Resource mismanagement and Syria's civil war

To attain sustainable peace in Syria, negotiators must address the roots of the conflict. Photo: Dried up farmland in Syria (AP)

WASHINGTON, November 27, 2013 — As the war in Syria rages on characterized by climbing death tolls and increasingly stark burdens on neighboring countries, there is new hope. On Monday, a United Nations official confirmed that the Assad government and opposition have agreed to attend the Geneva peace talks in late January. However, both the agenda and the legitimacy of the opposition’s representation remain in question. If there is to be sustainable peace brokered in Geneva, the international community must identify and discuss solutions that speak to the original objections of the Syrian people and causes of the uprising.

The reportedly 1,000 rebel organizations engaged in Syria’s conflict represent a myriad of local, regional, and international interests, motivating many observers to label the situation a “proxy war”. This has caused a shift in focus. What started out as a movement of the rural poor and urban educated youth over issues of social and political injustice has now been coopted. The grievances of the economically disenfranchised have been substituted with regional opportunists and international players’ agendas.


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The conflict, however riddled with extra-regional alliances, has its origins in a confluence of environmental, sociopolitical, and economic factors—resulting in overconsumption of vital resources and a subsequent economically-destabilizing tailspin.

The collapse of the agriculture sector, economic fallout, and escalating social unrest begins with the Assad regime’s attempt to bolster national identity and garner rural support by pursuing a strategy of Syrian self-sufficiency. Using rhetoric of food security, Assad promised rural communities aid for economic advancement.

Assad pursued this policy through large-scale water infrastructure development and irrigation canal extensions in northeast Syria. Farmers with access to irrigation paid an annual, highly-subsidized fee based on land size, not consumption. Still others, geographically removed from irrigation systems, were encouraged to develop private wells to increase productivity. The well network was expedited by government supplied low-interest loans and subsidized diesel and electricity. These projects and policies, however, fostered perverse and inefficient water practices, rendering a loss of 50% of Syria’s water reserves in a six-year period starting in 2002, four years prior to the severe onset of the droughts.

Fearing increasing state fiscal deficit, the Assad regime abandoned agriculture support, leaving rural, small landholders vulnerable to the droughts. Shortages in surface water and rainfall caused an increase in unregulated groundwater withdrawals. Recovering water from dwindling aquifers increased energy consumption, escalated input costs and exacerbated reliance on energy subsidies.


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Dependence on energy subsidies left the agricultural community vulnerable to yet another economic shock in 2008, when energy prices were raised nearly 3.5 times. In an attempt to offset this sudden price hike, the Syrian government raised staple crop prices and provided an additional subsidy for those that irrigated cotton from private wells. Economic incentives, however, had a contradictory and corrosive effect.

Energy and crop subsidies promoted increased production of water-intensive crops and flood irrigation, applying additional pressure to water resources and promoted soil salinity, undermining the region’s future crop yields.

As the relentless climate change-induced drought took hold, intensifying water and land mismanagement, harvest after harvest failed ushering in a systematic breakdown of the agriculture sector. Entire villages and towns collapsed, unable to sustain food production. As the rural poor grew poorer and hungrier, they migrated to urban centers like Daraa, the cradle of the uprising.

Waves of displaced rural people, moreover, added to the burden of Syrian cities and already struggling urban youth. Increased rates of urbanization compounded problems of job competition and inflated housing costs, establishing another set of grievances among the disenfranchised. Mass unemployment, regional migration, and poverty exacerbated public discontent. The widespread dissent quickly devolved into protests, and later violence.  Pre-existing political factions, fueled by transnational allegiances and financing, provided a mechanism for conflict escalation.


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While climate change has a significant role to play in the advancement of the Syrian conflict, we cannot allow the political leadership to vacate their responsibilities to the Syrian people. The resolve of the Assad government to pursue unsustainable policies led to a protracted series of economic shocks pushing an additional million people into poverty setting the stage for social unrest.

The current situation in Syria has evolved past the original grievances and is now distant from the spirit of the conflict’s origins. While it will be important to find a political solution to the violence in Geneva, priority should also be given to discussing and remedying the underlying factors of resource mismanagement that brought about conflict. Half of all post-conflict nations lapse back into conflict within 10 years of resolution. If Syria is to avoid this cyclical curse of environmental destabilization and conflict, a post-conflict recovery plan must include long-term solutions looking to reestablish Syria’s agricultural sector, ensure property rights and employment, and revise current water strategies.


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Katherine Edelen

Kate Edelen is a Scoville Fellow at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. She holds a M.Sc. from the University of Oxford. Previously, Edelen was a Fulbright Research Fellow at Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) where she examined the influence of climate variability on dynamics of cooperation and conflict in South Asia. She works on issues of resource economics and climate and water resilience and adaptation.

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