Syrian Civil War: Climate Change and Crisis


2010 NASA Satellite Image: You can see Dust forms.


April 10, 2017

Analysis by Reporting San Diego

Editor Note: We are maintaining original spelling in sources. The United Nations and the Russian Federation use British English, so does the Guardian.

Origins of the Conflict:

Climate Change

One of the elements not spoken off is the role that Climate Change played in the origins of the Syrian civil war. While deteriorating politics and the wave of uprisings due to the Arab Spring had a role, climate change and a severe drought also had a critical role. It was one of the triggers.

The first critical point to understand, while not emphasized in media reporting, and many times by historians is that wars over water are not new. According to Peter Gleck:

The earliest recorded conflict over water there occurred over 4500 years ago, when a dispute over access to irrigation water led Urlama, king of the city-state of Lagash in ancient Mesopotamia, to cut off water to deprive neighboring Umma. His son, Il, also diverted water from irrigation systems feeding Umma (Jacobsen 1969; Cooper 1983). Lloyd (1961) in his history of the Tigris and Euphrates region describes numerous events from around 2700 years ago when water was used as a weapon or tool during conflicts. Sargon II, the Assyrian king from 720 to 705 BC, destroyed a sophisticated irrigation system of the Haldians during a military campaign. Sennacherib of Assyria intentionally diverted irrigation canals on the Euphrates River to wash over Babylon around 690 BC (Lloyd 1961). In 612 BC, a coalition of Egyptian, Persian, and Babylonian forces attacked and destroyed Ninevah, the capital of Assyria, by diverting the Khosr River to create a flood (Lloyd 1961). The ancient historian Berossus describes efforts of Nebuchadnessar (605–562 BC) to defend Babylon by digging canals and preventing the diversion of the Euphrates (Burstein 1978), while Herodotus describes how, just a few decades later, Cyrus the Great successfully invaded Babylon in 539 BC by diverting the Euphrates into the desert above the city and marching his troops down the dry riverbed (Rawlinson 1933). Other MENA (Middle East and North Africa) examples where water and conflict are linked are described in Hatami and Gleick (1994).

What we are seeing in Syria is partially explained by a drought that lasted more than a decade, and displaced rural populations to cities. This is well documented, among others by the Center for Climate and Security. Francisco Fernia and Catlin Warrell wrote in February of 2012:

From 2006-2011, up to 60% of Syria’s land experienced, in the terms of one expert, “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago.”  According to a special case study from last year’s Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (GAR), of the most vulnerable Syrians dependent on agriculture, particularly in the northeast governorate of Hassakeh (but also in the south), “nearly 75 percent…suffered total crop failure.” Herders in the northeast lost around 85% of their livestock, affecting 1.3 million people. “

Further, we know that the State Department was warned early in the drought of deteriorating conditions:

As early as 2008, a diplomatic cable from the U.S. embassy in Damascus, Syria, to the State Department in Washington, D.C., warned of the implications of the drought, with a summary of local opinions and concerns as well as insights from the FAO (these observations were cited in the diplomatic cable, published at;”

Most Americans do not give a second thought to droughts, even something as major as the recent drought in California. We simply cope and adapt since we have the social safety net to do this. Nor were one and a half million people displaced from the land to cities, that are not well able to cope.

This created a problem. The government of Bashar Al Assad was sitting on a tinder box, made worst by little water, and fewer jobs in urban centers. There were also the beginnings of a famine.

Regime Change

Western powers for multiple reasons. have been committed to a policy of regime change for some years. It started as early as 2003 and has been part of the Plan for the New American Century. President Donald Trump ran against this intervention, but now seems to have completely changed his point of view, and now seems committed to it. The Telegraph reports as follows:

The US ambassador to the United Nations has said that removing President Bashar al-Assad from power is indeed a priority – completing a remarkable U-turn made in the space of less than two weeks.

Nikki Haley said the United States air strikes on Syria was sending a message to Russia that “we’re not going to have you cover for this regime anymore.”

Yet on March 30 Ms Haley and Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, announced that the US was no longer adamant that Mr Assad must leave power, and instead was shifting its focus to defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil).”

So this is a policy U-turn for the young Trump White House, but a return to policy goals that have been in place for a while. Or they will change this week once again. 

The Arab Spring

Francesca de Chatel writes in the Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, that this was but one factor:

As in other Arab countries, the uprising in Syria was triggered by a series of social, economic and political factors, including, in this case, growing poverty caused by rapid economic liberalization and the cancellation of state subsidies after 2005, a growing rural–urban divide, widespread corruption, rising unemployment, the effects of a severe drought between 2006 and 2010 and a lack of political freedom. More recently, media and analysts have also suggested that climate change plays an indirect role in the Arab Spring and the Syrian uprising.”

Syria was primed. When pro-democracy protest erupted, they were peaceful. This was on March of 2011.People were desperate and they saw the example of other places in the Arab World. So they demanded democracy or at least more freedom. Soon this conflict would break into ethnic groups and long-held ethnic divisions.

The response from the Syrian state was fast, furious and violent. It was not to call for elections or open access to state power to those who were not part of it already.

Syria is primarily Muslim, with Alawites (the Assad family is Alawite), Yazidi, Jewish. Orthodox Christian, Catholic,. Shia, and Sunni, as well as Druze. All these groups live together, though not necessarily tolerate each other. The Kurds also are part of the mix especially in the north of the country. This is a worry for Turkey, who is worried that the Kurds will demand a Kurdish state. 

When rural peoples moved to cities, they tended to move to areas where people of their ethnic group lived. In effect, you had self-segregated groups living together.

The conflict at present

To say that the conflict at present is easy to understand is a misstatement. There are multiple factions that follow different goals. On the side of the state, as far as we can tell, you have

Russians, who have been supporting the Assad regime since Assad’s father took power. The Soviet Union, and later the Russian Federation need access to the naval port of Latakia, and they see Syria as a client state. It is also clear that Syria is their toe hold in the middle east.

Iran is a little more complicated since they support the state not directly, but by using Al Nusra and Hezbollah. This is more about them becoming a regional power. It is also about them containing Israel.

Iraq is complicated. Officially the government of Iraq is allied with the United States and is fighting the Islamic State. However, this is happening with Iranian militias on the ground in both Iraq and Iran. Yes, we are coordinating with Iranian forces on the ground in Mosul (Iraq) while not being friendly otherwise.

ISIL, the Islamic State wants to establish a Caliphate and has been fighting us and anybody else that does not follow their strict form of Islam. They have also taken many militia groups into the fold, especially when they were expanding, that originally were part of the forces we supported.

Al Nusra Front. Originally it was financed by Iran, but now aligns with Al Qaida and its goal is to establish an Islamic state in Syria. They are not necessarily allied with ISIL, however. 

Moderate factions: How many of these there are, is a very good question. You really cannot tell since some have switched sides many times. However, these are the militia groups that the west and the US have supported. So when you hear Senator John McCain speak of those, these are the groups he is talking about. The best known of these is the Free Syrian Army, FSA.

The West has been involved in Syrian affairs since the end of first World War. The current borders were drawn by Western powers without any understanding of local tribal divisions. The West has been trying to get control of the middle east and hold it ever since. Whether it is access to oil or other resources, there is also a colonial way of thinking here. In a way, we want to expand democratic ways. 

We must add this, the United States has forces near Raqqah. Some are Camp Pendleton-based US Marines. That deployment is to assist in capturing the capital of the Caliphate.

Chiefly the United States and the Soviet Union, now the Russian Federation, have used Syria to fight proxy wars since the beginning of the cold war. However, at this point, Russia is far more involved, with the greatest deployment of Russian forces since the fall of the USSR. The United States and the West have air operations, nominally going after ISIL.Nor is the US willing to commit ground forces, which both Iran and Russia are. 

The truth of the matter is that there are many combatants on the ground and we really cannot know who is who this week. The situation is extremely complicated. So outside of Russian regulars, Syrian Regulars and ISIL, people do change sides as needed. This includes Al Nusra.

Use of Chemical Warfare Agents:

First off, there is a history and until 2013 the Syrian Government had not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention. What we do have is a dispute of who used these weapons over the course of the civil war. The best way to put it is everybody likely has.

For example, the UN found out that the government used Chlorine gas in 2015 at least twice While the Islamic State has used Mustard Gas.

The AP also reports in their timeline this:

“The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons says it has removed the last of the Syrian government’s chemical weapons. Syrian opposition officials maintain that the government’s stocks were not fully accounted for and that it retained supplies.”

This AP report is a summary of this document from the United Nations:

“The representative of France said the fact-finding mission’s conclusion that chlorine had been used “systemically and repeatedly” as a chemical weapon in Syria in 2014 were unequivocal.  The country must assure the international community that its chemical programme was completely and irreversibly dismantled by clarifying gaps in its initial declaration and destroying production facilities.”

The representative of the Russian Federation said at the time:

“The chemical demilitarization of Syria, said the representative of the Russian Federation, was a major achievement in the field of strengthening the non-proliferation and disarmament regime.  The international community should recall that the whole operation became possible only after achieving a highly complex political agreement between the Russian Federation and the United States, and relevant intergovernmental agreements between the Russian Federation and Syria. 

As a result, he said, Syria had taken an historic decision to relinquish its chemical weapons.  He cautioned against trying to “hype this theme” again.  Of course, any evidence of the use of chemical agents against civilians should be analysed by experts as part of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.  However, until the conclusion of such investigations, any judgements passed could only be considered as a politicized and baseless conjecture.”

So the use of WMDs this week was an egg in the face of the Russian Federation, if, as the US has charged, they were witnesses to it. It means that there were missing precursors to Sarin gas This was reported early after the removal. 

This was reported by Reuters UK in 2014:

International inspectors have found traces of sarin and VX nerve agent at a military research site in Syria that had not been declared to the global chemical weapons watchdog, diplomatic sources said on Friday.

Samples taken by experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition and Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in December and January tested positive for chemical precursors needed to make the toxic agents, the sources told Reuters on the condition of anonymity because the information is confidential.

“This is a pretty strong indication they have been lying about what they did with sarin,” one diplomatic source said. “They have so far been unable to give a satisfactory explanation about this finding.”

Then there are other questions. Where did the precursors come, to begin with? It is not as if they existed in Syria in the 1980s. Some came from the UK, as the Guardian reported on April 8 after there was Sarin used.

“However, in July 2014 the then foreign secretary, William Hague, confirmed to parliament that the UK had indeed exported chemicals that “were likely to have been diverted for use in the Syrian programme”.

Hague revealed that the exports included several hundred tonnes of the chemical dimethyl phosphite (DMP) in 1983 and a further export of several hundred tonnes in 1985; several hundred tonnes of trimethyl phosphite (TMP) in 1986; and a quantity of hydrogen fluoride (HF) in 1986 through a third country.”

There is more The Russians have said that the reason for Sarin was the Syrian Air Force hitting a rebel storage facility. However, experts have disputed this as a possibility:

“That claim does not fit with facts on the ground, for several reasons. An airstrike on a weapons depot with high explosives would have destroyed much of the sarin immediately, and distributed any that survived over a much smaller area.

“The pattern of casualties isn’t right for the distribution of materials that you would get if you had a location with toxic materials breached by an airstrike. It’s more consistent with canisters that have distributed [chemical weapons] over a wider population,” Guthrie said.”

There is also the possibly that chlorine gas was also used since people did report smelling bleach. Perhaps that gas was produced by rebels? There is also a theory circulating on the web that Hillary Clinton authorized the supply of precursors to Sarin found in Lybia on the web. However, Seymor Hersh has said that he does not know if she knew. So even he is backing down from that story. It originated with his research. 

There are many problems with that theory, however. Since we are talking about geography and distances here, including, if transport by land, Israel. If by sea, a heavily patrolled sea lane. However, rebels did capture stores in Lybia. Could those stores, somehow, find their way to Syria? It is as likely as the CIA doing it since it does have the same logistical issues.

However, we do know that the Islamic State has used Mustard Gas, as well as the state. This is a claim made by the United Nations. 

So what is the conclusion here?  There are not really any good guys in Syria. If the Trump administration decides to get further involved in this, it is a quagmire that will make Iraq look like a training run. It is also true that Chemical weapons have been used by at least two of the sides, and there are plenty of sides. Whether more than two have is at this point an open question. 

All these sides include militias that are supported by different sides of the same government, for example, some of the militias that were armed by the US Department of Defense fight those armed by the Central Intelligence Agency. Some have turned from western allies to western enemies.

 Future Hot Zones and Climate Change

This will lead to future hot spots and one is taking place as I type. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has just declared the horn of Africa to be at risk for famine and starvation

Here is part of the statement:

“Areas of greatest concern cover much of Somalia, north-east and coastal Kenya, south-east of Ethiopia as well as the Afar region still to recover from El Nino induced drought of 2015/16; as well as South Sudan which faces a serious food crisis due to protracted insecurity.

Currently, close to 12 million people across Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya are in need of food assistance, as families face limited access to food and income, together with rising debt, low cereal and seed stocks, and low milk and meat production. A pre-famine alert has been issued for Somalia and an immediate and at scale humanitarian response is highly required.

Acute food shortages and malnutrition also remain a major concern in parts of Uganda’s Karamoja region.

FAO warns that if response is not immediate and sufficient, the risks are massive and the costs high.”

Could that lead to another civil war? It is possible, given the tensions with Boko Haram, which is allied with ISIL. There are other reasons why we might see a resumption of the Somali Civil War. 

Then there is the Western Cape province in South Africa is suffering from a severe drought that is leading to food insecurity as well. While for most Americans the vistas of Krueger National Park with elephants and giraffes might be what comes to mind, that park is under severe stress as well.

Whether a severe climate crisis leads to a government crisis depends on the resiliency of the state, and how strong the nets are. California, we griped over water saving measures, but nobody starved.

Climate models predict that droughts and floods will be more intense. This will only increase local and regional tensions around the world. Syria may very well e the first climate change war.

We are adding this statement from the Russian Federation after the Syrian government disarmament. We think it is very relevant to the story since the accusations from the United States this week dispute this statement.

23 June 201420:38

Statement by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding the completion of the removal of chemical weapons from Syria


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The Russian Federation was deeply satisfied and welcomes the successful end of the large-scale and unprecedented international operation for the removal of all the components and precursors of chemical weapons from the Syrian Arab Republic. Thus the most important and complicated stage in the implementation of the plan for the elimination of chemical weapons outside the country, which was developed by the Executive Committee of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and approved by UN Security Council resolution 2118, has been completed.

The adoption of this plan has become possible thanks to the initiative of the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, regarding international control of the Syrian military and chemical potential, which was proposed in 2013 at the acutest stage of the crisis.

Having showed political will and joined the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction (OPCW), Syria, supported and assisted by the international community, in the most severe conditions of ongoing military confrontation between government forces and armed radical groups supported from outside, in a record period – six months – was able to implement the unique operation, the only one of its kind in all the 17 years of the existence of the Convention and the OPCW.

We highly appreciate the efforts made for the achievement of this goal by the joint OPCW and UN mission in Syria guided by its special coordinator, Sigrid Kaag.

The principled refusal of its military and chemical potential is a fact: the facilities to produce chemical weapons, the equipment to mix and equip ammunition and all the unequipped means of its supply have been eliminated. About one thousand two hundred tons of toxic chemical substances were removed from the territory of the country, over a hundred tons were neutralised in places of storage in accordance with the agreement with the OPCW.

After the heads of the Russian and the US foreign services reached respective agreements on the 14 September 2013 in Geneva, the Russian Federation was actively involved in the provision of assistance in the chemical demilitarisation of Syria and made a weighty contribution to the enduring of security in the most responsible – ground – stage of the operation. At the request of the Syrian authorities, within the shortest possible deadlines, the Russian Navy and military and transport aviation made large-scale supplies of specialised, including armoured, transport equipment, anti-mine equipment and other material and technical resources, which other states refused to provide due to political considerations. At the expense of the funds contributed by Russia to the UN’s target fund for Syria, the joint OPCW and UN mission made additional necessary purchases.

In a spirit of strategic partnership relations, for six months, forces and means of the Russian Navy and the Chinese Navy, in interaction with Danish and Norwegian military ships, ensured the security of the marine phase for the removal of toxic chemical substances from the Syrian port of Latakia by the container ship provided by Denmark and Norway. An action coordination centre for this military and marine tactical group was functioning on board the Russian heavy atomic guided missile cruiser Pyotr Veliky, and also on the large antisubmarine ships Admiral Levchenko and Vice Admiral Kulakov.

With the removal of all the components and precursors of chemical weapons completed, it can be stated with satisfaction that the initiative of the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, to establish international control over Syrian chemical weapons has been successfully implemented. Now the final, purely technical stage of the international operation, related to the neutralisation of chemicals on board a specialised US ship and the further disposal of reaction masses in profile US, Finnish and German companies, has started.

Thus, the main purpose of the international effort for the chemical demilitarisation of Syria has been achieved. This is a brilliant example of how well-coordinated and targeted efforts of the international community are able to resolve the most complicated disarmament and non-proliferation tasks. At the same time, it was important to provide all kinds of support in the implementation of the obligations undertaken in the CWC, to the state which showed political will and wilfully refused the entire set of WMD.

The Russian Federation appeals to all states, which are still outside the legal field of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction, to follow the example of the Syrian Arab Republic and to immediately join one of the most successful and effective multilateral agreements in the area of disarmament and non-proliferation.

23 June 2014

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