Last Updated: Wed Jun 13, 2012 18:54 pm (KSA) 15:54 pm (GMT)

Syria seeks big barley imports, unlikely to succeed

A boy eats bread as others wait in front of a bakery shop during winter in al-Qusayr, about 5 kilometers southwest of Homs, Syria. (Reuters)
A boy eats bread as others wait in front of a bakery shop during winter in al-Qusayr, about 5 kilometers southwest of Homs, Syria. (Reuters)

Syria wants to import 600,000 tons of barley after violence prevented the local crop from coming to market, an article on the Ministry of Agriculture’s website said, while traders said its chances of success in obtaining the supplies looked slim.

Several trade sources have told Reuters in recent weeks that Syria is frozen out of international grain markets due to the impact of western sanctions on trade finance.

The state-run General Organization for Fodder has been unable to procure any quantities of local barley due to the situation on the ground in Syria, an unidentified source was quoted as saying in an article on the ministry’s website on Wednesday.

The U.N. peacekeeping chief said on Tuesday the 15-month uprising taking place in Syria had grown into a full-scale civil war.

“This situation has driven the General Organization for Fodder to speed up the process of securing contracts for the import of 600,000 tons of barley,” the article, which was originally published in the official al-Baath newspaper, said.

The article did not give any details about the import deals. Agriculture Ministry officials could not be reached for further comment.

Grain trade sources were skeptical whether Syria has the ability to shop successfully for such large quantities.

“They do not have the mechanisms of payment, and there are growing issues with discharging at Syrian ports, so it’s really not feasible for them to be able to buy as much as 600,000 tons,” one European-based grain trade source said.

“The most they are able to bring in is small consignments, which is not enough.”

The United Nations is struggling to deliver humanitarian aid to an estimated 1 million people in Syria because of visa delays and the difficulty in reaching areas ravaged by fighting.

Big deals blocked

Unable to finance the big international grain purchases it has been used to, Syria has engaged in a desperate search for grain that has forced Damascus into an array of unusually small deals, many arranged by middlemen around the Middle East and Asia.

The amounts agreed have been nowhere near meeting Syria’s reliance on imports for about half of its annual needs of 7 million to 8 million tons of grain, a situation that threatens to sap domestic support for Bashar al-Assad as he faces mounting international condemnation and domestic defiance of his rule.

The main barley-producing areas of Syria are Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Idlib, all areas where fighting has been heavy.

Another grain trader said Syria in recent days had been in talks to buy 400,000 tons of barley in a series of purchases from small unknown middlemen.

“None of the big trade houses want to do deals with Syria at the moment, and it is not known if this has gone through,” the source said.

“The impression is that these private middlemen are not experienced and do not know about how the grain trade works.”

A Syrian state-run agency failed to make a purchase in a tender last month for 150,000 tons of feed barley, while European traders said it was difficult to undertake a formal tender in a time of sanctions.

A reluctance among foreign banks, shipowners and grain traders to sell to import-dependent Syria - even though food is not itself subject to sanctions - has translated into a struggle for the country to meet its grain import needs.

Syria is expected to produce 800,000 tons of barley this year of which 112,000 tons will be in Hama, the article said.

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