In a recent interview with The National, David Beasley, head of the UN's World Food Programme, warned that "famine could very well be knocking on the door" in war-torn Syria. Areas under the Bashar Al Assad regime's control face high inflation and soaring prices in the aftermath of a banking crisis in neighbouring Lebanon, a situation that has been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic.
"Syria is deteriorating in a pretty serious way," Mr Beasley explained, "because the Lebanese economy has collapsed." The two countries have a shared, tumultuous history. Syria occupied Lebanon for nearly 30 years, until an uprising in 2005 forced them out of the country, where the regime continues to maintain strong ties to extremist groups such as Hezbollah.
For decades, Lebanon’s banking system has provided oxygen to a Syrian economy otherwise unable to access the global market. Since 1979, the country has been on the US State Sponsors of Terrorism list, and it reels under American as well as European sanctions.
For the past seven months, a shortage of dollars, to which the Lebanese pound is pegged, has fuelled a banking and financial crisis in Lebanon, with banks imposing draconian capital controls.
This has jeopardised Syria’s access to essential goods, such as fuel, wheat and flour, which is subsidised by the Lebanese state and routinely smuggled across the border. Following the closure of the border to contain the pandemic, this flow has come to a trickle. Since November, the Lebanese pound has fallen from 1,500 lira to more than 4,000 to the dollar on the black market. Prices of foodstuff soared by at least 50 per cent in May, compared to the same time last year, according to the Beirut-based Consultation and Research Institute. In Syria, meanwhile, food prices have doubled according to WFP estimates, with the Syrian pound also taking a nosedive, leaving the nation food insecure. The WFP provides food assistance for four million people in Syria and 1.6m Syrian refugees abroad.
From Beirut to Damascus, the victims of this tragedy are ordinary citizens failed by political leaders. It is little wonder that protests have raged on both sides of the border, with calls for better living conditions and the fall of the ruling classes.
Lebanon’s demonstrations, which began last October, have resumed since lockdown measures were eased last weekend. In Syria, hundreds of demonstrators have taken to the streets of Suwaida and Deraa since Sunday, risking their lives to call for President Bashar Al Assad to leave.Last month, the leader of Lebanon’s Druze community, Walid Joumblatt, predicted that famine will drive people to the streets. “The hunger revolt will come and we have no answer,” Mr Joumblatt said in a webinar. Now, the hunger revolt seems to have erupted in Syria as well, highlighting the extent to which the two nations are interconnected in the worst of ways.