Russia-Ukraine war deepens Idlib's misery as price hikes plunge poor deeper into poverty
At the start of April, the inhabitants of Idlib and northwest Syria awoke to yet another crisis – rocketing food prices. The explosion in the already-high costs of staple food items was unprecedented and coincided with the beginning of Ramadan. Alongside the plunging incomes of ordinary Syrians in Idlib and the ever-widening and deepening destitution, most civilians are trapped below the poverty line and are increasingly unable to secure their basic needs – including food.
On 5 April, The Syrian Response Coordination group published a report which highlighted indicators of "economic collapse" in the region in the midst of the price hikes and sky-high inflation. They said rising costs had led to a decline in civilians' spending power, especially those in IDP camps.
Recently, during Ramadan, Safiya Hajji (40) would pace Idlib's markets scanning prices, only to return home empty-handed, unable to afford the ingredients to make an iftar meal for her four sons. They had to make do with a simpler – and cheaper – bowl of mujaddara (a staple dish in Syria, made with lentils, onions and rice or bulgur wheat), which has become the main daily meal for many families in the province.
"Safiya, an IDP (Internally Displaced Person), is the sole caregiver of her sons after her husband was killed over two years ago when their city, Maarat Al-Numan, was bombed. She says she no longer knows how to manage her responsibilities as a mother amid the rocketing prices"
Safiya, an IDP (Internally Displaced Person), is the sole caregiver of her sons after her husband was killed over two years ago when their city, Maarat Al-Numan, was bombed. She says she no longer knows how to manage her responsibilities as a mother amid the rocketing prices which are affecting everything, most importantly, food.
Ordinary Syrians unable to feed their families
"I worry my children will have weakened immune systems and get ill or malnourished, because for a long time I have hardly ever been able to buy vegetables or meat for them, due to the situation. As for fruit - that's a dream for us since the war forced us into these camps, which have been forgotten."
Safiya works as a farm labourer for a pittance: not enough to supply even the family's basic daily needs. She has tried to find another job with better wages, but feels her chances are especially low – she has no qualifications, professional experience or even any useful connections.
Ghassan al-Asaad (36), an IDP from Khan Sheikhoun, currently lives in a camp in Sarmada with his wife and five children. His misery is plain to see as he relates how difficult life has become – even if he was lucky enough to find work, he says, he would struggle to afford basic essentials for his family, as wages are so low.
"It hurts that I can no longer buy what my children need whether food, clothes or medicine, even vegetables have become hard to access… the poor here are waiting to die from hunger, with their families, and the world doesn't bat an eyelid."
Ramifications of the Russia-Ukraine war
On inflation rates in Idlib and the current rise in prices, Abdul Hakim Al Masri, the Syrian Interim Government's (SIG) economy minister said to The New Arab that the situation in Idlib and northwest Syria mirrors that in many other countries because of the knock-on effects of the Russia-Ukraine war which broke out on 24 February 2022.
Price hikes have been ubiquitous, especially concerning oil and wheat: Russia and Ukraine are two of the biggest exporters worldwide.
"It hurts that I can no longer buy what my children need whether food, clothes or medicine, even vegetables have become hard to access… the poor here are waiting to die from hunger, with their families, and the world doesn't bat an eyelid"
He pointed out that the rise in oil prices due to the recent war had automatically led to a surge in the prices of imports in all sectors due to more costly shipping rates – which had risen already in 2021.
Everything had been affected – even in America, the rate of inflation reached 7.9% in February: the highest inflation rate there in 40 years.
Al Masri stresses that the impact of inflation is especially damaging for poor countries – the rate of poverty grows as middle-income groups move below the poverty line and those already in poverty into deeper poverty.
Wheat is one of the commodities most affected by the war in Ukraine because 25% of global wheat exports are produced in Russia and Ukraine. The inevitable rise in wheat prices has had ramifications on all wheat-based products, most importantly, bread, impacting the poorest communities severely for whom bread is a major staple.
The same issue applies to barley: 40% of global exports are from Ukraine. This has caused the price of animal feed to rise and affected those who raise livestock in Idlib and northwest Syria. Herders were already struggling due to successive droughts in recent years and the rocketing price of hay, which currently costs 11 Turkish lira per kilo, up from 2.5 lira per kilo a few years ago.
Sunflower seeds are another important food product affected by the Russia-Ukraine war: northern Syria imports all its sunflower oil from Turkey which in turn imports a high percentage from Ukraine - the price for one litre of sunflower oil has risen from 20 lira to 35 lira.
As for vegetables, many kinds have doubled in price in the space of a few weeks. According to the Syrian Response Coordination group, the price of food has risen by 33.4% overall. Cereals have increased in price by 29.2%; wheat by 42.3%; vegetable oil by 62%; dairy products by 17.9%; sugar by 54%; meat by 34% and fruit and vegetables by 48%.
As the cost of basic materials has risen, the humanitarian response operations by local organisations have slumped with an estimated decrease of 34% compared with last year.
"Price controls should be imposed on food stores across the region by the Salvation Government which instead continues to intensify the burden on civilians through its punitive tax laws, exploitation and its monopolies"
What measures are being taken: SIG vs Salvation Government
Al Masri explains that the SIG has made an effort to deal with the economic crises by providing sufficient quantities of wheat by using additional stocks that are enough to last until the local wheat harvest this year.
As a result, they have managed to maintain the former price of flour which they sell to bakeries directly, under the supervision of local councils at a price of $285, even though its actual price has reached $500 globally.
As for the SIG-run bakeries, they are still selling a 600g bag of bread for one Turkish lira. Al Masri says they also plan to open two additional bakeries in May in the towns Azaz and Qabasin in Aleppo province.
The SIG also recently ordered the distribution of 5,000 tons of hay, free of charge, to sheep and cow breeders, as well as providing vaccines for their flocks. These measures aim to help support poor families to be able to continue accessing bread and dairy products.
While the SIG has adopted the above subsidising measures to stave off an even deeper crisis, the Salvation Government which controls the Idlib governorate has failed to act. As a result, a 600g bag of bread currently costs five Turkish lira, and dairy products have also risen steeply in price, making them inaccessible to the vast majority of civilians.
Displaced Syrian civilians who fled bombardment by Assad regime in south of opposition-held Idlib province are finding themselves ruthlessly expelled yet again - this time by local landowners backed by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, reports Hadia Al Mansour https://t.co/T8d12MCW25— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) April 12, 2022
Economist Rania Akhras describes the situation in Idlib as a "catastrophe". The surge in prices is "terrifying" she says, at a time most of the region's inhabitants are suffering declining income, especially those in the camps, for whom there is minimal interest and support, if any.
"There is no doubt that the Russia-Ukraine war has affected the economy of the region, especially since most food products are imported from Turkey, which in turn imports from Ukraine. However, there are other reasons behind the relentless price hikes," she says.
"There are shop owners and traders who always exploit circumstances, including wars and crises, to increase their profits. This was reflected in how food prices always used to go up at the start of Ramadan with no oversight or accountability," Akhras explains.
She calls for civil society organisations to find ways to increase their humanitarian response in order to support the poorest. Further, she says, "price controls should be imposed on food stores across the region by the Salvation Government which instead continues to intensify the burden on civilians through its punitive tax laws, exploitation and its monopolies – all of which is well known."
Hadia Al Mansour is a freelance journalist from Syria who has written for Asharq Al-Awsat, Al-Monitor, SyriaUntold and Rising for Freedom Magazine.
Article translated from Arabic by Rose Chacko