.30],” he added—a markup of 1,400 percent. 

Air pollution

Increasing reliance on fuel-powered private generators raises alarms for Syrian officials about their impact on public health. Assistant Minister Balan highlighted the large amount of environmental pollution produced by the generators scattered throughout Syrian neighborhoods in his Syrian Satellite appearance in August. 

Balan pointed to neighboring Lebanon, which suffers from its own electricity woes and where people largely rely on private generators. “There are around 200 cancer patients a year out of every 100,000 people,” he said, attributing this rate to pollution emitted by generators. “These generators cause the death of 9,000 people annually,” he added. 

In an October 2022 article in the peer-reviewed Lancet medical journal, Najat Aoun Saliba, a chemistry professor at the American University of Beirut who led a team of researchers studying the impact of air pollution in Lebanon, warned that “a possible increase of at least 550 cancer cases, more than 500 hospital admissions due to cardiovascular problems, and another 3,000 cases of pulmonary diseases could be expected per year as a result of the current level of pollution.” 

The generators used in Syria are “not designed to work 24 hours a day, as they are backup generators,” Balan noted. In the long term, “they will become harmful to the environment, apart from consuming 20 percent more fuel than our generating stations.” 

A video posted on Facebook by residents of the Barzeh district of Damascus alongside a complaint of constant noise from a generator belonging to the Ahmad Hamish Hospital, 23/6/2021 (Damascus Province Complaints)

Three sources in Damascus complained of “loud noise” and pollution caused by the smoke generators emit in their conversations with Syria Direct

While a process appears underway towards legitimizing the ampere system, sources also feared that the central state is more broadly moving to privatize the energy sector—abandoning its obligations to provide electricity. 

The journalist in western Damascus views what is happening as “either a prelude to the privatization of electricity and this sector’s abandonment by the state, or paving the way to raising public electricity prices.” He called it part of a more general pattern of “the state abandoning its obligations in favor of traders who carry out its services, most of whom are under the authority of the regime and Asma al-Assad,” Syria’s first lady. 


This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.

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