DJADE AL-MUGHARA, Syria/DUBAI (Reuters) - The Syrian government has vastly overestimated the size of the country’s wheat crop, officials, traders and farmers told Reuters, indicating that a population that has endured unrelenting war could struggle to feed itself this year.
A large part of Syria’s agricultural heartland in the north has been under the control of Islamic State since 2014, when the ultra-hardline jihadist group swept through the area and established a de facto capital in Raqqa.
Many farmers have fled their land, with some saying they have not harvested crops for three years. While Islamic State has been slowly driven back from their territory by U.S.-backed forces in recent weeks, the retreating militants have laid waste to agricultural infrastructure in the area, which produces the bulk of Syria’s main staple wheat.
The Syrian agriculture ministry’s wheat production forecast puts the 2017 crop at 2 million tonnes.
However officials in the Raqqa Civil Council (RCC), which is expected to govern the northern region if and when U.S.-backed forces defeat the militants, say the actual figure will be around half the government’s forecast.
“Production is weak. It won’t be 2 million tonnes,” said Omar Aloush, a senior official in the council. “Production this year for all of Syria will be about 1 million tonnes.”
This was corroborated by a government source, who said the actual figure for the wheat harvest, which began this month would be far removed from the ministry’s projection.
“The real figures will be obvious in another three weeks or so when the buying season is in full force, but I can say for sure it will be much lower than 2 million,” the person said.
While President Bashar al-Assad has scored vital battlefield gains against rebels seeking to oust him - in a six-year-old civil war separate from the Islamic State battle - he is under pressure to ensure supplies of strategic commodities such as wheat keep flowing to supporters in areas under his control and avoid the risk of unrest.
His government needs about 1 to 1.5 million tonnes of wheat annually to feed those areas.
The agriculture ministry could not be reached for comment.
Syria used to produce 4 million tonnes in a good year and was able to export 1.5 million tonnes. The fall in output has put Assad’s government under increasing pressure to import the strategic grain.
Syria’s state wheat buyer, the General Establishment for Cereal Processing and Trade (Hoboob), struck a risky deal in October to buy 1 million tonnes of wheat from a little known Russian firm to feed government-held areas and prevent bread shortages after the sharp drop in national wheat production.
No wheat from that deal has arrived yet and traders have said it is in jeopardy.
‘NOT A SINGLE TRACTOR’
Reuters interviews with farmers and traders inside and outside Syria, as well as the RCC officials, suggest the country will be facing a food crisis for years to come and that there is little prospect in sight of wheat output returning to anywhere near the levels seen before the civil war.
Many farmers in the north abandoned their land in the face of Islamic State’s advance while those who remained on their farms are struggling to make ends meet as, being in the jihadists’ territory, they are unable to sell wheat to the state, which previously provided a steady source of income.
Some hope to pick up the pieces once Islamic State are defeated, but others - like Hamada Moussa said - have given up hope of recovering their businesses.
Moussa, who had made a decent living in the village of Djade al-Mughara outside Raqqa, said he and his family were lucky to survive when they abandoned their farm three years ago.
”My son and I escaped before they tried to behead us,“ he said. ”I have nothing left. Islamic State stole my supplies from storage after I fled and took over.
“We don’t have a single tractor or water pump left.”
Falous Moussa said his farming business in Djade al-Mughara was wiped out by the militants and that he and other farmers were struggling to feed themselves.
“No one has given us a single grain of rice,” he said. “They even took our clothes, our shoes.”
When U.S.-allied Kurdish and Arab forces began driving back Islamic State in the north, the militants inflicted as much damage as possible as they left, officials and farmers said.
In villages such as Tel al-Semen, they blew up bridges and damaged irrigation canals, which are now dry. Electrical wires were ripped down from power stations vital to farming. Nearby, a building which once housed a bakery lies gutted and burned.
Syria’s wheat harvest nearly halved to 1.3 million tonnes in 2016, the lowest level in 27 years, as fighting and poor rainfall further degraded the farming sector.
The Hasaka area in the north is home to one of Syria’s biggest wheat silos, a vast complex that is now empty.
Silo officials and employees spend much of their time chatting. Supplies, officials say, are limited to 12,000 tonnes a month that are shipped from the town of Qamishli to one section of the plant that produces small quantities of bread.
“We are out of business,” said silo official Hajar Omar.
That is also true of silos across the north, towering over parched land. As a result, key wheat reserves are gone.
Farmers and officials in the RCC, which was established by allies of the U.S.-led coalition that began attacking Raqqa this month, accuse militants of stealing supplies and selling them to traders over the border with Turkey.
“The silos are empty because the wheat was seized by Islamic State and armed groups,” said Aloush, the senior RCC official.
Syrian wheat trader Ishak Dandal is also pessimistic and has diversified to selling automobiles to try and make a living.
“Water is scarce and equipment has been destroyed. One dunam (0.1 hectares) used to yield 700 kg before the war,” he said.
“Now it yields 150 because there is not enough water.”
Editing by Pravin Char