The focus on Syria long has been, understandably, on the civil war. But there is another, potentially equally serious, conflict going on almost unnoticed in the country: the battle over bread.
More than 60 percent of the country’s wheat is produced in the northeast. The problem for Bashar Al Assad and his regime is that the region – the breadbasket of the country – is controlled not by them but by a Kurdish-led autonomous administration. The difficulties involved in procuring wheat is making Syria’s food security increasingly precarious.
Commercial traffic into and out of greater Idlib, another region of grain production, stopped when the regime launched its military offensive last summer, and has not re-started even though there is currently a ceasefire. The so-called Salvation government, which is affiliated to Hayat Tahrir Al-Shams forces that control Idlib, has banned the sale of wheat to the regime. It has also fixed wheat prices at 440 Syrian pounds (roughly 85 US cents) per kilo – a relatively good price for local farmers, thus ensuring the entire crop remains locally.
Syria imports more than 30 percent of its wheat, mainly from Russia. But Russia has now suspended exports because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Economic sanctions on Syria permit the import of grain. However, the regime does not have sufficient foreign currency to buy from abroad. The difficulty is compounded by the rising cost of freight and insurance. Moreover, many countries refuse to extend credit to Syria, so all attempts to broker deals have come to naught this year.
The regime has been forced to negotiate deals across enemy lines through intermediaries and to give up its monopoly of the wheat trade, allowing private traders to import from wherever they can or via a third country, usually Lebanon. Both those measures are costly. Matters are further complicated by the inability of Syrian private merchants to access their foreign currency accounts in Lebanese banks – because the financial crisis there has caused limits to be placed on withdrawals.
That leaves the regime with the Kurdish-led autonomous region in the northeast, the previously mentioned breadbasket also known as a “self-administered” territory (as distinct from “rebel-held” territory), as a source of supply. By cornering the domestic market, the self-administered region is able to hold the regime to ransom.
Throughout the war, regime and non-regime areas have continued to trade wheat and oil. The regime typically has acquired around 35 percent of its annual wheat supply from the northeast and even offered competitive prices to encourage farmers to sell to it rather than to its opponents. In March, the regime set the purchase price of wheat at 200 pounds per kilo, plus a bonus of 25 pounds for each kilo until May – an increase of more than 20 percent on the previous year.
This set in motion a game of one-upmanship. First, the self-administered region matched the regime’s price and then, as harvest time approached, raised it to 315 pounds – supposedly at the request of farmers because of the devaluation of the currency. The regime responded by doubling its offer, ostensibly to “support the agricultural sector.” The autonomous administration then banned grain sales to other Syrian regions and raised the price further to around 430 pounds.
Though local middlemen have managed to secure some grain for the regime from the northeast, it is not nearly enough to meet needs. Unable to buy either domestically grown or imported grain, Assad’s Syria is now experiencing a bread shortage.
And there may be worse to come. The World Food Program has warned that famine is a real threat as the economy continues its downward spiral. The UN agency estimates that around 9.3 million people in Syria are currently food-insecure, with more than two million more at risk – a rise of approximately 42 percent since last year.
The Syrian people have endured civil war and economic hardship for almost a decade. But unless he addresses how to keep people fed, the biggest threat to Bashar Al Assad and his regime now may not be from the pounding of distant mortars but from the angry mobs of hungry Syrians taking to the streets beneath his own windows.
Haid Haid is a research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. He is also a senior consulting research fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.