In the stiflingly hot summer of Syria’s eleventh year of war, people across the country are facing fuel shortages and rising food prices, alongside an inflation rate that has been soaring for nearly two years. But the impact of this economic implosion isn’t hitting all Syrians equally.
The World Food Programme (WFP) says a record number of Syrians, 12.4 million out of an estimated population of 17.5 million, are now food insecure. That’s an increase of 4.5 million hungry people from last year, and has been brought on by a number of factors, including an economic slide worsened by COVID-19, neighbouring Lebanon’s own financial meltdown, and, according to some experts (and the Syrian government), the impact of US sanctions.
The economic collapse is often referred to as a “bread crisis” due to the long queues that began to spring up in late 2020 – as the Syrian pound (SYP) began to fall – outside subsidised bakeries in parts of the country controlled by the government of President Bashar al-Assad. This sparked frustration and anger, and there have even been occasional protests in government-controlled areas – a rarity given the tight control the security forces have on much of the population.
The government has been hiking up prices – it doubled the cost of subsidised bread earlier this month – as it struggles to import enough wheat to feed its population. But those hikes only apply to government-funded supplies, which are only available in limited quantities. Many essentials the government used to subsidise are now only available on the informal market (also called the parallel or black market), where prices have, for the most part, also risen.
But the financial plunge has hit Syrians across the country in different ways and levels of intensity, in part because the country is split: The northwest, in and around Idlib province, is run by rebels; the northeast is governed by a Kurdish-led administration, with the presence of al-Assad, US, and Russian forces in some locations, plus pockets of Turkish control.
Each part of the country has access to different markets, borders, natural resources, and sources of aid. Adding to the complicated picture is the fact that the rebel-held northwest switched to using Turkish lira last summer, in an effort to avoid the impacts of the Syrian pound’s runaway inflation.
As the following graphs show, the picture for Syrians across the country – where the UN says 13.4 million people need some sort of assistance – is overwhelmingly one of economic devastation. It’s a place where money is worth less, basics cost more, and more and more people are struggling to feed their families.
At the start of Syria’s war, one US dollar bought 46 Syrian pounds. In January 2020, it fetched 940 and in July 2021, it’s at 3,220, down from a peak of almost 4,000 in March.
The price of flour is highest in the capital city of Damascus, an al-Assad stronghold. While Syria has long grown its own wheat, its capacity to do so has been severely damaged by the war, as farmers are forced to flee and farmlands are destroyed in airstrikes. Low rain levels have also contributed to decreased production, even in northeastern Hassakeh province, typically known as the country’s “breadbasket”.
The Kurdish administration that runs Hassakeh sells wheat to the al-Assad government, but the government has also been increasingly forced to rely on imports. This has become harder as businesspeople struggle to access their money in neighbouring Lebanon, which is suffering through its own crippling economic disintegration.
The best available price data only goes through April, but recent reports from WFP indicate that while prices dropped in April and May, they began to rise again in June.
In government-held parts of Syria like Damascus, Aleppo, and Hama, residents are entitled to buy a limited amount of bread at subsidised bakeries. But wheat shortages have led the government to double the price this month, and those who can afford it look to private bakeries and shops for their bread.
The impacts of the bread crisis have spread far beyond Damascus and parts of the country controlled by al-Assad. Some 4.2 million people live in and around the rebel-held province of Idlib, including 2.7 million people who have been forced to flee their homes at least once.
While some bakeries there get help from NGOs with purchasing supplies like flour and yeast (most do not), prices have risen sevenfold, from 169 Syrian pounds in September 2019 to a high of 1,343 Syrian pounds in May.
Diesel for cars and trucks
Damascus almost tripled the price of subsidised fuel earlier this month, and hours-long queues at petrol stations have become commonplace. But diesel – key for those who need to access faraway medical care and a necessity for transporting food, medical supplies, and aid – can also be purchased on the black market. It costs 2,241 Syrian pounds per litre in Idlib province, and 254 in Hassakeh. Syria’s largest oil fields are in Hassakeh and Deir Ezzor.
For those who are able to make money through jobs paid by the day (rather than at a fixed salary), wages have actually risen in Damascus, and purchasing power is down only slightly. But it still takes about half a day’s work to afford a kilo of chicken.
Cooking chicken, or any sort of food for that matter, also costs more than it used to: Black market prices for cooking gas have been rising across the country, with the clearest increase in Idlib. WFP says that when cooking gas costs are up, families are forced to switch to meals that require less cooking, which reduces the types of food they eat.
Note on data: WFP collects monthly prices for about 60 key goods and services, including food, diapers, bus tickets, and soap. The data is collected from dozens of markets across Syria in territories controlled by the government and by opposition groups. Monthly reports summarise price trends and, along with surveys of consumers, aim to build a picture of economic pressures and food security. Unless otherwise stated, the graphs above use the data from the largest market in the region.