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The reverberating effects of explosive violence on agriculture in Syria

Modern-day Syria, like its neighbour Iraq, lies in the Fertile Crescent – a bounteous arc that stretches from the plains of Mesopotamia in the East to Egypt in the West. In this land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, previously called Assyria, it is said that, 8,000 years ago, man led the way in developing modern crop cultivation and the domestication of livestock.

When Syria became a republic in 1946, agriculture remained a pillar of its economy. It helped shape the ideology of the Ba’athists, the ruling party since 1966, which was dedicated to improving the lives of rural communities and agricultural workers.

However, in recent decades, following the acquisition of power by Bashar al-Assad, systemic state mismanagement of agriculture has caused significant damage to the sector.

The state-led rapid expansion of farmland meant that as much as 90% of the country’s water was being used for agriculture. This significantly depleted the water supplies and led to a crisis when Syria experienced drought from 2006-2010.

In response, the regime removed fuel subsidies to raise funds to cover the cost of pumping water, and meanwhile refocused all its efforts on developing urban cities. The increasing expense of fuel heightened the costs of irrigation and transportation of produce, which, consequently, put many farmers out of business and led to mass urban migration.

The Sunni peasantry were particularly badly hit. This coincided with the regime’s neoliberal reforms, which caused further hardship for agricultural workers and wider socio-economic issues. These changes were exceptionally damaging since the agricultural sector constitutes an economic resource for more than 46% of the Syrian population. They set the stage for widespread dissent.

Now approaching its 10th year, the Syrian Civil War has caused unimaginable devastation of the country and its people. Before the violence and despite the state’s mismanagement, Syria was considered one of the Middle East’s leading exporters of cereals, fruits and vegetables. In 2011, 31% of all Syrian exports were agricultural.

However, having been engulfed in a violence that consumed the entire country, Syria’s agriculture has suffered greatly from a range of actors and harmful tactics. This includes the regime’s ‘siege and starve’ strategy, Russia’s sophisticated aerial power and the entry of battle-hardened extremists such as ISIS with its ‘scorched earth tactics’.

These actors, amongst others, have contributed to 5.6 million Syrian refugees, 6.2 million internally displaced people (IDPs) and 7.9 million people now living in severe acute food insecurity.

The total damage to agricultural infrastructure and assets is estimated at USD 3.2 billion, accounting for almost half of the total damage to the agriculture sector. This ranges from machinery such as trucks, buildings and cooperatives and commercial farms, to facilities used for such things as storage and processing, as well as irrigation canals and wells. According to the FAO, 60% of households reported significant damage to infrastructure, with this figure rising as high as 70–90 % in some governorates concentrated in the most irrigated areas (i.e. Al- Hassakeh, Aleppo and Ar-Raqqa).

Irrigation structures are particularly important as Syria frequently endures high temperatures and irregular rainfalls. These structures are essential for most rural households, as well as for agricultural production. For example, 65% of the Cereal industry is dependent on the use of irrigation.

As early as 2014, it was estimated that 35% of all the water treatment plants had been damaged. In Aleppo, for example, the regime’s bombardments, including barrel bombs, had affected the water supplies in rebel-held areas, destroying much of the water infrastructure of the city. Further bombardment destroyed or severely damaged water plants in Atareb, in the Aleppo countryside, Ghantu in Homs, Qalaat al-Hosn, and Husseiniyah in Deir al-Zur..

Yahia Tannari, an agricultural engineer working for the opposition’s interim government, said that the water crisis is having a catastrophic effect on Syrian agriculture. “The proportion of land in Syria that is being farmed is down 75% to what it was before the revolution started,” he claimed, stating that “the Assad regime has used water as a weapon against the farmers”.

Stanford researchers have estimated that, by 2015, the amount of irrigated land in Syria had shrunk by 47% , and that water reservoirs had diminished by 49%.  Power infrastructure was also damaged, reducing the power output by 62.5% between 2010 and 2015. This made it difficult to supply remaining irrigation systems with the necessary energy.

By 2015 it became clear that the regime was increasingly losing territory to the various opposition groups. This led to Russia deepening its involvement in the conflict, bringing in its sophisticated military, and significantly stepping up the bombardment through the use of its tactical bombers and ground attack aircraft.

From September 2015-January 2018 for example, the Russian military aviation and fleet aviation (without counting helicopters, or transport and reconnaissance aircraft) carried out more than 34,000 combat sorties in Syria. This was an average of 42 flights per day, with sorties exceeding 100 per day during the height of assaults.  As a consequence, by 2017 over 50% of the basic infrastructure in Syria was either destroyed or damaged.

In 2018 the combination of destroyed infrastructure, continuous fighting and drought led to the lowest crop production since 1989. Only 1.2 million tonnes rather than the pre-crisis average of 4.1 million tonnes a year was produced. This greatly reduced the access to flat bread, a subsidised staple for Syrians, increasing the number of those living with high food insecurity levels.

With little attention being paid to the brokered cease-fires, this relentless assault persisted through to 2020.

This has pushed 3 million civilians into the northwest of Syria, in areas such as Idlib, whereby 3/4 of the population are said to be in severe need of humanitarian assistance.  Pro-Government forces have carried out aerial and ground attacks in southern Idlib that decimated civilian infrastructure, including the use of cluster munitions.

This makes for a particularly volatile situation because in 2020 food prices had increased by 120% compared to 2019. Despite the higher yields resulting from greater rainfall in 2019, high fuel prices, localized insecurity, a lack of refrigerator trucks and hampered access to urban markets, is causing this price rise.

In addition, a growing frequency of intense field fires this year, occurring in areas of continual fighting, has also contributed to the price rise.

The Colorado-based Maxar Satellites showed the level of fires burning olive groves, orchards and vital crops such as wheat and barley at the height of harvest season on the periphery of Idlib province.

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These fires started during the heaviest day of airstrikes since the launch of the regime’s major campaign against the Rebel-held territory.

A farm worker, Abdul, underlined the seriousness of the crisis: “Many villages have been burned, and are still burning. People had been waiting all year for their wheat and barley and for food and now it is just gone”. He said, “the fire trucks cannot reach them, because if the bomber planes see them, they will strike”.

One activist claimed that the regime and the Russians were doing this to prevent the Rebels from progressing as “they have bombed and continue to bomb. We are now in the harvest season. There are artillery shells, explosive barrels, burning the land and the people who are defending their property”.

In other areas, the “scorched earth” tactics of ISIS have been particularly hard-hitting. They have also set fire to as much as possible, whether to trees, oil-rigs, oil wells or other structures. This was to provide cover from aerial bombardment, delay opposition forces, degrade valuable resources, and terrorise communities. By 2019, it was recorded that ISIS had burnt 74,000 acres of farmland in Hasakah, Raqqa and Aleppo. The loss from the fires in Raqqa alone has been valued at USD 9 million.

The terror group devastated many rural communities by sabotaging irrigation wells, burning down orchards, laying landmines and destroying agricultural equipment and structures. Before retreating, they booby-trapped many things, from barns to heavily trafficked escape routes, and pump stations. When they were pushed out of Raqqa in 2017, improvised mines were found in “building doorways, under stairwells, debris piles, roadside, rubble piles and even buried in open fields”. It is estimated that ISIS killed hundreds of civilians including 150 children in Raqqa.

In 2017 alone, there were 1,906 mine and ERW casualties, 887 were from improvised mines. They mined vast swathes of ‘high-use land’ to protect their positions.  In addition, IEDs were used as part of their defensive lines in multiple fields.  As a result, Syria is today littered with landmines and UXOs that remain buried within the soil and widely spread among the fields, posing a great risk to farmers. For example, Abu Thaer is one of thousands of civilians wounded by explosives. “I was clearing out dead weeds and starting to plough when a landmine exploded,” said the farmer.

According to the UN more than 10 million people live in areas in Syria contaminated by explosive hazards.

The agricultural sector still accounts for 26% of GDP and is thought to act as a “critical safety net’’ for 6.7 million civilians, including those who still remain in rural areas amidst the conflict.

In light of this, and the devastation this sector has received, it is essential that the international community urges Russia and the Syrian regime to stop bombing civilian infrastructure, particularly hydro-infrastructure, in order to reduce the number of people living in food insecurity.

Water use must be revised to avoid the depletion of aquifers, and climate-smart agricultural practices need to be adopted. Furthermore, it is essential, now more than ever, that the cease-fire is upheld, as the cost of explosive violence has left the northwest of the country ill-prepared to face threats such as COVID-19 and has left charities and ordinary people struggling to access essential supplies to prevent hunger and water-borne diseases. 

Additional research by Kielan Jepson.