A Syrian man inspects a scorched area in the aftermath of a forest fire in the countryside of the city of Tartus, 11/10/2020 (AFP)
AMMAN — Fires consumed vast swathes of forests along Syria’s coast seemingly out of nowhere on Friday, October 9, killing at least three and displacing as many as 25,000 people from affected areas.
At least 195 fires spread among agricultural land and the Mediterranean forests of the regime-controlled Latakia, Tartous and western Hama provinces, according to the government-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on October 10. Up to 140,000 people were affected by the fires, the UN said on Monday, October 12.
Though authorities were able to get the fires under control relatively quickly, claiming to have extinguished all of the fires by Sunday, this weekend’s outbreak was just the latest in a series of devastating fires that have struck Syria’s coasts this summer. In early September, fires burned unabated for at least a week before coming under control.
However, the rapid progress and intensity of this weekend’s blazes, which hospitalized at least 70 people for smoke inhalation in Latakia province alone, distinguished them from those from earlier this summer. Pictures of those displaced from the fires quickly spread across social media, while individuals and local businesses advertised their willingness to provide shelter to the displaced.
Setting fires to woodlands or other protected nature areas is in violation of Article 29 (b) of Syrian Forestry Law No. 6 by imprisonment with hard labor for up to seven years. However, enforcement of this law is rare, and the forest wardens who are supposed to protect nature reserves have virtually no power to stop the regime-affiliated, mafia-like groups who illegally log and burn Syria’s forests for profit, according to the publication, Syria Untold.
Over the last two decades, Syria’s forests and natural areas have suffered from administrative mismanagement and looting, resulting in an almost 20 percent loss in forest cover relative to levels in 2000, a recent investigation by Syria Direct revealed.
Though the origin of Syria’s most recent wildfires is unknown—it is the same absence of a competent ruling authority to regulate Syria’s natural areas which also drives the blazes. Government authorities have little incentive to prevent the cutting and burning of its forests. The culprits are generally connected to the regime or are shielded from accountability by retired military figures, according to Syria Untold.
Unless Damascus or other governing authorities begin to take the protection of forested areas more seriously, it is likely that fires of similar magnitude will only continue, and will be further exacerbated by worsening climatic conditions as well.