Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Keeping the lights on | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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The Euphrates Dam, near the town of Al-Thawra, Syria (AAA)

The Euphrates Dam, near the town of Al-Thawra, Syria (AAA)

The Euphrates Dam, near the town of Al-Thawra, Syria (AAA)

Al-Thawra, Asharq Al-Awsat—The lights go out daily in Syria. Sometimes the power stutters and then stops as night falls, and the blackness and sudden silence remind everyone how heavily they rely on electricity and how much they’ve taken it for granted until now. The subtle whir of the fridge and the laptops and the television waiting on standby are all of a sudden gone, leaving a void that hangs heavy over the room until the generator kicks in and the air is filled with the smell of diesel and the sound of the whirring once more. But when they go out in the daytime it’s worse because then no-one can justify burning fuel to keep the power running. So when the electricity is on in Syria everyone rushes to charge up their phones, their cameras and their laptops, and when it goes off again everyone who didn’t charge them up wishes that they had.

And yet people find ways to cope. Children in Aleppo bound up the inky black stairwells of city apartment blocks as quickly as they do when they can see where they’re going. Shopkeepers sell lighters with mini torches built into the ends and, since almost everyone smokes, someone’s always bound to have a lighter-cum-torch at the ready. At one opposition media center activists have rigged up a string of LEDs that can run for hours from a single 12 volt battery and light up the whole room enough so that everyone can carry on working. It’s only outside after sunset that you really miss the light: trying to negotiate the potholed streets with just a torch to guide you takes up vast reserves of concentration, and it’s troubling to think too deeply about who could be hiding in the darkness.

The power cuts have become such a normal part of life in Syria that no-one even comments on them any more. Nobody questions why they are happening either—they are just another one of the inconveniences of living in a war zone. But trace the power cuts back to one of their sources and you reach one of the most interesting vignettes in this conflict.

Al-Thawra, in Al-Raqqa Province on the banks of the Euphrates, is a one street kind of town. The identikit apartment blocks and kebab shops lean into the road claustrophobically and there appears to be only a handful of inhabitants. But at one end the main street opens up dramatically onto a vista of the Euphrates roaring over a vast concrete hydroelectric dam.

This was the centerpiece of Hafez Al-Assad’s project to modernize Syria in the early years of his rule. The Euphrates Dam, completed in 1970, and leading to the artificially sunk Lake Assad, the largest reservoir in the country, is a monument to Ba’athism as much as it is an impressive feat of civil engineering. It was the biggest Ba’athist construction project of the twentieth century, equipped with the latest Soviet technology and finished off with a massive bust of Hafez himself alongside a scale model of the Dam and one of the turbines in the entrance lobby. And finally, just to complete the transformation of Al-Thawra, the Ba’athists changed the town’s name. Previously it was called Taqba; Al-Thawra means ‘revolution’.

The scale models are still there in the lobby but the bust has gone: fighters from Jabhat Al-Nusra set fire to it when they captured the Dam back in February. Ironically, and perhaps symbolically, it has been requisitioned by the revolutionary fighters out to topple the Ba’athist regime. When we visited three months later the plinth was all that remained of the bust, and the entrance was guarded by one bored looking Nusra fighter. After a brief conversation he let us down into the Dam’s control room, and that’s where we found Hossam, carrying out his duties as if nothing at all had changed.

Hossam is not his real name—he spoke to us only on the condition that he would remain anonymous. He is an engineer and for the past two years has been part of the team that keeps the power that runs from the Dam flowing, once one of 720 workers, now one of just 50. The rest left and never returned when the rebels took control of the Dam, but Hossam insisted that wasn’t a problem. “The people who’ve stayed are the people who did all the work in the first place,” he said. “The rest got their jobs through their connections with the regime.”

Hossam sat on his swivel chair in front of a huge board that looked like part of a television game show set. He pointed out the light bulb studded grids that represented the power supplies running to the cities of central and north-western Syria: Aleppo, al-Raqqa, Homs and Hama. The light bulbs that were on showed where the power was flowing and the ones that were off showed where the power had been cut. From his swivel chair Hossam could watch a vast visual representation of thousands of fridges and televisions being suddenly and unexpectedly snapped of, with the implication that the whine of countless generators being revved up in unison wouldn’t be very far behind.

Of the seven lines running from the Dam only two were off, testament to Hossam’s claim that the depletion of the workforce had had little impact on the running of the facility. And yet when the battle was raging around the Euphrates Dam the output was depleted to almost zero. Sensing that it was both pointless and extremely dangerous being there Hossam left for his home, just as the Dam was finally entirely surrounded by the rebels.

But a couple of days later—after hearing that the battle was over, the regime’s troops had left and the rebels had taken full control of the Dam—he returned to his desk and his duties. And it appeared that a strange kind of truce had been reached: according to Hossam, the jubilant rebels allowed safe passage for groups of regime-employed mechanics to enter the Dam, repair the damage, and get the power running again.

Hossam’s anecdote is believable for two reasons. Firstly when we visited the Dam it was up and running as normal, albeit with a very slightly reduced capacity, even though it had been in the hands of the rebels since they took it in February and it was at the center of a battle for several days.

Secondly it’s clear that the rebels are allowing the engineers at the Dam carry on with their work uninterrupted. This video shows armed men wandering around the turbine hall and shaking hands with the engineers, who appear remarkably unbothered by this turn of events. It did seem strange that the whole place—the biggest hydroelectric Dam in Syria—was being guarded by just one fighter. Earlier that day we had visited an oilfield which had also been captured by the rebels: it was being protected by a group of at least ten fighters, who stringently checked our credentials as we entered and the boot of our car as we left.

Hydroelectric dams account for only a small part of Syria’s electricity production, but the Euphrates Dam alone produces 800 megawatts, and is the biggest in the country. It would be an easy coup for the regime to leave it to flounder in the hands of the rebels, forcing the power off in even more homes and businesses in opposition areas. Furthermore, experts warn that if the Dam is not maintained properly it could cause a massive surge of water down the Euphrates, flooding cities such as Deir Ezzor and perhaps others in Iraq.

It might also be assumed that the rebels would want to maintain a healthy presence at the Dam to guard against any counter attacks by the regime—not just the lone (and very young looking) fighter we found there. Instead the signs point towards some kind of deal being done to keep the lights on and (perhaps more crucially) the Euphrates flowing gently—to the huge benefit of Syria’s civilians. And if this is the case, why has it happened and who was involved—and what other deals of this kind are being made?