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Syrian wheat crop to fall far short of forecast

The Syrian government has vastly overestimated the size of the country’s wheat crop, officials, traders and farmers told Reuters, indicating that a population that has endured unrelenting war could struggle to feed itself this year.

A large part of Syria’s agricultural heartland in the north has been under the control of Daesh (ISIS) since 2014, when the ultra-hard-line militant group swept through the area and established a de facto capital in Raqqa.

Many farmers have fled their land, with some saying they have not harvested crops for three years. While Daesh has been slowly driven back from their territory by U.S.-backed forces in recent weeks, the retreating militants have laid waste to agricultural infrastructure in the area, which produces the bulk of Syria’s main staple wheat.

The Syrian Agriculture Ministry’s wheat production forecast puts the 2017 crop at 2 million tons.

However officials in the Raqqa Civil Council (RCC), which is expected to govern the northern region if and when U.S.-backed forces defeat the militants, say the actual figure will be around half the government’s forecast.

“Production is weak. It won’t be 2 million tons,” said Omar Alloush, a senior official in the council. “Production this year for all of Syria will be about 1 million tons.”

This was corroborated by a government source, who said the actual figure for the wheat harvest, which began this month would be far removed from the ministry’s projection. “The real figures will be obvious in another three weeks or so when the buying season is in full force, but I can say for sure it will be much lower than 2 million,” the person said.

While President Bashar Assad has scored vital battlefield gains against rebels seeking to oust him – in a 6-year-old civil war separate from the Daesh battle – he is under pressure to ensure supplies of strategic commodities such as wheat keep flowing to supporters in areas under his control and avoid the risk of unrest.

His government needs about 1 to 1.5 million tons of wheat annually to feed those areas.

The Agriculture Ministry could not be reached for comment.

Syria used to produce 4 million tons in a good year and was able to export 1.5 million tons. The fall in output has put Assad’s government under increasing pressure to import the strategic grain.

Syria’s state wheat buyer, the General Establishment for Cereal Processing and Trade (Hoboob), struck a risky deal in October to buy 1 million tons of wheat from a little known Russian firm to feed government-held areas and prevent bread shortages after the sharp drop in national wheat production.

No wheat from that deal has arrived yet and traders have said it is in jeopardy.

Reuters interviews with farmers and traders inside and outside Syria, as well as the RCC officials, suggest the country will be facing a food crisis for years to come and that there is little prospect in sight of wheat output returning to anywhere near the levels seen before the civil war.


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