Editor's Note: Welcome to part one of our three-part series on the critical roles that seeds, wheat, and bread play in the current Syrian crisis, as reported by journalist Emma Beals. In the first installment, Beals reports on how Syrian wheat has been at the heart of the conflict since the very beginning.
The catalysts for Syria's civil war, and the roles that various commodities have played in it, have been vigorously debated, but since the beginning of the conflict, seeds, wheat, and bread have been at the heart of the problem. Focusing on oil as the most powerful and influential resource overlooks the importance of the country's food supply and the power wielded by whoever controls it.
"There's a lack of food," said Abu Wael, a resident of rural Homs, one of the first regions to rise up against President Bashar al Assad's government in 2011. "It has been like this for the past four years, and it has been worsening. Bread is provided every three or four days. Before, it was available on a daily basis. There is no regular passage of wheat or bread." Despite multiple United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions on humanitarian access and billions of dollars in global aid, the Syrian government still largely controls the flow of food to residents, even from international NGOs.
Access to food is a weapon of war in Syria. Assad has used siege tactics to starve out rebel-held areas, and his military has bombed breadlines and bakeries from the air. As the war has escalated, limited access to agriculture and the food-production cycle has caused the formerly self-sustaining country to resort to importing wheat and other foodstuffs—facilitated by Russia and Iran, its military allies—to feed the population in government-held areas. This support is arguably just as useful as the military support the countries afford Assad's regime.
But in the besieged areas and northern Syria, large international NGOs are partnering with local NGOs to wrest control of the food cycle away from a previously centralized, government-run system, so civilians might regain agency in their lives.
"Syria is the most complicated humanitarian intervention in history, in my opinion," said Daniele Donati, deputy director of the Emergency and Rehabilitation Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO). "We aren't talking about a food crisis. We're talking about a livelihood crisis. We are trying to support people to not have additional reasons to leave their land."
IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, an NGO in Reyhanli, Turkey, provides bread to Syrians. All photos by David Hagerman.
"The main reason people are fleeing is airstrikes," Rami Alkatib, a Syrian development worker based in southern Turkey, told me. "But if we support agriculture, we easily maintain that people will stay in their areas. Most of the opposition-held areas are agricultural areas. You have airstrikes in the sky and no food on the ground, so there's no way people will stay." According to Donati, fixing the agriculture problems in Syria goes beyond feeding the hungry; it's a vehicle for peace.
Syria's staple food is bread. Syrians eat the round, flat pieces, often sold by the dozen, with nearly every meal. Historically, the country has had a centralized system around its primary food source; the government provided seeds, subsidized wheat production, bought back crops, and regulated flour production, along with the baking and sale of bread. Investments from the Assad government and the occasional international commercial partner, such as Nestlé, made Syria a "food-secure" nation by the end of the 20th century. The nation was producing enough wheat to feed its population without relying on imports and was seen as a bright light in an unstable and arid region.
But between 2007 and 2011, environmental disaster wreaked havoc on the country; drought hit the agricultural sector hard. Wheat production dropped by 50 percent, and food prices increased by nearly a third in 2008 alone. Despite a brief recovery after that particularly poor harvest year, the combination of lower yields, higher input costs, and official policies that remained focused on market liberalization put rural denizens out of work, and in early 2011, people took to the streets. Rural discontent may not have been the cause of the revolution, but the drought's impact on the countryside drove support for the anti-regime protests.
Soon after, Assad enacted some early reforms in the agricultural sector: scaling back privatization, increasing subsidies, waiving farmers' debts, and setting up emergency funds for the rural poor. To keep the consumers happy, the regime began importing wheat from Eastern Europe to meet demand, but it wasn't enough.
As protests gave way to all-out war, and the country tried to adjust to the sudden disruption of daily life, the government devised a devastating strategy to combat rebel forces: It bombed the increasingly long bakery lines caused by the scarcity of wheat in contested areas of the city. These bombings have continued throughout the conflict; in a recent attack, Russian airstrikes reportedly struck a bakery that had provided bread for nearly 45,000 people.
Volunteers distribute fresh bread to Syrian refugees in a village outside Reyhanli. Some NGO workers have had to pay off soldiers to get into besieged areas.
The regime and the rebels battled for territory, including grain silos and bakeries in the northeast region, and when jihadist groups saw an opportunity in the chaos, they also sought control over these vital resources. The files of Haji Bakr, an Islamic State mastermind, retrieved by Der Spiegel, indicate that ISIS had a detailed plan on how to take control of the largest flour mill in northern Syria. Once ISIS did, the group applied a typically disciplined approach to the production cycle in an attempt to feed the populations in areas it controlled to win their support.
ISIS propaganda videos extoll the virtues of its agricultural production, with shots of grain silos full to the brim with seed, farmers toiling in well-irrigated fields, and workers filling sacks of grain to make bread. But videos filmed by a rival rebel group seem to counter ISIS's agrarian propaganda. The footage, which has yet to be verified, suggests that ISIS is doing a brisk trade and selling grain back to the regime. This is not as far-fetched as it seems: In 2013, before ISIS declared itself an entity in the country, rebels and regime forces in Idlib Province managed to come to a temporary truce. The rebels sent wheat to the regime side for milling and then got most of it back as flour, while the regime kept some for its own use.
Today, NGOs focus on breaking the need for these uncomfortable trades and truces between warring factions by replacing the previously centralized-production system put in place by the government. This once self-sustaining system has already fallen apart. The state owns less than half the bakeries it did before the war, the factories that supplied farmers with fertilizer and yeast are shuttered or destroyed, and seed distribution has collapsed (only a third of the prewar facilities devoted to this work are still operating). The regime hasn't been able to purchase wheat domestically in quantity since 2012, due to the loss of arable land to the rebels and inability to transport grain to regime-held silos.
Because of this, Assad's government relies on humanitarian aid and purchases on credit lines from Iran and, more recently, Russia. In 2014, for instance, Iran reportedly sent 30,000 tons of food supplies to Syria. Iran and Russia easily win contracts to rebuild agricultural infrastructure in Syria because of Western sanctions on financing and banking. While Syria has always had close economic ties with both states, after 2013, these relationships became essential from a food-security standpoint.
This support, along with early manipulation of UN aid programs, has been essential to maintaining stability in government-held areas of the country. Until the UNSC passed resolutions in 2014 to allow cross-border aid into the country without the government's permission, agricultural-aid projects weren't able to operate without extreme secrecy. Still, the government denies humanitarian organizations access to areas in desperate need. In May, regime forces at the final checkpoint blocked the first shipment of aid brought to Daraya since November 2012.
The government's manipulation of food access makes humanitarian intervention, aimed at creating a self-sustaining food cycle that is not sponsored by the regime, crucial.
Today, a bag of bread in Syria costs between two and four times more than it did at the start of the unrest, depending on whether the bakery is public or private, according to statistics complied by the World Food Programme. Activists have reported that, in some locales, bread costs dozens or even hundreds of Syrian pounds more than it once did, due to shortages and the cost of bringing it to market. Often, the government solicits bribes and levies "taxes" at checkpoints on roads, in the form of confiscation of product, which push prices up beyond the higher levels caused by product scarcity.
Aid agencies have traditionally supported these displaced populations by providing food, but today, the programs range from irrigation and agriculture efforts—including seed germination—to wheat milling, rebuilding destroyed mills, and providing flour to bakeries. The problem has moved from simply bringing in supplies toward price setting and distribution of finished products.
This is a complicated process. Rami Alkatib said that for many of the projects he has set up from southern Turkey, his organization procures seeds from government areas and then smuggles them into besieged areas. Alkatib and Abu Wael both told me that they have to deal with corrupt merchants and paying off soldiers to get into the area, and funding for their programs is short. The FAO, for example, reports its emergency agriculture projects were underfunded by more than 70 percent last year, meaning its interventions are less than perfect. "We are talking about second best," Donati said. "In a situation where the access is so volatile."
Still, these aid workers believe that their focus on creating agriculture jobs to remedy food scarcity will solve the displacement issue. Alkatib said he has seen families return from the internally displaced person camps at the border of Turkey and Syria, where food is available. "There is impact," he said. "We reported the return of sixty to eighty families to the area because of the self-sufficiency." Gardening projects have enabled residents to be self-reliant, even when basic supplies, like wheat flour, aren't available, due to the blockades. "Now they are making bread from different seeds. They used to make it from flour. Now they are making it from bulgur or other herbs."
In rural Homs, Wael has set up a wheat-growing program where the seeds and mills are in place, but they're not meeting the needs in the area. Even with the seeds and mills in place, fuel shortages remain an obstacle, as it's needed not only for transporting the materials but to run the generators that power the mills and bakeries.
Beyond local consumption needs and providing livelihoods for residents, maintaining crops is an integral part of maintaining societal structures. Civil-society organizations, like the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, see wheat and bread as the best way to enact taxes and levies, which pay for services for the population. "For the opposition-held areas, they are doing whatever they can to remain self-sufficient for nine months of the year or something," Alkatib said. "The local councils are generating revenue by having the wheat and baking it and selling to the people to fulfill the price of the wheat they are buying from local farmers."
It's no secret that Wael and Alkatib, and their partner NGOs, may have copied the jihadists' strategy in trying to gain control of the population with wheat and bread. But more important, they're working to allow regular Syrians, those most impacted by the ongoing war, to take control of their own livelihoods. Peaceful resolution or a political solution to the conflict remains elusive, but Wael told me he is proud to "bring life and an activity cycle to the community and restore natural balance," however small. When you're living under seige, a little normalcy goes a long way.
This article appeared in the June issue of VICE magazine. Additional reporting by Paul Mutter.