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.