Climate Change: An Unspoken Factor in the Syrian Civil War

The Syrian Civil War is one of the most unsettling humanitarian crises of our time. Most commentators understand the Syrian conflict to be caused primarily by economic and political issues connected to disenchantment with the authoritarian Assad government. These accounts are certainly partially correct, as the conflict originated out of the turmoil of the ‘Arab Spring’. The last five years have seen an surge of popular mobilization and organized political violence in countless Middle Eastern and North African countries following a groundswell of opposition to the region’s autocratic governments. The combination of weak nation-states and corrupt economies has led to what has been referred to by political scientists and historians alike as the “militarization” of societies. However, similar to other conflicts worldwide, the nature of the Syrian Civil War is much more complex. While the international community has made efforts to address the political and military dimensions of the conflict, a deeper underlying issue remains largely ignored. 

Just like so many other parts of the world, climate change is already having an adverse effect on countries in the Middle East. The rise of global temperatures is drying the region in two ways: an increase in temperature that creates more evaporation in already parched soils, and weaker winds that result in less moisture from the Mediterranean Sea  during the wet season. Surrounding Syria and other Middle Eastern countries is the Fertile Crescent.  The Crescent has been referred to as the “cradle of civilization,” as it is where settlers began farming and, as a result, human populations and agriculture began to thrive. Prior to the Syrian conflict and uprising in 2011, the greater Fertile Crescent region experienced the most severe drought on record. The drought, which was connected to the broader impacts of climate change, began in 2006 and lasted approximately three-years. The drought exacerbated the already-present water crisis and food insecurity happening in the country, leaving Syria even more vulnerable. Due to the lack of proper governance and infrastructure, Syria’s government was not prepared – or perhaps not willing – to deal with the climate-related crisis and people were forced to flee. 

Human induced drought has the tendency of pushing already present frictions over the edge and, thus, provoking wide-spread violence. The social impacts of the drought, including the increase of internally displaced peoples (IDPs) and the rise of food prices, led to the Syrian uprising and eventual war in 2011. Prior to the conflict, an estimated 1.5 million people migrated from the countryside into cities, intensifying the already existing poverty and social unrest. Mass migration caused by environmental change can stimulate conflict through an increase in competition for resources and services, as well as by increasing existing tensions due to ethnic and demographic changes. The beginning of the uprising began with the protests in Daraa, a city in the south-east of Syria in response to the arrests and mistreatment of youths allegedly involved in painting anti-government graffiti. Although it started as a rather local revolt, the Syrian uprising spread to other parts of Syria where engrained socio-political frustration had been festering for years.

The number of IDPs in Syria rose to an unprecedented amount following the drought and has since become a full-blown refugee crisis. Refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict are generally found in neighbouring countries, including Lebanon and Jordan. The underlying issue of the Syrian refugee crisis is that both Lebanon and Jordan have not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol, both of which centre around the protection of refugees. The majority of the communities in Jordan and Lebanon refuse to follow the conventional approach of integrating refugees into society. Those in Lebanon and Jordan see integration as a way of ensuring that immigrants do not leave and, as a result, immigrants are left with very little state protection. 

Syria is not the only country where climate-related crises are happening. Studies from recent history suggest that climate change can be a leading factor in why conflict happens around the world. Some experts in climate insecurity point to the genocide in Darfur as being the world’s first climate-change related conflict. Marshall Burke, an agricultural economist at the University of California, argues that when a country’s average temperature rises

“crop yields decline and rural incomes fall, and the disadvantaged rural population becomes more likely to take up arms…Fighting for something to eat beats starving in their fields.”

Climate change has, and will continue to, exacerbate conflict in countless countries if it is not addressed appropriately.  

Featured Image: Syrian refugees walk along Budaorsi Street on their way out of Budapest. They are some of the many IDPs fleeing the ongoing political, social, and economic turmoil in Syria. (2015) via Flickr. Public Domain. 

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.

Emma Tallon

About Emma Tallon

Emma Tallon is currently entering into her fourth year at the University of Toronto, St. George, with a degree majoring Political Science and minoring in History and English Literature. She is passionate about bringing awareness to humanitarian and environmental issues in order to incite debate and discussion on how to resolve the issues. She is the incoming Vice-President of Amnesty International’s chapter at the University of Toronto for the 2019-2020 academic year.