Why Europe should focus on agricultural support in Syria

Syria’s food insecurity continues to deepen, with the majority of Syrians now struggling to access regular food supplies. Levantine politics analyst Chloé Bernadaux makes the case that, despite legitimate and well-founded concerns about empowering conflict profiteers, the EU can make a positive contribution towards addressing Syrian hunger by taking a values-based, inclusive approach, properly tailored towards the stricken country’s specific circumstances.

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12.4 million people in Syria are now estimated to be food insecure, representing 60 percent of the population, according to the World Food Programme (WFP). “More Syrians are slipping deeper into hunger, poverty, and food insecurity than ever before” warned the WFP Country Director for Syria, Corinne Fleischer. While Syria used to be an agricultural powerhouse, the tremendous material and structural damage caused by the war has decreased wheat production by 32 percent – from 4.1 million tonnes to 2.8 million on average.

In light of the real risk of famine now descending on Syria, European governments should prioritise efforts to support the country’s agricultural sector as an essential pillar of a values-based strategy to help meet Syrians’ core needs and promote some bottom-up stability. As levels of violence in Syria decrease, international NGOs are increasingly advocating support to rebuild the resilience of the agricultural sector, and European governments should explore how they can support this effort.

The upcoming fifth Brussels conference represents an opportunity for the EU to mobilise increased financial aid in response to the increased needs of Syrians in view of the country’s dire economic crisis. Further, the conference provides a moment to reassess its current support paradigm. The EU and its member states are leading donors of humanitarian support. Yet, wider development and reconstruction support remain contingent upon a “credible political solution” to the conflict.

By promoting a people-centred approach in investments in local rural economies, Europeans can promote fairer development in a critical sector of the Syrian economy. Agricultural support should be seen as a possible vehicle through which funds can be directed towards empowering local farmers instead of the new business and political elite centred on the regime.

The current EU position is based on the argument that any investment in Syria without a political settlement will empower regime-linked actors while failing to address the country’s structural problems and the real needs of Syrians. If not tied to a political process, reconstruction support will only amplify inequality and injustice, the conflict’s main drivers.

European concerns are not ill-founded. They reflect the reality under the current reconstruction paradigm, which reinforces the malignant dynamics prevalent under the war economy. As it strives to protect the economic gains accumulated over the last decade, the new business elite has no incentive to invest in long-term productive sectors of the economy.

The rural regions of Hama and Deir-Ez-Zor constitute concrete examples. In Hama, a smuggling route for agricultural goods, rural businessmen seized the opportunity to set up checkpoints and smuggle products in and out. The funds they gained were then re-invested to offer loans to agricultural producers at back-breakingly high-interest rates, which led many farmers to default on their debt and give up their property.

Similarly, rural businessmen in rebel-controlled rural areas created new business networks linking agricultural producers to urban processing facilities. In the cotton-producing region of Deir-Ez Zor, captured by ISIS in 2014, the “Sarraj Company” created a transportation network linking producers with facilities in regime-held Damascus, which turned into a lucrative business throughout the war.

In both cases, the new class of rural warlords found themselves in a monopolistic position, which led to increased costs for agrarian products and disincentivised Syrian farmers from investing in the sector. 60 percent of Syria’s rural households reported that the high price of agrarian inputs was the primary constraint to agricultural investment and production. These businessmen have gained considerable political influence, and their grasp on Syria’s rural economy endangers the survival of the agricultural sector.

In this environment, challenges to agricultural support are clear, and Europeans will need to navigate very carefully to avoid further strengthening crony warlords. This being said, the EU can do more to explore ethical ways to respond to the enduring needs of Syria’s rural communities, looking to circumvent crony networks and promote social justice. To do so, Europeans will need to review some of their guidelines and collaborate towards forming an inclusive approach adapted to the specific Syrian situation on the ground. They will also need to invest greater efforts in identifying local opportunities for action by developing a better understanding of local power dynamics and paths to empower local farmers instead of the business and political elites cemented by the war economy.

However, given the centrality of agriculture to the livelihoods of millions of Syrians, Europeans should now focus on means to invest in funding small-scale projects oriented towards sustainable agriculture. Specific investments should seek to respond to the specific needs of post-war agriculture by prioritizing, for example, the restoration of damaged soils or opting for sustainable alternative agricultural techniques. Europeans could draw from their past experience conducting innovative agriculture reconstruction projects. For example, the French Development Agency AFD was creative in developing sustainable micro-credit systems for small farmers in cooperation with a Haitian microfinance institution.

For such inclusive projects to be successfully implemented, the EU will need to dedicate sustained efforts towards creating reliable partnerships with local Syrian organizations that offer sufficient safeguards and transparency. This will clearly not be an easy task and mobilizing grassroots networks on the ground will require a better understanding of local modes of organization in rural contexts.

Additionally, in light of the rising food shortages in Syria and the mounting domestic pressures on the Assad government, the EU’s implementing partners, such as the UN, should seek to mobilize greater leverage to condition their aid on transparency and third-party monitoring mechanisms. These should assess that agricultural projects respond to the needs of their targeted beneficiaries. Supporting local agricultural projects designed in a bottom-up fashion represents an important path towards meeting increasingly urgent needs on the ground and supporting efforts towards some degree of inclusive and sustainable development.

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Chloé Bernadaux received her master’s degree in International Security from Sciences Po Paris and specializes on Middle East politics, social movements and political economy. She previously conducted research on gender dynamics in the Middle East at the Arab Institute for Women of the Lebanese-American University in Beirut and was a geopolitical columnist at the Lebanese newspaper L’Orient Le Jour.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encyclopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Cover Image: Federica Mogherini, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, addresses the ‘Inside Syria’ pledging session at the Supporting Syria conference‘, DFID – UK Department for International Development