Drought, the economic ramifications of a decade of war, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are a recipe for food insecurity in Syria. Syrians across the country face a worsening humanitarian crisis with 90% of Syrians now living below the poverty line, as currency depreciates and prices soar. Rising food costs are complicated by lower wheat production, Syria’s dwindling foreign reserves to import wheat, and Russia’s decreasing ability to supply wheat and aid. In early 2022, it was anticipated that Syria would face a 2 million ton shortage in wheat when factoring in both production and imports. Narrowing options portend a famine and humanitarian disaster for the 12 million Syrians, half the country, who are food insecure.
Over the past decade, drought conditions have ravaged the Syrian landscape. Syria’s breadbasket in the Northeast relies on water from the Euphrates River, however, in 2021 the river dropped to its lowest point on record, risking over two thousand acres of irrigated agricultural land. Fires and low rainfall further impacted wheat production. In Al-Hasakah, crop production in 2021 dropped 95% compared to 2020. Lack of rain and water for irrigation, as well as increasing costs of seed, fuel and fertilizer have led to forecasts that 2022’s wheat production will be even less than the disappointing 2021 crop. According to the New York Times, many farmers in the area did not plant seed during the 2021 planting season, as they would not be able to turn a profit if they were to plant and harvest wheat in 2022.
While a decrease in wheat production can be partially attributed to climate change, much of this crisis is man-made. Historically, Syria’s and its neighbors have failed to equitably share water resources. Over the past few years, water has also been weaponized by parties to the conflict. The Syrian Government has cut off water to millions of civilians, ISIS regularly withheld water from communities under their control, and Turkey has been accused of stopping the Alouk water station’s operations. In January 2022, Russia bombed a water station in Idlib.
Since 2020 when images went viral of Syrians forced to wait in caged walkways for bread, the Syrian economy has continued to spiral. From 2021 to January 2022, the Syrian pound depreciated by 19% while the wage of average non-skilled workers lagged behind. The average cost of a basic food basket as measured by the World Food Programme (WFP) in February 2022 is 231,004 Syrian pounds, as compared to 76,000 Syrian pounds in November 2020, signaling massive inflation. The Syrian Government has started to end subsidies for basic goods and services for hundreds of people. Without subsidies and wages comparable to the cost of goods and services, many face starvation.
Subsidies, however, do little to combat a larger, looming crisis. Syria does not have enough wheat to feed the country. Although the government raised the purchasing price of wheat for farmers to incentivize production, it has not been able to offset the shortage. To fill the gap, the government has turned to imports, however, sanctions on the Syrian government have resulted in a lack of foreign reserves, isolation, and few options to purchase wheat. As Syria begins to run out of foreign reserves, the Government has already suspended imports of several products, including food items, for six months in an effort to redirect efforts to import wheat.
Syria’s main wheat suppliers, Russia and Belarus, face tightening economic sanctions and Russia has already cut off wheat exports to several countries. While Syria has remained in favor politically with Russia, Russia suspended an agreement in late 2021 to export 1 million tons of wheat to Syria due to the rising global price of wheat. Syria was left to renegotiate a better price. Since then, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has blocked Ukrainian wheat exports reducing global supply and raising prices, while also leading to further sanctions on Russian assets. The ability of Russia to support Syria through its wheat crisis is now in question. As global prices of wheat and fuel soar, Syria must procure enough wheat to meet demand despite depleted financial ability and rising prices.
Humanitarian assistance in Syria remains complicated by the threat of the Syrian Government diverting aid and Russia blocking cross-border access to areas that are not controlled by the government. The sole remaining cross-border mechanism, Bab Al-Hawa, is at risk of closure in July 2022. The 2021 renewal was contentious and U.S. diplomacy with Russia is often credited with its ultimate renewal. However, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, U.S. and Russian diplomacy has stalled. Syrians in non-government controlled areas rely on this humanitarian assistance and current wheat shortages and impending famine make this cross-border mechanism all the more vital.
The wheat crisis should be a main focus of the upcoming Brussels VI donor conference. Learning lessons from the disappointment of the Brussels V Conference, donors at Brussels VI should consider sanction freezes for transactions related to wheat and aid to facilitate and protect humanitarian work. Donors should consider direct wheat aid through a neutral party to the whole of Syria, including government-controlled areas. Providing wheat rather than cash can reduce the risk of aid diversion. Furthermore, Russia should be pressured to allow international monitoring of all aid delivery through the Syrian Government to ensure there is no aid diversion. Greater coordination between civil society and donors, as well as coordination between U.S. and European sanction mechanisms is needed to clarify humanitarian exemptions and ensure that average Syrians do not continue to pay the price for the Syrian Government’s actions.
As part of a humanitarian effort to provide immediate relief to the millions who face starvation, Russia should publicly be pressured to provide wheat as aid. As a party to the conflict, Russia shares responsibility for the worsening crisis. The Russian Government and oligarchs have exploited Syria’s wheat and foreign reserve crisis to evade sanctions and charge the Government higher than market prices. The U.S. and other donors should consider aid to farmers to alleviate the costs of planting and harvesting wheat, including irrigation projects and financial aid. The U.S. should work with the SDF to develop environmental policies and regulations that protect farmland and ensure farmers receive a fair market price to turn a profit. Turkey also must increase water to Syria and ensure the Alouk water station does not face continued interruptions. The UN Security Council must continue to pressure Russia to renew Bab Al-Hawa and reinstate all border crossings, however, the UN must also engage with humanitarian organizations to plan for the possible closure of this mechanism. Humanitarian discussions should focus on practical steps to ensure continued humanitarian access. This humanitarian aid, which is neutral and impartial, will be many Syrians’ only lifeline.