As military activity in Syria winds down, likely resumption of agricultural trade will in turn improve the outlook for food security. This will benefit all parties involved in the conflict in Syria, whether pro-government or pro-rebel, as well as neighboring countries. Restored regional food security does not only mean enhanced and stable access to food for millions of displaced Syrians, but also an improved livelihood for many agricultural and refugee host communities in neighboring countries.
With a unique position as a trade corridor and a trade bottleneck in the Middle East, Syria offers access to regional agricultural markets for Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan, all of which have been heavily affected by the Syrian war and continue to host large numbers of refugees. In fact, Syria plays an even larger role in global agricultural trade, connecting supply routes to Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Russia, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.
The Syria crisis prompted two major trends that worsened food insecurity in the region. The first is the decline in total agricultural trade with and through Syria. Trade routes shifted to avoid military action and/or closed borders. These longer and often riskier routes—controlled by militias, the Islamic State (IS), or even government forces demanding “passage facilitation fees”—raised transportation costs and disrupted supply chains. In addition, there was a decline in overall agricultural production, not just in Syria but also in neighboring countries due to such factors as population displacement, limited access to water, and military activity. These two trends became a vicious cycle that has had tremendous negative consequences for stakeholders in the agriculture and food supply chains, from producers and consumers to traders and governments. Furthermore, it has led to a shortage of basic foods, price hikes, and a loss in revenues.
Prior to the war, there were several trading routes for food supply to, from, and through Syria. Lebanon exported its agriculture and food produce to Syria primarily through its Masnaa crossing. From there, the food produce journeyed on to Jordan through the Nassib crossing on the Syrian–Jordanian border and then to the GCC. Turkey exported its produce through two major routes: the first to Syria through the Bab al-Hawa crossing and then onto Jordan and the GCC. The second passed through the Nusaybin crossing to the Iraqi border crossings of either Rabia or Abu Kamal. Jordan and Iraq also depended on the Syria corridor to import their food supplies from Europe and Russia via Lebanese and Syrian ports. The Syrian war rerouted the food supply chains for all countries. Lebanon and Turkey had to shift supply routes to the GCC to maritime and aerial freight, while Jordan relied on receiving its imports through Israel and its southern port in Aqaba. Iraq’s imports from Turkey are currently funneled through the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
Syria continues to be a major trading partner for all its neighboring countries.1 Consequently, the closing of its borders has severely affected the formal trade that occurs between Syria and Jordan. For example, food and agriculture exports from Jordan to Syria dropped from around $89 million in 2010 to $27 million in 2016, and imports dropped from around $272 million to $64 million over the same period. Syrian farmers and exporters lost an important export destination, while traders and consumers in Jordan lost a major food source. In Jordan, this has contributed to high inflation in food prices—already affected by the influx of around 2 million Syrian refugees—which have fueled recent demonstrations. However, the ongoing normalization of political and trade relations between the two countries, as exemplified by the reopening of borders in 2018 and the resumption of bilateral food trade, will help to relieve these tensions and restore the livelihoods of Syrian families returning to rural agricultural areas, especially in Syria’s south around Daraa and Wadi Hauran.
Restoring the trade routes through Syria would also help the ailing Lebanese economy. Although Lebanon has increased exports, it has not been able to capitalize on this increase due to higher transportation costs. In 2016, Lebanon’s food exports to the GCC, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, rose to $263 million—despite the closure of the Jordanian borders—compared to $214 million in 2012, when the Jordanian border was still open. Iraq, a secondary destination for Lebanese food and agriculture products, imported around $40 million worth of products, up from around $30 million prior to the Syria conflict. Nevertheless, Lebanese exporters shifted their transport routes to maritime and air freight in order to avoid Syrian territory. This method costs around 60 percent more than land transport, eating into the profits of these exports. Although some sporadic trade continued overland into Iraq, traders had to pay more freight insurance in addition to unpredictable costs of paying off local militias.
In addition to higher transportation costs, increased water scarcity, and competition from Syrian smugglers seeking to fetch higher prices in Lebanon, shifting trade routes have contributed to an overall reduction in agricultural production within Lebanon. Not only has this raised domestic food prices, but Syrian refugees—upon whom the Lebanese agricultural sector relies heavily for labor—are losing work opportunities with the decline of agricultural activity. Meanwhile, the Lebanese government is losing both tax revenue from production exports and increasing its trade deficit. Lebanese farmers and food industrialists praised the reopening of the Nassib border crossing between Jordan and Syria in October 2018 and have started to organically export through Syria and Jordan at their own risk. However, the Lebanese government has not yet legislated on this opportunity, as it needs to overcome internal political differences between its pro-regime and anti-regime constituents. Only then will it be able to coordinate with the Syrian government to facilitate passage of Lebanese food exports through Syria.
For Iraq, the resumption of trade is particularly vital in addressing food insecurity in the recently liberated governorates of Anbar, Salahuddin, and Nineveh. Largely cut off from the rest of Iraq when under Islamic State rule between 2014 and 2017, and later cut off from IS-controlled trade routes in eastern Syria, these predominantly Sunni Arab governorates have not yet been able to return to a level of agricultural activity that ensures food security. Large swaths of former agricultural land across Salahuddin, Nineveh, and Kirkuk—the breadbasket provinces of Iraq—still lacked vegetation in the 2017 and 2018 growing and harvesting seasons. This is partly because Iraqi internally displaced persons (IDPs) have been reluctant to return. But even in areas where displaced people have returned, there has not been sufficient government support to resume agricultural activity, whether by rebuilding damaged irrigation canals, providing seeds, or subsidizing the cost of production.
Prior to the Syrian crisis, Syrian agricultural exports—consisting mainly of foodstuffs and animal products—generated $1.1 billion. Since 2014, the Abu Kamal, Tanf, and Rabia border crossings between Syria and Iraq have remained closed to commercial traffic, cutting off this trade apart from some smuggling. Cross-border animal trade and the free movement of herds are particularly essential for safeguarding local sources of food in war-struck provinces such as Anbar and Nineveh. Almost one third of Iraq’s total 13.5 million sheep, cattle, and goats and 39 million poultry was lost in IS-dominated governorates of Nineveh, Salahuddin, Kirkuk, and Anbar. This was due to a number of reasons: livestock was killed during clashes; stolen amid the security vacuum; fell foul to diseases due to lack of veterinary access; or confiscated by IS and sold on local markets to keep meat prices low and accessible to the public. Access to livestock, therefore, would enable local economic activity through dairy production and cottage industries, both of which are a major source of primary income for female-headed households and displaced families. This would help stabilize these provinces in the absence of reconstruction aid from the paralyzed government in Baghdad.
Furthermore, the rest of Iraq would also benefit in the short term from importing food from Syria to make up for diminished production, thereby addressing the poor conditions in these war-torn governorates and also dwindling water supplies caused by dams built by Turkey and Iran. Similarly, Kurdistan would benefit from decreasing its dependency on Turkey, currently its main food supply and trade corridor, and (to a lesser extent) Iran, which has been sealing off its borders with the region due to increased Kurdish guerilla fighting within Iran.
For Turkey, food security for border areas in Anatolia would likewise improve if northern Syria were to become more stable. Even though food and agriculture exports from Turkey to Syria grew from around $200 million in 2010 to around $600 million in 2016—despite the formal closure of borders—stability in northern Syria would likely see refugees return from Turkey. This would not significantly change the national food supply but would bring down the cost, especially in major urban areas and the border towns of Antakya, Gaziantep, Sanliurfa, Hatay, Adana, Mersin, Kilis, and Mardin. While Turkey already exports around $600 million of food informally to rebel-held areas—and through them to the rest of Syria—an open border could restore trade routes for its fresh vegetables, fruits, and meats to the GCC markets. In 2016, these exports were worth at least $1.2 billion and are currently being shipped or flown daily at higher transportation costs.
Above all, Syria itself would benefit the most from restored food trade in the region. Not only could customs and taxes on the transit of food and agriculture products provide much-needed income for reconstruction, the resumption of food exports is necessary to relaunch the agribusiness sector in Syria, the second largest employer after the government. Prior to the war, Syria exported around $3 billion worth of food and agriculture products. Agriculture continues to account for at least 26 percent of Syria’s GDP and provides a social safety net for around 6.7 million Syrians. With increasing focus on reconstruction, investment in agriculture could recoup the $16 billion of damages to the sector accrued during the war.
Syria and its neighbors all have a vested interest in regaining regional food security. Even if a comprehensive political settlement for the Syrian conflict remains elusive, food security—within Syria and regionally—should be the basis for the cessation of hostilities and a common ground for starting reconstruction within Syria, resuming bilateral trade arrangements, and reinvigorating political dialogue.
Hadi Fathallah is an economist and policy adviser at NAMEA Group; a fellow of the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs; and a member of the Global Shapers Community, an initiative of the World Economic Forum. The designations and data employed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the expression of the author or NAMEA Group concerning the legal status of any country, territory, or political solution to the Syrian crisis. Follow him on Twitter @Hadi_FAO.
1. Data in this analysis is obtained from the latest reported data available through UN COMTRADE, based on the Harmonized System (HS) standard for documenting and classifying product data and trade.