This piece was prepared as part of the 2013–2014 Syrian Economic Reconstruction Project run by the Carnegie Middle East Center, which sought to help map the social, political, and institutional dynamics that will be generated when postconflict reconstruction begins in Syria. This piece was drafted in 2014 and updated in March 2015.
Before the March 2011 uprising, Syria was the only country in the region that was self-sufficient in food production and especially in staple agricultural crops such as wheat and barley. It had even turned into a regional exporter before a major drought in 2008–2009 forced the country to import large quantities of wheat for the first time in many years.1
After four years of devastating conflict, the country is turning into a net importer of wheat, with dwindling production of fruit and vegetables. In the years before the uprising, Syria had witnessed higher yields due to improvements in land and crop management practices that helped it capture major markets in neighboring countries and the Gulf.
Huge strategic wheat reserves that were a cornerstone of the Baath Party’s food security policy to create self-sufficiency and mitigate any impact of Western-led economic sanctions now appear to have run out or been substantially depleted.
Although few figures are available, analysts say the country’s wheat stocks have diminished to less than a few months’ worth of consumption, a far cry from wheat reserves that before the crisis were enough to cover the country’s consumption for at least one year.2 Much of its estimated 3.5 million tons of reserves were stored in over 140 silos located in areas that the regime has lost to opposition forces. Currently, only one-third of the silos are operating.
Syria’s farming sector had seen sizable public and private investment in fast-growing modern farming techniques and infrastructure before the crisis in 2011. In northeastern Syria, the authorities were even beginning to invest in sprinkler irrigation in many of the larger state-run projects, as was the case with some large private investments.
Today, much of this infrastructure is either damaged or lying idle.
The longer the conflict endures, the more costly it will be for the agricultural sector to recover. Although there are signs that the sector has at least adapted, in some areas the lack of fertilizers and cheap fuel has had such a detrimental impact that it will require years for the country’s agriculture to recover.
Shifts in the Rural Economy and Accentuating Social Disruptions
The impact of the Syrian crisis on agriculture is particularly important because the sector is the main source of income for a large proportion of the population. According to local Syrian experts and UN agricultural economists, up to 40 percent of livelihoods in Syria are connected to agriculture in one way or another.
The erosion of wealth of farmers’ communities will play a determining role in the postconflict socioeconomic landscape, especially since the marginalization of the countryside in the decade of liberal economic reforms that preceded the 2011 revolt is considered one of the economic factors that fueled the uprising.
Reduced areas of cultivation have lowered the living standards of rural farming communities that once depended on agriculture and livestock.
The militarization of the uprising has also meant that many of the youths who were employed in the agro-industry and on land are now part of a war economy on which they are increasingly dependent. They are on the payrolls of opposition armed groups that have their own sources of income from banditry, theft, and seizing state assets.
The shrinking role of the agricultural sector will take a toll on key health and nutrition indicators as more people are fed less because of diminishing food stocks. The unavailability of food, unhygienic and overcrowded living conditions, inaccessible or limited healthcare services, and reduced immunization coverage for children under five years old have increased the risk of communicable diseases and have serious implications on the nutritional status of those children and pregnant and lactating women.
Rebel-Held Areas’ Growing Reliance on Food Imports, Mainly From Turkey
An alarming consequence of the four-year conflict is that greater numbers of Syrians have become unemployed and more dependent on food parcels brought across the border by Syrian expatriates, Gulf charities, and UN agencies such as the World Food Program (WFP). These groups are now turning into the main sources of food supplies.
This is especially true in rebel-held areas, although many of the people displaced by the conflict and living in the state-controlled areas of Aleppo and Damascus are dependent on WFP handouts distributed through government channels.
In northwestern Syria and along the Turkish border, many families who inhabit makeshift shelters or tents depend heavily on the flow of food donations from Turkey- and Gulf-based aid agencies/charities and benefactors.
Daily trailers cross the two main border crossings of Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salameh to deliver food handouts to villages across rebel-held areas, with people and traders becoming accustomed to living in conflict areas and adapting to the changes in trade routes.
Syrian traders who are importing via Turkish ports to supply these regions are also playing a crucial role, according to residents of towns in rural Idlib and Aleppo.
Even in mainly Kurdish areas along the northern and eastern border that are less affected by the conflict, such as the city of Afrin, and in Raqqa, the border crossings with Turkey—such as Tal Abyad—have been crucial conduits of food supplies and goods.
The growing reliance on Turkey as a food lifeline stems from the near collapse of industrial activity in Aleppo, the country’s economic capital that once provided the inhabitants of the region with most of the basic consumer items. In many ways, that has meant that these areas have effectively become an extension of the Turkish market.
Loss of Productivity of Arable Land
The conflict has led to the shrinkage of sown areas for a combination of reasons—power cuts, damage to irrigation canals, and the high cost of fuel. The rotation of cereals with food and feed legumes can help restore or sustain soil nutrients and reduce the risks of pests, but that has been neglected, which is also a serious problem.
The intense fighting in the country is in the heart of the main crop cultivation area, stretching along the western Mediterranean coast and eastward following the northern border with Turkey. The disruption in food production in conflict-torn Ghouta has also affected both the availability of fresh produce in the capital and prices.
One of the unexpected consequences of the conflict has been the breakdown in tight controls over the misuse or excessive exploitation of underground water aquifers. Farmers in rebel-held parts of the country drill new underground wells to irrigate farmland that would otherwise have not been sown or harvested with existing rainfall levels.
The impact of the depletion of aquifers as farmers exploit the crisis to pump water from new wells is a problem that will accentuate the country’s long-term water crisis, with a trend in declining water tables. In the short term, however, it has been one of the factors of resilience of rural communities that has helped them grow enough food in local areas and mitigate the disruption of trade routes.
Although many farmers in areas less affected by conflict have sought to maintain crop cultivation as much as possible despite the hostilities, the low rate of return of local produce, the shortages in fertilizers, and the high cost of fuel have all hurt productivity levels, according to agricultural economists interviewed for this publication.
The nature of the fighting from one village or town to another has created havoc and bottlenecks in supply chains and delays on roads used to transport produce to markets. But in many cases, de facto arrangements on the ground have ensured the continued flow of vital food and energy supplies from state-controlled areas to opposition territory with relative ease—an example of how, even in conflict, the human will to survive outweighs any other consideration.
Some internally displaced farming communities from rural Homs and Damascus have moved to farming villages such as Tafas and Yadouda in the fertile southern Hauran, where they have taken shelter in depopulated towns whose inhabitants had fled to Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp.
It is clear, however, that there is little that can compensate for the loss of much of the production of fresh vegetables and fruit—from cucumbers to tomatoes and tree crops—that the fertile Hauran plain generated before the crisis in a thriving multimillion-dollar export business to the Gulf.
This also applies to other key agricultural areas in the Ghab plain and in Idlib and Aleppo.
Destruction of Syria’s Agro-Industry
One of the major effects of the crisis will be an incremental and growing dependence on imports of basic foodstuffs—at least one-half of the productive capacity of the country’s once-thriving food processing and packaging agro-industry is out of operation.
The war has reshaped Syria’s economic geography, with businesses and industries retrenching in more secure parts of the country or heading for safety abroad.
Relatively low-intensity conflict areas like the Mediterranean port city of Latakia and in the southern city of Sweida, where outlying farmland and orchards have not been affected, continue to export some of their surplus of fresh produce to neighboring markets, including Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon, to get much-needed foreign exchange. The improved rainfall that has brought better yields is expected to boost exports.
The war has brought sharply contrasting economic landscapes, with the farming sector’s ability to survive under extreme conditions one facet of the many contradictions that the crisis has created.
In southern Syria, once the country’s main vegetable- and fruit-producing region, whose exports to the Gulf earned the country hundreds of millions of dollars in hard currency, the shift toward safer areas has been very marked.
Sweida, which has escaped the wide-scale damage in nearby Daraa, has now replaced Daraa as the main center of the agro-industry in the south of Syria.
Brisk trade continues to flow from southern Syria to Jordan and from Lebanon to Syria, where trucks unload produce for export from farmland that is just kilometers away from areas of military conflagration.
Investors and leading businessmen in the agro-industry seeking to salvage some of their lost output have also acted aggressively by either shifting manufacturing to “safe” areas or relocating to industrial parks near the borders in Turkey and Jordan. The Al-Durra food company, which now exports to its former markets from Jordan’s northern industrial park, is a notable example.3
State Policies to Enhance Food Security and Its Use as a Weapon of War
The state has gradually lifted restrictions on the imports of food such as potatoes, red meat, and poultry, which the country was formerly self-sufficient in, to help bolster food security and to ensure that at least part of the dwindling subsidy system is still functioning.
Reducing the soaring food prices in areas under the government’s control is, indeed, crucial to staving off wider public discontent and maintaining loyalist support.
The state has also encouraged private importers to use more of their capital to finance food imports to ease pressure on its scarce foreign currency, limiting trade finance that offered merchants dollars at preferential rates.
The authorities have also sought to activate credit lines with Iran and Russia to help finance imports of basic foodstuffs to cover the shortfall after the rebels took control of the major grain silos in northwestern Syria and the Jazira region—Hasakah, Raqqa, and rural Deir Ezzor—where the bulk of strategic reserves were stored.
This financing and aid has helped mitigate some of the adverse impact of Western sanctions, even though a $1 billion credit line offered by Iran to Syria ended up mainly benefiting private traders associated with the ruling strata.4
Ultimately, it was the savvy Syrian businessmen who saved the day for the state, securing enough grain imports from the Black Sea area and food supplies from neighboring countries that helped put the brakes on the increase in prices fueled by the erosion in the value of the Syrian pound.
The ability of the state’s grains-procurement agency to supply part of the market’s needs through an elaborate state consumer chain of outlets has not only prevented food shortages but also checked inflationary pressures.
The fiscal demands on the authorities have forced them to further lift subsidies on fuel and, partially, on other basic commodities, with the authorities importing fewer food supplies than under the once-lavish system.
The gradual lifting of aid to rebel-held areas and redirecting what is left of the country’s subsidy system to loyalist areas has also helped ease the financial burden.
Intermediaries associated with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have also benefited from access to cheap, subsidized food and fuel items to resell or smuggle to areas that have fallen into the opposition’s hands.
This has eased the pressure on the regime in terms of meeting the needs of populations in rebel-held areas and focusing on food security in its own heartland.
The relative abundance of wheat and fuel in government-controlled parts of Aleppo, Damascus, Latakia, and Tartus contrasts sharply with shortages and hunger in areas besieged by the regime, which are mostly located in the countryside. The disparity in supplies can only deepen the historic urban/countryside split.
In addition, the channeling of most UN food aid through the authorities has helped the Syrian regime in some ways, allowing it to enhance food security on its territory.
UN insiders say food agencies like the WFP have no means of determining whether the regime has fairly distributed its food packages. Conditionality terms force the aid to go through Syrian NGOs that are cleared by the Syrian security services, raising doubts on the fairness of aid distribution.
What is certain is that both food sent by the WFP to Latakia’s port for redistribution under the aegis of the state as well as goods delivered through Turkey to rebel-held areas in northern Syria by Gulf charities are contributing to easing the burden on the authorities and reducing the state’s overall food import needs.
The use of food as a tool to attain the regime’s political and military ends in besieged areas such as Homs, Mouadamiya, and eastern Ghouta in Damascus could become more widespread.
So far, this “starve into submission” policy, which in specific areas has led to brokered ceasefires—where rebels hand over weapons in return for easing army sieges and allowing the entry of goods and food—is an exception rather than the rule. In the future, its widening use as a tool of war could worsen food conditions in more areas, affecting tens of thousands of people.
Long-Term Consequences of Worsening Food Insecurity
The chaos and conflict in Syria has also led to the depletion of Syria’s livestock, which was estimated in 2010 by the Food and Agriculture Organization at 15.5 million sheep and 2.0 million goats but is thought to have fallen by at least 40 percent.5 The poultry sector, which was a mainly private sector investment with significant exports of meat and eggs, has lost almost 70 percent of its production according to Abdul Salam Ali, deputy minister of economy and foreign trade.6
The consequences of the pillaging of Syria’s livestock through smuggling of live animals across the Iraqi, Jordanian, Lebanese, and Turkish borders have increased the cost of red meat; Syria is now scrambling to import from Brazil, India, and Romania for the first time in many years. New agricultural laws have lifted restrictions on imports of red meat, an indication of the shortfall.
The gradual dismantling of the subsidy system and the government’s weakened capability to encourage cereals production through high procurement prices will also have social implications.
The conflict has severely disrupted the traditional food supply chains and replaced central markets with small retail markets on city outskirts. It has also led to the opening of new trade patterns and routes geared toward Turkey that could reshape the economic landscape of the northern provinces. For example, some of that region’s harvested cotton and olive oil goes to Turkey.
The scaling down of government wheat-collection centers is a direct consequence of the loss of control of much of the rural northern and eastern areas, and the security risks posed by transporting wheat also mean that local farmers are turning to Turkey as an alternative market.
The destruction of large parts of the manufacturing sector and the severe rupture of agricultural production in the northern, western, and eastern parts of Syria have increasingly made these parts of the country, where most of the country’s arable land is located, more integrated with the Turkish market.
In the long term, how much of this will become an extension of the Turkish market, if the crisis continues, remains an open question. Examples abound of the reliance on the flow of goods and of semi-finished materials from Turkey to offset the loss of goods in rural markets that were once supplied by Aleppo’s industrial plants.
Rural parts of northwest Aleppo were the breadbasket for local agricultural markets that satisfied the higher and more diverse demands of urban dwellers in Aleppo.
Already, the ease in the flow of goods and human capital has transformed the economic landscape of these border areas—the rejuvenation of Turkish border cities is a direct consequence of the transfer from Aleppo and its hinterland.
In urban centers across the country that are still under state control, such as Deir Ezzor, Hama, Homs, Idlib, and parts of Daraa, a pre-2011 state-command economy continues to play a determining role in commercial activity. Remaining production capacity from existing plants in the Adra and Hessia industrial parks, near Damascus and Homs respectively, which have been much less affected than Aleppo’s Sheikh Najjar industrial zone, continues to supply some of the demand for products in state-run areas.
Meanwhile, the flow of goods, tents, and more from Gulf charities to rebel-held areas is creating its own dynamic in terms of growing food dependence from outside Syria due to the paralysis of wider economic activity that could have untold consequences in the future. This could possibly destroy the accumulated experience of several generations of farming.
Syria’s relative food security resilience so far is largely due to the country’s well-developed farming sector before the crisis and a state-command economy that focused on wheat as a strategic food commodity and was helped by a lavish subsidy system to boost the production of wheat.
A centuries-old agrarian tradition continues to help the ancient Mediterranean country to avert large-scale food shortages in local produce that other countries, which have undergone lesser upheavals, have experienced. In fact, four years into the crisis, there have not been any incidents of starvation (except regime-engineered sieges of certain areas), partly due to the accumulative resilience of agricultural communities.
Much of the credit also goes to Syria’s business community that has continued to play a leading role in supplying most of the imported foodstuffs sold in government-held areas even though the state has stepped up its role as a direct buyer, although it is much less effective.
However, the longer the crisis lasts, the bigger the losses to the country’s well-developed farming infrastructure, with a sharp contraction in yields that will turn the country into a net importer of many basic food items that were previously produced locally. From potatoes to live poultry, meat and dairy products to olive oil, Syria had been among the world’s largest producers.
Suffice it to say, the dependence on food handouts from international agencies and charities will affect even more Syrians as long as the human toll of the conflict grows. Since the crisis, the country has been forced to import more food, with nearly 6 million Syrians dependent on food aid, according to the UN.7
The flow of goods to rebel-held areas is creating its own dynamic of food dependence that arguably is a temporary phenomenon, which should diminish when the fighting ends. Still, it is difficult to firmly grasp the amount of human capital lost by a generation of farmers who have endured most of the ongoing conflict.
In Hauran and parts of northwestern and eastern Syria, the breakdown of irrigation systems due to the conflict, as well as power shortages, has worsened food security.
Water scarcity, which is already affecting many urban centers and the countryside, is expected to worsen and become a challenge for agriculture, especially for irrigated farmland. Saving groundwater will be strategic for Syrian agriculture.
In addition, expected shortages of agricultural products due to the decline in production will bring soaring prices that will worsen livelihoods and the socioeconomic plight of a majority of Syrians.
Local economies whose mainstay is the war economy that consolidates Syria’s fragmentation along ethnic and sectarian lines will further hamper a speedy postconflict sustainable recovery.
The crisis could force growing economic dependence by the state on key allies who now shore it up mainly with political and military help—Iran, Russia, and to a lesser extent Iraq—for credit and preferential trade deals. Iran has so far supported the regime with a $3 billion credit facility. But the limited scale of consignments of frozen chicken and flour are more of a token gesture than an effective easing of bottlenecks and show the limits of how far the Assad regime’s biggest regional ally can help in food security.
In the short and medium term, Ukraine’s troubles with Russia could also disrupt the food security policy of the regime that relies on friendly Eastern European states and Russia to offset wheat shortages. This is because Western sanctions could make it more difficult for Syria to switch to alternative markets to cover grain shortfalls.
Syrian farmers’ traditional resilience in the face of adversity will be a major factor that will help the sector to recoup a good measure of its losses in the event of a postconflict settlement, with farmers renowned for their enterprise.
Many of the country’s wealthy expatriate community, with billions of dollars of assets, are expected to play a leading role in reconstruction. The agricultural business is no doubt one of the sectors whose internal rate of return would be attractive for many investors in view of the huge pent-up demand and loss of capacity.
Ultimately, food security has been eroded in Syria over the last few years, with production of main crops falling by varying degrees mainly due to the impact of the conflict on fertilizers, the disruption of trade routes, and the reduction of subsidies on fuel.
- Phone interviews conducted with several farmers in Idlib, Aleppo, and the Daraa countryside, January–February 2014.
- Interview with Naked Khamis, seed expert/consultant with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, who went on several missions to Syria after 2011.
- Phone interview with Mwaffak Chikhali, expert head of Earth Link & Advanced Resources Development, Syria.
- “Agricultural Livelihoods and Food Security Impact Assessment and Response Plan for the Syria Crisis in the Neighbouring Countries of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey,” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, March 2013, https://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/download.php?id=1831
- “Monitoring and Evaluation Report, Syria Crisis Response,” World Food Program, April 2013.
- Interview with Ahmad Zain, a leading Damascus-based commodity trader and agro-industrialist.
1 Francesca de Châtel, “The Role of Drought and Climate Change in the Syrian Uprising: Untangling the Triggers of the Revolution,” Middle Eastern Studies 50, no. 4 (2014): 521–535.
2 “Syria: 2012 Wheat Production Outlook Is Favorable Despite Ongoing Conflict,” United States Department of Agriculture, published on June 12, 2012, http://www.pecad.fas.usda.gov/highlights/2012/06/Syria/.
3 Interview with Al-Durra Food Products executives.
4 Alaa Shahine and Donna Abu-Nasr, “Syria Counts on $1 Billion Iran Fund to Support Pound,” Bloomberg Business, June 18, 2013, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-06-18/syria-counts-on-1-billion-iran-fund-to-support-pound.
5 “FAO/WFP Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission to the Syrian Arab Republic,” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Food Program, July 5, 2013, http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/aq113e/aq113e.pdf.
6 Interview on Syrian television with Abdul Salam Ali, deputy minister of economy and foreign trade.
7 “Life-saving Food Aid in Jeopardy for Millions of Syrians, Warns UN Agency,” UN News Center, September 18, 2014. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=48745#.VTf0JJ3F_Tp