No, climate change did not “cause” the Syrian war

On talking responsibly about climate change and conflict

By Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik

The notion that climate change lurks behind the Syrian crisis is nothing new. In 2015, media articles and recognized public figures started drawing the links between changing temperatures, Syria’s drought, and the country’s staggering violence.

Former US vice-president Al Gore observed that the “underlying story of what caused the gates of hell to open in Syria” was a “climate-related drought.” Secretary of State John Kerry echoed Gore’s words:

It’s not a coincidence that immediately prior to the civil war in Syria, the country experienced its worst drought on record. As many as 1.5 million people migrated from Syria’s farms to its cities, intensifying the political unrest that was just beginning to roil and boil in the region.

Prince Charles noted there was “very good evidence indeed that one of the major reasons for this horror in Syria was a drought that lasted for about five or six years.” Senator Bernie Sanders and artist Charlotte Church attracted attention after publicly making the link. Reports from government commissions and leading NGOs seemed to bolster the conclusion.

As Alex Randall has pointed out, there was a particular context to these conversations. 2015 was the year that the plight of Syrian refugees penetrated into mass European consciousness, and the year of the Paris climate negotiations. Major media, both mainstream and environmental, rode the wave of public interest. The Washington Post ran a column titled: “Climate future will be the Syria refugee crisis times 100.” The New Scientist published a piece headlined: “Calais migrant chaos is a taste of what a warmer world will bring.” The National Observer posted an article bearing the image of Aylan Kurdi, headlined “This is what a climate refugee looks like.”

These overly-simplistic depictions made their way into the language of many environmentalists. As an active participant in climate justice movements, I regularly attend events, rallies and conferences related to environmental issues. At such gatherings, phrases such as: “The Syrian war was caused by climate change”, “Climate change was a major factor behind the Syrian civil war” or “those fleeing to Greece today are climate refugees”, have become recurrent in speeches and conversations.

While this phrasing is not wholly wrong, it is drastically incomplete and problematic, helping to obscure the war’s genesis and hinder necessary solidarity. It is therefore worth clarifying the relationship of climate change to Syria’s conflict, and crafting a more responsible view of causality.


The Drought and the War

Syria sits in a region of intense climate sensitivity. Between 2006 and 2010, the Fertile Crescent experienced a major multiyear drought, its worst in 900 years. Average rainfall in Syria decreased by 66 percent and some regions barely received any precipitation. In the northeast region of Hassakeh, responsible for most of the country’s wheat production, 85% of livestock were lost, food costs skyrocketed, and malnutrition soared. As the UN reported at the time, “[u]p to 80% of those severely affected live mostly on a diet of bread and sugared tea, which is not enough to cover daily calorific and protein needs for a healthy life.” Crime and school dropout rates surged.

Three-fourths of Syria’s farmers suffered total crop failure. Over 800,000 Syrians lost their livelihoods. The weight of agriculture in Syria’s GDP fell from 25% to 17% in just five years. Two to three million people were pushed into extreme poverty. Hundreds of thousands of farming families were forced to move to urban areas, particularly from the regions of Jazeera (east) and Hawran (south). Many ended up in the fringes of cities such as Dar’a, Hama, and Homs, names later to be etched into memory through atrocity.

This drought seems to have been partly inflamed by climate change. A 2011 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration linked a prolonged period of reduced precipitation across the Mediterranean littoral to climate change. Another 2015 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), led by climate scientist Colin P. Kelley, pointed to “century-long observed trends”, which indicated “that anthropogenic forcing has increased the probability of severe and persistent droughts” across the Fertile Crescent, including Syria.

This second study made waves across academia and the mainstream media. Solomon Hsiang, professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, affirmed the study was “the first scientific paper to make the case that human-caused climate change is already altering the risk of large-scale social unrest and violence.”

But what the study established was a firm link between climate change and Syria’s drought, not a firm link between the drought and the uprising. The conventional public understanding of the research – that climate change caused the drought which (partly) caused the Syrian conflict – is tempered or even negated by the actual findings. Richard Seager, one of the PNAS study’s co-authors, noted that “we’re not saying the drought caused the war…We’re saying that added to all the other stressors, it helped kick things over the threshold into open conflict.” Climate and security researcher Francesco Femia echoed Seager’s thoughts, clarifying that “[w]e can’t say climate change caused the civil war. But we can say that there were some very harsh climatic conditions that led to instability.”

Furthermore, the potency of Syria’s drought did not stem from climate change alone. It owed to a collision and enmeshing of factors: climate change, anthropogenic desertification, a lack of irrigation and misguided state policies.

Desertification was entrenched through decades of unsustainable farming practices. Starting in the 1960s, Syria’s Baathist regime introduced major changes in agriculture, expanding the cultivation of water-intensive crops such as wheat and cotton. In an analysis of Syrian water distribution, geographer Jessica Barnes argues that “Syria’s water scarcity is a consequence of the ruling Bath party’s continuous promotion of water-intensive agriculture.”

Other factors were at play. In 1958, Shukri al-Quwatli’s government nationalized Syria’s steppe lands (badia), dispossessing Bedouin pastoralists of their territory. This decision, followed by a reckless expansion of industrial herding, helped precipitate widespread overgrazing and the long-term hydrological collapse of the badia.

This collapse, evinced through the depletion of aquifers and water tables, has been aggravated by a proliferation of water drilling. Syria’s National Agricultural Policy Center reported that the number of wells tapping aquifers grew from around 135,000 in 1999 to over 213,000 in 2007. Groundwater levels in the Tigris-Euphrates Basin (which include a swathe of Syria) are among the lowest in the world.

The government’s negligence meant a historic lack of investment in effective irrigation infrastructure. Instead resources flowed towards unsuccessful hydropower and irrigation schemes such as the Euphrates Basin project, which received an astounding quarter of the national budget for twenty years. Much of what was allocated to irrigation was plundered. As exiled Syrian writer Yassin Swehat points out, “Yes, there was a drought, but the regime ‘spent’ $20 billion in 20 years on irrigation. This money was stolen.”

Welfare and support systems relied on by rural communities were simultaneously eroded, as the government dismantled rural micro-finance cooperatives in 2008, and removed fuel and food subsidies a year later. As Francesca De Châtel, a researcher of Middle Eastern hydrology, explains, “it was not the drought per se, but rather the government’s failure to respond to the ensuing humanitarian crisis that formed one of the triggers of the uprising.” “[O]verstating the importance [of climate change]”, De Châtel adds, is an “unhelpful distraction that diverts attention away from the core problem: the long-term mismanagement of natural resources.”


Overlooking the Crimes

In September 2016, dozens of Syria’s leading intellectuals and regime opponents signed an open letter condemning US and Russian policies in Syria. In it, they also criticised conventional interpretations of the conflict:

Many, especially in the West, prefer to hide behind fatalistic theories steeped in religion or culture—when they do not attribute events to climate change. This explains why a bad situation has become much worse, but it also absolves the powerful elite, including Bashar al-Assad and his gang, of their political responsibilities.

The political irresponsibility and brutality of Assad’s regime, the seed of Syria’s conflict, remains widely unknown, dismissed, or coated in euphemisms such as “poor governance” or “state fragility.” The unspeakable crimes of the regime, if acknowledged, are often obscured through blanket, detail-less condemnation. The cacophony of armed actors helps to confound the outside observer, and hide the hierarchy of blame: according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Assad’s forces are responsible for 95 percent of Syrian victims.

In such a context, we must be summarily careful about the ways in which we talk about climate change as a cause, because it offers a perfect cover for venal states. What better excuse for a government than an abstract phenomenon whose blame is dispersed across the world?


Syria and the Climate Movement

The war in Syria is a gaping wound in the global conscience. Over 400,000 people have been killed. Two million have been physically wounded, with far greater numbers suffering psychological wounds. 4.8 million have fled the country as refugees, and nearly 7 million are internally displaced within Syria. Methods of warfare barred by the laws of war have been readily deployed. As with climate change, the “international community” has been despairingly inadequate in its response.

While Syria’s conflict endures, climate change is already contributing to the destruction of communities and the annual displacement of millions across the globe, from the Sundarbans to the Arctic Circle. Those concerned about climate change are concerned about these populations often because of their invisibility in political decision-making and global consciousness. Syrians have been largely invisible in the public eye, relegated to sporadic outbursts of empathy or pity.

There is an understandable intention behind the overemphasis of climate change’s influence in the Syrian uprising. Climate change is rarely given the attention it deserves and by strapping it to the gravity of Syria’s moral catastrophe, many journalists and environmentalists hope to rouse interest. Successful campaigns also require accessible messages, and it is easier to tell a neater story about the role of climate change in Syria, than to draw out a caveat-laden connection.

But putting forward such skewed analyses is counter-productive; it emboldens climate deniers who can quickly poke holes, and it alienates allies wary of the way in which struggles are co-opted.

This type of crude thinking also leaves us unprepared for the unfolding climate crisis. The devastating consequences of climate change expose failures on two levels: failures of mitigation and failures of adaptation. Words like “drought”, “flood”, and “superstorm” typically imply abnormal bursts of extreme weather. But the impact of that weather is determined not just by its severity, but by the conditions that weather meets on the ground. What tips the balance between a manageable drought and a catastrophic drought is a country’s adaptive capacity: its readiness, its wealth, its cohesion, its levels of equality, its political responsiveness, its treatment of its most vulnerable groups.

So when we talk about tackling climate change, we mean two fundamental things: tackling the root causes of climate change, and tackling deficiencies that makes us vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Talking about climate change’s role in the Syrian conflict without addressing the policy decisions of Assad’s regime, fundamentally ignores the adaptive dimension of climate change. Overlooking these factors and blithely claiming that climate change caused the war in Syria insinuates (wrongly) that mitigating climate change somehow addresses the war in Syria.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is not appropriate to impose an interpretative corset, suited to our own concerns, on a conflict. We cannot rummage for our talking points amid the wreckage of human lives. Instead, we should do everything possible to understand the Syrian conflict on Syrian terms, to replace our ignorance with nuance, to listen to and amplify diverse Syrian voices, and to actively show our solidarity with a people bearing ceaseless inhumanities.

  • Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik is a journalist and campaigner covering human rights, ecology and migration.


Photo credit: Hendrik Daquin, Creative Commons 

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