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.
Continue reading “No, climate change did not “cause” the Syrian war”
by Gilbert Achcar
A recent 2-part series on Syria in The Independent by Patrick Cockburn, one of the most influential journalists on the subject, is a masterclass in sophistry that illustrates why the conflict is so misunderstood. A closer look is therefore instructive.
On October 2, in an article titled “Syria crisis: The West wrings its hands in horror but it was our folly that helped create this bloodbath”, Cockburn writes:
Reaction to Russia’s military intervention in Syria shows that the lack of knowledge of the Syrian political landscape on the part of Western political leaders and media is hindering the adoption of more constructive policies. During the past four years, over-simplifications and wishful thinking have prevented any realistic attempt to end the civil war, mitigate its effects or stop it from spreading to other countries.
Since 2011 the departure from power of President Bashar al-Assad has been prescribed as a quick way to bring an end to the conflict, although there is no reason to believe this. There are no quick or easy solutions: Syria is being torn apart by a genuine, multi-layered civil war with a multitude of self-interested players inside and outside the country. If Assad dropped dead tomorrow, Syrians in his corner would not stop fighting, knowing as they do that the success of an opposition movement dominated by Isis and al-Qaeda clones such as Jabhat al-Nusra would mean death or flight for them and their families.
Sophism 1: Those in the West who have been calling for Assad’s departure as a condition for bringing an end to the conflict meant it as part of a “national reconciliation” and “managed transition,” not as Assad “dropping dead tomorrow,” of course.
Today there are four million Syrian refugees, mostly from opposition areas being bombarded indiscriminately by government forces. But this figure could double if the more populous pro-government areas become too dangerous to live in.
In the past, this was not likely to happen because Assad always controlled at least 12 out of 14 Syrian provincial capitals.
Sophism 2: In other words: don’t let more populous areas slip out of government control lest they get “bombarded indiscriminately by government forces” (a welcome acknowledgement of the obvious truth) and end up sending more refugees! Continue reading “A masterclass in sophistry: Patrick Cockburn on the Russian intervention in Syria”
by Brian Slocock
A story published in the Guardian on 16 September entitled “West ‘ignored Russian offer for Assad to step down as President’” has evoked considerable excitement on both sides of the Atlantic. The story is based on a claim by former Finnish President and UN Diplomat Martti Ahtisaari that the West failed to respond to an overture made in February 2012 by Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin. According to Ahtisaari, Churkin, in a private conversation suggested a means for resolving the Syrian crisis:
He said: ‘Martti, sit down and I’ll tell you what we should do.’ “He said three things: One – we should not give arms to the opposition. Two – we should get a dialogue going between the opposition and Assad straight away. Three – we should find an elegant way for Assad to step aside.”
The Guardian seems to have felt the need to “sex up” these comments, turning them into a “3-point plan”. (Of course this plan already existed, in the form of the Arab League initiative of 22 January 2012, of which more below).
Continue reading “Did the West ignore a Russian offer for Assad to step down as President?”