Main Image Credit A demonstration in Homs during the Syrian uprising in 2011. Courtesy of Bo yaser / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0
Climate change didn’t trigger the 2011 Syrian Revolution, elite ideology and government policy did.
When little Aylan tragically drowned on the shores of Turkey, the Canadian National Observer proclaimed: ‘this is what a climate refugee looks like’. Academic and policy debates have conflated the drivers of climate change and conflict, warning policymakers about the violent effects of drought, famine and migration. As Syria’s 2011 Arab Spring uprisings devolved into conflict following brutal repression by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the country became a showcase for ‘climate-induced’ displacement and unrest. To some, climate change caused a major drought in Syria from 2006–2010; the drought caused agricultural failure in the country’s breadbasket region in the northeast; and agricultural failure caused poverty, migration and discontent – ultimately culminating in the uprisings. Yet droughts have plagued the country for decades. Why 2011 and not before?
I investigated the origins of the Syrian conflict by examining the country’s climatic vulnerability and its politics surrounding water, land and infrastructure. First, my research shows the combined effects of climate change, drought and massive migration by rural communities in northeast Syria did not produce the protests. Unemployed farmers – the biggest casualties of the drought – were not the instigators of the 2011 uprisings. Second, the seeds of discontent were planted by unsustainable government practices and structural inequalities, which aggravated poverty and food insecurity. I analysed official records as well as debates between domestic experts engaged in 2005–2010 within the Syrian Association for Economic Sciences – the powerful voices of insiders often disregarded by foreign analysts in discussions about Syria. I also carried out interviews with local experts, refugees, activists and dissidents under conditions of anonymity.
Syria experienced two severe droughts in the 21st century which led to temperature increases and decreased rainfall. A longitudinal analysis shows that the environmental effects of the 1998–2001 drought (Drought I) were more severe than the 2006–2010 drought (Drought II). During Drought I, temperatures increased by a yearly average of 5.07%, impacting soil moisture levels. Drought II only averaged a 3.93% temperature increase from pre-drought years. A similar discrepancy is reflected when comparing the variability and mean of precipitation levels between the two droughts. The second drought’s larger impact on food and water insecurity must therefore be traced as a function of political and economic factors.
Ideology Shaped Water and Land Use
Climate impacts are filtered through political structure – composed of ideology, state institutions, and policy – which shape how individuals and communities experience water and food insecurity. In Syria, ideologies such as Ba’athism, the personality cult of Hafez al-Assad, and economic liberalisation under Bashar al-Assad interacted with state power to initiate agrarian reforms that deprioritised environmental conservation. Ba’athist ideology from the 1960s through to the 1980s was grounded in pan-Arab socialism, but with the worsening domestic economic situation in the 1990s and 2000s, the regime adjusted its ideological grounding to focus on increasing economic yields, mainly to the benefit of urban centres. The discourse surrounding these projects conflated water and food autonomy with political power and legitimacy, later amplified by propaganda under Hafez al-Assad that highlighted the leader’s peasant origins.
Ideologies such as Ba’athism, the personality cult of Hafez al-Assad, and economic liberalisation interacted with state power to initiate agrarian reforms that deprioritised environmental conservation
In line with these ideological imperatives, large and aggressive irrigation projects and agricultural reforms were the order of the day. As a result, the country’s water resources were subject to poor management, while subsidies were awarded to fuel, water and food and other ‘strategic crops’ deemed vital for national security. For a well-known Syrian water engineer I interviewed, the government made a huge mistake when it prioritised highly consumptive crops such as cotton. The construction of the massive Taqba Dam on the Euphrates also led in 1973 to the evacuation – sometimes forced – of 60,000 inhabitants from 43 villages submerged by the reservoir, the majority of whom were never fully reintegrated into the agrarian economy.
Seeking to Arabise the northeast along Ba’athist ideals, the Arab Encirclement Plan led to the forced settlement of some of the displaced Arab farmers from the Euphrates region into the Kurdish-populated provinces of the northeast – which later unilaterally declared the formation of an autonomous republic of Western Kurdistan/Rojava in 2012. Already excluded from citizenship, Syrian Kurds in the Hassake province were deprived of the gains of the ‘Agrarian Revolution’ through successive land tenure reforms enacted between the 1960s and 2000s.
After Bashar al-Assad took power in 2000, the regime ramped up its commitment to neoliberal policies at the behest of the World Bank and the IMF, unveiling a ‘Social Market Economy’, with drastic consequences for the economic and social resilience of rural populations. Inspired by Germany’s model of post-war recovery, the new ideology promoted privatisation, the retreat of the welfare state, and urban economic development over the rural social contracts of the Ba’athist era.
Bad Policy Exacerbated the Urban-Rural Divide
The uneven transition from Ba’athist socialism to the ‘Social Market Economy’ shaped the vulnerability of the Syrian northeast. The Ba’athist infrastructure legacy combined with bureaucratic corruption led to failing irrigation plans, widespread illegal well digging, groundwater overconsumption and soil deterioration. In the words of Yassin Haj-Saleh, in discussion with the author, ‘Syrians have become dependent on “Vitamin W” [for wasta, bribe]. It is required for everything’.
Syria's agriculture sector has shrunk more than 40% since 2011
Local experts also argue that the vestiges of Ba’athism left rural populations in the northeast heavily dependent on government land schemes and food purchasing programmes, which the state abandoned too abruptly after 2005 as it shifted priorities in the neoliberal era at the worst possible time – in the middle of a drought.
Drought II destroyed the livelihood of over 50% of farmers nationwide, of whom close to 500,000 lived in Hassake, 155,000 in Raqqa, and 41,000 in Deir ez-Zor. Drought II, however, saw different patterns of migration: in the past, individual family members would leave their hometown to find jobs elsewhere while the bulk of the family stayed behind, but with Drought II, suddenly the exodus involved the entire extended family. The total was estimated to be between 370,000 and 460,000 individuals. According to local sources, roughly 38% of the population had emigrated by 2010.
The Conflict’s Environmental Footprint
The war intensified disparities and patterns of human insecurity, decimating Syria’s agriculture. The sector has shrunk more than 40% since 2011. Damage inflicted by the government and foreign powers’ airstrikes to water and wastewater treatment infrastructure, combined with a lack of maintenance, resulted in a 50% decrease in access to safe water. The conflict also paved the way for lucrative war economies, in which pro- and anti-regime elites carried out smuggling and extortion rackets in exchange for the supply of food, water and fuel to local populations.
No words convey more eloquently the feelings of environmental and social injustice behind the 2011 Syrian uprisings than those expressed by an anonymous local expert: ‘I defy anyone to claim that the displaced populations triggered unrest. We Syrians have always lived in arid areas, and climate variability has been historically high. The problem was not about climate change but about the mistakes made by the government. There was no transparency in food-security policies, ideological paralysis, heightened corruption, and the relevant ministries did not recognise their mistakes. No one dared to say anything out of fear. The main triggers of the Revolution were corruption, lack of justice, and the mistakes made in the government’s development plans’.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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