Food insecurity and the crashing Syrian Pound

    With an overwhelming majority already reeling from poverty, the ongoing pandemic has exacerbated food shortages across Syria.

    Among the myriad of other forms of insecurity that prevail across war-torn Syria, food insecurity levels have quickly broken new records. Now, it is reported that an estimated 9.3 million people across the country are being defined as food insecure, which is in stark contrast to the figure estimated a few months ago which stood at 7.9 million. Food security as a measurable concept is not quite the same as famine or hunger, with the former relating to the availability of food rather than a consequence of unavailability. Distinctions in definition, however, should not detract from the very tenuous situation on the ground, where an estimated 80 per cent of people across Syria were living below the poverty line before the pandemic took hold.

    The World Food Programme (WFP), for example, reports that it now provides lifesaving food to 4.5 million people across all 14 governorates in Syria. The WFP also now offers a global near-real-time food security monitoring dashboard, similar in terms of its interface to that rolled out by Johns Hopkins University to track the development of the pandemic. One can’t help but be drawn to the region of Latakia, which in the diagram, as it were, is coloured in red. The stark colour perfectly matches the stark reality for the region: it signifies that it scores as the very worst area for insufficient food consumption in all of Syria. The lack of data for Idlib, however, is peculiar.

    The north-west of Syria is said to be generally reliant on food imports (alongside humanitarian aid). In recent times, the value of the Syrian pound has depreciated immensely. Before the civil war commenced back in March 2011, the Syrian pound traded at 50 pounds to the dollar. The figure now fluctuates around the 2,000 mark. Exchange rates on the Syrian pound vary slightly by region, with wide discrepancies between the official dollar exchange rates and those of the black-market. Any currency crisis in the Syrian pound will reduce purchasing power across the country, with inflation particularly hitting imports for basic commodities, but the effects on the long-suffering people in the region of Idlib may prove ultimately more disastrous.

    The figures recently relayed by the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock, show a 15 per cent increase in the average national reference food basket from March to April, which is double that recorded in April last year. TRT World previously covered the decline of the Syrian pound in terms of the economic sanctions on Iran, the financial crisis in Lebanon, and the cost of driving a war, estimated in 2018 by the U.N. to be $388 billion. That figure will only have gone up, driven by the motto: ‘Assad or we burn the country’.

    There is one thing the people of Idlib need not worry too much about at this time, and that is a renewed assault by the Assad regime and its allies. Protection of them comes in the form of the ceasefire signed in March of this year, the one that is ominously labelled, the “longest truce in the last nine years”. That said, minor skirmishes between rebels and the regime, in-fighting between rebel groups, and a litany of other threats and forms of violence (as documented in the U.N’s latest situation report) persist despite the truce, mainly because attention is now shifted from imminent war to the day-to-day struggles. The ceasefire is also not considered the solution to the wider conflict.

    The recent Rami Makhlouf saga – the billionaire business tycoon and cousin of Assad – is understood to be, at its heart, an internal rift within the regime’s inner-circle that is now hard-pressed by added economic pressure. This itself has stemmed from both the global economic downturn that has affected Syria and its patrons. The in-coming U.S. ‘Caesar’ Syria Civilian Protection Act signed by U.S. President Donald Trump (and named after a former regime photographer who leaked thousands of graphic images that portrayed murder and torture inside the regime’s detention centres), is set to induce further economic and hence political pressure on the regime and its backers, especially if the most basic of necessities for civilians cannot be met.

    As a direct result, the pressure is increasingly being felt by Assad loyalists and those who have found themselves under the regime’s rule, especially whilst its ability to defend the Syrian pound has decreased as foreign exchange reserves are depleted. The regime partly sources foreign currency through trade with areas across the country that are outside its control, but the apparent economic downturn across the country will have played havoc on this source of foreign exchange as well.

    This is not the first time the regime has faced economic difficulty. Assad may now double down on high-profile dissent as critics of the regime voice their opinions. Interestingly, Russia recently seems to have been more vocal in its criticism of Assad’s tenure, especially in light of the rampant corruption within the regime, and perhaps the unwillingness of Assad to entertain the possibility of a political process. The trouble is that there may, seemingly, be no viable alternative to Assad.

    Much was also rightly made of the potential threat the pandemic could have brought to an “already catastrophic humanitarian situation”. But “profound crises […] hidden in plain sight” in Syria have the potential to worsen not only due to the Coronavirus now commanding the full attention of the world, but for increasing global blindness to the more banal, but nonetheless fundamental, woes the country faces such as food security, or lack thereof.

    The culmination of a brutal decade-long civil war that has ravaged the country and embittered its populace, international sanctions, global economic downturn exacerbating local tensions, and a regime’s inertia to democratic reform, leaves the hope for reconciliation, power-sharing and the end to a political process that has overseen a catastrophic civil war, seeming elusive. Ramping up the cost of the Assad regime may, as a consequence, translate into higher living costs, but may ultimately force the regime into enacting some semblance of change.

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