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Syrian army burning crops in rebel-held Damascus suburbs, residents say

Government bombs crops to limit food access, create siege conditions, force rebellious populations to accept truce deals
A Syrian government air strike hits a farm in Shifuniya, near the rebel-held town of Douma, east of Damascus on 16 June (AFP)

AMMAN - The Syrian army is targeting agricultural fields in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus while the summer harvest is underway, burning crops people rely on to survive amid a nearly four-year siege, eight residents, aid workers and local officials said in interviews this week.

Pro-government media outlets report that the army is trying to advance into the East Ghouta suburbs, which border the capital and have constituted a major locus of rebel power since 2012. Syrian forces are capitalising on steady gains made this year in an attempt to break into the region's central sector.

Residents of East Ghouta, where a half-million people have been encircled by the Syrian military and its allies, say the government is targeting their food supply as much as it is trying to gain ground. They say that weeks after capturing the area's breadbasket, a stretch of farmland hundreds of acres wide, the government is using airstrikes and mortar attacks to start fires in the fields that remain in rebel hands.

“People gather the wheat and heap it up, only for the regime to target the piles and burn them,” Khalid Abu Suleiman, a member of the opposition Provincial Capital of Rif Dimashq, which provides social services to civilians, said on Thursday from the al-Marj region.

Fires have spread quickly through wheat fields sitting under the June sun. “When wheat turns yellow, the regime can spot it easily and a small shell is enough to burn the harvest,” Douma resident Mohammed Khabiya said on Thursday.

In one notable incident, warplanes conducted almost two dozen air strikes on Tuesday on the town of a-Shifuniya, wounding five civilians “and causing five huge fires to break out over wide tracts of agricultural land. Most of the burned harvest was wheat and barley,” Mahmoud Adam, a spokesman with the Civil Defense, a force of first responders who operate in rebel-held areas, said on Thursday from Douma.

The local branch of the Civil Defense has uploaded more than a dozen pictures to Facebook over the past two weeks showing its members battling crop fires in areas struck by the Syrian army.

“A fire broke out in one of the harvests in al-Buhariya village ... because the regime targeted it with heavy-calibre rounds,” the Civil Defence in Rif Dimashq wrote on 10 June, next to a picture of three members putting out the remnants of a blaze that had consumed part of a farmer's field.

The Syrian army's attacks on the summer harvest threaten a main component of East Ghouta's already shaky food supply. Aside from occasional UN-sponsored humanitarian aid convoys and smuggling activity connected to rebel groups, East Ghoutans have survived the siege by tilling farmland irrigated by branches of the Barada river in a region that has been cultivated since the second millennium BCE.

Crop burning is compounding food insecurity further, raising anxieties over forthcoming colder months, when stored agricultural products become dietary staples

Agriculture is “the only sector that provides work opportunities, and it helps Ghouta achieve self-sufficiency” under the siege, Alaa a-Sufi, administrative manager with the United Aid Office in East Ghouta, which supervises aid distribution and local farming projects, said on Thursday.

“It's the main activity for Ghouta residents, especially after the industrial sector stopped [producing], and trade decreased because of the encirclement,” he said.

The government dealt a major blow to East Ghouta's farm production last month by capturing the southern sector, which was known as the region's breadbasket. The price of produce nearly doubled afterwards, said Ayman Abu Anes of the Solidarity Aid Group, which distributes humanitarian aid to locals.

Now, crop burning is compounding food insecurity further and raising anxieties over the forthcoming colder months, when stored agricultural products become a dietary staple. 

“The price of foodstuffs is rising right now during the harvest, and that's a bad sign ... what's it going to be like in the winter?” said Abu Anes. “At this point you can forget about storing provisions for the winter” because of the recent crop losses.

Residents of rebel-held areas outside East Ghouta have also accused the Syrian military of bombing local agricultural production. On the other side of Damascus in West Ghouta, blazes caused by government firepower spread through wheat fields in besieged Darayya this month, even as a convoy carrying food aid entered for the first time since 2012.

In the central province of Homs, farmers in encircled territory collected the harvest early this year to avoid a repeat of 2015, when they lost large portions of their crops to government mortars and heavy calibre rounds, reported pro-opposition All4Syria on 5 June.

Bombing crops is one way the government limits access to food in rebel-held areas. Another is bombing bakeries, documented by Human Rights Watch in Aleppo province as early as August 2012. These tactics aim in part to delegitimise brigades that are unable to provide for the local population and create siege conditions that encourage both fighters and civilians to accept truce deals.

In East Ghouta, residents look on anxiously as the area of fertile land they rely on for survival shrinks day by day.

“The regime is going to encircle us in some blocks of cement,” said Abu Anes, the aid worker.

“There will be no farming inside.”