Syria Kurds alarmed as fire ravages wheat near oil installations
A Kurdish official in north-east Syria called for help from the international coalition Monday (June 10th) as fires ravaged through vital wheat fields in the latest of such blazes nationwide.
Syria's Kurds have led the fight against the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) in the north and east of the country, backed by a US-led military coalition.
As the eight-year civil war winds down, they are seeking to retain a degree of autonomy in a large cereal and oil-rich region under their control in the north-east of the country.
"Fires today engulfed hundreds of hectares of wheat in Tirbespi and the fires are still raging," the head of the Kurdish agriculture authority Salman Bardo said, referring to the town named al-Qahtaniya in Arabic.
"It is a huge danger for the region because the fire is close to oil wells and stations," he warned.
An AFP correspondent saw black smoke billow over golden fields scorched black, as men tried to put out flames with shovels just metres away from oil installations.
One man in a bulldozer was desperately trying to plough the earth to stop the fire from spreading.
"We ask the international coalition to intervene to extinguish the fires using special fire planes" we do not have, Bardo said.
Abderrizq al-Mahmud, a 29-year-old wheat grower, said his family's land had been destroyed.
"Forty-five hectares have gone up in flames, and I only have eight hectares left" after the fire roared in on Sunday, he said.
Kurds, regime battle for wheat
After years of drought and then civil war, Syria is expecting a bumper crop of wheat this year -- a large part of it in the north-east.
In the Kurdish-run breadbasket province of al-Hasakeh, of which al-Qahtaniya is part, ISIS has claimed several arson attacks on wheat fields.
But farmers have also blamed revenge attacks, low-quality fuel causing sparks, and even carelessness.
Both the Damascus government and the Kurdish authorities are competing to buy up the wheat produced this year in north-east Syria.
Analysts say wheat will be key to ensuring affordable bread and keeping the peace in various parts of Syria in the coming period.
Farmers in the region have been caught up in the middle.
Our "livelihood should not be transformed into a political bargaining chip", said 55-year-old farmer Adel Othman.
The regime is offering a better price, but the Kurds have said no wheat can leave the region under their control.
"We will sell our crop to the highest bidder," Othman said in Kurdish by his field in the area of Amuda.
"In the end, a farmer needs to make a profit," he said.
Farmers are especially eager to sell their crop to make up for poor harvests in previous years, but also to save them from the fires.
"The Kurds do not want to let wheat out because the production is barely enough to feed the local population," Syria expert Fabrice Balanche said.
"If the wheat went off to Damascus because of the higher price, it would cause a food crisis," he added.
According to the World Food Programme, 6.5 million people in Syria are "food insecure", or do not know where their next meal is coming from.
This year Syria is anticipating an ample crop yield after abundant rain, following a wheat harvest last year that was the worst since 1989.
The Syrian government is expecting 850,000 tonnes of wheat from al-Hasakeh.
The head of the Damascus government's agriculture office in al-Hasakeh, Amer Sello, told AFP he expected to snap up most of the province's harvest.
"Government cereal reception centres will see growers flock because of the attractive prices," he said.
The Kurds last month increased their buying price for a kilo of wheat from 150 to 160 Syrian pounds ($0.37), but that is still not enough to compete with the regime's offered 185.
The Kurdish grain authority chief, Salman Bardo, accused the regime of announcing its higher price "to sow discord between the people and the autonomous administration".
Syria's war has killed more than 370,000 people since it started in 2011.
After successive victories against opposition and extremist groups since 2015, President Bashar al-Assad's regime today controls some 60% of the country.
But Syrians in these areas are struggling to get by in an economy ravaged by war, as well as facing fuel shortages.
"Al-Assad needs access to cereal crops in north-east Syria to prevent a bread crisis in the areas of western Syria that he controls," Syria analyst Nicholas Heras said.
Damascus and the Kurds have started talks to discuss the future of the north-east, but so far without success.
"Wheat is a weapon of great power in this next phase of the Syrian conflict," Heras said.
"It can be used to apply pressure on the Assad regime, and through the regime on Russia, to force concessions in the UN-led diplomatic process" to end the conflict in Syria, he said.