War and Environment in Syria: How Conflict Shapes Forests

Date: 21 June 2024

An interview with Angham Daiyoub (CREAF) on the multiple impacts of armed conflict in Syria on the environment, which are often underestimated and understudied. These impacts often extend into social and economic spheres, too, and can therefore influence issues such as peace building and reconstruction.

Angham Daiyoub, a pre-doctoral researcher at the ecological and forestry applications research centre CREAF, one of AMWAJ’s members, focuses her work on environmental justice, particularly in Syria. In her latest study, published in July 2023 in the international, peer-reviewed journal Land, Angham and her colleagues examine the correlation between armed conflict and deforestation in Syria. By primarily using satellite images, the study reveals that Syria has lost around 20% of its forests during the civil war, notably in the period from 2010 and 2019.

In her interview with AMWAJ, Angham discusses the reasons for the forests’ depletion, but also its diverse impacts on Syria’s environment, society, and economy today. Mariam Younes, communication officer at AMWAJ, conducted the interview in April 2024.

Question: Can you describe the different types of forests found in Syria?

Answer: The types of forests in Syria are Mediterranean, with the most common type being the maquis shrublands. Syrian forests mainly consist of pine forests, particularly Turkish pine (Pinus brutia), along with some degraded cedar forests mixed with Cilician fir (Cedrus libani and Abies cilicica). Additionally, the broadleaved forests that are predominantly oak forests, of mainly Palestinian oaks (Quercus calliprinos) and Aleppo oaks (Quercus infectoria), mixed with various associating species and shrubs like Juniperus oxycedrus, Arbutus andrachne, Myrtus communis and others.

The forests are divided between natural forests and those that are artificially planted by the government. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the area of forests in Syria was increasing before the war due to the increase of reforested areas. Although the growth was not significant, at least it was not declining, according to their information. But I am not entirely sure if this information is 100 % accurate.


Juniper shrubland in Tartus Syria. Image: Angham Daiyoub

The area is historically rich, with many ancient stories. The oldest recorded instance of deforestation was discovered in Syria’s Ghab Valley (in Northwest Syria). A group of scientists found evidence of significant oak forest deforestation there. The area is historically rich, with many ancient stories. For example, the Epic of Gilgamesh mentions cutting cedar forests in Lebanon or Syria. Deforestation in the area dates back to these ancient times, and since then, the forest area has steadily declined. Records indicate that years ago, forests covered about 15% of the country, but just before the war, this had declined to 3%. Currently, due to the war, the forests continue to decline. Most of Syria’s forests are located in the Northwest, so in the coastal region, more so than in any other part of the country.

Q: Can you tell us about your research regarding forests and how you started this research?

A: I come from the Syrian coastal range, which is why my interest in forests began, because I grew up in such green, beautiful areas. I decided to go to forestry school, but in Syria, you must first complete three years of general agricultural studies before specialising in forestry and forest management. After that I wanted to learn more, so I applied to the Erasmus Mundus program and received a scholarship to study Forest Management in the Mediterranean region in Spain and Turkey. There, I learned more about forests across the region.

It’s beautiful to witness the preservation of this knowledge, passed down by older generations, and the newfound interest among younger generations to learn more about it.

After spending three semesters working on my Master’s degree, I met my supervisor, and we were thinking about potential topics for my thesis. Coming from Syria and witnessing the war’s impact, I saw the decline of forests with my own eyes – people cutting trees, forest fires, and so on. I wanted to quantify this decline. We know, the forests in Syria are changing, but we don’t know to what extent. We decided to conduct research to measure these changes. Since we could not go to Syria, we came up with the idea of using satellite images and other technology to detect changes before and during the war. This is how the idea of the study was born.

Q: Can you explain us more about your research method?

A: Yes, so NASA has a database of satellite images that are free to access. We wanted to get some images from before the war, so we used ones from 2010 (Landsat 5). Then for images after the start of the war we used more recent ones (we used Landsat 8). We don’t have images from after the war because it is not over yet.

Deforestation was detected by using a predictive model over the previous years and obtaining annual mappings of forested and non-forested areas. Deforestation was defined as a pixel that changed from forested in 2010 to non-forested in a later year and continued to be detected as non-forested until the end of the time series in 2019.

We also looked at the reasons behind the deforestation. We found that before the war, there was not a significant decline in forest cover. So why did this rapid decline happen during the war? If the war was the cause, how did it happen and why.


Lake forest in Mashqita Syria. Image: Angham Daiyoub

We read the United Nations reports to find relevant information, as it is the only data from the ground that we can trust. They had maps detailing the intensity of bombing and shelling. Using one of these maps, we compared the deforestation patterns with the intensity of exploitative activities in the areas we studied. We found a correlation between regions of high explosive intensity and increased deforestation.

Additionally, we checked the United Nations database for refugee camps to see if deforestation was more prevalent around these areas. Our findings confirmed this, particularly in the Northwest of the country, where a significant amount of deforestation was observed around refugee camps. This allowed us to connect the dots and understand more about how deforestation in Syria is happening. We also used data on forest fires, which you can find in the annex of the article. Forest fires are an important driver of deforestation in the country, and I believe that bombings are important factors contributing to these fires.

Q: What would you say is the impact of forest loss in Syria?

A: The impacts of deforestation can be seen on different levels.

Talking about environmental impact, when you lose a forest, you lose an important habitat for species, including both flora and fauna. A forest is not just a bunch of trees; it is a home for all the species that it encompasses. Losing the forest means losing biodiversity in the region. It is also important to highlight that the ecosystem services provided by the forest can be lost when the forest is gone. This includes soil erosion prevention, especially in Syria, where most forests are on the mountains. The problem with removing trees in the mountains is that Syria has strong rain storms, so without trees, there is no protection from the storms, and the soil can be easily eroded.

Also, the air and water purification services provided by forests are lost when a forest is gone. This leads to increasing pollution and decreased air and water quality.

Talking about social impacts, losing the sense of place is important. For example, the Kurdish community in the North used to celebrate Nowruz (the celebration of spring and new year in Kurdish culture) near the forest, particularly in the Afrin area in the North. Much of this forest has been cut down leaving people without a spot to celebrate. This is a cultural loss.

In Syria, we also have religious forests in the mountains. We have shrines there, they call it the religious orchard forests, where people gather to have fun, drink mate, and enjoy nature. This sense of place and community is also threatened by deforestation.


An oak forest in Northwest Syria surrounding a religious shrine. Image: Angham Daiyoub


And then there are economic impacts and here we need to talk about the economic crisis. Most of the deforestation is happening because there is no fuel, and it gets extremely cold in the mountains, so people are forced to cut trees. People have no other choice but to cut trees for cooking and heating, and also for selling wood. According to the United Nations, 90 % of Syrians are living below the poverty line, so they need to find ways to survive. As a result, we lose forests and the important economic role they play.

Q: Looking at Syria, we face a challenge due to the difficulty in accessing data from inside the country. We have limited knowledge of what is happening inside the country. Would you say there is awareness about environmental degradation and forest depletion?

A: I left Syria four years ago, but I can share my personal experience because I don’t know of any study about awareness levels there.  During my time there, we did a lot of planting trees and things like that. The problem is these activities are not done by professionals, so sometimes they have negative effects (like planting invasive species and things like that). There are groups of people involved in ecotourism or hiking who also organize reforestation projects in Syria. However, awareness about environmental issues is not a priority in the country, given the many struggles people face, such as the collapsed economy. Most people are focused on day-to-day survival. So, there is no big awareness but all I can tell is there is something.

I’m optimistic. I think we learn a lot from what we are going through right now and I can see some light coming after all that is happening now in the region.

Outside of Syria, there is a growing number of Syrians engaged in research, journalism, and similar fields. Actually, because the war is slowing down, it is not as violent as before, people are beginning to focus more on the effects of the war, not only on forests but also on other aspects of life. So, there is increased attention, but time will tell what this will lead to.

Q: Do you have any idea about your next steps in research?

A: I am currently engaged in several research projects. Recently, I completed a report on environmental justice in Syria featuring case studies that explore the intersection of war, the environment, people’s lives and their fight for environmental justice. I am also studying a threatened plant species endemic to the Syrian mountains. This species has not been previously studied, so we are investigating how the war has affected its habitat and population dynamics due to increased human activities. Also, my PhD includes a chapter on the traditional use of wild plants in Syria for both dietary and for medical purposes..

A lot of people tell me that their survival hinges on the knowledge of these plants and their uses. It’s beautiful you know, to witness the preservation of this knowledge, passed down by older generations, and the newfound interest among younger generations to learn more about it. Before they didn’t care, but it is beautiful to see how a new generation is again paying attention, to how to use and live with plants. I have seen a lot of initiatives in Lebanon, such as seeds initiatives. It is amazing actually how people are coping with everything they face with an ecological approach in mind. Therefore, I’m optimistic, I think we learn a lot from what we are going through right now and I can see some light coming after all that is happening right now in the region.


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