“Zombie fires” are re emerging in the Russian Arctic – wildfires from the horrendous fires in 2019 that refuse to die despite the frigid winter – and they bring back memories of last summer when no continent was spared as fires completely out of control devoured life and land across the globe from the Amazon forest to Australia in early 2020 whether man made or due to climate change.
In this context, let’s turn back the pages to Syria in summer 2019 as the country burned and crops patiently planted ready to be harvested turned into charred fields where Mohamad Najjouma’s article: “Who Stands Behind the Fires of Agricultural Crops … » posted May 2019 looked into the complex origins of the fires while compiling a very complete dossier that I wish to share with you. You may find in-depth data on the different forces involved – the Syrian regime, ISIS, Self Administration and Syrian Democratic Forces as well as Iranian militias, his focus on the eastern Euphrates region – Raqqqa and Deir Ezzor – Hama, Idlib and Suwayda while describing different agricultural practices and the main agricultural crops in each region.
Who was behind fires destroying agricultural crops in eastern Euphrates region, Hama countryside, Idlib and Suwayda in 2019.
Flour production drops…and Syrians faced with famine.
Syria’s average pre-war wheat production was about 3.5 million tons, enough to meet domestic demand even allowing for the export of quantities abroad, thanks to the possibility of exploiting Euphrates river water, among other factors, to irrigate crops in the vast desert in the east of the country.
The exit of al-Raqqa province from the production cycle, considered to be the «Syrian Food Basket» in the same way as the Hasaka governorate, led to an inevitable additional strain on the Syrian economy. As a result, the agricultural sector was hit by a large production deficit, especially in « strategic » crops such as wheat, cotton, sugar beets and maize, which were produced in the eastern governorates. The production of cereal crops decreased too as a result of the 63% decrease in Syria’s overall production.
The systematic burning of agricultural crops during this 2019 summer, specifically the wheat harvest in various regions of Syria, began in the Hasaka and Raqqa countryside where thousands of hectares of wheat and barley were destroyed. The fires then broke out in the liberated countryside and elsewhere in Deir ez-Zor where the fires destroyed hundreds of hectares planted in these territories.
It all began with ISIS.
In northern Syria, the weekly « al-Naba’a » newspaper described how ISIS was responsible for the fires burning agricultural crops that swept through the areas under SDF control as well as in some Assad regime areas in Hasakah, Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor governorates, claiming that these lands belonged to infidels and apostates, and vowed to carry out more operations against farms, orchards and wheat and barley crops owned by opponents. The Organization claimed that the fires would not stop in Syria but would extend to other areas, including Iraq.
Self-Management and Syrian Democratic Forces position on Crop Fires:
Syria’s Democratic Forces control al-Raqqa province and a large portion of Deir ez-Zor and Hasakah governorates, where the population was subjected to self-management government after ISIS were expelled.
The most important agricultural crops in eastern Euphrates areas.
Raqqa: About 75% of the population works in agriculture, while the rest are engaged in trade, industry and other various trades. Raqqa province is characterized by the existence of large tracts of land spread between private and public properties and these lands are divided into irrigated land and extended lands where strategic crops such as cotton, wheat, and sugar beet are cultivated as well as vegetables and some types of fruit trees. Lands containing swamps and river islands can also be found. Arable land accounts for about 42% of the province’s land.
About 80% of the population works in agriculture, while the rest are engaged in trade, industry and various trades. The most important crops cultivated here are cotton, wheat, barley, sesame, yellow corn and sugar beet which can also be found in the Euphrates Valley and Khabour, where there are large areas of summer and winter vegetables such as tomatoes and okra, especially after canning plants were set up in the fields, and large numbers of fruit trees. Yellow and red water melons are cultivated along the banks of the Euphrates valley while palm trees can be planted in the province as it is located within the appropriate environmental belt for their plantation.
Hasaka: About 75% of the population works in agriculture, while the rest are engaged in trade, industry and various trades. The Al Hasakah Governorate is renowned for its strategic crops such as wheat, cotton and barley, as well as the completion of multiple irrigation network projects and the construction of water dams that have contributed to increasing the area of irrigated land foremost among which is the Khabour River Dam irrigation system.
Self-administration and Syrian Democratic Forces’ role in crop fires:
One of the most important areas where crop fires occurred in the north are whole villages in the western region of Raqqa, the most important of which is the « Tarka Hadag Mahmoudley AbuQobai’e-Yamama Farm » where an area exceeding 10,000 dunums (approximately 2,480 acres) was burnt just in Mahmoudaly town and its suburbs alone, and the loss of about 30,000 tons of cereals, representing 6 million dollars, which in itself would be sufficient for the economic, service and social rehabilitation of the region for many years, and its children enriched from all transient, ephemeral and failed projects.
Self-management and Syrian Democratic Forces preparations to process centers and equipment for the prevention of crop fires was not at an acceptable level at all consisting of establishing modest centers in the Raqqa countryside concentrated in the Salhabiya, Teshreen, Al Rehaiat, Al Karamah, Al Jernyiah and Al Mansourah regions.
Farmers claimed that these fire centers were not adequately equipped with fire fighting equipment and mechanisms in addition to a poor response by fire fighters and delays in the time before arrival on the fire site. Moreover, self-management forces provided no assistance to the farmers affected by the fires.
In fact, the fire-fighting operations to save the crops were mostly carried out by civilians and their mechanisms, as in the fields of Mahmoudley, in the Abu Sakhra, Tarkah and Hadaj villages in the Al Raqqa countryside.
Activists in Raqqa launched a “Harvest of Ashes » campaign.
According to sources, residents and farmers accused the Syrian Democratic Forces to be responsible for a large number of the fires due to the two following indicators:
1: Many Arab farmers refused to sell their grain crops to Syrian Democratic Forces.
2: The significant difference in the price of wheat and barley between SDF’s prices -150 SYP per a kilo of wheat and 100 SYP per a kilo of barley – and Bashar al-Assad’s agents’ purchase price from merchants such as the Qatraji group offering 170 SYP for wheat and 120 SYP for barley.
This price difference encouraged SDF to put pressure on farmers by burning the crops of those who refused to sell their crops exclusively to them, otherwise they threatened the rest of the farmers that they would be subjected to similar catastrophes as those who had lost thousands of dunums when their crops had been completely burnt down.
According to the people, « some of the most important reasons for self-management and SDF burning farmers’ crops are:
- To impoverish the region and restrict the number of Arab inhabitants with a view to displacing them from their lands
- obliging farmers to sell their crops at low prices
- the weak response from self-management fire centers and equipment to help farmers extinguish fires
- the failure to equip fire stations with sufficient equipment to cover all agricultural areas before the harvest season despite farmers’ commitment to pay taxes on their crops for self-management.
The Syrian regime is a partner in starving Syrians and burning their crops:
On the other hand, according to the “Kurdish Welati News” agency, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units in Raqqa accused the Assad regime of being involved in setting fires to farmers ‘crops.
« HAT” – anti-terror forces – raided neighborhoods in Raqqa May 22.2019 and arrested 8 people in the al-Meshlabb al Sena’a neighborhoods thanks to information about their role in setting fire to large tracts of farmland and accusing them of being affiliated with the Assad regime.
As concerns the areas of Idlib and the northern Hamas countryside which are under Syrian opposition control and the Damascus Liberation Authority and are run by the civilian Government of Salvation. It is one of the de-escalating areas agreed upon between the Russians and the Turks, with Turkish military points in its vicinity as checkpoints to ensure the de –escalation agreement is effective. The area supports over 3 million civilians including its local population and those displaced from forced displacement areas in Homs, Damascus and other areas of Syria under the control of the Assad regime.
Since the beginning of 2019, the Russians and the Assad regime have deliberately breached the agreement by shelling these areas escalating dramatically during April with Russian forces and the Assad regime forces land and air campaign leading to the massive destruction of towns and villages and more than 250,000 inhabitants displaced to border areas with Turkey as well as killing and wounding thousands of civilians and burning agricultural crops in many of these areas.
1-Most important agricultural crops in central region of Syria (Idlib –Hama):
Idlib province is located between latitudes 35.10 south and 36.15 north and longitude 36.10 west and 37.15 east.
- Its total area covers about 609.7 thousand hectares.
- It has a population of 1.5 million people
- Idlib governorate is strategically located because it has a Syrian border gate with Orba through Turkey, where trade convoys come from the west to the east and vice versa, and create a bridge between the agricultural production areas in Syria and export zones in the port of Latakia.
- 65% of the population is engaged in agricultural activity with a favorable climate, fertile soil and sufficient rainfall for rain-fed agriculture in the province.
- Idlib Governorate is one of the advanced governorates for agriculture as it is rich in all kinds of industrial plants: such as cotton, tobacco, sugar beet, grains such as wheat, barley and fruit trees with high productivity and sour cherries early in the season used in the industry, pomegranates, walnuts and black figs as well as olives.
- Hama Governorate is located in central Syria with an area of approximately/1.02/1 million hectares extending between 34.50-35.50 latitude north and 36.10 to 38.20 east
- It has a population of 1.65 million people
- About 62% of the population works in agriculture, while the rest are engaged in trade, industry and various trades and crafts.
- Land in the province is cultivated with a diversified agriculture, the most important of which are winter or summer field crops and fruit-based trees that depend on rainwater.
- Agriculture is traditionally characterized by cultivation – vegetables, cereals, fruit trees – as well as pastoral farming where livestock is the mainstay of production.
The main crops produced in Hama are as follows:
Assad regime forces systematic shelling and Russian planes burn crops:
- In Idlib, the regime has deliberately targeted large tracts of agricultural crops as Reuters new satellite images show fields, orchards and olives burning in north western Syria, where regime forces are attacking opposition forces in Idlib
- Video showing the role of White Helmets Civil Defense suppressing crop fires due to Assad regime shelling and Russian planes on Idlib countryside and Hama. Please click on the following link:
- The Russian-backed regime air strikes on the southern Idlib province and nearby parts of Hama were concentrated on the region resulting in the displacement of 250,000 people from their homes.
- The Federation of Relief and Medical Care organizations, a United States-based medical NGO, said the shelling killed 229 civilians and injured 727 since 28 April, 2019.
The images, provided by the Digital Globe-Ink website, show plumes of smoke rising from the countryside surrounding the village of al-Haabeet in Idlib and the town of Kfer Naboudeh in the west of Hama.
Since late April, Russia and the regime have been waging a fierce military campaign against the rural areas of Idlib, Hama and Lattakia, causing hundreds of civilian casualties, displacing hundreds of thousands, as well as extensive destruction of infrastructure, especially hospitals and schools, as well as agricultural crops.
The regime continues to burn crops in the Salamei’a affiliated to Hama.
In Al_Salamei’a countryside, fire devoured hundreds of hectares of wheat and charges were immediately brought against the regime as they controlled the area. Moreover, the presence of explosives and landmines contributed to the high volume of fires and their inability to control them. At the same time, some residents charged the Bedouins in neighboring areas who have a strong relationship with the Syrian regime to be responsible for the fires.
Fires devoured thousands of dunums planted with barley and wheat, olive trees, pastures and meadows in the Al Salamei’a area and its countryside in Hama province over two weeks causing significant losses to farmers.
3: Fires in Suwayda are carried out by Iranian militias.
Suwayda Governorate and its main agricultural crops map.
Suywayda governorate in southern Syria is located between latitude 32.20 south and 33.15 north and 36.20 west 37.30 east.
- It covers an area equal to 555 thousand hectares.
- The population of the Suwayda governorate is around 400,000
- 23.2% of the population works uniquely in agriculture, while the rest are engaged in trade, industry and various trades, as well as in agricultural work.
- The main activity and resources in Suwayda governorate is agriculture and its associated industries and is considered to be the primary resource for the province’s population.
The most important products are field crops and fruits especially apples and grapes and some varieties of vegetables, dairy products, cheeses and chicken products.
- Expatriates from the province have been instrumental in the development of agricultural activity through the establishment of sophisticated apple, grape and vegetable farms.
- Agriculture is traditionally characterized by the cultivation of cereals, fruit trees and some vegetables, as well as pastoral farming, which is the mainstay of the animal economy.
The main crops produced in the province are as follows:
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard base in Suwayda countryside and its responsibility for cropfires:
Fires in the Suwayda countryside started in the village of Dam, specifically from the territory of the controversial village, where an Iranian Revolutionary Guard base is situated consisting of 700 elements with bases which were mostly dug underground for fear of air strikes as well as the presence of a training camp for new volunteers.
« Suwayda 24 » media site stated that the fires spread in agricultural lands between the Samad al-Hinaidat and Al_Tira villages in the western Suwayda countryside. Villagers found young Imran Nayef al-Kuntar, in Dama village who had burned to death near the town of Dama West of Suwayda while supporting the people of the region and the fire brigades. Elsewhere several citizens sought out medical points with cases of suffocation where they were cared for by the medical staff.
Residents, fire brigades and other stakeholders were able to control the large-scale fire between the agricultural lands of Lepbeen, Jreene and Dama villages in the western Suwayda countryside, where the fire devoured more than 10,000 dunums of farmland in the vicinity of villages although the cause of the fire was still unknown.
Other causes have led to increased loss for farmers as a result of fires in their crops and temperatures rising to over 36 °C:
– The absence of sufficient fire breaks between agricultural lands has enabled an increase in the spread of fires to larger areas.
– The exhaust pipes of vehicles and agricultural machinery and the failure to equip them with fire silencers have also been responsible for fires breaking out
– Local authorities have not implemented awareness-raising programmes for farmers and the local population to prevent crop fires and extinguish them.
– Pedestrians and travellers carelessly throwing cigarette butts away.
My thanks to Mohamad Najjouma for his excellent analysis of the situation and research on crop fires in 2019 in Raqqqa, Deir Ezzor, Hama, Idlib and Suwayda.
You may contact him for further information at: