Syria Weekly: Assad's regime scorches agriculture in Idlib after losing ground

Syria Weekly: Assad's regime scorches agriculture in Idlib after losing ground
Continuing with its brutal tactics of weaponising food and isolating civilians, the Syrian regime has carried out a deliberate strategy of scorching agricultural areas in the Idlib province.
7 min read
24 May, 2019
Farmers' fields were reduced to ashes in Idlib province this week as the Syrian regime carried out a deliberate strategy of scorched earth on agricultural areas. This comes after a number of losses on the battlefield, civil society groups have said.

More than 200 durums of wheat were eaten away by fires over the past few days, according to the White Helmets, as rescue workers try and halt the devastation on one of Syria's main breadbasket.

The use of incendiary bombs on agricultural areas that lack any other discernible target have coincided with regime retreats from parts of Hama and Idlib. The White Helmets say this constitutes an act of collective punishment against the civilian population after recent defeats to rebels. Others believe the arson is part of a wider regime strategy to starve Idlib, although few disagree on who started the fires.

"The main reason for the fires is direct targeting by regime and Russian airstrikes," the White Helmets media office told The New Arab.

"We know this because messages were sent to the civilians residing in those areas saying that burning the fields is an act of revenge for the recent counter-attack in the Hama province and the fact that it has been circulated through pro-regime social media channels also proves this point."

The White Helmets have put out 38 fires that have broken out following the bombing of some of Idlib's richest agricultural lands over the past weeks. Rescue teams are working with farmers to cordon off farmland to stop their spread and then extinguishing the blazes, but even when fighting the fires they face danger from the air.

Our teams have been attacked in double tap airstrikes in empty fields

"Our teams have been attacked in double tap airstrikes in empty fields. There has been the direct targeting of firefighter teams and vehicles, with one fire engine destroyed, in addition to unexploded ordnance spread across the land that usually explode during [White Helmets'] operations or when farmers' harvest their fields," he added.

The White Helmets warned that the regime's apparent strategy of scorched earth in Hama and Idlib could have a dire impact on the already critical humanitarian situation in opposition areas, which have endured weeks of airstrikes devastating civilian infrastructure.

Control over food supplies has been an underreported but hugely significant aspect of Syria's eight-year war. Syria is among the countries suffering from one of the world's worst food shortages with the loss of arable land, infrastructure, markets and workers all contributing to a decline in food production, UK-based charity Human Appeal said.

Before war broke out, Syria's centralised food industries gave the regime enormous leverage and tied farmers, bakers and consumers to Damascus through a system of subsidies, nationalised industries, logistics and other mechanisms.

When parts of Syria broke away from government control, crops, silos and bakeries became prime targets for the regime, while crippling starvation sieges have forced some rebel enclaves into submission.

Emma Beals, an award-winning journalist who has written extensively on Syria's food crisis, told The New Arab that the eventual success of farming and food supply networks in opposition areas became a source of ire for the regime.

"With farming, civilians in opposition areas have a degree of self-sufficiency, but if the crops are destroyed and food supplies are low then they can't feed their children and the population only has the option of whether to flee or capitulate."

When parts of Syria broke away from government control, crops, silos and bakeries became prime targets for the regime, while crippling starvation sieges have forced some rebel enclaves into submission

Burning crops became a regular tactic employed by the regime throughout the war, with farmland in Eastern Ghouta, Darayya all targeted as a way of tightening the screws on the opposition areas.

"Burning crops has been a part of the Syrian government's overall military strategy and what we are seeing in Idlib are not isolated incidents. They have done it time and time again, to reduce the agency of the people and force them to flee," Beals told The New Arab.

The most recent targeting of crops in Idlib and Hama has been in conjunction with a devastating air campaign against hospitals and schools, which has forced 200,000 people to flee from their homes. Since the takeover of Idlib by the hardline Hayat Tahrir al-Sham-affiliated Salvation Government earlier this year, some aid agencies are wary about operating in the province or have been hit by aid cuts from Western governments.

Turkey has meanwhile closed the border, effectively trapping Idlib's civilians who have come under repeated Russian attacks despite a truce for the area supposedly being agreed between the two countries in September.

Tens of thousands of civilians from affected areas in southern Idlib have been forced to move deeper into the province, causing further strain on aid workers and authorities. The migration of Syrians from former opposition enclaves recently recaptured by the regime has seen Idlib's population double during the war to around three million, many living in camps and reliant on bread and wheat.

"Overstretched services and supplies in Idlib will pile further hardships on the civilian population and they might start pressuring the armed groups to come to some sort of deal with the government if they can't find food. The bombing of crops could have an impact on food supplies in Idlib in the future and this will increase the dire humanitarian crisis and the chance of illness, death, or surrender," Beals added.

Despite this, there has been cooperation between the regime and rebels on food issues in some parts of Syria, Beals said.

Grain has been transferred out of opposition areas to be processed in plants situated in regime territories, before returning back minus taxes or a portion of the goods. This was not the case in enclaves under siege although some civilians still managed to smuggle in wheat seeds to grow food on their own allotments.

Beals added that the problems rebel groups faced during the early stages of the war in keeping bread supplies running following the breakdown of the government's top-down model of management paved the way for extremist groups to exploit shortages of food.

"The rebels were initially very bad at running services and weren't able to provide adequate bread to the population," Beals said.

"Jihadi groups entered areas with wheat supplies as part of their hearts and minds campaign. With their disciplined approach they got bakeries running again and it left a favourable opinion on the civilian population, who became more inclined to keep quiet about the way jihadi groups governed their areas."

Control of food will continue to play a critical role in the war, Beals added, while markets and bakeries have been targeted by Russian and regime forces throughout the war, with the central bakery in Idlib's Khan Sheikhoun destroyed in March.

"Wheat has been used as a weapon to control the population in negative and positive way by all actors. If you destroy crops you gain control of the situation and force people to do what you want."

With hospitals, crops, and schools taken out by suspected Russian bombers and civilians fleeing in their thousands, there will be added considerations for HTS and rebel groups in Idlib besides the battlefield. A major humanitarian crisis would impact on neighbouring Turkey and inevitably Europe, if the millions flee the last opposition stronghold.

"If you remove food from the equation then you have a perfect storm that could lead to further resentment towards the rebels and put pressure on them to surrender or compromise," Beals added.

With civilians out of options on where to flee to and vital agricultural land being destroyed, the regime's weaponising of food could have a devastating impact on Idlib unless the world acts.

Syria Weekly is a new, regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Weekly in your inbox each week, sign up here

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin