Over the past several years, farmers living in oppositioncontrolled areas near the frontlines in northern Hama’s Al-Ghab Plain have entered into an agreement with regime forces: farmers and their equipment are protected from bombs and snipers, in exchange for paying two separate taxes to the regime—one based on the total cultivated land area, and the other on the harvest.
The Ghab Plain, a very fertile area, covers 241,000 hectares of countryside. A stretch of the Orontes River passes through it, alongside numerous irrigation canals, making the area rich in water resources. Some 87,000 hectares in the Ghab Plain are set aside for agriculture, 8,000 of which are under rebel control.
Despite the protection agreement in place, regime forces last month killed five farmers and injured several others within the zone of rebel control, firing heat-guided missiles onto vehicles and tractors in the town of Al-Zaqoum. Over the next several days, regime forces fired missiles at several different vehicles transporting farmers near the towns of Al-Qarqour, Al-Ziyareh, Freekeh, and at two vehicles in Ghaniyeh, west of Jisr Al-Shughour. Most recently, on February 2, regime forces stationed at a military camp in nearby Jurin fired a rocket at a civilian car parked in front of a house in the town of Markouneh.
The latest round of bombing could be aimed at pressuring new negotiations over the most recent agreement, made last fall. The attacks have coincided with Major General Salim Assaf taking over command of the regime’s Sixth Division on December 24. The division was established in 2015 and covers the Ghab Plain from its base at Jurin. Most of its conscripts are volunteers from the Syrian coast.
Though the bombings on nearby farmers are not new, the Sixth Division is now firing its artillery on a new target: wheat farms east of the Sqalbiyeh-Jisr Al-Shughour road, an area relatively far from the line of contact between regime and rebel forces. Previous attacks centred instead on farmlands west of the road, which were closer to the Jurin base and faced fire from only light and medium weaponry. The most recent artillery attacks may mean that the Sixth Division is seeking to include the area east of the road in a renewed agreement.
As a result of the latest attacks, many local farmers have resorted to leasing their lands through “guarantees”. In such arrangements, an agreement is usually reached between landowners, most of whom are small farmers, and a number of larger guarantor farmers: the guarantors will invest in the land in exchange for paying landowners SYP 250,000 per hectare. This is the net amount paid after deducting the regime forces’ share of SYP 50,000 per hectare. The guarantors have contact with regime military officers and transfer the money to them either through money transfer offices or personal channels.
Usually, the sniper and bombing attacks halt once such agreements are reached, allowing farmers to work their crops. However, regime forces have in many cases violated the agreements, aiming to renegotiate the share of money they receive. They have bombed farms during the harvest season, burning large areas of rain-fed crops, especially wheat. Last wheat harvest season, farmers lost more than 250 hectares of farmland to fires caused by bombings.
In addition to these agreements, regime forces also impose taxes on harvesting in nearby rebel-held areas. A fee of SYP 15,000-20,000 is required for each combine harvester. Meanwhile, regime forces in Hama divide the farmlands into sections of 100-200 hectares, each harvested one-by-one in succession. The regime uses this process to control the harvest, by tallying the combine harvester being used and calculating its share of the proceeds. Regime forces have not hesitated in the past to bomb combine harvesters when farmers are working to harvest areas that have not been agreed upon.