About 60 percent of Syria’s agriculture has already been completely or partially destroyed, observers say. In addition to the damage caused by the war, there are also devastating fires. EU and US sanctions are also exacerbating a food crisis in Syria: the war against Syria is followed by the economic war.
More than 150 fires flared in early October in the Syrian coastal provinces of Latakia and Tartus. Within four days, 179 villages and forestry businesses were completely or partially damaged. 40,000 families were affected, three people died and 80 people were treated with severe burns. Houses and property were completely or partially destroyed. Animals, crops, fields, forests and nature reserves were burned.
The forests around Al Haffa and Slunfe were affected, the Valley of the Christians, Wadi Nasara and the city of Majd al Hilou were not spared. 40,000 lemon trees, 3.37 million olive trees and 259,000 other trees have been completely or partially burned, according to a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Two tonnes of tobacco, 4000 bee baskets and 30,000 metres of drip irrigation systems were also destroyed.
Arson or climate change?
The international observers of the ICRC attribute the annual fires in the Mediterranean to climate change. A report cited “high temperatures, warm easterly winds, dry herbs and bushes” as the cause of the fires, which now occur annually. Local ways to contain and extinguish the fires are completely overwhelmed, the report added. The ICRC provided aid of 510,000 Swiss francs (CHF), equivalent to approximately 480,000 euros, to support the affected population in Latakia, Tartus and the province of Homs, which was also affected. The Syrian government, which is at the limit of its capabilities through unilateral EU and US economic sanctions and the consequences of the 10-year war, also announced financial aid for those affected.
The fires in the coastal region were not the first to hit Syria this year. In September it burned in Hama and in the fertile Al Ghab valley. In the summer, fires in the northeast of the country had destroyed wheat fields. The wheat fields were deliberately set on fire by the opponents of Syria, and there was also arson in the forests of Hama province.
For miles above the Al Ghab plain, there are black spots left over from the large fires. Here and in the forests of Masyaf, the fires raged for seven days, Abdul Mouanim Sabbagh told the author in Hama in mid-September. Sabbagh heads the branch of the Ministry of Agriculture in Hama, which is responsible for both Hama and the eastern province of Raqqa. Sabbagh and Abdul Munaim Steif, the head of the forestry authority in Hama, were on site with their staff day and night to fight the fires at Masyaf, Sabbagh says: “In such a situation, we have to be all in front with the others to save our forests and our agriculture.” Help came from the local population, the Syrian Civil Defense and the army, reported Sabbagh, who, like the forestry official Steif, answered the author’s questions precisely and thoughtfully:
“The army used helicopters to draw water from nearby lakes and dams and spread it over the blazes. Iran has also helped with firefighting aircraft.”
According to information from the public, some people have been arrested and the prosecutor’s office and police are investigating the case. “But the damage has happened,” says Abdul Munaim Steif. He estimates the loss to be 50 percent of the forest stock. “During the war, we lost so much tree population,” said the doctoral forest engineer. Through fighting and bombs and also “all sides” the trees were felled. “Some needed wood for heating, others needed the wood to resell it.” Ten employees were killed during the war while protecting forestry and agriculture. In her memory, photos of them, including a woman, were hung in the hallway of the authority.
The fires in the coastal region in early October may also have been deliberately started, Syrian officials said. It is no coincidence that so many fires are burning simultaneously in different regions. A video clip has been circulated that appears to prove the targeted arson. Uniformed men can be seen setting fire in various places. The short recording is accompanied by a hateful battle song that emphasizes the fight to victory. A text to the clip states that the fight against the regime will now continue in a different way than by military means. The origin of the video clip cannot be verified.
The war against Syria is followed by the economic war
The coastal region of Syria, the coastal mountains, Al Ghab, Hama as well as the provinces of Aleppo and Hasakeh in the north and northeast form a green bond and are considered to be the most water- and plant-rich areas of Syria with the Golan Heights and the Yarmouk Valley in southern Deraa. Historically, this area is known as the “Fertile Crescent”, which extends to the east along the Euphrates and Tigris to the Persian Gulf. To the west, this fertile area stretched along the Jordan and eastern Mediterranean seas to the Nile Delta and, in extension, along the Nile.
Syria is divided from west to east into five precipitation zones, explains agricultural engineer Haitham Haidar, director of the Department of Planning and International Cooperation, during a conversation with the author at the Ministry of Agriculture in Damascus (in September). The most water-rich area is in the west, with the lowest rainfall in the east. The eastern desert areas therefore comprise about 55 percent of Syria, agriculture is not possible here.
The rain in 2019/20 was good, Haidar said, and the water reservoirs were well filled. But the war had significantly reduced Syria’s arable land and thus the cultivation and harvesting opportunities. About 60 percent of Syria’s agriculture, growing areas, research and utilities, nurseries, seed and fertilizer centers have been completely or partially destroyed. Irrigation systems and wells have been deliberately destroyed, and the FAO (UN Organization for Agriculture and Food) estimates the damage caused between 2011 and 2016 at USD 16 million.
Farmers and well-trained skilled workers had left the country. On the other hand, many farmers cannot reach their fields to work on them because they are occupied by armed forces. Farmers lack the money to replace destruction and replant. Everything will be further exacerbated by the unilateral sanctions, according to agricultural engineer Haidar. “We cannot import new machinery, seeds, fertilizers or pesticides.” There is a lack of vaccines for livestock, transport costs have increased because Syria does not have access to its own oil and gas resources in the north-east of the country. The unilateral sanctions also prevented Syria from importing oil from neighboring Iran or Iraq, for example.
“Before the war, Syria exported its agricultural products worldwide. The main customers were Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Russia, African countries and also the Gulf states. They imported fruit and vegetables.”
The Syrian Awassi sheep were also exported to the Gulf states in the past, Haidar continued: “It is a special Syrian breed whose meat is very popular. During the war, the sheep were stolen and taken out of the country across the borders. Before the war we had 16 million of these sheep, this year we counted 7 million.”
The losses and destruction described led to a food crisis in Syria with the unilateral economic sanctions of the EU and the US, haidar says. During the war, the peasants would have done everything possible to supply the population. The economic war that followed the war prevented them from doing so. “The destruction of our agricultural production was not accidental, it was planned,” the agricultural engineer is convinced. The aid provided by the UN and some countries is not enough for Syria.
“Syria is deliberately prevented from taking care of itself. Not the regime, the people are being punished. Only with the war, now with the sanctions.”