In 2020, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that 9.3 million people in Syria were considered to be food insecure, making it one of the ten countries hardest hit by acute food insecurity. The war has stressed the government’s ability to provide bread at low prices. Shortages have become commonplace. In a speech on 4 May 2020, President Bashar al-Assad even admitted that “Syria’s most difficult internal challenge is securing basic goods, especially foodstuffs.” Three months later, a devastating explosion at the Port of Beirut destroyed a critical port of entry and storage facility for Syria’s wheat imports.
Syria’s wheat crisis is by no means simply a war-time predicament. Environmental degradation was a key legacy of Syria’s bid for food self-sufficiency in the 1980s and 1990s. In the 2000s, a series of environmental disasters and the overall neglect of Syrian agricultural workers precipitated an acute crisis in food security that the Syrian government avoided by abandoning its strategy of self-sufficiency in favor of wheat imports. However, a reliance on imports ultimately paved the way for the rise of black markets and private traders close to the Syrian regime during the conflict. In effect, the war exacerbated pre-war trends that emerged amidst the transformation of Syria’s food regime from a system of self-sufficiency to one of import dependency.
Nine years of war has also undermined agricultural productive capacity and provoked an exodus of Syrian farmers, curtailing the possibility of returning to a strategy of self-sufficiency. Syrian government bombardment of formerly opposition-held areas and the territorial loss of agricultural regions in the northeast has meant that its previous strategy remains a path foreclosed. Moreover, international sanctions on Syria, which also predate the war, have further restricted the government’s ability to conduct import trade through legitimate channels, hastening the proliferation of offshore shell companies and illegal smuggling routes across the country’s porous borders. Syria’s partial integration into a hostile global financial system has put its reliance on importing wheat under great duress.
In 2020, numerous news reports described the long queues for bread proliferating throughout cities as the Syrian government resorted to providing rationed quantities of subsidized bread on the controversial smart card system. Increasingly, Syrians are also complaining of the declining quality of bread and the exorbitant prices being charged on the black market. With the government unable to move away from an import-dependency model, while simultaneously struggling to source badly needed imports, Syrians will likely face these problems for the foreseeable future.
The Pre-War Roots of Syria’s Wheat Crisis
The roots of Syria’s wheat crisis stretch back to the country’s tumultuous experience with economic liberalization and environmental degradation in the 1990s and early 2000s. Decades prior to the current conflict, in a bid to establish food self-sufficiency, the Syrian state developed extensive irrigation projects and provided direct wheat subsidies and indirect water subsidies to intensify wheat production. The goal of self-sufficiency in wheat and barley production was achieved in 1994.
However, groundwater and soil resources in agricultural regions in the north and northeast were exhausted in the process. The effects this environmental degradation—coupled with the neglect of agricultural sector workers in the 2000s—were felt acutely by inhabitants during the 1999-2001 and 2006-2010 droughts, as evidenced by increasing poverty and rural-urban migration. Between 2008 and 2009, the UN estimates that 800,000 people lost their livelihoods due to the drought, with 200-300,000 people migrating out of the northeastern province of Hasakah alone, although some of these figures have been contested.
Regardless of the precise numbers, the damage from the droughts and long-term agrarian decline did not push the government to support Syrian agricultural workers and rural households. In the mid-2000s, the Syrian government actually reduced its subsidies for agricultural inputs, namely pesticides, fertilizers, and even diesel. Between 2006 and 2010, food prices increased by 38.2% while energy prices doubled. At the same time, the government opened Syrian markets to cheap Turkish and Jordanian agricultural exports, forcing small-scale producers out of the market, and leaving them to search for other forms of work in urban centers or for heavily capitalized agricultural firms.
The decline in Syria’s agricultural sector in the decade before the war was palpable. From 2001 to 2007, agriculture’s contribution to GDP decreased from 27% to 18%. The country’s population grew and rural-urban migration swelled, meanwhile the annual average growth of cereal yield decreased from 14% in 2000-2005 to 7% in 2006-2011. Taking into account population growth from 1990-2010, Syria’s agricultural growth per capita actually declined in real terms, averaging -3.1% over this twenty-year period. In 2008, traders and state institutions were called upon for the first time to procure wheat on a large scale to make up for massive wheat deficits, importing approximately 1.2 million tons (approximately 30% of the pre-war average wheat output). To avert a crisis of food security in the mid to late 2000s, the Syrian state gradually dispensed with its strategy of food self-sufficiency in favor of imports—further marginalizing agricultural producers and strengthening private sector traders in the process.
Outside of the agricultural sector, presidential decrees and legislation that liberalized sectors of the economy in the 2000s brought in foreign direct investment (and foreign currencies), primarily into the sectors of oil and gas, tourism, real estate, insurance, and private banking. The reorganization of Syria’s political economy in favor of commercial sectors gradually embedded the country into global trade and financial networks that had previously been sealed off. Foreign currencies became more accessible to traders and the new private banking system allowed political and economic elites to transfer their money outside of the country. In this interlude, a new crop of urban businessmen such as Firas Tlass and Rami Makhlouf amassed great economic and political power, while the Syrian regime sidelined the old Ba’athist leadership that had protected rural producers.
Syrian Agriculture under Fire
While these pre-war trends signaled a shift toward a reliance on imports, Syria enjoyed only a short period of relative stability in the supply of wheat. The outbreak of militarized conflict following the popular uprisings of 2011 marked a watershed moment in determining Syria’s trajectory towards food insecurity.
Less than three years into the conflict, as farmers fled war-torn areas and saw their livelihoods turn to ruins, domestic production halved. Even as the government began to retake control of key areas, domestic production remained far below its pre-2011 levels; in 2018, wheat production stood at just 1.2 million tons—the lowest it had been since 1989. Of the 140 wheat collection centers that were in operation in Syria before 2011, only 40 remained in 2017. Additionally, four out of five yeast factories in the country shut down completely, challenging the state’s capacity to provide plentiful bread at low prices. The militarization of the conflict inflicted severe damage on Syrian agricultural production and destroyed sources of rural livelihood.
Given the national importance of wheat and the provision of bread as a signifier of credible governance, government forces specifically targeted agricultural heartlands over the course of the war, further straining already-stressed domestic wheat sources. In opposition-held areas, the Syrian government’s wide-scale bombing campaigns devastated wheat production and refinement. In the southern province of Dara’a, for example, flour mills and bakeries were targeted by the Syrian government and key provisions were cut off, forcing residents to rely on assistance from international NGOs, USAID, networks of Syrian revolutionaries in Amman, and the Jordanian government. In opposition-held Aleppo, Human Rights Watch reported ten government aerial bombings of bakeries over a three-week period in August, 2012. In Idlib province, farmers claimed that government forces were intentionally targeting wheat crops to prevent opposition fighters from hiding in the fields. According to a local network of media activists in Idlib, the Syrian government launched more than 125 air raids on villages after the Islamist-led Jaysh al-Fateh seized the strategic Abu al-Duhur airbase in September 2015. As Martinez and Eng note in their study of the politics of bread in the Syrian Civil War, “when the Free Syrian Army and other rebels thrived in the regions of Idlib, Homs, and Deir e-Zor, bakery bombings quickly followed.”
On the other hand, groups such as ISIS regularly used the threat of fires to extort money from farmers under its control. When ISIS began to lose territory throughout the northeast, it intentionally set crops ablaze, stating in its newsletter that, “the harvest season is still long, and we tell the soldiers of the Caliphate: you have before you millions of dunums of land planted with wheat and barley, which are owned by apostates.” However, these tactics were not limited to ISIS; when fires broke out across the northeast, residents accused all military actors of setting fire to crops, including Syrian government forces, Turkish-backed factions, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
In addition to targeted bombings, agricultural areas saw the spread of deadly fires that destroyed thousands of hectares of agricultural land, specifically wheat crops in northeast and northwest Syria. Although some fires may have been accidental, the militarization of these areas compounded the risk of agricultural destruction. Caught between military factions firing shells and incendiary bombs, some farmers witnessed their entire wheat crops burned to the ground and their livelihoods destroyed. Climate change-induced temperature rises and droughts also increased the chances of accidental fires, whether from the destruction of agricultural equipment during military skirmishes, or even from cigarette butts dropped by soldiers in the area. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AA), also known as Rojava, made efforts to use certain herbicides that create vegetation-free strips of earth so as to limit the spread of fires, but these come as limited solutions in the face of ongoing military conflict.
Control over grain storage facilities also shaped the contours of local governance and relations between various political forces throughout the war. For example, in the city of Manbij, management over an important grain silo was hotly contested, passing through the hands of the regime, the opposition-led local councils, ISIS, and the SDF. In 2013, under local council rule, the Council of the Trustees of the Revolution (CTR) raised the price of bread, much to the anger of residents in the area. As one ex-member of the CTR told me, “ISIS was claiming that the local council was stealing wheat and rising bread prices, so when they [ISIS] took over [the silo], they brought down the price of bread to prove their governing capabilities.” In 2014, the silos then sustained damage from US-led airstrikes, which also killed some of its workers. Then in 2016, during the US-backed SDF assault on Manbij, ISIS concentrated on defending this position, planting mines and booby traps around the grain silo to prevent advancing troops from entering. Ultimately, US and SDF forces took the town from ISIS and asserted control over the silo. Yet despite the symbolic and strategic significance of grain, the silo is now used by the SDF-led Manbij Military Council to host its military headquarters rather than as storage for grain.
As a result of territorial fragmentation and prolonged violence, border crossings and black markets emerged throughout the country. With the Syrian government increasingly cash-strapped and state institutions no longer holding a monopoly over wheat purchases, power shifted toward local brokers and traders who worked alongside the regime. Traders often purchased wheat from opposition-held areas by offering above-market prices; activists from Raqqa and Deir e-Zor even accused the government of using middlemen to purchase wheat from ISIS. The rearrangement of Syria’s political economy toward trade intermediaries was also reflected at the elite level, as some sections of the pre-war bourgeoisie found themselves increasingly marginalized in favor of war-profiteers such as Mohammad and Hussam al-Qatarji, Khodr Ali Taher, Samer Foz, and Wassim Qattan.
Challenges to the Import-Dependency Model
Alongside the military destruction of Syrian agriculture and the proliferation of black markets, the government’s ability to maintain the smooth flow of wheat from abroad and purchase wheat directly from Syrian farmers came under severe duress throughout the course of the war.
For example, the government gradually lost its monopoly over the wheat market as the war progressed. The General Establishment for Cereal Processing and Trade (GECPT/Hoboob), a state-owned enterprise that had historically purchased the lion’s share of the country’s wheat grown by its farmers, no longer dominated the domestic market. In 2011, GECPT purchased 64% of the country’s domestic wheat, but by 2017, this figure dropped to just 17%. Moreover, as early as 2013, more than 50% of GECPT’s wheat purchases originated from abroad—mainly from Russia and Ukraine and delivered via Lebanese and Syrian ports. Using Lebanese front companies to access US dollars and bypass suffocating US sanctions, Syrian businessmen close to the regime acted as important trade intermediaries for the purchasing of wheat. For example, in 2019, the head of GECPT identified three companies that were awarded tenders for the import of wheat in the previous year, two of which were registered in Lebanon as offshore companies—one owned by an important affiliate of the regime, Samer Foz.
However, with the onset of the spiraling financial crisis in Lebanon and the falling value of the Syrian lira in late 2019, the government’s import strategy that had dramatically intensified over the past decade began to unravel quickly. In an attempt to meet domestic requirements, GECPT made a bid to source 200,000 tons of wheat from Russia in February 2020, but ultimately failed to complete the purchases, most likely due to US dollars frozen in the Lebanese financial system. Moreover, as the COVID-19 pandemic engulfed the globe, Russia announced on April 26 that it had reached its grain export quota for the April-June period and would halt all shipments of grain until July 1.
Scrambling to source enough grain for its population, the Syrian government announced in May that it was dedicating 11% of its budget—approximately 450 billion SYP—to purchase the local wheat harvest. The majority of this wheat, however, is grown in Syria’s northern and northeastern regions of Hasakah, Raqqa, Aleppo, Deir e-Zor, and Hama—most of which are now under the control of the AA. With the Syrian government pitted in competition with the AA over the purchasing of wheat, the two sides entered into a price war amid a rapid collapse in the value of the Syrian lira. On June 7, the AA announced that it would no longer be giving a price in Syrian pounds until the market stabilized and would set aside a certain amount of US dollars for the crop. In the interim, Russia resumed its international export of wheat, allowing the Syrian government to issue more tenders for wheat imports. On August 2, the Tartous Manager of GECPT confirmed that 25,000 tons of wheat had arrived into the Port of Tartous.
These remain temporary solutions to an underlying, structural problem of import dependency and foreign currency shortages in Syria. Opening its economy to foreign investment in the early 2000s led to an influx of capital in the oil and gas, tourism, real-estate, and banking sectors. But now with oil and gas fields largely outside of government control, tourism at an almost complete standstill, and the economy unable to rebuild from suffocating sanctions, Syria’s dependence on imports has generated an acute crisis, exerting immense pressure on its currency reserves. In addition to wheat, the government has recently faced similar problems in issuing tenders to import raw sugar and rice—commodities that are supposed to be sold at subsidized prices. Through a combination of price increases and temporary solutions, the government has hobbled along, trying to stave off massive food shortages throughout the country.
Uneven Global Integration and Perpetual Crisis
This situation is not uncommon for many import-dependent developing countries integrated into the US-led global financial system. Unlike countries that follow a model of export-oriented growth which build up foreign currency reserves (which are then often recycled back to the US in the form of treasury bonds), import-dependent countries struggle to accumulate these reserves and are therefore subject to demand crises and external price shocks. However, the absence of an alternative financial system means that a heavily sanctioned country, like Syria, experiences further political difficulties in both generating foreign reserves and using them on the international market. The result is a downward spiral: as pathways for accumulating reserves are foreclosed, fears of reserve shortages induce bouts of speculation and hoarding that threaten the value of the national currency, thereby weakening peoples’ incomes and importing inflation. Largely cut off from the global financial system yet dependent upon external sources of grain and food provision, Syria has been pushed deeper into the orbit of competing powers such as Russia and Iran.
Syria, like other countries, is nonetheless a society stratified by various social classes with competing political and economic interests. As such, the effects of food insecurity, import dependency, and US sanctions are not spread equally throughout Syrian society. In an attempt to mask its own exploitation and subordinate class conflict to national unity, the Assad regime regularly denounces Western imperialism and criticizes US sanctions. Yet Syrian elites are often least affected by the deteriorating economy as they store their wealth in places like Dubai, Lebanon, and Switzerland. The uneven terrain of global finance allows anti-imperialist elites to exploit financial hubs and amass great wealth even as imperialist powers seek to exclude such countries from the global financial system.
The sordid underside of this arrangement, however, is a great number of Syrians shouldering the burden of such exclusion. Farmers are forced to import agricultural inputs at much higher prices with little state support while fires continue to burn crops in agricultural regions. For many Syrian agricultural workers who fled the country, fears of conscription and government retribution sit alongside the reality of returning to few economic opportunities. At the same time, citizens throughout the country face alarming rates of poverty and hunger as bread shortages become commonplace. Households are sold rationed quantities of bread depending on the size of their families, sometimes waiting three hours for their allocation. Meanwhile, some bakeries have increased their prices fifteen-fold for those who can afford it—or who cannot afford to wait. The provision of food has become tethered to networks of exploitative trade monopolists and emerging black markets as the government fails to source enough wheat and rebuild bakeries.
Even though the presidential palace continues to regularly denounce corruption and scapegoat traders in a bid to shore up popular support, the persistence of such trade networks and diminishing food security is an outgrowth of the regime’s sources of political power within an exclusivist global economy. To crack down on trading networks and emerging black markets in any comprehensive manner would in fact undermine sources of elite power that are central to reproducing class rule in Syria. Nevertheless, without public control over food imports, without loosening international sanctions, and without revitalizing Syria’s agricultural areas in environmentally-sustainable ways that protect rural producers, the future of Syria’s food security remains in doubt.
 Jane Harrigan, The Political Economy of Arab Food Sovereignty (Springer, 2014), 46.
 Professor of Politics and International Relations, Jan Selby, has scrutinized some of these figures, noting that they were often exaggerated or taken out of context to justify exceptional environmental narratives about the origins of the Syrian conflict. Instead, he emphasizes the importance of long-term agrarian decline in Syria, pointing to the fact that Hasakah witnessed dramatic out-migration even before the drought. Jan Selby, "Climate change and the Syrian civil war, Part II: The Jazira’s agrarian crisis." Geoforum 101 (2019): 260-274.
 Linda Matar, The Political Economy of Investment in Syria (Springer, 2017), 148.
 Selby, 266.
 Harrigan, 23.
 Matar, 129.
 Martínez, José Ciro, and Brent Eng. "Struggling to Perform the State: The Politics of Bread in the Syrian Civil War." International Political Sociology 11.2 (2017): 136.
 Martínez, José Ciro. "Topological Twists in the Syrian Conflict: Re-thinking Space through Bread." Review of International Studies 46.1 (2020): 121-136.
 Martinez and Eng, 138.