Amman- The fires burning in northeast Syria have entered their second month, consuming more than 40,000 hectares of farmland and claiming several lives in a region heavily dependent on agriculture for its livelihood.
“The firetrucks from the Autonomous Administration reached my father’s land after we called dozens of times. But [by that point] everything was already gone,” Shereen Deireky, a 30-year-old farmer living on the eastern outskirts of the city of Qamishli, told Syria Direct.
Deireky’s wheat and barley crops had been reduced to ashes by the time firetrucks arrived.
The Agricultural and Economic Ministry of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria estimated the fire had burned more than 40,000 hectares and caused approximately 19 billion Syrian Lira in damage (around $35 million) in northeast Syria.
“The local [firefighting] teams are not prepared to deal with a disaster of this size, as the fires are spread over a wide area in the countryside of the al-Hasakah governorate,” Deireky added.
“The Autonomous Administration has suspended all projects and has designated most of its machinery to participate in putting out the fires,” an employee of the Autonomous Administration’s Qamishli municipality told Syria Direct under the condition of anonymity, as they are not authorized to talk to journalists.
“[The city of Qamishli] has allocated 90 fire-fighting devices to [battling] the fires and all of its firefighting forces are on full alert.”
However, despite the Autonomous Administrations efforts, fires not only continue to raze cropland but also threaten the lives of the area’s residents. Several civilians have already died trying to fight the blazes.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) has documented six civilian deaths, including one woman, in the al-Hasaka governorate, as of June 15th. They were killed while trying to put out the fires on their farmlands.
“The fires have destroyed huge areas [of northeast Syria],” Suleiman Barudo, the Minister of Agriculture in the Autonomous Administration, told Syria Direct.
“Some of the fires are out of control.”
The Autonomous Administration’s inability to contain the fire’s spread in its territory has provoked anger from residents.
Rumors as to who is to blame for the fires are widespread, with videos circulating on social media supposedly showing the perpetrators, who at various times have been the Syrian Democratic Forces, Turkey, and Syrian government forces. One thing is agreed upon, however: the fires are manmade, and that compensation for damage sustained is necessary.
Mohammed Saleh Khaled, a farmer in the village of al-Shamiyah, which is five kilometers from the city of al-Malikiya, told Syria Direct that he had “grown 20 acres of wheat, but 17 of them were burned.”
“Our livelihoods, our children’s livelihoods are gone. We don’t have any other income.”
Khaled requested that the Autonomous Administration compensate him for his losses, noting that “the Autonomous Administration’s councils recorded the names of those who [suffered losses], but they have not done anything for them.”
The Autonomous Administration formed committees, in cooperation with the Ministry of Agriculture and the internal security forces, to assess the damage caused by the fires. The findings will be used to see how the Autonomous Administration will compensate those affected, according to Barudo.
“Documentation is being carried out in an official capacity, and was signed off by the affected parties, the Ministry of Agriculture and security forces,” Barudo said. “After, the possibility of compensation in accordance with [current] capacities will be examined.”
After the outbreak of the fires in northeastern Syria, the Autonomous Administration raised the price floor of wheat from 150 Syrian Lira (around 0.28 USD) to 160 Syrian Lira (around 0.30 USD) per kilo.
The Autonomous Administration receives financial and logistical assistance from its partners in the Global Coalition to Defeat IS, as well as in-kind assistance in those areas cleared of IS. However, this assistance has not been extended to firefighting.
The Syria Justice and Accountability Centre, a human rights advocacy organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., emphasized that “the international coalition should provide more funding and equipment for firefighters in SDF held territories.” They also stressed the need for impartial investigations to discourage further cases of arson.
The fires that swept across farms in northeast Syria dashed the hopes of Syrian farmers who were expecting a profitable season. In May 2019, the Syrian government predicted that “wheat production [will] exceed last year’s season by 35 percent.” However, after the punishing fires in northeast Syria during the last two months, such an outcome seems out of reach.
The fires raging in northeast Syria are the latest in a series of crises that the area’s residents have faced in recent years, having lived under IS rule before the SDF took control of the area.
Last year’s farming season was also meagre, as cotton and corn crops were destroyed by the ton due to a “cotton worm,” whose spread was facilitated by climate change, ineffective insecticide, and improper farming techniques.
The area’s economy is largely dependent on agriculture; as a result, the effects of the last two years’ low crop yield has been felt by all the residents.