Exclusive: When a severe drought hit Syria a decade ago, the U.S. government chose not to help but rather exploit the environmental crisis to force a “regime change,” a decision that contributed to a humanitarian crisis, writes Jonathan Marshall.
By Jonathan Marshall
For Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, the only thing to fear about climate change is fear itself. As he declared in a 2014 tweet, “This very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop.” Perhaps taking his words to heart, the four major U.S. TV networks cut their already minimal coverage of climate issues to a combined total of just two-and-a-half hours for all of 2015.
So it should come as little surprise that few media bothered to cover a frightening new report this month by Germany’s prestigious Max Planck Institute, which concluded that searing temperatures in the Middle East and North Africa could render much of the region uninhabitable by the end of this century and create a “climate exodus” that dwarfs today’s mass migration of refugees from the area.
But we don’t have to wait decades to see the explosive impact of climate change on the Middle East. For the past decade, scientists, humanitarian workers and U.S. diplomats have watched as devastating heat and drought disrupted Syria, causing hunger, unemployment, internal migration and civil unrest.
Aggravated by government mistakes and foreign intervention, those ills helped trigger the tragic violence that has killed nearly half a million Syrians and displaced more than half its population.
As a study published last year by the National Academy of Sciences declared, “Before the Syrian uprising that began in 2011, the greater Fertile Crescent experienced the most severe drought in the instrumental record. For Syria . . . the drought had a catalytic effect, contributing to political unrest.”
Thanks to documents released by Wikileaks, we know that none of this came as any surprise to Washington.
In August 2006, the U.S. embassy in Damascus reported that Syria faced a “water crunch” that could “balloon into a crisis in the medium to long term.” Although Damascus had “initiated steps to transition Syria’s agricultural sector to modern, more water-efficient, irrigation techniques,” the report warned that “the country’s emerging water crisis carries the potential for severe economic volatility and even socio-political unrest.”
Instead of helping the country overcome this looming crisis, however, the embassy began drafting recommendations for ways to destabilize Syria’s government — ranging from fomenting sectarian disputes to fanning rumors of coup plots within the country’s security services. By 2009, predictions of a crisis had come true.
“A combination of low rainfall and serious sand storms have all but wiped out the (wheat) crop in Syria’s three eastern provinces,” the embassy reported. It also cited estimates that “up to 120 villages in eastern Syria had been ‘abandoned’ due to ‘climate change’” and that more than a quarter million desperate people had left the region in search of food and jobs.
The business publication Trade Arabia called it “one of Syria’s largest internal migrations since France and Britain carved the country out of the Ottoman Empire in 1920.”
One of the prime destinations for Syria’s dispossessed families was the hard-hit town of Dara’a, near the Jordanian border. It would become the epicenter of Syria’s 2011 unrest. The Syrian government admitted that the scope of the disaster far exceeded its capacity to respond. It appealed to the UN for aid — hoping that Washington would reconsider its refusal to contribute humanitarian assistance.
The embassy recommended offering some aid in light of the growing crisis: “While it is unlikely that Syrians will stave, we agree with UN interlocutors that the ongoing migration from the rural east to Syria’s western corridor, and the accompanying social and economic dislocation, could trigger a humanitarian crisis.”
By January 2010, the embassy was citing estimates by the UN World Food Program that 1.3 million Syrians had been affected by the drought and 800,000 were “in dire need of assistance.” UN experts begged the United States to contribute aid to prevent a worsening disaster. But American supporters of regime change argued for continuing to withhold aid.
Andrew Tabler of the neo-conservative Washington Institute for Near East Policy crowed in early 2010 that U.S. economic sanctions had “badly hit the Assad regime,” making it harder to trade with Syria than with Iran.
“The regime’s economic woes only made sanctions more effective,” he observed. Oil production had “plunged 30 percent” over the past five years, Syria’s manufacturing sector was shrinking fast, and, not least, “a massive . . . drought devastated Syrian agriculture.”
“That’s why President Obama may be tempted to ease Syria’s pain,” Tabler observed. “He shouldn’t.”
The Obama administration earmarked no aid for Syria that year, as the country remained in crisis.
In October 2010, just half a year before anti-regime demonstrations erupted in the crowded town of Dara’a, the New York Times reported from Syria that “after four consecutive years of drought, this heartland of the Fertile Crescent . . . appears to be turning barren, climate scientists say. Ancient irrigation systems have collapsed, underground water sources have run dry and hundreds of villages have been abandoned as farmlands turn to cracked desert and grazing animals die off. Sandstorms have become far more common, and vast tent cities of dispossessed farmers and their families have risen up around the larger towns and cities of Syria.”
The story added, “The four-year drought in Syria has pushed two million to three million people into extreme poverty, according to a survey completed here this month by the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food . . . Herders in the country’s northeast have lost 85 percent of their livestock, and at least 1.3 million people have been affected, he reported.”
The paper called the crisis “a rising security concern” for the government, especially “because it is taking place in the area where its restive Kurdish minority is centered.”
The story legitimately blamed poor government planning and misguided irrigation investments for compounding the problem. But Syria had no monopoly on inept water management, as drought-stricken California amply proves. Such criticisms also give too little weight to the regime’s substantive (and sometimes unpopular) reforms, including reduced fuel and food subsidies, a law to restrict groundwater depletion from the digging of new wells, and promotion of drip irrigation.
Many critics also ignored the fact that Syria was losing precious water as Turkey diverted flows from the Euphrates River. And Syria had never recovered from its loss of water from the Golan Heights and Sea of Galilee after Israel occupied those lands in 1967.
In any case, few governments could have coped with what one expert called “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago.”
Compounding the drought and the effects of internal migration was the enormous economic and social stress caused by the more than 1.2 million Iraqi refugees who sought safe haven in Syria after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
As last year’s study published by the National Academy of Sciences observed, “The population shock to Syria’s urban areas further increased the strain on its resources. The rapidly growing urban peripheries of Syria, marked by illegal settlements, overcrowding, poor infrastructure, unemployment, and crime, were neglected by the Assad government and became the heart of the developing unrest.”
The escalation from unrest to all-out war doubtless owed more to politics than climate change. But Syria’s social and government institutions, weakened by years of national hardship and privation, were by 2011 easy targets for foreign powers and domestic extremists bent on toppling the Assad regime.
The current crisis may be only a taste of what’s to come as rising temperatures and dwindling water supplies make life even more desperate in the region. The implications are serious not only for the Middle East and North Africa, but for Europe, which already faces extreme political pressure from the influx of migrants and refugees.
As Secretary of State John Kerry said last year, “You think migration is a challenge to Europe today because of extremism, wait until you see what happens when there’s an absence of water, an absence of food, or one tribe fighting against another for mere survival.”
The Obama administration’s attention to climate change as a strategic, economic and humanitarian issue stands in sharp and welcome relief to Republican Party denialism. But its worthy efforts to coordinate an international response to global warming are not enough.
Washington must also stand ready to help even inept or unfriendly governments — like Assad’s in Syria — cope with the immense social and economic stresses that millions of their citizens are today suffering as the planet warms. As Syria’s tragedy illustrates, taking advantage of regimes weakened by environmental catastrophes to coerce political changes is a recipe for humanitarian disaster and endless violence.
Jonathan Marshall is author or co-author of five books on international affairs, including The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War and the International Drug Traffic (Stanford University Press, 2012). Some of his previous articles for Consortiumnews were “Risky Blowback from Russian Sanctions”; “Neocons Want Regime Change in Iran”; “Saudi Cash Wins France’s Favor”; “The Saudis’ Hurt Feelings”; “Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Bluster”; “The US Hand in the Syrian Mess”; and “Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War.” ]
Though climate change is well underway, given Erdogan’s desire to create a new Ottoman Empire, it would be foolish to underestimate the disastrous effects Turkey’s selfish exploitation of the Tigris and Euphrates are having on the teetering economies of both Iraq and Syria.
The earliest cities on the planet were founded in what became known as the Fertile Crescent. Without the development of the farming technology that led to a massive increase in grain production sufficient enough to feed a large population and its cattle, Western civilization wouldn’t exist today.
As nomads and hunters turned to growers and goatherds, civilization flourished in settled areas where crops could thrive on irrigation. The flowering of the arts, science and technology required for this expansion to occur only became possible through the constant supply of water provided by the two Biblical rivers .
It is also no coincidence that the areas most affected by the restriction of water supply are also mainly Kurdish. We can safey conclude that the water wars have already begun in ernest.
While the limitation of water supply to Iraq and Syria may suit Israel and the West for the time being, it is doubtful a bigger, stronger and more powerful Turkey will be tolerated by Western interests in the long term. There is little doubt peace will not reign in the area for the forseeable future,
Apparently time travel is our only hope. This excellent essay by Jonathan Marshall, with its details about the extremely cynical use of massive human suffering by U.S. officials for selfish power-political gain, leaves us with few alternative sources of salvation. Someone needs to go back in time and murder Machiavelli before he had published anything.
“The Obama administration’s attention to climate change as a strategic, economic and humanitarian issue stands in sharp and welcome relief to Republican Party denialism. But its worthy efforts to coordinate an international response to global warming are not enough.”
the crackpot realism of lesser evilism at work even in an otherwise very informative piece..how nice of obama, as the usa plays a major role in both the funding and training of the armed adversaries of the assad government and the near total destruction of syria were it not for russian, iranian and hezbollah intervention in both support for assad and mainly opposition to the greatest menace facing the region and the planet; the armed madness of the empire of usrael.
the methods of our madness are what provoke what is called climate change, which is the result of treating earth,air, water and humanity as no more or less than commodities for sale in a market in order to procure private profit. yes, obama is better than republicans, the way polio is better than cancer, but humanity needs to rid itself of the disease which is bipartisan,bipolar and a greater threat than it has ever been.
Here is some reading for Mr. Jonathan Marshall if he hasn’t already seen it.
Russian-Chinese strategic water pipeline: A counter to color revolutions and water wars?
That’s how the US is seen these days – deliberately raising hell everywhere it possibly can. More background reading:
The author is pessimistic about this particular project, but it’s clearly to the advantage of both Russia and China to join forces to keep the Empire at bay. Paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin, they have the choice of hanging together or being garroted separately by the neocons.
My experience with drought is limited to about 18 months around 2012, but it was extremely frightening. Weeks and weeks, then months and months without rain. The lawn turned into a crunchy brown carpet, and shallow-rooted trees like peaches began to die. Had that been extended, this part of Indiana would have turned into an empty dust bowl. In a primitive society I’d have died – pure and simple.
People in the West generally don’t understand how dangerous climate change is going to be because we’ve been insulated by our wealth and the efficiency of our transportation systems. An eyeopening history lesson is the world-wide reaction to the eruption of Mt. Tambora in 1815. That was a ‘cooling’ event because of the cubic miles of dust thrown into the atmosphere and it caused millions of deaths around the world. John D. Post’s “The Last Great Subsistence Crisis in the Western World” is very dry reading, but tells about the impact of this event. More specific to Americans is “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death” by John Dipple.
I’d like to put some of the Big Energy whore-bloggers in a time machine and send them back to New England in 1916. They could have explained to the locals that three days over 100° followed the next day by a foot of snow was entirely ‘natural’. Trying to harvest hay in mid-July while wearing a heavy winter overcoat was nothing to get upset about.
Actually, the local equivalents of the modern dumbasses did a version of that patter. Little science was known in those days and God’s Will was the official reason for everything happening. So the preachers steadily reassured the people that All Was Proceeding To Plan. Not too many folks bought the line, and there were permanent changes in both the local population levels and the people’s attitudes.
Thanks Jonathan. Truly excellent article and indisputable sources.
More and more I am reminded of what Churchill said in 1957: “I think the earth will soon be destroyed…And if I were the Almighty I would not recreate it in case they destroyed him too the next time.”
Your Churchill remark was a new one for me, so I looked it up.
It’s curious to me that Churchill thought (in 1957) himself to be in better mental condition than Eisenhower.
Anyhow, I’ve noticed in my relatives and others that as they become very elderly they no longer dread the “end of the world’. Because they themselves are approaching death, it appears that many of them embrace some sort of EndTimes notion, and that’s usually Jesus Is Coming Real Soon. In his Eighties with his health declining, that’s likely what affected Churchill too.
Churchill was a bigoted mass murderer of ‘colored’ human beings, walking in the footprint of his mentor, Cecil Rhodes.
The sooner we cease lauding him as some bulldog “savior” – the stronger the world will be in terms of humanitarian cooperation/reconciliation.
Our reverence for OUR War Criminals is a root cause of constant military conflict and resource wars disguised as “humanitarian assistance.”
The more life one lives, the more the temporary nature of one’s life is felt. Some judge the world as Churchill does, others work and pray for its people to be more wise. The climate disruptions are hot spots which draw more heat creating colder spots, and then nature seeks to return to some equilibrium. Things are getting more out of balance it appears and the new equilibriums don’t seem to last. Except to cultivate resilience, the ability to take unexpected hits and survive, the past is not much of a guide.
If you want some reliable sources of information about Global Warming, here is a good-looking starting place.
I’d strongly advise beginners not to rely on Google or other search engines because somebody in the Denier community has spent some serious money pushing BS links to the top of the search results. In fact, when I was rummaging through my hard drive for GW Primers I found a very slick Denier booklet which looked good back when I saved it. Naturally it has been deleted.
Syria’s draught already may have been due to weather manipulation initiated by the U.S.
Observe that in the last two decades, small U.S. farmers have also fallen victim to draught and Monsanto took over.
No conspiracy theory here; just follow the money.
“Possible” is more of an issue here than “conspiracy”. I doubt if this sort of weather modification can yet be done, but will agree that if the Empire could do such a thing, it most certainly would be done.
“possible” — but definitely not IMPOSSIBLE… !
You don’t need an empire. The Russians started spraying aluminum derivatives over Moscow already in 1994 in order to save $1b a year on snow shoveling. That was 22 years ago.
consortium news is not free from disinformation and propaganda.
What did they say that wasn’t true. Your comment is worthles without supporting data.
Wow, any excuse, another false excuse at that. I am sorry we haven’t had normal temps up here in MI for a very, very long time. We had abnormally warm weather for like a week or two, now we have been below normal for at least the past two months. We should be breaking a bit over 70 now and barely are getting over 60. Please can someone explain how it is warming? This below average trend is more than a decade old I might add, actually more like 2 decades, so how can anybody say it is global warming if some regions are below normal?
I think some people confuse ‘looking out their window’ and their neighborhoods to global patterns that effect much of the world. I believe most of the dialog should be about ‘climate change’ rather than warming. But if you take some time and look at the glaziers in Greenland, New Zealand, Switzerland, Alaska, and elsewhere (Mt Kilimanjaro) you will start to see a pattern. Also, the most resent tragedy in Canada in an area that received little rain over the past two months is out of character.
A quick study of ice bores, tree rings, and historical patterns will educate you as far as the world is concerned. Within the article the author mentioned a pattern that never existed in the history of the area, and that in itself should get your attention.
Sometime, check out the acidification of the oceans, and the newer scientific data from satellites depicting ice crystals in the clouds vs. prior assumptions that some clouds cool the earth. It’s all interesting science and it is troubling. When you hear politicians say “”I am not a scientist” your ears should perk up. For example, Gov. Scott in Florida has said that, and I wonder why someone in the press doesn’t have the fortitude to ask him if has taken the time for a drive to NASA in his own state. NASA has mentioned it, and the Navy has mentioned it, but few are listening. To have 2 1/2 hours of coverage of this topic in the corporate media in ’15 should not only indicate a bias, but an intent to purposefully not educate the public and dumb down the discussion. If one is also paying attention to the insurance companies raising the coverage for properties near the ocean, maybe something is going on behind the scenes.
I think it’s best to pay attention to the discussion in the world and not just ones own home state, as this article indicated. To have the US political establishment deliberately watching people starve should make you mad as hell and sad that people in ‘the know’ could be so cruel and inhumane. They also knew their ‘NATO buddy’ Turkey was diverting water from the Euphrates.
It is not right to watch people starve and have no water for their life and then preach ‘western values’. It is pathetic, and Mr Tabler himself should be in prison for his lack of compassion. To watch desperate people, through his political optics, die without offering a helping hand, and then bomb them into dust, should put him in chains along with many others.
Robert Bruce, you are not a real person, but a paid Fartland Institute troll, repeating standard lying talking points in your case “the planet is cooling” the lie that has replaced the lie “global warming stopped in 1998”. I do not need a climate scientist to tell me global warming is not a “hoax”. Here in Toronto, Canada we have not had normal winter since 2000, but the last near normal winter was 2010-2011. Since then we have near zero snow, the last two winters we have had RAIN in January and February. August 2015, we had a horrific two week heatwave with 110F temps when normally the leaves showed their first colors and nights were chilly. We do not have Fall any more just an extension of Summer into October. Reality refutes your Fartland Institute lies.
David Smith >>Robert Bruce, you are not a real person, but a paid Fartland Institute troll, repeating standard lying talking points
I agree w/you, David… .
How Disinformation Agents Spread Their Webs of Deception
Information obtained from: http://www.wanttoknow.info/g/disinformation-agents
It is quite easy for a disinformation agent to spin a rich disinformation tale and then craft several different versions of the tale with new ‘facts’ to support the story in each one. These tales are usually a good mix of verifiable facts and cleverly designed lies, so that people who check the ‘facts’ tend to believe the lies that are mixed in.
The disinformation agent has only to feed these versions of his tale to several of the many conspiracy oriented websites out there, and it’s all over the Internet – but not on reliable websites. These same disinformation agents will use pseudonyms to join in on the discussions generated by their “news” so that they can manipulate the direction that comments take.
Below are excerpts from a short article that was published on the GlobalResearch.ca website on January 22, 2013:
CIA Document 1035-960 and Conspiracy Theory: the Foundation of a Weaponized Term
‘Conspiracy theory’ is a term that strikes fear and anxiety in the hearts of most every public figure, particularly journalists and academics. Since the 1960s the label has become a disciplinary device that has been overwhelmingly effective in defining certain events as off limits to inquiry or debate. Especially in the United States, raising legitimate questions about dubious official narratives destined to inform public opinion (and thereby public policy) is a major thought crime that must be cauterized from the public psyche at all costs.
…it was the Central Intelligence Agency that likely played the greatest role in effectively ‘weaponizing’ the term. In the groundswell of public skepticism about the Warren Commission’s findings on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the CIA sent a detailed directive to all of its bureaus, titled ‘Countering Criticism of the Warren Commission Report’.
The agency also directed its members ‘[t]o employ propaganda assets to [negate] and refute the attacks of the critics. Book reviews and feature articles are particularly appropriate for this purpose’.
CIA Document 1035-960 further delineates specific techniques for countering ‘conspiratorial’ arguments centering on the Warren Commission’s findings. Such responses and their coupling with the pejorative label have been routinely wheeled out to this day in various guises by corporate media outlets, commentators and political leaders against those demanding truth and accountability about momentous public events.
The effect on academic and journalistic inquiry into ambiguous and unexplained events that may in turn mobilize public inquiry, debate and action has been dramatic and far-reaching. One need only look to the rising police state and evisceration of civil liberties and constitutional protections as evidence of how this set of subtle and deceptive intimidation tactics has profoundly encumbered the potential for future independent self-determination and civic empowerment.
Dr Kohls is a retired physician from Duluth, MN, USA. He writes a weekly column for the Reader, Duluth’s alternative newsweekly magazine. His columns mostly deal with the dangers of American fascism, corporatism, militarism, racism, malnutrition, psychiatric drugging, over-vaccination regimens, Big Pharma and other movements that threaten the environment or America’s health, democracy, civility and longevity. Many of his columns are archived at http://duluthreader.com/articles/categories/200_Duty_to_Warn and at http://www.globalresearch.ca/author/gary-g-kohls.
The original source of this article is Global Research
Copyright © Dr. Gary G. Kohls, Global Research, 2016
I’m really off on tangents tonight, for I’d no more than read that when my mind jumped to the impending failure of the Mosul dam. At the cost of a mere million lives, ISIS would surely suffer a great defeat. Where would the Mosul survivors go? How badly would Baghdad be hurt? Could such a disaster be turned into a long-term “opportunity” for the neocons? And why has the US government done essentially nothing in the way of helping prevent the dam’s failure?
Back to the essay – thanks for the information. Lots of things there I didn’t know!