Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday December 22nd, 2013

By Barrie Dunsmore

It has been widely assumed that the Syrian civil war, which began nearly three years ago, was part of the Arab Spring; that following the examples of Tunisia and Egypt, the Syrian people too wanted to escape decades of oppression by rising up against the despotic rule of their president, Bashar Assad. 

But what if I were to tell you that the major factor in setting off a civil war - in which an estimated 120,000 Syrians have been killed and several million made homeless refugees - was climate change?

This is the conclusion of one of the most knowledgeable Americans on virtually all matters dealing with the Middle East - the academic, author, adventurer, diplomat, William Polk. Polk’s now occasional essays take almost book form in their broad perspective and unique detail. His most recent essay in The Atlantic is called Understanding Syria. (His first Atlantic essay, on Iraq, was published in 1958.) 

There are many things that are important to understanding Syria and its civil war and Polk eventually deals with them all. But it is the way in which he starts his latest analysis which left the deepest impression upon me. He begins: 

“Syria is a small, poor, and crowded country, but only about a quarter of its (area) is arable land….. Most is desert—some is suitable for grazing but less than 10 percent of the surface is permanent cropland.

 “Except for a narrow belt along the Mediterranean it is subject to extreme temperatures that cause frequent dust storms and periodic droughts. Four years of devastating drought from 2006-2011 turned Syria into a land like the American ‘dust bowl’ of the 1930s. That drought was said to have been the worst ever recorded, but it was one in a long sequence. Just in the period from 2001 to 2010 Syria has had 60 ‘significant’ dust storms. The most important physical aspect of these storms, as was the experience in America in the 1930s, was the removal of the topsoil.” 

Mr. Polk uses charts and graphs to show precisely how these extreme weather patterns over a decade, dramatically reduced the amount of arable land and the crops needed to support a rapidly increasing population. In his words, these were the consequences. 

“Four years of devastating drought beginning in 2006 caused at least 800,000 farmers to lose their entire livelihood and about 200,000 simply abandon their land. In some areas, all agriculture ceased. In others, crop failures reached 75 percent. And generally as much as 85 percent 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.”   

With the scene now set, historian Polk goes on to explain how the civil war began. 

“And so tens of thousands of frightened, angry, hungry, and impoverished former farmers were jammed into Syria’s towns and cities, where they constituted tinder ready to catch fire. The spark was struck on March 15, 2011, when a relatively small group gathered in the southwestern town of Daraa to protest against government failure to help them. Instead of meeting with the protesters and at least hearing their complaints, the government saw them as subversives.” 

The Assad regime has remained in power since the early 1970’s by never yielding to any form of civil resistance- and as Polk tells it, this occasion would be no different. 

“So Bashar followed the lead of his father. He ordered a crackdown. And the army, long frustrated by inaction and humiliated by its successive defeats in confrontation with Israel, responded violently. Its action backfired. Riots broke out all over the country. As they did, the government attempted to quell them with military force. It failed. So, during the next two years, what had begun as a food and water issue gradually turned into a political and religious cause.” 

As the essay continues, Polk proceeds to deconstruct Syria’s historical, religious and ethnic differences –and of course factors in Middle East and world power politics. Once it had begun, those issues propelled Syria’s tragic civil war. But I must confess I was most taken by the simple wisdom contained in the essay’s first section. 

While I have mostly just summarized that section, I hope I've caught your attention with what appears to be a much larger lesson. It seems to me that Syria is a frightening case study of the potential future political consequences of climate change. We hear a good deal about the broad economic consequences of rising ocean levels. And last year’s super-hurricane Sandy has given us a brief preview of how devastating and expensive ($68 B) just one unusual East coast storm can be.

But think of the consequences when the world’s water and food supplies are dramatically reduced as they have been in the past decade in Syria.  

Of course it could be argued that Assad is a dictator and handled it badly. But is there a political system - anywhere -which will be strong enough to survive the kinds of pressures that will come with massive water and food shortages on a global scale? It does not bode well that so many people, especially including here in America, are still in denial about climate change. It is not too late to take serious steps that will help to mitigate the various threats that will come as the earth becomes hotter. But so far there is no evidence of the global political will – and ultimately it has to be world-wide – to adopt such policies. 

I and my contemporaries won’t live to see the full impact of climate change. But our children and grandchildren will. And this glimpse of the future we’re getting from what is happening in Syria today - should be highly discomforting to us all.

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