Climate Change, a Threat Multiplier? A Closer Look at the Syrian Civil War

Five years ago on March 15, 2011, hundreds of protesters gathered in Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s two largest cities, calling for democratic reforms. The protesters felt encouraged by recent Arab Spring movements across the Middle East in places like Egypt and Tunisia; their biggest grievance was the repression they faced from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Government forces responded with shots, but the protest spurred others around the country. As each ensuing protest became bigger in both size and demand, the government’s response became more violent. Eventually, a civil war erupted.

Since the civil war began, according to the best estimates, over 250,000 Syrians have died, over 4.6 million Syrians are refugees, and about half of the population, 12 million, has been internally displaced from their homes. It’s hard to say when the civil war will end – things have become much more complicated with the rise of the Islamic State and Russia’s entrance into the region. Just the same, it is difficult to say when the civil war really began. Many factors prior to the protests were contributing to the unrest.

But one factor in particular drew a lot of attention from the media, centering on the role that climate change played in contributing to the conditions that prompted the civil war.

Historic Drought in the Middle East

In March of last year, a scientific study from the National Academy of Sciences looked at a timeline of a drought that has hovered over areas that once comprised parts of the Fertile Crescent such as Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria, since 2006. The climate scientists went back further to compare and contrast this drought to other droughts in the region. They discovered that since 1990, the area has seen an overall average temperature increase of 2oF along with a 10% reduction in precipitation during the wet seasons. The hotter temperatures and greater amounts of water evaporation made for the worst drought the region has seen since record-keeping in the region began in the 1930s.

Colin P. Kelley, one of the climatologists in the scientific study, believes that climate change is the reason why the current drought is much more severe than previous droughts. Using computer models to observe different possible variables that might cause the temperature increase, they concluded that the temperature increase was a result of increased greenhouse gases from human activity. In the case of Syria, the drought’s effects were much more severe than in other afflicted countries because the government did not have policies or alternatives in place to meet the farmers’ need for water.

Farmers’ Prospects Dry Up

Prior to the war, Syria’s population stood approximately at 22 million in a land area about the size of Washington State. From 2006 to 2011, Syria witnessed four consecutive drought years. Rainwater decreased to less than 8 inches per year. Syrian farmers from the north and the west, where land is most arable, resorted to tapping into the country’s aquifers, but this solution was not sustainable because the water levels lowered so much that farmers could no longer access the water. Farmers in the north could not rely on the Euphrates River either since Turkey was using a large amount, and the river was already drying up. The Syrian government had no real alterative policy in place to aid the farmers. It relied heavily on rain water, and it sold its strategic wheat reserves in 2006 when wheat prices were climbing upwards.

With poor harvests and no alternative resources or help from the government, about 1.5 million Syrian farmers and their families moved to urban centers, which were already feeling a population increase from an influx of Iraq-War refugees. Based on World Bank statistics, in 2001, the Syrian urban population stood at 8.7 million, by 2006 it topped 10 million, and five years later it increased to 11.8 million. A population boom in these urban centers led to instability such as high unemployment that the government did little to alleviate. The farmers and others in urban centers who felt frustrated by Assad’s lack of care in fulfilling basic needs took the streets, some participating in the March 15, 2011 protest.

Climate Change Multiplies Threats in Syria

Climate change is a “threat multiplier” in that it has the potential to “exacerbate many challenges” as former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel explained in October 2014. Climate change can make conditions worse in a country or region particularly when policies aren’t in place to respond efficiently to its effects on basic human needs. In a place like Syria, climate change made the drought that Syrian farmers experienced much more severe. After using the little water they had, many farmers fled to urban centers that were already experiencing problems related to population growth and insufficient government support and services. Farmers fleeing into the cities did not cause the civil war, nor did the drought, but they comprised just one of the many conditions that led to a civil war erupting. Other factors include the long-standing animosity towards the Alawite religious minority among which Assad’s family was a part of and favored, and the oppression many Sunni Muslims faced from Assad’s regime.

Syria is not an anomaly. According to U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice, our changing global climate also spurred conflict in Nigeria and the Sudan. Prolonged drought in Nigeria contributes to the instability and dissatisfaction that Boko Haram exploits and the genocide in Darfur began, in part, as a drought-driven conflict. Climate change intensifies conditions ripe for disruption by making it much more difficult for governments to ensure basic necessities such as food and shelter are met for their citizens. It is and will continue to be a crucial factor to consider when analyzing possible reasons instabilities arise in countries.