Videos and photos circulating on social media show intensive logging in the forests of Maydanki and Sharan in Afrin in the northern countryside of Aleppo and Ariha in Idlib as activists accuse members of the opposition-affiliated Sultan Murad Division of cutting down the trees in northwest Syria.
Photos comparing the forests three years ago and today reveal devastating losses of trees.
A leader in the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army in Afrin told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that many opposition factions affiliated with the FSA practice organized logging with official approval by the leadership.
“Each faction allocates land where its members cut wood and sell it in the local markets at the beginning of each winter. The profits are then divided among the faction members. Some of the firewood is also sold to parties who smuggle it to the areas in northeastern Syria under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces or to Idlib, which is under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham,” he explained.
“Some civilians illegally cut wood for heating purposes, but such quantities cannot compare to the organized logging by armed groups, which have been deliberately burning forests for years. The opposition’s institutions turn a blind eye to such practices because they profit from them,” he added.
The price of a ton of firewood in the local markets in northwestern Syria ranges between $100 and $140, while the armed factions sell it directly to the consumer at slightly lower prices.
Many Syrians still find the firewood unaffordable as other costs continue to increase ahead of the winter season and the Turkish currency deteriorates.
In a Sept. 2 statement, the Kurdish National Council affiliated with the Syrian Opposition Coalition accused armed groups of cutting down hundreds of hectares of forest in Jindires, the Maydanki Lake area and the surrounding villages, which are controlled by the opposition. The council called on the Turkish state to hold the criminals accountable and protect the region.
The Human Rights Organization in Afrin reported via Facebook Sept. 1 that the Al-Waqqas Brigade opposition faction cut down 3,000 50 hectares of trees in Jindires, while members of the Sultan Murad Division cut down 600,000 to 650,000 trees surrounding the dam of Maydanki Lake and other villages in Afrin.
Mustafa Sejari, a member of the leadership council of Hayat Thaeroon for Liberation (the Revolutionaries for Liberation), a relatively new faction that has absorbed the Sultan Murad Division, told Al-Monitor that some military personnel take advantage of their positions and the desperate conditions in the area to harvest trees.
He noted that Hayat Thaeroon for Liberation issued a circular in early September ordering that illegal loggers be arrested.
The Ministry of Agriculture in the Interim Government is working to reforest northwestern Syria, especially with the increase in illegal logging and deliberately set forest fires.
Bassem Saleh, director of the General Directorate of Agriculture and Irrigation affiliated with the Syrian opposition, told Al-Monitor that several organizations and institutions have launched projects to plant hundreds of thousands of trees in northwest Syria including rare species.
“The latest is a project launched by Education Without Borders/Midad in March to plant half a million fruit and other trees in northwest Syria in cooperation with several partners during the next three years, in an attempt to compensate for the depletion of the Syrian environment,” Saleh said.
Jamil al-Khader, an agricultural engineer who resides in northwest Syria, told Al-Monitor that 13% of Idlib is forested. “It is known as the green province," he said. "It constitutes 18% of the forested areas in Syria compared to 30% for Latakia. Together, the two provinces are home to nearly half of the forested areas in Syria.”
He added, “Illegal logging has been ongoing for years in the countryside of Aleppo and Idlib. ... All this has been happening in the absence of legal protection, which leads to the destruction of large areas, threatening wildlife and biological diversity, soil erosion and catastrophic mudslides that damage the irrigation infrastructure, disrupt the water cycle in nature and contribute to global warming.”
Khader pointed to the trees’ important role in providing oxygen as well as sequestering pollutants.
He stressed the importance of raising awareness about caring for trees, especially slow-growing forests, and called for enacting strict laws to protect trees and create green spaces accessible to the people, establish forest reserves and most importantly, supplying civilians with fuel so they stop cutting trees for heating.