“One day I stood for seven hours,” he said in a telephone interview. “The next day it was eight, then six. I saw that my work was being hit. I need to work. I need to live.”
Abu Mohammed, who declined to give his full name for fear of harassment by the security services, is among a rapidly growing number of Syrians languishing in seemingly endless lines.
The bread crisis is perhaps the most visible and painful manifestation of Syria’s economic meltdown. It has seen the amount of subsidized bread most families can buy reduced by half or even more. Subsidized prices have doubled since October, despite official promises in the spring that price hikes for bread were a “red line” that would not be crossed.
Abu Mohammed, a factory worker and father of five, said he needs three to four bags of bread a day. He buys two bags of coarse, low-quality bread from a government bakery, his full allotment under the subsidized system. He waits in line at private bakeries for other, higher-quality loaves. When desperate — and when he can find them — he pays 10 times the official price of about 50 cents to buy more low-quality loaves from what he calls “the crisis dealers” on the black market.
Outside major cities, the deprivation may be even worse.
“The poor man living in the village no longer has gas; he has wood. He’s out of bread; he makes his own,” said a resident of the coastal city Tartus, interviewed over Facebook.
Syrians eat bread with nearly every meal. Torn chunks are pinched into mini-pockets, held between two fingers to scoop up strained yogurt and olives for breakfast. It hugs stuffed vegetables for lunch and is wrapped into late-night shawarma orders.
Traditionally, it’s much larger, fluffier and thinner than pita found in the United States and is sold in stacks of about seven inside transparent plastic bags. Recently, Syrians began to gripe that fewer pieces are being included in each bag.
In an interview with the pro-government al-Watan newspaper earlier this month, Agriculture Minister Hassan Qatana sought to deflect public discontent, saying, “Let’s go back to baking bread in our houses instead of waiting on the government.”
But as prices have doubled, quality has deteriorated and lines have grown ridiculously long, citizens who would not have dared to complain before, fearing the autocratic government of President Bashar al-Assad, are venting their ire. This anger spiked after the newspaper of the ruling Baath Party reported earlier this month that 500 tons of wheat disappeared while being offloaded from a ship.
During the past three years, Syria has imported an annual average of more than 1.1 million tons of wheat, according to the Syria Report, which monitors the country’s economy. Nearly all the imports were from Russia, a vital Assad ally, but the spread of the coronavirus pushed Russia to limit wheat exports earlier this year to protect its domestic supply. An official at the Syrian Grain Establishment said this month that Russian companies have withdrawn from six contracts with Syria, cutting total wheat imports nearly in half.
At the same time, the deepening economic crisis — resulting from war, mismanagement, U.S. sanctions and the spillover effect of a financial meltdown in neighboring Lebanon — has gutted the value of the Syrian pound, making it prohibitively expensive to import wheat. The crisis has also disrupted the production and marketing of the crop.
Wheat is historically the country’s largest crop, but Syria’s self-sufficiency, a decades-old cornerstone of Baath Party policy, was already being undermined by war and drought.
Since 2011, the country has been riven by civil war after Syrians rose up against Assad. The three provinces richest in agricultural land — Aleppo, Raqqa and Hasakah — have all suffered heavily from fighting among the Russian-backed Syrian army, Western-backed rebels and the extremist Islamic State. Farm machinery has been destroyed and shipping routes turned unsafe, while costs of production have increased.
While ample rainfall and improving security helped double the size of the annual harvest last year, according to estimates by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, domestic production, at 2.2 million tons, remains just half the precrisis average.
To rally supporters, Assad’s government has blamed the United States for the crisis, in part pointing to the effect of U.S. economic sanctions. These have hindered Syria’s ability to import spare parts for machinery and pesticides and have also disrupted financial transactions, undercutting the value of the Syrian pound and aggravating the wider economic crisis. U.S. sanctions have hit fuel imports hard, leading to long lines of cars jamming roads outside gas stations, sometimes for more than 10 hours.
The state news agency SANA has even blamed President Trump for wildfires that have scorched fields of grain, alleging he ordered U.S. Apache helicopters to burn a stretch of wheat crops in the northeast province of Hasakah.
The minister of education, Darem Tabbaa, appeared in a video this month in a field holding a large bouquet of wheat, urging students to plant the crop. “You are now seeing the importance of the wheat grain,” the minister said, “when you stand in line for the bakeries, when you wake up to eat breakfast, when you return home from school.”
His remarks were met with online derision, as critics were baffled by his notion that wheat is no more than a household plant.
Some reports in government-aligned media and pro-government Facebook posts have suggested there is no bread crisis at all. These have been met with outrage. The Tartus resident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity fearing retaliation, said he is especially enraged by ministers who “sit there ridiculing the people and think everything is a-okay.”
The lines for bread have grown so large that one Damascus bakery erected a six-foot-high chain-link fence to contain the customers. A photo of men crammed into what looked like a pen or cage went viral online, provoking anger from Syrians at home and abroad infuriated by the demeaning, jail-like conditions.
The bakery took the fence down.