How Feeding Syrians Feeds the War

For-profit companies in Washington, D.C., are giving bread to starving Syrians. But despite best intentions, they are making peace harder to achieve.

ANKARA, TURKEY - JULY 11: A Syrian refugee family living in an abandoned house, eats Iftar meals distributed by local municipalities and nongovernmental organizations during the Islam's holy fasting month of Ramadan on July 11, 2015 in Ankara, Turkey. (Photo by Mustafa Kamaci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ANKARA, TURKEY - JULY 11: A Syrian refugee family living in an abandoned house, eats Iftar meals distributed by local municipalities and nongovernmental organizations during the Islam's holy fasting month of Ramadan on July 11, 2015 in Ankara, Turkey. (Photo by Mustafa Kamaci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

On Thanksgiving Day 2015, an Amman-based representative of Chemonics International Inc., a U.S.-based private government contractor that works in developing countries across the world, was awoken by a call from a Jordanian government official. Bread prices in Daraa, the southern Syrian province that shares a border with Jordan, had doubled in a matter of days. The Jordanian government called to urge Chemonics to make an emergency delivery of flour.

The panicked appeal represented an abrupt about-face. One week earlier, the Jordanian government, which keeps tight control of its border with Syria, had not allowed Chemonics to deliver its usual shipment of flour to rebel-controlled areas. It cited “security concerns,” according to a Chemonics employee. Now, it feared that unrest near the border fostered by increased bread prices could threaten Jordan’s stability.

This story neatly illustrates the odd alliances, warped supply chains, and cross-border dealings that many Syrians now depend on for survival. Such endeavors help prevent a humanitarian crisis, stem the flow of hungry refugees, and foster a modicum of social stability in a war-torn country. But there’s a good chance these short-term successes will come at the expense of long-term political stability for Syrians.

Most recently, international attention has been fixed on the starving residents of the besieged town of Madaya. But millions of Syrians outside blockaded areas continue to rely on international assistance for basic sustenance. In 2015 alone, humanitarian organizations helped feed nearly 7 million of an estimated 16.6 million Syrians inside the country.

Most emergency food aid remains under the remit of the U.N. World Food Program (WFP), whose problems distributing assistance in Syria have been well chronicled. But a significant portion of assistance is now being channeled through government contractors like Chemonics. A self-described “international development” company more accustomed to teaching irrigation techniques or promoting microfinance than running humanitarian operations in a war zone, Chemonics is now at the forefront of efforts, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, to feed Syrians in opposition-controlled areas of the southern Syrian region of Daraa. That means it also sits on the front lines of the military battle for the loyalties of food-insecure Syrians.

The provision of food, and especially bread, has been a source of fierce contention throughout Syria’s civil war. Both the opposition and the Assad regime have tried to engender support for themselves — and deprive it from their enemies — by regulating civilian access to subsistence goods. “Bread is an essential for life,” explained an activist in Daraa, “and the price of bread … heavily depends on the delivery of flour from Jordan.”

Since 2011, the Assad regime has made concerted efforts to maintain its provision of subsidized bread, a key holdover from the country’s prewar welfare system. Even now, as the value of Syria’s currency continues to plummet and foreign reserves collapse, subsidized bread remains widely available in large swaths of territory under regime control. This is hardly happenstance. Assad’s wartime government has steadily imported large quantities of wheat from Ukraine and Russia. It has also paid local farmers, even in areas beyond its control, above-market prices for their harvest to deprive the rebels of supply and shore up its own stores.

Various opposition groups have attempted to mimic the government’s provision of public services as a way of demonstrating their desire and capacity to replace the Assad regime. Although rarely discussed in Western media, providing bread helped the Islamic State gain a foothold in towns and villages previously held by other rebel groups during its initial emergence in late 2013. The Free Syrian Army, by contrast, neglected these duties and found itself vulnerable to the Islamist groups that made a concerted effort to supply bread. The al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, for instance, won wide support in Aleppo by organizing bread delivery routes that successfully avoided regime airstrikes. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are also well aware that bread is central both to the lives of civilians and the success of rebel groups. They have coordinated efforts to provide flour to opposition-controlled territory.

During the first years of the conflict, U.N. agencies were frustrated by the Syrian government’s unwillingness to grant them access to rebel-held areas. Eventually, the international community decided to simply bypass the Syrian government. In 2014, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 2165, which allowed cross-border humanitarian aid from Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq to reach Syria without Assad’s consent. Although frequently thwarted, these cross-border deliveries — the majority targeting opposition-controlled territory — have helped civilians temporarily secure their survival, albeit for only as long as the supplies last.

The United States has been the largest food donor in the Syrian conflict, working closely with the WFP to provide more than $1.4 billion in food assistance since the outbreak of the crisis. Such donations have contributed to food voucher cards for Syrian refugees in neighboring countries like Turkey and Jordan, and supplementary nutritional food for children inside Syria. But Washington’s most innovative contribution might be USAID’s flour-to-bakeries program. Since 2013, USAID has been working with local groups to provide flour to 230 bakeries across six rebel-controlled provinces, with flour sent from Turkey and Jordan.

Such well-intentioned efforts, however, have not been immune to the complications of war. In the project’s pilot program in Aleppo, USAID partnered with the Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU), a group affiliated with the Syrian National Coalition (the collection of opposition groups recognized by many countries as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people since 2012). The ACU, however, quickly developed a reputation for nepotism and corruption. Activists and local communities accused the organization of pocketing money meant to support subsidized bread and the delivery of emergency food. Since those allegations arose, USAID and government contractors running the program have tried to distance themselves from the ACU. (Although ACU, for its part, has recently made efforts to refurbish its reputation.)

But it is important to recognize that Washington’s reliance on local organizations to complete the delivery of assistance will never be bereft of problems. Those who partner with the United States to transport flour into Syria are inevitably part of a complex web of competing political, military, religious, and personal agendas that is, at best, only minimally regulated by the program’s administrators.

In addition to complications inside Syria, flour deliveries are also subject to thorny political dynamics in the countries from which this aid is dispatched. Turkey’s government has maintained a porous border with Syria, allowing supplies — from arms to oil to flour — to enter and exit, until it suffered a recent spate of jihadi attacks. In Jordan, however, the government has kept an iron-clad grip over its northern border since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. The Hashemite Kingdom fears both further influxes of refugees as well as the prospect of Jordanian citizens crossing the border to fight alongside the unsavory Islamist forces who have called for its downfall.

This has resulted in restrictions that hamper the cross-border activities of humanitarian organizations based in the country. In a series of anonymous interviews, aid workers outlined the decisions in Jordan that affect how — or whether — Syrians receive their daily bread. All organizations must first gain the approval of the Jordanian Foreign Ministry and intelligence services, which have never fully disclosed their relationship with the assorted opposition forces now controlling key parts of southern Syria. Interviews with Syrian aid workers in Daraa indicate that the only organization with the Jordanian government’s formal authorization to distribute the flour in Syria are made up of the remnants of a Jordan-based branch of the ACU. This group has become the principle facilitator of aid deliveries in the south. “Anything [related to flour] that enters Daraa goes through [the ACU],” one Daraa-based aid worker explained. After receiving flour purchased in Jordan by Chemonics with USAID funding, the ACU then distributes it to various local governing councils in opposition-held parts of Daraa, which then distribute the flour to local bakeries that sell bread at reduced prices.

The result of this dizzying dance of funding and distribution has been an apparent, if at times precarious, stabilization of bread prices in opposition-controlled parts of Daraa. Although many militias continue to sell stolen or co-opted emergency food aid at war-inflated prices, reports and interviews with residents in Daraa indicate a noticeable decrease in the cost of bread in areas supplied by Chemonics over the past 12 months.

In theory, this assistance has given opposition groups an opportunity to offer services reliably and equitably, which helps foster allegiance among Syrians living in the territory they control. But the dependence on foreign organizations for basic resources creates its own litany of problems. Opposition authorities cannot develop trust or legitimacy with local communities, as their capacity to implement essential public services relies on foreign support that could dry up at any moment. It also encourages local councils to think of one another as competitors for subsistence goods. At worst, reliance on foreign donors can facilitate violent military conflicts over external resources, and cultivate lasting divisions among communities subject to radically different forms of wartime governance. Rather than helping the Syrian opposition unify — which the United States claims is a prerequisite to a lasting solution for the war — humanitarian efforts may be contributing to such divisions.

Herein lies the crux of the problem for USAID and other humanitarian organizations. Their attempts to fulfill short-term needs can create patterns of dependence and conflict that worsen the ongoing war and its aftermath. If public services are indeed crucial for popular support, the key question becomes: To whom exactly is USAID channeling support? Without close scrutiny of who controls the assistance it offers, or which groups claim a mandate through the distribution of bread, external assistance can be easily co-opted by forces uninterested in civilian livelihoods or a political solution to the Syrian war.

Syria need only look to its conflict-ridden neighbor Lebanon to understand the long-term impact of welfare distribution patterns stemming from civil war. If only in this regard, the experience of Lebanon, whose civil war lasted from 1975 to 1989, proves instructive. Indeed, postwar welfare practices in the country have been highly divisive, in large part because of how they developed during the war, which undid most social welfare institutions established only 20 years earlier. As armed violence deepened, welfare activities became a parallel battleground for the various factions — a means of building support among constituents. Over time, armed groups developed their own systems for delivering public services, which often catered exclusively to their respective followers. Following the 1989 Taif agreement that brought an end to the conflict, these highly partisan patterns and practices of distribution developed into institutionalized agencies with local offices and networks. As the vested interests in these arrangements increased, reforming them has become increasingly difficult.

To this day, public services in Lebanon remain unequally distributed, poorly implemented, and subject to the whims of key interest groups. At present, nearly half of Lebanon’s schools, hospitals, and clinics are operated by religious charities or political parties with exclusionary orientations. These organizations tend to favor their own when distributing services, which can lead to uneven coverage and inequalities that further entrench societal divisions. Last year’s #YouStink protests in Beirut, for example, offered a poignant reminder of the importance of such public services, not just for the well-being of citizens, but also for fostering centripetal political loyalties in divided societies. The same is true for Syria.

It is popular among Syrian activists and certain foreign analysts to say that the so-called liberated areas of the country are free only militarily — in places like Raqqa or parts of Daraa, the Assad regime continues to pay state salaries and support local infrastructure (though these practices may soon cease, as the government continues to buckle under increasing financial pressure). But USAID’s flour-to-bakeries program has created another unhealthy form of dependence in opposition-controlled areas like Daraa. Instead of the Assad regime, it is the United States, Jordan, and the for-profit development organization Chemonics that civilians in Daraa are beholden to.

The verdict is still out on USAID’s flour-to-bakeries program and other efforts like it. On the one hand, the availability of affordable bread in rebel territory reduces local dependence on the Syrian government and helps ensure that civilians do not flee to regime- or Islamic State-controlled parts of the country (or, importantly for Jordan and Turkey, to neighboring countries) to survive. In doing so, the program saves lives, alleviates suffering, and ensures a minimum level of social stability. On the other hand, without a well-defined, inclusive opposition group, it is unclear to whom civilian loyalties are being redirected.

Although such forms of external assistance may be tactically astute in the short term, they will be politically meaningless if they do not come in the context of a cohesive strategy to end the Syrian conflict. By fostering a dangerous dependency on external assistance and further fragmenting the country’s welfare apparatus, they may even make the war and its aftermath worse. Predictably, it is the country’s citizens who will continue to bear the brunt of the conflict’s furthest-reaching consequences.

Photo Credit: Anadolu Agency / Contributor


Brent Eng is an independent analyst based in Amman.
José Ciro Martínez is a doctoral candidate in Politics and Gates scholar at the University of Cambridge.

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