Starvation, Submission and Survival

The Syrian War Through the Prism of Food

by Brent Eng , Jose Ciro Martinez
published in MER273

On December 23, 2012, following a week of imposed scarcity, the Syrian town of Halfaya received 100 sacks of flour from an Islamic charity. The town’s main bakery started churning out bread, an all too infrequent occurrence since violence between the Asad regime and opposition forces escalated earlier that year. Hungry citizens began to queue.

Two hours later, just after 4 pm, a Sukhoi-22 ground attack plane bombed the bakery, killing at least 60 Syrians eagerly awaiting their daily bread. [1] A YouTube video taken shortly after the attack shows loaves of bread and bloody body parts strewn on the street. [2] The images are horrifying, the screams haunting, yet there is more to the carnage than meets the eye. The provision of food to some and the deprivation of others are military tactics deeply connected to the claims of warring parties to sovereignty and legitimacy.

Until 2007, Syria stood out for its successful food policy. Improvements in dry land farming achieved through international assistance, state subsidies and centralized economic planning made the country self-sufficient in strategic products such as wheat. Over the next five years, a combination of economic liberalization, persistent mismanagement of natural resources and severe drought devastated the Syrian countryside. According to conservative UN estimates, more than 300,000 people left the northeastern governorates by 2009 due to drought, poor harvests and increased costs of production. This exodus contributed to an unprecedented migration to cities and intensified popular anger toward the government.

It is hardly a coincidence that the rebellion against the regime of Bashar al-Asad began in Syria’s rural towns. Pressure on food supplies and rising prices fed popular discontent. Protests quickly proliferated in the rural provinces most affected by government neglect -- Dar‘a in the southern wheat-producing Hawran region and the governorates of al-Raqqa and al-Hasaka in the northeast. [3]

In times of peace, food is endowed with a host of symbolic, material and political meanings. When war breaks out, food becomes enmeshed in further webs of significance. Farms and flour mills are transformed from sources of livelihood into bombing targets. Vegetables and fruits cease to be mere nourishment and become fuel for soldiers. Homemade dishes and family meals are no longer communal rituals -- they are rations for perseverance. Whether as weapon, welfare or outside aid, food is a crucial thing to control, as forces on all sides of the Syrian conflict understand. Humanitarian agencies should accordingly abandon their delusions of neutrality and impartiality.

Food as Weapon

Food is a central component of the Asad regime’s wartime strategy -- and the opposition’s, too.

The first and perhaps most palpable way in which the regime weaponizes food is the purposeful destruction of the infrastructure for producing and distributing the means of sustenance. Concurrent with the initiation of large-scale artillery operations against the insurgency in January 2012, Syria’s armed forces began to shell and bomb food stocks, livestock and agricultural machinery in areas where rebels are active. The army also blocks or damages transportation routes key to food shipments. The violence and disruption interrupts harvests and drives farmers off the land, slowly turning temporary food shortages into long-term insufficiencies.

Hundreds of rural towns and vast tracts of rich agricultural land now lie deserted. Some 50,000 small-scale farming households cannot cultivate their land without international assistance. The production of wheat in Syria is now 52 percent below the 2001-2011 average. A UN-sponsored report released in May 2014 noted that “the absence of safety and security in conflict zones resulted in farmers having infrequent access to their lands,” adding, “in these areas, there was widespread destruction to storage facilities, irrigation infrastructure, crops and trees, while there is significant pillage of livestock.” [4] A UN Food and Agriculture Organization report published the same month predicts that poor seasonal rains, in conjunction with the ravages of war, will further reduce the total farming area by 21 percent relative to the wartime average.

The prolific use of this tactic is tied to the erosion of the regime’s military capacity. The regime does not command enough troops to amass them in all the contested areas of the country -- and the numbers are declining due to attrition and desertion. Hence the regime has resorted to strategic bombing of areas beyond its control.

Bakeries in particular have been systematically targeted. In August 2012, the New York-based Human Rights Watch reported at least ten aerial attacks on the bakeries of Aleppo, the center of opposition resistance at the time. Previous shortages of flour in the city had forced many bakeries to close, concentrating customers at the remaining outlets. Bombings often occurred during peak hours to maximize casualties. “Day after day, Aleppo residents line up to get bread for their families, and instead get shrapnel piercing [in] their bodies from government bombs and shells,” said Ole Solvang, a Human Rights Watch researcher. “Ten bakery attacks is not random,” he added. All of the bakeries were located in non-contested neighborhoods, precluding the possibility that the attacks targeted combatants. Almost all the causalities were civilians.

Another investigation by McClatchy verified 80 attacks on bakeries between August 2012 and January 2013. [5] The two opposition groups who first reported the strikes both noted that the bakery bombings “have grown in frequency, coinciding with the growing success of the rebels.” In August 2012 there were 18 bakery attacks, 16 of which struck parts of Aleppo, and another 41 attacks occurred in the city over the next four months. When the Free Syrian Army began to thrive in the regions of Idlib, Homs and Dayr al-Zawr, bakery bombings quickly followed. In the fall of 2014, the regime shifted its attention to the successful bread-making operation of the Islamic State, or Da‘ish, bombing one outlet in the city of al-Raqqa in a September 6 air raid that killed at least 11 civilians. [6]

Regime attacks hit other parts of the food supply chain, such as rebel-captured silos of wheat. In February 2013, the Syrian air force bombed one of the two major silos not under government control, located in the northern city of al-Bab and holding 43,000 tons of locally produced wheat. When rebels later took control of 20 state-owned flour mills in Aleppo, the center of milling in Syria before the war, the government responded by halting wheat deliveries. Since then, milling capacity in the city has dropped by almost half. [7]

The regime also destroys food where it is grown. In May 2012, for instance, the Syrian news source al-Mukhtasar noted that “Asad’s forces punish the rebels by burning their agricultural crops” in Dayr al-Zawr, Homs and Hama. In November 2013, various farmers told Al Jazeera of the Syrian army’s practice of torching agricultural fields in opposition-controlled areas. “The Syrian army burns [the field] with the aim of besieging the town,” said Hajj Adib, a farmer from Hama, to the pan-Arab channel, “eliminating the source of livelihood for the majority of those who work in agriculture.” In June 2014, according to the Dubai-based network Akhbar al-An, the regime attacked the town of Jisrin in eastern Ghouta -- an opposition-controlled area in outer Damascus -- by shelling nearby wheat fields, burning away the areas that supplied local bakeries.

Opposition groups have responded with efforts of their own to weaponize food.

In June 2014, Da‘ish seized control of the Siyasiyya bridge, the last entrance to the city of Dayr al-Zawr it had not previously controlled, to prevent food from coming in. Food insecurity skyrocketed, forcing both civilians and combatants from other opposition groups to flee. Similarly, the Da‘ish checkpoints at crossings between Iraq, Syria and Turkey reflect not only the ideological imperative to establish a borderless caliphate but also the mundane wish to control food supply lines. Da‘ish jurisdiction over cross-border trade has limited agricultural commerce crucial to the regime. Food prices in Syria have risen as a result.

The second food-related maneuver is the siege. Much of the fighting between the Syrian army and opposition groups is over hills that overlook villages or roads that serve as supply routes. Once the strategic position is gained, the targeted area is encircled to cut off access to food, medicine and other needs. The sieges can last for months at a time. Ceasefires and surrenders often transpire when communities are exhausted by hunger.

The siege of the Yarmouk refugee camp is a prominent example. Once a bustling district of 160,000 residents, the camp has been a desolate landscape since the regime tightened its blockade in July 2013. Situated just a few miles from the capital’s old city, Yarmouk is now home to fewer than 20,000 residents, most of whom face the daily specter of starvation.

The refugee camp became a nexus of unrest in June 2011 when the pro-Asad Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command shot and killed 14 anti-regime Palestinian protesters, igniting a major skirmish. In December 2012, militant groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army entered Yarmouk and helped pro-opposition Palestinians expel regime-affiliated militias. Opposition groups used Yarmouk’s strategic location to launch rockets into Damascus, which prompted the regime to surround the camp’s perimeter and cut off supplies.

Even as opposition groups won military victories inside the camp over the next year, the blockade effectively crippled Yarmouk’s residents. The dire humanitarian situation allowed the Asad regime to control truce negotiations, forcing the militants to offer concessions before they were expelled entirely. In a February 2014 deal that followed the death of nearly 100 residents from starvation, rebels cited their obligations to the welfare of Yarmouk’s inhabitants as the basis for their concessions. [8] The regime’s message to other rebellious districts was clear: Surrender or starve.

The informal name of the Yarmouk campaign -- “starvation until submission” -- offers a glimpse into the logic of regime actions. [9] The word “submission” suggests that siege can achieve more than the surrender or flight of opposition forces. It also discourages future militancy. By forcing residents to focus on survival, the regime can subdue entire towns and discourage prospective recruits to the opposition cause. Military victory is not enough -- the Asad regime must break the spirit of resistance and it has bet that food is the best means of doing so.

The tactic has proven brutally effective. In February 2014, the UN estimated that 240,000 Syrian citizens were encircled by military blockades, the vast majority by government forces. In addition to the Yarmouk camp, the regime can count a number of other Damascus suburbs and small towns scattered throughout Syria as victories won mainly through the time-honored method. “What I have seen since leaving the siege is that Homs’ civilians have begun to distance themselves from the revolutionary mindset; they are now simply trying to live, nothing more,” said activist Orhan Gazi, who left the old city of Homs in accordance with a truce in May. [10] The regime’s control over access to food has helped it reach places that conventional weapons could not. “They hit the place with missiles, but we didn’t leave; they shelled us with mortars, but we didn’t leave, they used tanks and snipers but we didn’t leave. But now there is no food left,” said Abu Jalal al-Tallawi, a butcher before the war who departed Homs in February. [11] “Hunger defeated us.”

Food as Welfare

In wartime, provision of food works in tandem with deprivation. Welfare programs are prominent in the calculations of all the forces hoping to rule Syria -- and the supply of bread stands at the forefront of these concerns.

In a large swath of territory under regime jurisdiction, most basic goods are available. It is no accident: The regime has imported large quantities of wheat from Ukraine and Russia while increasing spending threefold on the long-standing bread subsidy. The website of the General Company for Syrian Mills describes the welfare policy as an unassailable government obligation, a “red line” the regime will not cross in spite of Syria’s rapidly deteriorating economy.

Interviews with residents of Damascus and Ladhiqiyya reveal that subsidized bread is still widely available. One source from the Bab al-Sharqi neighborhood in the capital commented, “Bread is still much cheaper than in Lebanon or rebel-held areas.” Skeptical of the regime’s demonization of its opponents, but thankful for the security it offers, the source added, “Although there are more lines and black markets than before, we do not want when it comes to basic foods.” A close friend in the capital’s al-Midan district affirmed over Skype: “Food has gotten more expensive but bread is still available and relatively cheap. I do not know how we would survive without it.” The provision of foodstuffs has become an instrument with which the regime placates weary civilians while subtly reminding them of the benefits of state power and administration.

Unlike the regime, the now fractured Free Syrian Army (FSA) became notorious for neglecting welfare responsibilities. The FSA’s military failures turned many Syrians against the group, but its dismal track record in civil administration arguably played a greater role in its decline. Widespread shortages of basic necessities in areas under its control led to massive price increases and thriving black markets throughout 2012. FSA groups were accused of capturing wheat silos and selling the grain abroad rather than distributing them among the citizenry. [12] The shortages strained local bakeries, leading to lengthy lines and disgruntled, demoralized customers.

Conversely, the success of jihadi groups comes not only from ideology or military triumphs but also from achievements on the food front. In December 2012, fighters linked to Jabhat al-Nusra took over the four main grain compounds in Aleppo province. Bread production subsequently accelerated, quickly establishing for al-Nusra a reputation for discipline, honesty and efficiency.

Da‘ish makes similar efforts to win hearts and minds through various social services. Again, bread is deemed crucial: Da‘ish has reopened bombed bakeries and resupplied idle flour mills. In early August 2014, according to the al-‘Arabiyya satellite channel, Da‘ish seized nearly 750,000 tons of grain from government silos in the Nineveh and Anbar provinces of Iraq. The organization then transported much of the grain into Syria, distributing it under its name to bolster local supplies. Da‘ish pamphlets emphasize the group’s intent to “manage bakeries and mills to ensure access to bread for all.”

Locals, however, regularly accuse Da‘ish of exerting unilateral control over production and distribution. In Dayr al-Zawr, for example, an opposition spokeswoman claimed, “Most of the time there is no bread.” [13] Previously one of the main wheat-producing provinces in the country, Dayr al-Zawr now grows little due to the bombing of fields and the migration of farmers. The regime considers the province to be under terrorist control and, as such, distributes nothing. When bread does appear, the spokeswoman said, it is because Da‘ish “either distributes the flour in bags, or puts the flour in the bakery and provides it with fuel to operate.” She went on to describe bread as “the essential ingredient in gaining popular support.” Having firm control of bread supply allows Da‘ish to feed its own fighters, to be sure, but it also robs rival factions of the chance to win the sympathies of residents.

Food as Aid

Indeed, food is never apolitical, even when it appears in the guise of “neutral” humanitarian aid. Too often, the aid agencies working in war zones forget that who gets what, when, where and how is key to determining the winners and the losers.

Over the past three years, the UN has escalated its distribution of emergency food aid in Syria. But the process has been far from smooth or universally beneficial. Until mid-2014, following legal restrictions placed on humanitarian activities within member states’ borders, UN agencies sanctioned aid distribution only in areas agreed upon with the regime in Damascus. Although several NGOs ran risky operations to reach besieged locations near the Turkish border, the vast majority of humanitarian aid was funneled through regime-friendly channels. By maintaining food security in government-controlled areas, supposedly apolitical food aid played into the regime’s wartime calculus, as well as its welfare rhetoric.

A series of Security Council resolutions during 2014 attempted to mitigate the clear imbalance in distribution. UNSC 2139 adopted on February 22 demanded that the regime allow humanitarian workers greater access to those in need. Documents obtained by Foreign Policy reveal that the UN’s World Food Program (WFP) distribution scheme increased its reach from 3.7 million to 4.1 million Syrians following the resolution. But the rise did not mean compliance with the resolution. The UN’s own report in March indicated that the increased reach “was to a large extent a result of large population movements from non-government controlled areas” to areas under regime jurisdiction. WFP reports state clearly that the organization’s capacity to distribute was still heavily dependent on the regime. In June, the number of Syrians reached plummeted back to 3.4 million. Rebels were starved while “loyal” Syrians were promptly fed.

The WFP and other major humanitarian organizations face a fundamental question: Do they distribute in opposition-held territory and risk being expelled from regime-controlled areas? Overwhelmingly, the UN and others have chosen to cooperate with Damascus to maintain access to those already reached. Many Syrians outside government jurisdiction see this decision differently. For them, the message is clear: When it comes to international aid, lives are more valuable in regime-controlled areas.

Spurred by the continuing disparity in distribution, the UN sought to boost its claim to neutrality by circumventing Damascus. UNSC 2165, passed on July 14, sanctioned “cross-border and cross-line access for the UN and its partners to deliver humanitarian aid in Syria without state consent.” Previously, cross-border operations from Turkey were facilitated by the UN Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs and implemented by various NGO partners. Security concerns limited these efforts. The UN’s goal was to increase the number of Syrians the WFP, by far the largest emergency food aid distributor, could reach by authorizing entry to opposition-held territories. In a report released in September 2014, the WFP claimed to have reached 580,000 people in cross-line operations over the six-week period following the resolution, as opposed to 137,000 beforehand.

Over the course of these changes, the WFP has maintained that it is merely trying to save lives. “Our goal is simple -- to deliver food assistance to the whole of Syria, reaching anyone and everyone who needs it, regardless of where they are located,” said WFP spokesperson Dina El-Kassaby in an interview following passage of UNSC 2165. [14] For El-Kassaby, the resolution strengthens the WFP’s case that its work is politically neutral. “Hungry, homeless children don’t know or care whether they are in a government-controlled area or an opposition-controlled area,” she added. “They just want food and a safe place to live.” All true, yet attachment to the language of neutral humanitarianism can make one blind to aid’s political implications.

The WFP works closely with “local partners” to distribute the food aid, says El-Kassaby. The agency now enters hard-to-reach areas in Syria through the Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa crossings on the Turkish border and the Ramtha crossing from Jordan. Yet her remarks do not recognize how working with local groups can bolster their legitimacy. Aid deliveries that require the consent of armed actors have political repercussions, because those actors gain recognition from the international community and provide nourishment for the locals. The result is not necessarily negative. Humanitarian aid can be emancipatory or deeply regressive depending on the political configurations in which it is located. [15] But these decisions should be discussed and debated, something the language of “neutrality” does not allow.

Interestingly, the WFP’s approach seems to mark a move away from the explicit politicization of aid in the late 1990s. [16] That period was marked by international efforts to support externally brokered peace deals, which in turn organized aid around the enactment of such accords. But there is no deal on the horizon in the Syrian case. The WFP’s mission in Syria appears to be a return to the negotiated access programs that characterized interventions during the early post-Cold War years. The principles underlying those missions were geared toward working under conditions of ongoing conflict, privileging the principles of non-alignment and impartiality. This change may or may not be linked to the international community’s inability to bring about a political solution. By containing and managing suffering inside Syria and refugee camps in neighboring countries, the international community can avoid directly addressing the roots of the conflict. Food aid soothes the global conscience while implicitly contributing to international political inertia.

What humanitarians fail to understand, or cannot admit publicly, is that in Syria, nothing is apolitical, especially not food. Humanitarian action is, by its very essence, a political intervention. [17] Technically perfect projects and concise best practices do not exist. These mantras only serve to delude donors. Humanitarian agencies and Syrian citizens would be better served if the aid industry directly confronted these realities rather than mourn them.

The urgent need to reintegrate food into empirical and theoretical concerns is not just a scholarly preoccupation. The political economy of food illuminates the concerns and machinations of those fighting in Syria, as well as the daily difficulties and multifaceted choices faced by those suffering through the war. With food integrated into understandings of war, the actions of besieged populations, the calculus of battlefield commanders and the incongruous choices made by local activists become clearer. The fog of war dissipates, if only ever so slightly. Be it as weapon, welfare or aid, food will remain central to the conflict.

Endnotes

[1] Al-Sharq al-Awsat, December 24, 2012; McClatchy, January 21, 2013.
[2] The video is online here.
[3] Rami Zurayk, “Civil War and the Devastation of Syria’s Food System,” Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems and Community Development 3/2 (Winter 2012-2013).
[4] Syrian Center for Policy Research, Syria: Squandering Humanity (May 2014).
[5] McClatchy, January 21, 2013.
[6] Reuters, September 6, 2014.
[7] Reuters, February 8, 2013.
[8] Daily Star, February 18, 2014.
[9] Reuters, October 30, 2013.
[10] Syria Direct, May 22, 2014.
[11] Syria Direct, February 13, 2014.
[12] Syria Deeply, February 5, 2013.
[13] Syria Direct, June 30, 2014.
[14] Interview with Dina El-Kassaby, Amman, September 2, 2014.
[15] Jenny Edkins, Whose Hunger? Concepts of Famine, Practices of Aid (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p. 131.
[16] Mark Duffield, “The Liberal Way of Development and the Development-Security Impasse: Exploring the Global Life-Chance Divide,” Security Dialogue 41/1 (February 2010).
[17] Mark Cutts, “Politics and Humanitarianism,” Refugee Survey Quarterly 17/1 (1998).

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