Food prices in Syria have risen to their highest levels since conflict erupted nine years ago, putting more than half the country’s population at risk of hunger, aid workers and economists have warned.
The cost of a representative basket of staple foods has doubled in just over six months, according to the UN’s food aid agency, as the value of Syria’s local currency has fallen by as much as two-thirds and coronavirus restrictions disrupt internal supply chains.
“We are seeing children going to bed hungry now, which we did not see before,” said Imran Riza, the UN’s top official based in Damascus. “The reality now is simply that people can’t afford food.”
Once a regional breadbasket, Syria’s infrastructure and economy have been ravaged by conflict, leaving millions dependent on aid. But although the fighting is now confined to the north-west and main cities are no longer under siege, Syria’s economy in regime-held areas is worsening, pitching the war-tattered state into what Mr Riza calls “an impoverishment crisis”.
Rising food prices, which in April smashed records since war broke out in 2011, have drastic consequences. With the middle class hollowed out, more than 80 per cent of Syrians were estimated to be living in poverty before the pandemic hit.
Although Syria’s authoritarian regime typically plays down the country’s challenges, this month President Bashar al-Assad made an unprecedented admission that coronavirus-linked restrictions on movement and trade left people hungry.
Syrians face “two options: hunger, poverty and destitution versus getting the disease”, said Mr Assad.
The World Food Programme says that in the past six months, 1.4m more Syrians lost sure access to adequate food — bringing the total number of “food insecure” people in Syria to 9.3m, more than half the whole population of 17m. According to WFP data, more and more families are cutting down to two meals a day. Yet Mr Riza said funding shortfalls meant WFP would have to shrink its food parcels in order to help more families.
The steep depreciation in the currency, down 60 per cent from this time last year at an all-time low of 1,800 Syrian pounds to the dollar on the black market, has meant the minimum wage is equal to about $26 a month, despite a government-mandated increase in November.
“No food disappeared, but it’s impossible to afford,” said a 24-year-old NGO worker in Damascus who did not want his name published. Eighteen months ago, the economics student could run a motorcycle. He had to sell it and now, he said, he “can barely afford the basics”.
Even government-subsidised bread prices, symbolically set at 50 Syrian pounds per pack of flat breads, have increased in some places, according to Elizabeth Tsurkov, fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, who has been tracking the distribution of food in Syria. “Once bread becomes less available, the prices of rice or bulgar, the next cheapest thing will rise,” she added.
The fall in the Syrian pound comes after the emergence of a rift between Mr Assad and the man who bankrolls the ruling family, the president’s maternal cousin, Rami Makhlouf.
The pound had already been under severe pressure since last summer, hit by a dollar shortage in neighbouring Lebanon, its main conduit for hard currency and imports as well its banking hub.
Many Syrian companies use Lebanese front firms to trade. Samir Aitta, a Paris-based Syrian economist, estimates that with international sanctions on many Syrian banks, $30bn to $40bn worth of Syrian capital is locked in the Lebanese banking system.
Bassel Kaghadou, a Syrian economist based in Beirut, said: “There was always a joke between Syrians that the governor of the Lebanese central bank is the same governor of the Syrian central bank because the Syrian dirty money was laundered here.”
That money has been blocked since last October, when Lebanese lenders introduced informal controls to prevent capital flight during mass civil unrest and an economic crash. The Lebanese banking lockdown “killed all the economic activity in Syria”, said Mr Aitta. “My concern is that the Syrian people are going to end in catastrophe.”
In an attempt to steady the currency, Mr Assad’s regime has cracked down on exchange shop owners and prohibited unofficial rate setting — a move widely interpreted as banning public discussion of the dollar.
Meanwhile, homegrown food production is at risk, as Syria’s farmers face rising costs for fertiliser, pesticides and fuel. While crop production rebounded last year, wheat production was still about half its prewar figure. The US Department of Agriculture projects that Syria’s wheat production in May will fall 6.25 per cent year on year.