* Local buying target of 1.2 mln tonnes unrealistic -
* Irrigated area doubled this season in self-sufficiency
* Russia pledged 1 mln tonnes throughout year, but dollars
* Kurdish authority says to lock crop out of government
AMMAN, June 21 (Reuters) - The "year of wheat" campaign
pushed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is in jeopardy after
low rainfall risked leaving an import gap of at least 1.5
million tonnes, according to preliminary estimates by officials
The agricultural blow and lack of funds to finance the
imports will add to pressure on a Syrian economy already reeling
from ten years of conflict and buckling under the pressure of
U.S. sanctions, neighbouring Lebanon's financial collapse and
the COVID-19 pandemic.
Russia, one of the world's largest exporters of wheat and
Assad's staunch ally, has said it would sell one million tonnes
of grain to Syria throughout the year to help it meet the four
million tonnes of annual domestic demand.
But its cargoes have been slow to arrive in recent years as
funds grew scarce, with publicly available customs data showing
no significant supplies to Syria.
Officials and an expert at the Rome-based Food and
Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimated at least 1.5 million
tonnes of wheat imports were needed. They said a 1.2
million-tonne government purchasing target, driven by forced
sales to the government, now looked wildly unrealistic.
Abdullah Khader, 49, a landowner and farmer in Raqqa
province, said the lack of rain meant his crop was almost a
quarter of last year's.
Minister of Agriculture Mohammed Hassan Qatana talked about
the fate of the domestic crop during a tour with his team this
week of the country's bread basket in the northeast Hasaka
province, where much of the country's cereals crop is in the
hands of breakaway Kurds.
"It's clear from the tour the huge impact of the climatic
changes, that all rain-fed plantations have been taken out of
investments and even the irrigated wheat areas production has
gone down 50%," Qatana said.
According to two U.N. experts, that could mean at least half
of the planted acreage of 1.5 million hectares could be wiped
Much of the domestic wheat demand is needed to support a
government bread subsidy programme.
Syria's financial troubles have already translated into
bread shortages in the past year with residents complaining of
long queues across government-controlled areas, in some
instances running up to five hours.
The World Food Programme said in March a record 12.4 million
Syrians, more than 60% of the population, suffer from food
insecurity and hunger, double the number seen in 2018.
Syrians are increasingly dependent on subsidised bread as
rampant inflation has driven up food prices more than 200% in
the last year, according to the World Bank.
Qatana had appealed to farmers to prioritise wheat this year
so the country could "return to eating what we plant."
"We are facing endless economic pressures, our food means
our existence," he told state media in November.
A rise in last year's harvest had raised expectations, with
an increase of 52% compared to a five-year average, according to
"I sowed my 80 donums (8 hectares), hoping it will be a good
season," said Mustafa al-Tahan, 36, a farmer in northern Hama
"I have lost everything and the yields have been very poor
with little rain."
About 70% of wheat production still lies outside of
government control and its more aggressive position as sole
buyer, forcing it to compete with other bidders by doubling the
buying price this season to 900 Syrian pounds a kilo, or around
$300-$320 per tonne.
But Damascus is unlikely to get any supplies from farmers
under the Kurdish-led administration in the northeast, where
over 60% of the country's wheat is grown.
The Kurdish-led autonomous administration expects to collect
around half last year's 850,000 tonnes due to poor rains and
lower water levels along the Euphrates banks, which are down by
at least five metres.
Along with higher prices to farmers that are denominated in
dollars to deter them from selling to Damascus, the self
administration has so far banned any sale outside its territory.
The 1,150 pounds a kilo purchase price was set substantially
higher than the Damascus level to ensure the northeast
administration gets the largest possible quantity to enable self
sufficiency, Kurdish officials say.
"The season is very bad and will affect severely food
production," Salman Barudo, who is in charge of grains
procurement in the Kurdish-led autonomous northeast, said.
The Kurdish-led authorities, who have had extensive trade
ties with Damascus, have so far rejected Russian mediation to
allow farmers to sell part of their produce to Damascus as in
previous years, two Kurdish sources said.
($1 = 3,200 Syrian pounds)
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi
Editing by Maha El Dahan and Elaine Hardcastle)