Syria’s Civil War Has Environmental Origins

Syria’s Civil War Has Environmental Origins

The environmental causes of Syria’s civil war are often overlooked by commentary on the conflict: join GRI as we dive into the issue.

In the middle of a bloody conflict, chemical weapons use and threats of Western intervention it is easy to forget that two years ago, as the Arab Spring swept through North Africa and the Middle East, Syria was considered by international security analysts to be a country insusceptible to  the threat of internal unrest. By and large, experts concentrated on urban grievances and instability in terms of sectarian and ethnic differences.

The vital factor often missed that may explain why the predictions of the conflict in 2011 were so inaccurate is the impact of environmental changes on Syria’s agrarian community and its consequences for food security, internal migration and political discontent. Explaining these changes and incorporating them into traditional political risk analysis will provide a more complete picture for analysts and investors attempting to work in environmentally precarious regions of the world.

Syria is a semi-arid country, with 55% of its landmass taken up by the steppes known as Al-Badia, which is dominated by pasture farming. Only a third of Syria’s landmass is considered suitable for crop agriculture. Following the trend of other Middle Eastern states, Syria has invested heavily in modernising and expanding its irrigation systems over the last 50 years, with an emphasis on “land reclamation” and agricultural intensification in Al-Badia through government subsidies and heavy use of ground and surface water extraction.

Between 1985 and 2010, the land area brought under cultivation doubled. Wheat, cotton and other water-intensive crops were the primary output, with a corresponding increase in wells tapping aquifers from 135,000 in 1999 to 213,000 in 2007. This explosion in crop agriculture was also reflected in the pastoral sector in Al-Badia, with the number of sheep in Syria increasing from 2.6 million in 1950 to 10-12 million in 1999. An increase in population growth (currently around 2.45% per year) also increased pressure on agricultural and water resources.

This proved as unsustainable in Syria as it had in almost every other country that attempted similar methods. In isolation, the overheating of the Syrian agricultural sector could perhaps have been identified and addressed. However, negative environmental and political trends served to escalate the situation into a full-blown crisis.

From 2006-2011, over 60% of Syria’s landmass experienced the worst long term drought the region has suffered for centuries. Rainfall in these areas fell far below the 20cm a year required for un-irrigated agriculture, with overexploited aquifers proving utterly incapable of compensating for the increased demand for groundwater. An area was considered fortunate if the crop failure rate reached as high as 75%, and in some areas agriculture simply ceased entirely. This devastation of agricultural land had equally grave consequences for the pastoral sector, as up to 85% of livestock in Al-Badia died due to lack of water and food. 2-3 million of Syria’s 10 million farmers were reduced to a state of extreme poverty almost overnight.

These unfortunates found little room to appeal to the ruling regime. While the Ba’ath Party had taken power as a socialist organization focusing on redistributive policies to cultivate mass support, by the 21st century the regime prioritised alliances with powerful urban families, crony capitalists and the military-security apparatus by privatizing and concentrating state institutions and profits. Rural and agricultural interests therefore found themselves shut out of the informal networks of power in Bashir Al-Assad’s patronage-based presidential system.

The only route for survival for rural dwellers was to move to the cities, where they quickly found themselves in competition with the indigenous population and refugees from Iraq and Palestine in an urban environment that was reeling from its own lack of employment opportunities and crumbling infrastructure. The spark that eventually ignited the Syrian civil war was Assad’s violent suppression of protests in Daraa, a city in southwestern Syria that had seen a considerable influx of internal refugees from Al-Badia.

While direct causation between the outbreak of violence in Syria and nexus of environmental degradation, political and economic trends and internal population displacement has been hard to establish due to the continuing violence, the correlations are too significant to be discounted. Current research approaches environmental issues as “threat multipliers” that can cause an already unstable situation to deteriorate even further.

The likelihood of longer and worse droughts in the Middle East and Africa combined with delicate political situations will reinforce the necessity for traditional security and risk assessments to include climate factors into their analysis. Failure to do so will lead to further unanticipated crises in the future.

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