Syrian buyer picks up first wheat cargo in weeks

A Syrian buyer has concluded a deal for 23,000 tonnes of milling wheat, the first commercial cargo to be booked in weeks as civil conflict and a financing crunch have held up deals, trade sources said on Friday.

Syria faces its worst wheat harvest in nearly three decades as war rages, increasing pressure on the government to import food at the same time that its currency reserves are dwindling.

Trade sources said it was unclear whether the buyer in Syria that booked the cargo was a state agency. The cargo was shipped from the Ukrainian port of Nikolaev and was probably of Ukrainian origin, they said.

“We are seeing signs that deals are trying to be done, although actual trades are still low at the moment,” a Middle East-based trade source said. “Syria needs to keep buying various food commodities as the humanitarian situation worsens.”

Payment for the wheat, which will be used to make bread, is believed to have been made through a Middle East bank, another trade source said.

The European Union, U.S. and other Western countries have imposed trade sanctions on President Bashar al-Assad’s government, but these do not apply to shipments of food.

Syria has been trying for several months to buy sugar, wheat and rice in international tenders using funds that have been frozen in bank accounts abroad.

It has struggled to conclude deals, however, partly because of difficulties in securing permission from governments to free those funds, traders say.

France has cleared the use of frozen Syrian bank assets to pay for exports of food as part of a European Union system that allows such funds to be used for humanitarian end, a trade ministry spokeswoman said this month.

Europe’s aid chief this week urged the United Nations’ Security Council to adopt a resolution to boost Syria’s access to humanitarian aid, an issue that has simmered for months in the shadow of plans for peace talks and a deal on destroying Syrian chemical weapons.

— Jonathan Saul and Pavel Polityuk report for Reuters from London and Kiev respectively.

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