Syrian Kurdish authorities to stop wheat going to govt territory

QAMISHLI, Syria/BEIRUT, June 12 (Reuters) - Kurdish-led authorities holding Syria’s breadbasket region will ban wheat from entering government territory in a bid to boost reserves, a Kurdish official told Reuters.

The region across north and east Syria is a key source of wheat for Damascus, which imports much of its demand, adding to its troubles in navigating tough Western sanctions.

Salman Barodo, head of the region’s economy and agriculture board, said its 2019 wheat output would reach 900,000 tonnes, even with damage from heavy rainfall and massive fires engulfing crop fields.

Last year’s harvest yielded some 350,000 tonnes of wheat, he said, of which the Damascus government bought 100,000 tonnes, around 40 percent of what it bought from all of Syria.

Kurdish fighters and their allies control about a quarter of Syria, the largest chunk outside state hands. It is rich in oil, water, and farmland - leverage for Kurdish leaders, though their attempts to negotiate with Damascus to safeguard their autonomy have gone nowhere.

Three provinces which account for nearly 70 percent of the country’s wheat production lie mostly in the hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by the Kurdish YPG militia.

While the SDF’s U.S. ally has pushed to ramp up the pressure on Damascus, Kurdish officials said this did not prompt the new decision.

“We will not allow any grain of wheat to get out” this year, Barodo said in an interview in Qamishli city. “We need it for seeds and flour. This is a decision to secure the livelihood of our citizens.”

Under pressure from farmers, authorities backtracked from a move to ban selling wheat to anyone else including Damascus.

Now locals can still sell to the government, but security forces at the crossings will stop traders or state workers from trucking the grain out if it comes to that. They will also try to prevent smuggling after harvesting starts this summer, Barodo said without elaborating.

The Syrian agriculture ministry was not immediately available for comment.

War and drought have cut the country’s production. After the smallest crop in three decades in 2018, the Syrian government is expected to import around 1.5 million tonnes of wheat this year, mainly from its ally Russia.

The decline in output has pressured President Bashar al-Assad’s government to import the grain in a country where flat bread is a subsidized staple.

Of all the country’s wheat produced in 2018, state grain buyer Hoboob purchased only around 21 percent.

Badran Jia Kurd, a senior Kurdish official, said the move to keep wheat in the region is part of a plan to collect enough strategic stock for two years ahead.

“It is not a political decision to impose a siege on Damascus, not at all,” he said in response to questions from Reuters. “It is a decision to keep the harvest of the region for local consumption.”

Damascus raised the price it pays for a tonne of wheat to 185,000 Syrian pounds ($359.22) this year, while the price in the SDF region dropped to 160,000 which angered local farmers.

Barodo accused the state of “trying to create a rift between us and our farmers.” The two sides had offered the same price last year.

Despite historical enmity, Kurdish forces and Damascus have seldom clashed during Syria’s eight-year war. This enabled the government to hold onto patches of Qamishli and nearby Hasaka city, where it runs three collection centres.

Some farmers find it hard to reach those centres which they said are not enough to handle high demand.

They said the northeast did not have enough trucks or firefighters to handle the flames swallowing up thousands of hectares of wheat, which some authorities have blamed on arsonists.

“We’re also worried now about selling to the government or the authority here. It’s a big problem, the difference in prices,” said Hikmat Suleiman, a farmer on the outskirts of Qamishli.

He had been happy this harvest was far better than the last two years. “We should reach an agreement between the two sides so that farmers can benefit from this season, so that it doesn’t go to waste.”

$1 = 515.0000 Syrian pounds Reporting by Rodi Said in Syria and Ellen Francis in Beirut Writing by Ellen Francis; editing by David Evans