“To be able to get bread I had to search half the city and stand for hours in front of the ovens — still even then I would often go back home empty-handed,” Ahmad al-Barro, a father of three from Qamishli, told Al-Monitor. Barro, like many others in northeast Syria who live in areas under the control of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, has struggled to provide for his family over the last month as the region has experienced a severe shortage of bread.
The crisis started in late December when owners of private bakeries went on a collective strike in protest of the increasing price of flour, closing their doors until the autonomous administration reduced the price of flour or allowed them to raise the price of bread.
What followed was a month of tense standoff, finally resolving Jan. 21 with the authorities agreeing to supply private bakeries with a weekly shipment of subsidized flour at the price of 30,000 Syrian pounds ($9.70, exchange rate on the black market) as opposed to the previous price of 43,000 pounds ($14) per 50-kilo (110-pound) bag of flour. The deal is a sweet relief for the residents of northeast Syria, who, in the midst of a severe economic crisis, are more reliant on bread than ever for sustenance.
Despite the first shipment of flour reaching bakeries Feb. 1 and private bakeries resuming production, tensions remain high as bakery owners and the autonomous administration eye each other warily. “We have just enough flour for a week; if the autonomous administration breaches its promise, we will resume strikes,” the owner of a private bakery in Qamishli told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.
Likewise, the co-chair of the autonomous administration’s Commission of Agriculture and Economy, Salman Barudo, told Al-Monitor that any bakeries that break the agreement and raise their prices will be “held accountable.” He pointed fingers at “those greedy individuals who are taking advantage of the difficult circumstances the administration finds itself in.”
At the heart of the conflict between the private bakery owners and the political authority is the price of flour, which the autonomous administration raised by over 50% at the end of November. To cope with the increasing costs, private bakeries raised the price of a bundle of bread from 250 pounds ($0.80) to 500 pounds ($0.16).
Bakeries were still operating at a loss, however, according to the bakery owner, and so they asked the autonomous administration to further raise the price of a bundle of bread to anywhere from 750 pounds ($0.24) to 900 pounds ($0.29). The autonomous administration refused, leading the private bakeries to begin their strike.
Every year, the autonomous administration and the Syrian regime compete to entice farmers from the northeast to sell them their wheat harvest. The competition this year was particularly intense, as Damascus tried and failed to find companies willing to fulfill its tender for wheat, and the coronavirus pandemic created problems for wheat imports from Russia. A bidding war developed between Damascus and Qamishli, as both raised their purchase prices multiple times to attract farmers. In the end, however, the autonomous administration banned farmers in its territory from selling wheat to the regime to secure its own supply.
Still, despite fears of a shortage, the harvest in the northeast was evidently productive, with the autonomous administration floating the idea of selling wheat to the regime earlier this summer.
The apparent abundance of wheat, in addition to the fact that some private sellers were selling flour at prices far below those of the autonomous administration-owned mills, has led to allegations that corruption was behind the price increases.
The autonomous administration, by contrast, cited the rapid decline of the value of the Syrian pound and the increase in the price of wheat as the main reason behind the increase. It further promised to set up a committee to determine the “true cost” of wheat production in northeast Syria, presumably to stop the rumors of corruption and price inflation.
Regardless of the reasons for increasing prices, should the current agreement fall through and the bread shortage resume, the consequences for civilians could be disastrous. “The situation has been tragic” over the past month, Barro said, citing the generosity of his neighbors as the only reason his family was able to eat some nights.
Food security is a massive problem across Syria, with over 9.3 million Syrians food insecure as of the last World Food Program update in April 2020 — a figure that has almost certainly increased due to the unprecedented economic crisis that continues to grip the country. Northeast Syria is particularly vulnerable, as it has no access to UN aid and has a huge population of internally displaced persons. As a near-direct consequence, one in five children in the northeast is stunted, a rate higher than any other part of the country.
There are public bakeries in northeast Syria that sell bread at a far cheaper price of 100 pounds ($0.03) per bundle, but the bread is known for being devoid of nutrition and is “not even fit for dogs,” as one irate social media user put it. Public bakeries are operated by the Syrian regime and are meant to receive subsidized flour from Damascus. However, recently Damascus has not been able to supply those bakeries with its own flour, so the autonomous administration has been covering the shortage.
Though currently politically distinct from the rest of Syria, northeast Syria’s bread crisis is deeply linked with the economic prospects of the rest of the country. Should Syria’s economy and currency continue to deteriorate, it is likely that the cost of wheat will also rise, further straining the autonomous administration in its efforts to maintain bread subsidies and keep basic goods affordable.
Mohammad Abdulsattar Ibrahim contributed to this article.