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Why climate change helped trigger the Syrian civil war

Syria and climate changeWatching events in Syria you can’t help but be thoroughly disturbed. Massacres, chemical weapons usage, millions displaced, mass destruction and a death toll approaching an estimated 100,000. Although well into the 21st century the old bloody habits of the 20th seem reluctant to let go.

But as events unfold in Syria I fear we are witnessing a tragic aperitif – a warm-up act for horrors and worse that will flare up with shocking frequency as we move further into the century. The reason? Our planet is literally and metaphorically becoming a pressure cooker.

Climate change is occurring on an unprecedented scale. This is coupled with over-population, mass extinctions, increasing extremes of wealth and poverty, political and religious extremism and a catastrophic dwindling of the very natural resources humanity needs for survival.

Add to this heady mix an ever increasing capacity for technologically inspired destruction (particularly nuclear, chemical and biological weapons proliferation) and you have a menu whose main course is bloody and rare.

To my mind one of the most depressing features of the Syrian ‘crisis’ has been the lack of publicly accessible, honest and thorough analysis.

This matters because without it the public cannot react as they should to such crisis. They can not demand of their politicians policies that would circumvent such catastrophes in the future.

The causes of the civil war in Syria are complicated. Far more complicated than the mainstream political and media narrative would have us believe. As usual much of our mainstream media has peddled the standard hegemonic narrative.  A narrative that goes something like this:

The good people of Syria, tired of their dictator and inspired by the Arab Spring, wanted rid of him. He alas didn’t want to go and civil war, complicated by religious sectarianism, ensued. In an act of desperation his regime used chemical weapons on its own people. Now the west must save the Syrian people from further tyranny. Alas the dictator’s allies in Russia and China are preventing this from happening for their own inscrutable reasons.”

Like all good propaganda, the story has elements of truth to it. But it’s also a gross over simplification according journalist, author and blogger Nafeez Ahmed, who’s been writing about global power intrigues in the Middle East for many years.

His articles are less dramatic scoop, more the forensic construction of a complex jigsaw puzzle whose pieces are in full view – if you know where to look for them.

According to Ahmed, the first piece of the puzzle is oil or rather Syria’s lack of it. Syria reached peak oil production in 1996. Although theories of global peak oil production are controversial (basically some believe we’ve reached the maximum amount of oil we can cost-effectively extract and that it’s down-hill from here whilst others believe we’re a long way from that point) in Syria it’s a reality. Other countries will soon follow suit, so standby.

By 2010, the start of the civil war, oil production had almost halved. Falling oil revenues forced the government to slash fuel subsidies. Overnight the price of petrol tripled.

Additionally between 2002 and 2008 the country suffered a series of droughts many scientists have attributed to climate change. During the same period the country’s total water resources dropped by half through both overuse and waste.

Once self-sufficient in wheat, Syria became increasingly dependent on expensive grain imports. Crop failures saw hundreds of thousands from predominantly Sunni rural areas pile into coastal cities traditionally dominated by Assad’s favoured Alawite Shia minority. Add in IMF backed market reforms that escalated unemployment and inequality as well as government cronyism and corruption – and the pieces were in place for a full-scale civil conflagration.

So what are the motivations of the EU, US, China and Russia in all of this? In a nutshell oil and increasingly gas. The big global players are positioning themselves – attempting to secure increasingly scarce resources, in this case energy, they believe are their due. Next time it could be farm land in Africa or water in the Antarctic. Clearly wars have been fought for access to resources throughout history. But never to the backdrop of such a globalised, over populated, resource depleted, technologically able planet.

With dwindling oil revenues Syria sought to get in on the dash for gas. Earlier this year Iraq agreed construction of a pipeline to transport natural gas from the Iranian South Pars oil fields  across Iraq, Syria and Russia – potentially heading to Europe. Such a deal bolstering Iran’s status as a global energy player, undermining western attempts to isolate her and providing much needed cash to the Asaad regime. As Ahmed explains:

The Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline plan is a “direct slap in the face” to the West and Qatar’s (a Western ally) plans for a countervailing pipeline running from Qatar’s North field, contiguous with Iran’s South Pars field, through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and on to Turkey, also with a view to supply European markets (as well as Israel). The difference is Qatar’s pipeline would bypass Russia.

The deeper you dig the more complex the web of geo-political intrigue, national self-interest and scrambling for dwindling resources becomes. You begin to see  why the West is desperate for regime change in Syria and why some of its leaders are so keen on using force or supplying sympathetic rebels with weapons, irrelevant of the consequences for Syrian civilians. It explains why Russia and China – for equally unscrupulous reasons – want to keep Assad in place.

All this is simply the beginning.

At the start of the 21st century humanity finds itself on an unsustainable course – a course that will lead increasingly to an escalation of more Syria like conflicts. Add in religious extremism, extreme poverty, failed states and the inevitable spread of technology – much of it destructive – and you have a grim future scenario.

But it doesn’t have to play out like this. Public understanding of why Syria is happening is a basic first step. Breaking free of our economic dependence on fossil fuels is another.

Ultimately if we are to have any chance of surviving the 21st century we need a blueprint for navigating our way through it. That means as a country thinking logically about our future, planning for it meticulously and not simply leaving it to free market short-termism. We must develop energy and foreign policy accordingly and offer real and meaningful international leadership that isn’t simply in the form of gunboat diplomacy.

Climate change, resource depletion and technological proliferation mean the window of opportunity to commit to this course of action is closing rapidly. Alas at present too few of our political leaders show any desire to even acknowledge this fact. Yet unless they do and soon, Syria will be but a bloody foretaste of the century ahead.

Clive Lewis is a former BBC journalist and soldier and now the Labour Parliamentary Candidate for Norwich South



  1. Andrew Grace says:

    ‘To my mind one of the most depressing features of the Syrian ‘crisis’ has been the lack of publicly accessible, honest and thorough analysis.’

    Yes, it is deeply concerning that there is so little mainstream news analysis or critical factual journalism. I found the article by Milad Jokar in Huffpost has a high factual content. We know news is always skewed but without detailed reporting there will be no clear view for a sensible political economic policy.

    Jokar points out that the huge Gas field is shared between Qatar and Iran and that it is the rate of extraction that is affected by sanctions. His article gives a factual argument for why France has led on calls for intervention – why Syria is a pivot of geopolitical tension – and how that translates into the divisions in the UN Security Council.

  2. Rob the cripple says:

    I do not know does anyone think the new reports about Syria have massive reserves of Oil either on it land or off it shore lines have anything to do with Russia and America doing deals.

    I do not mind putting a bet that Oil is making the Americans sit up and think hello if that’s true that’s ours and not Russia’s.

    The past five years have seen discoveries of immense energy reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean; both the Levant Basin located along the shores of Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Gaza and Cyprus and the Nile Basin north of Egypt. According to preliminary geological surveys, the Levant Basin contains 3.5 trillion cubic meters (tcm) of gas and 1.7 billion barrels (bb) of oil. The Nile Basin contains 6 tcm of gas and 1.8 bb of oil.

    The energy bonanza has predictably led to competitive resource scramble and its transport to the favoured customers. After all, the control of and access to the natural resources have been fundamental drivers of much of geopolitics. The roads, railways, ports, as also the oil and gas pipelines are the coveted objects of the powerful. The oil and gas have a three-fold merit: as the commodity inside, as the containers of that commodity and as the carriers of that commodity.

    Syria alone is estimated to have discovered proven gas reserves of 284 bcm, oil reserves of 2.5 bb and shale reserves of 50 billion tonnes with the possibility of more findings. The production levels are, however, drastically falling. The pre-uprising level of oil was 380,000 barrels a day (bd), which fell to just 20,000 bd, a decline of about 95%. According to some estimates, the natural gas output has halved at 15 million cubic meters (mcm). A lot of gas is used for reinjection into the oil fields to improve the oil recovery. The unrest has not only disrupted the production, but has resulted in the withdrawal of foreign producers and financiers.

  3. gary martin says:
    a link your readers might find intersting

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