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Hunger at home haunts Syria’s international outreach efforts

As Syria steps out of its diplomatic isolation, calls for reconstruction are mooted by former opponents seeking to justify their relations and by the Syrians themselves, eager to capitalize on their new friendships. The recent dalliance with the Assad regime does not, however, illustrate the scale of developmental and humanitarian challenges that the country now faces — most significantly, hunger.

In recent weeks, Syria has seen widescale protests reminiscent of those that shook the Arab world more than a decade ago. In the absence of a political solution, the country’s conflicts are in stalemate. But the paralysis of Syria’s political factions is not reflected in the humanitarian situation, which worsens continually.

Demonstrations that began in the south of the country before enveloping Damascus and Aleppo followed the government’s decision to cut fuel subsidies, doubling the cost of gasoline. Amid a general deterioration in living standards, the government’s decision coincides with a wider economic crisis, which is at its worst point since the onset of the conflict.

More than 90 percent of Syrians live below the poverty line, while spiraling inflation and food shortages now mean that 12.1 million Syrians — more than half the population — are hungry, according to the World Food Program. The acute economic circumstances are now causing a crisis of malnutrition, with a further 3 million Syrians at risk of becoming food insecure. A staggering 532 percent increase in food prices in the space of two years is indicative of the scale of the problem. 

Circumstances caused by the country’s long war, exacerbated by the conflict in Ukraine and economic crises in neighboring Lebanon and Turkiye, have created huge challenges. Within this context, the Syrian government has imposed tough austerity measures, with cuts to subsidies on flour and wheat joining those imposed on fuel. The knock-on effect has been that millions of ordinary Syrians lack the products, food and fuel they need to survive.

Human factors are principally to blame in this crisis. In a vicious urban conflict often characterized by attacks on bakeries, the human cost of military activity has been crippling. In a state hugely reliant upon aid, Syria ranks among the world’s five most-violent contexts for aid workers. The deliberate targeting of aid workers, compounded by the dangers of operating in the Syrian context, has put incredible pressure on their ability to deliver aid and provide humanitarian assistance. In 2021, only 15 percent of aid requested by the UN for humanitarian assistance was delivered.

The government, alongside the factions it has opposed, is also responsible for the imposition of sieges on certain territories and settlements, which have had a drastic impact on their ability to receive supplies, generate income and, importantly, to farm. It was estimated in 2019 that 2.5 million Syrians had been victims of sieges imposed mainly by the government and Russian forces. Compounded by the imposition of border closures owing to security concerns, Syrian families have resorted to burning rubbish and toxic plastics to heat the little food that they have. The respiratory problems, explosions and skin diseases this causes have been documented by activists and international aid agencies alike.

In a country with semi-arid geography, where access to water is described as “tenuous,” the deliberate targeting of water facilities has had a disastrous impact upon local populations. Most frequently recorded in the governorates of Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and Idlib, the targeting of water supplies has meant that Syria’s drinking water supplies have almost halved and the country has seen cholera outbreaks for the first time in a century. However, a more lasting impact of these attacks has been on irrigation, forcing the country’s once-lucrative cotton production into decline and halving the production of grapes and other fruits.

The human action that has led to widespread hunger has been impacted by climate change. Syria, like other countries in the Arab world, has seen unprecedented warming. The droughts of 2006 to 2010 that encouraged the revolution have returned, with unprecedented levels of drought and rainfall scarcity. By some estimates, the level of arable land in Syria has halved, while the UN has even estimated that the country’s wheat production could cease altogether. Last month, the neighboring Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources warned that the Euphrates river could be dry by 2040. Syrian farmers have already suffered due to the falling water levels of the river.

Poor harvests are therefore one of the many lasting consequences of Syria’s long conflict. An already-battered population has been left overly exposed to the shocks in global commodity prices. Unable to afford the trickle of fuel that enters the country, hunger and cold threaten to cause widescale distress and loss of life this winter. Climate complexities, food prices and the ongoing internal conflict have resulted in 90 percent of Syrians living below the poverty line.

Within this context, it is critical that foreign efforts to support the Syrian people are conditional upon the government’s ongoing compliance with the delivery of aid. The politicization of aid, alongside the deliberate targeting of critical infrastructure, has aggravated and intensified the lot of the Syrian people — their well-being must be at the forefront of attempts at political rapprochement.

Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator and an adviser to private clients between London and the GCC. X: @Moulay_Zaid

Arab News- Zaid M. Belbagi
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