How Crop Fires Have Become The Latest Weapon Of War In Syria

Jun 26, 2019
Originally published on June 26, 2019 7:33 pm
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Crop fires burn vast areas of farmland in Syria and Iraq. They've destroyed wheat, cotton and other crops, as well as threatened homes and lives. Some of the fires are accidental, but experts say more are intentional. NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports on how these crop fires have become the latest weapon of war.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIRE ROARING)

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Families run in panic from the line of red flame that consumes the horizon. Women yank their children along through the burning wheat fields in northeast Syria, a huge black cloud of smoke above them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIRE ROARING)

SHERLOCK: This video is one of the many posted on social media of the latest ordeal for thousands of Syrians and Iraqis.

ISMAIL FATTAH: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Ismail Fattah, a farmer in northeast Syria, names the villages whose crops he says were destroyed by fire.

FATTAH: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Fattah's own fields of wheat and cotton were among those destroyed.

FATTAH: (Through interpreter) I ran out and saw the fire was 5 or 6 meters high. What could we do? Men, women and children all came to fight, but the fire was stronger than us. It was coming from all directions.

SHERLOCK: Crop fires do happen accidentally.

FATTAH: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: But Fattah says his family has been farming in the region for generations, and he's never seen anything like this. In the last few weeks, fires have consumed more than 111,000 acres of crops in northeast Syria alone, according to officials there, and almost a third of agricultural land in northwest Syria, according to Wim Zwijnenburg, a Dutch expert in the environmental fallout of conflicts.

WIM ZWIJNENBURG: It's a potpourri of different causes.

SHERLOCK: He says the high number of fires clearly show that some are the result of arson. And of these, he says, some have been carried out by ISIS.

ZWIJNENBURG: ISIS used that as a way of extorting people.

SHERLOCK: He says ISIS used the threat of fire to get money from locals and even promoted the strategy in its newsletter. But it's not just ISIS that's doing this.

Zwijnenburg says that in northwest Syria, crops have been caught in the crossfire between fighting factions who use shells and incendiary bombs. And in Kurdish-held northeast Syria, some blame the Syrian regime or Turkey, who are in disputes with Kurdish rule there.

Zwijnenburg says the suspects are many. What's clear is that fire...

ZWIJNENBURG: Is being used as a tool to target and punish civilians who are either resisting the government or who are not paying bribes, for example, to ISIS, or it is being used by local disputes. But also, we have heard lots of stories from businessmen who are trying to do this to affect prices.

SHERLOCK: Authorities don't have the equipment to combat the fires.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF FIRE ROARING)

SHERLOCK: Instead, videos like these posted online show men, in a futile effort, whacking the flames with small carpets.

FATTAH: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Fattah, the farmer in northeast Syria, says villagers tried to save his crops by beating the flames with empty grain sacks. But in the end, he told them to stop, scared for their lives.

FATTAH: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: He says he's already been to too many funerals. In this area, the flames have claimed some 19 victims. This region is the breadbasket of Syria. And with much rain this year, Fattah says farmers were looking forward to bumper crops. Now he says he barely has enough left to feed his family.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.