The price of maize and barley — used as fodder for livestock in Syria — has shot up in recent days as sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine stoke fears among local traders and importers.
Officials in Damascus said the supply uncertainty from its principal market in Russia and the turmoil in global trade amid the continuing warhave been exploited by business owners to increase the prices of imported agricultural foodstuffs used to feed chickens, rabbits, cows and sheep.
The livestock industry has been severely hit over the past decade by the civil war in Syria, geopolitics and the country's worst drought in many decades.
“We have lost about 40 to 50 per cent of livestock due to the global rise in fodder prices, in addition to the continuing economic sanctions on the Syrian people,” a Ministry of Agriculture official, Osama Hammoud, told state-run media on Monday.
He said a "domino effect" from the war was making Syria's situation worse, affecting freight, local transportation and insurance, "not to mention the rise in the price of oil".
The price of fodder in government-controlled areas is about 1,200 Syrian pounds a kilogram, compared with 200 pounds last year. The price of barley has also skyrocketed, from about 200 pounds to 1,500 pounds a kilogram.
One US dollar is about 3,600 pounds at today’s official rate. Before the war, a dollar was trading at about 48 Syrian pounds.
Syria imports most of its annual requirement of 1.5 million tonnes of grain from Russia. Like other buyers, it could be forced to seek different exporters as flows from Moscow dry up owing to growing economic sanctions.
Syria is already grappling with a worsening economic crisis mainly caused by US and international sanctions imposed on the Assad regime over the past decade to deter foreign investment and business activities with Damascus. The crisis has sent the price of food and medicine soaring since the start of the war in 2011.
The Syrian regime is subject to US and European economic sanctions because of human rights violations.
“Syria depends heavily on Russian exports, and when it comes to its livestock, the Russian grain and maize are a key lifeline to its already poor and dwindling farms,” Shadi Ahmed, an economist and member of the Damascus Centre for Research and Studies, told The National.
“It’s a big dilemma for the government as the options are very limited because of the sanctions.
"We can’t import from the Americans or the French or other countries ... And even if we can go through independent companies located overseas or individuals, the government can’t afford this hassle as it’s a very complicated process through the central bank.”
To avoid US and international sanctions, contracts for importing grains to Syria are made in regional countries that act as an initial buyer. Ships are then loaded with grain and transferred to Syrian ports.
Russia and Ukraine are crucial in the global food trade. The two countries account for more than a quarter of the global wheat trade, nearly a fifth of corn, and 12 per cent of all foodstuffs traded globally, according to Bloomberg estimates.
The war has driven surges in crop prices of between 10 and 23 per cent since the start of the invasion on February 24.
Syria’s livestock have also been badly affected by last year’s drought, the worst in the country for the past seven decades, according to the UN.
Extreme heat and a lack of rain have devastated the harvest season, mainly in the fertile north-east.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation has estimated Syria’s losses last year to be 75 per cent of its field crops.
'Tighten your belts'
Syria is Russia's closest ally in the Middle East. Bilateral ties go back to the Soviet era.
Over the past decade, Russia expanded a naval base in Tartus and established the Hmeimim airbase in the city of Latakia after its direct intervention in the war to prop up President Bashar Al Assad in 2015.
The intervention changed the course of the conflict, allowing the Syrian regime to achieve decisive victories and recapture the areas controlled by opposition factions and ISIS.
Last week, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said during a visit to Moscow that Damascus supported Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to recognise the breakaway Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk as independent states.
"What the West is doing against Russia is similar to what it did against Syria during the war on terror," Mr Mekdad said.
The head of the Federation of Syrian Chambers of Industry, Fares Shehabi, on Tuesday called for "tightening belts" because the Russian war on Ukraine will hit the Syrian economy in the weeks to come.
On the streets, people are balking such calls for more austerity.
“We can’t see an end in sight for inflation. Prices of staple foods have sharply increased," Damascus resident Hanaa — not her real name — told The National.
"One kilo of rice sells today at 6,500 Syrian pounds. Last week, I bought it for around 5,500 Syrian pounds.”
She said traders are blaming the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
“It’s a flimsy pretext. Poverty is already prevailing everywhere in Syria. These traders are just greedy,” she said.