A young Syrian man carries a pile of wheat in a field in the town of Hamouria, in the Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on June 5, 2016. Photo: Sameer Al-Doumy / AFP

Since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011, diplomats and analysts around the world have struggled to grapple with the complexity of the conflict. Few, however, seem to have paid much attention to the long-term trends that will affect life in the country over coming decades. One of the most crucial is the embattled country’s wheat production, or rather, the lack of it.

Syria, once a wheat-sufficient country, has seen its production levels plummet over the course of the war, leaving the country dependent on imported grain from the Crimean peninsula, annexed by ally Russia in 2014.

The degradation of domestic wheat production threatens not only to compound current economic hardships, but could also lead to new political and humanitarian crises, with ramifications that go far beyond Syria’s borders.

Cultivating social stability

The economic and political significance of wheat comes from being the main ingredient in bread, the most essential food commodity consumed by every Syrian family on a daily basis.

From the 1960s onwards, with the Baath Party at the helm, the state assumed full control of wheat production, investing in irrigation, constructing large storage facilities, subsidizing cultivators, and monopolizing the purchase of the harvest. In the official mindset, food security and subsidized essential commodities underpinned social and political stability.

Two large dams and many irrigation projects on the Euphrates River, passing through the three provinces of the Jezira region (Raqqa, Deir al-Zor and al-Hasakah), made the region responsible for 70% of the country’s wheat production.

By the mid-1990s, Syria achieved “wheat self-sufficiency”, despite its population doubling since 1970.

A severe drought between 2007 and 2010 resulted in massive crop losses which had a devastating impact on local communities and forced the country to begin importing grain once again. In the Jezira region, 80% of the population fell below the poverty line and 300,000 families abandoned their villages and hamlets to settle in the ever-expanding belts of illegal housing around Damascus and Aleppo.

The ongoing conflict, which began in 2011, ravaged both areas, leading a group of scientists to conclude that the drought was one of the main factors contributing to the Syrian conflict.

In the Jezira and other areas where wheat is cultivated, such as the Horan Plain in the south and the Ghab Plain in the northwest, Syria’s wheat output dropped from 4 million tons in 2011 to 1.7 million in 2017. To make matters worse, unfavorable weather conditions drove output down further to 1.2 million tons in 2018, a 29-year low according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. The country is meanwhile estimated to be consuming double that amount, or 2.5 million tons of wheat in 2019.

The sharp decline in local production, due to destruction of storage facilities and mills, led public bakeries at one point to raise the percentage of bran in subsidized bread in order to save on flour.

Sanctioned support

To satisfy local needs and offset shrinking domestic production, Syria’s minister of internal trade said in June that the country expected to import 1.5 million tons of wheat in 2018. Most of it would come from a key wartime ally: Russia.

Syria purchased 200,000 tons of Russian wheat in January, according to sources quoted by Russian state media, and plans to acquire similar amounts in February and March. A significant portion of these sizable grain imports will come from the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014.

According to 2017 port and shipping data gathered by Reuters, Syria was the second largest consumer of Crimean wheat after Lebanon, at 75,000 tons. The direct shipping route between Crimea’s Sevastopol, Russia’s largest port on the Black Sea, and the Syrian port of Tartus, established in mid-2018, means Syria will probably top the list this year.

This lifeline remains despite American and European financial sanctions targeting Crimea and Syria. Aside from boosting the Crimean economy, it allows Damascus to provide daily bread for the population at a subsidized price of 50 Syrian Pounds ($0.1) for every 1.3 kilograms.

Seeds of war

The area of cultivated land in the Jezira has dropped to less than a quarter of pre-war levels, according to an estimate by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, who currently control the area. With the absence of accurate surveys, the region’s current share of national wheat output cannot be ascertained. The Syrian government meanwhile, through mediators, continues to buy wheat produced in Kurdish-held areas.

The grain is arguably a more strategic asset than the oil fields dotting the region. So long as American military forces remain in northeastern Syria alongside their Kurdish partners, the likelihood of a conflict breaking out over wheat supplies is unlikely. However, US President Donald Trump has continuously vacillated on his commitment to the occupation, and their continued presence is not guaranteed.

In the long term, a shared interest in re-developing the gravely degraded agricultural lands of the Jezira will be a major motivation for Damascus and the self-proclaimed autonomous Kurdish administration in northeastern Syria to pursue negotiations.

A picture taken from the Syrian town of Tal Abyad on the border with Turkey on September 17, 2016 shows an American flag fluttering above wheat silos. – Tal Abyad was captured by Kurdish-led forces in June 2015. Photo: Delil Souleiman / AFP

Such negotiations are further necessitated by continued tension with neighboring Turkey. Damascus and Ankara have repeatedly failed to agree on a “fair deal” for water shares, even when their relations reached historic, positive heights in the early 2000s.

Turkey has, over the years, built many dams on the Euphrates, the largest of which is the Ataturk Dam opened in 1992. The ramifications for the agricultural production of its neighbors, not only Syria but also Iraq, have been catastrophic. 

In the Jezira region, those dams have led to a drop in the Euphrates River water level, leading to a serious degeneration of cultivated lands with less water available for irrigation. Turkey’s current overt hostility towards both the Kurds and Damascus makes amicable solutions unlikely.

Even if Damascus were to reach an agreement with the Kurds and neighboring Turkey today, Syria needs a great deal of effort, resources, and time to revive its agricultural sector. 

Makeshift oil refineries that sprung up over the course of the war have polluted vast swathes of agricultural lands. Syria also lost important know-how when the Aleppo-based International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, one of the most important seed banks in the world, was destroyed in the conflict.

On the climate front, experts predict that unfavorable weather patterns, worse than the 2007-2010 drought, are expected in the near future. 

Wheat imports and bread subsidies will continue to strain the country’s finances for years.

The historical irony should not be missed here. The land that witnessed the first agricultural revolution nearly 12,000 years ago is hardly able to feed its inhabitants today. And the terrible damage inflicted during the current conflict will burden future Syrian generations for decades to come. This could be, by far, the most destructive and the most lasting legacy of the Syrian war.

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