By Phillip Smyth, guest contributor
“Radical Islamist groups like [Jabhat] al-Nusra are already using targeted food distribution as a tool to curry favor with local populations, thus increasing their stakes in a post-Assad Syria.” – Phillip Smyth
An intrinsic component of Syria’s ongoing civil war, the control and distribution of food is becoming a multi-faceted strategic tool used not only to punish foes but also to build patronage. Just as shipments of arms and other military equipment can sway the results of a conflict, the supply of food can be just as critical.
Since last spring, stories and photographs of breadlines, some with hundreds of people in queues, have been circulated widely in the media. All in all, the challenge of feeding Syrians – both in external refugee camps and within Syria itself – is becoming greater every day. Due to ongoing violence, the U.N. World Food Program not only pulled out of most Syrian urban areas but also acknowledged that it lacked the ability to provide assistance to an estimated one million hungry Syrians. As the winter grows colder and the population of displaced people increases, Syria’s hungry are now facing extremely harsh times ahead.
Yet stifled international aid is only one component of the equation. A devastating December air attack on a bakery in rebel-controlled Halfaya highlighted an apparent Syrian government tactic of targeting bakeries with the sole objective of cutting peoples’ access to food. Some opposition sources claimed that anywhere from 100-300 people were killed during the attack, though numbers could not be independently confirmed. According to Turkey’s Foreign Ministry, the attack led to over 1,000 Syrians fleeing the country in the hopes of finding safety in Turkey.
When Assad’s forces stormed the village of Bdama in June 2011, one local resident told AFP, “ [The Syrian army] closed the only bakery there. We cannot get bread anymore.” The incident was hardly isolated. One Syrian businessman, now living in Saudi Arabia, told McClatchy News Service, “When the regime first attacked Deir el Zour in July, they bombed all the bakeries – maybe 10 of them. There is now not a single bakery working in the city.”
During the heavy fighting of August, 2012, Human Rights Watch recorded a crescendo of Assad regime attacks on Aleppo’s bakeries. One of the organization’s researchers concluded at the time that “Ten bakery attacks is not random – they show no care for civilians and strongly indicate an attempt to target them.”
In seemingly ironic contrast, pro-regime sources have accused rebels of shooting at helicopters which the government claims were dropping bread for the hungry.
As a result of these attacks and overall instability, prices for basic staples have risen exponentially. “We’re starving. I can bear it but what about my children? I stand from 3 in the afternoon until 11 at night and you can’t always get bread,” a resident of a rebel-controlled district of Aleppo recently told NBC News. The predicament has become commonplace in many of Syria’s cities and towns.
The New York Times’ C.J. Chivers noted that food deprivation can at times also favor the regime. He wrote that when in late November Aleppo’s flour supply was abruptly cut as rebels captured much of the city’s grain storage, what should have been seen as a victory instead became a source of popular rage. Even after bread production was restored, many residents vented their frustration against rebels calling them thieves or accusing them of corruption.
As food security diminishes, some rebel groups – armed and able to project their power over a war-weary civilian population – have even been accused of stealing bread for themselves and for their militias. As one disillusioned rebel fighter told Reuters, “It was like the regime all over again, wanting only their own family or sect to rule.”
In such an environment, food also becomes an effective currency in building patronage networks. On a number of occasions, al-Qaida-aligned Jabhat al-Nusra publicized its efforts to feed Syria’s hungry. Al-Nusra reportedly has also gone about securing supplies of flour going into Aleppo, setting up its own distribution program inside the city.
Food deprivation is apparently also creating new cross-border allegiances, with many hungry Syrian Kurds finding refuge with fellow Kurds in Iraq and deepening their ties with the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government. Even ethno-sectarian lines within Syria are being redrawn as many flee more diverse urban areas to seek sanctuary in Kurdish-dominated sections of northeastern Syria.
In the fight to control Syria, the battle for food has been and will remain a major factor. As international aid programs fall short of assisting the needy and violence continues, groups capable of feeding their supporters will wield increasing power. By all indications, the Assad regime seems to be no stranger to using food as a weapon of war, but the real wildcard in the conflict might just come down to rebel groups and how they will manipulate it. Radical Islamist groups like al-Nusra are already using targeted food distribution as a tool to curry favor with local populations, thus increasing their stakes in a post-Assad Syria.
Whether food will be the factor that ultimately decides the Syrian conflict is hard to say, but it appears that it will be a big part of its endgame.
Phillip Smyth is a journalist and researcher specializing in Lebanon and the broader Middle East. He travels regularly to the region. He has been published by the American Spectator, the Counterterrorism Blog, the Daily Caller, Haaretz, The Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, The National Review Online, NOW Lebanon, and PJ Media.
This article first appeared in Voice of America – Middle East Voices published on January 23, 2013.