(Reuters) - Crimea has stepped up grain exports to Syria over the past year in an arrangement that gives the Black Sea peninsula an outlet for its surplus crops and ensures President Bashar al-Assad has a reliable source of wheat.

FILE PHOTO: Men arrange bread to cool down in Damascus, Syria, September 17, 2016.

Shipments started picking up in the middle of last year and at least 10 ships took a minimum of 170,000 tonnes of grain to Syria between July 2017 and May 2018, according to port and ship tracking data seen by Reuters and confirmed by shipping sources.

The recent rise in grain shipments from Crimea is helping to support Assad's government, as a steady supply of wheat is critical to providing the heavily subsidized bread that many Syrians depend on.

Syria's domestic wheat production has been hit by fighting in its main grain-producing regions, forcing Assad's cash-strapped government to rely on imports.

While food is not restricted by Western sanctions on Syria, banking sanctions and asset freezes have made it difficult for some grain trading houses to do business with Assad's government and it has failed to fill a number of large wheat tenders.

Crimea has also been under Western sanctions since it was annexed from Ukraine by Russia in 2014 and has been frozen out of many export markets, making Syria an ideal trading partner - especially as it is open to receiving goods from Syria such as olive oil in exchange for wheat.

"We do not have any problems with a number of countries, including Syria," Crimea's Deputy Prime Minister Georgy Muradov told Reuters. "Our countries do not apply sanctions against each other, so of course they are free to work."

Russia, the world's second biggest wheat exporter, intervened militarily in the Syrian conflict in 2015 to help turn the tide in favor of Assad and it has also been supplying grain to the government as part of its humanitarian aid.

Syria also said in September it had struck a deal to buy 3 million tonnes of wheat from Russia over three years and was seeking credit finance from Moscow, but no Russian wheat has yet been exported, according to Russian customs data.

This may be because Russia wants to avoid putting its own grain trading at risk by dealing with Syria, while major aid supplies could put strains on its budget and reduce wheat export revenue, Russian grain industry sources said.
Much more: Syria's Assad gets food lifeline from Crimea

Crimean farmers present freshly harvested wheat and bread baked from it to Governor Sergey Aksyonov

Another farmer shoveling his grain in Crimea

Grain being loaded on a ship, likely for Syria, in Crimean port city of Feodosiya