The green expanses have been devoured by war

Who stops the destruction of vegetation in Syria?

A man leans against a tree after a forest was burned in Tartus governorate (AFP)

The green expanses have been devoured by war

Who stops the destruction of vegetation in Syria?

A man leans against a tree after a forest was burned in Tartus governorate (AFP)

A man leans against a tree after a forest was burned in Tartus governorate (AFP)

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Khaled al-Jeratli | Muhammed Fansa | Baraa Khattab

War, its consequences, and climate conditions have conspired to destroy the vegetation cover over wide areas in Syria, turning green regions of the country into barren patches.

This transformation is clearly visible in the recent satellite images captured of Syrian lands.

For example, an odd scene can be observed in northern Aleppo province, with the green color extending in Turkish lands stopping at the Syrian border. Below, a green belt runs in southern Turkey, paralleled by brown swaths of earth-colored land, signaling the beginning of Syrian territory.

A combination of factors, most prominently fuelwood harvesting, and wildfires, in conjunction with governmental neglect, has led to the decline of the vegetative cover, leaving a negative impact on both the environmental and economic fronts, affecting various regions and impacting the population in Syria. This impact is expected to have long-reaching effects.

In this lengthy article, Enab Baladi discusses with experts and researchers the effects of the decline in Syria’s vegetative cover on both the environment and the economy, as well as the effectiveness of the regulations put forth by the four authorities in control to support this sector.

Deforestation for heating purposes

A “PAX” organization study, based on satellite analysis and open-source research published in March 2023, showed the devastating impact twelve years of war have had on Syrian forests and orchards, where more than one-third of the forests have been cut down.

Deforestation often increases during conflicts, primarily due to over-harvesting by communities that suddenly rely on wood and coal for fuel and heating, according to the specialist news and analysis site “SciDev.Net” for global development.

Syrians heavily rely on fuelwood due to the soaring fuel prices and reduced state-distributed rations per family.

The report published by PAX under the title “Cut and Burned” is the most in-depth scientific study conducted on the many causes and consequences of vegetative cover loss throughout Syria.

The study showed that deforestation indeed affects the lives and livelihoods of civilians and has long-term consequences regarding the capacity to adapt to climate change.

Loss of electricity and fuel has led to large-scale tree cutting for heating and cooking purposes, “while displacement and intense fighting contribute to forest loss,” according to the study.

An investigative study in 2021 by the economic researcher Ruba Jaffar stated other conflict-related reasons for deforestation, including the population’s heavy reliance on trees for heating and shelter.

She added that in 2013, 40% of Syria’s electricity lines were attacked, and 30 stations were disrupted, making trees vital for heating and electricity.

Seven thousand trees were cut down in Tell Kalakh and al-Hameh, as well as in the al-Bilas reserve located southeast of Hama governorate, where hundreds of centuries-old trees disappeared, according to the study.

Seven thousand five hundred trees were felled in al-Hasakah, most of them from the Jabal Abdul Aziz reserve southwest of al-Hasakah, while entire forests were removed in the Jubata reserve in Quneitra, the first of its kind in the governorate, covering an area of 133 hectares, while 100 wild pine trees were cut down in al-Shahar south of Jubata.

Deforestation not only damages the economy but also leads to the destruction of nature reserves, as happened in the al-Damna reserve south of Syria, and among these losses are perennial and seasonal trees such as oaks, Atlantic mastic trees, mulberries, blackberry shrubs, wild pines, mahlab cherries, along with hundreds of species of natural plants, like chamomile, nettle, and wild thyme, which are essential for pharmaceutical industries, in addition to rare aromatic herbs such as lavender, coriander, and mushrooms.

Between October and December 2016, more than 251,000 fruit trees were destroyed in forest fires that broke out in Latakia governorate in the regions of al-Haffah, Jableh, Qardaha, and central Latakia, damaging livelihoods and jeopardizing food security for many families.

An aerial image shows members of the Syria Civil Defence battling a fire on a slope in the town of Jisr al-Shughour, west of Idlib province - September 11, 2020 (AFP)

An aerial image shows members of the Syria Civil Defence battling a fire on a slope in the town of Jisr al-Shughour, west of Idlib province – September 11, 2020 (AFP)

Wildfires

Using remote sensing data, the PAX study found that over 36% of forest areas in western Syria were affected by unregulated logging and intensive forest fires between 2018 and 2020.

The science publishing leader “MDPI” noted a marked decrease in the total forest area in the Syrian coastal region, where the loss of forest cover, reduced areas of dense forests, and increased fragmented forests indicate the pressure on natural forests and their fragmentation and degradation.

The article linked changes in forest cover to a variety of different conflict-related factors, where the main drivers were changes in economic and social activities, widespread exploitation of forest resources, recurring wildfires, and weak state institutions in managing natural resources and environmental development.

A report by the Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS) revealed a loss of 3,505 hectares of forest in Syria in 2020, an increase of 159% over 2019, meaning that around 20% of Syria’s forests have been lost since 2000. Fire hotspots along the Mediterranean coast near Latakia and Tartus, home to more than three-quarters of the country’s forest areas, are of particular concern.

The report pointed out that climate conditions pose a risk for fires to erupt in Syria but stated that some fires were sparked by bombing, while residents believe others were “deliberately set.”

Between 2010 and 2018, wildfires consumed more than a quarter of Syria’s forest area, with over 2000 fire incidents recorded, affecting over 100,000 hectares in the Syrian coast.

Before 2011, Syria produced about 30 million seedlings annually, and the number dropped to 1.5 million seedlings due to wartime conditions, according to statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture.

A report presented by the Directorate of Forests of the Syrian regime’s Ministry of Agriculture to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 1993 divided Syria’s 445,000 hectares of forests into 150,000 hectares in Tartus, Latakia, Idlib, and Hama composed of pine, cedar, fir, and oak; 225,000 hectares of sparse forest cover “suitable only for charcoal production” in Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, and As-Suwayda; and 70,000 hectares of forests in Hama and Damascus, largely comprising pistachio and junipers.

An investigative study by the economic researcher Ruba Jaffar stated that forest fires are among the main reasons for deforestation, with their frequency and intensity increasing significantly during the years of conflict in Syria. In 2020 alone, fires destroyed over 9,000 hectares of agricultural land and forests.

The study added that in other areas, like north of Aleppo, “armed groups were the main drivers of intensive logging in natural forests, cutting down about 60% of trees.”

The war had a direct impact on destroying extensive commercial orchards, affecting livelihoods.

Places like Palmyra lost more than 52% of fruit trees “in intense fighting between regime forces and armed groups.”

In other regions, displaced residents desperately needed energy, leading to increased tree cutting, and concern arose regarding the loss of livelihoods when Turkish forces built military sites in orchards in northern Syria, according to the study.

“In eastern Syria, only a few natural reserves and reforestation projects around Raqqa and al-Tabqa survived, severely adversely affected during the presence of the Islamic State organization.

Additionally, the human consequences of war were exacerbated by the destruction of natural resources, depriving orchard farmers of their livelihood, affecting unique ecosystems and biodiversity, and leading to carbon sink loss in a country facing severe climate challenges due to rising temperatures and drought.

The report uncovered the loss of green spaces in cities, confirming that the siege of large cities such as Aleppo, Hama, and Damascus led to increased tree-cutting for firewood.

The enormous human cost of war in Syria has overshadowed its environmental consequences, as long conflicts and complex ones often pay little attention to the potential long-term effects of military activities on nature and their reflection on the population.

Even when environmental destruction is not intentional, wars cause deep harm to the environment in many ways, such as trench digging, tanks leveling vegetation, bombing, destroying and burning landscapes, and primarily, the release of toxic gasses and particulates into the air and the seepage of heavy metals into soil and water.

Syrian men cut pieces of wood to serve as a source of warmth during winter - November 3, 2020, Syria (PAX)

Syrian men cut pieces of wood to serve as a source of warmth during winter – November 3, 2020, Syria (PAX)

Three droughts

The geographical region of Syria has experienced three major droughts since the 1980s; the most recent was between 2006 and 2010, considered by many to be the worst multi-year drought in modern history, resulting in massive rainfall decreases and high temperatures, leading to agricultural land destruction, desertification, and the mass displacement of approximately two million people from rural areas to urban centers, according to the “MedGlobal” report.

The entire Tigris and Euphrates basin and large parts of Iran underwent a severe and exceptional agricultural drought over 36 months until June 2023, making it the second-worst recorded drought in both regions, according to a study published by “World Weather Attribution.”

Syria ranks 65th on a list of 191 countries prone to humanitarian or natural disasters attributed to climate change and seventh among the least prepared countries to respond to such disasters, as reported in the study.

The increase in drought severity is primarily due to extreme heat rise, one of the reasons for this being the burning of fossil fuels depended upon by the world’s armies, like oil, coal, and gas, according to “World Weather Attribution.”

Burning fossil fuels creates a layer of gasses that trap the sun’s heat on Earth and raise global temperatures, leading to other changes such as drought, water scarcity, fires, sea level rise, flooding, polar ice melting, severe storms, and biodiversity degradation.

Fossil fuel use rises whether in conflicts or not, as merely maintaining an army contributes to climate change — what it uses as fuel for military training and the continuing operation of facilities — and active war increases this potential to the maximum.

According to the Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS) study, carbon dioxide emissions from the largest armies make up a more significant portion of emissions than many countries combined.

Soil salinity

The soil salinity phenomenon has spread in the eastern rural lands of Deir Ezzor province, which farmers attributed to the slow pace of cleaning and rehabilitating excess water drains, as accumulating them for long periods causes soil salinity.

According to a survey conducted by the Irrigation Committee of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) in the area, between 2300 and 2500 hectares have been salted, rendering the soil unsuitable for agriculture.

A worker at the irrigation station in al-Shahil village in Deir Ezzor countryside (who preferred to remain anonymous as he is not authorized to speak) told Enab Baladi that salinization resulted from the vertical wells going out of service since 2013. He added that of the area’s 85 wells, only ten are currently operational, thanks to local initiatives to get them running.

A large section of these wells was tampered with and robbed, with lift stations, electrical cables, and covered drainage networks responsible for drawing surplus water from the soil and discharging it into the Euphrates River stolen.

A Syria Civil Defence volunteer working to extinguish a bushfire in the village of al-Suwayda in eastern Aleppo countryside - July 17, 2022 (Civil Defence)

A Syria Civil Defence volunteer working to extinguish a bushfire in the village of al-Suwayda in eastern Aleppo countryside – July 17, 2022 (Civil Defence)

Superficial laws, Belated measures

After the conclusion of the COP 28 climate summit in Dubai on December 1 and 2, 2023, the Syrian regime’s government, which participated in the summit with a delegation headed by Prime Minister Hussein Arnous, continued its activities, promoting its interest in the environment in Syria.

Following a workshop held before the summit on the state of the environment in Syria, where the deterioration was blamed on “terrorism supported by evil forces,” according to Arnous’ expression, the Syrian regime’s president, Bashar al-Assad, issued Law No. 39 on December 25, 2023, with the aim of “preserving and managing forest wealth.”

The law imposed penalties of imprisonment from ten to twenty years and a fine equivalent to three times the value of the damage for anyone who intentionally set fire or incited or intervened or participated in setting fires in state forests, and imprisonment from one year to three years and a similar fine for anyone who caused a forest fire in state forests as a result of “negligence” or non-compliance with laws.

The Minister of Agriculture, Mohammad Hassan Qatna, commented on the law, saying that it included a special chapter on severe punishments “to preserve state forests and private forests and the plant sector outside them,” such that the penalty could reach the death penalty for anyone who intentionally set fire to forests, leading to permanent disability of a human, along with a range of imprisonment within penal and criminal sanctions, and “deterrent” financial fines.

Thus, this law came to annul a previous law issued in 2018, also concerning the protection of forest wealth, but the most significant twist of the new law was the tightening and more detailed penalties.

During a dialogue session in Latakia at the end of 2021, the Director of Forestry in the Ministry of Agriculture stated that the 2018 Forestry Law suffers from a “clear defect” on the ground related to the “local community,” which resulted in encroachments that led to the loss of significant areas of forests, which negatively reflected “on forests and humans and the protection of biodiversity.”

In November 2022, Abdul Latif Shabaan, a member of the Syrian Economic Sciences Association, questioned the reasons for the shortcomings of the 2018 Forestry Law and the urgent need to amend it, noting that only three years had passed since its issuance and if the previous law was flawed, it indicates the ongoing critical defective situation in the forests over the past years.

He pointed out that the reality of gas, diesel, and deteriorating electricity imposes more arbitrary continuous cutting of forest wealth, which is evident in the widespread trade in firewood and coal, making this wealth “subject to perplexed legislation and arbitrary encroachments” in his words.

Mahmoud Hammam, a lawyer and human rights activist, told Enab Baladi that the Syrian regime often issues “superficial” laws that are legally sound but differ in their effectiveness when applied.

 

Law (39) came as a result of the significant and flagrant infringement on forest wealth over the past years and the accompanying fires that spread widely within the areas controlled by the regime, especially in the coastal region. 

Mahmoud Hammam, Lawyer and human rights activist

 

Hammam emphasized that the introduction of such laws and procedures comes very late, as even when the previous law was issued in 2018, a large part of the vegetation cover in Syria had been destroyed since 2011.

Hammam also noted that most forest areas within the territories controlled by the regime serve as a haven for militias and factions loyal to it or to Iran, which are not subject to the rule of law and are the primary destroyers of forests, causing fires or tree felling and timber trading, exploiting residents’ need for them as a cheaper alternative for fuel.

On December 21, 2023, the regime’s government approved the import of 10,000 tons of dry firewood “to preserve the forest wealth.”

According to the Director-General of Forestry at the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform, Ali Thabet, for the first time since 2010, firewood has been imported for heating purposes despite the deterioration of the vegetation cover over the past decade, indicating that the continuous depletion of forest wealth carries a “very huge environmental bill that exceeds the import bill.”

Law No. 6 about forests was issued in 2018. It is the fourth law for protecting forests in Syria, preceded by laws in 1935, 1994, and 2007.

Penalties were mostly reduced in the 2018 law, compared to previous laws, and the life sentence was abolished for arson in forests if the motive was to damage the national economy.

In November 2022, the Director of Forestry in the Ministry of Agriculture, Ali Thabet, clarified that the current area of forest properties does not exceed 3% of Syria’s area, whereas before 2011, it was 15% of the country’s area.

What is the situation in northern Syria?

The situation in northwestern and eastern Syria is no better than the areas controlled by the regime regarding the destruction of the vegetation cover, as the residents’ need in these areas for a cheaper alternative to hydrocarbons for heating and cooking, such as firewood, is similar due to weak purchasing power. Additionally, fires erupt each summer, reducing the green areas without adequate compensation from artificial reforestation.

The Director of Forest Affairs in the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), Shadi Rahhal, told Enab Baladi that the area previously witnessed a decline in vegetation cover due to the deliberate bombardment of the forests by regime forces, as well as arbitrary cutting and grazing by locals, the effects of which are still evident to this day.

Regarding the government’s efforts to compensate for this shortage, Rahhal reported that in recent years, the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation in the Salvation Government began working to preserve the remaining vegetation cover and forests by enacting State Property Law No. 35 for the year 2020. It also established a department for Forestry and Forestry Stations to protect forests and forested areas, and by virtue of the law, cutting and grazing, plowing, and planting these areas or urban expansion by the locals were prohibited.

The ministry in 2023, according to Rahhal, launched an afforestation campaign that included planting 2,112 trees in al-Atareb, Sarmada, Harem, Kafr Takharim, Idlib, Ariha, and Jisr al-Shughour, while in the next phase, it plans to activate a nursery for the production of forest seedlings.

Enab Baladi contacted several parties in the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) to ask about the forest wealth situation in the area and conservation measures, but it did not receive any response at the time of preparing this report.

Elements in the Martyrs of Sfira Brigade faction, affiliated with the Sultan Murad Division in the Syrian National Army (SNA), which has controlled the area since March 2018, are managing timber harvesting and tree cutting around the lake located 70 kilometers from Aleppo city and 12 kilometers from Afrin town, near Maydanki village overlooking the Afrin River.

Since the control of the National Army over Afrin, local authorities and military institutions have warned against cutting forest trees in the area and its countryside, under threat of accountability and the confiscation of any vehicle loaded with firewood and the arrest and accountability of the responsible party, but this did not stop or diminish the pace of timber harvesting that rises before every winter.

Enab Baladi reported from local sources in the area, who requested anonymity for security concerns, that the tree cutting is followed by the sale of firewood for no less than $140 per ton.

The situation is no different in northeastern Syria, where several natural reserves exist, such as Jabal Abdul Aziz reserve southwest of al-Hasakah city, which was declared as a natural reserve by a decision of the Syrian Ministry of Agriculture in 1993, and al-Qurain reserve, also known as Jazirat Ayed, located southwest of Raqqa governorate.

Over the past decade, with the change in control during military combat, the doors of Jabal Abdul Aziz and al-Qurain reserves were opened to random timber harvesting and livestock grazing, and careless fires broke out.

With the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) taking control of the mountain and the reserve, the broadcasting station at its peak became a military communications point, and the reserve contains permanent training camps and military headquarters for the SDF, as well as tunnels dug within the rocky structure of the mountain.

An employee at the Agriculture Directorate affiliated with the Autonomous Administration in northeastern Syria, who spoke to Enab Baladi on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to unlicensed media in the region, said that laws imposing financial penalties are in place for those who practice timber harvesting and arbitrary grazing in forest areas, especially during winter. He pointed to the Environmental Protection Law issued by the Autonomous Administration in July 2022.

The employee added that timber harvesting and arbitrary grazing have negatively affected the vegetation cover in the area, especially locations near rivers, estimating that more than 80% of the total vegetation cover was damaged, and the most affected areas were the bed of the Khabur River, Jabal Abdul Aziz area, and the areas of al-Jawadiyah dam, al-Malikiyah, and Ain Diwar.

Conversely, the official at the Directorate of Agriculture in the Autonomous Administration (withheld his name due to the lack of a media license) indicated that the destruction of the vegetation cover decreased in the past three years because each family started receiving heating allocations to minimize timber harvesting, particularly rural residents who rely more on wood stoves than cities. Also, the enforcement of laws prohibiting timber harvesting and tree cutting became “stricter.”

He mentioned that there is a plan to implement model forests in the area, like the one executed in the Ain al-Arab area, covering 100 dunams with about 2000 forest trees, and a forest in the countryside of the town of al-Qahtaniyah (four hectares comprising about 3000 forest trees like cypress and pine). Moreover, hundreds of trees were replanted along the river beds in the region, and public gardens were opened, the latest being “West Qamishli” Park, the largest in the region.

From the visit of the Syrian regime president Bashar al-Assad to the forests of the northern countryside of Latakia, which were affected by fires - August 3, 2023 (SANA)

From the visit of the Syrian regime president Bashar al-Assad to the forests of the northern countryside of Latakia, which were affected by fires – August 3, 2023 (SANA)

What is the economic and environmental impact?

Environmental damage and the decline of plant cover, including trees and rare plants, have always been linked to an increase in global warming, as well as other damages related to the ecosystem in a geographical area that may encompass several countries.

For Syria, the effects of deforestation, desertification, fires, and other factors that have harmed its vegetation were not only a priority according to environmental standards but also economically more significant for a country where a large proportion of its population suffers from food insecurity.

Economic researcher Firas Shaabo told Enab Baladi that Syria naturally suffers from food security problems, which have been exacerbated by fires and environmental damage resulting from logging and other factors, affecting the income sources of segments of the Syrian society.

The researcher attributed these damages to the lack of any economic base for the Syrian citizens, as there is no fuel for heating, coupled with a lack of service infrastructure and governmental negligence in caring for forests and green areas.

In addition to the aforementioned factors, the reduction in government subsidies for Syrian citizens’ food sources and the decrease in the volume of aid granted to them have led to a worsening of the economic situation they are experiencing.

Shaabo considered that the damages suffered by the agricultural sector, the high costs of farming, and the decrease in profit margins have led farmers to neglect their lands and abandon them.

With all the mentioned factors, Shaabo believes that the plant cover in Syria, closely related to the economic aspect of Syrians’ lives, is in danger, alongside food security, health security, and economic security.

The war in Syria forced people to flee from their living places, displacing thousands of farmers, with the percentage of the population that lived in rural areas in 2011 halving by 2016, according to a 2017 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The change in the distribution of Syrians between rural and urban areas led to “severe” losses in crop and livestock production and destruction in agricultural irrigation systems, wide agricultural areas were impacted, and the costs of agricultural needs such as seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides increased sharply, according to the report.

Academic professor of agricultural sciences Abdul Aziz Dayoub told Enab Baladi that the issue of fires is old and recurring and is often caused by some farmers burning parts of their crops for various reasons.

What made matters worse was the tendency of a segment of the population to cut wood in forests randomly, causing a decrease in the growth of plants in these forests.

Dayoub added that behaviors of logging and crop burning have led to a decline in the growth of forest trees and plant cover, especially since medicinal plants of rare types are found in Syrian forests, and fires and logging have been the main reasons for their deterioration.

Dayoub sees that these factors have contributed to the absence of any potential economic return from those plants that were contributing to the export process and obtaining hard currency for the Syrian economy.

According to a report published by the Carnegie research organization written by Jalal al-Attar, an engineer in the field of agricultural scientific research, the agricultural sector in Syria is considered a fundamental element of economic, political, and social stability.

With the accumulation of problems, this sector suffered significant damage, as did other economic sectors, and there are no signs of recovery on the horizon in the absence of a sustainable fundamental solution that restores confidence in the Syrian economy and society and encourages reinvestment in a stimulating investment environment.

An agricultural fire in Latakia governorate covered an area of three dunams - August 24, 2023 (Agricultural Media in Syria)

An agricultural fire in Latakia governorate covered an area of three dunams – August 24, 2023 (Agricultural Media in Syria)

What are the solutions?

Professor of agricultural sciences Abdul Aziz Dayoub sees that there are many available means to stop the decline of plant cover in Syria, most importantly the protection of forests, the enforcement of laws related to deliberate fires, and the encouragement of the local population by various means.

 

There must be laws to protect agricultural reserves and attention to plant density, i.e., planting different varieties and choosing good administrations, but the de facto authorities in Syria care about nothing but power.

Abdul Aziz Dayoub, Ph.D. in Agricultural Sciences

 

For her part, the activist and journalist who specialized in the environmental field, Jullanar Khattar, believes that the available means are varied in the four areas of influence to reduce ruthless logging, but the problem, in her opinion, is that the controlling parties are not willing to implement what is required of them to curb this environmental bleed, as it is not a priority according to their agenda.

Khattar fears that the damage done is greater than remedying it in two or three years, while it is possible to stop the deterioration through serious reforestation projects, water purification, and the need for agricultural engineers’ expertise in training farmers through awareness workshops on how to deal with this environmental damage and which types of crops and fertilizers can aid in environmental improvement.

A United Nations study published in 2020 estimated Syria’s need for 360 million dollars to stop environmental degradation in the country by 2030.

 

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