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Rainfall was abundant in the north of both countries over the winter, reaching levels that had not been seen in at least two decades. It was a welcome sign of hope for farmers, a prediction of good harvests and a much-needed income in a still harsh economic climate.
The first reports of fires emerged in mid-May, when farmers in Iraq’s Makhmour region said that IS militants demanded taxes from them and set fire to the crops of those who did not comply. Around the same time, fields were set alight in the provinces of Diyala and Salahaddin, where mainly Kurdish farmers were reportedly affected. The north and north-east of Syria, where IS lost its remaining territory and farmers dared to plant crops again, are also affected.
Soon after, the online IS outlet al-Naba claimed responsibility for fires in four Iraqi provinces and in Hasaka province in Syria.
The problem soon started to spread, including in areas of Syria not previously controlled by IS. Among them is Idlib province, the last stronghold of the Syrian opposition, where Russia has been intensifying its aerial bombing campaign on behalf of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Around three years ago, the regime used agriculture to manipulate fighters and civilians in rebel-held areas and force rebels to surrender. The fires in Idlib seem to be a similar weapon of war.
Another dynamic may be in play as well, partly related to the conflict. In Syria especially, so many people have been killed or displaced that few remain with farming experience. “The people currently operating combine harvesters are new in this sector. These drivers sometimes throw lit cigarettes into wheat fields because they don’t know better. The old ones knew to carry water bottles to put out their cigarettes,” one farmer said.
The effects of climate change are not helping either: the wet winter produced a good crop, but the hot spring has dried out the soil and vegetation. As a result, a spark can cause a fire to spread rapidly. The sparks may be ignited by cigarette butts, a piece of glass lying in a field or low-quality fuel. The latter may be contributing to the fires in the Kurdish-controlled areas in Syria, where the locally produced fuel for combine harvesters is of inferior quality, making it more likely to produce sparks than high-quality fuel.
Authorities in Iraq and Syria have issued statements about the lands affected. In Syria, 8,094 hectares of wheat and barley have been destroyed in less than a month. In Iraq, fires have broken out across 54,228 hectares of land, with 8,094 hectares of crops lost. In Syria’s Idlib province, one of the worst affected areas, an activist claimed that up to 60 per cent of wheat and barley fields have been destroyed by the flames. In Iraq’s Kirkuk, hundreds of hectares of land were scorched. According to the Iraqi fire service, as many as 236 fires destroyed more than 5,180 hectares of farmland.
Extinguishing the fires is proving to be close to impossible. This is partly due to the tactic used by IS of setting fire to fields at night, surprising the owners when it is already too late to stop the damage. For some farmers, the loss is twofold: not only do they lose a source of income but the food for their animals as well.
The difficulties of extinguishing the fires is also due to a lack of capacity. In Syria, the three firetrucks for the entire province of Raqqa, for example, are nowhere near enough for the job. The situation is becoming so critical that the Kurdish administration has asked for assistance, as the fires are approaching oil and gas fields.
Elsewhere in Syria, the war has undermined government infrastructure that could help prevent or stop fires, as an unnamed agricultural engineer in Homs said. “Firefighters aren’t available like before. The municipality has stopped trimming dry grass to prevent fires, because they lack capacity and oversight. This is the result of the war, and it will be very difficult to reverse.”
In general, food production does not seem to be in jeopardy yet. However, IS has encouraged its sleeper cells to continue the scorched-earth policy, saying on al-Naba, ‘And the harvest season remains long, and we say to the soldiers of the caliphate: before you are millions of dunams of lands planted with wheat and barley, owned by the apostates. And before you are their gardens, fields, homes and economic facilities. So roll up your sleeves and begin the harvest. God bless your harvest.’
Given that the north and north-east of Syria are considered to be the country’s bread basket and that the burning fields in Iraq are situated in fertile Mesopotamia, this may be just the beginning of a much larger disaster.