Three files put economic pressure on northern Syria
Enab Baladi – Ali Darwish
The opposition-held areas in northern Syria are facing the biggest economic pressure currently, represented by restricting international aid from entering the “Bab al-Hawa” border crossing with Turkey. Besides, there is a contraction in the agricultural land area under the control of the opposition, not to mention the increased fire risks and the procedures to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) after many cases were recorded.
The residents of northern Syria are already experiencing deteriorating living conditions, most notably the effects of repeated displacement, military operations, security risks, and ongoing conflict, exacerbated by the lack of stability caused by the depreciation of the Syrian Pound (SYP), according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
During one month, the value of the food basket increased by 68 percent as a result of the decrease in the value of the SYP against the US dollar, as the exchange rate recorded 2,310 pounds against one dollar for sale, and 2,260 pounds for purchase, according to the website of Syrian Pound Today (a Syrian Pound tracking website.)
2.8 million people in northern Syria already rely on humanitarian assistance to meet basic needs such as food, water, shelter, healthcare, and education.
The difficult economic situation is putting additional strain on the Syrian people, exacerbating the effects of the ongoing conflict on the 4.1 million people living in the area; 76 percent of whom are women and children, while the number of internally displaced people is 2.7 million, according to a report issued by OCHA on 13 July.
“The Syrian Response Coordination Group” (SRCG) estimated that nearly one million and 41 thousand people were displaced from areas in Hama, Aleppo, and Idlib due to the military operations launched by the Syrian regime forces and their ally Russia to re-settle in safer areas and spread over 1,277 camps, including 366 random camps.
How is the region affected economically?
In an interview with Enab Baladi, the minister of economy in the “Syrian Interim Government” (SIG) Abdul Hakim al-Masri highlighted that aid files, the Syrian regime’s control of agricultural land areas, and coronavirus cases affect the economic situation of the people in the region adversely.
The economy of the region has already been affected negatively before coronavirus cases were first registered in the area because many precautionary measures were taken previously to prevent its spread, including the temporary closure of schools, shops, restaurants. This, consequently, has driven the unemployment rate up, which is reflected on the Syrian population, especially on about one million and one hundred thousand people living in the camps, according to al-Masri.
According to the statistics provided by the “Nors Center for Studies” in north-western Syria, the above-mentioned figures regarding the agricultural lands are part of an area that the Syrian regime made progress in, which is estimated at around 3,140 km2 since 27 August 2019.
As for the agricultural sector, agricultural activities are still carried out at the present time, but not to the required level, because farmers are afraid of new military operations; rockets and shells could be launched into their farmlands, causing pervasive fires, and destroying all farm crops.
The Syrian regime has made progress in regaining control of areas since April 2019, amid the opposition’s losses of agricultural lands, This posed a threat to food security in the opposition-controlled areas in northwest Syria, with the loss of about 2,300 square kilometers of agricultural lands, while only 1,500 square kilometers remained under the control of the opposition factions, meaning, the Syrian opposition factions have lost 60 percent of their agricultural lands.
Northern and north-western regions—including areas in the northern countryside of Hama, Idlib (aka the green province) Aleppo countryside, in Syria, are known as an agricultural area par excellence. Therefore, people there depend primarily on agrarian lands to get their economic resources, then on small agricultural industries, Khalid Turkawi, an economic researcher, told Enab Baladi.
Looking at the satellite imagery of the areas controlled recently by the regime, it is clear that most of the areas are for agricultural use while the remaining area is for low-density residential use.
Therefore, agriculture is considered a significant part of the economy, along with the transportation sector, mainly in border areas like Idlib and Aleppo. For example, there are several economic fields based on agriculture, such as the use of refrigerators for storing food (mainly agricultural products) and vehicles for shipping the products through the crossings, according to Turkawi.
The loss of agricultural land areas also has a negative impact on livestock breeding in the region. Following the battles and waves of displacement, livestock farming moved from the areas that were under shelling to relatively safe areas. Thus, livestock grazing has become centered in narrower areas and pastures, after it was spread in the areas extending from the east of Maarat al-Numan to Jabal Shahshabo, south of Idlib, which are remarkable for their best pastures and significant size, Muhammad Khair al-Hamad, a sheep merchant in Idlib governorate, said to Enab Baladi.
The loss of agricultural land in favor of the Syrian regime was not only the reason for the economic losses faced by the opposition. Many agricultural lands have been burned either intentionally or through military operations, according to Turkawi.
Closure of the internal border crossings in Syria … Turkey’s crossings are open for trade exchanges only
The SNA military police and the SIG’s health ministry have closed the “Ghazawiya” and “Deir Ballut” crossings that link the areas of Idlib and Aleppo provinces northwest of Syria, starting from 17 July until further notice, as part of measures to prevent the spread of the “coronavirus.”
However, these crossings will remain open only to the military personnel and soldiers in order to switch guard points and enhance combat readiness, the head of the media office of the National Liberation Front of the SNA, Saif Raad told Enab Baladi.
The “Ghazawiya” crossing connects the city of Darat Izza with the Afrin regions, in the western countryside of Aleppo while the Deir Ballout crossing links the areas of Idlib with the northern and north-western countryside of Aleppo.
The administration of the “Bab al-Hawa” border crossing with Turkey also announced, on 11 July, that it closed to passenger traffic for the first time. Then, it announced its closure for the second time a day after its opening, from 14-21 of the same month, provided that the crossing will remain open for commercial and aid trucks only.
The UN Security Council passed a resolution to introduce aid to northern Syria. After a week of division and seven ballots, the council passed a German-Belgian proposal to extend the UN aid mechanism for one year only through the “Bab al-Hawa” crossing point to Syria. Therefore, the SIG minister of economy Abdul Hakim al-Masri, said that the opposition-held areas are “semi-besieged,” with all the crossings surrounding are closed almost completely, except for the Turkish side crossings that are closed and opened due to the evolution of the coronavirus outbreak.
The first case of coronavirus was recorded in the opposition-controlled north-western Syria on 9 July to a doctor aged 39 working in the “Bab al-Hawa” hospital. The doctor entered Syria from Turkey on 25 June.
Effective investment facilitation and cooperation with organizations are the solutions
The SIG is currently working with “the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces” and civil institutions in the region to increase humanitarian aid and establish some projects, but many people currently are reluctant to invest in opposition-held areas, due to the lack of a secure investment environment, and an export market for its manufacturing products, according to al-Masri.
Measures to encourage investments and hire labor are especially important in the region as well as drawing the organizations’ attention to the magnitude of the tragedy in terms of cooperating with them for setting up investment projects, providing food and medical assistance, and increasing it more than before.
Workshops and meetings will be held in the coming period to manage the region economically and offer solutions that must be followed to tackle poverty and provide people with job opportunities through encouraging and attracting investment, according to al-Masri.
One of the first things that the SIG has taken is to issue a decision to increase the weight of a bread bag to 775 grams at a subsidized price of one Turkish Lira and to sell flour at a subsidized price during the coming period. Three public bakeries are going to be established by the SIG in Akhtarin, Ghandoura, and Bazaa in Aleppo countryside, in order to sell bread at a subsidized price, in addition, bread subsidy will be paid by local councils.
These workshops and meetings will focus on finding markets of the agricultural products, particularly for the excess grains such as wheat and barley in Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain, and finding other parties alongside the general grain foundation to buy grains from farmers and encourage the export of the locally produced materials.
“As a result, we want to move the economic wheel, in all commercial, industrial, based service aspects, and secure service projects that recruit the workforce and reduce the burden on people,” according to al-Masri.
Al-Masri indicated that the “SIG” is communicating with countries to re-open Bab al-Salam border crossing to organizations.
Turkawi stressed that it is very challenging to compensate for the loss of the agricultural land easily because it needs massive capital. However, there is still a sufficient arable area controlled by the opposition, but it needs to be stable and safe.
The farmers need to feel safe, and that no party will burn, bomb, or seize their land or control its resources, in order to cultivate it again.
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