Syrian Trade Routes Shift as Cucumbers Carve Out Divisions
The cucumbers at Haitham Mohammad’s stall used to travel a few miles to Damascus from the lush fields of Ghouta around the Syrian capital. They now get shipped from more than 200 kilometers (124 miles) away.
The produce comes from the northern Aleppo Province after anti-government rebels captured the key agricultural area that supplied Damascenes with most of their fruit and vegetables. Prices are rising as drivers demand more money because the roads are unsafe and fuel is now more expensive with international sanctions on Syria’s oil industry.
“Before the conflict, I used to receive vegetables from all over the provinces,” Mohammad, 32, whose stand is at the al-Zablatani souq in Damascus, said last week. “Everything is available, but things are expensive.”
The difficulties in getting food supplies into the city of more than 2 million people show how every day the stalemate in the 2 ½ year civil war holds, the more trade routes are making the divisions within Syria indelible.
Already people and supplies have to navigate loosely defined lines demarcating government-controlled areas that run roughly from Jordan in the south up to near Turkey in the north. The area to the east of it is held by radical Islamist fighters, the rebel Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish minority.
“Trade is cementing Syria’s divide,” said Samir Seifan, an economist based in Dubai who is a member of the political opposition to President Bashar al-Assad. “It’s fostering the split in Syria into two parts.”
Damascus lost its central role and each increasingly autonomous region is gravitating toward neighboring economies, said Samir Altaqi, a former Syrian heart surgeon who now runs the Dubai-based Orient Research Center. The olive harvest in northern Syria was sent to Turkey, pressed in Turkey and exported as part of the Turkish economy, he said.
Most of the wheat harvested outside Syrian government areas in the north and east was sent to Turkey this year, said Abdul-Qader Azzouz, an economics professor at Damascus University. Less than 10 percent reached Damascus, he said.
“The problem is not with growing the wheat, it’s transporting it to consumers,” said Azzouz.
Areas in the north are outside the control of the government and the people export excess vegetables and fruit as well as wheat, cotton, olives, pomegranates, almonds and pistachio nuts to Turkey, said Seifan.
There is also some trading activity between the Kurds in the northeast of Syria and those living in the semi-autonomous region of Iraq, though it’s curbed by tighter border controls because of concern about militants, he said.
The Turkish lira has replaced the Syrian pound as the main trading currency in some parts, not least because the pound plunged in value and prices at souqs and stores soared. In government-controlled areas, Assad banned foreign currencies for payments, with offenders threatened with three years of jail.
The pound traded at 47 to the dollar before the war. It had fallen to 345 by July on the black market, since recovering to 175, while the official central bank rate is now 137 pounds per dollar. The pace of inflation jumped to 68 percent in May, according to the Syrian Central Bureau of Statistics.
“People have to deal with the reality on the ground,” said Seifan, who wrote the book “Syria on the Path to Economic Reform” published in 2010.
The danger is that the country will be partitioned with enclaves run by Assad’s troops, rebel groups and more radical Islamist militants, said Frederic Hof, a special adviser last year to U.S. President Barack Obama for transition in Syria.
The divisions pose “an emerging security problem” that’s a “catastrophe for Syria” and “a disaster for the neighbors,” said Hof, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “You can have Syria become the base for terrorist operations run by the regime and its supporters or these jihadists.”
Syrians had maintained a relatively peaceful coexistence among the country’s various sects, including Christians, Druse, Sunnis and Alawites, a group affiliated with Shiite Islam from which Assad hails. The conflict, which began with peaceful protests in March 2011, since has left 115,000 people dead, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“Regardless of the biased behavior of the regime, in spite of the corruption, in spite of everything, there was still a minimum of national consensus,” said Altaqi at the Orient Research Center. “This gluing force which was preserving the Syrian national contract was damaged to a large extent.”
The suburbs around Damascus, including Zamalka and Douma, came under heavy shelling by Assad’s troops today, while four people were killed when warplanes struck the town of Minbij in Aleppo, the human rights observatory, an activist group in the U.K. founded in 2006, said in an e-mailed statement.
It may be a while before the country can be stitched back together. An international conference in Geneva to explore ways to resolve the crisis keeps getting delayed. Should it convene, it won’t succeed in uniting the country, said Paul Salem, vice president of the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
“Geneva can achieve some conflict management, some conflict de-escalation, some humanitarian progress,” said Salem. “But not resolution.”
In the meantime, different currencies change hands and several flags fly over Syria: the Assad government’s, that of the National Coalition, the main political opposition, the black banner of radical Islamist groups and the Kurdish tricolor.
Mohammad, the vegetable seller at the Damascus souq, said customers are buying a third of what they used to. A kilo of apples costs about 250 pounds ($1.82), up from 150 pounds before the conflict. A kilo of cucumbers from the north now sells for 150 pounds, more than double the previous price of 70 pounds.
“Clients buy only as much as they need and they avoid pricey produce,” he said. “Shoppers used to buy two, three kilos of apples. Now they buy one.”
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