It was looking to be a good year for farmers across parts of Syria and Iraq. The wettest in generations, it brought rich, golden fields of wheat and barley, giving farmers in this war-torn region reason to rejoice.
But good news is short-lived in this part of the world, where residents of the two countries struggle to cope with seemingly never-ending violence and turmoil amid Syria’s civil war and attacks by remnants of the Islamic State group. Now, even in areas where conflict has subsided, fires have been raging in farmers’ fields, depriving them of valuable crops.
The blazes have been blamed alternately on defeated ISIS militants seeking to avenge their losses, or on Syrian government forces battling to rout other armed groups. Thousands of acres of wheat and barley fields in both Syria and Iraq have been scorched by the fires during the harvest season, which runs until mid-June.
“The life that we live here is already bitter,” said Hussain Attiya, a farmer from Topzawa Kakai in northern Iraq. “If the situation continues like this, I would say that no one will stay here. I plant 500 to 600 acres every year. Next year, I won’t be able to do that because I can’t stay here and guard the land day and night.”
ISIS militants have a history of implementing a “scorched earth policy” in areas from which they retreat or where they are defeated. It’s “a means of inflicting a collective punishment on those left behind,” said Emma Beals, an independent Syria researcher.
ISIS militants claimed responsibility for burning crops in their weekly newsletter, al-Nabaa, saying they targeted farms belonging to senior officials in six Iraqi provinces and in Kurdish-administered eastern Syria, highlighting the persistent threat from the group even after its territorial defeat.
ISIS said it burned the farms of “the apostates in Iraq and the Levant” and called for more.
“It seems that it will be a hot summer that will burn the pockets of the apostates as well as their hearts as they burned the Muslims and their homes in the past years,” the article said.
Hundreds of acres of wheat fields around Kirkuk in northern Iraq have been set on fire. Several wheat fields in the Daquq district in southern Kirkuk burned for three days straight last week.
Farmers in the village of Ali Saray, within Daquq’s borders, struggled to put out the blazes. The militants had laid land mines in the field, so when help arrived in the village of Topzawa Kakai, the explosives went off and seriously wounded two people, according to the local agriculture department and farmers.
In eastern Syria’s Raqqa province, farmers battled raging fires with pieces of cloth, sacks and water trucks. Piles of hay burned and black smoke billowed above the fields.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 74,000 acres (30,000 hectares) of farmland in Hasaka, Raqqa and all the way to Aleppo province to the west, were burned.
Activist Omar Abou Layla said local Kurdish-led forces failed to respond to the fires in the province of Deir ez-Zor, where ISIS was uprooted from its last territory in March, deepening the crisis.
Other residents accuse the Syrian government, which used to earn millions from the wheat trade in eastern Syria, of sparking the fires to undermine the Kurdish-led administration, which now operates independently of the central government.
Kurdish authorities acknowledge they have few capabilities to deal with the arsons.
In Raqqa, where most of the residents rely on agriculture, farmers were preparing for a good harvest. Ahmed al-Hashloum heads Inmaa, Arabic for Development, a local civil group that supports agriculture. He said rainfall levels were more than 200 percent higher than last year, causing many to return to farming.