After a decade of brutal conflict, Syria’s people now face another threat: hunger.

The front lines of Syria’s war have lately been mostly static. Across those lines, however, the country now faces an unprecedented food security crisis. Almost 60 percent of Syria’s nearly 21 million people are “food insecure,” according to the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), and lack secure access to sufficient safe and nutritious food. More than a million Syrians are “severely” food insecure, or unable to survive without food assistance.1

Syria’s food security crisis is gravely serious. U.S. and other Western policymakers should respond with equal seriousness.

The deterioration of Syrian food security is the product of many factors. It is, foremost, the result of an economic crisis that has overtaken Syria since 2019, and the dramatic depreciation of the national currency. Many Syrians can simply no longer afford to feed their families. Yet key imports have also been disrupted, including wheat needed for bread; and fuel, whose scarcity has affected food supply and prices. All this has been exacerbated by Western sanctions on Syria. Humanitarian assistance—itself compromised by sanctions—is not enough to compensate.

This report aims to disaggregate the factors causing Syria’s food insecurity, and to identify which of them Western policymakers can usefully influence. The answers are unsatisfying; many of the drivers of Syrian food insecurity are not within these policymakers’ power to fix. Some require action by the Syrian government and its allies. Others are now just structural features of Syria’s economy, after years of war.

There are drivers of food insecurity, though, on which Washington and its allies can have a real, positive impact. This impact may be limited, but that should not dissuade them from acting. Even a marginal effect means that more Syrians eat.

Western governments should think mostly in terms of what they can do without some larger, unlikely agreement with Damascus or its allies—and think about aid and sanctions, in particular. They should direct their aid contributions to better help Syrians feed themselves, permitting aid to sustainably reduce needs, in addition to continued emergency assistance. They should also push for renewal of the UN’s cross-border humanitarian mandate, without which millions of food-insecure people will be at risk. Policymakers should also better shield humanitarian organizations from the impacts of sanctions. Yet they should additionally recognize the limitations of humanitarian aid, and try to relieve some pressure on the broader Syrian economy. They should seek ways to reduce sanctions risks for commercial trade in essential commodities, and exercise restraint in announcing new sanctions and enforcing existing ones, lest they worsen the damaging systemic effect of sanctions.

This report is directed at U.S. and Western policymakers, including in Europe and Canada. It focuses largely but not exclusively on areas of Syrian government control, which house most Syrians still inside the country and where, additionally, Western policies seem most at odds with Syrian food security.2 The report draws on more than two dozen interviews with humanitarian aid workers; donor country diplomats and aid officials; and others, either interviewed in Beirut or reached remotely in Damascus and elsewhere globally. Interviewees requested anonymity to speak freely.

Lastly, the report is narrow in scope; it is concerned with the factors currently affecting Syrian food security, not with assigning blame for the war’s many past violations. It is not a sidelong argument for sanctions relief, or for normalization with Damascus.

Rather, this report is an argument for prioritizing Syrians’ food security and well-being—not subordinating them to issues like political change in Damascus that seem likely to remain unresolved. In 2021, food insecurity should top the Syria policy agenda. Western policymakers need to consider whether each of their decisions will result in more hungry Syrians.

The Gravity of Syria’s Food Security Crisis

Syrians across the country are poor, exhausted—and now, hungry.3

The World Food Programme (WFP) has warned this year that Syria’s food security situation is “at critical levels.”4 In February, WFP reported that a record 12.4 million Syrians were food insecure, an increase of 57 percent (4.5 million people) over the previous year. WFP also said that 1.3 million Syrians were severely food insecure—twice as many as a year earlier—and estimated another 1.8 million were at risk of falling into severe food insecurity.5 In April, WFP said that Syrians’ rate of inadequate food consumption was 50 percent higher than the previous year.6 More than 600,000 children nationwide are estimated to be malnourished, suffering from stunting and at risk of impaired physical and cognitive development; some 90,000 are thought to be acutely malnourished, and thus in life-threatening danger without immediate treatment.7

This spike in food insecurity is part of a larger deterioration of economic and humanitarian conditions in the country. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported in March that 13.4 million Syrians need humanitarian assistance, up from 11.1 million the year before.8 Roughly 90 percent of Syrians live below the poverty line, and an estimated 60 to 65 percent live in extreme poverty.9 Some 6.7 million Syrians are internally displaced, and thus especially vulnerable.10

Most food items are available in markets, but are unaffordable for Syrians, whose purchasing power has utterly collapsed. “I don’t know how people are surviving,” a humanitarian worker said. “It seems mathematically impossible.”

Most food items are apparently available in markets, but are unaffordable for Syrians, whose purchasing power has utterly collapsed. The informal market value of Syria’s currency (the lira, or pound) has plummeted from 636 lira to the dollar in October 2019 to approximately 3,000 lira to the dollar in May 2021.11 The value of Syrians’ lira-denominated salaries and savings has likewise cratered, putting basic household purchases out of reach for many. The national average price of a standard food basket was 247 percent higher in April 2021 than a year before.12 “The markets are full of food,” said one Damascus-based humanitarian aid worker. “But no one can afford to buy it.”13

“I don’t know how people are surviving,” the humanitarian worker said. “It seems mathematically impossible.”14

Still, not all goods are available: critical supplies of both wheat and fuel have run short.15 Wheat’s importance to food security is obvious, particularly given the centrality of bread in Syrians’ diets. But the fuel shortage has also exacerbated food insecurity. “When fuel is impacted, it means the transport of goods between governorates is impacted,” said another humanitarian aid worker in Damascus. “That means higher costs for basic commodities, even if they’re locally produced.”16

Damascus residents and visitors describe hardship and deprivation that have been impossible to miss, including hours-long lines at state-sponsored bakeries and gas stations earlier this year, as Syrians waited to purchase subsidized goods with electronic ration cards.17

A woman in Aleppo purchases food using an electronic ration card. Source: WFP/Hussam Al Saleh

Many Syrians have resorted to difficult compromises just to survive. This spring, WFP estimated that nine out of ten households had applied at least one “food-based coping mechanism” to meet their consumption needs.18 Adults are going hungry so that their children can eat—a WFP survey found that 48 percent of households were reducing adult food consumption to prioritize children’s needs. Seven out of ten families reported buying food on credit. Some families have taken children out of schools, either to work or to stand in bread lines.19

Yet even these coping mechanisms have limits. “That debt’s going to come due at some point,” said a humanitarian aid worker. “People just have nothing to sell anymore.”20 Eighty-four percent of families surveyed by WFP in March said they had depleted their savings.21

The country’s dire economic conditions and the additionally damaging impact of the government’s initial response to the coronavirus pandemic on Syrians’ food security seem to have convinced Damascus to mostly give up on managing the spread of COVID-19 nationwide. President Bashar al-Assad essentially said as much in televised remarks in May 2020, in which he acknowledged that the government’s early lockdowns and other restrictive measures were untenable:

Hunger, due to poverty and need, is a condition that’s certain, not [just] likely. On the other hand, a citizen getting this disease when he goes out, that’s [only] a possibility. The effects of hunger on a person are known, and certain in advance. This disease’s effects, meanwhile, aren’t certain. The majority of those [affected by COVID-19] recover; the opposite is not the case.22

After Assad signaled this shift in Damascus’s public health thinking, COVID-19 seems to have run rampant inside Syria, even as the government mostly imposed a media blackout on the virus’s spread.23

The mood in Damascus, say residents and visitors, is bleak. “When you’re living in Syria, from your interactions on a daily basis, you can really feel it,” said a humanitarian aid worker in Damascus. “You feel how down people are; how they’ve lost any hope for some improvement.”24

Disaggregating Causation

Syria’s current economic and food security crises result from a convergence of multiple, interrelated factors, something that only makes these crises more difficult to address.

What’s more, how to properly identify those factors and compare their relative importance is intensely contested and politicized, by all sides. Western policymakers and advocates of Syria sanctions often seek to deny sanctions’ role in exacerbating food insecurity, and point instead to the Syrian government’s corruption, economic mismanagement, and scorched-earth war to retake the country. Damascus and its allies, on the other hand, place blame largely on the West’s unilateral sanctions “blockade” on Syria and U.S.-backed Kurdish-led militants’ continued hold on the country’s most resource-rich territory.

Yet all these factors and more seemingly contribute to Syrian food insecurity.25 This extended section aims to disaggregate the most important causal drivers of Syrian food insecurity, with the aim of identifying which of them can actually be addressed by Western policymakers. Not all of them can be; some seemingly cannot be addressed at all.

It seems possible to roughly divide these drivers of Syria’s food insecurity into what you could call “availability” problems and “access” problems:

  • “Availability” issues relate to the supply of key goods, and whether it is sufficient to meet local needs.
  • “Access” issues relate to ordinary Syrians’ ability to secure goods that are available, including whether those Syrians can actually afford to purchase them.

Currently, food insecurity in Syria seems to be primarily a result of “access” problems—the Syrian public’s destroyed purchasing power, and its immiseration generally.26 Yet Syria has also run into major “availability” problems with key imported goods, including wheat and fuel, that have reverberated through the economy and compromised Syrians’ food security.

Divided Control

It is important to note that the drivers of food insecurity differ across Syria’s zones of military control. Economic conditions and food security have deteriorated for Syrians across the country over the past year, as the entire country, like the rest of the world, has faced major economic stressors like the global COVID-19 pandemic. Still, the major zones of control across Syria have different political economies, with implications for the causal drivers of food insecurity.

Syria is roughly divided into three areas of military control:

  • The Syrian government in Damascus holds the country’s center and south, including Syria’s land borders with Lebanon and Jordan and its Mediterranean coast.
  • The country’s northwest is occupied by a mix of opposition armed factions. Former al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) controls opposition-held Idlib, which is administered by the HTS-backed “Salvation Government.” HTS operates alongside Turkish forces deployed at observation posts throughout the Idlib area, as part of a ceasefire agreed by Ankara and Moscow. The remaining opposition-held sections of northern Syria are controlled by other Syrian rebel factions more directly subordinate to Turkey.
  • Lastly, Syria’s northeast is held by the U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and governed by the linked “Autonomous Administration.”

Among the key distinctions between these areas, with implications for food security are the extent, in each area, of the presence of the Syrian state and its welfare apparatus; and each area’s degree of integration into Syria’s national economy generally.

In areas of Syrian government control, the Syrian state is pivotal to economic life and public welfare. Syrians in these areas continue to largely rely on lira-denominated public sector salaries, state services and state-centralized provision of goods like subsidized bread and fuel. Further, the state plays a critical role in, for example, supporting local agriculture at multiple junctures of production. The Syrian state’s resource scarcity and the depreciation of the Syrian lira thus directly impact Syrians in these areas. This applies also to areas the Syrian military recaptured from opposition rebels in 2017 and 2018, and in which Damascus has subsequently failed to re-invest in public infrastructure.

“Service provision fell on a government that is under sanctions, and therefore cannot engage in commercial transactions abroad and cannot receive any funds for humanitarian aid, given the red lines put in place by donors,” one Damascus-based aid worker said. “In the past, it was the public sector that fed the whole of Syria. But because of the war and sanctions, it has a severely diminished capacity to cope with demand and feed the country’s population.”27

“In the past, it was the public sector that fed the whole of Syria,” a Damascus-based aid worker said. “But because of the war and sanctions, it has a severely diminished capacity to feed the population.”

The SDF-controlled northeast, meanwhile, is only partially integrated into government-controlled Syria. Some Syrian state institutions continue to operate in the northeast, including in enclaves of government control in major northeastern cities. Yet the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration has established its own administrative and service institutions, including a network of bakeries that it appropriated from the Syrian state.28 The Autonomous Administration can access dollars independently, sidestepping the Syrian central bank and its disadvantageous official exchange rates. Importantly, these areas also contain much of Syria’s resource wealth, including oil fields and agricultural production.

The northeast’s economy is not fully isolated from the economic crisis in government areas, though. The region still uses the Syrian lira, whose sudden depreciation has hit the area’s residents as it has Syrians elsewhere in the country. And for the northeast, government-controlled Syria is also an important cross-line trading partner, both as a market for the northeast’s commodities and as a supplier of foods and other necessities.29

Syria’s opposition-held northwest, on the other hand, is less linked institutionally and economically to the rest of Syria, and instead more connected to neighboring Turkey.30 Local authorities in the northwest have made a concerted push to transition from the use of the unstable Syrian lira to the Turkish lira instead, although not all residents are able to access Turkish lira and have thus suffered from the Syrian lira’s decline.31 Syrian state offices are absent in these areas, and residents do not depend on Syrian state-provided welfare as in the rest of the country. The northwest trades largely with Turkey; cross-line trade between the northwest and adjacent government-held areas has been mostly cut since the last round of fighting in Idlib governorate ended in March 2020, although the northwest has continued to import some fuel from the SDF-controlled northeast.32

The Turkey-Syria border and the Syrian village of Atmeh, Idlib governorate, as seen in September 2019. The village absorbed nearly 1 million displaced Syrians. Idlib, in Syria’s northwest, is considered Syria’s most food insecure region. Source: Burak Kara/Getty Images

Humanitarian operations in northwest Syria are also linked more with Turkey than with the rest of Syria. Idlib’s Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey is the sole crossing still covered by a 2014 UN Security Council resolution authorizing UN agencies to provide cross-border aid to areas outside Syrian government control, without government permission.33 Accordingly, humanitarian operations supporting the northwest are concentrated in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, not Damascus. According to the UN, 2.4 million people in northwest Syria are reached through cross-border assistance each month.34 The original 2014 resolution also covered three other border crossings, including one between Syria’s SDF-controlled northeast and Iraq; authorization for use of those other three crossings has been cancelled when the cross-border mandate has come up for periodic renewal. UN agencies now serve the northeast from inside Syria, subject to the Syrian government’s go-ahead.

Destitute Syrians Cannot Access Food

There is a direct line from Syria’s overall economic crisis to the “access” issues most responsible for worsened food insecurity, as ordinary Syrians have increasingly been unable to afford enough food for themselves and their families.

Several huge, exogenous shocks have rocked the Syrian economy in the past year and a half.

By 2019, nearly a decade of conflict had already sapped the Syrian economy. Brutal, grinding warfare had destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure and productive industrial and export capacity.35 Factories had been bombed out and stripped for parts, and large agricultural areas contaminated with unexploded ordnance. The country’s workforce had been depleted by protracted war and by the flight of millions of Syrians as refugees.36 Syria’s economy had also been constrained by various Western sanctions regimes, some in place for decades. These sanctions multiplied after the start of the country’s uprising in 2011 and the Syrian government’s violent crackdown on early demonstrations.37

Still, Syria’s economy had seemed mostly stable, if anemic and depleted. In October 2019, however, a nationwide protest movement in neighboring Lebanon catalyzed a long-brewing crisis in that country’s banking sector and public finances. Lebanon’s banks imposed informal capital controls on their account holders, effectively confiscating billions of deposits. The real value of the Lebanese lira plummeted, although Lebanon’s central bank insisted on maintaining multiple other official exchange rates. The sudden disappearance of billions of dollars of liquidity, combined with the central bank’s monetary incoherence, throttled Lebanese trade.38

It was only after Lebanon’s economy seized up that it became fully apparent how important the country had been for Syrian finance and trade, and for stabilizing Syria’s heavily sanctioned, war-stricken economy. Syrian and Lebanese political and economic elites have extensive ties, reflecting the two countries’ historical entanglement. Importantly, Syrians had relied on Lebanon to circumvent sanctions on their own country, using Lebanese entities and branches in Lebanon to trade for Syria’s domestic needs. Lebanon had also been a haven for Syrians’ private capital, which Syrians deposited in Lebanese banks—either because they were opponents of the regime in Damascus, or simply because Lebanon appeared stable relative to war-torn Syria.39 Estimates vary, but Syrians are thought to have deposited tens of billions of dollars in Lebanon’s banks. As Lebanese banks attempted to forestall their own bankruptcy by effectively seizing depositors’ money, Syrians lost not only their individual savings but also the funds with which Syrian businesspeople had financed trade via Lebanon.40

It was only after Lebanon’s economy seized up that it became fully apparent how important the country had been for Syrian finance and trade, and for stabilizing Syria’s heavily sanctioned, war-stricken economy.

Lebanon’s crisis caused Syria to feel, finally, the full impact of its protracted conflict and Western sanctions. Syria was pushed into a deep economic depression.

The value of the Syrian lira, after gradually weakening since 2011, abruptly fell alongside its Lebanese counterpart. The two currencies have since moved mostly in tandem, and increasingly so over time.41

Just as Syria was losing its Lebanese trade outlet, the United States intensified its sanctions on Damascus. The U.S. Congress passed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, known commonly as “the Caesar Act,” in December 2019.42 (The law was named after the pseudonym of a Syrian military police photographer who revealed extensive Syrian government torture in a 2014 report.) The law imposed the United States’ most stringent sanctions yet on Syria, levying extraterritorial, “secondary” sanctions on anyone—American or otherwise—doing business in various sectors of Syria’s economy, including the oil and gas sector and construction. The law went into effect in June 2020, occasioning what the administration of Donald Trump declared the “summer of Caesar.” For months, the administration announced periodic batches of sanctions intended to deter investment in Syria and any political and economic normalization with the Assad government.43

Then, as the United States was tightening sanctions, COVID-19 became a global pandemic. The pandemic’s disruptions to global trade ranged from restrictions by some countries on exports of commodities like wheat, to restrictions on trade via Syria’s land borders and a fall in remittances sent from Syrians abroad.44

Even before the pandemic, sanctions and the Syrian lira’s earlier depreciation had already complicated Syrian imports. Both made imports more expensive, while the lira’s extreme volatility made it harder for merchants to confidently contract for purchases.45

The Syrian government’s foreign currency reserves now seem near depleted. Much of the country’s resource wealth is beyond Damascus’s control, in northeastern areas controlled by the U.S.-backed SDF. As a result, Damascus struggles to export oil and wheat in exchange for hard currency with which to finance imports.

Although the Syrian government typically attributes the country’s economic hardship to a Western “siege” and illegal “unilateral coercive measures” (sanctions), Assad has (seemingly correctly) blamed Syria’s current crisis on Lebanon’s economic implosion.46

The full extent of Syria and Lebanon’s economic linkages—including illicit activity, such as smuggling and drug trafficking—remains unclear. For example, there is reportedly substantial smuggling of subsidized fuel from Lebanon to Syria.47 Syria and Lebanon’s toxic interdependence was made clear again in March 2021, when both countries’ currencies fell to all-time lows against the dollar.

The implications of Syria’s economic crisis for the country’s food security are clear. Ordinary Syrians’ purchasing power has been crushed. Their incomes are now worth much less, and, to support their families, they must buy goods that cost more. In April, WFP reported that the price of a standard reference food basket sufficient to feed a family of five for a month reached 176,471 Syrian lira.48 The highest-paid Syrian government monthly salary is 80,240 lira; per other humanitarian reporting a month earlier, the average monthly family income nationally is only 147,724 lira.49

This deficit between Syrians’ incomes and their minimum survival expenses is the essence of the “access” problem driving food insecurity in the country: increasingly, ordinary Syrians cannot afford to feed themselves. The math doesn’t add up. And more vulnerable groups, including internally displaced people and female-headed families, are at even greater risk.50

A Displacement Crisis in Northwest Syria

Northwest Syria—the Idlib area, in particular—is apparently Syria’s most food-insecure region, but for “access” reasons slightly distinct from elsewhere in the country.51

Because the northwest is partially disengaged from the rest of the country, it has suffered less from the economic shocks that have hit other areas. Yet food insecurity in the northwest has been hugely exacerbated by the sheer number of internally displaced people who have fled the Syrian military’s advance elsewhere in the country, crowding into this last major opposition redoubt. By one estimate, almost two-thirds of Syrians in the northwest are internally displaced people.52 They include many who have been repeatedly displaced, and who have little means of supporting themselves. “In the northwest, you have people in protracted displacement—so, the most vulnerable of the most vulnerable,” said one humanitarian aid worker.53

“In the northwest, people have less of a buffer,” said another humanitarian worker. “They’ve been displaced so many times, they have nothing left to sell. In Aleppo, at least people still have a house. In the northwest, they’re living in tents.”

Displaced people in Idlib’s camps have limited opportunities to work and have often exhausted the coping mechanisms on which Syrians elsewhere can still rely. The UN considers all displaced Syrians living in camps to be 100 percent food insecure.54 “In the northwest, people have less of a buffer,” said another humanitarian worker. “They’ve been displaced so many times, they have nothing left to sell. In Aleppo, at least people still have a house. In the northwest, they’re living in tents.” 55In Idlib, counterterrorism sanctions on HTS also complicate aid provision.56

A displaced Syrian boy walks between the tents in a Turkish Red Crescent camp near the village of Atmeh, Idlib governorate. Source: Burak Kara/Getty Images

The northwest’s displaced people are highly dependent on aid delivered through Idlib’s Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, under the UN cross-border aid authorization. Yet that authorization next comes up for renewal in July, and Russia has warned it could veto its extension if there is no progress on “cross-line” aid provision to the northwest from areas of government control.57 Humanitarian aid workers are emphatic that cross-line aid delivery cannot substitute for the use of Bab al-Hawa.

Of UN cargoes delivered from Turkey into northwest Syria, the overwhelming majority—more than 93 percent in the first months of 2021, according to the WFP-led “Logistics Cluster”—carry food assistance.58 In February, aid agencies operating cross-border from Turkey reached nearly 1.9 million people in the northwest with food baskets, and more than 325,000 people with emergency food rations. They reached more than 2.1 million people with bread and flour distribution. Some 74 percent of recipients of cross-border emergency food aid received assistance funded by the UN (as opposed to aid funded by NGOs).59 Nonrenewal of the cross-border mandate in July and a halt to UN aid via Bab al-Hawa would seem disastrous for northwest Syria’s food security.

Wheat Shortages and Endless Bread Lines

Although food insecurity in Syria seems to have been primarily an “access” issue, the country has also encountered “availability” problems with wheat and fuel in the past year that have put even more ordinary Syrians at risk.

Late last year and early this year, Syria’s government-held areas suffered a crippling wheat shortage, one that resulted in hours-long lines at state bakeries to purchase subsidized bread.60

Syrians can use their electronic cards to buy a one-kilogram bundle of state-subsidized bread for roughly 100 Syrian lira (approximately $0.03), plus minor fees.61 Syrians can also buy unsubsidized, typically higher-quality bread from private bakeries without waiting in the same long lines. This commercial bread, though, is sold at prices that are prohibitively high for most Syrians: in March, a bag of unsubsidized commercial bread cost an average of 1,596 Syrian lira ($0.51), and as much as 2,366 Syria lira ($0.75) in the southern province of al-Suwayda.62

Bread is a principal component of the Syrian diet, and Syrians have only become more dependent on state-subsidized bread as they have gotten poorer. “Wheat is not just the main part of the food system for a typical family in Syria. It’s also a backup—for when there’s nothing else, only bread,” said a Syrian humanitarian analyst. “So, the assumption is that when people can’t buy zucchini, or lentils, then they get more bread. That’s why there’s more pressure on supply, because it’s this backup product.”63

Syria relies on wheat imports to meet its domestic bread needs.64 The country is a wheat producer, even if its agricultural yields have declined over the course of the war. Yet domestically grown Syrian wheat is primarily hard durum wheat, which is better suited for making pasta than Syrian pita bread. Syrian bread is produced by mixing hard Syrian wheat with soft wheat imported mainly from Russia and other Black Sea countries. Syria has therefore typically exported much of its domestic wheat crop in exchange for hard currency, while importing soft wheat suitable for Syrian bread.65

Over the past several years, and as Syria has faced difficulties securing wheat imports, public bakeries have used more locally grown wheat to produce bread.66 Yet there are limits to how much bakeries can use local wheat to produce the bread on which Syrians rely. “Today, you can’t roll public bread; if you roll it, it falls apart, into pieces, because it uses local wheat,” said the Syrian humanitarian analyst. “People can eat it, but it’s shitty bread.”67

Syria produced an estimated 2.8 million tons of wheat in 2020, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), up from 2.2 million tons in 2019.68 But prior to 2011, Syria regularly produced more than 4 million tons annually.69 Syria’s demand for wheat outstrips its domestic production; for 2020, the FAO estimated Syria’s domestic need for wheat at 4.5 million tons, including 3.5 million tons for food.70 That production shortfall must be met through imports.

Early in 2020, it was already clear that the Syrian government was having problems securing wheat imports. Lebanon’s crisis, the volatility of the Syrian lira, and the Syrian government’s shortage of foreign hard currency all complicated Damascus’s efforts to purchase wheat.71 To make matters worse, Russia and other wheat exporters imposed pandemic-related export restrictions, in a seeming effort to safeguard their own food security.72

The Syrian government also ran into problems purchasing last year’s domestic wheat crop. The Syrian state traditionally intervenes at multiple junctures along the bread supply chain, subsidizing agricultural inputs and purchasing farmers’ wheat harvests.73 Yet wheat sales in 2020 coincided with the dramatic slide of the Syrian lira. The Syrian government and northeast Syria’s Autonomous Administration entered a sort of bidding war, making back-and-forth announcements of Syrian lira purchase prices to keep pace with the lira’s depreciation. Ultimately, the Autonomous Administration set a purchase price denominated in U.S. dollars and blocked wheat sales to Syrian state purchasing centers until it had secured the northeast’s quota.74

Damascus thus had to rely further on imported wheat, at the worst possible time. In October, Syria’s economy minister said that the government needed to import between 180,000 and 200,000 tons of wheat each month, which he said would cost $400 million—presumably a substantial portion of Syria’s remaining hard currency.75 The result: this year’s extreme flour shortage, and paralyzingly long lines at public bakeries.76

Bread shortages appear to have been additionally exacerbated by Syria’s dysfunctional system of subsidies. Both the Syrian government and the Autonomous Administration have seemed wary of raising the price of subsidized bread for fear of provoking popular outrage.77 In both areas, though, the ultra-below-market price of subsidized bread incentivizes bakery owners to divert and sell a portion of their bread at a profit, including for animal feed, the price of which has skyrocketed nationally.78

In March, the Syrian government announced a purchase price for this year’s domestic wheat crop that was more competitive than in past years.79 On May 19, the northeast’s Autonomous Administration announced its own, higher purchase price—250 lira more per kilo than the government price.80 It remains to be seen whether the Autonomous Administration will permit farmers to sell freely to Syrian state purchasers. The northeast relies on Syrian government areas for some supplies, including foodstuffs, so both sides have some leverage against the other.81 The 2021 harvest has been poor, due largely to limited rainfall.82 The FAO has estimated that the country will require 2.5 million tons of imported cereals for the coming year.83

Russia and Syria’s other foreign wheat suppliers sell their wheat to the Syrian government; it is not provided gratis.84 It is unclear why Russia does not supply more wheat to its Syrian partner, beyond what Damascus can afford to purchase.85 But Russia is, for its part, heavily sanctioned and faces its own economic challenges. Moscow has taken other steps to relieve pressure on Damascus, including brokering an exceptional deal in February to deliver wheat to the Syrian government from silos in northeast Syria captured by Turkish-backed militants.86

In March, Syrian officials said that Russia and Syria had jointly coordinated to arrange import contracts through July, when Syria’s domestic wheat crop will come to market.87 Russia’s ambassador in Damascus has also reportedly said his country will export 1 million tons of wheat to Syria this year.88 A Syrian Agriculture Ministry official said, also in March, that the government was planting soft bread wheat in areas of its control, after previously prioritizing hard durum wheat as an export crop.89

Fuel Shortages, with Food Security Implications

The other main “availability” problem contributing to Syrian food insecurity has been a debilitating shortage of fuel in areas of government control.

This fuel shortage should be understood as directly linked to food insecurity. Syrians need fuel, for example, to commute to work and earn wages to feed their families, or to travel to markets in urban centers. Fuel is also necessary for transporting food or moving various food inputs. Farmers need fuel to operate farming equipment and irrigation pumps.90 Given Syria’s limited grid electricity, fuel is necessary to run diesel generators to power things like refrigeration for safe food storage. All of these are things that, combined, Syrians need in order to eat, and all of them are substantially affected by fuel shortages.

A grocery store in a destroyed Aleppo building, where the proprietor set up after he could no longer afford a stall in the local market. Source: WFP/Hussam Al Saleh

“You need to look at the transport of [food] inputs across the country, if today, on average, you need to wait something like nine to sixteen hours in a queue to fuel a vehicle,” said a Damascus-based humanitarian worker. “You can’t transfer anything that needs to be refrigerated.”91

“As fuel has become scarcer, there have been more electricity problems, and bakeries can’t operate because there’s no power,” said a Western diplomat who oversees assistance programming.

Fuel shortages affect even the fundamentals of Syrians’ diets. “As fuel has become scarcer, there have been more electricity problems, and bakeries can’t operate because there’s no power,” said a Western diplomat who oversees assistance programming. “Some [bakeries] run on generator power. But if you’re short of diesel, they can’t work. So fuel shortages start to impact the bread supply chain as well.”92

As is the case with wheat, the division of Syria into rival zones of military control means Damascus does not have a reliable domestic supply of fuel and depends instead on imports. Most of Syria’s oil and gas is in the country’s northeast, controlled by the SDF. The Syrian government purchases some oil from the SDF’s Autonomous Administration through intermediaries, but additionally relies on shipments of Iranian oil delivered by sea to Syria’s Mediterranean coast.93 The result has been a supply of oil to government-held Syria that is, as one diplomat put it, “very drop-by-drop—or tanker-by-tanker.”94

The precarity of Syria’s fuel supplies was made clear by the Suez Canal’s closure in March 2021. Syria’s Ministry of Oil and Mineral Resources announced it would ration gasoline and diesel, given the unknown duration of the closure and the need to ensure continuity of basic services at hospitals and bakeries.95 Syrian authorities subsequently rolled out a raft of extreme conservation measures, including the adoption of text message alerts permitting Syrians to buy limited quantities of fuel by smart card, as well as the curtailing of public sector work hours.96

Even before the Suez closure, the Syrian government had acknowledged the fuel shortage. A majority of families had not received their winter ration of heating oil, one minister said in February. The government had been obliged to substantially raise the lira price of both subsidized and unsubsidized fuel.97

Worsening the fuel shortage in government-held areas, the Autonomous Administration also halted shipments of oil to Syrian government areas earlier this year. Oil deliveries resumed after the two sides reportedly reached a new purchase agreement.98

Iranian oil supplies to Syria have also been disrupted by Israeli attacks. Israel has repeatedly mined and disabled Iranian shipping vessels en route to Syria, a part of a running tit-for-tat series of attacks by Israel and Iran on each other’s maritime shipping.99 Israeli officials reportedly claim that some of the Iranian vessels targeted were carrying military technologies, although others were shipping oil to Syria.100 Russia, Iran, and Syria have reportedly reacted by forming an “operations room” to coordinate Russian warship escorts for Iranian vessels sailing from the Suez Canal to Syrian ports.101

The Compounding Effect of Western Sanctions

U.S. and other Western sanctions seem to have exacerbated both “availability” and “access” drivers of food insecurity in Syria.

These sanctions prohibit the import to Syria of, among many other things, key agricultural inputs such as fertilizer.102 U.S. and European sanctions also cover numerous Syrian state-controlled entities that play key roles in the country’s trade. Both the United States and the EU have sanctioned the state-owned Syrian Company for Oil Transport and the Banias Refinery Company, for example.103 The U.S. Treasury has also sanctioned the management companies for Syria’s Latakia and Tartous ports on the Mediterranean.104 Both the United States and the EU have also designated the Syrian central bank, as well as an assortment of other banks operating in Syria.105

In addition to these sanctions’ direct impacts, they also create a “chilling effect” that discourages technically legal transactions that businesses judge to be too risky.106 The Caesar Act seems to have reinforced prior sanctions’ deterrent effect. The result is that these sanctions further deny oxygen to Syria’s economy, writ large.

U.S. and European sanctions regimes provide for exceptions and waivers, including for humanitarian operations, but these measures can be difficult to parse and variable from one regime to the next.107 “With businesses that previously would have engaged in Syria-related business or trade, once there’s a robust set of sanctions with a secondary component—which is the case with the Caesar Act—then those companies’ internal risk analyses drastically change,” one Western diplomat explained. “Many businesses, especially small ones, abstain. They don’t have the resources to make a full legal assessment of what [that sanctions exposure] means, and so they shy away from the risk.”108

Sanctions and their “chilling effect” penumbra have a systemic effect on Syria’s economy, raising the cost of legitimate business and even humanitarian transactions.109 “You can exempt all you want,” said another diplomat. “But the overall chill and damage to the economy is by far larger in impact than anything you can do to mitigate, with humanitarian exemptions.”110

The Trump administration’s performatively bellicose messaging around its “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran and its allies such as Syria seemed geared not just to achieve strict sanctions compliance, but also to magnify those sanctions’ chilling effect. In one particularly extreme example, top Trump officials intervened personally in oil shipping to Syria. In November 2018, the U.S. Treasury issued an advisory that warned of both Syria- and Iran-related sanctions risk for shipping oil to Syria, and promised to aggressively target violators.111 The Trump administration did not stop there, however; the State Department’s senior-most official on Iran went so far as to directly email and text captains of vessels carrying Iranian shipments of oil to intimidate them into turning back.112

With U.S. authorities very conspicuously in the hunt for sanctions targets, many businesses opted to either avoid Syria-related trade entirely, or to incorporate the added risk into higher prices. Shipping companies—which Syria needs to deliver legitimate cargoes such as wheat—were no exception. This has only made it harder for Syria to secure necessary imports, at a time when the Syrian lira has weakened further.

“Shipping companies say, ‘Why should I deal with Syria at all?,” a humanitarian analyst said. “It’s a small market, there’s not so much money in it, and I don’t know if everything that comes out of a container loaded on the Ukrainian side will be only food; maybe there will be something under sanctions.’ So, many decide they’ll no longer deliver to Syria. And the few that still do, of course, want a lot of money, because of sanctions—even for things like food that aren’t included in sanctions.”113

The Limitations of Humanitarian Aid

There are clear limits to how much humanitarian aid can mitigate the effects of Syria’s broader economic deterioration on ordinary Syrians and their food security.

Sanctions advocates typically deflect concerns about sanctions’ civilian collateral damage by pointing to U.S. and Western allies’ sizable contribution to international humanitarian assistance, for which, they insist, Western sanctions contain ample exemptions and waivers.114

Yet these rejoinders do not withstand scrutiny. First, the scale of Syria’s humanitarian need—exacerbated by Western economic pressure—is just too monumental to be met by any realistic amount of aid. Second, humanitarian operations in Syria are compromised by the same factors damaging Syria’s broader economy and endangering Syrians’ food security.

A Turkish Red Crescent officer gives an aid package to a displaced Syrian family in Idlib governorate in September 2019. According to the UN, 2.4 million people in northwest Syria are reached through cross-border assistance each month. Source: Burak Kara/Getty Images

The limitations of humanitarian assistance are most obvious when looking at the nationwide reach of WFP, the largest humanitarian actor now at work in Syria.115 WFP reports that it reaches 4.8 million Syrians with food aid. Compare that, however, to WFP’s estimate that 12.4 million Syrians are food insecure. That gap of nearly 8 million people is essentially insurmountable—aid agencies cannot plausibly feed 60 percent of Syria.

Donor countries have mostly insisted that aid focus on emergency life-saving assistance and not go to “resilience” or “early recovery” activities. These latter modes of aid are meant to help Syrians support themselves and sustainably reduce humanitarian need, but can also get too close to more politicized “reconstruction.”116

Yet emergency assistance is not enough to meet Syria’s humanitarian need, and donor funds for it seem likely to only decrease in the foreseeable future. Both the United States and the United Kingdom announced substantially lower funding commitments for the coming year in March, although the United States has since announced a large additional humanitarian contribution.117 Yet the scale of humanitarian need is likely to grow even more. “It’s just a drop in an ocean,” said a Western diplomat about donor-supported aid. “It’s not enough of a shift to change the [country’s] overall [humanitarian] trajectory.”118


“Donor-supported aid is just a drop in the ocean,” a Western diplomat said. “It’s not enough of a shift to change the overall trajectory.

“Donors are already reducing their funding,” said a humanitarian worker. “Meanwhile, the needs are increasing, because of this financial and monetary crisis. I don’t see any way emergency aid will be able to fill the gap of these growing needs.”119

Additionally, many of the same forces driving food insecurity in Syria also negatively affect humanitarian operations. Humanitarian organizations, after all, do not somehow operate wholly independently from Syria’s economy. These organizations have to move funds via Syrian banks, procure supplies locally, and make payments using the national currency.

Humanitarian organizations are affected, for example, by Syria’s fuel crisis, given that they need to transport goods and staff inside the country. One Damascus-based aid worker enumerated the many impacts of Syria’s fuel shortage on humanitarian operations:

When there’s no fuel in the country, even when you get aid shipped to Latakia or Tartous port, transportation isn’t straightforward. The cost is high, and even if you can pay, you can’t do it as fast as you need to. With fuel in short supply, aid agencies aren’t able to monitor projects—after all, you can’t monitor if you don’t have fuel to fill up cars and go out to the field. And it affects the operating costs of offices; staff aren’t able to come to the office, which [moreover] you have no electricity to power.120

Syria is already an exceptionally challenging operating environment for humanitarian organizations. The Syrian government substantially curtails humanitarian access, only intermittently giving aid organizations permissions to move outside Damascus through an opaque bureaucratic review process. This “lower-quality” access can deprive humanitarians of the flexibility and agility needed to, for example, conduct regular field assessments and implement some more hands-on types of aid programming.121 Aid organizations also have to contend with donor governments that are, understandably, concerned about reported diversion and misuse of aid.122

Western sanctions also impede humanitarian operations in Syria, despite those sanctions’ official exemptions and waivers. One Damascus-based humanitarian worker expressed frustration with aid organizations’ typical advocacy on sanctions. “We just repeat the same line [to official interlocutors],” the aid worker said. “‘Ensure sanctions regimes don’t impact the Syrian population.’ And they’ll tell you, ‘Yeah, but we have exemptions.’ But [those exemptions aren’t] helping.”123

The main sanctions-related problems that humanitarian organizations face are banking and money transfer issues, as foreign banks steer clear of Syria-related business and even a remote risk of sanctions liability. “Transfers [of money] into Syria for humanitarian purposes are not subject to sanctions,” said one Damascus-based humanitarian worker. “However, because of the potential known risk of being under investigation or sanctioned by the U.S., many banks stop all transactions with Syria to mitigate that risk.”124 Sixty-two percent of international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working from Damascus have reported serious banking issues this year, according to an NGO survey.125 One of the largest international NGOs working from Damascus has reportedly scaled down operations and may shut down entirely because of money transfer issues.126

Yet humanitarian workers also face other sanctions risks, including when procuring necessities from designated entities. One humanitarian worker voiced concern that her organization might incur sanction risks just by purchasing fuel, for which the Syrian government is the main provider. “It’s a bit of a grey area, even for humanitarians,” she said. “It’s been interpreted in our favor, but there’s no explicit exemption.”127

What Comes Next, and What Can Be Done

As bad as Syria’s economic and humanitarian circumstances have already gotten, the country’s forecast looks even more deeply negative.

The Syrian government has made some attempts (not all of them well-advised) to slow the country’s economic collapse. In public remarks this March, Assad characterized managing the country’s exchange rate and ensuring food security as “battles” and threatened action against “thieves” profiteering at Syrians’ expense.128 In April, the government announced a revised consumer protection law that included steep penalties for hoarding and price gouging.129 Damascus has announced periodic bonus payments to public sector employees and military personnel (although these lira payments also risk exacerbating inflation).130 Earlier this year, it established a preferential lira exchange rate for humanitarian organizations, and it has taken other steps to encourage cash remittances and the repatriation of Syrian capital abroad.131

People stand amid rubble on a street on February 16, 2019 in Hajin, Syria. Years of war have crippled Syria’s infrastructure and disrupted supply chains. Source: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Damascus has also adapted to economic pressures in other ways, including by empowering some of the country’s worst economic actors. Damascus has elevated a small number of monopolists capable of moving goods either in and out of the country or across internal lines of military control, allowing these businessmen to tighten their hold on key economic sectors.132 Consolidation by these few, high-profile, and politically connected tycoons (and creatures of the war economy) may actually make Syrian trade more vulnerable to sanctions.133 Another way Syria has reportedly acclimated to enforced economic isolation has been deepening involvement in illicit trade, including in locally manufactured amphetamines.134

“You could have magicians here, and maybe that would solve the problem,” said a Damascus-based humanitarian worker. “But there are no magicians in the Syrian government.

Even if Syrian officials were preternaturally talented at economic planning—and they do not seem to be—they would still be up against insurmountable challenges. “You could have magicians here, and maybe that would solve the problem,” said a Damascus-based humanitarian worker. “But there are no magicians in the Syrian government.”135

Following Assad’s arrival to the presidency in 2000, Syria embarked on a program of economic liberalization that helped open its previously closed economy to global trade.136 A more internationally connected and trade-reliant Syria, though, became more vulnerable to external economic pressures. Now it seems impossible for government-held Syria to return to its prior closed self-sufficiency. “In the latter half of the 1970s, and in the 1980s, we faced a blockade,” said a Syrian academic, speaking from Damascus. “But we weren’t affected as much, because we weren’t linked to the global economy like we were after 2000… So we didn’t face the same pressure then—or, to be precise, we faced the same pressure, but we weren’t affected the same way.”137

The Syrian government has also continued to subsidize inputs for local agriculture and industry, and it has announced its intention to develop the agricultural sector to ensure Syria’s food security.138 Yet it is difficult to imagine how it can, with Syria’s economy depleted and sanctioned, and with the country’s most resource-rich regions beyond government control.139

In fact, Syria’s already depressed agricultural production seems likely to decline further. Even beyond this year’s poor grain harvest, farmers’ difficulties securing imports of equipment and other agricultural inputs—only worsened by lira depreciation—are also likely to bring down production. “Key agricultural inputs (seeds, fertilizer, agricultural tools, mechanical spare parts, animal feed) are becoming exorbitant in price, or are on the sanctioned commodity list and are banned from coming in,” wrote one humanitarian analyst by email. “This has already started to limit agricultural production.”140 The Syrian state has traditionally helped supply farmers with inputs such as seeds, veterinary vaccines, and fertilizer, but, according to the FAO, the quantities of these state-subsidized items are insufficient to meet local needs.141

It is possible the Syrian economy will receive some large windfall of assistance from its allies Russia and Iran, or from Gulf states that have more recently restored normal diplomatic relations with Damascus, such as the United Arab Emirates.142 Yet it is hard to see how this support could enable a real economic recovery, or really do much more than slow the Syrian economy’s continued slide.

Western Action for Syrian Food Security

This distressing scenario—a Syria that is steadily, inexorably poorer and hungrier—is not good for anyone.

It is bad, foremost, for Syrians, who have already endured a decade of cataclysmic war. Yet it is also bad for the United States and its Western allies, for whom widespread hunger in Syria does not represent a useful or desirable policy outcome. Poverty and hunger in Syria are obviously bad in humanitarian terms. But they are also negative with respect to more concrete Western interests, including reinforcing regional stability and mitigating new migration flows.

There is no real indication that economic deprivation is positively affecting the Syrian government’s behavior, whether by inducing Damascus to offer concessions in political talks or by meaningfully constraining its military and security apparatus. Some of Syria’s latest economic disruptions—cuts to electricity, for example, as fuel supplies have run short—have affected even the country’s topmost elites.143 Yet there is no sign that this experience has somehow encouraged Damascus to become more conciliatory.

Some Western officials have placed the blame for Syrians’ privation and hardship on the Syrian government, for spending limited resources on its war effort instead of, for example, wheat imports.144 Yet this contention is basically a rhetorical pose, not a serious argument, at least for anyone genuinely concerned about Syrians’ well-being. Realistically, Damascus will not defund its military as the country’s civil war is still ongoing, nor will it just switch off its own survival instinct.

One European diplomat warned that it may be possible to collapse Syria’s regime economically, but only after laying waste to an impoverished, miserable Syrian society. “The price is too high,” he said. He recalled how he had cautioned a more hawkish colleague: “On the country’s current trajectory, it might be possible to sanction Syria to the last Syrian standing. But I’m afraid you’ll find Bashar al-Assad is that last Syrian.”145

“On the country’s current trajectory, it might be possible to sanction Syria to the last Syrian standing,” a European diplomat warned. “But I’m afraid you’ll find Bashar al-Assad is that last Syrian.

Among policymakers, though, there seems to be a growing awareness of the seriousness of Syria’s economic and humanitarian situation. WFP’s warning of surging food insecurity earlier this year seems to have provided an added wakeup call.146 A Western aid official described the mood at the “Brussels V” donors conference in March: “What was underlined at this year’s conference was, ‘Okay, we’re ten years into the conflict, and the humanitarian situation has never been as bad. Despite how there was a reduction in hostilities in past months, the humanitarian situation is actually getting worse.”147

Still, even some Western officials who recognize Syria’s downward trajectory feel at a loss for solutions, given the Syrian government’s intransigence. These officials say that, alarmed as they are at worsening conditions in Syria, they are stymied by Damascus’s unwillingness to offer concessions that could permit steps like partial sanctions relief.148

Yet it is in the West’s interest for Syrians to eat, full stop. Shoring up Syrian food security is a policy objective worth pursuing for its own sake, not something to be conditioned on politics, or bundled as part of some negotiated trade. The United States and Western allies should take whatever steps they can to mitigate Syrian food insecurity, not wait for a diplomatic breakthrough with Damascus that is not forthcoming.

There are currently few obvious prospects for productive, reciprocal negotiation with Damascus. The Syrian government is apparently interested in talking, but only on its own interests-based terms.149 There is no real sign that Damascus is prepared to make the kinds of trades that most Western countries would consider genuinely valuable.

The United States and its Western allies, therefore, should mainly be thinking in unilateral terms—what they can usefully do on their own, absent a larger deal with Damascus or its allies Russia and Iran.

For their part, there are things the Syrian government and its allies should probably do to help address food insecurity. For Damascus, that includes rationalizing its wasteful subsidies schemes and permitting more private competition locally, diluting the control of politically connected oligarchs. But the West is not about to negotiate over these kinds of steps, which the Syrian government should do anyway; these are things Damascus will have to consider for its own reasons, not as part of some bargain with the West.

Realistically, some of the main drivers of food insecurity in Syria—factors related to both “availability” and “access”—are not the West’s problems to solve.

And realistically, some of the main drivers of food insecurity in Syria—factors related to both “availability” and “access”—are not the West’s problems to solve. Insofar as Syrian food insecurity seems primarily to be an “access” problem, due to general economic collapse and Syrians’ severely depressed purchasing power, there are limits to how much the United States and Western allies can help. These countries will not somehow refloat the whole Syrian economy.

The same is true for some “availability” drivers of food insecurity, which do not lend themselves to direct policy interventions by the United States and its allies. If the Syrian government is struggling to purchase Russian wheat because of its limited foreign currency reserves, that does not present an obvious opening for Western involvement. Western countries are not about to deposit funds in Damascus’s coffers, or themselves undertake the procurement of Syria’s essential commodities. “We’re not going to pay into the regime to pay for bread,” said one Western official bluntly.150

The policy recommendations that follow, then, are admittedly somewhat anticlimactic and dissatisfying. They fall well short of fully addressing Syrian food insecurity. Yet they reflect this report’s elaboration on the causal logic of Syrian food insecurity, and Western countries’ real agency and relevance—not to mention what appears to be politically plausible. Many other, more dramatic options just do not seem possible, either because they do not fit that causal logic, or because of realistic political constraints on Western governments.

The problem of food insecurity would probably be easier to address if, for example, Western sanctions were its main cause. If that were the case, and if Washington and allied governments had a change of heart, it would be within their power to amend sanctions policy and thus solve Syrian hunger. Instead, sanctions are just one factor among many contributing to Syrian food insecurity—some related to Western policy, but many not.

Still, there are drivers of food insecurity in Syria that the United States and its allies can influence usefully, if only on the margins. In particular, these Western countries have direct and untrammeled control over their own sanctions and aid policy. Western policy that is more conducive to Syrian food security may mean, in some cases, active policy interventions; in other cases, it may mean exercising restraint and just staying out of the way, as other actors help stabilize the Syrian economy. In all cases, food security ought to figure centrally into Western governments’ policy thinking on Syria. It should inform their coordination amongst themselves and their diplomatic engagement with others.

A More Sustainable Aid Policy

The United States and its Western allies are the largest donors to Syria’s UN-led humanitarian response.151 That gives these countries substantial say over the direction of UN aid operations in Syria, in addition to their own bilateral assistance outside the UN system. Using that bought influence, these countries are capable of allocating their aid contributions and directing implementing organizations to better address food security.

First, though, what currently seems unrealistic for these Western countries: At this point, it seems unlikely that Western donors will contribute more to Syrian aid, beyond existing funding levels. “I think we can agree that donors are not going to put more money in, ten years on,” said a Western diplomat who oversees aid programming. “Everyone is stretched.”152 Likewise, Western countries and international financial institutions such as the World Bank will not finance large-scale reconstruction in Syria. There seems to be no movement toward some broader Western normalization with Damascus, without which funds for reconstruction will not materialize.153

Yet many Western donors do seem inclined to show more flexibility on “early recovery” and “resilience” aid.154 There is still a clear, continuing demand for life-saving emergency assistance that meets urgent humanitarian needs, including food needs. Ten years into Syria’s conflict, though, it does not make sense to focus almost solely on emergency aid. Better to encourage some “resilience” or “early recovery” programming that might chip away at Syria’s humanitarian need, or at least slow its growth.155 Among donors arguing for more humanitarian early recovery assistance in Syria, the UK has been one of the most active.156

The precise definition of “resilience” or “early recovery” is to some extent debated. But in the broadest sense, it entails helping Syrians support themselves—rehabilitating local water infrastructure instead of delivering water by tanker truck, for example, or supporting agriculture and farmers’ livelihoods instead of offering food handouts.157 Proponents of this assistance argue it is more cost-effective and sustainable. They also insist it can be delivered within a humanitarian framework at a community level, without working through Syrian state institutions, and that risks of diversion can be managed. The Western diplomat responsible for aid said that in Syria, both emergency and early recovery aid are “high risk.” But, the diplomat added, “trainings for farmers are probably harder to divert than trucks of food.”158

“Ultimately, [early recovery is] the only way forward,” a humanitarian worker said. “We can’t just keep giving to people forever. In no country in the world is this viable. People need to be able to grow their own food and support themselves.”159

Damascus seems unlikely to object to a partial graduation from emergency aid to early recovery and resilience programming. Delivering this assistance properly, however, will require that humanitarian workers operating from Damascus have freer and more regular access to programming and recipients, including in remote and rural areas. To that end, the United States and its European allies should engage in a serious dialogue with Russia on how to improve access conditions for Damascus-based humanitarian organizations, and so better enable principled humanitarian action. Additionally, they should lend their support to direct talks with Syrian authorities by UN representatives and partner countries with representation in Damascus. These representatives should stress that new modes of assistance require Damascus’s permission for humanitarian organizations’ independent operations and free access to conduct needs surveys, monitoring, and other programmatic follow-up. If existing levels of aid are to be safeguarded, Damascus must also take steps to better facilitate humanitarian action. Many donors are clearly uncomfortable with the Syrian government’s current constraints on humanitarian operations.

For areas outside Syrian government control—specifically, Syria’s northwest—the United States and Europe must preserve UN aid agencies’ cross-border aid access. They should seek a compromise with Russia on the renewal of the UN authorization for cross-border aid when it comes up for renewal at the Security Council in July.

The millions of displaced people in northwest Syria are already exceptionally vulnerable. If the UN cross-border mandate is not renewed in July and WFP can no longer support the delivery of food aid through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, it seems likely that some displaced and already food-insecure Syrians will starve. Cross-line convoy deliveries from areas of government control are not a viable alternative to regular cross-border humanitarian access (although pushing for some exceptional cross-line deliveries may be worthwhile, if that helps convince Russia to vote for cross-border renewal).

Revisiting Sanctions with Food Security in Mind

The United States and its Western allies also have control of their sanctions policy. Western sanctions are not the sole or even the main cause of Syria’s economic crisis and rampant food insecurity, yet they do seem to exacerbate both of these problems. These countries should review their sanctions regimes in light of Syrian food security concerns.

On sanctions, it is the United States that is the most important player. The potency and extraterritorial reach of U.S. sanctions mean that any moves by allies that are not coordinated with the United States will likely have only marginal impact.

One thing the United States and allies ought to do is further shield humanitarian actors from sanctions. In particular, the U.S. government should clarify and, where possible, expand the scope of sanctions’ humanitarian exemptions. It should also engage more actively with humanitarians and businesspeople to understand sanctions’ unintended impacts and explore possible fixes.160 Joe Biden’s administration took one positive initial step with a set of clarifications issued by the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control on April 5, including the much-needed assurance that non-U.S. aid organizations can benefit from the same exemptions as U.S. organizations.161 Washington should additionally study the viability of a dedicated vehicle for humanitarian financing, to ensure humanitarian organizations and their Syrian beneficiaries do not fall victim to risk-averse banks’ unwillingness to do Syria-related business.162

One thing the United States and allies ought to do is further shield humanitarian actors from sanctions.

Still, exemptions and waivers can only go so far in insulating humanitarians from sanctions’ effect, and—more importantly—Syrians cannot live on aid alone. In order to work, eat, and just survive, Syrians also depend on the broader Syrian economy. U.S. and other Western sanctions that crush the Syrian economy and contribute to the devaluation of the lira will necessarily harm Syrian civilians. Now, 60 percent of those Syrians are food insecure. They cannot bear additional Western economic pressure.

To that end, the United States and Western allies should look for ways to relieve some sanctions pressure on the Syrian economy writ large, lest their policies worsen an already dire economic and humanitarian situation.

There are likely political limits to how much the Biden administration can relax U.S. sanctions on Syria. The sanctions seem to enjoy bipartisan support in Washington and have now been buttressed by the 2019 Caesar Act. Yet there is a compelling humanitarian case for some Syria sanctions relief, and the Biden administration has signaled a readiness to revisit U.S. sanctions policy broadly. Earlier this year, the Biden administration announced a wide-ranging review of U.S. sanctions and their unintended humanitarian consequences.163 It also swiftly reversed the Trump administration’s designation of Yemen’s Houthi movement as a terrorist organization, something humanitarian organizations had warned would disrupt the delivery of food and aid to a country already at risk of famine.164

The United States should investigate ways to reduce sanctions risk for civilian commercial trade, including trade in key commodities such as wheat, sugar, rice, and cooking oil. Something like the Swiss humanitarian channel established for Iran in 2020 does not seem replicable in the Syrian case.165 Rather, the Biden administration should study options including lifting sanctions on Syria’s central bank and maritime ports. That could facilitate banking and shipping not only for commercial entities, but also for humanitarian organizations.

To the extent that the Biden administration enjoys discretionary leeway in announcing new sanctions packages and enforcing existing sanctions, it should exercise restraint in pursuing, for example, maritime shipping companies serving Syrian ports. The Biden administration actually has yet to issue any new Syria-related sanctions, in a departure from the Trump administration’s drumbeat of sanctions announcements last year.

There is another change that would likely have humanitarian and broader economic benefits, if the Biden administration proved willing: either the relaxation of some sanctions that affect Syrian fuel imports, or less aggressive enforcement of existing sanctions. There are economic actors that the United States considers nefarious involved at nearly every point of Syria’s fuel supply chain. Still, the vital importance of fuel for the provision of humanitarian aid, the working of Syria’s economy, and Syrians’ food security broadly outweighs concerns that the trade in fuel will accrue some benefit to undesirables. Senator Chris Murphy has made a comparable argument regarding Venezuela, arguing in humanitarian terms for the reversal of a Trump-era decision to extend sanctions to non-U.S. companies supplying Venezuela with needed diesel fuel.166

Even just abandoning Trump officials’ mad-dog messaging on sanctions may have some positive effect. Indeed, the Biden administration has so far refrained from what one Western diplomat called the Trump administration’s “‘nobody is safe’ attitude,” which the diplomat said he believed had encouraged sanctions overcompliance.167

Lastly, if U.S. friends in, for example, the Gulf want to trade with Syria or contribute humanitarian and economic assistance, the United States should not discourage that or threaten them with sanctions.168 The Syrian economy may be too damaged for the Emirates and others to help much, at least with any realistic amount of funds. Still, if these U.S. partners believe they can help stabilize Syria’s economy and currency, that is something that would benefit the Syrian public. The United States should not stand in their way.

Food Security as an Ever-Present Policy Consideration

American and other Western policymakers should pursue the above-mentioned policy actions to mitigate hunger in Syria, but, more broadly, they need to reconceptualize Syria as a policy brief. Syria should not be seen primarily as an arena for “pressure” on various adversaries and other strategic point-scoring. Rather, Syria is a country whose people—across conflict lines—are hungry. Syrians’ real and acute humanitarian need should be the frame through which policymakers approach the country in 2021. Western policies such as sanctions were originally justified in terms of the Syrian people’s interests, and were supposed to pressure and constrain Damascus. Yet the people of Syria are now threatened by deprivation and hunger. Needs have changed, and it is time for policymakers to adapt.

Food security and other humanitarian concerns, then, ought to pervade Washington and allies’ policy thinking on Syria. The country’s humanitarian situation should not be treated as a parallel issue, separate from more political priorities, or something that can be properly addressed just by contributing humanitarian aid. Policymakers need to think more seriously about other policy efforts in terms of their humanitarian impact, and their ramifications for food security. They need to ask themselves, at each decision point: “Will this choice make it harder or easier for Syrians to eat, and to survive?”

At this late stage of Syria’s war, the United States and its allies should not be keeping food out of Syrians’ mouths. Humanitarian conditions in the country have gotten too extreme for Washington and its allies to make policy without regard for the civilians who will go hungry.

This report is part of “Transnational Trends in Citizenship: Authoritarianism and the Emerging Global Culture of Resistance,” a TCF project supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Open Society Foundations.

header photo: Food aid distribution in al-Mayadin, Deir al-Zour province. Source: WFP/Taha Hussain


  1. “Twelve Million Syrians Now in the Grip of Hunger, Worn Down by Conflict and Soaring Food Prices,” World Food Programme (WFP), 17 February 2021,; “WFP Syria Situation Report #4, April 2021,” WFP, May 24, 2021,
  2. According to the UN Humanitarian Needs Assessment Programme’s December 2020 population estimates, Syria’s population is 20,560,806 people, including: 13,689,982 in areas of Syrian government control; 4,407,755 people in opposition-controlled northwest Syria and the “Peace Spring” northeastern enclave; and 2,463,069 in the Syrian Democratic Forces-controlled northeast. See “HNAP: COVID-19 Vulnerability Mapping (Central and Southern Syria – Round 8) – Dec 2020,” HNAP, January 11, 2011,; “HNAP: COVID-19 Vulnerability Mapping (NWS – Round 8) – Dec 2020,” HNAP, January 11, 2011,; “HNAP: COVID-19 Vulnerability Mapping (NES – Round 8) – Dec 2020,” HNAP, January 11, 2011,
  3. For one tableau, see Zeina Karam, “‘Republic of Queues’: 10 Years on, Syria Is a Hungry Nation,” Associated Press, March 15, 2021,
  4. WFP, “WFP Syria Situation Report #4, April 2021.”
  5. WFP, “Twelve Million Syrians;” WFP, “Syria Situation Report #2, February 2021”. For the comparison to a year earlier, see “2021 Humanitarian Needs Overview: Syrian Arab Republic (March 2021),” OCHA, March 31, 2021,, 7.
  6. WFP, “WFP Syria Situation Report #4, April 2021.”
  7. OCHA, “2021 Humanitarian Needs Overview (March 2021).”
  8. “Syrian Arab Republic: 2021 Needs and Response Summary (February 2021),” OCHA, February 22, 2021, 4,
  9. OCHA, “2021 Humanitarian Needs Overview: (March 2021),” 6.
  10. Ibid.
  11. “The Socio-Economic Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic in the Syrian Arab Republic (April–June 2020),” WFP, October 22, 2020, 28,; Suleiman Al-Khalidi, “Syrian Pound Improves after Central Bank Raises Exchange Rate,” Reuters, April 18, 2021, Exchange rate as of May 29, 2021, via al-Lira al-Youm, In March, the lira briefly hit a record low 4,700 to the dollar.
  12. “Syria Country Office Market Price Watch Bulletin Issue 77, April 2021,” WFP, May 31, 2021
  13. Damascus-based humanitarian worker, interview with the author by phone, March 2021.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Chloe Cornish and Asmaa al-Omar, “Wheat and Fuel Shortages Overwhelm Syria,” Financial Times, November 15, 2020,
  16. Damascus-based humanitarian, interview with the author by phone, March 2021.
  17. Humanitarians and diplomats, interviews with the author in Beirut and by phone, March–April 2011.
  18. “WFP Syria Situation Report #3, March 2021,” WFP, April 23, 2021,
  19. “Syria mVAM Bulletin #54: April 2021,” WFP, 17 May 2021,; also, humanitarian worker and diplomat, interviews with the author in Beirut and by phone, March 2011.
  20. Damascus-based humanitarian worker, interview.
  21. “Syria mVAM Bulletin #53: March 2021,” WFP, 13 April 2021,
  22. “President Assad Meets with the Governmental Group Responsible for Confronting the Coronavirus Pandemic to Discuss the Latest Developments in Resisting the Pandemic and Its Effects on Citizens’ Daily Life” (in Arabic), SANA, May 4, 2020,
  23. Sarah Dadouch, “Coronavirus Is Out of Control in Syria, No Matter What the Government Says,” Washington Post, September 25, 2020,
  24. Damascus-based humanitarian worker, interview.
  25. For one account of Syrian economic conditions and food security concerns from early in the coronavirus pandemic, see WFP, “Socio-Economic Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Though the Syrian government’s initial coronavirus lockdowns have since been relaxed, most of the other drivers the report identifies still obtain.
  26. Humanitarian analyst, interview with the author by email, March 2021.
  27. Damascus-based humanitarian worker, interview with author by phone, March 2021.
  28. Western diplomat, interview with the author by phone, March 2021.
  29. Western diplomat responsible for aid programming, Beirut, March 2021. Mohammed Hardan, “Kurdish Forces Agree to Deliver Oil, Syrian Regime Reopens Crossings,” Al-Monitor, April 8, 2021,
  30. The same evidently holds true in another enclave controlled by Turkish-backed rebels, in northeast Syria. See Kheder Khaddour and Manhal Bareesh, “A Fluid Frontier,” Diwan (Carnegie Middle East Center), October 2, 2020,
  31. Humanitarian aid worker, interview with the author by phone, May 2021.
  32. Ibid.
  33. For background on the UN Security Council authorization for cross-border humanitarian aid, see Sam Heller, “Syrian Humanitarian ‘Lifeline’ Goes to Vote,” The Century Foundation, December 18, 2017, For a more recent account of international jockeying over the authorization’s periodic renewal, see Aron Lund, “Russia Holds Key to UN Syria Aid Operation,” The New Humanitarian, July 1, 2020,
  34. OCHA, “Needs and Response Summary (February 2021).”
  35. A May 2020 report by the Syrian Center for Policy Research estimated the accumulated economic loss as a result of the conflict at $530.1 billion, including $64.6 billion in losses to Syria’s capital stock. See “Justice to Transcend Conflict,” Syrian Center for Policy Research, May 27, 2020,
  36. Humanitarian workers, interviews with the author by phone, March 2021.
  37. On the accumulation over time of U.S. and European sanctions on Syria, see “U.S. and European Sanctions on Syria,” the Carter Center, September 2020,
  38. For one account of Lebanon’s economic crisis and its human impact, see Ben Hubbard, “Lebanon’s Economic Crisis Explodes, Threatening Decades of Prosperity,” New York Times, May 10, 2020.
  39. Humanitarian workers, interviews with the author by phone, March 2021.
  40. Ibid. A Syrian academic interviewed by phone, April 2021, said Lebanon’s banks had taken Syrians’ money “like traveling salesmen.”
  41. Humanitarian analyst, interview with the author by phone, March 2021.
  42. “National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020,” subsection “Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019,” U.S. Congress, December 9, 2019, Also available at “Caesar Syria Civilian Protection,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, April 1, 2021,
  43. Patrick Wintour, “US Imposes Sanctions on Son of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad,” The Guardian, July 29, 2020, Despite the public branding, most sanctions announced as part of the “Summer of Caesar” were actually issued per sanctions authorities other than the Caesar Act, including existing executive orders. See Sam Heller (@AbuJamajem), Twitter status, October 9, 2020,
  44. For early warnings about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and other contemporaneous economic shocks, see Jihad Yazigi, “Syria’s Growing Economic Woes: Lebanon’s Crisis, the Caesar Act and Now the Coronavirus,” Arab Reform Initiative, March 26, 2020,; and Joseph Daher, “‘Before Corona, I Will Die of Hunger’: The Socio-Economic Impact of COVID-19 on the Syrian Population and New Challenges for the Regime,” MEDirections Blog, April 2, 2020,
  45. Humanitarian analyst, interview with the author by phone.
  46. Assad provided his diagnosis of the country’s economic crisis in November 2020 remarks at a manufacturers’ expo in Damascus, albeit in an apparent attempt to deflect blame for Syria’s economic crisis from his government: “This current crisis isn’t linked with this siege. This siege has lasted for years—and that doesn’t mean that the siege is fine, and the Americans are innocent, no. The siege is harmful, directly, on all aspects of life. But for the current crisis, which began several months ago, the reason for it is this issue [Lebanon’s banking crisis]. This crisis started before the Caesar Act. And it started years after the start of the siege. Okay, so what coincided with it? The money that was lost [in Lebanon]. The minimum, they say, at least $20 billion, and the maximum, some say, is $42 billion. We don’t know what the real number is. This type of number for an economy like Syria’s is a scary one.” “From President Bashar al-Assad and Ms. Asma al-Assad’s Visit to the 2020 Producers’ Expo at the Al-Takiyah Mosque in Damascus” (in Arabic), published to YouTube by SANA (Syrianarabnewsagency), November 4, 2020,
  47. For one look at smuggling across the Lebanon–Syria border, see “Lebanon–Syria: Smuggling and Sanctions, the New Front Line,” published to YouTube by France 24 English, April 16, 2021,
  48. WFP, “Syria Country Office Market Price Watch Bulletin Issue 77.”
  49. OCHA, “2021 Humanitarian Needs Overview: (March 2021),” 24, 71.
  50. Ibid., 72–73.
  51. Humanitarian aid workers, interviews with the author by phone, March 2021.
  52. Per the UN Humanitarian Needs Assessment Programme’s December 2020 population estimates, 2,723,625 people in the opposition-controlled northwest are internally displaced (of a total population of 4,407,755 people). HNAP, “HNAP: COVID-19 Vulnerability Mapping (NWS – Round 8)—Dec 2020.”
  53. Humanitarian aid worker, interview.
  54. OCHA, “2021 Humanitarian Needs Overview: (March 2021),” 70.
  55. Humanitarian aid worker, interview.
  56. Ibid.
  57. Turkey and Russia have so far proved incapable of facilitating a cross-line UN aid convoy into the rebel-held western Aleppo countryside, bordering Idlib. Western diplomats, interviews with the author in Beirut and by phone, March 2021; “Press Briefing by First Deputy Permanent Representative Dmitry Polyanskiy on 30 March 2021,” Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations, March 30, 2021, On the politics and stakes of renewal, see also Aron Lund, “Syria Aid at Risk in Security Council Vote,” The New Humanitarian, May 26, 2021,
  58. “Cross-Border Operations: Turkey to Northern Syria (January–March 2021),” Logistics Cluster/WFP, May 11, 2021,
  59. “Syrian Arab Republic: Cross-Border Humanitarian Reach and Activities from Turkey (February 2021),” OCHA, May 12, 2021,
  60. Sarah Dadouch, “Syria’s Bread Lines Are So Long That Children Have to Skip School to Wait in Them,” Washington Post, December 26, 2020,
  61. Dollar value calculated at 3,140 Syrian lira to the dollar, the informal purchase price for dollars according to website al-Lira al-Youm,
  62. WFP, “Syria Country Office Market Price Watch Bulletin Issue 77.” Dollar values calculated at 3,146 Syrian lira to the dollar, the average informal exchange rate nationwide as of the same WFP bulletin. One Western diplomat said his Damascus embassy’s local Syrian staff—paid, fortunately for them, in foreign currency—had given up on standing in hours-long lines at government-supported bakeries, opting instead for less crowded but substantially more expensive private bakeries. “But that’s just a minor part of the bread market,” he said. “Because the overwhelming proportion of people rely on state bakeries.” Interview with the author, Beirut, March 2021.
  63. Syrian humanitarian analyst, interview with the author by phone, March 2021. A diplomat who oversees an assistance portfolio echoed him: “People look at subsidized bread as a substitute for other goods, including other food. If it has more calories and it’s cheaper, they’re going to do it.” Interview.
  64. Half of Syria’s grain requirements are imported. OCHA, “Needs and Response Summary (February 2021),” 9. For background on how Syria’s import-dependency increased over time, see Rohan Advani, “Sowing Scarcity: Syria’s Wheat Regime from Self-Sufficiency to Import-Dependency,” Jadaliyya, February 16, 2021,
  65. Humanitarian analysts, interviews with the author by phone and email, March 2021.
  66. Humanitarian aid worker and humanitarian analyst, interviews with the author by phone, March 2021.
  67. Humanitarian analyst, interview.
  68. “GIEWS Country Brief: Syrian Arab Republic—04-May-2021,” FAO, May 4, 2021, 1,
  69. “FAO/WFP Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission to the Syrian Arab Republic, 5 September 2019,” FAO/WFP, September 5, 2019, vi,
  70. Ibid., 50.
  71. Maha El Dahan and Ellen Francis, “Severe Bread Shortages Loom for Syria as Fresh U.S. Sanctions Grip,” Reuters, July 9, 2020,
  72. “Russia Suspends Grain Export until July 1,” TASS, April 26, 2021,; WFP, “Socio-Economic Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” 15.
  73. Humanitarian and Western diplomats responsible for aid portfolios, interviews with the author in Beirut and by phone, March 2021.
  74. Autonomous Administration for Northeast Syria (@smensyria), “Autonomous Administration for Northeast Syria” (in Arabic), Facebook post, June 5, 2020,; “Statement from Executive Council Presidency Regarding Wheat Prices” (in Arabic), published to YouTube by the Autonomous Administration (reveberi enisa), June 7, 2020,; “Hasakeh Farmers: SDF Practices and Prevention of Wheat Sales Contribute to Blockade of Syrian People” (in Arabic), SANA, June 11, 2020, Autonomous Administration security forces also occupied several Syrian government facilities related to wheat purchases. “SDF Units Backed by the U.S. Occupation Forcibly Occupy Several Government Buildings in Hasakeh” (in Arabic), SANA, June 27, 2020,; “SDF Militia Seizes Part of Grain Silos Administration in Hasakeh and Forcibly Expels Workers” (in Arabic), SANA, August 5, 2020, Also, humanitarian aid workers and humanitarian analysts, interviews with the author by phone, March 2021.
  75. “Syria Needs up to 200,000 T of Wheat per Month to Meet Shortfall: Minister,” Reuters, October 18, 2020,
  76. Ramez Mahfouz, “Manager of Syrian Bakeries [Institution] Offers Good News: Bread Crisis Over… Hazza’ to al-Watan: Situation over the Last Two Months Was Difficult, No One Knows the Effort We Made” (in Arabic), al-Watan, February 25, 2021, Marah Mashi, “Syria faces down wheat crisis: No interruptions in 2021” (in Arabic), al-Akhbar, March 13, 2021,سوريا-تتحد-ى-أزمة-القمح-لا-انقطاعات-في-202.
  77. The Autonomous Administration did move forward with a price increase for both subsidized and commercial bread in April. See: “After ‘Subsidized’ [Bread]… Price of Tourist Bread Raised in Northern Syria” (in Arabic), RT Arabic, April 17, 2021,بعد-المدعوم-رفع-سعر-الخبز-السياحي-في-شمال-سوريا/.
  78. Domestic trade and consumer protection minister Talal al-Barrazi acknowledged this in a March 2021 interview but said there was no obvious solution. Mashi, “Syria Faces Down Wheat Crisis.” “The price of subsidized bread is stable,” said a Western diplomat who oversees a portfolio of development programming. “So in a context of rapidly increasing prices for everything else, including animal feed, the relative price of bread has gone down so much. That’s why you see it substituted for other goods. Animal feed is a classic example. Prices have gone up so much that people look for substitutions. And if you can substitute it with a good whose price is constant, or even going down, of course you’ll do that. But what do you do about that? And meanwhile, it’s just creating more and more demand for that subsidized bread, which creates these shortages and lines.” Interview.
  79. “Price of Wheat Kilo Submitted by Farmers for 2021 Season Raised to 900 Lira” (in Arabic), Al-Watan Online, March 8, 2021,رفع-سعر-كيلو-القمح-المسلم-من-الفلاحين-ل/.
  80. Autonomous Administration for Northeast Syria (@smensyria), “Autonomous Administration for Northeast Syria” (in Arabic), Facebook, May 19, 2021,
  81. Hardan, “Kurdish Forces Agree to Deliver Oil.”
  82. See radio station Sham FM’s May 21 interview with Syrian agriculture minister Muhammad Hassan Qatana, summarized at Sham FM (@radioshamfm), “Sham FM,” Facebook post, May 21, 2021, For negative prior expectations due to erratic rainfall and resulting drought, see FAO, “GIEWS Country Brief.” Low water levels in the Euphrates River have additionally threatened local agriculture. See “No Peace for the Dammed: Alarming Water Scarcity in Northeast Syria,” COAR, May 10, 2021,
  83. FAO, “GIEWS Country Brief,” 1-2.
  84. Humanitarian analyst, interview. In December, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia had supplied 100,000 tons of wheat to Syria as humanitarian aid in 2020. Yet that amount is only a fraction of Syria’s overall import needs. See “Russia Will Continue Shipping Wheat as Humanitarian Aid to Syria—Interfax,” Reuters, December 17, 2020,
  85. As a Western diplomat put it: “Because of the supplies [the Russians] contribute, the most acute crisis is alleviated, for a few weeks. But they never fix the problem.” Interview.
  86. “With Russian Mediation… Syrian-Turkish Agreement to Transport al-Hasakeh Wheat to Aleppo… Video” (in Arabic), Sputnik Arabic, February 2021,بوساطة-روسية-اتفاق-سوري-تركي-لنقل-أقماح-الحسكة-إلى-حلب/.
  87. Silva Razzouq, “Joint Bilateral Committee Convenes This Month… Haddad to al-Watan: Russian Wheat Imports Have Started to Arrive, Will Continue” (in Arabic), al-Watan, March 1, 2021,; Mashi, “Syria Faces Down Wheat Crisis.” Russia’s Sputnik news service has also said Russian vessels will continue to deliver contracted wheat shipments through June, amounts that should cover local Syrian demand through mid-2022. See “Iranian Tankers with Russian Protection… Joint Operations Room for Transporting Oil to Syria” (in Arabic), Sputnik Arabic, April 17, 2021,ناقلات-إيرانية-بحماية-روسيةالكشف-عن-غرفة-عمليات-لنقل-النفط-إلى-سوريا-/. Iranian officials have also promised to contribute wheat. Silva Razzouq, “Iranian Foreign Minister Spokesman to al-Watan: Steps Soon to Support the Syrian People with Fuel and Wheat… Miqdad: Coercive Measures a Cheap American Tool to Impose Its Will on Countries” (in Arabic), al-Watan, February 25, 2021,
  88. “Russia Will Export a Million Tons of Wheat to Syria” (in Arabic), RT, May 28, 2021,روسيا-القمح-سوريا-إمدادات/.
  89. Melody FM 97,9 (@MEENALMASOL), “Melody FM 97,9,” Facebook post, March 7, 2021,
  90. FAO, “GIEWS Country Brief.”
  91. Damascus-based humanitarian worker, interview.
  92. Western diplomat, interview.
  93. Iran reportedly delivers the oil shipments under credit lines it has extended to its Syrian ally. For example, see Suleiman Al-Khalidi, “Syria Fuel Crisis Eases as Iran Delivers New Oil Supplies,” Reuters, October 23, 2020,
  94. Western diplomat, interview with the author, Beirut, April 2021.
  95. “Oil Ministry: Shipping Stoppage in Suez Canal Delays Oil Imports to Syria” (in Arabic), SANA, March 27, 2021,
  96. “From Tomorrow: New Mechanism for Benzine [Gasoline] Sales by Short Text Messages” (in Arabic), SANA, April 5, 2021,; “Ministries Start Reducing Workers’ Attendance Rate… Smart Benzine [Text] Messages Starting Today, New Mechanism Soon for Bread Distribution” (in Arabic), al-Watan, April 6, 2021,; “Damascus Governorate Lowers Quantities of Benzine [Gasoline] 50 Percent for Private and Passenger Cars Temporarily” (in Arabic), al-Watan Online, March 29, 2021,محافظة-دمشق-تخفض-كميات-البنزين-50-للسيا/.
  97. “Deputies in the People’s [Assembly] Demand Activation of Assembly’s Investigatory Committees Regarding Major Fraud Cases in Oil [Ministry]… Minister Tu’meh: Agreements Signed with Russian Friends for Mazot [Diesel] and Benzine [Gasoline] to Cover Needs through June” (in Arabic), al-Watan, February 4, 2021, “Price Adjustment for Premium and 95-Octane Benzine [Gasoline] and Home Gas Tank” (in Arabic), SANA, March 15, 2021,; “Damascus Hikes Fuel Prices by More Than 50 Percent,” AFP, March 16, 2021,
  98. Hardan, “Kurdish Forces Agree to Deliver Oil.” During the halt to oil shipments, missiles fired from Syrian government areas also struck fuel depots in rebel areas supplied with oil from the northeast, which may have additionally communicated that oil supplies had to resume. “Missile Strikes on Fuel Tankers in North Syria Wound Two,” Reuters, March 15, 2021,
  99. Gordon Lubold, Benoit Faucon and Felicia Schwartz, “Israeli Strikes Target Iranian Oil Bound for Syria,” Wall Street Journal, March 11, 2021,
  100. Patrick Kingsley et al., “Israel’s Shadow War With Iran Moves Out to Sea,” New York Times, March 26, 2011,
  101. Sputnik Arabic, “Iranian Tankers with Russian Protection.”
  102. FAO, “GIEWS Country Brief;” FAO/WFP, “FAO/WFP Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission,” 15, 52.
  103. “President Obama Signs New Executive Order Isolating the Government of Syria from the U.S. Financial System, Imposes Sanctions Against Syria’s Energy Sector,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, August 18, 2011,; “Treasury Sanctions Syrian Regime Officials and Supporters,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, August 5, 2014,; “Syria,” EU Sanctions Map, May 26, 2021, accessed 29 May 2021,,34/?search=%7B%22value%22:%22%22,%22searchType%22:%7B%7D%7D.
  104. “Syria Sanctions: Specially Designated Nationals List Update,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, August 3, 2015,
  105. For the U.S. designation of the central bank, see “Treasury Targets Syrian Regime Officials and the Central Bank of Syria,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, December 22, 2020,
  106. For more, see Aron Lund, “Briefing: Just How ‘Smart’ Are Sanctions on Syria?” The New Humanitarian, April 25, 2019,
  107. For this and other issues that sanctions present for humanitarian organizations specifically, see Justine Walker’s originally non-public but leaked report, “Humanitarian Impact of Syria-Related Unilateral Restrictive Measures,” UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), May 16, 2016,; see also Justine Walker, “Sanctions Must Not Impede Humanitarian Relief,” Financial Times, May 9, 2021,
  108. Western diplomat, interview with the author by phone, March 2021.
  109. For a detailed accounting of these effects, see Samir Aita, “The Unintended Consequences of U.S. and European Unilateral Measures on Syria’s Economy and Its Small and Medium Enterprises,” The Carter Center, December 2020,
  110. Western diplomat, interview with the author, Beirut, March 2021.
  111. “OFAC Advisory to the Maritime Petroleum Shipping Community,” Department of the Treasury, November 20, 2018, Treasury issued an updated version of the advisory in March 2019, complete with an expanded list of sanctions-violating vessels: “OFAC Advisory to the Maritime Petroleum Shipping Community,” Department of the Treasury, March 25, 2019,
  112. Demetri Sevastopulo, “US Offers Cash to Tanker Captains in Bid to Seize Iranian Ships,” Financial Times, September 4, 2019,
  113. Humanitarian analyst, interview.
  114. For example, see former U.S. Syria envoy Jim Jeffrey here: “Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey on Syria Caesar Act Designations,” U.S. Department of State, June 17, 2020,
  115. In terms of funding, number of Syrian beneficiaries, and geographic spread of its operations. Damascus-based humanitarian worker, interview.
  116. “Resilience” and “early recovery” assistance fall under the third strategic objective (or “pillar”) of the Humanitarian Response Plan that provides an organizing framework for the international humanitarian response in Syria. “Syrian Arab Republic: 2020 Humanitarian Response Plan (December 2020),” OCHA, December 30, 2020, Among Western donors, the United States and France have typically been the most resistant to “resilience” assistance. One humanitarian aid worker related: “A French colleague told me: ‘Everything that starts with ‘re,’ [French officials] don’t want to hear it. So, ‘resilience,’ ‘recovery,’ ‘reconstruction’—we don’t want to hear about it.” Interview with the author by phone, March 2021.
  117. William Worley, “UK, US Announce Steep Cuts in Funding to Syria,” Devex, March 30, 2021,; “U.S. Announces Additional Humanitarian Assistance for the People of Syria,” USAID, June 3, 2021,
  118. Western diplomat, interview.
  119. Humanitarian aid worker, interview.
  120. Ibid.
  121. Humanitarian aid worker and donor country diplomat, interviews with the author in Beirut and by phone, March and April 2021. For more on humanitarians’ challenges in operating from Damascus and navigating Syria’s overbearing bureaucracy, see: “Hard Lessons—Delivering Assistance in Government-Held Areas of Syria,” Norwegian Refugee Council/Oxfam, July 15, 2020,—delivering-assistance-in-government-held-areas-of-syria/.
  122. For more on Syrian government interference in aid, see “Rigging the System: Government Policies Co-opt Aid and Reconstruction Funding in Syria,” Human Rights Watch, June 28, 2019,
  123. Humanitarian aid worker, interview.
  124. Humanitarian aid worker, interview.
  125. “Understanding the Operational Impacts of Sanctions on Syria II: Damascus Based INGOs & Bank De-risking,” April 2021, provided by a humanitarian aid worker. UN aid coordinator Mark Lowcock apparently cited this figure in his April 2021 briefing to the UN Security Council. “Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock—Briefing to the Security Council on the Humanitarian Situation in Syria, 28 April 2021,” OCHA, April 28, 2021,
  126. Humanitarian aid workers, interviews with the author by phone, March 2021; Georg Gassauer, “The Financial Dilemma of INGOS in Syria,” Potemkin & Harmattan, February 23, 2021,
  127. Humanitarian aid worker, interview. For a fuller accounting of the sanctions-related challenges facing humanitarian organizations in Syria, see ESCWA, “Humanitarian Impact of Syria-Related Unilateral Restrictive Measures”; and “Navigating Humanitarian Exceptions to Sanctions Against Syria: Challenges and Recommendations,” The Carter Center, October 2020,
  128. “Part of President Assad’s Remarks during His Leadership of Cabinet Session Today” (in Arabic), published to YouTube by “Syrian Presidency,” March 30, 2021,
  129. “President Assad Issues Decree Containing New Consumer Protection Law… New Controls for Trade Practices, Pricing and Oversight, with Strengthening of Some Penalties, up to Imprisonment” (in Arabic), SANA, April 12, 2021,
  130. For example, see Albert Aji, “Syrian President Decrees Financial Stimulus Amid Crisis,” Associated Press, March 16, 2021, The northeast’s Autonomous Administration, for its part, announced an increase in public employees’ salaries to keep pace with lira inflation. “Autonomous Administration Raises Its Employees’ Wages, Exempts Expert Contracts” (in Arabic), Kurdistan24, April 12, 2021,الإدارة-الذاتية-ترفع-رواتب-موظفيها-وتستثني-عقود-الخبرة.
  131. Western diplomats, interviews with the author, Beirut, March and April 2021; Abdulhadi Shbat, “Correct Step and Ability to Take Steps to Energize the Economy… Ramadan Hawalat [Remittances] Exceed $10 Million Daily… Seiroub: Hawalat from Abroad Amount to Lifeline and Support Income of Many Families” (in Arabic), al-Watan, April 14, 2021,; “Central [Bank]: Average U.S. Dollar Exchange Rate 2,512 Lira, 2,500 for Hawalat [Remittances]” (in Arabic), SANA, April 15, 2021,; “Al-Khalil: New Investment Law Reflects State Development Policy… Martini: [Law] Should Help Stimulate the Economy and Attract Patriotic Capital” (in Arabic), SANA, May 19, 2021,
  132. For one take on how Syria’s enforced isolation empowers some entrepreneurial actors, see Kheder Khaddour, “The Wrath of Caesar,” Diwan (Carnegie Middle East Center), June 1, 2020,
  133. As a Damascus-based consultant put it: “Who said every little food item needs to be controlled by hierarchies and monopolies inside the country, ones that are very vulnerable to sanctions? That’s all happening from our side: curtailing other actors, and pushing towards a very, very narrow crony economy. That’s why sanctions are working—why they’re effective.” Interview with the author by phone, March 2021.
  134. “The Syrian Economy at War: Captagon, Hashish, and the Syrian Narco-State,” COAR, April 27, 2021,
  135. Humanitarian aid worker, interview.
  136. For a micro-history of Syria’s economic liberalization and a profile of the man widely regarded as its architect, see “After Six Years at the Helm, Dardari Departs,” The Syria Report, April 18, 2011,
  137. Interview.
  138. “President Assad, Heading Session of New Cabinet after [Its Members] Swear Oath: The Most Important Way to Confront the Blockade Is Supporting Production… The Basis for Any Official’s Success Is Dedication… Syrian Media Has Achieved a Good Advance in Difficult Conditions, Government Must Support It in Taking on Its Active Role” (in Arabic), SANA, September 2, 2020,; “Transparent Dialogue about Agriculture… Arnous: Agricultural Sector the Widest Area for Small Enterprise… Agriculture Minister: Our Food Security Is Now in Danger Because of Climate Change, Crises and Wars, and We Need to Develop the Sector” (in Arabic), al-Watan, February 25, 2021,
  139. A humanitarian aid worker voiced skepticism: “The fact is that without private investment and a functioning public sector, what’s left is the intention of Syrians to do something more—and with an exhausted population that’s struggling to reach not just the end of the month, but the middle of the month. There were plans for [developing agricultural production] before the conflict… But you need technology, which is under sanctions; you need machinery, which cannot be imported or produced domestically. So what are we actually talking about?” Interview.
  140. Humanitarian analyst, interview.
  141. FAO, “GIEWS Country Brief.”
  142. The United Arab Emirates has advertised its contributions of humanitarian assistance to Syria during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, see “Third Plane from Red Crescent Commission Arrives in Damascus Carrying Large Quantities of Coronavirus Vaccines” (in Arabic), United Arab Emirates Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, April 28, 2021,
  143. Western diplomat, interview.
  144. For example, see former U.S. Syria envoy Joel Rayburn’s interjection in this press availability: U.S. Department of State, “Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey on Syria Caesar Act Designations.”
  145. Western diplomat, interview.
  146. WFP, “Twelve Million Syrians Now in the Grip of Hunger.”
  147. Western aid official, interview with the author by phone, April 2021.
  148. Western diplomats, interviews with the author in Beirut and by phone, March-April 2021.
  149. For example, see the letter that Syria’s Foreign Ministry reportedly sent to friendlier-seeming European Union member states expressing hope for dialogue on shared interests, including counterterrorism. Ibrahim Hamidi, “‘Indirect Dialogue’ between Damascus and Brussels about Conditions of ‘Normalization’” (in Arabic), Asharq Al-Awsat, April 7, 2021,«حوار-غير-مباشر»-بين-دمشق-وبروكسل-حول-شروط-«التطبيع.
  150. Western official, interview with the author by phone, March 2021.
  151. “Appeal Data,” Syria Humanitarian Response 2020, accessed May 29, 2021, Japan is also a major humanitarian donor, but it has traditionally been more flexible than many Western donors on the types of humanitarian assistance it funds, including “early recovery” UN programming.
  152. Western diplomat responsible for a humanitarian portfolio, interview with the author in Beirut, March 2021.
  153. Chief EU diplomat Josep Borrell reiterated this emphatically in his remarks at the “Brussels V” donor conference. “Brussels V ‘Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region’: Opening Remarks by HR/VP Josep Borrell at the Ministerial Session,” European Union External Action Service, March 30, 2021,
  154. Western diplomats, interviews with the author, Beirut, March 2021.
  155. As one Western diplomat put it: “There’s some rethinking now about extending humanitarian aid to resilience and early recovery-type activities, with the goal of enabling certain structures to provide for their own needs. So, shifting away from pure humanitarian aid, but still under a humanitarian framework… It’s also a matter of economic and financial considerations, because pumping in more emergency aid into the country is not really sustainable. That’s the whole concept of resilience: provide aid, but through that aid create structures that can sustainably reduce needs.” Interview, March 2021.
  156. For example, see the UK-organized seminar on humanitarian early recovery at this year’s “Brussels V” donor conference, featuring minister for the Middle East and North Africa James Cleverly: “Local Early Recovery & Resilience-Building: Meeting Needs More Sustainably, Supporting People’s Dignity, and Better Managing Risks across Syria,” European Union External Action Service, March 10, 2021, FAO touted a UK-supported project to rehabilitate water infrastructure in the Damascus countryside here: “Syrian Farmers Live Together in Peace after Equitable Access to Water for Irrigation,” FAO, May 7, 2021,
  157. Western diplomats, interviews with the author in Beirut and by phone, March–April 2021.
  158. Western diplomat responsible for a humanitarian portfolio, interview.
  159. Humanitarian aid worker, interview.
  160. For one argument to this effect, see Basma Alloush and Alex Simon, “Will More Syria Sanctions Hurt the Very Civilians They Aim to Protect?” War on the Rocks, June 10, 2020,
  161. “Frequently Asked Questions: Syria Sanctions: 884,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, April 5, 2021,; and “Frequently Asked Questions: Syria Sanctions: 885,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, April 5, 2021,
  162. For this and other suggested steps, see Walker, “Sanctions Must Not Impede Humanitarian Relief.”
  163. Mengqi Sun, “Biden Administration’s Review of Sanctions Programs Could Take Months, White House Official Says,” Wall Street Journal, March 2, 2021,
  164. Lara Jakes and Eric Schmitt, “Biden Reverses Trump Terrorist Designation for Houthis in Yemen,” New York Times, February 5, 2021,
  165. The Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement (SHTA) permits the use of Iranian funds frozen overseas to make guaranteed sanctions-proof purchases of food and medicines from companies domiciled in Switzerland for import to Iran. Use of the SHTA involves extensive documentation and vetting of involved parties in any transaction. Syria, by contrast, does not seem to have similar large sums of money frozen overseas. There is also little clear demand from private businesses abroad for a comparable trade mechanism, given how much smaller Syria’s market is than Iran’s. Western diplomats, reached by phone, April 2021. On the SHTA and its functional limitations, see, for example, Jonathan Saul, Ana Mano, and Joori Roh, “Iran Struggles to Buy Food in a World Wary Of Touching Its Money” Reuters, July 30, 2020,
  166. Joshua Goodman (@APjoshgoodman), Twitter status, March 23, 2021,
  167. Western diplomat, interview.
  168. Trump administration Syria envoy Jim Jeffrey did just that, warning the Emirates against sanctionable investments in Syria. U.S. Department of State, “Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey On Syria Caesar Act Designations,” June 17, 2020,