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Syria’s Rural Economy Adapts As Conflict Spreads

Syria’s Rural Economy Adapts As Conflict Spreads

Although much of the country’s industrial production has been hit, the rural economy has been less affected by the turmoil.

For the past six months, farmer Hisham al-Zeir’s wife and daughters have been up before sunrise each day when it’s still cool, baking traditional tanoor bread in a century-old clay oven in their home in Syria’s rich agricultural province of Idlib.

Rather than selling all his wheat to the state as he usually does, Zeir decided this year to keep almost a third of it to ensure his wife and six children have enough food to survive on as the conflict in the country spreads.

“I am putting it aside to eat from until Allah eases on his people and things become clearer,” Zeir said in the courtyard of his modest farm on the outskirts of the town of Al Dana in Idlib, a region of gently rolling hills and olive groves that supplies a large proportion of Syria’s fruit.

Zeir is one of many Syrian farmers who have adjusted production during the crisis in order to grow enough produce for their own consumption and for use in exchange for other goods.

Eighty per cent of people in Idlib live in the countryside, compared to only 40 per cent of Syria’s total population of 20 million, making it the most rural province in the country.

The rural poor have been big supporters of the 17-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and their towns and villages have borne the brunt of the army’s campaign to crush the rebellion, in which at least 18,000 people have been killed.

Although the Syrian economy has been hammered by the conflict – economists say it could contract by a fifth or more this year, but have no way of knowing for sure – and much of the country’s industrial production has been hit, the rural economy has been less affected by the turmoil.

“A subsistence economy in these rural areas has in many cases allowed people to produce their own food needs. People’s ability to live off their land has helped in this crisis unlike urban dwellers,” Samir Seifan, a prominent Syrian economist.

Enterprising rural communities have during times of conflict taken advantage of an abundance of land to grow cereals, olives and cotton.

The current crisis is reversing a decade-long exodus of rural residents to cities like Damascus and Aleppo, which exacerbated a wealth gap, as many are now fleeing violence in the cities and returning to villages. The conflict is never far away, however.

“A mortar has hit and killed two of my sheep and destroyed our yard,” said Omar al-Natour, a day after army shelling at his house in the town of Al-Sahara in Idlib.

Natour, 45, a father of six, is no longer able to go to his job at a state-owned factory producing cement for construction in Aleppo because it lies in an area where army snipers fire at rebel hideouts. Instead, he supplements his meager income by rearing cattle and other livestock.

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