Syrian forces use scorched earth policy in newly recaptured Idlib

Pistachios, olives and other crops have been seized by the regime, with many fields incinerated, scuppering hopes for agricultural recovery

This Tuesday, May 28, 2019 photo, provided by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrian White Helmet civil defense workers trying to extinguish a fire in a field of crops, in Kfar Ain, the northwestern province of Idlib, Syria. Crop fires in parts of Syria and Iraq have been blamed on defeated Islamic State group militants in the east seeking to avenge the group’s losses, and on Syrian government forces in the west battling to rout other armed groups there. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)
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Before his land was seized by forces loyal to the Syrian regime, pistachio and olive farmer Abu Jaber said he had a story to tell for every grain of sand.

His farmland was near the northern town of Kafr Zita, which was among those captured during an aggressive offensive to reclaim territory in the northern provinces of Hama and Idlib last year.

Almost a year later, much of the agricultural land in the area has been either plundered or burned.

“Years of work have gone to waste,” he said. “I had to leave and will never be able to return back after the crops were stolen and land burnt.”

“Every day I receive dozens of photos and videos … They burn our lands so we can’t return to cultivate for even just ourselves to live off the produce.”

Together with his six brothers, Abu Jaber grew enough food across 450 acres to feed 79 members of the family, as well as providing enough funds to keep them going. They say they have lost crops worth $250,000.

The family have now fled to Batbo in western Aleppo, where they are looking for jobs. Abu Jaber’s sons are at risk of dropping out of university because can no longer afford to keep them there, and finding work in a country ravaged by almost a decade of civil war is no easy feat.

Years of work have gone to waste

Syrians are also contending with a collapsing economy and sharp fall in the value of their currency, compounded by the spread of the global coronavirus pandemic.

According to a Facebook statement by the local branch of President Bashar Al Assad’s ruling Baath Party in Mahardah, northern Hama, proceeds from this year’s pistachio crop will be put towards a fund to assist the families of the regime forces’ dead. Yet there is no system to compensate the farmers for the loss of their land or their income.

Abdulnasser Hoshan, a lawyer from Kafr Zita, said the proceeds from seized crops were likely to go to intelligence services officers rather than the “martyrs” fund.

“The number of civilians affected is more than 50,000,” Mr Hoshan said.

“It is not currently possible for civilians to claim compensation for their losses because the Assad regime’s judiciary is corrupt, and rights cannot be restored to its people.”

This year’s fires began appearing at the beginning of June and were started by volunteers for state-funded militias. Mr Hoshan said that between 9,000 and 15,000 acres of land that hosted various crops, including pistachios, olives, wheat and lentils, have so far been burned.

“These crimes must be documented for justice after the fall of the Syrian regime,” Mr Hosham said.

Attacking crops in opposition-affiliated areas is a tactic the regime has used before, notably in 2018 and 2019, when huge areas of barley were incinerated. Critics say the attacks are designed to starve civilians, and the loss of food and income makes life very difficult, especially during the hot summer months.

Extremist group ISIS also chose to burn crops in areas they retreated from or where they had been defeated.

Idlib is the last rebel stronghold in Syria, and about half of its three million population has been displaced at least once from other parts of the country. Food and shelter is already scarce, with even displacement camps too full to take people.

Ghassan Aboud, engineer and head of Hama’s opposition agriculture department, said the burning of the fields could also impact the area’s chances of recovery.

As well as killing the soil’s micro-organisms and exposing it to the damaging effects of the sun, the fires damage the ecosystem by killing the insects needed for pollination.

“In the short term, pistachio trees are irreparable agricultural wealth because they need 12 to 15 years to enter the fruit phase,” Mr Aboud said, with olive trees needing between four and five years.

For Abu Jaber, the future of his farm or his family’s whereabouts now seem uncertain.

“I’m afraid that the Assad regime will transfer ownership of the land to another person, as he did with many displaced civilians from the rest of Syria,” he said.

“I’m also afraid of being displaced again from Batabo – the news is spreading that Assad and Russia’s are planning to  launch a new military campaign in the region.”