Flames of War: Arson As a Weapon of Conflict in Syria and Iraq

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Beginning in the second week of May, farmers in the vicinity of the Qarachoqh Mountain began reporting unusual patterns of Islamic State (IS) movement to local authorities, who have been struggling to clamp down on a low-intensity insurgency in the region for the better part of a year. Some farmers reported that they had been directly approached by IS agents, who had demanded the payment of a 15% levy on equipment and crop income and threatened to burn fields and homes if not paid.1.“ISIS burns crop fields in Makhmour after farmers refuse to pay tax” : Rudaw

Starting that week, IS cells made good on their threats, and torched several fields of farmers who had refused the demands. They infiltrated fields in the night, lit several fires, and took off before authorities could arrive to investigate reports of the blazes. Less than 24 hours later, IS also claimed the burning of the fields belonging to a Hash’d al-Shaabi tribal commander in Diyala.2.https://twitter.com/Nrg8000/status/1128670448009355264

While these initial attacks were localised and did not result in anything more than property damage, they were only the beginning of a pattern of arson attacks that have grown substantially more costly. Following a record-breaking wet spring that saw Iraqi rivers choked with floodwaters, a hot and dry summer has taken hold over both Iraq and Syria. The dry conditions, already conducive to sporadic natural wildfires, have become advantageous to several political actors, state and non-state alike, in the region. Arson has once again become a tool of conflict and political and social instability, and the effects of the ongoing pattern of wildfires – manmade or otherwise – can be devastating if the problem is not adequately addressed in the coming weeks.

Iraq’s War-torn Provinces Burn

Ever since the recapture of Mosul by Iraqi forces in 2017, IS has continued to operate sporadically throughout Iraq. While their presence in Baghdad has significantly diminished and they have faced significant hurdles in reestablishing themselves in Samarra and Tikrit, they have taken advantage of a security vacuum in Diyala and Kirkuk and have been consistently active. Gun battles, mortar attacks, kidnapping and extortion schemes, and assassinations are common incidents in rural areas like Jalawla and Daquq, and now Makhmour is seeing IS cells emboldened as local security elements lack the resources to effectively target them.3.“Iraqi farmers go in night watches as mysterious fires hit wheat farms” : Iraqi News These emboldened cells have become increasingly reliant on using arson attacks to strike out at vulnerable farmers and local communities, whose farm fields are an easy target for small groups of pyrophoric operators.

Satellite imagery of farmlands around the base of the Qarachoqh Mountains shows a significant swath of crop land has been torched, with the approximate number of hectares unknown.4.https://twitter.com/Nrg8000/status/1128669809640476672 Additional land around the town of Jalawla has been burned as well, with small patches of land around Panaw village in Kirkuk also targeted.5.“عمليات التخريب الممنهجة لكل شيء في العراق لا زالت جارية” : Sot al-Iraq Maqdadiyah and Qurra Tabba villages in Khanaqin were similarly targeted, with farmers reporting that they were forming their own night watch groups and that security forces had appeared unwilling to devote more resources to tackling the threat.6.“مصدر يكشف عن ما توصل اليه التحقيق في حرائق الحنطة والشعير” : al-Sumaria TV A grain silo in the town of Shirqat was attacked and burned to the ground, destroying at least 12 tonnes of wheat.7.“Iraq accuses ISIS of setting fire to hundreds of acres of farmland” : The National Starting in June, the blazes began to intensify and grow out of control, with arson attacks as well as sporadic wildfire eruptions plaguing large swathes of Iraq. As of the last week of May, the losses from the fires across the country had already risen upwards of 300 million dinars, and MPs from the affected regions have started to demand immediate compensation along with a multiplication of security patrols and additional resources to secure unaffected farmland.8.“مصدر يكشف عن ما توصل اليه التحقيق في حرائق الحنطة والشعير” : al-Sumaria TV By the middle of June, Iraqi officials were claiming that in excess of 20,000 acres of cropland had been lost, at a cost of anywhere between 500 and 800 million dinars. Fires continue to rage out of control across the countryside at the time of publication, devouring cropland across Ninawa, Salahuddin, Kirkuk, and Diyala provinces and causing deaths and injuries among locals and emergency personnel.9.“2 farmers killed, 1 injured putting out fire at crop field in Shingal” : Kurdistan24

The above satellite imagery, courtesy of PlanetLabs, shows the extent of damage done by Islamic State arson attacks in the Qarachoqh region by Mid-May.

IS may be bereft of resources and a mere shadow of what it was four years ago, but the group has proven itself adaptable and has clearly identified methods of destabilising a region while (mostly) avoiding direct confrontations. Their attacks on wheat and barley farms and on farmers themselves is just another element of their growing campaign of targeting Iraq’s economic infrastructure, and while this is not the first time that cropland has been targeted by the group, this is the first time they have orchestrated a campaign of this magnitude. It remains unclear how many fires are a direct result of arson operations. While IS has exhorted its Iraqi cohorts to do as much damage as possible via their al-Naba magazine, they are not solely responsible for the blazes. An idly flicked cigarette, faulty electrical wiring, or even just the right combination of heat, wind, and sunlight can cause fire to burst out of control.

Baghdad has taken limited action but finds itself faced with a host of issues from all sides. To tackle IS cells, the government has supported a renewed campaign of funding and supplying tribes in Anbar and Diyala with weapons and equipment, with opinions divided on the matter. Some sheikhs are ambivalent towards an arms deal, fearing it could spark confrontation between themselves and the Hash’d regiments in Anbar that are more loyal to Iran, while others welcome the assistance.10.“أميركا تقدم وعداً مشروطاً لعشائر الأنبار” : Shafaaq News Sheikhs in Diyala are open to armament but continue to demand that security forces address their own internal issues, and Kurdish populations are demanding the return of peshmerga security forces to the region. There are, of course, fears that such a plan could end up putting weapons in the hands of IS cells. IS fighters could capture the weapons or receive them in closed-door deals with their recipients, and with corruption in Iraq as rife as it is these fears are well-founded. Iraqi farmers are requesting assistance from multiple venues within the government while continuing to resist IS attempts to force them from their land. The institution of local night watch groups is a step in the right direction, but a more organised effort is needed, and Baghdad has appeared hesitant. The lack of effective firefighting equipment and poorly organised emergency services outfits have hampered efforts to battle wildfires.

The Syrian Side of the Border

Iraq has not been the only country affected, either; while Syria had been roiled by sporadic wildfire outbreaks across the countryside earlier, a series of small blazes in Deir-ez-Zor in mid-May were potentially attributed to IS operations.11.https://twitter.com/SchoenbornTrent/status/1129028123511742465 The outbreak of a blaze in the wheat farms of Hawijah Katih, south of Deir-ez-Zor city, has been unofficially blamed on an IS arson operation. Civil defense authorities in ar-Raqqa countryside also began battling small, sporadic blazes throughout May, which may or may not have been the result of arson.12.https://twitter.com/NotWoofers/status/1131000698953453568

The situation escalated starting in June, as the number of fires and their size began to grow beyond the abilities of local emergency personnel. Arson, aerial targeting of croplands, faulty electrical infrastructure, dry conditions, and high temperatures have all been blamed for what has turned into a massive outbreak of wildfires across Syria, with Hasakah and Idlib bearing the brunt of the disaster. Thousands of acres of farmland and grassland have been torched according to DFNS officials, who have been struggling to put out the flames in multiple areas between ar-Raqqa and Hasakah city.13.“كوردستان سوريا.. مسؤول كوردي يناشد مساعدة التحالف الدولي لإخماد النيران التي تلتهم المحاصيل الزراعية” : Rudaw The Syrian government has also purposefully targeted cropland in southern Idlib with high explosive and incendiary munitions, destroying fields in a bid to press civilians out of the region.14.“Agricultural Crops Weaponized by Syria’s Warring Parties” : Enab Baladi In a similar bid, localised IS cells operating in northern Syria have also committed their own arson attacks, with their effectiveness currently unclear.15.“كوردستان سوريا.. مسؤول كوردي يناشد مساعدة التحالف الدولي لإخماد النيران التي تلتهم المحاصيل الزراعية” : Rudaw Lack of firefighting equipment and personnel has stymied efforts to halt the blazes, which are now threatening oil and gas infrastructure and continue to ravage farmers’ livelihoods.16.“كوردستان سوريا.. مسؤول كوردي يناشد مساعدة التحالف الدولي لإخماد النيران التي تلتهم المحاصيل الزراعية” : Rudaw

The current situation is indicative of the power of simple tools to effect conflict and social conditions within a conflict, as is evident by the distress and financial loss caused to farmers and landowners in both Syria and Iraq. The use of arson by warring actors, both state and non-state alike, is part of a calculated strategy to do significant damage at a limited cost. The amount of money lost when cropland burns is well worth the cost of an explosive “dumb” bomb or the fuel used to light the fire, not to mention the potential food loss if the issue persists. Given conditions in the region as well, the outcome of the action is well worth the cost for the actors, who stand to gain from enabling instability and causing insecurity.

As of the time of publication of this article, multiple wildfires continue, with several “out of control” and others currently contained but still burning. As Iraqis and Syrians face the prospect of a record-breaking hot summer, their fears of the wildfire situation growing worse are justified.

Trent Schoenborn

Trent is an analyst and contributor who has worked with the IR since its inception. He specializes in Iraqi politics and the civil war in Syria, and has been studying the latter conflict since it began. He has previously worked on Syrian Civil War Map as well as some academic research projects related to the region. He can be contacted directly at tschoenborn.00@gmail.com.

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