Bashar al-Assad has once again crossed his own “red line” on food subsidies. The Syrian government increased the price of a standard bundle of bread (1.55 kilograms) to 35 Syrian pounds ($0.19) from 25 Syrian pounds on January 17—the second increase in the price of bread during the past seven months. The policy change, a shock to many Syrians, may prove to be a key chapter in a conflict where the government has used starvation and hunger as effectively as it has barrel bombs and chemical weapons. While food was once a critical tool used to appease loyal populations and punish the opposition, the bread price hike suggests that the regime is feeling the pangs of its depleting resources. As the war approaches its fourth year, the Assad regime may finally be running out of ammunition for one of its trademark weapons.
Bread subsidies (and the provision of cheap food more generally) can provide a powerful incentive for civilians to support those who rule, or at least comply with them. Before the conflict, bread accounted for around 40 percent of Syrian households’ caloric intake. And the shortages and rampant inflation seen in the past three years have only exacerbated the poor’s reliance on subsidized foodstuffs.
Cutting food supplies to rebel-held areas and channeling the bulk of humanitarian aid to government-approved zones has made the regime “the only reliable source of life-sustaining food.” One activist in regime-controlled Damascus said, “It is rare that one finds a bakery without long lines, but [bread] is available for all, despite the difficulty in obtaining it.” The distribution of foodstuffs has become an instrument through which the regime placates weary civilians while subtly reminding them of the benefits of state power and administration. The stark contrast in food availability between opposition and regime-held territories has been a key factor behind many of the regime’s victories.
The place of subsidized bread in Syria’s social contract predates the current conflict. It is a crucial ingredient in the “bread compact” that has framed the country’s political order since the 1960s. Prominent regime representatives have often referred to the subsidy that ensures bread is sold at below market price as a red line. But the ongoing crisis has transformed the country’s bread supply chain. Widespread looting, coupled with regular attacks on warehouses both by regime and opposition forces, has drastically reduced storage and production capacities. Out of the 140 wheat collection centers in operation before the crisis, only 40 are said to remain. Four of the country’s five yeast factories have shut down. Flourmills and bakeries throughout the country are either closed or operating far below capacity. The local currency’s depreciation has made imports increasingly expensive, and the bread subsidy ever more costly. Nevertheless, state officials consistently denied rumors there would be price hikes, insisting the growing cost of the subsidy program was merely another burden nobly shouldered by the regime.
This has all changed in the past half year. “We live in exceptional circumstances that require exceptional actions and exceptional decisions,” the Minister of Domestic Trade and Consumer Protection, Hassan Safiya, told the official Syrian state news agency SANA in the wake of the most recent increase. He emphasized that the government was still committed to providing its citizens with food supplies and other necessities, a remark that echoes those of his predecessor, Samir Qadim Amin, following the first price rise last July. Both officials expressed their hopes that the crisis engulfing the country would soon end so that the regime could go back on its decision.
Ensuring supplies to areas under regime control is crucial to Assad’s political calculus, as is depriving those areas deemed loyal to opposition forces. Deliberate scarcities harm adversaries, or those unlucky enough to be under their jurisdiction. In besieged districts, bread and flour deliveries not sanctioned by the regime are completely banned. When battles break out, finding bread becomes an impossible task. In opposition-held territories, flour shortages and supply disruptions mean that bread has been glaringly absent, although efforts by the Islamic State (IS) and other opposition groups to distribute bread illustrate how central food is to sustaining popular support. Most recently, depleting government resources have strained the regime’s capacity to use food subsidies as a political tool. Efforts by various opposition groups to feed those under their jurisdiction have become all the more important.
The severe fuel crisis that Syria is undergoing, and the corresponding increase in the cost of producing bread, is slowly diminishing the regime’s ability to maintain crucial subsidies. U.S. airstrikes on IS-controlled oil-production sites in Deir ez-Zor, well-known for supplying oil to the regime, have drained the government of its energy resources, a problem further exacerbated by its collapsing electricity infrastructure and interruptions in the delivery of tanker oil from Iraq and Iran. Increased demand for heating during the harsh winter has made these shortages especially burdensome, and the bread price hike coincided with simultaneous increases in the price of diesel and gas. A rumored $6.4 billion combined credit line from Russia and Iran could save the regime from further subsidy cuts. However, the drop in worldwide oil prices may complicate this plan. With belligerents unable to sway the war decisively, the shortage of grain and fuel—and the fear that Iran and Russia could decrease material support—may have forced the government to take drastic measures in preparation for the long haul.
To the casual observer, a price hike of $0.06 for over a kilogram of bread may hardly seem cause for concern. In the context of bread’s nutritional, political, and symbolic importance in Syria, however, the increase is monumental. The collapse of the bread subsidy, once so central to the government’s social contract, suggests that the regime is being pushed to its limits. Bread is no longer a red line; now mere survival is.
José Ciro Martínez is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. Brent Eng is a reporter for Syria Direct.