Russian veto on Syria border aid could spell disaster for Idlib

Idlib residents are worried that more poverty – and hunger – is on its way if a vital border crossing is closed.

Bakers package flat bread for sale to customers
Bread is a staple food in Syria - but people in Idlib are worried that a rise in the price of grain would make bread unaffordable to many [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

Idlib, Syria – In Syria, famine threatens once again.

The country, now in its 11th year of war, was designated earlier in June as one of the world’s 20 “Hunger Hotspots” by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP).

The causes are local and international, but the result is that the organisations are warning that “intense hunger” will be prevalent across the country, unless serious humanitarian actions are taken.

In opposition-held Idlib province, in northwestern Syria, the situation is extremely dangerous, as a direct result of the humanitarian conditions faced by people living in the highly populated area, many of whom are displaced and living in camps.

Bread is growing ever more expensive, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine severely limiting the export of grains from the latter, which Syria heavily depends on.

In turn, imported flour has increased in price over the last year from $300 to $580 per tonne, according to local traders.

And yet, things could get even worse.

Despite pleas from the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Russia could use its veto at the UN Security Council and prevent the extension of a mechanism that allows for aid to pass through Bab al-Hawa, the only border crossing that allows aid to enter opposition-held territory without first entering Syrian government-controlled territory.

That would mean even more of a government stranglehold on opposition areas – such as Idlib – and further price increases.

A vote at the Security Council is expected on July 10.

Grain production decreasing

The UN aid that passes through Bab al-Hawa is a major source of free bread for thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) living in the camps.

“The humanitarian crisis in Syria is getting bigger,” Mark Cutts, UN deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis, told Al Jazeera. “More people in Syria are in need of humanitarian aid now than ever before.”

Locally, the production of grain has also decreased since 2020, as the opposition lost territory to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

Farming is also limited to the plains near the demarcation line with government forces, who residents say often hit farmland with artillery and missiles, destroying the crops.

This year, in particular, farmers have complained of noticeably low grain production.

Among them is Ahmed Jarjanazi, a 53-year-old who lives with his family in the Atmeh IDP camp, near the Syrian-Turkish border.

“The grain produced this year was very low compared with the previous years, the production per acre [0.4 hectare] this year was between 100 and 300kg, while last year it was between 500 and 800kg,” Jarjanazi told Al Jazeera.

A truck laden with sacks of grains in the middle of a wheat field
Idlib’s wheat fields have often been targeted by Syrian government forces [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

Jarjanazi added that the costs of farming and harvesting have doubled this year in comparison with last year, due to the high prices of fertilisers and fuel, another consequence of the war in Ukraine.

Effect of drought

According to Anas al-Rahmoun, a Syrian agricultural engineer, the reason for this year’s low harvest is climatic, with the winter onwards being significantly drier than normal.

“The authorities and international organisations should further encourage and support grain production, by providing what is needed,” al-Rahmoun told Al Jazeera. “[They] can support research centres in northwestern Syria to produce the types of grains that will be able to survive under the climatic conditions in the area, making them more tolerant of drought and able to grow outside of the plains.”

Al-Rahmoun added that grain production is linked to rainfall in terms of quantity and distribution.

This year’s winter witnessed continuous periods of rainfall but was then dry for longer periods, which affected grain production, especially in April when rainfall stopped during a vital part of the growing process.

All these reasons make Syria’s northwest, populated by at least four million people, among them 2.7 million internally displaced people – on the verge of real famine.

The UN has said that 90 percent of Syrians are now living below the poverty line, and according to WFP estimates, three out of five people in Syria suffer from food insecurity.

Mohammad Hallaj, the head of Syria Response Coordination Group told Al Jazeera that securing bread is now weighing hard on the average Syrian in the area; with each family needing on average up to three bags of bread daily, which costs 15 Turkish liras ($0.86) a day and 450 Turkish liras ($26) a month.

However, a local day labourer can expect to bring in a monthly income of only 1000 Turkish liras ($58) leaving little money to go towards other essentials.

Those with no income have an even bigger struggle.

In the camps, many people rely on the free bread provided by humanitarian organisations.

Some of them have already stopped bread distribution due to the high production costs.

“The interruption of flour imports, the primary ingredient for bread … will lead to unbelievable food security problems, and will lead to an unprecedented level of hunger,” Hallaj said. “We are on the verge of famine in the upcoming period, famine will come gradually as the price of bread goes up.”

Source: Al Jazeera