Syria relies on costly flour imports as local output cut, PM says

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Insecurity and power cuts have cut Syria’s daily flour output capacity to 3,000 tonnes from 7,700 tonnes since its conflict began in 2011, forcing it into costly imports and causing low stockpiles in some provinces, the prime minister said.

“Importing flour places many burdens on the government. It’s not easy to be a flour importer,” Wael al-Halqi told parliament on Tuesday.

Syria has struggled in recent months to buy essential food staples such as flour, wheat, sugar and rice through tenders, in part due to U.S. and EU sanctions imposed on President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Some deals have been struck outside the tender process using middlemen.

The sanctions do not cover food but those on banking, in addition to asset freezes, have made tenders difficult.

In December, however, Syria has tendered for food, including flour, using a credit line from Iran’s export bank in what could be a test of a deal to ease some sanctions against Tehran.

Halqi said Syria was having to import most of its flour at a cost of US$580 per tonne to meet daily domestic demand of about 6,110 tonnes.

He said many of Syria’s 57 flour mills have gone out of operation and face problems “in securing electric power and oil derivatives to run off generators.”

Other difficulties included “the unsafe conditions for transferring wheat to and from the mills and mill workers’ difficulty in reaching their workplaces.”

The beginning of winter has made Syria’s plight even more urgent, prompting the United Nations to begin airlifting food this month into eastern parts of Syria from Iraq.

“Sometimes the difficulties in securing flour is what leads strategic reserves to reach low levels and vary from one province to another,” Halqi said.

But he said violence and instability in certain parts of the country would not interrupt the production of bread, calling it “a red line for the Syrian government.”

– Reporting for Reuters by Stephen Kalin in Beirut.