You know that tired old chestnut "A way to a man's heart is through his stomach"? Well, it would appear that Syrian president/tyrant Bashar al-Assad takes the expression as seriously as do any number of aspiring kitchen romantics, like that perhaps-not-too-feminist blogger who made her boyfriend 300 sandwiches in order to secure an engagement ring.
Assad—whose regime is entering its fifth year of being attacked by a number of opposition forces, including the headline-dominating ISIS—isn't, of course, mixing up a nice bowl of fatteh for one lucky gentleman (or at least we assume he isn't). But throughout Syria's civil war, food has been an essential component of the dictator's strategy to win the hearts and minds of civilians, and through one food in particular: bread.
Over the past several years, Syria's Internal Trade and Consumer Protection Ministry has provided heavily subsidized foods to citizens still dwelling in the country's government-controlled areas. By doing so, the regime hopes to ensure loyalty from a populace that, incidentally, it has both starved and gassed. But as the University of Cambridge's José Ciro Martinez and reporter Brent Eng put it in "Assad's Bread Problem," their op-ed on the strategy, "bread subsidies can provide a powerful incentive for civilians to support those who rule, or at least comply with them," the authors say. "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."
But the Assad regime might risk losing that subtle reminder with one of its most recent decisions. Last month, the government increased the price of a standard 1.55-kilogram bundle of bread by ten Syrian pounds, or 19 US cents. The price hike—the second to occur in the past seven months—has come as a shock to many Syrians and "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," Martinez and Eng write. In ISIS-controlled territories, the terrorist group has sought to take advantage of Assad's price increase, distributing what little bread they can find in order to strengthen its adherents' loyalty.
The regime had little choice but to raise its bread prices. Over the past several years, the country's 140 wheat collection centers, looted and attacked by opposition forces, have been reduced to 40; four out of five of its yeast factories have shut down; and flour mills and bakeries are closed or operating below capacity, Martinez and Eng write. The state has also lost control of vast swaths of wheat-producing lands that have been captured by insurgents.
Strangely, the regime claims that this year its wheat production will be self-sufficient and that Syria will not have to import the grain as in years past.
"We had acceptable output (last year), but this year output will be abundant, because this year the rains have been excellent, and the farmed lands are much wider," Hassan Safiyeh, the minister of internal trade and consumer protection, told Reuters. "This year, there is no fear for wheat."
But given that last year's wheat harvest was projected to be the worst the country has seen in 40 years, the claim seems dubious and will likely lead to yet another increase in the price of bread.
In a situation as complicated as the war in Syria, it's not an exaggeration to claim that bread prices might actually have a measurable effect on the conflict's outcome, Martinez and Eng argue.
"To the casual observer, a price hike of $0.06 for over a kilogram of bread may hardly seem cause for concern," they write. "In the context of bread's nutritional, political, and symbolic importance in Syria, however, the increase is monumental."
"The Assad regime may finally be running out of ammunition for one of its trademark weapons," the authors conclude.