Four years into Syria's conflict, cannabis has become an unlikely key source of financing for a number of groups in the opposition-held north. It's used mostly to buy weapons.
Jabal al-Zawiya in the province of Idlib is a mountainous area close to the Turkish border. Once famous for growing olives, it is now used to grow pot. Farmers here say the plant grows quickly, and yields higher revenues than olives.
Most villages in Idlib province are living off the spoils of goods smuggled between Syria and Turkey, and many basic commodities available for purchase here now come from Turkey, too.
"We don't have jobs anymore," says Ahmad, a 31-year-old marijuana farmer from the town of Maarret al-Numan. "We have no land, no trade, nothing. If it wasn't for smuggling, we'd starve to death." He adds that many of his fellow villagers have already started growing cannabis in a bid for financial survival.
Ahmad and his family once harvested olives; they shifted to growing cannabis one year ago, when other sources of income ran dry. But now he says that Jabhat al-Nusra and allied armed rebel factions are raiding farms like his, arresting anyone who grows hash because they believe that growing a drug like weed is forbidden by Islamic law.
To defend themselves, farmers say they pay local fighters from more moderate groups to protect their farms and then transport the crop into Turkey, through a series of well-concealed smuggling routes. The success of the trade has been a lucrative boost to those brigades, who have come to specialize in smuggling cannabis.
Farming in fear
Residents of Harim, another Idlib town, are too scared to name the extremist faction that they say destroyed 20 tons of cannabis in the outskirts of the town last month.
Abu Riyadh, a farmer from the Haff Sarja village who now grows cannabis on half of his land, says that the umbrella group Jabhat Thowar Souria unofficially oversees all marijuana growing in the province, skimming from its profits. He says its fighters protect farms and convoys that smuggle the cannabis into Turkey, then charge farmers up to 60 percent of the profits.
"If we sell it all, the profit would be about 7 million Syrian Pounds $40,000 per month," says Abu Riyadh. "The fighters would take around 4 million."
He says that even if a smuggling mission is unsuccessful, the Front still forces farmers to pay the fee.
One Front fighter who protects Abu Riyadh's farm says that as fees climb, some villagers are protecting their farms themselves, without paying for help from his brigade. He adds that fighters hired individually to cover a farm can make as much as $500 per month, while when a group is hired, the money goes to the Front's leaders, who distribute it as they see fit.