AMUDA, SYRIA—Even in territory it doesn’t control, the Islamic State group, or ISIL, is making an awful nuisance of itself.
Not content with cutting a swath of terror through tracts of Syria and Iraq, the jihadist group insists on levying “taxes” on goods passing through its extensive holdings that have contributed to massive food price hikes in neighboring regions.
Bananas that sold for 50 Syrian pounds (28 US cents) a kilo in 2011 now go for £200 ($1.10) in the bazaar of the northeastern Kurdish-controlled city of Al-Qantaniyah. Salad previously marketed at £20 a kilo is up to £100, as of mid-December. On the mostly empty shelves of the few remaining butchers, beef has risen from £300 to £1,400 in the three-and-a-half years since hostilities first broke out.
The price of eggs, though, has them all beat. Once a handy protein substitute in a country where low salaries have long made regular meat inaccessible for many, the cost of a carton of 30 eggs has increased 10-fold, from £60-75 pre-war to roughly £650 today.
Market vendors, who’ve suffered as buyers stick to the most basic of ingredients, can only shake their heads in dismay. “It’s crazy, I know, but it’s war,” said Ahmed, who mans his father’s egg and dairy stall in Amuda, a town along the Turkish border.
High costs are, of course, the norm in conflict zones, where most things short of military hardware are scarce. But what took the price of eggs through the roof is a desperately unfortunate firestorm of circumstances.
Successive poor harvests, sparked in part by below-average rainfall, have upped the cost of chicken feed while making other staples more scarce. (Barley production, for instance, fell by 40% between 2013 and 2014 alone.) Fighting has blocked irrigation channels, shattered greenhouses, and led farmers to stop tilling their land at a time when Syria is ill-placed to import anything to boost supply. And at least 65% of the private enterprises that once dominated the egg market have shut up shop over the course of the war, as their owners and employers fled. That’s led to a 50% drop in production between 2011 and 2013, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).
Finally, ISIL’s mafia-like tactics to fund its operations and squeeze rivals on the highways that crisscross its land have added to the financial burden on food producers.
“They’re getting greedier, they’re taxing everything,” said Mohammed Bade, a Syrian Kurdish trucker, as he refueled at a gas station over the border in Iraq. “Kobane’s made them mad at the Kurds, so they want to starve us,” he added, referencing the Kurdish-held city (also known as Ayn al-Arab) near Syria’s border with Turkey which has resisted a determined ISIL assault since last summer.
Some merchants, like the bakers of Qamishli, another border town, have clubbed together to buy sugar and other goods in bulk, but that hasn’t been enough to offset the added expense. A mini donut the size of a clenched fist now sells for the equivalent of $3, in a part of Syria where average salaries are thought to hover at a little over $100 a month.
One of ISIL’s key military victories has proven especially debilitating for egg producers. When the group took control of the strategic city of Raqqa in north-central Syria a year ago, it also seized the power stations that previously serviced large swathes of the country’s east including much of the Kurdish region. Deprived of regular mains output, chicken farmers must spend large sums on powering generators to heat the chicken hutches. With fuel up from £7 per liter before the war to £32 now—and sometimes £80 on the black market when it’s scarce—the colder months, when chickens already naturally lay fewer eggs, have exacted a particularly hefty financial toll.
Lastly, there are the consequences of an uptick in fighting among jihadist, regime and Kurdish forces, which last year sent several hundred thousand more people fleeing for the relative safety of Kurdish-controlled territory. Rents in Qamishli have more than doubled as the population has boomed, and that too has forced up egg prices as the new arrivals compete for a static quantity of food.
Local authorities admit the problem, but say they’re powerless. “We can subsidize really basic things like bread, water and pesticides, but with other goods, the prices in the bazaar are just too much,” said Abdulrahman Hemo, a senior economic official in the Kurdish administration that governs the area from its seat in Amuda.
Trapped between violence that shows no signs of abating and food prices that will likely continue to climb, more and more Syrians are reaching for the exits. For those who remain, however, the lowly egg looks set to become even more of a luxury commodity.
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