Warring sides trade wheat for flour

File - Members of the Free Syrian Army and men from the northern Syrian town of Ras al-Ain unload wheat from trucks, as seen from the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar, Sanliurfa province, November 26, 2012. (REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

IDLIB PROVINCE, Syria: Away from the battlefield, some Syrian rebels are doing business with the same government they are trying to topple. Both sides want to keep providing basics like bread, fuel and water in the areas they control. When shifting front lines split up supply chains, they started to trade.

In the northwestern Idlib province, rebels control most of the wheat fields but have no way to grind the grain into flour. The regime has the flour mill, but can’t get enough wheat to supply it.

The two worked out a deal. Every week, the rebels deliver tens of thousands of tons of wheat to the mill in Idlib city. The government grinds it down, takes a cut, and sends it back.

“Wheat is not something to do with the government, it’s something to do with the people,” said Abu Hasan, an opposition figure who works in a bakery in Salqin, a town in Idlib province.

Syria slid into civil war after a crackdown on peaceful protests against President Bashar Assad in March 2011. After two years of conflict, both sides have found pragmatic ways of working around the war, even as it has grown more violent and brutal.

In Damascus, businessmen living in rebel-held suburbs still commute to the government-held center, driving at speed through the front lines. Children run through these frontiers to get to school, and civilians cross for shopping trips, even as some are shot dead.

Rebels say that when they entered the northern city of Aleppo, the government cut the main electricity supply. In response, the rebels cut cables running into government areas. After a few weeks, the regime agreed to turn the power back on and the rebels said they would repair the power pylons. Now Aleppo has 24-hour power.

Wajdi Zaydu, an opposition activist working with Abu Hasan on an administrative council in Salqin, said the government seemed more flexible in some respects. A couple of months ago, after appointing several unbending governors, authorities installed one who was more open to communicating with the rebels, allowing them to strike the wheat deal, he said.

For now both sides in the war wanted the government apparatus to survive, Zaydu said. “With this revolution, we’re not getting rid of state institutions. We’re getting rid of the regime.”

With a country falling into chaos, Syrians are finding ways to rebuild what they can of their lives. In towns and villages around Aleppo province, large drills clatter in the streets, boring dozens of meters into the ground.

The water supply has stopped working, so people are digging their own wells. They are betting on a long war – drilling can cost over a year’s supply of water, which they have to buy from the owners of industrial-sized wells.

Other businesses are making do. A lack of gasoline has forced some farmers to burn rubbish – which is now in abundant supply – to dry out bulgur wheat. Their stinking ovens pump out plumes of grey smoke in the countryside near Aleppo.

On the northern border with Turkey, rebels usher dozens of trucks through a crossing they control, each loaded with sacks of cement mix. People are building even as destruction continues.

And on the edge of Aleppo, black smoke rises and gunfire rattles from a prison where rebels are fighting the army for control. Within sight of the battle, men in dusty jeans and T-shirts are putting up a new house.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 21, 2013, on page 5.




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