The Syrian revolt and the politics of bread
27 October 2021
In August 2012, Syrian fighter jets attacked more than 10 bakeries in Aleppo and the surrounding areas, killing 60 people in one strike and 21 in another. These horrific attacks, which targeted civilians queuing for bread, took place a few weeks after the liberation of eastern Aleppo by rebel forces. In the period prior to the attacks, fighting between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and government forces for control of Aleppo had provoked an acute shortage of flour, which had led to the closing of most bakeries. The long breadlines in front of the bakeries that were still open meant they were easy targets for the regime of Bashar al-Assad.1
The weaponization of bread has been an important military strategy of the Assad regime during the revolt in Syria (2011–present). This article examines bread as a central commodity in times of war and peace, as well as an effective political tool in the hands of the regime. It begins with an overview of the agrarian reform which was implemented by successive regimes from 1963 to 2000, and which was – and continues to be – one of the main pillars of the Baʿth Party’s2 politics of bread.3 The second section of the article explores the regime’s instrumentalization of bread to achieve political stability, which it sought to do by building an extensive bureaucratic network in the countryside revolving around the production of bread. The third section examines the Assad regime’s weaponization of bread during the revolt from 2011 to the present day, and the rebels’ grassroots resistance to this weaponization, using Manbij in northern Syria as a case study.
Land reform as a tool of control
The main goal of the Baʿth Party in the 1960s was to weaken the powerful feudal class and to help Syria’s peasants to take up ownership of land. To this end, the party used a policy of land reform to create a loyal base in the countryside. Through the reform, the party sought to create complex economic, political and bureaucratic networks that would exercise control over the Syrian peasantry. In doing so it was continuing a policy that had begun during the political union between Syria and Egypt, the United Arab Republic (1958–61), under Gamal Abdel Nasser. During the short-lived Republic, Nasser had built an alliance with the Syrian capitalist classes, which he deemed essential for the success of his developmentalist project. Determined to destroy the feudal class, he began implementing a comprehensive agrarian reform. His goal was to end industrialists’ dependence on the powerful landed oligarchy, which in turn would help him build the industrial sector in Syria. Nasser put in place new laws to regulate every aspect of peasants’ lives. These laws set a minimum wage and prescribed better working conditions. In addition, Nasser required that all peasants join a labour union by 1960. However, members of unions were prohibited from engaging in any activities that could be interpreted as political, and they were denied the right to strike or to demonstrate. By regulating peasants’ lives, the Nasser regime sought to restrict their political power, and by weakening large landowners, appropriating their land, and distributing it to poor peasants, Nasser began a gradual integration of rural regions in Syria into the capitalist circuit. This developmentalist project required that peasants support the ruling coalition, with agrarian reform being a tool to achieve this end.
When the Baʿth Party seized power in 1963, it quickly moved to implement an agrarian reform more profound than that begun by Nasser. It distributed small lots of land and created state farms that were worked by thousands of landless peasants and small land-holders. The ideologues of the Baʿth Party viewed agrarian reform primarily as a political tool, not an economic goal: the primary purpose of the reform was not to generate the capital necessary for industrialization but rather to build rural communities that would be loyal to the new Baʿth regime.
The neo-Baʿth, which ruled Syria from 1966 to 1970, represented the more radical faction within the party. It fixed grains prices and began buying peasants’ production. These policies weakened the power of merchants in Aleppo and Damascus, many of whom had previously adopted the practice of stocking grain so as to create shortages, and thus inflate prices. The Baʿth further increased its control of rural regions by expanding the network of the Agricultural Cooperative Bank. It created new branches of the Bank in many regions, including the most remote parts of the country. The Bank was vital for peasants who needed credit to buy grain, fertilizers, and fuel to operate machinery, etc. In order to avoid the formation of independent social movements, the regime also created the General Peasants Union (GPU) in 1964.4 The union was led by Baʿth loyalists, and was run as a top-down organization, with no input from members. The GPU was an effective tool for expanding the state’s reach, limiting the peasants’ autonomy, and keeping a close watch on their political activity. The peasants were thus freed from the hegemony of the feudal class only to be captured by the emergent bureaucracy of the despotic Baʿthist state, through which it aimed to closely control agriculture. By 1965, the state was in control of most strategic industrial sectors, and the economic power of the wealthy classes was thereby undermined.
When Hafez al-Assad seized power in 1970, he jailed the neo-Baʿth leaders and gradually liberalized the economy, reaching a compromise with the private sector at the expense of the peasants and the working classes. Nevertheless, Assad followed in Nasser’s footsteps by reinforcing state control over the country’s rural areas. While the state owned only a small part of the land, it controlled agricultural activity through the credit system, the distribution of seeds, and the purchase of grain production. The main purpose of these actions was the formation of loyal networks in the countryside, where, despite earlier reforms, the landed oligarchy still had influence. Through these actions the Assad regime built a clientelist system in which only loyalty to Hafez al-Assad (and later his son, Bashar) was rewarded. Bureaucrats used their institutional power to profit from this corrupt system, enriching themselves by leasing state-owned land outside of institutional channels, and seizing tribal land. These practices reproduced certain aspects of the feudal system that the agrarian reform was supposed to destroy.
These actions were not without response. Antagonism between, on the one hand, the old feudal oligarchs, Sunni merchants and poor urban classes, and, on the other hand, the beneficiaries of land reform, and Alawite parvenus, gradually increased, with urban violence erupting in Hama and Aleppo in the mid-1970s. The Muslim Brotherhood began a campaign of assassination targeting Alawite officers and supporters of the regime, culminating in the slaughter of several dozen cadets at the Aleppo Artillery School in 1979. Then, in the early 1980s, the security and military apparatuses committed horrific massacres in Hama and Aleppo, killing approximately 20,000 people, crushing the opposition to the regime, which was in part composed of a debased urban bourgeoisie.
By the mid-1980s, Hafez al-Assad had neutralized his most threatening political enemies and he believed the moment was opportune for an economic détente with the Syrian bourgeoisie. He sought to apply a new policy of privatization, which he deemed necessary because the government did not have the financial means to fund additional state farms, or even to maintain those already in existence. It allowed the private sector to take over many state farms. Then, in 2000, the regime ended the collectivist ownership of land and returned many lots to their former owners. Thus, in less than 20 years, the regime reversed the land reform of the 1960s, replacing it with a cruel arrangement that mostly benefited the middle and upper classes.
Building bureaucratic power and establishing infrastructure
The Ba’ath regime’s main goal of the land reform was to maintain food security, which was essential to ensure its stability. In the 1970s the Hafez al-Assad regime was worried that the West would use the food weapon against it, by imposing a grain embargo. Through the land reform, which was a central plank in its developmentalist programme that aimed to avoid economic dependence on the West, the regime sought to ensure that Syria could produce enough wheat for domestic consumption.5 This economic programme initially helped the regime to maintain basic commodities at a low cost and prevented food rebellions, which had been frequent occurrences across the Middle East region, and Syria gradually became self-sufficient in wheat production, reducing its reliance on imports.
As part of this process, the Hafez al-Assad regime enacted changes at different parts of the chain of production, in order to reduce the cost of bread for consumers. The state utilized multiple strategies to encourage farmers to grow wheat, including expanding irrigation, subsidizing seeds and fertilizers, buying peasants’ production at a fixed premium cost, and encouraging farmers growing cotton to turn their attention to wheat production.
In regard to irrigation, the Syrian state embarked on an ambitious hydrological programme, involving the construction of dams across the country: in 1963, when the Baʿth Party seized power, there were no dams in Syria, but by 2001 their number had reached 160. These dams mostly provided irrigation for agriculture, with some also supplying water to households and others being used to generate electricity. The construction of dams and other hydraulic structures was part of the process of building the postcolonial Syrian nation. But these top-down and expensive projects often led to the displacement of populations and the destruction of social textures. They increased state reach, destroyed local networks of mutual aid and replaced them with a system of Baʿth Party patronage.
The digging of wells also formed part of the regime’s irrigation drive. During the second phase of liberalization in the mid-1980s,6 all restrictions on well construction were removed, with the result that their number doubled in a few years. In 2000, when Bashar al-Assad launched the third phase of liberalization, the same phenomenon occurred again. While these wells had devastating ecological effects,7 the quantity of water they supplied was nevertheless insufficient to counter the effect of droughts. The most damaging drought in recent history, which lasted from 2006 to 2009, had drastic impacts, leading to the loss of 800,000 jobs, which in turn triggered a massive internal displacement of small land-holders, agricultural workers, and sharecroppers, many of whom moved into informal housing and slums in the suburbs of Damascus, Aleppo, and other cities, where they joined a disposable industrial reserve army in large urban areas.
This massive displacement of the population due to drought was combined with the economic liberalization that Hafez al-Assad had initiated in the late-1980s (and which his son Bashar accelerated in the early 2000s), which increased the price of basic commodities. This intensifying capitalist logic from the late-1980s uprooted an increasing number of peasants from the land and turned them into cheap and exploitable labourers in the urban areas. As a result of these effects, the same peasants who had once formed a loyal support base for the Baʿth Party in the 1970s and 1980s gradually became victims of economic liberalization, alongside the severe droughts of the 1990s and 2000s. Thus, the land reform, whereby peasants had gained greater power vis-à-vis landowners, was reversed, and the peasants became a class to quell rather than one to win over.8
Thus, while by the mid-1990s the regime had achieved its goal of producing enough wheat for domestic consumption, the economic and environmental costs were high.
The weaponization of bread and grassroots resistance
The Assad regime’s politics of bread was radically transformed when the 2011 revolt erupted. In the regime-controlled areas, it maintained, as far as possible, its bureaucratic and infrastructure networks. However, one of the main challenges the regime faced was the loss of the northern regions of the country, where 70–80 per cent of Syria’s wheat is produced. By 2014, the land available for agriculture had dropped from 1.7 to 1.2 million hectares due to the ongoing war. That same year, Syria’s wheat production recorded its worst performance in recent years, dropping below the 3 million tons threshold, something which had happened only twice since 1995, when self-sufficiency was achieved. In 2012, Syria was forced to import on average 100,000 tons of wheat every month.9 The combined impact of these developments led to a steep increase in bread prices in regime-controlled areas.
In 2015, the Assad regime announced that it would focus its efforts on ‘useful Syria’ – the territory the regime deems vital for its survival, which includes Aleppo and Damascus, as well as the coastal areas located between the two cities. Northern Syria is outside the perimeter of ‘useful Syria’ and so the regime was willing to turn agricultural territories there into ‘legitimate’ targets. As part of this strategy, the Assad regime regularly burned wheat production in areas controlled by the opposition, and it weaponized bread against the population. The regime targeted the Rashediah food warehouse in north-eastern Syria, and began bombing lines of people queuing for bread in front of bakeries. At the same time, the Syrian army laid siege to neighbourhoods and cities controlled by the opposition, depriving them of the ability to provision themselves. Starvation was thus used as a tactic of war. Wheat, which had been used to pacify the population in the decades before the revolt, has become a formidable weapon of mass destruction since 2011 in the areas liberated by the opposition. Importantly, during the revolt, the regime has also sought to transfer large amounts of wheat from opposition-held areas to those controlled by the regime, by offering peasant wheat-producers an attractive price for their production, using a line of credit provided by the Iranian government.
In the following section, a case study is examined to illustrate the regime’s war-time strategy of weaponizing bread in the liberated regions, and the revolutionary and grassroots resistance to it.
It does so by describing a few important moments along the bread cycle (which starts with production, moves to distribution, and ends with the consumption of bread) in Manbij, a city of 200,000 inhabitants in northern Syria.
For almost a year, from 2011, neighbourhood groups organized protests and creative peaceful actions in Manbij. This culminated in the flight of security and police forces from the city in July 2012, when Manbij was peacefully liberated. After liberation, these neighbourhood groups formed a revolutionary council and began working relentlessly to make their city liveable, despite the ongoing violence they faced from weekly airstrikes by the Syrian air force. During this time, the city’s inhabitants reinvented all of Manbij’s institutions, building new ones from the bottom up, and they came up with creative ideas to solve their many problems. The revolutionary council and activist groups in the city also began a process of de-Baʿthification, deploying a combination of traditional knowledge and decolonial practices. The experimental legal system that the city assembled in 2012–13 is one such example. It was based on the Unified Arab Law, tribal customs, vernacular knowledge, and articles debated at the revolutionary trustee council’s monthly meetings.
During the 18 months during which this revolutionary episode lasted (in January 2014 the revolutionary forces were expelled from the city, when it was occupied by Islamic State (Isis)) the geography of bread in Manbij was reconfigured. It is this reconfiguration which is discussed in the following paragraphs.
The politics of bread in Manbij was not necessarily representative of other locations yet it provides an important lens for understanding the revolutionary process from below during the Syrian revolt. Producing and distributing bread outside of the regime’s networks was an extremely challenging task but it was a vital one: people thereby threatened the image of the regime, which, as has been discussed above, had built its legitimacy around the production of cheap bread. The new geography of bread in Manbij and other liberated areas constituted an existential threat to the regime, which explains why the regime went on to unleash so much violence targeting wheat production, storage and consumption in the liberated areas.
Manbij is home to one of the largest flour mills in northern Syria, able to process up to 450 tons of wheat a day – enough to feed 1 million people.10 This quantity exceeds the needs of Manbij and the surrounding region. After the liberation of the city in July 2012, a base loyal to the regime continued to exist in the city, and the regime continued to provide wheat to Manbij through its extensive bureaucracy (during this initial period, it still hoped to reconquer the city quickly). While Manbij was home to dozens of brigades fighting the regime, it did not have the resources to entirely remove the entrenched state bureaucracy from the city. The revolutionary council was initially unable to obtain wheat independently at a low cost, or to pay the salaries of the flour mill workers and other public employees; as a result, it was forced to accept the regime’s help and its indirect presence in the city, with its dangerous consequences. However, the revolutionary council in the city knew that it could not continue to rely on the regime’s network and would eventually have to create alternative solutions. Thus, it began negotiating with nearby cities, such as Afrin and Raqqa, to build a new geography of solidarity revolving around bread. The aim was to distribute wheat equitably among the cities participating in the alliance, and to help areas experiencing shortages.
The new circuit of wheat did not always work smoothly because revolutionary councils in the liberated region, which included Manbij, had to maintain a subtle balance between specific local demands and an elusive regional strategy. For example, Raqqa’s local council refused to lend Manbij its expensive equipment to fix a power cut, despite the good relationship between the two cities. The former feared that a corrupt FSA group would steal the equipment at a checkpoint located between the two cities. Manbij’s revolutionary council responded by threatening to cut off the water supply to, and to stop providing bread to, Raqqa’s western countryside. This put pressure on the neighbouring city, which finally lent its equipment to Manbij.11
As this episode shows, the scarcity of resources and the presence of multiple military groups with divergent agendas made cooperation between various revolutionary councils a challenge. Replacing the government’s bureaucratic networks with democratic ones was challenging. Revolutionary politics in these liberated cities did not scale up to the regional level easily. Many cities in the region acted like city-states during this period: despite their political affinities and shared ideologies they were reluctant to share their vital resources (including wheat). Thus they hoarded grain surpluses, instead of sharing them with other cities that needed them. In doing so they were motivated by fear of food shortages and siege by the regime. Manbij, like other liberated cities, realized that undoing decades of Assadist bureaucracy and creating new ones would be a laborious process.
One key challenge the revolutionary forces in Manbij faced in relation to the city’s flour mill was the issue of manpower. The director of the city’s flour mill, alongside approximately 100 employees, remained on the regime’s payroll after liberation in July 2012, as part of the regime’s strategy of maintaining control of vital institutions in the city. In 2013, the director and his employees threatened to leave, due to repeated disputes with various powerful actors in the city. As a result, the revolutionary council created a team of volunteers to shadow the mill’s technicians and engineers, in order to gain the necessary skills to operate the mill independently. In this way, the revolutionary council sought to strengthen the city’s autonomy.
Another – more violent – challenge Manbij faced during this period was the deliberate targeting of queues outside bakeries, as discussed at the outset of this article. In August 2012 the Assad regime began a campaign of airstrikes targeting bakeries in liberated cities. Manbij’s bakeries were easy targets since they were few in number and their locations were well-known. In response to these murderous attacks, after deliberations with various actors in the city the revolutionary council decided to distribute bread in different neighbourhoods, to avoid gatherings in front of bakeries. It hired a large number of young men who were looking for a job and assigned them to different neighbourhoods to distribute bread there. To prevent the selling of bread on the black market at exorbitant prices, the council conducted a bread census, which gathered extensive data about the number of families in every neighbourhood, and their needs. They then rationed bread accordingly. This approach allowed the council to decentralize the distribution of bread and hence to end the long waiting times in front of bakeries. However, one of the setbacks of the census approach was that new refugees were not accounted for in the census and thus could not buy subsidized bread; as a result, they were forced to buy bread on the black market at twice or three times the subsidized price. This experience demonstrates the difficulty that was encountered in erecting new networks in the liberated regions.
As the preceding discussion has shown, mills and bakeries were vital institutions under Assad’s rule and continued to be vital in the liberated areas after 2011, as bread is a crucial staple for Syrians, many of whom rely on it for their survival. With the liberation of Manbij, the revolutionary council made the provision and distribution of bread a main priority. Indeed, bread and freedom are inseparable: the liberation of a city is meaningless in the eyes of many inhabitants if the living conditions worsen as a result. The revolutionary council was fully aware that its success or failure depended on whether it could provide bread at the same price as was charged in regions controlled by the regime. Likewise, the regime understood that the revolution would fail if it was unable to provide cheap bread to the populations living in the liberated areas. In this context, the revolutionary council created a special committee to examine the various scenarios and to propose strategies for making bread available at a low cost. As indicated above, through the bread census it was largely able to solve the problem of bread sold on the black market, but it faced other more intractable problems relating to the bread supply. One problem was the presence of large numbers of military brigades (including those formed by powerful families and clans), all of which consumed bread from the city’s supply but not all of whom actually fought the regime. Understandably, the population in Manbij was critical of groups who took bread without fighting, terming them ‘bread brigades’. Nevertheless, the revolutionary forces who were actually fighting the regime did not have the time or resources to open a new front inside the city to expel these counter-revolutionary ‘bread brigades’.
Another problem faced by the revolutionary council in Manbij was the need to prevent any of the powerful military groups active in the city from controlling the mill and thus monopolizing the distribution of bread. The mill was difficult to guard since it was located on the outskirts of the city, making them vulnerable to attacks. For example, Ahrar al-Sham, a powerful jihadist group, seized control of the mill in 2013 under the pretext that the management was corrupt and lacked financial transparency. The leader of Ahrar al-Sham hoped to gain the population’s loyalty by providing bread at a low cost. However, his plan backfired as the entire city opposed military involvement in civilian affairs and did not approve of the takeover of the mill. The revolutionary council and several powerful groups in the city put their differences aside and organized protests until Ahrar al-Sham was forced to leave the mill.
The Syrian regime achieved two goals by implementing land reform in the 1960s: it undermined the power of the landed oligarchy and it built a loyal peasant base in rural areas. It also achieved some degree of food security, which was crucial for the regime’s consolidation of power. These endeavours required an extensive bureaucracy and infrastructure, made up of financial institutions, unions, grain depots, dams, irrigation systems, mills, bakeries, collective and private farms, etc. These nodes of the bureaucratic and infrastructure system were used to increase control over the population in rural areas.
During the 2011 revolt against the Assad regime, the regime reconfigured its politics of bread by adapting it to a war environment. In the regions under its control it tried to preserve bread networks as much as possible. In the liberated areas, however, as shown in the case of Manbij, the regime weaponized bread, including by turning its formidable killing machine against hungry Syrians queuing outside bakeries and by burning wheat fields.
This article has also examined the myriad forms of resistance in Manbij as revolutionaries tried to create new geographies of bread. It has shown how the city was the target of frequent attacks by the regime even as the government continued to pay workers in the city’s flour mill providing wheat to the mill. As discussed above, this paradox can be explained by the fact that the regime was determined to maintain the centralized bureaucracy it had built up in the past five decades. It also aimed to crush any processes that might offer potential alternatives to the regime, or that would pave the way to a post-Assad Syria. Thus, by creating alternative geographies of bread, the revolutionaries in Manbij were in fact voiding – even for a brief period – the Assadist social contract whereby land reform and cheap bread were provided in return for the population’s abstention from political participation. After 2011, revolutionaries in Manbij and elsewhere demonstrated the profound meaning of autonomy, and the big challenges involved in achieving it.