Ciezadlo: The most unconventional weapon in Syria

Before images of malnourished men, women and children emerged from besieged Madaya, Syria, had an excellent piece in the Washington Post on the cynical tactics of starvation and the importance of agricultural power in the Syrian conflict:

Bread is the staple food in the Middle East. Daily bread is “liqmet aeesh” — a Levantine idiom that translates as “morsel of life.” In addition to its crucial carbohydrates, it is the main source of protein for many people in poor and rural areas. “You can’t imagine life without bread,” says a Syrian aid worker from Aleppo, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The calories, the energy it gives you, is equivalent to anything else you eat. Except it’s a lot cheaper. So there’s a chance for survival.”

The Syrian government understands the importance of bread. So does the Islamic State, as well as the constellation of other armed groups vying to control the country’s land and its people. Strategically, bread is as important as oil or water. Civilians are dependent on the authority that distributes it, and profiteers are eager to resell it to hungry people at grotesque prices. “When you control bread and fuel,” says a Syrian analyst from Damascus who spoke on the condition of anonymity, “you control the whole society.”

That’s why the Islamic State, other armed groups and the government aren’t just fighting over land; they’re warring over grain, too. The battles take place at every point in the wheat-production chain: from seeds growing in fields to flour mills, yeast factories and even bakeries.

Already, a third of the country’s wheat production lies outside the government’s control, according to officials from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. (Syrians who work in the agriculture sector believe that the number is probably higher.) The Islamic State holds the biggest chunk, including much of the country’s breadbasket, the prime wheat-producing lands that Syrians call the Jazira. It practices the same strategy in Iraq, where the FAO estimated last year that it controlled some 40 percent of all wheat production.

Wheat, like oil, is a fungible commodity. Disbursing it wins the loyalty — or at least the obedience — of civilians. But the Islamic State also sells Syria’s stocks to Iraq, to traders in Turkey and even back to the government, all at inflated prices, according to people closely involved with wheat and bread production. Other armed groups have been pursuing similar strategies. The result, as the World Food Program and the FAO estimated in July, is that almost 10 million Syrians — almost half of the country’s prewar population — are “food insecure,” meaning that they may go hungry on a day-to-day basis. Of those, almost 7 million need aid just to stay alive. And the black-market war economy that feeds them is controlled by combatants, who inflate prices — this year, they rose almost 90 percent — to profit from hunger and even starvation.

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