While historically a grain exporting country, on the eve of its civil war, Syria had been importing grain for a couple of years. This unusual situation was the result of natural as well as artificial economic factors, and has only been exacerbated by the ongoing civil war. This series of articles will examine the Syrian economy, food production amid a civil war, and the increasing reliance of everyday Syrians on handouts to stave off starvation and suffering.
A Brief History of Syrian Grain
The drought that started in 2005 limited yields by 2008 and that showed both in the production and the imports.1.https://www.indexmundi.com/agriculture/?country=sy&commodity=wheat&graph=production Wheat trading sites as well with old tenders for grain show that the source of wheat purchased at the time was the grain producing region of the Black Sea.2.“Сирия снова проводит тендер на закупку пшеницы” : Зерно Он-Лайн While Syria produced an average of 3.7 million tons annually during those years, the overall yield was not high, hovering between 1,500 and 1,700 tonnes per hectare of cultivated land based on the cereal production data.3.“Сирия снова проводит тендер на закупку пшеницы” : Зерно Он-Лайн A comparison with Bulgaria where wheat is also the main cereal production shows that on average Bulgaria produces 2 to 2,5 times more per hectare than the Arab nation and the only time the two came close to each other in production was during the season that preceded the Bulgarian bread crisis of 1997.4.Drawn from World Bank database, 2004.
While Damascus is responsible for providing essential food items to less Syrians than it did prior to the war due to displacement and loss of control over a third of the country’s land mass, it is increasingly unable to provide much other than the most basic stable – bread now makes up a larger share of the Syrian diet with limited nutritional additives such as vegetables and meat. However even a much more bland diet is now prohibitively expensive, with breakdowns by local outlets suggesting the cost to feed a family for a month have skyrocketed to 225,000 SYP.5.“تقرير: 150 ألف ليرة تكلفة وجبة غداء الأسرة السورية شهرياً..و 225 ألف إذا تناولت الفلافل!!” : B2B As the war progressed, the yield kept dropping and larger and larger imports had to be ordered. 2018 being perhaps the lowest yielding year and the worst year for the state’s grain authority HOBOOB, which managed to procure only around 300,000 of the 2.5M tons needed by the end of August. There were other factors in play however, the lower price of purchase at 175 SYPs per kilo, the lack of greater territorial control, the lower amounts of planted areas and the bad season.6.“الحبوب تستلم 300 ألف طن قمح فقط من المزارعين بتراجع 34% عن العام الماضي!” : B2B7.“Exclusive: Syria to import 1.5 million tons wheat” : Reuters
By 2019, domestic procurement improved, with greater areas being planted and the government offering a higher price of SYP 185 SYP per kilo.8.“زيادة في مساحات القمح المزروعة في سورية بنسبة 95% لتبلغ نحو مليون و 800 ألف هكتار” : B2B9.“اتحاد الفلاحين: تسويق مليون طن من القمح هذا الموسم” : B2B Meanwhile, farmers became even more reliant on the grain authority and loans from state banks to continue operating over time. But the state was experiencing difficulties at that time, there were losses to numerous fires in the fields, with some being blamed on ISIS and others being tied to the heat spike and to top all that, a shortage of wheat bags in Hasakah hindered collection.10.“In Syria and Iraq, ISIS claims credit for mystery crop fires” : The Washington Post But while the harvest wasn’t as good as it could have been, it was definitely a drastic improvement over the previous year.
The boon harvest of 2019 did not alter the overall trajectory of Syria’s growing food insecurity. Prices for other goods had detached from following the SYP-USD exchange rate, due to reduction in overall output of goods produced in Syria, leading to a greater need to import, rising costs of production in Syria and a shift of some local producers toward sending goods to foreign markets (often through smuggling). Prices of basic food items initially moved towards an equilibrium with international prices, and then began fluctuating based on the exchange rate.11.“سورية تطرح مناقصة جديدة لشراء أطنان من القمح الروسي” : B2B This meant that the Syrian subsidised bread, priced at the time at 50 SYP, was in even higher demand than before and the state had to import grain to make up the difference again. HOBOOB’s officials estimated they needed over 1 million tons to make up the difference, and while this is less than purchased in prior harvest seasons, they seemed to be even less successful as their tenders failed to find sellers three times prior to March 2020. This is a combination of several factors, the first being that the cost to procure wheat on short notice is greater when compared to a tender for delivery next season. In addition, the payment method is now uncertain as Lebanese banks were experiencing difficulties and are in even more dire straits now.12.“Syria’s economy goes from very bad to worse as Lebanon’s crisis hits” : Middle East Eye As such the state was entering 2020 with a clear uncertainty on how to provide one of the most important services of states in the Arab world, subsidised bread.
The Bread Diet
The current state of affairs is both a short term development and a long time coming. By 2018 the prices of most foodstuffs had jumped and reached some form of parity with international markets. The reason behind this was that less and less of the underlying costs to produce agricultural goods were for domestically available supplies or services.. This factors in the long term development, as by the third quarter of 2019 a family of 5 had to spend 115,000 SYP on food when most Syrians were earning between 30,000 and 70,000 SYP. The other long term impact was that meat was disappearing not just from ordinary Syrians’ tables but also from the state as a whole. Milk producing cows for example are imported routinely from Germany at a great cost to the state due to the conversion costs.13.“سورية استوردت 5083 بكيرة ألمانية” : B2B But even then the price of milk isn’t stable as the key component, animal feed, remains elusive.14.“سورية استوردت 5083 بكيرة ألمانية” : B2B The overall size of Syria’s herds is down by at least 20 percent and by other more recent estimates by over 40 percent.15.“تراجع الثروة الحيوانية في سورية بنسبة 23% للأغنام و25 % للأبقار و21 % للماعز” : B2B
Other possible crops remain equally in short supply or unaffordable as recently the idea to import potatoes was dismissed by the senior officials on a vague economic basis. Poultry and egg prices remain lower relative to other meat and sources of protein but they are still only partially affordable as they are reliant on the price of animal feed and competitive offers to export the eggs for some producers.16.“توصية اقتصادية بعدم استيراد البطاطا لوجود كميات تغطي حاجة الأسواق” : B2B Smuggling is also a reason that the price of essential foodstuffs, and on top of all of these factors the Syrian Ministry of Oil and Gas has never reached the production standard of gas, oil, and its distillates needed to support even the basic functions of the economy. Gas for retail usage is also seasonally in short supply each autumn and winter with the increase in demand by the population leading to less money being available for food purchases.17.Syrian Ministry of Oil and Mineral Resources official social media. The increased bread consumption is also clear based on published statistics and it confirms that the final colder months of the year are usually the ones with the greatest consumption.
The situation became even more dire over the past six months as Lebanon dealt with simultaneous banking and political crises, causing prices to spike once more. By February 2020 the SYP had lost most of its value compared to the USD, as seen in the visual above – the SYP was racing towards an exchange rate of 1500 per 1 USD.18.“تقرير: 150 ألف ليرة تكلفة وجبة غداء الأسرة السورية شهرياً..و 225 ألف إذا تناولت الفلافل!!” : B2B By March the costs just for food procurement had almost doubled.
Despite a double digit percentage increase of salaries in recent months and military successes for the regime on the ground, by the beginning of February, Syrians were poorer than they had ever been before. Lebanon’s crisis also impacted money transfers from Lebanon and caused some Syrians working there to return due to inability to provide for themselves in Lebanon.19.“Syria’s economy goes from very bad to worse as Lebanon’s crisis hits” : Middle East Eye As all prices were going up gold started declining in value by March, suggesting people were selling their jewellery to make it through another month. The only food they could buy was either the subsidised or unsubsidised “tourist bread”, which is the cheapest and most efficient source of nutrition.20.https://twitter.com/Elizrael/status/1240744167539650569
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
Since the start of the Spring of 2019 a series of offensives with small breaks between them has been ongoing. Gregory Waters and Trenton Schoenborn from the team at the International Review have detailed the losses suffered in those offensives, but the economic and social implications of these costly operations often receive less attention. Going forwards with the army has often meant leaving healthcare and schools back.
The immediate effect as documented in another article by Waters for the Atlantic Council is that the state’s wounded veterans are soon abandoned by their parent organisation, be it a militia, the intelligence services, police or armed forces.21.https://www.facebook.com/DamasCountryside.Now/photos/a.613984695354608/2897313250355063/?type=3&theater The pensions and employment opportunities for families are just too small and the payment of stipends for the mobilisation cohorts are also insufficient. By the end of March, with the confrontation now also involving Turkish forces, the losses reached a considerable high point, one not seen since fighting in 2017.
The looting campaigns that militia and military forces often lead doesn’t offer long term economic stability for fighters. Online stores that sell looted goods show the variety of items sold on social media and it’s hard to imagine these troops barring their senior officers being able to accrued any considerable savings off the practice. The continuous financial destitution of low ranking soldiers is also attested to by the voluntary support structures that accompany most large SAA operations. These provide cooked food, winter clothing and other basic essentials for field conditions. Often the source of these can be traced to aid programs in various forms, be it ingredients or complete goods. This is just another example of how pitiful the overall state of the force is, and yet it continues to carry out offensive operations with what can only be described as near apocalyptic casualty rates.
The strategy of war first and everything else at times seeming like a distant second has not alleviated the situation for many Syrian civilians. As will be explored in the upcoming second part of the article it has historically been the case that basic supplies were hoarded for military operations at the expense of essential services. It is perhaps accurate to say that the fixation on the war with non-ISIS opposition factions has led senior state officials to deny their actions any agency in the ongoing collapse of the Syrian economy and society. But despite the resilience of modern states via technology and the application of rigid organisational principles, Syria seems to have finally been dealt its mortal blow. Because without the people and their basic needs being met, there’s hardly a state left to govern.