Over the last several years, summer crop fires in north east Syria have become a reoccurring issue. Largely commencing in early May, these fires overlap with wheat and barley harvest seasons. These put at risk the crop yields, representing the livelihood of local farmers in addition to the main food staple for the region’s populations.
This year, while fires have occurred across the Hasakah governorate, known as Syria’s ‘breadbasket,’ a new pattern of blazes has emerged, noticeably mapping over the front lines between the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army and the Syrian Democratic Forces. Analysis conducted by Pax for Peace via satellite shows that approximately 43,000 acres of land in this area, between the towns of Ras al-‘Ain and Tel Tamer, burned between May 15th and July 25th of 2020, representing 10% of total land burned in Hasakah during this time period.
In researching this report, STJ spoke to a number of local farmers, as well as civilian and military officials active on the front lines, particularly in the vicinity of Tel Tamer. These testimonies highlight a number of trends relating to these crop fires.
Witness statements diverge on who or what is responsible for these incidents. These disagreements demonstrate not only the polarized conflict environment where the fires occur but also the difficulty local authorities have had in investigating such fires, and in producing evidence as to the causes. It is likely that these crop fires are started in a number of different ways, included but not limited to accidental causes, controlled burns occasionally set after harvests, blazes set by militant factions in order to clear visibility around front line fortifications, and as a side effect of shelling and small scale clashes occurring in the area. In addition, some testimonies mention threats of arson made to local farmers by militants, particularly from Syrian National Army factions, in efforts to secure rent, or bribes.
What is evident is the lack of resources and ability local emergency response organizations have in fighting these fires. Whether those that cultivate land under Syrian National Army or under Syrian Democratic Forces control, farmers STJ spoke to frequently highlighted the slow response times and inadequate supplies of local fire brigades, allowing small fires to burn entire acres. In fields directly on the front lines, conflict geography acts as yet another impediment to firefighting efforts, as these areas are reportedly made inaccessible by local militants or gunfire of those on the opposing side.