Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

The catastrophic war in Syria has been, for years now, regularly identified as partly caused by human-induced climate change. Climate change, it is said, was at work in a severe pre-civil war drought in northeastern Syria.

A water canal running from the Euphrates river into the semi-desert region of eastern Syria, 2010. Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters

This drought, it is claimed, caused large-scale out-migration from the region. And this migration, it is argued, exacerbated the internal socio-economic stresses which underpinned the country’s 2011 protests and ultimate descent into war. Western political leaders, international organizations, environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs), defense think tanks and countless academic, activist and media commentators have all made this case. Both within the Western liberal mainstream and within much radical green and red-green thinking—from former US President Barack Obama to Extinction Rebellion—the Syrian conflict is seen as not only a horror in its own right but also as an early indication of what awaits the world as the planet continues to warm.[1]

These claims cannot be rejected entirely, if only because most phenomena are in one way or another connected, however indirectly, and because it is impossible to demonstrate the non-existence of causal connections. And yet, as Omar Dahi, Mike Hume, Christiane Fröhlich and I have shown elsewhere, and as others have also found, the Syria climate conflict narrative is deeply problematic.[2] Not only is the evidence behind this narrative weak. In addition, it masks what was really occurring in rural Syria (and in the country’s northeast region in particular) prior to 2011, which was the unfolding of a long-term economic, environmental and political crisis. And crucially, the narrative largely originated from Syrian regime interests in deflecting responsibility for a crisis of its own making. Syria is less an exemplar of what awaits us as the planet warms than of the complex and uncomfortable politics of blaming climate change.

 

The Evidence on Climate Change and Syria’s Civil War

 

There is no doubt that much of Syria and the eastern Mediterranean region experienced an exceptionally severe drought in the years before the onset of Syria’s civil war: the single year 2007–2008 was northeastern Syria’s driest on record, as was the three-year period 2006–2009. Moreover, as an influential analysis by Columbia-based earth scientists found, this drought can plausibly, if not uncontestably, be linked to climate change. While it would be a mistake to say that climate change caused Syria’s pre-civil war drought—since individual extreme weather events cannot be attributed to climate change as a matter of course, as if they were unknown before human activity started transforming the world’s climate—it is reasonable to say, per the Columbia study, that climate change did make this particular drought more likely.[3]

Be that as it may, it is widely claimed that the drought led to a collapse in agricultural production, pushing 2 to 3 million people into extreme poverty and displacing around 1.5 million from the northeast to Damascus, Aleppo, the southern town of Dara’a and elsewhere. But the evidence on these points is extremely weak. The widely reproduced claim that 2 to 3 million people were driven into extreme poverty by the 2006–2009 drought was drawn, extraordinarily, from analyses by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) of pre-drought poverty levels.[4] The claim that around 1.5 million people were displaced was derived from a single humanitarian news bulletin, seemingly on the basis of a misreading of the UN’s estimate of those affected—not displaced—by the drought. Using Syrian government numbers, the UN actually reported drought-period displacement to be around 40,000–60,000 families.[5]

An additional problem is that drought was not the only trigger of economic crisis or of migration away from northeastern Syria during the 2007–2009 period. A presidential decree in 2008, which tightened restrictions on land sales across the northeastern-most province of Hasakah, led to the extensive loss of land rights and was credited by some organizations as a key factor in the increased migration from northeast Syria prior to the war. Even more sharply, during 2008–2009 rural Syria was hit by triple-digit increases in the prices of key agricultural inputs. In May 2008 fuel subsidies were halved, leading to an overnight 342 percent spike in the price of diesel. And then in May 2009 fertilizer subsidies were removed, causing prices to rise anywhere from 200 to 450 percent. The fuel subsidy cuts had particularly devastating economic consequences, especially for farmers reliant on cheap fuel for groundwater irrigation.

The fuel subsidy cuts had particularly devastating economic consequences, especially for farmers reliant on cheap fuel for groundwater irrigation.
As one commentator has noted, for many farmers in Syria the cutting of input subsidies in 2008–2009 “formed a greater burden than the successive years of drought and spurred their decision to abandon their land.”[6] The fact that a number of neighboring countries experienced equivalent precipitation declines during 2006–2009—or in Iraq’s case an even larger decline—but no comparable migration crises, suggests at the very least that the migration from Syria’s northeast must have been caused more by these Syria-specific factors than by the drought.

The evidence for a link between migration due to drought and the onset of the civil war is weaker still. Proponents of the climate conflict thesis typically claim that drought-induced displacement caused a “population shock” within Syria’s urban peripheries, exacerbating pre-existing socio-economic pressures. Yet Syria’s cities grew rapidly throughout the decade before the civil war, not only during the drought years. By our calculations, excess migration from the northeast during 2008–2009 amounted to just 4–12 percent of Syria’s 2003–2010 urban growth (and this excess migration was not all triggered by drought).[7]

There is also no evidence that drought migration tipped Syria’s existing stresses toward war. There is no evidence, for instance, that migrants from the northeast were extensively involved in the spring 2011 protests, whether as mobilizers, participants or targets. In Dara’a—where many migrants took their families and where the civil war is often said to have begun—none of the demands made by protesters related directly to either drought or migration. And interview evidence suggests that, in Dara’a at least, migrants from the northeast were barely involved in the protests: “They had nothing to do with politics. They went to work and back home,” observed one interviewee. “They left at the beginning of the demonstrations,” observed another: “They had no opinion. Their life revolved solely around their work.”[8] Thus, as Marwa Daoudy concludes in her new book on the subject, there is “little evidence” that “climate change in Syria sparked popular revolt in 2011”—but “a lot of evidence” that “suggests it did not.”[9]

 

A Structural Agrarian Crisis

 

What was really happening in northeastern Syria prior to the civil war was the unfolding of a deep and long-term structural agrarian crisis.[10] For, contrary to those accounts that date agricultural “collapse” and out-migration to 2008–2009 and the drought, it is evident that northeastern Syria’s agrarian troubles—and especially those in the province of Hasakah—went all the way back to 2000, and indeed earlier. Production of the two main government-designated strategic crops, wheat and cotton, was in decline in Hasakah from the early 2000s onward. Land and settlements were being abandoned there well before the drought. Net out-migration from Hasakah during this period was higher than from any other province. And the reasons for this lay not in the drought but in the contradictions of Syrian development.

For at least three decades from the late 1960s, Syria’s Ba’athist regime had pursued an agrarian socialist development program, promoting rapid expansion of the country’s agricultural sector and deploying Soviet aid and oil income to this end. Among other elements, this program involved heavy investment in agricultural and especially water supply infrastructure, low interest loans for private well drilling, price controls on strategic crops at well above international market value, the annual wiping clean of state farm losses and, as already indicated, generous input subsidies. As a result, throughout this period production of strategic crops soared and Syria moved from being an importer to a net exporter of many crops, most importantly wheat. The problem, however, was that the economic and environmental foundations of this agricultural development model were extremely fragile. Environmentally, the model relied above all on the super-exploitation of water resources, especially groundwater—a problem which by the early 2000s had become critical. And economically, Syrian agriculture had become highly input dependent, reliant on continuing fuel subsidies in particular. Indeed, so dependent was Syrian agriculture on cheap diesel for surface and groundwater irrigation that it was estimated in one study that cotton and wheat production in Syria’s three driest agro-climatic zones would cease being profitable altogether if fuel costs were to double.[11]

It should be no surprise, therefore, that the post-2000 transformation of Syria’s economy sparked agrarian crisis. Within just a few short years, Syria embraced principles of economic liberalization, privatized state farms, liberalized trade and reduced price control levels. At the same time domestic oil production and exports fell rapidly, thus undermining the regime’s rentier foundations and its capacity to subsidize agriculture. The price of diesel did not just double, which is the level at which wheat and cotton production would become untenable across much of the country, but increased much more than that, with a subsidy cut equivalent to 7 percent of GDP. Strategic crop production inevitably fell as a result, and mass rural to urban migration followed. Irrespective of any drought impacts, these developments essentially occurred when the props that had until then 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.

It was Ba’athist state policies which had turned Hasakah into a region of wheat monoculture, failed to promote economic diversification and facilitated cultivation ever deeper into the badiya (the desert) while over-exploiting surface and groundwater resources.
These national-level changes affected Hasakah with particular acuity for various reasons. As Syria’s pre-eminent breadbasket region—the heartland of strategic crop production—Hasakah was particularly vulnerable to economic liberalization and the withdrawal of input supports. No other region of the country was so dependent on groundwater for irrigation, a factor that made it particularly vulnerable to fuel price increases. Hasakah’s groundwater resources were also exceptionally degraded, even by Syrian standards: In 2001, according to Syrian government figures, irrigation withdrawals within Hasakah’s Khabour basin were more than three times the level of natural replenishment. The region was also deeply affected by intense irrigation development and over-abstraction of groundwater resources within Turkey. Moreover, northeast Syria had the highest incidence, depth and severity of poverty in the country, increasing vulnerabilities still further.

But above and beyond all this, Hasakah’s agrarian crisis was also political in its origins. It was Ba’athist state policies which had turned Hasakah into a region of wheat monoculture, failed to promote economic diversification and facilitated cultivation ever deeper into the badiya (the desert) while over-exploiting surface and groundwater resources. Moreover, these measures were taken partly for strategic and geostrategic reasons, bound up with regime interests in expanding and consolidating Hasakah’s Arab population (its project of Arabization), in controlling and excluding the province’s Kurdish population and in extending its control and presence within a strategically sensitive borderland and frontier region. During the heyday of Ba’athist agrarian development, Hasakah’s population and agricultural sector expanded like in no other area. With the collapse of this development model, rural crisis and out-migration were the inevitable result.

 

From Victim Narrative to Virtue Signaling

 

How is it, then, that so many Western commentators and policymakers have ended up linking migration and civil war in Syria to climate change, while saying next to nothing about the much more fundamental economic, environmental and political causes of the country’s pre-war agrarian crisis? There are many different reasons, of course, but one set of interests was especially pivotal: those of President Bashar al-Asad’s regime. After an initial reluctance to acknowledge the depth of the crisis in the northeast, the government eventually embraced the climate crisis narrative with gusto. The drought was “beyond our powers,” claimed Asad. The drought was “beyond our capacity as a country to deal with,” claimed the Minister of Agriculture. “Syria could have achieved [its] goals pertaining to unemployment, poverty and growth if it was not for the drought,” proclaimed Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah al-Dardari.[12] Indeed, as the International Crisis Group reported, the Asad regime would regularly take diplomats to the northeast and tell them, “it all has to do with global warming,” blaming what was in essence a state-induced socio-ecological crisis on climatic transformations beyond its control.[13] This shifting of blame is essentially how the Syria climate crisis narrative began.

Others then reproduced this regime-inspired narrative for their own specific reasons. Official UN reports on the crisis in the northeast, which were produced in collaboration with the Syrian regime, were predictably drought-centric, barely mentioning any factors other than drought, omitting any criticisms of government policy and ignoring the existence of a discriminated-against Kurdish minority.[14] International media reports on the subject were similarly focused on  drought, no doubt partly because of media preferences for simplified and striking narratives, but also because they relied upon UN sources and took these at their word. The same emphases were then reproduced and circulated by assorted Western think tanks and researchers concerned with climate change, with even the academic researchers barely pausing to consider whether the UN reports, media stories and Syrian government statements they relied upon were trustworthy representations of Syria’s problems or not. The climate crisis narrative reached its apogee in 2015, in the run-up to the UN Paris conference on climate change, when countless politicians and commentators turned to the example of Syria to illustrate the urgency of international action to limit greenhouse gas emissions. In this way a flawed narrative stemming from Asad regime interests in deflecting responsibility for a crisis of its own making ended up being regurgitated as a statement of fact in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and by Western liberal politicians and eco-socialist campaigners alike.

Identifying the flaws and biases of this particular climate crisis narrative is by no means to suggest that climate change is unimportant. As global temperatures rise toward and beyond 2 and then 3 degrees Celcius the changes will register on every aspect of human life across the planet. Energy decarbonization will likewise have profound economic and political consequences, not least within the Middle East. The possibility that humankind could transform the world’s climate beyond all recognition makes climate change the pre-eminent global challenge.

Blaming the climate has long been, like blaming nature, a powerful rhetorical strategy, beloved in particular by imperial powers and authoritarian states.
Yet climate change is also much more than a physical reality and looming environmental threat: It is simultaneously an object of discourse, debate and rhetoric, a potent meta-narrative that can be invoked for explanation, legitimation, blame avoidance and enrichment. Blaming the climate has long been, like blaming nature, a powerful rhetorical strategy, beloved in particular by imperial powers and authoritarian states. In a world of human-induced planetary heating this is doubly so.

Indeed, climate change is already regularly invoked to questionable ends across the Middle East and North Africa. It is used to explain away ecological catastrophes actually caused by unsustainable agricultural expansion, to make the case for investment in new and often unnecessary mega-projects, to obscure state mismanagement of local environmental resources and to argue against the redistribution of such resources to oppressed and minority groups. Climate change is also invoked to attract donor or research funding, to call for increased military spending, to construct new fictitious financial commodities or simply as a performative display of global citizenship and moral virtue.[15] And the consequences of this can be regressive or, at best, ambiguous. As in northeastern Syria, blaming climate change is often a distraction from the real causes of socio-ecological crisis.

 

[Jan Selby is professor of politics and international relations at the University of Sheffield.]

 


 

Endnotes

 

[1] Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President at the United States Coast Guard Academy Commencement,” May 20, 2015. Farhana Yamin, “This is the Only Way to Tackle the Climate Emergency,” Time, June 14, 2019.

[2] Jan Selby, Omar Dahi, Mike Hume and Christiane Fröhlich, “Climate Change and the Syrian Civil War Revisited,” Political Geography 60 (2017). Selby et al, “Climate Change and the Syrian Civil War Revisited: A Rejoinder,” Political Geography 60 (2017). Francesca De Châtel, “The Role of Drought and Climate Change in the Syrian Uprising: Untangling the Triggers of the Revolution,” Middle Eastern Studies 50/4 (2014). Christiane Fröhlich, “Climate Migrants as Protestors? Dispelling Misconceptions about Global Environmental Change in Pre-Revolutionary Syria,” Contemporary Levant 1/1 (2016). Marwa Daoudy, The Origins of the Syrian Conflict: Climate Change and Human Security (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020).

[3] Colin Kelley et al, “Climate Change in the Fertile Crescent and Implications of the Recent Syrian Drought”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112/11 (2015).

[4] Heba El Laithy and Khalid Abu-Ismael, Poverty in Syria, 1996-2004: Diagnosis and Pro-Poor Policy Considerations (Damascus: United Nations Development Programme, 2005). El Laithy and Abu-Ismael, Poverty and Distribution in Syria (Damascus: United Nations Development Programme, 2009).

[5] The humanitarian bulletin in question is IRIN, “Drought Driving Farmers to the Cities,” Integrated Regional Information Networks (September 2, 2009), while the UN’s estimate of numbers affected is in UN-OCHA, Syria Drought Response Plan (New York: UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, August 11, 2009). The UN (and Syrian government’s) estimates of drought displacement are in UN-OCHA, Syria Drought Response Plan and UN-OCHA, Joint United Nations Drought Assessment Mission, The Syrian Arab Republic 2008/09 (New York: UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, September 9, 2009).

[6] De Châtel, “The Role of Drought and Climate Change in the Syrian Uprising”, p. 526.

[7] Selby et al, “Climate Change and the Syrian Civil War Revisited,” pp. 239, 242.

[8] Interviews by Christiane Fröhlich, conducted 2014–15 in Zaatari and Ramtha refugee camps, as cited in Selby et al, “Climate Change and the Syrian Civil War Revisited,” p. 240.

[9] Daoudy, The Origins of the Syrian Conflict, p. 203.

[10] Selby, “Climate Change and the Syrian Civil War, Part II: The Jazira’s Agrarian Crisis,” Geoforum 101 (2019).

[11] Gül et al, “Economic Analysis of Energy Use in Groundwater Irrigation of Dry Areas: A Case Study in Syria,” Applied Energy 82/4 (December 2005).

[12] “President al-Assad delivers speech at people’s assembly,” SANA, March 30, 2011, as quoted in De Châtel, “The Role of Drought and Climate Change in the Syrian Uprising,” p. 535. Syrian Minister of Agriculture as quoted in US Embassy Damascus, “2008 UN drought Appeal for Syria,” US Diplomatic Cable 08DAMASCUS847_a (November 26, 2008). Al-Dardari as quoted in US Embassy Damascus, “SARG Sheds Light on Its Drought Concerns,” US Diplomatic Cable 10DAMASCUS97_a (February 1, 2010).

[13] International Crisis Group, Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (VI): The Syrian People’s Slow-Motion Revolution (July 6, 2011), p. 23.

[14] The main reports in question were UN-OCHA, Syria Drought Appeal, September 2008 (New York: UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, September 29, 2008). UN-OCHA, Syria Drought Response Plan. UN-OCHA, Joint United Nations Drought Assessment Mission.

[15] Betsy Hartmann, “Rethinking Climate Refugees and Climate Conflict: Rhetoric, Reality, and the Politics of Policy Discourse,” Journal of International Development 22/2 (2010). Chris Paul Methmann, “’Climate Protection’ as Empty Signifier: A Discourse Theoretical Perspective on Climate Mainstreaming Within World Politics,” Millennium 39/2 (2010). Harry Verhoeven, “Climate Change, Conflict and Development in Sudan: Global Neo-Malthusian Narratives and Local Power Struggles,” Development and Change 42/3 (2011). Clemens Messerschmid, “Nothing New in the Middle East: Reality and Discourses of Climate Change in the Israeli–Palestinian Conflict,” in Jürgen Scheffran et al eds. Climate Change, Human Security and Violent Conflict, Hexagon Series on Human and Environmental Security and Peace (Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 2012). Michael L. Wine, “Climatization of Environmental Degradation: A Widespread Challenge to the Integrity of Earth Science,” Hydrological Sciences Journal 65/6 (2020).

 

How to cite this article:

Jan Selby "On Blaming Climate Change for the Syrian Civil War," Middle East Report 296 (Fall 2020).
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