After years of drought, heavy rainfalls this year had raised hopes for a bountiful harvest. Yet across Northern Syria, farmers are watching helplessly as months of toil and their source of livelihood burn to ashes. For many farmers and local communities already suffering from high rates of food insecurity and debt, the destruction of this year’s harvests presents yet another obstacle to survival. The fires in Northeast Syria appear to have multiple causes, from scorching weather to personal and politically driven arson. Local residents have pointed blame in every direction, but identifying causes or perpetrators is often difficult, and it is leading to an unprecedented climate of paranoia and mistrust.
Action from both the international community and local authorities is urgently need to mitigate losses from these fires, deescalate tensions, and prevent a further breakdown of economic and governance structures in the region. Yet such actions must move away from inflammatory accusations and focus on the multitude of factors contributing to the fires.
Accusations on all sides
The fires in Northeast Syria first sparked international attention last month after the Islamic State, in its newsletter Al-Naba, claimed responsibility for a series of fires that erupted across tens of thousands of acres of cropland in Northeast Syria and Northern Iraq during recent weeks. In what appears to be a new strategy for ISIS to undermine SDF governance in its former territories, ISIS urged its followers to continue setting fires to crops in SDF controlled areas. International observers have subsequently pointed to the fires as proof of ISIS’s continued influence in the region, however it is likely that ISIS is claiming more responsibility than it really owns.
Despite ISIS’s announcement, accusations have continued against other factions, including the Syrian government, SDF and Turkey. Footage widely circulating across Syrian social media suggests these accusations may not be entirely baseless. In one video published by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Turkish border guard is seen allegedly setting fire across the border to Syrian land in Al Darbasiyah, a Kurdish majority town in Al-Hasakah Governorate. Another recent video allegedly shows men from a vehicle carrying the SDF flag setting fire to a wheat field in Ain Al Arous, a village north of Raqqa where YPG forces have faced strong resistance from Arab and Turkmen residents. In both cases, SJAC could not verify the location and authenticity of the videos. However, the possibility that such fires are being set for retribution along sectarian and political lines is a dangerous development.
To complicated matters, personal interests and vendettas appears to also play a role. In an interview conducted by Synaps, one farmer notes that the farms of ISIS supporters have also been burned. “Setting those people’s lands on fire is a way to take revenge and calm their anger,” he explains. Another local source informed SJAC that many farmers are fearful that the fires have been deliberately used to repossess lands. Following the droughts in recent years, many local farmers in Northeast Syria had been forced to take personal liens against their farms. Such agreements are often informal and their enforcement following these fires may precipitate yet another cycle of violence.
حريق ضخم في قرية عابرة بناحية الجوادية/جل آغا بريف القامشلي.#INT
Posted by Independent News Team on Monday, June 17, 2019
Less nefarious, but equally destructive, is a multitude of natural and accidental factors. Unseasonably hot and dry weather has made naturally sparked fires more common in recent years, but in the current context, local authorities have severely limited means to stop them. Residents in Raqqa have claimed that the SDF authorities currently have only three firetrucks to serve the entire Raqqa Governorate. Others argue that the poor quality of fuel refined by SDF authorities have made farm vehicles more prone to sparks in the field. Meanwhile, the growing presence of inexperienced farm-workers—a result of the mass displacements of local workers—has led to careless mistakes such as the disposal of lit cigarettes in dry fields.
In this context, it is often extremely difficult for local authorities to ascertain whether individual fires were sparked naturally, accidentally or deliberately. Even in cases were evidence of arson is present, the perpetrators are not always clear. Images on social media allegedly showing the cause of one fire in Iraq—a simple magnifying glass propped up a in burned field —illustrate just how easy it is for any individuals to ignite a devasting fire. Similar techniques have also been reported by SJAC’s documentation team in Syria. This means that anyone can be made a suspect, and that the paranoia and mistrust fueled by the fires will be difficult to quell.
The role of the International Coalition
Rather than work to dispel tensions and misinformation, local authorities have often taken part in the politicization of blame, stating on their Facebook page that ‘“most of these incidents are deliberate by various parties, such as IS, the Syrian regime and Turkey, which want to ruin the region’s economy and threaten the livelihood of its residents.” Such statements only serve to further sectarian tensions and mistrust. Given the heavily politicized nature of these crop fires, it is up to the international coalition to ensure that local authorities address the fires with accountability and impartiality, and that they are given adequate resources to do so.
As a first step, the international coalition should provide more funding and equipment for firefighters in SDF held territories. Although arson and naturally sparked fires cannot be completely prevented, it is imperative that local authorities have the capability to end fires quickly and minimize losses for farmers. Suspected cases of arson, include those potentially sparked by SDF’s own supporters, must also be thoroughly and impartially investigated by local authorities. Perpetrators should be given due process, and evidentiary standards should be upheld, but those found guilty must be held accountable to discourage others from undertaking similar crimes. Additionally, farmers who have lost their crops will need access to food aid to compensate for their loss.