Syria’s north-east under threat of starvation

Sunday 15/05/2016
Women carrying their belongings as they flee clashes near Qamishli city

DAMASCUS - North-eastern Syria was once considered the country’s bread basket but the war between the region’s Kurds, govern­ment troops and Islamic State (ISIS), combined with the closure of bor­der crossings with Turkey and Iraq, threaten the area with starvation.
Syrian government forces in the north-east control only the airport in Qamishli, a large city close to the Turkish border, and parts of the city of Hasakah, the provincial capital to the south-west, where they helped Kurdish forces repel an ISIS offen­sive in 2015.
Kurdish forces of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and their Arab and Christian allies grouped in the Syrian Democratic Forces con­trol much of the rest of the north-east and key border crossings from Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. ISIS controls the territory around its capital Raqqa, to the south-west of Hasakah and a section of the Turk­ish border.
“The Qamishli-Nusaybin crossing with Turkey, through which food supplies sent via UN agencies used to come into the region, was closed by Ankara a short time after March 2011,” said Ali Kawjar, who lives in rural Hasakah.
“Also, disputes between the gov­ernment of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan and Kurdish militias in Syria led to the closure of the Simal­ka crossing between Iraq and Syria in April. Now the region’s 2 million residents are at the mercy of ISIS be­cause the only crossing still working is the one between Raqqa and Ha­sakah.”
That allows ISIS to keep a stran­glehold on food and other perish­able goods coming into the north-east. The extremist group imposes taxes on supplies passing through or leaving its territory.
ISIS imposes a 25% charge on each truck, sources close to the organisa­tion told The Arab Weekly. Usually, the charge is paid in cash. Kurd­ish militias also force large trucks to empty their loads into smaller trucks before approaching check­points because large trucks have been used in bombings.
With international aid unable to reach the region, food prices in the north-east have increased several fold compared to elsewhere in Syr­ia, especially the parts controlled by President Bashar Assad.
“A truck bringing vegetables from Tartus in the west to Hasakah, for example, needs to pay 1.5 (million) to 2 million pounds ($6,850-$9,100) to government troops and ISIS fight­ers,” a truck driver, who asked for anonymity, told The Arab Weekly. “Also, waiting for hours at check­points can spoil the truckload. So wholesalers are finding it pointless to send supplies to the north-east.”
A kilogram of tomatoes sells for 800 Syrian pounds ($3.65) in Kurd­ish-controlled Tal Abyad on the Turkish border, compared to 100 pounds in Damascus.
Hasakah, under the control of pro-regime troops and Kurdish fighters, has been suffering a severe shortage in food supplies since the middle of April.
“An employee’s pay is no longer sufficient to buy food,” said Nizar Ahmad in the city of Hasakah. “A five-member family now needs 250,000 pounds ($1,140) a month to buy food. My salary is 27,000 pounds, so how can I manage?”
Things seem likely to worsen with the recent collapse of the Syr­ian pound against the US dollar. The black market exchange rate was 625 pounds to the dollar in early May, compared to 48 pounds before the war started in March 2011.
“The north-east fed almost every Syrian in peacetime,” said Moham­mad Abu Moussa, an engineer. “It is a pity that the region is now on the brink of starvation. Low rainfall this winter has added to the region’s ills and now people rely on yogurt and crushed wheat to survive,” he said, estimating that agricultural produc­tion had shrunk in Hasakah and Raqqa by about 70% in the last five years.
“Now a kilogram of sugar sells for 1,000 pounds ($4.50) in a region where sugar is heavily consumed. If the price drops by 200 pounds, people would still find it highly unaffordable because the higher prices of agricultural materials and spare parts for agricultural machin­ery have forced most farms to shut down.”
The official responsible for agri­culture in the Kurdish administra­tion in north-east Syria, Abdel Sat­tar Majid, denounced the closure of Simalka crossing with Iraqi Kurdis­tan, calling for it to be immediately reopened.
“I condemn in the strongest terms the closure since March 16th of the border crossing… a matter that has painfully affected the inhabitants in Rojava Syria,” Majid said in a state­ment, referring to the mainly Kurd­ish parts of Syria.
“The authorities (in Iraqi Kurd­istan) should review this measure, and avoid mixing humanitarian is­sues with political disputes. It is in the Kurds’ interests to have good political, economic and agricultural relations.”