Syria’s forests have been another casualty in the 12 years of war that has gripped the country according to a new report. The destruction of natural resources and damage to ecosystems has potentially severe consequences for the lives, livelihoods and future of Syrian citizens — as well as for the country’s climate resilience.
The “Axed and Burned” report is produced by Pax for Peace, a Netherlands-based organisation dedicated to protecting civilians against acts of war, to ending armed violence and to building inclusive peace. The report was based on satellite analysis and open-source research.
Speaking to Impakter, one of the report’s authors Wim Zwijnenburg expressed how devastating the loss of forests has been:
“The 12-year war had grave consequences for the last remaining forests in Syria and communities depending on them.”
Since peaceful protests against Syria’s dictator President Bashar Hafez al-Assad in 2011 were met with violence and the country spiralled into civil war, an estimated 306,000 civilians have been killed and 13 million are displaced.
As well as the terrible human suffering, Syria has faced awful ecological and environmental consequences. One particularly alarming is the loss of forest cover caused by the war.
The war in #Syria has decimated close to half of the country's tree-cover, @PAXforpeace finds in its latest in-depth study on deforestation. Based on satellite analysis and #OSINT, the reports quantifies this impact and outlines why it matters. 1/x🌲https://t.co/P1tAMTcLQZ pic.twitter.com/BFAX1oY68H
— Wim Zwijnenburg (@wammezz) March 21, 2023
Syria’s coastal western provinces contained much of the country’s natural forests, while in the north-western Idlib and Aleppo provinces there were large olive and fruit orchids. Over the course of the war all these areas have lost massive amounts of tree cover due to increasing energy prices, bombing, wildfires, and the war economy.
According to the report, from 2011 to 2021 the governorates of Latakia, Hama, Homs and Idlib lost 45,320 hectares of tree cover — more than 36%. There was a rapid increase in deforestation in 2020 and 2021. Some of these areas are controlled by the Syrian government, others by various rebel groups.
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In Idlib, which is primarily rebel-controlled, some of the destruction was due to clearing forests to make room for internally displaced people to live.
The Afrin region of Northern Aleppo, a Kurdish area that for much of the war was controlled by the Kurdish YPG independent from the government or rebels, also saw massive deforestation. Afrin was famous for its olive trees, but since being captured by the rebel Syrian National Army backed by Turkey in Operation Olive Branch in 2018, huge swathes have been cut down.
Analysis for the report shows that in the Kurd mountains area of Afrin, 56% of the 4,750 hectares of forest cover was lost between December 2015 and 2021.
In the mount Basra area, over 59% was cut down. In some areas entire forests were felled in their entirety.
Local reporting suggests that some of the various rebel groups that are part of the Turkish-backed SNA are involved in the logging and sale of trees, with a rapid increase in deforestation after rebel factions took control of the area.
With the cold winter arriving in #Syria, civilians and armed groups resort to tree-cutting, seen here in SNA-controlled Afrin near Maydanki Lake that started last year. (L) August 2022, (R) 2018
We're soon publishing our @PAXforpeace Syria wide #deforestation report 🌲 pic.twitter.com/9PXONbqUeL
— Wim Zwijnenburg (@wammezz) January 22, 2023
Poverty has also been a major factor. With 90% of people living below the poverty line and the Syrian pound losing approximately 98% of its value, charcoal and firewood have become an essential lifeline for those who cannot afford alternative fuels or as a way to make a living.
“In the west and northwest of Syria, massive amounts of trees were logged for firewood or charcoals, leaving complete mountains barren,” Zwijnenburg tells us.
The cost of firewood has risen from 6,000 Syrian Pounds per ton pre-war to reportedly around one million by 2022, making it lucrative for individuals, criminals, or militias.
Forest fires — caused by arson, natural reasons, or conflict — as well as military operations and the widespread breakdown in governance after years of war have all also contributed to the loss.
In Idlib and Aleppo forests have been cleared to allow room for settlements of internally displaced people.
Rural areas were not alone in forest loss. The fighting and sieges in cities across Syria that caused so much death and destruction also affected urban forests, with trees destroyed by fighting or cut down by residents who needed fuel that was unavailable to them.
As Zwijnenburg explains, “[t]he environmental impacts of conflict have direct and long-term consequences for civilians and ecosystems they depend on.”
Forest ecosystems play a critical role for local communities and society. While wood itself and agricultural products are essential for livelihoods, beyond this, forests have essential ecological benefits. They provide watershed protection, such as moderating flooding and preventing erosion, as well as helping to mitigate climate change and preserve Syria’s biodiversity.
The effect on agriculture is certain to worsen Syria’s current food insecurity and the livelihoods of orchard farmers. In urban areas in particular the loss of trees will also worsen air quality.
Wim Zwijnenburg, Pax for Peace researcher and one of the report’s authors, finds that better research on the environmental effects of war can have a positive impact. He hopes that “through better analysis with remote sensing and open-source investigations of specific impacts, the international community and relevant authorities can prepare faster and more efficient responses that will help prevent, minimize and mitigate these environmental consequences.”
“This can help communities to work on rebuilding their lives in a healthy environment,” Zwijnenburg asserts.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Agricultural field on fire in Qamishli, a city in northeastern Syria, June 17, 2019. Fires have caused damage to agricultural fields and crops across Syria during spring and summer of 2019, threatening food security and livelihoods. The UN cannot ascertain the exact cause of the fires, but among reasons are high temperature, accidents, fire ignited by projectiles and or landmines, or deliberate acts or arson and lack of capacity to respond to fires.” Featured Photo Credit: © OCHA/Halldorsson.