* Persistent drought to blame for falling output
* Expects less wheat from small farmers this year
* Imports forecast at 1.2 mln tonnes for 2010 (Adds reaction, figures)
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
DAMASCUS, June 15 (Reuters) - The Syrian government will be forced to import wheat for the third year running after another weaker-than-expected harvest due to persistent drought, state media said on Tuesday.
Al-Baath government daily said the state, which has a wheat marketing monopoly and subsidises the crop heavily, expects to receive 2.4 million tonnes of wheat from small farmers this year, down from 2.8 million in 2009.
While the figures do not represent the whole of Syria’s output - a proportion is smuggled or kept by producers - the drop is the strongest indication yet that this year’s harvest was weak.
The agriculture minister had expected output to reach 4 million tonnes in 2010, enough to meet annual domestic consumption of 3.6 million to 4 million. But other experts doubted that production would reach that level due to a combination of drought and plant disease.
The report said Syria’s Mediterranean ports received 1.2 million tonnes of wheat imports in 2009 and expect delivery of another 25,000 tonnes.
“They will be probably import the same volume this year, and again from the Black Sea, because it is the cheapest wheat,” one international trader said.
“That should not have much impact on the market, since Europe had good rain and their production is expected to be good,” he added.
Syria, which has been ruled by the Baath Party since 1963, was an important Middle East wheat exporter before a drought began in 2007, with most exports going to Egypt and Jordan.
The water table had already been depleted by thousands of illegal wells sunk to irrigate subsidised wheat.
The report said only 861,000 tonnes of wheat were delivered this year to the government marketing division in the eastern province of Hasakah, half of what the drought-hit region would normally send.
Official figures put national wheat output at 3.6 million tonnes last year against 2.1 million tonnes in 2008 and 4.1 million in 2007.
The drought conditions resulted in the displacement of up to one million people from Eastern Syria and prompted foreign countries to offer help to the government, which regards its agriculture policy as an achievement.
The United Arab Emirates donated 500,000 tonnes of wheat to Syria and the United Nations is distributing rations to 190,000 hungry people in the East. The World Food Programme says another 110,000 still require emergency food assistance.
“There has to be a reassessment, especially that the agriculture ministry keeps saying that the irrigated wheat crop can meet demand,” the Baath newspaper said.
“The figures show a sharp retreat in production from the main wheat regions,” the report said.
Editing by Jane Baird