Did climate change help cause Syria’s civil war?

That’s the argument made by William Polk, a historian who worked on the State Dept’s Policy Planning staff under Kennedy, in a long piece sent to James Fallows at The Atlantic. The whole piece is excellent – a carefully argued weighing of the evidence (which concludes, by the way, that the jury is still very much out on whether the Assad regime was actually responsible for the use of chemical weapons) – but here’s what he has to say about climate change in a section on the conflict’s context:

Syria has been convulsed by civil war since climate change came to Syria with a vengeance. Drought devastated the country from 2006 to 2011.  Rainfall in most of the country fell below eight inches (20 cm) a year, the absolute minimum needed to sustain un-irrigated farming. Desperate for water, farmers began to tap aquifers with tens of thousands of new well.  But, as they did, the water table quickly dropped to a level below which their pumps could lift it.

In some areas, all agriculture ceased.  In others crop failures reached 75%.  And generally as much as 85% of livestock died of thirst or hunger.  Hundreds of thousands of Syria’s farmers gave up, abandoned their farms and fled to the cities and towns in search of almost non-existent jobs and severely short food supplies.  Outside observers including UN experts estimated that between 2 and 3  million of Syria’s 10 million rural inhabitants were reduced to “extreme poverty.”

The domestic Syrian refugees immediately found that they had to compete not only with one another for scarce food, water and jobs, but also with the already existing foreign refugee population.  Syria already was a refuge for quarter of a million Palestinians and about a hundred thousand people who had fled the war and occupation of Iraq.  Formerly prosperous farmers were lucky to get jobs as hawkers or street sweepers.  And in the desperation of the times, hostilities erupted among groups that were competing just to survive.

Of course, academic conflict experts are always sceptical of the notion that a conflict can be attributed to one cause alone. But it’s very hard to argue against the idea that climate change is a very big threat multiplier – see e.g. this paper (pdf) of mine for the World Bank a few years ago, or this terrific report on the Arab Spring and climate change from the Center for American Progress in which Anne-Marie Slaughter, another State Dept Policy Planning veteran, argues that,

Crime-show devotees will be familiar with the idea of a “stressor” — a sudden change in circumstances or environment that interacts with a complicated psychological profile in a way that leads a previously quiescent person to become violent. The stressor is by no means the only cause of the crimes that ensue, but it is an important factor in a complex set of variables that ultimately lead to disaster.

The Arab Spring and Climate Change does not argue that climate change caused the revolutions that have shaken the Arab world over the past two years. But the essays collected in this slim volume make a compelling case that the consequences of climate change are stressors that can ignite a volatile mix of underlying causes that erupt into revolution.

But back to the specific case of Syria – which gets worse. For Polk then describes how the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) made desperate pleas to USAID for humanitarian assistance, warning that Syria was facing a “perfect storm” and “social destruction”, and noting that Syria’s agriculture minister had said publicly that the drought was “beyond our capacity as a country to deal with”.

Instead, USAID’s reaction (set out in a subsequently leaked cable dated November 2008) was to “question whether limited USG resources should be directed toward this appeal at this time”. And, as this FT piece from October 2009 makes clear, the US wasn’t alone in declining to assist: a whole year after FAO’s call for help, UN OCHA was saying that it hadn’t received any money from donors despite seeking $53m in emergency funds.

Meanwhile, the Syrian government – in normal times, a major exporter of wheat – was also making its own catastrophic errors of judgement:

Lured by the high price of wheat on the world market, it sold its reserves. In 2006, according to the US Department of Agriculture, it sold 1,500,000 metric tons or twice as much as in the previous year.  The next year it had little left to export; in 2008 and for the rest of the drought years it had to import enough wheat to keep its citizens alive. So tens of thousands of frightened, angry, hungry and impoverished former farmers flooded constituted a “tinder” that was ready to catch fire.

As a Syrian economist quoted in another FT piece published a year before the first protests observed with eerie prescience, “now we have drought, I hope it will not create political problems”.

Ten thoughts on the UK Parliament vote on Syria

1. You can totally understand why the British public is where it’s at. Last time they heard about WMD from the JIC, it was the 45 minutes claim. They’ve also drawn pretty much the correct conclusions about the net effect of our interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

2. But it strikes me as crazy for Parliament to have ruled out all military action without having either all the facts or all the options in front of it.

3. For once I agree with Dan Hodges - Ed Miliband comes out of this looking terrible.

4. I also agree that this is a tipping point for British foreign policy. Maybe Suez / Iraq order of magnitude. Coupled with where the Tories are taking us on Europe, our approach seems be not to have alliances with anyone anymore.

5. That said, foreign policy people always obsess about influence for its own sake (being ‘in with the cool kids’), rather than on what we’re trying to achieve with it. Show me a concrete win we’ve secured on an issue that matters (climate, development, human security) that we’ve secured by being in the EU or having a ‘special relationship’ with the US.

6. I take the point that way more people have been killed with conventional weapons in this war than chemical weapons. But chemical weapons are different. Same way that landmines are too. Rory Stewart’s post on his blog this morning was good on this.

7. I can totally understand why many internationalist friends of mine are in a state of despair. I feel it too. We really are watching the last gasp of the idea of the Responsibility to Protect for the foreseeable future.

8. (For which we have Tony Blair to thank. Yeah – that guy who wants to bring democracy to the Middle East while applauding the coup in Egypt as a positive development.)

9. But what’s our theory of influence here? “Something must be done” as a response to humanitarian crises has rarely led to good outcomes – from Somalia in 91 onwards. No-one’s willing to consider boots on the ground (and it’s totally unclear that it would be helpful to peace anyway). I can’t see that missile strikes will achieve much beyond making us feel better, and they’re by no means risk-free either. I’m sceptical of all the people on Twitter saying we have to find a political solution (thanks, Einstein). I honestly don’t know what’s the right thing to do.

10. But ruling out all military action wasn’t it.

Seven Scenarios for the Future of Syria

Syria conflict war scenariosAs the war in Syria drags on, it is becoming ever more vicious. Militias kill hundreds of civilians, ethnic cleansing large swaths of the country in the process. Rebel groups fight among themselves for territory and even assassinate each other’s leaders. Prisoners are regularly tortured. Millions have fled their homes in fear. 100,000 are dead. Extremists now hold the upper hand on both sides. In the latest outrage, the Assad regime has apparently used chemical weapons, gassing hundreds to death.

Where will all this misery lead? What does the future of Syria hold?

As I warned in 2011, Syria is a complex mosaic of different ethnic, religious, and ideological groups, a tinderbox that was destined to explode if the fragile peace that the Assad regime enforced was disturbed. Now that the country has imploded, there is no easy way out. Continue reading

Labour and Uncle Sam

Should Britain expect more from the Special Relationship with the United States than managed decline? What price should progressives be willing to pay for influence? Latest in our #progressivedilemmas series on conundrums facing the next Labour government. 

Last of the White Russians

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Occasionally an item of news reminds us of how transient most great political dramas are, and how quickly major crises come and go.  This is rather healthy: it puts us on notice that most of the issues we care about very deeply will be forgotten fairly soon too.  This is certainly the effect of a compelling obituary notice in the New York Times (emphasis added):

BASILEVSKY–Nathalie (nee Wrangel), 99, of Cos Cob, CT. Beloved mother of Peter A. Basilevsky and the late Helen A. Basilevsky, grandmother of Alexis P. Basilevsky and Katharine H. Deering and two great-grandchildren. She died peacefully on August 9, 2013. She had a big heart, a sharp intellect and will be missed by all who knew her. Mrs. Basilevsky, born in 1913 in St. Petersburg, Russia, was the last surviving child of Lt. Gen. Baron Peter N. Wrangel and Olga M. Wrangel. She was predeceased by her husband Alexis G. Basilevsky, sister Helene Meyendorff and her brothers Peter and Alexis Wrangel. Baron Wrangel was the last Commander in Chief of the White Army in the Russian Civil War and who, after a long and valiant struggle despite his army being woefully outmanned and undersupplied, engineered the seaborne evacuation of approximately 150,000 soldiers and civilians, including 7,000 children, from the Crimea in November 1920 in the face of overwhelming advancing Bolshevik forces.

It’s worth remembering that the Russian Civil War was a close-run thing. If the White Army had been better-manned and better-supplied, we might be mourning the loss of a rare human link to a late, great White Russian (pictured above).  And “Stalin” would mean nothing to us.

No apologies: the President of the UN General Assembly rocks with Bon Jovi

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Vuk Jeremic, a former foreign minister of Serbia, is coming to the end of a year in the very important job of President of the UN General Assembly.  His tenure has been anything but dull.  He organized a concert which featured a Serbian choir singing a song “associated with massacres carried out in the 1990s against civilians who were under the protection of United Nations peacekeepers.”  He convened a thematic debate on criminal justice that the U.S. claimed was “trying to discredit the war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.”  And last week… he went to a Bon Jovi concert. Continue reading

The case for (continuing) counter-narcotics work in Afghanistan

There’s a bit of a debate currently about whether the Coalition in Afghanistan should continue to invest in counter-narcotics work in the country. The problem – as articulated by people on the ground is that much of the work has failed. Opium production is up, American troops are no longer allowed to set foot in poppy fields let alone burn them and in a year’s time drugs won’t be high on the Afghan Government’s to do list – if it’s on it at all.  What we do next matters because it is liable to have an impact in the UK… below is a short piece I did for RUSI. Continue reading