"Hunger makes people sell themselves to the armed groups so they can eat and bring food to their families"
* War, lack of rain produce lowest crop in 27 years
* Syrian government buys wheat from Russia to stave off hunger
* Farmers, bakers, flour mills suffer
* Armed factions use wheat as weapon of war
By Maha El Dahan and Lisa Barrington
ABU DHABI/BEIRUT, Sept 19 (Reuters) - Syria's wheat harvest nearly halved to 1.3 million tonnes this year, the lowest in 27 years, as fighting and poor rainfall further degraded the farming sector and the nation's ability to feed itself.
The government of President Bashar al-Assad was forced to tender this summer for an unprecedented 1.35 million tonnes of imported wheat from political ally Russia to ensure supply of the flat loaves that are a staple for the Syrian people.
Before the five-year-old civil war, Syria was a wheat exporter producing four million tonnes in a good year and able to export 1.5 million tonnes.
Now wheat and bread have become an integral part of the war, with wheat farms, seed distribution, milling and bakeries all affected.
The Damascus government subsidises bread for the areas it controls and aid agencies offer supported prices in some areas, but Syrians in other parts of the country suffer bread shortages and high prices.
"You know why most people carry weapons? Because of bread," said Mahmoud al Sheikh, a health worker from a besieged part of Damascus. "Hunger makes people sell themselves to the armed groups so they can eat and bring food to their families."
Al Sheikh, speaking to Reuters by telephone from the capital's Eastern Ghouta suburb, said earlier in the year his besieged area scarcely saw bread.
"Sometimes there's no bread at all. People start to make bread from barley ... It goes on like this for months. People eat cabbage instead - it's enough to test your faith. Really, people's situations become miserable," he said.
The Syrian war has killed more than 250,000 people, created the world's worst refugee crisis, allowed for the rise of the Islamic State group and drawn in regional and major powers.
THE MOST VULNERABLE
Perilous transport routes have meant the Syrian state has struggled to buy from traditional "bread-basket" areas which lie outside government control.
As of August, 9.4 million Syrians were "food insecure", said Adam Vinaman Yao, deputy Syria representative of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This is over half of about 17 million people thought to still live in Syria.
"The prices of basic agriculture products drastically increased thus reducing access by most consumers and especially the most vulnerable strata of the population," Yao said.
The 1.3 million-tonne wheat output estimate given by the FAO compares to 1.7 million tonnes cited by a government source, but is higher than one million given by the opposition.
The opposition interim government, allied with the main opposition political body the Turkey-based Syria National Coalition, carries out technical and administrative functions of government from within opposition-held Syria.
Two dry spells, one in December and the other between mid-February and mid-March helped to cut the 2016 crop down from the 2.44 million tonnes in 2015, when most areas had ample rainfall.
In areas were there was rain, like the northeast province of Hasaka which accounts for almost half the country's wheat production, only 472,000 hectares were planted out of a planned 706,000 hectares due to the security situation, Yao said.
There has been heavy fighting in Hasaka as an alliance of Syrian Arab and Kurdish fighters backed by U.S.-led air strikes pushed Islamic State militants out of some territory this year.
"WE NEED FERTILISER"
With Islamic State to its south and west, and closed borders with Turkey and Iraq to the north and east, the Hasaka area, in a semi-autonomous region of northeastern Syria controlled by the Kurdish YPG militia, has suffered shortages of fuel and farming goods, Ekrem Hisso, a former local government head told Reuters.
"We need fertiliser but there isn't any. And even when we can find it, one tonne this year has reached the price of five tonnes of wheat," Faisal Hassan, a farmer from the Ras al-Ain countryside in Hasaka province said.
"Production per hectare used to be up to 40 bags of wheat, but during the war years production has been around 20 bags per hectare," Hassan said.
The outlook for wheat is not good. For the coming 2016/2017 planting season the government-run General Organisation for Seeds Multiplication only managed to distribute 30,000 tonnes of wheat seed compared to 450,000 tonnes prior to the war.
Of the country's total wheat production this year, only around 400,000 tonnes were procured by the government, a source at the General Organisation for Cereal Processing and Trade (Hoboob), the state body responsible for wheat, said.
The figure is far short of the one to 1.5 million tonnes needed to provide bread to government-held areas of Syria.
WHEAT FROM RUSSIA
Hoboob is holding an import tender for one million tonnes of Russian wheat with a deadline of Sept. 19 and has already purchased 350,000 tonnes of Russian wheat, a reflection of the country's pressing import needs.
Syria's bread-basket provinces of Hasaka, Raqqa and Deir al-Zor, which account for nearly 70 percent of total wheat production, are outside government control, but farmers can sell their wheat to the state if they reach collection centres.
The small procurement figure comes despite the government raising the price it pays local farmers for wheat.
In areas controlled by rebel groups, excluding Islamic State and the Kurdish YPG, 500,000 tonnes of wheat was produced before war erupted.
"But in this 2016 season it is very, very low and does not exceed 100,000 tonnes. This is because of many reasons, the most important being the war raging in these areas," said Hasan al-Muhammad, head of the wheat agency run by the Syrian Interim Government opposition and also called Hoboob.
Al-Muhammad said in those areas, farmers were selling for $285 a tonne, around $65 a tonne higher than the state Hoboob's prices, but stressed quantities were limited.
Bakeries are also hard hit by the crisis in wheat output.
"We mostly depend on aid in the form of flour given to us by (aid) groups or by getting flour on the black market," said Abu Karam, manager of a public bakery recently hit by an air strike in rebel-held Idlib.
Abu Karam's bakery can afford to sell a one kg packet of loaves for 50 Syrian pounds (10 U.S. cents) because of free flour from aid groups. Without this, the same batch would cost at least 200 pounds.
Abu Karam stressed the importance of affordable bread.
"The situation in Syria is getting worse and worse ... citizens cannot secure their daily sustenance; so they depend on bread at all times," Abu Karam said.
"They eat it with nothing other than simple things like olive oil or tomatoes. All families, poor and rich, eat bread morning, noon and night." ($1 = 517.5 Syrian pounds)
(Reporting By Maha El Dahan in Abu Dhabi and Lisa Barrington in Beirut, additional reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut, Rodi Said in Hasaka and Nigel Hunt in London, editing by Peter Millership and Giles Elgood)
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