Regime forces have cut down swathes of olive trees in the countryside of Kafr Nubl, south of Idlib, since retaking control of the area in 2018. These orchards are located in Halaya and Baqia, south of Kafr Nubl, and are privately owned by absentees who were forcibly displaced to opposition-controlled areas in northwest Syria.
The wood of the olive trees is sold as firewood for heating. This explains why fig trees have remained intact, as their wood yields less heat during burning. Leaked videos on social media indicate that these farms – previously densely planted with olive trees – have become barren.
The demand for firewood is high in areas controlled by the Damascus government due to the high fuel price and delays in distributing subsidised fuel. Each family is entitled to receive 200 litres of heating diesel annually at the subsidised SYP 2,000 per litre. However, in reality, only 50 litres are distributed to each family. The free-market price of diesel at gas stations is SYP 13,000 per litre.
Many people in areas under the control of the Damascus government resort to cutting forests and orchards instead. Over time, the cutting process has evolved, often carried out by specialised groups, usually armed and supported by the de facto military and security forces. The current market price for a ton of firewood is SYP 3 million (around USD 200).
The lands that have been subjected to cutting in Kafr Nubl are privately owned by the city’s residents, most of which are registered in the local Department of Cadastral Affairs and have official ownership documents known locally as “green tabu”. Most of these landowners are among those forcibly displaced to opposition-controlled areas in northwest Syria. Among them is Mohammad Al-Bayoush, who confirmed to a correspondent for The Syria Report that 50 olive trees on his land were cut down, the youngest of which was 15 years old.
Mahmoud, another displaced person, said there were 40 olive trees on his land in Kafr Nubl, all of which were cut down. He said he recognised them in one leaked video from the now barren area.
According to The Syria Report’s local correspondent, the practice of cutting olive trees for firewood has also widely spread in areas controlled by regime forces in the southern and eastern countrysides of Idlib, such as Kafr Sajna, Hbit, Khan Sheikhoun, and Maaret Al-Numan.
These cutting operations are reportedly systematic and carried out by specialised work crews, dividing the region and working within specific sectors. The cutting began along the front lines with the opposition, under the pretext of clearing the area and preventing opposition fighters from hiding and infiltrating among the olive trees, but gradually spread to include most of the Idlib countryside under regime control.
The cutting of olive trees is overseen by the Russian-backed 25th Special Mission Forces Division, led by Major General Suhail Al-Hassan, known as “The Tiger.” This Division monitors the process from cutting to sale, with the work being carried out by crews led by contractors associated with the Division. According to the correspondent, the 25th Division helps these crews obtain wood trading licences granted by the Forestry Directorates in Idlib Province, which, in turn, are under the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform. These licences allow the holder to store and trade non-manufactured forest wood, that is, they sell it without drying it while transporting timber between provinces requires another licence granted by the Forestry Directorates to warehouse owners and firewood shops.
The Ministry of Agriculture stopped issuing wood transport licences at the beginning of July 2023. However, this does not apply to traders supported by the de facto military and security forces. The Ministry of Agriculture has also requested all its provincial directorates to strictly enforce Law No. 39 of 2023 concerning forests and forest lands and to strengthen penalties to deter violators and protect forest areas.
The contractors associated with the leadership of the 25th Division pay in advance for the wood. The quantity of wood is estimated based on the number of trees in the targeted area. The checkpoints of the 25th Division are spread along area roads, and the trucks carrying wood are monitored, ensuring that contractors do not exceed the allowed quantities. This suggests the existence of a special economic office for the 25th Division, similar to the economic office of the Fourth Division.
The contractors enter paid employment contracts with woodcutters and grant them security privileges. These, most notably, reconciliation cards allow for the postponement of military service and free passage through military and security checkpoints. Often, contractors prefer to employ fighters from the 25th Division as woodcutters. The contractors advertise job opportunities in woodcutting on social media platforms. The worker receives a fixed monthly salary of SYP 150,000 and a daily wage of up to SYP 75,000, with the contractor covering the costs of transportation and meals.
Woodcutting and timber processing operations are carried out using gasoline-powered mechanical saws. The timber is transported in batches via medium-sized trucks to firewood sales centres in nearby cities such as Hama, Masyaf and Lattakia. These centres are often licensed, but they conceal the source of the timber.