(Beirut) – The Syrian government’s failure to fairly and adequately address a bread crisis brought on by a decade of armed conflict is forcing millions of Syrians to go hungry, Human Rights Watch said today.
A deepening economic crisis, coupled with the significant destruction of infrastructure over a decade of conflict primarily by the Syrian government and its allies, have led to severe wheat shortages. Compounding the crisis, the Syrian government has allowed the discriminatory distribution of bread, alongside corruption and restrictions on how much subsidized bread people can buy that lead to people going hungry.
“Syrian officials say that ensuring everyone has enough bread is a priority, but its actions show otherwise,” said Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Millions are going hungry in Syria, in large part because of the government’s failure to address a bread crisis it helped to create.”
In addition to reviewing publicly available government statements, social media posts, and aid group reports, Human Rights Watch spoke to 10 residents in government-held Syria, including 2 bakery owners, and 4 aid workers, in Damascus, the Damascus countryside, Aleppo, Hama, Homs, and Sweida governorates. All described increased difficulties in getting bread and other food staples.
Bread has long been a food staple in Syria. Before 2011 the country produced enough wheat to satisfy domestic consumption needs. Low-income people in particular tended to rely on bread as the cheapest and most filling food staple, residents and humanitarian workers told Human Rights Watch. But the armed conflict led to a decline in domestic wheat production and at the same time drove millions into poverty, making them even more reliant on bread in their diet.
According to a study published by Humboldt University in 2020, Syria lost 943,000 hectares of cultivated land between 2010 and 2018, due to military operations, displacement of farmers and farmworkers, mismanagement of state resources, and conflict-related costs, including change in control of parts of the country. Some land loss was due to unlawful airstrikes by the Syrian-Russian military alliance, which escalated in 2015 and some cases rise to apparent war crimes. The strikes not only destroyed farmland but also destroyed numerous bakeries in areas then under opposition control.
In the last year, the Syrian government has faced major obstacles in its ability to purchase and import wheat, both from outside and from Syrian areas under Kurdish control that constitute most of the cultivated land. The severe depreciation of the Syrian currency, brought about by a mix of factors, including the Lebanese financial crisis and fears around announcements relating to new US sanctions, affected purchasing power across the country.
Lebanese banks’ capital controls prevented Syrian businesspeople, including intermediaries for the government to procure wheat, from accessing funds in Lebanese banks. In addition, Syria’s primary ally and primary supplier of imported wheat, Russia, has restricted its exports of wheat, including to Syria. US unilateral sanctions may have also had an indirect impact on the crisis through their influence on currency devaluation and fuel-related sanctions.
On February 24, 2021, news media reported that Turkey will deliver several hundred tons of wheat to Syria, reportedly through a Russia-brokered deal. On February 26, government-affiliated news outlets also said that wheat is being imported from Russia, as part of a million-ton deal, although no official source has confirmed this. However, the Syrian government’s discrimination, new bread-related policies, and corruption more immediately affect families’ ability to get enough bread, Human Rights Watch said.
As of February, at least 12.4 million Syrians, out of an estimated population of around 16 million, were food insecure, according to the World Food Programme (WFP), an alarming increase of 3.1 million in one year. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and WFP estimate that 46 percent of Syrian households have cut down on their daily food rations, and 38 percent of adults have reduced their consumption to ensure that children have enough to eat.
The Syrian government provides subsidized flour and fuel to public bakeries, which then sell subsidized bread. In September, Syria’s State News Agency, SANA, announced a new formula, limiting the amount of government-subsidized bread people can buy based on family size. On October 29, the Syrian government doubled the price of the subsidized bread.
Residents already suffering from severe food shortages told Human Rights Watch this policy has made things worse. According to people interviewed and UN data, families have reduced their number of meals and parents are going hungry to feed their children. One man from Zabadani said that his family of four had stopped eating cheese and meat earlier in 2020 and relied on bread for most of their diet. But with the price increase and government limits, he and his wife have made do with one small meal a day to have enough bread for their children. “We break the bread into little bites and dip it into tea to make it seem bigger, and because the quality is so bad,” he said.
Residents also described discriminatory distribution. In some areas, there are separate lines for the military and security personnel, for residents, and for displaced people, who get the lowest priority. A report by Newslines Institute says that Syrian security services interfere in bread and wheat distribution, including taking bread from bakeries and selling it on the black market.
Well-off families can buy better quality “tourist bread,” which is not subsidized, in larger quantities, or buy bread on the black market, where the price is at least 150 percent higher than subsidized bread. Three residents said that bakeries that sell tourist bread have regular supplies, but public bakeries may not be able to produce bread for days. “I can find bread wherever I want whenever, but that is because I have the money to pay for it,” one resident said.
Many bakeries were destroyed or left inoperable during the conflict, but the exact number affected is difficult to ascertain. The Industry and Trade Ministry claims that focus on rehabilitation has increased the number of operable bakeries to 178 in 2019, compared with 65 in 2016. But residents and aid workers in several areas under government control said that close to half of the bakeries in those areas remained destroyed or damaged, forcing people to travel through checkpoints or wait at overcrowded bakeries where there is often not enough bread for everyone in line.
Under international human rights law, the right to food forms part of the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living. It is “realized when every man, woman, and child, alone or in community with others, have physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.” The right has four main components: availability, accessibility, adequacy, and sustainability, which require making food available “in a quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy the dietary needs of individuals, free from adverse substances, and acceptable within a given culture,” and making it accessible “in ways that are sustainable and that do not interfere with the enjoyment of other human rights.”
The government has an obligation to revise limits on the amount of subsidized bread families can obtain so that they do not go hungry and provide additional support to families who are unable to afford basic food staples, Human Rights Watch said. The government should put a stop to the abuses by the Syrian security services, including their discriminatory interference in bread and flour distribution. Russia should provide Syria with wheat, as Syria’s primary ally and one jointly responsible for military operations that contributed to the ongoing crisis.
Under international humanitarian law, Russia as a party to the conflict in Syria is liable to make reparations for violations it has been responsible for, including restitution and compensation, which may include repairing bakeries and supply chains, or provide wheat exports to the extent that reflects loss from burned farmland/destroyed infrastructure for which Russia was responsible.
Concerned countries, including donors to the UN and other humanitarian agencies repairing destroyed ovens, should ensure that those parties responsible for the destruction of bakeries and viable farmland are held accountable at the highest levels and that they send a clear and public message that discriminatory distribution of food aid is unacceptable.
“The Syrian government’s restrictive policies in response to the bread crisis are making the situation worse, giving rise to a black market that caters to the rich and well-connected,” Kayyali said. “Syria should ensure that a sufficient quantity and quality of bread is distributed to everyone who needs it across all areas it controls.”
Syria’s Wheat Shortages
Prior to 2011, Syria had been self-sufficient in wheat production, averaging between 3.5-4.1 million tons per year, although accurate figures are difficult to find The wheat grown in Syria is highly dependent on water. Attacks on viable land and displacement, coupled with changes in areas of government control and destruction of infrastructure, have more than halved the amount of wheat that Syria is able to produce, resulting in heavy reliance on wheat imports.
According to Syria Report, a specialist economic publication, in 2020, 72 percent of Syria’s wheat was grown in areas currently held by Kurdish-led authorities. Bidding wars between the Syrian government and Kurdish-led authorities have left less wheat available to the government, particularly as most farmers prefer to sell locally. In 2020, crop fires destroyed around 35,000 hectares of agricultural land under the government’s control, further exacerbating the crisis.
In April 2019, Syria passed a law that merged three public institutions for the trade and production of grains, silos management, and mills into a new institution, the General Establishment for Cereal Processing (known as Huboob, which means “grains” in Arabic), which now has the primary responsibility to import and distribute wheat and wheat products.
On October 26, 2020, the head of Huboob announced that there is enough wheat for all bakeries across government-held Syria to produce bread to the extent of their capacities. Residents in government-held areas, including Damascus countryside and Aleppo, told Human Rights Watch in December that the available bread was of bad quality and almost inedible.
On February 24, 2021, as part of a Russia-brokered deal, Turkey provided the Syrian government with several hundred tons of wheat. Russia is the world’s second-ranked wheat exporter and had been Syria’s primary source of wheat. But from mid-2019 until February 2021, the Syrian government was unable to procure wheat from outside, given alleged government “funding restrictions.” Syrian tenders for wheat in 2019 and 2020 have primarily requested Russian-sourced wheat. But Russian government-imposed restrictions on wheat sales during the Covid-19 pandemic have made it difficult for countries to procure wheat from Russia, even military allies. It announced a 7 million ton limit on exports of wheat and other grains to other countries in April 2020 and that it was extending these restrictions in November.
On February 26, 2021, government-affiliated news outlets said that wheat is being imported from Russia, as part of a million-ton deal, although no official source has confirmed this.
Syrian Government’s “Funding Restrictions”
In October-November 2019, the value of the Syrian pound (SYP) started to depreciate significantly, with the exchange rate dropping from around 600 SYP to the US dollar to around 900 SYP, largely due to several factors, including the Lebanese economic crisis, but also in response to fears around announcements relating to the US Caesar Sanctions.
In December 2019, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, the United States Senate passed the Caesar Act, which augmented and expanded sanctions already imposed on Syria and affiliated entities. The bill provided for targeted asset and visa freezes and prohibitions on entering the US for individuals complicit in serious human rights abuses against Syrian citizens, as well as sanctions on specific sectors, such as oil and gas, technology, or luxury goods.
The legislation also includes specific measures to be taken with regards to the Central Bank of Syria if there are reasonable grounds to believe that it has been involved in money laundering. Once the legislation took effect in mid-2020, overcompliance with sanctions by banks coupled with the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic and entrenchment of the Lebanese crisis accelerated the depreciation of the currency.
Experts say that while sanctions have been imposed on the Syrian government since the start of the conflict, the capital controls imposed by banks in Lebanon in October 2019 have meant that Syrian business people were no longer able to access their accounts in Lebanese banks. This in turn affected their ability to bring foreign currency into the country, depleting foreign currency reserves and restricting the government’s ability to import food items, such as wheat.
In a November 2020 speech, President Bashar al-Assad said that the billions of dollars held by Syrians trapped in Lebanon’s banks were the main cause of Syria’s deepening economic crisis, “The crisis began before the Caesar Act and years after long-imposed Western sanctions … It’s the money (in Lebanese banks) that has been lost.” The coronavirus pandemic has further depreciated the Syrian pound. In March 2021, the Syrian pound was at an all-time low level of 4,300 SYP to the dollar. The currency depreciation increased the cost of imports like wheat, fuel, and fertilizers, as well as machines for wheat and bread production. Syria’s fuel crisis – brought about by the same factors but that has been more directly affected by fuel-related sanctions – also contributed to increases in wheat prices, since its production depends on diesel fuel.
A community leader who visited the Damascus countryside, Homs, and Tartous told Human Rights Watch that government-supported bakeries had separate lines for regular residents, internally displaced persons, and military and intelligence services. The line for the military and intelligence services moved the fastest, while the displaced moved one place for every five places of the regular line. Sometimes, workers at the bakeries turned displaced people away, this person said, telling them “to go back from where they came from” and that they were the reason for the shortage. Residents in Sweida, Daraa, and Homs confirmed a similar pattern in these areas.
Access to bread differs according to people’s economic status. Privately owned bakeries produce regular bread and “tourism bread,” which is often of better quality than what is sold in government-subsidized bakeries, and often supplemented with milk and other ingredients, such as sugar.
On October 29, 2020, the Syrian government doubled the price of a parcel of subsidized bread from 50 to 100 SYP (US $0.017 to 0.034). Those who can afford it told Human Rights Watch that they resort to the black market to purchase bread, where the price of a bread parcel can range from 250 to 1000 SYP ($0.085 to 0.341), more than 10 times the new price of the subsidized bread.
More than 80 percent of Syrians live under the poverty line, and for 40 percent of households, 65 percent of expenditures are on food-related items, according to the UN. Coupled with government limits on the amount of subsidized bread available – a maximum of four packages for a family of seven or more, and one package for a family of two, pricing, and parallel lines, the system caters to better-off people who can afford “tourist” or black-market bread.
Two aid workers involved in providing food and livelihood support and one community leader told Human Rights Watch that there are also issues with distribution of bread and wheat by some humanitarian organizations. The community leader said that only a few local organizations deliver bread and that some of them distribute based on recipients’ ethnicity, sect, and area of origin.
Two international humanitarian officials confirmed that the Syrian government provides their teams with lists of bakeries to rehabilitate, but that the aid groups have no way of determining the need across the government-held territory. One aid group official said that the government directs humanitarian organizations to rehabilitate bakeries and to deliver food baskets according to the political affiliations of the neighborhood in question, rather than based on need alone.
While the Syrian government has issued decisions prohibiting non-accredited bakeries from selling subsidized bread and announcing a crackdown on black market sales, the Syrian security services are playing a key role in skimming bread and wheat sales. According to three residents in southern Syria, Damascus, and Homs, members of the Syrian security services take some of the bread from parcels and sell it off on the black market for more than double the price.
Posts on social media by residents in government-held Syria also report large amounts of flour, sugar, and other foodstuffs provided by humanitarian agencies being sold on the black market, including by known members of the Syrian security services or members of the Armed Forces.
The Syrian government has also appointed members of the Syrian Armed Forces and the security services as accredited bread distributors within their areas. According to a local media source, Horan Free Media, in at least one case, the accredited distributor sold bread parcels for double the official price.
Attacks on Bakeries and Ovens; Burning Croplands; Decreased Bread Production Capacity
Since the beginning of the conflict, the Syrian forces, and later the Syrian-Russian military alliance, have systematically destroyed bakeries, and ovens in several areas, including parts of Homs, Aleppo, and the Damascus countryside. The Syrian-Russian military alliance has also attacked cropland, most recently in Idlib governorate in 2019.
This affects bakeries’ ability to produce and distribute sufficient bread to the population and requires residents to travel significant distances, even if their areas are back under government control.
The World Food Programme (WFP), World Health Organization (WHO), and other humanitarian organizations have taken on projects to repair bakeries. However, aid workers and residents Human Rights Watch interviewed said that the projects are not based on a comprehensive assessment of needs, and in some areas where the crisis is acute no ovens and bakeries have been repaired.
In August 2012, Human Rights Watch documented at least 10 Syrian government attacks on bakeries in Aleppo province over a three-week period, seven of them in Aleppo city. In late 2016, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria documented the destruction of three bakeries in al-Maadi, al-Maghayer, and al-Mashad. One of the bakeries fed almost 6,000 families, according to the commission. Former residents of Aleppo city confirmed that many bakeries had been attacked multiple times and put out of service.
Humanitarian workers currently operating in Aleppo city told Human Rights Watch in December that Aleppo city is among the hardest hit in terms of food shortages, and that the destruction of bakeries contributed significantly to the crisis. If a bakery is destroyed or partially operating, the government does not give their wheat quota to other bakeries that serve the area, but to other bakeries outside their neighborhoods, forcing residents to line up for long hours in the neighborhood or travel through checkpoints to other areas to get bread.
The Syrian government often asked aid agencies to repair the same bakeries that government forces destroyed years before, claiming the damage was due to “terrorist activity.”
In 2012 and again in 2014, the government attacked bakeries in northern Homs governorate, including the main bakery in Farhaniyeh village and the bakery in Al-Rastan. Each attack killed scores of civilians and stopped the operations of these bakeries entirely for several years. In 2016, one of the bakeries was repaired by a humanitarian organization but moved the production line to an external building to keep it from being bombed again.
In May 2018, villages and towns in Northern Hama signed reconciliation agreements with the government after it retook the territory. But residents and local reporting said the bread crisis has not abated. The government, upon retaking the territory, prevented all privately owned bakeries from operating, including one that had been jointly repaired by the WFP and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. The authorities limited operations to the partially restored public bakery, which, according to two local residents, cannot produce enough for the population.
“The lines are overcrowded,” one resident said. “The bread comes at 1 a.m. but I cannot get it the next morning, I have to go immediately otherwise it is not edible. I spend hours waiting in line.”
Syrians for Truth and Justice and local media reported that in February 2018 the Syrian-Russian alliance bombed one of the main bakeries in the town of Saqba, in Eastern Ghouta, then under opposition control, leaving it inoperable. Residents said that accidental shelling by the Syrian-Russian military alliance destroyed the only other bakery in Saqba.
Facebook posts by Saqba residents from late 2020 highlight the ongoing bread crisis. In one post, a resident said that to get his allotted bread, he needed to stand in line from 4 a.m. until 8 a.m, and even then, there was no guarantee of getting bread. Another lamented the destruction of the bakeries, saying that there had been a bakery in the middle of town and that the lines would not be this long had there been more than one bakery operating in the area. One woman said that some people would wait in line for hours, but certain others could just walk in and get all the bread they need.
In September 2020, local media reported a gunfight in Saqba due to a disagreement over whose turn it was in the bread lines. The page included pictures of dozens of men waiting in line in front of a building with a sign “Saqba Bread” with Bashar and Hafez al-Assad’s faces on it.
Poor Quality of Bread
Residents said that the bread from public bakeries was almost inedible and black with age or mixed with lentils or barley. One man said that the quality was so bad that the bread had to be dunked in water to become edible. Another said this is particularly true of bread subsidized by the government.
Pictures and videos shared by residents on social media and with Human Rights Watch depicted bread dried out and cracked. Many claimed that the size of the bread differs from one bakery to the other. One man said they wait for hours in the line and need to eat it immediately, otherwise it becomes inedible.
Two bakery owners said that the government controls the distribution of wheat and flour due to shortages, and as result, several bakeries are using other materials to supplement the wheat in the bread. They confirmed that a lack of fuel contributed both to the transport prices of bread and the processing problems.
The government has an obligation to ensure that no one goes hungry. It should revise limitations on the amount of bread families can obtain to provide adequate supplies and provide additional support to families who are unable to afford basic food staples to ensure they do not go hungry. It should also rein in the Syrian security services, investigate allegations of corruption and discriminatory distribution, and hold those responsible for preventing the bread from reaching families who need it accountable.
Concerned countries, including donors to UN and other humanitarian agencies repairing destroyed ovens, should ensure that those parties responsible for the destruction of bakeries and viable farmland are held accountable at the highest levels. They should also put in place independent monitors to ensure that the flour and food baskets supplied are not provided in a discriminatory manner and are instead distributed based on needs across all areas under government control.
The United States, European Union, and other countries that have placed sanctions on Syria should ensure that effective and functional humanitarian exemptions are provided to mitigate the sanctions’ spillover effects on the bread supply. The authorities also need the resources necessary to quickly respond to and process exemption requests and conduct outreach to mitigate the chilling effects of sanctions.