In 2022, more than a decade after the breakout of the crisis, acute food insecurity affects 12 million people in Syria, approximately more than half the population and an increase of 51 percent more than in 2019, while 1.9 million are at risk of sliding into hunger. Facing hunger at a historic level, for the first time since WWI, Syria was at risk of famine in 2020, according to the United Nations. Syria also featured among the 10 worst food crises in the same year. In 2021 and 2022, and of the 113 assessed countries, Syria ranked 106st on the Global Food Security Index. Today, 14.6 million people rely on aid inside the country, 1.2 million more than a year before, and more than 90 percent of Syrians live in poverty.
This bleak picture runs in contrast to a not-long-gone past when food security was a pillar of the national economic independence strategy, which culminated in Syria achieving food sufficiency in 1994. Agriculture was one of Syria’s main economic sectors and the country enjoyed the most thriving agricultural sector in the Middle East. Although these achievements were under pressure in the decade preceding the conflict due to corruption, clientelism, ill-management, and climate change, among other issues, on the eve of the conflict, Syria enjoyed high levels of food security. At the time, the availability and accessibility dimensions of foods security were more robust than the utilization and stability aspects.
The key drivers of food insecurity are both human and nature-induced. They include, among others, the use of starvation as a weapon of war, weaponization of water and electricity, weaponization of strategic grains, arson and wildfire, drought, withdrawal of the state and the de facto partition of the country, as well as inflation and a struggling economy. International sanctions are also driving food insecurity and they are the subject of this memo, which is based on review of available (academic) literature, reports of international organizations, media analysis, and semi-structed interviews conducted over the last two years for the purpose of this memo and another research on sanctions. This essay aims to shed light on the link between sanctions and food insecurity, an understudied subject in the Syrian context, and to contribute to available knowledge on the subject in general.
Sanctions and food insecurity in academic literature
Available research on the subject shows that sanctions contribute to hunger and starvation even after accounting for several other factors such as conflict and natural disasters. Scholars have shown that sanctions have ‘deleterious’ effects on food security as they increase the composite index measure of hunger, Global Hunger Index ‘GHI,’ and adversely affect the availability and stability dimensions of food security. Scholars also argue that the (in)ability to trade due to sanctions; be it financial or trade-related, affect three dimensions of food security: availability, access and stability.
Sanctions on Syria: an overview
In the Syrian context, sanctions have been extensively deployed by external actors to shape the conflict and its outcome. Sanctions were imposed on individuals and sectors beginning in May 2011 and expanding over time. No sectoral sanctions have been lifted during this time period. According to the countries that imposed sanctions (the ‘senders’), these sanctions are ‘smart’ and ‘targeted.’ However, scholars and researchers have argued that the sanctions imposed on Syria are ‘unprecedent,’ one of the ‘strictest and most complex collective regimes in recent history’ and are the ‘most complicated and far-reaching sanctions regimes ever imposed.’ These sanctions are quite punitive even in comparison to other heavily sanctioned contexts.
In addition to the US’s primary and secondary unilateral measures, the EU, Australia, Canada, Japan, Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, UK and the Arab League imposed sanctions on Syria. Furthermore, several Jihadist groups operating in the country are subjects of UNSC resolutions resulting in a very complex counter-terrorism compliance environment for anyone involved in the country, including humanitarian actors. Despite being unilateral measure and hence non-binding internationally, sanctions on Syria function effectively as though they are global due to the US’s extraterritorial application of sanctions and global reach of US dollar.
Sanctions and food insecurity: impact and dynamics
Manifestly, and as indicated earlier, sanctions are not solely responsible for food insecurity in Syria; however, sanction and food insecurity are inextricably linked in Syrian context, despite claims of senders. In Syria, sanctions directly and indirectly impact the different dimensions of food security (availability, access and stability) due to their impact on the economy, the agricultural sector and ability of state as well as private actors and humanitarian actor to import food, equipment or conduct their work properly, among others.
Sanctions and food import
While technically all sanction regimes that are imposed on Syria allow for the import of food, the restrictions on the banking sector as well as shipping sector have made the process very difficult, prohibitively costly, and contributed to delays or cancellation of grain, rice and sugar-import tenders. In the initial years, several tenders issued for the purchase of items such as sugar, flour, rice and wheat failed. These tenders were to be paid for by frozen Syrian assets, which theoretically could be used for the purchase of food and medicine. However, international bidders shied away as the transaction would have required a derogation from a member state of the EU forcing Syria to rely on process payments processed through an Iranian credit line.
The problem persisted throughout the conflict. In 2020, several international import tenders conducted by the state’s main grain buyer, Hoboob, closed without any contract awarded. To circumvent these restrictions, the government relied on businessmen, mostly war profiteers and close associates of the ruling elites, to conclude transactions via neighbouring countries, mainly Lebanon, in order to sustain the bread subsidies. These work-arounds are not limited to grain imports, as the state has outsourced the import of commodities such as rice to private businesses. Although they have filled the void for now, the process came with a higher cost for the state and customers (Mehchy 2021).
Sanctions and agriculture
As is the case elsewhere in heavily sanctioned countries, sanctions have adversely affected the agricultural sector and its production in Syria. Export prohibition on machineries and equipment to Syria as well as restrictions on the import of items identified as having ‘dual use,’ have a particularly negative impact. These prohibitions include the import of fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides, an important component of large-scale agriculture. This has limited the availability of fertilizers in the country, and caused prices to skyrocket. While there is no research substantiating a causal linkage between the imposition of sanctions and limited use of fertiliser, as of 2019, it was reported that only between 40 or 50 percent of farmers applied fertilizers, which undermines productivity.
Sanctions further ban the imports of spare parts for existing irrigation pumps, gates, pipes, concrete for canals, and canal cleaning equipment; as well as equipment for processing agricultural products. This equipment is much needed to revive the agricultural sector as most of Syria’s pre-war machinery was looted, or damaged during the conflict. Bulldozers, for instance, which are used for the removal of rubble from agricultural areas are banned. This is particularly crippling as Syria’s pre-conflict agriculture was highly mechanized. Lack of sufficient machinery and equipment has forced farmers to engage in manual harvesting activities which are costlier, time consuming, and wasteful.
Sanctions, which place redlines on any meaningful rehabilitation work or interaction with the state apparatus are detrimental for the prospects of agricultural sector reconstruction in Syria. Unruh finds that the refusal or inability of Western donors to distinguish between the ‘regime,’ represented by political and coercive institutions, and technical components of the Syrian government has rendered the work of humanitarian organizations extremely difficult for fear of technical violation or loss of funding. Humanitarian actors have thus focused on small projects at the expense of bigger ones such as large public surface water irrigation schemes, which could benefit the wider community. Need for project-based approvals, ambiguities about what work is permissible, and the extent of work allowed to be undertaken has resulted in delays and cancellation of projects.
The current sanctions regime further restricts capacity building for technical personnel, which in the longer run contributes to undermining the main technical institutions in charge of safeguarding and promoting the food security of the country. Previous research has shown that funding of capacity building for government technical personnel in agricultural research, extension and engineering is prohibited, a particular problem due to brain drain in the sector. Unruh further shows that funding for vocational schools, colleges and universities that provide trained personnel for the agricultural sector is also banned, as these institutions are seen as part of government.
Sanctions do not only undermine technical agricultural institutions through restrictions on capacity building. They further undermined the ability of these institutions to properly supply essential resources such as seeds, fodder, and fuel to famers, which negatively impacted the agricultural sector’s productivity. Historically, the Syrian state had a central role in this regard and government expenditure on agricultural subsidies comprised three percent of GDP in 2011. Hence, the constraints on the state’s ability to provide support has been detrimental for farmers, many of whom were forced to quit their lands due to lack of alternatives or inability to purchase materials from the market. Farmers identify the lack of input and support from the government,  or de facto authorities, as one of the main obstacles for the recovery of their farming activities.
Sanctions have further increased costs, which affect agricultural productivity due to increases in the costs of production, mostly related to energy, transportation and inputs. The price of agricultural inputs such as seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and livestock vaccination have all increased, which increases costs for consumers. In comparison to 2018, the year 2019 saw a 100 percent increase in the cost of harvesting one donum of wheat. In some areas, shortages of fuel threaten the whole season, as irrigation system remain out of service due to lack of diesel. Shortages or lack of fuel does not only increase the costs of production and impact the livelihoods of farmers and agricultural labourers, but further reduces their productive daily hours as they spend their time looking for the supplies resulting in reduced daily wages and earnings.
Sanctions exacerbate the state of the livestock and veterinary sectors and undermine their recovery. Current sanctions ban the import of materials and equipment necessary to the recovery of the livestock sector, which sustained severe destruction in infrastructure and loss of animals during the war. There are specific restrictions on imports include vaccines and certain medicines, while the overall sanctions regime affects fodder production centres, breeding facilities and veterinary centres, dairy processing centres, logistical needs, and technical training. Meanwhile, shortages of fuel or electricity cuts hinder the operations of the remaining plants directly impacting productivity.
The confluence of these restrictions and prohibitions have resulted in limiting agricultural sector’s productivity and inputs thereby causing food shortages, food price spikes, and ultimately poor nutrition.
Economic Downturn: invisible impact of sanctions on food security
The general economic downturn in the country exacerbates food insecurity. The economy was already in decline due to years of conflict; however, a crisis in neighbouring Lebanon in 2019, which was simultaneous with the imposition of the US’s Caesar Act and OFAC’s prohibition on (facilitation of) shipping of oil to Syria, have triggered a rapid devaluation of the national currency. Arguably, the roots of this depreciation are much more structural than conjunctural and reflect the destructive situation of the economy. Nonetheless, fear-induced hoarding for dollars as a result of the imposition of sanctions and subsequent speculative attacks did contribute to the currency crisis. This phenomenon has also been observed in other heavily sanctioned countries.
Parallel to the tightening of ‘maximum pressure campaign,’ which included harsher sanctions, over the last two years, and as opposed to December 2019 when Syrian pound was approximately 800 per dollar, the pound continued to depreciate and reached unprecedented levels in early 2021. In April 2021, the value of the Syrian pound came close to a record of 4600 pounds to USD, while it currently hovers around 4000 pounds to USD. The subsequent decrease in consumer purchasing power has undermined food accessibility for hundreds of thousands of households, as well as their ability to meet their daily dietary requirements. A 236 percent increase in the average price of a food basket in December 2020 was reported in comparison to December 2019, 29 times pre-conflict cost.
During the same period, food insecurity rose from 6.5 million in 2019 to 12.4 and 13.4 million in 2020 and 2021, respectively. The tightening of sanctions was accompanied by a ban on the sale of wheat to government-controlled areas by the US-backed Kurdish militias bringing the Syrian state under more pressure. Subsequently, and unable to secure wheat, the state, which reportedly spends $400 million to subsidies bread annually,  reduced subsidies. For the first time in its history, the country introduced a limit on bread distribution.
Sanctions and remittances
Sanctions have negatively impacted the flow of remittances to Syria, where they serve as vital lifelines to hundreds of thousands of households and are used to buy basic needs such as food. Sanctions have impacted the Syrian remittance sector in several significant ways, including, but not limited to, through the listing of banks and other remittance outlets. Financial sector de-risking and an associated deterioration in the number of correspondent banking relationships has also led to a decline in available remittance options and contributed to a high rise of transaction costs. This has undermined the ability of Syrians abroad to support family members in the country and cut millions of people from one of their main sources of income.
Sanctions and humanitarian operations
Sanctions, as well as counter-terrorism financing and anti-money laundering regulations, hinder the work of humanitarian actors across Syria, including due to over-compliance, de-risking and the chilling effect. This has resulted in NGOs departing Syria, limiting the scope of their projects or to change their operations to be in line with regulations and donor country demands rather than recipients’ needs, including those related to food security. For example, due to high due-diligence requirements in some areas, cash assistance programmes are redirected to areas or populations that may have less needs.
At a time when acute food insecurity is rampant in Syria and the risk of starvation looms large over millions of war-battered civilians, swift action is needed. While external shocks such as the war in Ukraine are beyond the control of those working on Syria, action must be taken to address other factors driving food insecurity. Chief among those is sanctions.
Sanctions contribute to the persistent and ever-deteriorating food insecurity crisis in Syria. Although they are not to blame solely or mainly for the crisis, they do play a significant role and hence their use should be revisited and reviewed in light of Syrian food security concerns, as recommended by scholars and researchers on topic. Recent steps in this regard are not sufficient, and food-security concerns should be a priority in any future changes to the sanction regime in place. Exemptions and derogations must be clearly designed for this purpose and sectoral sanctions such as those on agriculture should be reconsidered or lifted. Action is also needed to shield remittances from the negative impact of over-compliance and de-risking.
Conflict of interest statement: The author has no relevant financial or non-financial interests to disclose and has no conflicts of interest to declare that are relevant to the content of this article. No funds were received for this research.
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The Global Food Security Index was designed and constructed by the Economist Intelligence Unit and is sponsored by Corteva Agriscience™. The Economist Intelligence Unit exercises full and final editorial control over all content, including data gathering, analysis and forecasting. The 2020 GFSI is the ninth edition of the index. The Economist Intelligence Unit updates the model annually to capture year-on-year changes in structural factors impacting food security.
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 Forthcoming book chapter: ‘Sanctions as barriers for humanitarian operations,’ Mohammad Kanfash
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