The Syrian government has introduced rules limiting the amount of subsidised bread available per person at bakeries, putting larger families at risk of hunger as the country’s crippling economic crisis deepens.
Under a recent government order, a household of two is entitled to just one packet of bread a day; a family of four two packets; and a family of six to three packets. Families of seven or more people, however, are limited to four packets of bread, no matter how many are in the house.
Syria introduced an electronic “smartcard” system earlier this year that must be used to purchase bread at state-run bakeries. To buy more, families must turn to the black market, where prices run at 500 Syrian pounds per packet, compared with 100 pounds for the government-subsidised bread. Bread is a complex commodity in Syria, where wheat production has fallen from 4.1m tons before the 2011 revolution to 2.2m in 2019. Today, the majority of the country’s wheat-fields are still under the control of separatist Kurds.
Assad’s government is grappling with a collapsed currency, soaring inflation, and a covered-up coronavirus outbreak, all of which are all taking a devastating toll on people living in government-held areas. The financial crisis in neighbouring Lebanon, as well as coronavirus restrictions and new US sanctions, have all contributed to Syria’s current economic instability, making the price of bread a grim new measure of the country’s financial troubles. Currently, the regime does not have enough foreign currency reserves to buy in more supplies, and Russia is withholding wheat shipments in order to pressure the government into engaging with a UN-backed peace aiming to draw up a new constitution.
Since the value of the Syrian pound began nosediving last year, Abu Yasser, a civil servant, has been forced to spend his evenings working at an electronics repair shop in order to support his wife and five children.
“I have to wake up every day at 3am and go to the bakery and wait three hours in line so I can buy bread, then go home and get dressed and go to work, but four pieces of bread is nowhere near enough to feed my children,” he said. “Our solution so far is to eat fewer meals and try to use rice or bulgar wheat if we can find it. I can only afford to buy black market bread once a week.”
9.3 million Syrians are now food-insecure – an increase of 1.4 million in the last six months alone, and the highest number ever recorded. Ninety per cent of Syrians in parts of the country controlled by the regime are living below the poverty line, and unemployment has reached 80%, according to UN estimates. Basics such as flour, sugar, rice, cooking gas, fuel and medicine are increasingly hard to find on shop shelves. What is left is subject to price gouging, often by profiteers with ties to the regime.
Osama Kadi, a Canada-based Syrian economist, said: “The situation in Syria economically is at its worst point since the first world war, and it is still going from bad to worse without any real political solution. Syria is soon going to be facing widespread hunger.”