Dispatch from Deir e-Zor: ISIS uses bread to garner support

June 30, 2014

The oil-rich eastern province of Deir e-Zor has witnessed ongoing clashes between the regime and opposition fighters led by Jabhat a-Nusra and for the past two months.

Recent developments include FSA fighters driving ISIS out of the Syrian-Iraqi border town of Bokamel this past weekend.

The fighting, however, has upset food security in the region. “Most bakeries stopped producing after the province was liberated [from regime control], as the regime was supplying bakeries with flour,” Jihan al-Ahmad, spokeswoman for the pro-opposition news website Syria Mubashir, tells Syria Direct's Mohammad al-Haj Ali.

11916391016 6337871fca oWomen cooking in Deir e-Zor. Photo courtesy of Syria Mubasher.

As an alternative, residents of the province “grind and bake [wheat], using a hand oven and baking tin (saj),” al-Ahmad says, “using firewood, thorns, and animal dung as fuel.”

While the regime “is known for targeting bakeries and agricultural land,” al-Ahmad reports that ISIS and Jabhat a-Nusra have both adopted a different approach.

“They are focusing on distributing bread—the essential ingredient in gaining popular support.”

Q: How is the food situation in Deir e-Zor? How do people get their food?

Vegetables are plentiful, as Deir e-Zor is an agricultural province and produces some crops and vegetables such as tomatoes and cucumbers. Also, essentially every citizen of the area is a farmer. Vegetable prices are a bit high because agricultural costs have gone up. Other foods like rice, sugar and oil come from Turkey if the crossing points are open.

Prices are unstable; sometimes they fluctuate depending on the exchange rate of the dollar in Turkey and Syria. Regarding bread, most bakeries stopped producing after the province was liberated [from regime control], as the regime was supplying bakeries with flour. The rest of the city relies on hand-made bread—they plant wheat and use primitive mills.

Q: Is there sufficient bread in the province?

Most of the time, no. Even if a bakery is able—somehow—to secure a quantity of flour from neighboring countries, or aid organizations, or from a donor, the price of bread is high and the number of loaves few, so fights often break out over a bag of bread. A number of people rely, as I said, on homemade bread. They buy wheat, now in season, then grind and bake it, using a hand oven and baking plate [Saj], and use firewood, thorns, and animal dung as fuel.

Q: Where does the flour and wheat come from?

Sometimes from Turkey, or via donations from the Gulf: either Syrians living in the Gulf, or Gulf residents themselves. Deir e-Zor was one of the lead wheat-producing provinces in Syria before the revolution. Production decreased because of farmers' migration, the security situation and the bombing of agricultural areas. The old mills are still working and are more active lately.

Q: ISIS, Jabhat a-Nusra and the regime are all present in Deir e-Zor. Do they distribute food in general, and bread in particular?

The regime does not distribute anything in Deir e-Zor, no bread, food, nothing, as it considers Deir e-Zor to be under terrorist control. JAN and ISIS both give out food, and focus on distributing bread—the essential ingredient in gaining popular support.

Q: Do they subsidize the food sector in general and bread in particular? How?

Mostly flour and bread. They either distribute flour in bags, or put the flour in the bakery and provide it with fuel to operate. They bake bread and distribute it, at a cheap price or for free. They are trying to distribute bread for free among the poor, needy, and martyrs' families.

Q: Did ISIS try to open bakeries, or provide protection to already operating bakeries?

They set the bakeries in operation and distributed flour and fuel. They also supervised the paying of salaries, and organized their distribution. They did not open new bakeries.

Q: Did the regime, ISIS or JAN target any food sector facilities in general, or bakeries in particular?

The regime is known for targeting bakeries and agricultural lands.

Agricultural lands have been destroyed by bombing, and especially the flour warehouses. The regime targeted the food warehouse of al-Rashdieyh from the air, it was totally destroyed.

Q: What is the status of public services?

A: Bad. The sewage system is getting worse and no one is fixing it. We don’t have electricity most of the time, sometimes for days and months, and the water is connected to the electricity.

Health care is limited to field hospitals and some relief services for civilians operated by the hospitals. The regime only provides vaccinations to clinics, hospitals depend on aid and donations from humanitarian organizations. ISIS still hasn't conquered the area, and there are still clashes and battles. ISIS doesn’t have time to organize public services in the areas under its control—its control sometimes doesn’t last for more than hours or days.

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