A Scorched Wheat Policy From All Sides In Syria

The staple crop is so strategic that it has been targeted from all sides in the Syrian Civil War.

Field burning in Syria
Field burning in Syria
Lilia Nahhas*

Domestic harvests provide at least half of Syria's total national consumption of wheat, giving many farmers one of their sole sources of income for the entire year. When fires devoured thousands of acres of wheat earlier this year, many Syrian, particularly these farmers, were hit hard.

In the Idlib province, numerous farmers claim the government's intense bombardments are intended to destroy their wheat crops "The regime deliberately burned all the land surrounding its last stronghold in Idlib, the Abu al-Dhour military airport," said Ghazwan al-Idlbi, a media activist.

According to the Abu al-Dhour Media Center's Facebook page, Syria's air force launched more than 125 air raids on the villages surrounding the airport within a period of a few days. Ghazawan explained that "burning the fields turns them into open land and prevents fighters from hiding in them."

"The regime also aims to deprive people in Idlib of all sources of life. Bread is a staple food for Syrians," he said. "Burning wheat fields will force people to import their bread, which will increase its price."

Media sources said that government forces have also burned all fields surrounding checkpoints in the cities of Mourk, Hilfaya and Tibat al-Imam, in addition to those in close proximity to the opposition-controlled areas. "After destroying peoples' houses, the regime wants to burn their only source of income," said Ahmad al-Omar, a resident of Mourk.

The rural areas of Aleppo have seen fierce battles between the Islamic State (ISIS), other rebel groups and the People Protection Units (YPG). "The international coalition's air force burns the fields in order to blow up the mines that ISIS installed in the area before withdrawing," said one activist from the rural outskirts of Kobani.

Others from Marie, a village near Aleppo, accuse ISIS of deliberately bombing fields in order to destroy the harvest. "We were very happy with the unprecedented wave of rain and snow that Syria witnessed this year, but because of the severe summer heat, the fields are extremely dry and any stray shell or small explosive is capable of burning thousands of acres," remarked agronomist Siraj Toma.

Toma called on farmers to take preventive procedures. "Since civil defense teams are not very well equipped, farmers should plant windbreak trees or even use already grown windbreak trees," he said. "Fields should be separated by deep trenches in order to prevent the spread of fire. In addition, observation teams should be checking the fields constantly in order to control fire as soon as it starts."

Civil defense units in areas controlled by the opposition have taken many steps to protect wheat crops. Abdul Munaem Steif, civil defense director in the Homs province, said that a new campaign has been launched to support local farmers.

"Protecting Our Wheat Crops Together" is an educational campaign to raise farmers' awareness and teach them how to avoid fires or deal with one if it breaks out, he explained. Firetrucks are now stationed in areas around farmlands near heavy fighting.

A shortage of quality farming equipment and a lack of resources has made the situation even more difficult for farmers in Idlib and Aleppo, where there have been heavy clashes among rival opposition groups, as well as between rebels and government forces.

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Syrians in a wheat field — Photo: Syria Deeply

"In addition to being short staffed, we don't have enough firetrucks to take on all the fires caused by explosions," Salah, a member of Aleppo's civil defense team, said, adding that areas like Deir Ezzor and Hassakeh have virtually no equipment.

Record harvest nonetheless

A local Syrian interim government in Aleppo and Idlib created the Public Foundation for Grain, a group that recently sent 4,500 tons of bread and wheat to the areas under its control. It also plans to send another 4,000 tons of wheat to Daraa, a large city in southern Syria.

Despite limited financial resources, the foundation's director, Hassan al-Muhammad, explained that the interim government buys crops from farmers for a "reasonable" price as part of plan to strengthen local economies in rebel-controlled parts of the country. This is to discourage farmers from importing crops that they have to pay for with foreign currency.

The Syrian government, on the other hand, buys crops from rebel-controlled areas through mediators and often offers above market prices for them. Activists in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor accuse the government of using middlemen to purchase wheat from ISIS.

"The regime is trying to buy wheat, so that it avoids importing, since the central bank is already suffering from lack of foreign currency. The opposition, on the other hand, is also trying to buy and avoid importing because it simply cannot afford imported wheat," said economist Ahmad al-Hasssan.

These efforts come at a time when the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has called for an immediate halt in fighting in Syria so that crops can be safely harvested and distributed across the country to needy Syrians.

"With indications that the 2015 harvest in Syria may exceed the last two years' harvests at a time of massive food insecurity and internal displacement, it is vital that crops not be lost and that food stays within the country," said Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the World Food Program.

Due to the heavy snow and rain that hit the country last winter, agricultural experts expect that wheat production in Syria will rise to 3 million tons, a significant increase from last year's production, which was an estimated 1.7 million tons.

"Food prices will remain high and people will be hungry despite a good harvest, unless there is a humanitarian pause in the fighting by all sides of the conflict," Cousin added.

*This article was originally published in Arabic by Suwar Magazine. It has been translated, edited and reprinted here with permission alongside the original photos.

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