Squashed by Climate Change and Turkey’s Ecocidal Warfare, Northern Syria Fights the ‘Worst Drought in 70 years’

Squashed by Climate Change and Turkey’s Ecocidal Warfare, Northern Syria Fights the ‘Worst Drought in 70 years’


Squashed by Climate Change and Turkey’s Ecocidal Warfare, Northern Syria Fights the ‘Worst Drought in 70 years’


Cover photo: Stumps of trees cut down in Bafilyoun forest patch in Turkish-occupied Afrin. Controlled by the Levant Front (al-Jabha al-Shamiya), the forest has been ruthlessly exploited for profit since 2020, leading to complete loss of tree cover by 2023. Displaced families now occupy these razed lands. © STJ

Cover photo

Stumps of trees cut down in Bafilyoun forest patch in Turkish-occupied Afrin. Controlled by the Levant Front (al-Jabha al-Shamiya), the forest has been ruthlessly exploited for profit since 2020, leading to complete loss of tree cover by 2023. Displaced families now occupy these razed lands. © STJ

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Spanish (Rojava Azadi)

As the spring turns towards summer, the Democratic Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria (DAANES) faces the most precarious season of the agricultural year. It must secure annual wheat harvest in a region wrought by an overheating climate and severe depletion of natural water reserves. Meanwhile, the Syrian civil war has left soil contamination, chronic food insecurity, and damaged infrastructure in its wake. Resources are scarce due to the ensuing military and economic siege imposed upon the self-governing enclave by its neighbors, the Syrian central government, Turkey, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in the bordering Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Northeast Syria is among the world’s most severely affected territories by climate change, further aggravated by 13 years of war and decades of destructive agro-industrial policies administered by the Syrian Ba’athist regime. If the course is not changed swiftly and radically, the steadily expanding Syrian Desert will effectively grind the Syrian part of the fertile crescent into a barren, uninhabitable sand plateau.

A prelude to the pending catastrophe was already experienced between 2006 and 2009 when Syria was hit by three consecutive drought years. According to the United Nations figures, the drought resulted in 800,000 farmers being deprived of their livelihood and herders losing up to 80-85% of their livestock. All in all, up to three million people fell into “extreme poverty,” mainly in Hasakah, Deir ez-Zor, and Raqqa governorates. Born out of the Kurdish-led Rojava Revolution in 2012, the DAANES came gradually to encompass most of these drought-stricken governorates while turning itself into a multi-ethnic confederation spanning across the whole northeast of the country. Beyond pledging to counter the woes of climate change and heal the territory from the damages left by the regionally overthrown Ba’athist government, DAANES sets out to build a revolutionary, eco-socialist society—an example that the entire world could follow.

Climate change aside, there are more urgent and sinister threats that the besieged, self-governing confederation must combat. The fragile state of the country’s ecology and agriculture has been weaponized by the warring factions of the civil war, often without a clear military objective, targeting the environment and civilian population. For neighboring Turkey, ecocidal attrition has become a prominent feature of its cross-border operations.

“We don’t know what they want from us and why they harbor such hatred and malice towards us,” lamented a Kurdish farmer, Faris Muhammad Ali Sayyid Salo, to local media on June 4, 2024, while inspecting damages on his farm. The previous night, his 20-hectare farmland, located close to the Turkish border, was lit on fire. Up to 20 families’ livelihoods depended on the farm’s harvest, which now lay in ashes. In the attack, a total of 80 hectares of wheat fields were burned in three border villages in the Qamishlo and Amûdê countryside.

Burning crop fields during the hot and dry harvest season has plagued the region ever since the terrorist group ISIS faced a defeat in the city of Kobane in 2015. During its retreat, ISIS’s clandestine cells would infiltrate agricultural lands behind the front lines and set them ablaze in the darkness of summer nights. In 2019, apocalyptic fires ravaged 40,000 hectares across the whole of North Eastern Syria as ISIS mounted a final, furious defense of its territorial grip. In the following years, this scorched-earth tactic was adopted by the Turkish army and employed in its offensive on the region.

Turkish mercenaries burned 50 hectares of fields in Tel Tamir, Hasakas province, North East Syria in May 2020.
Khalaf Sami, a farmer from rural Serêkaniyê in Hasakah province, lost his wheat fields to a fire in late May 2020. After being forced to abandon his original land due to harassment by Turkey-backed factions, he had rented and cultivated new fields in al-Mansaf village, Tel Tamer, until the fire. © STJ

According to the Rojava Information Center (RIC), an independent research and media institute in the region, the desolation of farms in the Qamishlo and Amude countryside in early June is characteristic of the more recent spate of attacks against the region’s agriculture. Contrary to 2019, the majority of this year’s crop fires were caused by artillery fire, shootings, and arsons from the Turkish occupied territories or the Turkish side of the border. In a few cases, drone strikes targeted vehicles that inflamed their surroundings.

“ISIS is unlikely connected to these fires, as they are mostly active in the southern parts, particularly Deir ez-Zor, whereas all fires [this year] have been in the northern and western parts of the DAANES territory,” commented Mario from RIC to Turning Point. In some cases, eyewitnesses identified the perpetrators as Turkish soldiers. Yet, it is often impossible to ascertain if a fire was ignited by the Turkish Army or by one of its Syrian proxy forces from the so-called Syrian National Army (SNA).

This year, the DAANES dispatched at least 83 emergency fire brigades to protect its vast agricultural lands during the harvest season. The brigades suppressed 300 crop fires in the farmlands around Manbij city alone, which had been intensely targeted due to their proximity to the Turkish-occupied Al-Bab-Jarablus zone. Despite their efforts, between May 19–21, continuous artillery bombardment overwhelmed the fire brigades, and the resulting fire outbreak consumed up to 1,500 hectares of agricultural land, including 18,000 olive trees.

An infographic map showing the locations of crop fires initiated by Turkey in Syria, totaling 2,618 hectares in 2024.
The reported field fires this year have concentrated along the borders with Turkey and Turkish-occupied regions. CC Turning Point

Agriculture and animal husbandry form the backbone of the Northeastern Syrian economy and, thus, also its vulnerable underbelly. Before the civil war, the region’s 750,000 hectares of cultivated land produced grains for the whole of Syria. This year, the UN estimates that 16.7 million Syrians, nearly 75% of the population, will need humanitarian aid as agricultural output has halved during the past decade. The Syrian Pound’s hyperinflation has further aggravated this humanitarian crisis, with food prices seeing a 116% increase just last year.

For the second consecutive year, the DAANES announced it will purchase the whole region’s wheat harvest to keep the inhabitants fed and prices under control. The standardized price, 0.31$ per kilo at current exchange rates, is a painstaking compromise—between the farmers’ increasing production costs, the population’s decreasing purchasing power, and everyone’s invariable need for bread and flour. Despite relatively good rainfall this year, any extensive outbreak of fire during the crucial harvest time may disrupt the fragile balance and plunge whole communities deeper into food insecurity or famine.

“The size of these fires for sure threatens the food sovereignty of the whole region and weakens the DAANES capacity to trade [agricultural products] for other essentials for the population,” commented Mario.

According to the local Hawar News Agency, by mid-June this year, a total of 2,443 hectares of crop fields and orchards were burned across the autonomous territories, an area equaling roughly 4,000 football fields. Although the summer is far from over, the Rojava Information Center already estimates that this year will mark an increase in crop fire damages. The figures also do not include the Turkish-occupied territories where NGOs and media cannot operate independently. Several sources close to the DAANES say that environmental damage is even more widespread in these areas.

“According to our statistics, 60-65% of Afrin’s green areas have been burned, cut down, or otherwise destroyed during the [Turkish] occupation,” said Ibrahim Şêxo over the phone. Şêxo is the chairman of the Human Rights Organization of Afrin (HROA), which is devoted to documenting human rights violations in the otherwise cut-off region.

Located in the Northwestern corner of Syria, Afrin is a mountainous region known for its olive oil production and large forested areas. Turkey occupied the region in 2018 following a two-month military invasion that displaced the region’s 300,000 Kurdish population. Since then, Afrin has been governed by an array of Islamist militias, each controlling a small territorial zone under the supervision of Turkish officials. The region has been characterized by infighting and turf wars between the militias, illegal land grabs, and severe human rights violations.

Satellite images before and after Turkish occupation forces cut down a forest patch in Qūrt Qūlāq, north of Afrin.
Forest patch in Qūrt Qūlāq, north of Afrin. STJ identified 57 highly degraded forest areas in Afrin, “where perpetrators cleared the forests almost trees entirely.” ©STJ
Satellite images before and after Turkish occupation forces cut down a forest patch in Qūrt Qūlāq, north of Afrin.
Forest patch in Qūrt Qūlāq, north of Afrin. STJ identified 57 highly degraded forest areas in Afrin, “where perpetrators cleared the forests almost trees entirely.” ©STJ

Due to its extensive network of sources that have remained in the area, HROA is one of the few human rights organizations with direct information from Afrin. Its figures fall in line with the research of the Dutch peace organization PAX, which reported a 56% loss of tree cover in Afrin a year earlier, in March 2023, based on an analysis of satellite images of the region.

“This year, Afrin has witnessed the most uprooting and burning since 2019. If something wasn’t burned already, now it is,” sighed Şêxo. According to the association’s records, in May and June alone, 15 hectares of forest burned in Afrin’s Jindires district, more than 10 hectares in Rajo district, and 150 hectares on the Hawrê mountain between Rajo and Bulbul.

Afrin’s intense deforestation is believed to be linked to illegal logging that provides construction and heating material for new illegal settlements, some of which have been built directly on the razed forest areas. The Turkish invasion was followed by the relocation of more than 750,000 Arab and Turkmen settlers in what was flagged as demographic change or ethnic cleansing by human rights organizations.

Satellite images before and after Turkish occupation forces cut down a forest patch in Afrin city outskirts.
A forest patch on the outskirts of Afrin city, gradually turned into an informal settlement. © STJ
Satellite images before and after Turkish occupation forces cut down a forest patch in Afrin city outskirts.
A forest patch on the outskirts of Afrin city, gradually turned into an informal settlement. © STJ

Also, Şêxo believes that the systemic environmental destruction of the region under Turkish control is linked with demographic engineering. “[Turkey’s] goal is to erase Afrin’s national identity. In terms of population, trees, and fields, they want to erase the thousand-year-old Kurdish identity of the region,” he said.

The Unbearable Intensity of ‘Low-Intensity’ War

Since its latest full-scale incursion, Turkey has waged what experts are calling “low-intensity warfare” against the region. In other words, a systemic aggression that remains below the intensity of conventional war. In many aspects, Ankara’s approach was inspired by the “Israeli model” of colonial expansion into the Palestinian territories. Due to its concealed nature, low-intensity warfare tends to avoid international attention and outcry. It has allowed Turkey to exert continuous pressure against the self-governing region without questioning on the international stage. 

“The occupation, low-intensity warfare, and ecocide are all aimed at the same objective: to force the people to leave the land and wipe out those lands from their population,” said Luqman Guldive, a sociologist who was touring the region in May and June. For the past 15 years, Guldive has focused on Kurdistan and he has researched ecocide as part of the war against the Kurds in North Eastern Syria.

Besides localized military clashes, Guldive lists economic blockade, targeted assassinations of civilian and military officials, selective attacks against infrastructure, and propaganda war, among the main methods of Turkey’s low-intensity warfare. Notably, the tactics also include the noted ecocidal offenses, such as burning forests and agricultural lands.

“Turkey uses these methods to aggravate the effects of climate change,” explained Guldive, who added: “All these methods of war are not only intersected but they are related one to each other, they are part of each other.”

Despite being labeled as low-intensity war, for the civilian population, the intensity is nothing but low. Many of the tactics employed are considered war crimes in the setting of conventional war as they primarily target the civilian population and infrastructure. In the context of protracted, low-intensity conflicts, they go unnoticed if the international community fails to identify the seemingly isolated aggressions as factors in a systematic war or if its attention is focused elsewhere.

Between October 5 and January 15, while the world’s eyes turned to Gaza, the Turkish Air Forces carried out 650 air strikes against 250 sites across the DAANES territory. With an average of six strikes a day, the campaign was described as “the worst escalation since 2019” by Make Rojava Green Again (MRGA). Throughout winter, the organization documented the air strike damages in the Cizire region and published its findings in the report We Will Defend This Life, We Will Resist on This Land – Building a Social-Ecological Life under Attacks.

“Of course, it is related to [the war in] Palestine,” said Ferzad, a member of the MRGA team behind the report, in an interview. He continued elaborating on how all developments in the Middle East are intimately connected as the regional—and international—powers seek to expand their control and influence, often exploiting situations that other regional conflicts open. Ferzad described the situation as a “Third World War,” a 21st century version of a global war, which is already fought with varying intensities from Ukraine and the Middle East to Africa and Taiwan.

Just like the Russian air campaigns in Ukraine in winter 2022-23, the majority of Turkish strikes targeted north Syria’s vital energy infrastructure: the report documented 18 water stations and 17 electricity plants destroyed; alongside hospitals, schools, industrial sites, and food production and storage facilities. On January 17, 2024, the DAANES condemned the air raids calling them a “policy of genocide, destruction and eliminating the security of the region.” Two days earlier, two million people had been deprived of gas and electricity in near-freezing temperatures.

Several sources in the region say that the Turkish attacks against energy infrastructure and agriculture aim at pushing North Eastern Syria towards environmental breaking point and a vicious cycle of survival. “The resources and efforts of the DAANES have and will be forcibly directed mainly toward emergent fixing and repairing actions, instead of toward progressing with building up an ecological system,” the MRGA report concluded.

“As a result of the attacks [against oil plants], people started to burn low-quality oil in household generators,” said Jiyan, who, together with Ferzad, analyzed the attacks’ regional impact. She explained how unrefined oil is more polluting and less energy efficient than refined oil, and how household generators are more polluting than energy stations, effectively intoxicating their users in the long term.

“The attacks against oil plants also caused soil contamination in the surrounding areas, and the burning facilities polluted air with intoxicants,” continued Jiyan, describing a cascading impact nearing infrastructural collapse. Farmers along the Khabur river have reportedly halted irrigation this Spring due to the river’s oil contamination, hoping for rainfall to keep their crops alive. Ground water irrigation is also reduced amid some farmers’ growing fears that unrefined, low-quality oil will damage or destroy their expensive pumping equipment to which spare parts are scarcely available.

Oil had become a lifeline for the region since Turkey broke away from the water sharing protocols with Syria and started to suppress the water flow to the country around 2014. Home to approximately 4-6 million people, Northeastern Syria used to generate 75% of its electricity in hydroelectric plants, mostly along the Euphrates River. The Euphrates’ flow currently stands at approximately 200 cubic meters per second—that is, at only 40% of the contractual amount—rendering hydroelectric plants partially, if not fully, inoperative. According to the Rojava Information Center, the electricity supply goes on and off unpredictably, totaling a “few hours per day” maximum. Moreover, the suppression of river flows adds an artificial dimension to the regional water crisis, along with diminishing rainfall and potable water access.

On January 2012 Euphrates flow stood at 200 cubic meters per second amid Turkey suppression water to Syria.
The Euphrates, the Middle East biggest river, has seen record low surface levels amid Turkey’s suppression of water flow from the Taurus mountains. On January 2021, the flow stood at 200 cubic meters per second. © Hawar News Agency ANHA

Unlike during the disastrous drought in 2006-2009, the impact of climate change on current water scarcity is indistinguishable from ecocidal warfare. While Turkey denies allegations of weaponizing water, the ongoing year marks the fourth drought year in a row amid intentionally suppressed river flows. On July 3, the USAID described the prolonged aridity as “the worst drought in 70 years,” repeating the International Rescue Committee assessment two years earlier.

At the time of writing, summer temperatures are climbing beyond 40 degrees Celsius and the water shortage is pushing North-Eastern Syria to the brink. Besides the immediate impact on agriculture and nature, reduced and stagnating waters have led to water quality dropping to undrinkable levels and to renewed outbreaks of waterborne and mosquito-spread diseases, such as Cholera and Leishmaniasis

Guldive described an immediate health crisis emerging in Hasaka city whose water supply is under Turkish occupation. Hosting an estimated 600,000 people, many of them IDPs, the provincial capital is rationing drinkable and undrinkable water, the latter for other household needs like laundry and gardening. “When I was there, a lot of people were treated in the hospitals because they were poisoned by water which was not suited to drink,” he said, describing the situation as a genocide.

Between a Genocide and Desertification: “Ecological Revolution is the Only Long Term Solution”

For years, Northeastern Syria has been trapped in what Alan J Kupermann, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and expert on causes and prevention of genocides, recently described as a historical pattern: genocides tending to unfold under the guise of fighting terrorism. Kupermann noted that the pattern characterized the three most recent US-recognized genocides in Darfur, Myanmar, and China while raising a warning for the ongoing developments in Gaza.

The situation in Northeastern Syria carries all the characteristics and warning signs of Kupermann’s pattern. At the center of the conflict are the links between the DAANES and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has led the Kurds’ fight for cultural and political rights inside Turkey since the late 1970s. Following the 1980 military coup and suppression of political life in the country, the PKK turned to armed resistance. Turkey—and by extension its Western NATO allies—has since designated the organization as terrorist, although the legal grounds for the classification have been disputed.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly threatened Northeast Syria with a renewed full-scale invasion to curb “PKK influence.” On June 15, 2024, Erdogan talked to journalists upon returning from the G7 summit, stating: “We will never hesitate to do whatever is necessary to achieve this.”

The escalation of cross-border attacks has taken place amid the Turkish government’s grievances against DAANES preparations to hold municipal elections. Scheduled for August, these would be the first unified municipal elections across the whole northeastern Syria, liberated from ISIS in 2019. While for DAANES constituencies, the ballot represents a historic milestone in the multi-ethnic, war-ridden region, Erdogan’s government views it as a “game to legitimize a terrorist organization.”

An composite image of the massacre in Lice which was burnt down by the Turkish Army on October 21-23, 1993.
Lice, a Kurdish town with a population of 35,000, was burnt to the ground by the Turkish Army on October 21-23, 1993. Only two shops (bottom right) were spared, owned by Kurdish collaborators protected by the army. Despite the destruction, the international community remained silent. In the 1990s, over 4,000 Kurdish villages, towns, and hamlets faced similar fates. © Mark Cambell

The elections follow a years-long process in which the constituent communities—mostly Arabs, Kurds, Syriacs, and Armenians—drafted a new Social Contract to regulate social and political life in their de facto self-governing territory. The Social Contract stipulates a political system based on Democratic Confederalism, a vision of democratic self-governance articulated by Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned PKK leader.

Building on the legacy of democratic and federalist socialism, Öcalan proposed a decentralized system of governance that rests on the foundations of direct democracy, women’s liberation, and ecology as a peaceful and political solution to the question of the Kurds’ self-determination in Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq.

During the peak of ISIS expansion around 2014-15, the PKK dispatched thousands of its guerrillas to stop ISIS advances in Northern Syria and to protect the population from ethnic cleansing. With the help of the PKK intervention, the local militias People’s Defense Units (YPG) and Women’s Defense Units (YPJ) were able to prevent the region from falling into ISIS hands. Subsequently, Öcalan and the PKK’s vision of local autonomy and confederated democracy took root in many of the defended communities beyond the Kurds. Notably, Syriacs, Yezidis, Armenians, and Arabs embraced democratic confederalism as an alternative to the decades of state oppression, ethnic tensions, and a lack of protection in the face of ISIS’ genocide.

Facing attacks from all sides, the DAANES believes Democratic Confederalism is the only realistic proposal for ending the bloody civil war in Syria by peaceful and democratic means. Furthermore, the Administration’s Ecology Committee argues Öcalan’s vision of communal ecology would be exactly the swift and radical change the region needs to prevent desertification and keep Syria inhabitable in the long run.

In April, the DAANES held its first general Ecology Conference despite attacks mounted against it from across the border. To break free from the cycle of repair and survival, up to 120 delegates from the administration, NGOs, and other interest groups—also from abroad—came together in Qamishlo to analyze the deeper environmental challenges the region faces. Solutions were debated under headings such as “Developing ecological agricultural culture as part of ending the occupation in Northern and Eastern Syria” and “Conducting ecological struggle alongside the struggle against capitalism and colonialism.”

According to the MRGA member Jiyan who participated in the conference, the Turkish attacks that left the infrastructure in ruins were followed by a mood of “pushing the revolution forward” and finding practical solutions to the urgent problems without losing sight of the long-term direction. She says people are now trying to turn the destruction of energy infrastructure into a leap towards more ecological and decentralized energy production by pooling money together to install solar panels despite their relatively high costs.

“Besides being more ecological, a decentralized solar panel system is more resilient against attacks,” said Jiyan. She also lists reforestation campaigns, domestic organic fertilizer production, new irrigation methods, and experiments with new plants and cultivation techniques as examples of new initiatives that have sprung out during the last winter. Navigating intense environmental and military threats, the besieged confederation has set its aim to become agriculturally self-sufficient while restoring the region’s ecological balance.

“Kurds, Arabs, and Armenians are very resilient people. And they don’t want to leave their land,” concluded Guldive. After visiting the region for one month, his voice already carried the same characteristic combination of fatigue and dignity that often distinguishes the local parlance in the war-torn region that refuses to bow its head. “I don’t want to idealize the situation, but the revolution is going on. There is a lot of action, there is hope.”

Henri Sulku

Henri Sulku is an editor of Turning Point with focus on political economy, people’s history, and resistance movements.

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This article was published in Turning Point, an independent online magazine created by and for those actively seeking for a radical change. Read more articles at www.turningpointmag.org.

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