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Severe Bread Shortages Loom for Syria

Severe Bread Shortages Loom for Syria

Thursday, 9 July, 2020 - 18:15
FILE PHOTO: A combine harvester harvests wheat at a field in Qamishli, Syria June 2, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo
Asharq Al-Awsat

Syria could face severe bread shortages for the first time since the start of the war, another challenge for the regime as it grapples with an economic meltdown and fresh US sanctions.

Any major disruptions to Syria's bread subsidy system could undermine the government and threaten a population highly dependent on wheat as rampant inflation drives up food prices.

"There is already some evidence of people cutting out meals," said Mike Robson, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's Syria representative.

"...If the currency continues under pressure, imports will be difficult to obtain and the months leading up to the 2021 wheat harvest may see real shortages."

Syria's economy is collapsing under the weight of its complex, multi-sided conflict, now in its tenth year, and a financial crisis in neighboring Lebanon, choking off a vital source of dollars.

Soaring prices have made life harder for Syrians. In the past six months alone, the number of "food insecure" people in Syria is estimated to have risen from 7.9 million to 9.3 million, according to World Food Program data.

"My 50,000 pound (monthly) salary ($21 on the informal market) is barely enough for a few days and I am living on debt. People are selling their furniture... In our lives this has never happened," said state employee Yara.

The United States in June imposed its most sweeping sanctions on Syria yet. Washington says the Caesar Act excludes humanitarian aid and aims to hold Bashar Assad and his government accountable for war crimes.

Syrian authorities blame Western sanctions for widespread hardship among ordinary citizens.

The Syrian pound, which held steady at around 500 to the dollar for several years, went into free fall last year, hitting a low of 3,000 in June, in anticipation of fresh sanctions.

That currency drop is hindering Assad's plans for buying up all of this year's wheat to make up for a shortfall in imports that is drawing down on strategic reserves.

Abdullah, a confectionary trader from Damascus, has never seen poverty on this scale.

"We had always been self-sufficient. Why we have reached this point where even a loaf will soon become a dream, I really don't know," he told Reuters in a text.

While food is not restricted by Western sanctions, banking restrictions and asset freezes have made it difficult for most trading houses to do business with Syria.

With major grain traders out of the equation, the government relied on businessmen to conclude transactions to sustain the bread subsidies.

"They import quantities to Lebanon and then take it to Syria by land unless it is Russia giving direct shipments, government to government, then they can deliver to (the port of) Latakia," said Ayman Abdel Nour, a US-based political analyst.

"Now that window has closed with the problems in Lebanon."

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