By Lacy MacAuley
A disturbing new kind of economic terrorism has emerged in North and East Syria, the region of Syria close to the Turkish border. Suspicious fires are destroying hundreds of square kilometers of wheat and barley. So far, seven people have lost their lives battling these fires, internal security and emergency personnel, and local residents who were engaged in fighting the fire. At least one member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) lost his life battling the fires.
According to the Autonomous Administration of North and East of Syria (AANES), most of these fires were arson, while a few had natural/environmental or accidental causes such as lightning or an errant cigarette. Each harvest season sees a few fires, but the scale of this destruction is far beyond any seen in the recent past.
ISIS claimed responsibility for the earliest of the fires. But since then, many believe there are other culprits. Mohammed Abbas al-Jaghjagh, 75, a farmer with fields near Tal Hamis, lost everything when his fields were burnt. He was quoted in The Washington Post: “We can’t say who is doing it,” he said. “Is it Arabs? We can’t say. Is it Kurds? We can’t say. Is it the government? We can’t say. Is it Turkey? We can’t say. Is it foreigners? We can’t say. There are many enemies, and we have no proof.”
The AANES announced earlier this year that it would not be selling any of its grain to the Syrian government, so the Assad government may have set fires in retaliation. Many in the region also suspect Turkey or Turkish-backed forces, as the perpetuation of longstanding genocidal tendencies toward the Kurds, as well as territorial ambitions. Others suspect the Syrian rebels, who are aligned with Turkey and Islamic extremists and stand against the AANES.
What seems certain is that people don’t set fire to fields that they and their neighbors have worked hard to cultivate. Certain bits of propaganda have emerged that falsely accuse the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) of setting these fires. Nasir al-Hariri, the head of the opposition negotiation commission, echoed these sentiments, accusing the Democratic Union Party (PYD) of setting the fires.
The estimated damage of these fires is 19 billion Syrian pounds, according to AANES. These fires will decrease the supply of grains in this war-torn region, drive food prices up, and cause starvation and suffering. Who is behind the fires is a mystery, but the locals have a few ideas.
The fires have destroyed a total of 40,860 hectares of agricultural land, which includes rural homes and some villages. The majority of the fires were in Jazeera region, with 34,600 hectares burnt. In the Euphrates region, 2,450 hectares were burnt. In Tabqa City, 1,850 hectares. In the Raqqa area, 1,500 hectares. In the Deir Ez-Zor area, 350 hectares. In the Manbij area, 110 hectares. Fruit trees were also burnt.
A widely-shared tweet by Liz Sly, the Beirut bureau chief of The Washington Post, who authored an article on the fires, showed a video of local residents putting out fires by beating them with carpets.
Liz Sly Tweet:
Brett McGurk tweeted that these fires had probably been set by ISIS, in a retweet of Sly’s tweet. McGurk is the former presidential special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. He stated, “When ISIS set sulfur fires in Mosul our coalition moved heaven and earth to help put them out. I’m hopeful it can do the same here as ISIS sets NE Syria crops aflame. Another example of why depleting an already small resource base carries unintended risk.”
Brett McGurk Tweet:
This is the breadbasket of Syria, where wheat and barley are grown. This is known as a traditionally Kurdish region, but also includes Arabs, Syriacs, and other ethnicities.
One of the largest fires, which began the evening of Sunday, June 9, in the region of Terbe Sepi, threatened not only a village, the Auda oil station and the power generating station of Terbe Sepi. Local residents, as well as a fire fighting team, battled the fires.
If the fires are a result of arson, it seems obvious that the fires are being used as an intentional tool of war, revenge, or political positioning. This is economic terrorism.
Whatever their cause, these fires will lead to widespread devastation, and even more tears for the people of North and East Syria.