Syria fighting destroying crops as food used as 'weapon of war', UN says

More than 300,000 civilians forced to flee searching for shelter in overcrowded cramps in northern Idlib

Syrians gather at the site of a reported air strike on the town of Maaret Al Numan in the rebel-held Idlib province. AFP
Syrians gather at the site of a reported air strike on the town of Maaret Al Numan in the rebel-held Idlib province. AFP

Thousands of acres of land have been set on fire in north-western Syria as fighting between the government and rebel forces increases, sparking fears of a humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations.

The military offensive against Idlib, the country’s last rebel stronghold, is seen as the biggest escalation of the war between Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and opponents of his government since last summer.

The fires are threatening to disrupt normal food production cycles that would could potentially reduce food security for months to come, the UN food agency (WFP) said late on Tuesday.

“It is not acceptable to take one more time the civilian population hostage, to basically use food, distribution of food as a weapon of war,” forcing thousands to flee, Herve Verhoosel, spokesperson for WFP, said.

Campaigners released cable images revealing fields, olive groves and orchards burning in the areas where the fighting is currently taking place.

“The latest outbreak in violence in Idlib and north Hama has left dozens of casualties, burned several thousand acres of vital crops and farmland, and forced at least 300,000 people to flee their homes,”

Crops such as barley, wheat, and vegetables have all been destroyed, the agency said.

Whether the burning of crops is intentional or not it will have a tremendous impact on Syrian soil and will affect the health of thousands of civilians in the province where the fighting is occurring.

“Farmers are no longer able to access their fields or tend to their remaining crops during this harvest season, which runs until mid-June,” Mr Verhoosel said.

Both sides blame each other for the destruction, the UN said.

Syrian state media said that rising temperatures around the country, including in government held areas, have caused the raging fires.

The UN echoed the government's statement.

“Farmlands in other governorates where there is no active conflict have been affected by burning, mainly Hassakeh, Deir Ezzor and Homs,” Mr Verhoosel said.

The international body called on all parties to the conflict to “respect civilian life and infrastructure and allow humanitarians safe access to those who need our continued food assistance.”

Poverty is prevalent among 75 per cent of the population of Syrians inside Syria.

“Poor families spend 80 per cent of their income on food. This is why food assistance is vital here,” WFP spokesperson said.

Aid suspension

WFP has had to suspend its deliveries to some towns caught in the middle of the conflict and where security is volatile.

“As of now, we are unable to reach 7,000 people living in the area of Madiq Castle in Hama since the bombardment began,” Mr Verhossel said.

Reaching civilians in need

The global body said it has reached 200,000 newly displaced people with ready-to-eat food rations as part of its emergency response.

Until now, WFP has provided monthly deliveries of food rations to 700,000 people in the north-west region.

Three million people are currently living in the north-west cross-border area of north Hama, Idlib and rural western Aleppo, stuck in the middle of conflict and reachable only through entry via Turkey.

WFP plans to scale up to reach 823,000 people this month across north Hama, Idlib and rural western Aleppo with monthly food assistance.

Less than 5 per cent percent of Syria’s current crops have been damaged by the war, the UN said.

US President Donald Trump on Sunday urged Russia and Syrian government forces to stop bombing Idlib, following a Friday statement from the Kremlin that signalled Moscow would continue to back a month-long Syrian government offensive there.

Updated: June 5, 2019 03:55 PM

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