It is inevitable that when a complex situation erupts everybody will try to map their own specialities onto it. At the present time, where environmentalism is such a primary Western concern, it was perhaps always likely that the Syrian war would attract those determined to see this menace in every corner. It has happened before, with Darfur declared, “The First Climate War”. There were other possible causes—the Sudanese regime’s orchestration of the Janjaweed killer brigades, for example—but climate change’s impact received a great deal of attention.
Serious people speculated that climate change had ravaged Syria and was behind the drought that preceded the uprising. No matter that the reality is that those who attribute any one disaster to climate change are on ground no firmer than Councillor David Silvester in meteorological terms. But in Syria to speculate about climate change was to create a mystery where none existed.
Despite an abundance of water, between 2006 and 2010 there was a serious drought, which displaced more than 1.5 million subsistence farmers, depriving them of ninety percent of their income. The major cause was a depletion of groundwater. In the new “open” economy after Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father, the regime’s retainers were freed of restraint; they drilled more water than was sustainable to enhance their short-term gain. This happens in partially transformed economies where the monopolised corruption of the State becomes decentralised. The theft of common resources by the State has in-built incentives for sustainability based on considerations of regime longevity. But decentralisation means “state agents acting as independent monopolists”: this makes corruption “more widespread,” reduces State revenue, and promotes competition among these agents that incentivises them to “steal everything”. Combined with the end of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon in 2005—not only a valuable source of income from narcotics and money laundering, but from remittances, product of an aggressive form of “labor colonialism” that exported a million Syrians who would otherwise have been unemployed—this left cities swollen with dislocated and jobless young men. Enraged already, the (largely Sunni) internally displaced people were further provoked by the regime’s sectarianism: what few jobs there were—in the oil industry in Hasaka, for example—went to Alawites imported from the coast.
In January, a paper published by Francesca de Chatel, a Dutch specialist on water issues in the Arab world, vindicated this view. “[T]here is very little solid evidence” that climate change “will lead to more frequent and harsher droughts, [or] higher temperatures and lower and more unpredictable precipitation levels.” Indeed,
The only available evidence that global warming will lead to more extreme weather events relies on modeling. Data do not really sustain this hypothesis so far.
where there are so many other evident causes of the current conflict, it seems unproductive to focus on the possible role of climate change.
In a region where the only liberal democracy is the one State that attracts the “Apartheid” label, the leaders of this campaign of defamation and delegitimation missed the nearest analogue to South Africa’s foul ancien regime: the House of Assad in Syria. The levers of actual power are disproportionately in the hands of Alawis, who are 12% of the population at the very most and likely much less. Hafez al-Assad had brought on-board a “Sunni loyalist elite“—individual commanders in the army and the bourgeoisie of Aleppo and Damascus—to obscure the “blatant sectarianism” of the regime, but under Bashar even these Sunnis were further marginalised. Not all Alawis have benefited, of course: it is a Mafia system of “patronage, frequently based on extended family networks” that has the run of the country, and to the extent power has been shared with other communities, it was just enough to implicate them, so that when rebellion came they could not walk away from the regime.
This discriminatory order was a major component of the resentment that led to the uprising. The immediate trigger was the devastated economy, the harvest of the “open” economy that formalised the privatisation of Syria’s economy; already held by the Assad family and its retainers, they now dropped the pretence that industries and sectors were “State-owned”. The most infamous case is probably Rami Makhlouf, a maternal cousin of the dictator’s, who owns up to 60% of the whole economy.
There is some persuasive evidence that the regime’s handling of the drought had some influence in triggering the rebellion, but this only restates the problem. The “frequency of droughts had not increased over the last 20 years,” Ms. Chatel notes, and it was “not the drought per se, but rather the government’s failure to respond to the ensuing humanitarian crisis” that led to trouble. The regime had also in part causing the drought by over-drawing water:
[T]he desert naturally adapts to droughts and wet periods. … Experiments carried out over a period of ten years … in the eastern desert conclusively showed that the mismanagement and overexploitation of resources lay at the root of desertification, not drought or climate change.
To blame overpopulation or water-scarcity, as the regime does, is to actively mislead.
Over-population is a real problem—Syria’s population jumped from 3.3 million in 1950 to 22 million on the eve of the uprising—but that too was partly the regime’s doing: it banned contraceptives and handed over the cultural space to Sunni Islamists who preached the necessity of large families.
As to the water-scarcity, it is “50 years of resource mismanagement and overexploitation [that] caused the depletion of resources, which in turn led to growing disenfranchisement and discontent in Syria’s rural communities.” The 2006–10 drought “exacerbated an already existing humanitarian crisis” but the drought was merely “the culmination of 50 years of sustained mismanagement of water and land resources”. The regime’s “failure to adequately respond” surely made this worse, but the situation was “already disastrous”.
Ms. Chatel adds:
[O]verstating [climate change’s] importance is an unhelpful distraction that diverts attention away from the core problem: the long-term mismanagement of natural resources. Furthermore, an exaggerated focus on climate change shifts the burden of responsibility for the devastation of Syria’s natural resources away from the successive Syrian governments since the 1950s and allows the Assad regime to blame external factors for its own failures.
In short, as in Sudan, a focus on climate change exculpates the regime.
The regime’s disastrous economic mismanagement and its sectarian character—even in response to the drought—was what provoked the population. Tyranny—and the spectacle of tyranny’s downfall in Iraq, Tunisia, and Egypt—rounds out the causes of this uprising.
As Ms. Chatel so pithily concludes:
“The possible role of climate change in this chain of events is not only irrelevant; it is also an unhelpful distraction.”
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POSTCRIPT: In 2018, Jan Selby of Sussex University, a political ecology and environmental security expert, wrote a paper for Geoforum summarising the best available information after a series of academic debates about the impact of climate change on the Syrian war: “[T]here is very little merit to the ‘Syria climate conflict thesis’.”
There is “no clear evidence” that drought in the Jazira (the north-east) or urban migration in the same area and the south “were factors in civil war onset”, writes Selby. The number of migrants was “much lower than has often been claimed, and that this migration was in all likelihood not triggered, let alone caused, by drought alone”. An “agrarian crisis” was underway in north-eastern Syria many years before the droughts of 2006-7 and 2008-9 as a result of the Assad dynasty’s policies.
Selby argues that the interplay of the degradation of Syria’s water resources by the state over many decades, the deepening rural poverty caused in considerable measure by the Bashar regime’s “reforms” to the agricultural sector that took away jobs from farmers and created inflation, and “Hasakah’s distinctive character as an ethnically contested borderland and frontier zone” is a far more convincing explanation than any climate change-related factors for the crisis in the north-east, especially when set against the background of a “nationwide collapse of Syria’s agriculturally-oriented and rentier model of state-building and development”.
The primacy of agriculture in the Syrian economy was an ideological choice, related to Ba’thist socialism, enabled initially by external subsidies, from the Soviet Union and later the Gulf states, and after that by Syria’s internal oil production once those two sources evaporated. The result was that rising oil revenues led to greater wheat production, requiring massive inputs of water, and the increasingly mechanised, “privatised” sector meant a few regime oligarchs got rich and many more people got unemployed.
When oil revenues began to decline in the mid-2000s, the effect was profound:
Syria’s pre-civil war agrarian crisis and the mass migration from rural to peri-urban areas occurred when the props which artificially maintained an over-extended agricultural production system—oil export rents, a pro-agrarian ideology, and their associated price controls—were suddenly and decisively removed.
All of this was magnified in Hasaka, effectively an internal frontier or domestic colony, where the regime saw great opportunities for industrialisation and productivity, yet had to operate in a zone that is geographically and demographically distinct from the “centre”. To give the state purchase in this Kurdish area, the regime engaged in Arabization efforts in Hasaka, a forced in-migration of people that incited ethnic and political tensions. Moreover, the political geography the Assad state sought to create—with Arab domination of key nodes and an Arab “cordon sanitaire” along the borders with Turkey and Iraq to protect a volatile, separatist-inclined province that contained most of the food and oil—had very little relation to the economic capacity of the area.
In modern times, “vulnerability to drought always has political-economic causes”, as Selby concludes, and Syria was no different. It was the Assad regime’s policies, driven by ideology, which made the country so vulnerable to the adverse consequences of droughts that were no more frequent or severe than Syria is used to. The demographic meddling and repression of an ethno-religious minority created dislocation and socio-political resentments that compounded the economic mismanagement.
In short, “even the most critical of existing analyses do not go far enough in decentring drought” as a cause of Syria’s war.