Exclusive: Official Washington’s neocons hope they will finally get their wish to bomb Syria’s government, but the crisis of the Mideast – made worse by drastic climate change – won’t be solved by more war, explains Jonathan Marshall.
By Jonathan Marshall
While Washington decision-makers debate whether to launch U.S. military strikes against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, as if Syria suffers from a shortage of war and foreign intervention, the United States continues to ignore underlying issues that have helped trigger recent conflicts in the Middle East and threaten to create much bigger upheavals in decades to come.
Taking the long view, our number one enemy should not be Assad, or even ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but climate change. Predictions by climate scientists that the Middle East will become nearly uninhabitable by the end of the century — barring decisive global action to curb carbon pollution — put all current conflicts into much-needed perspective.
Experts have been warning for years about the social and political implications of environmental stresses. Consider these cautionary words from the International Institute for Sustainable Development in 2009:
“Already the Middle East as a whole is the world’s most dependent region on wheat imports. . . . If climate change begins to reduce agricultural yields at the same time as international food prices rise, . . . food insecurity, both perceived and real, will increase. . . This, in turn, could alter the economic and strategic balance in every country in the region . . . As Canadian security analyst and journalist Gwynne Dyer notes, ‘Eating regularly is a non-negotiable activity, and countries that cannot feed their people are unlikely to be ‘reasonable’ about it.’”
One year later, a “perfect storm” made that warning come true. Record rainfall cut the wheat harvest in Canada — the world’s second largest wheat exporter — by almost a quarter. Severe drought and wildfires wiped out nearly 40 percent of Russia’s potential wheat harvest. Extreme weather in late 2010 also devastated crops in the United States and Argentina. A once-in-a-century drought led China, usually the world’s largest wheat producer, to begin buying up grain on the international market.
As a result, global wheat prices doubled from the summer of 2010 to February 2011, reaching an all-time high. The spike hit the Middle East — home to the world’s nine top per capita wheat importers — like a plague of locusts. Protesters in Tunisia, the birthplace of the “Arab Spring,” waved baguettes to signal their anger over food prices.
Similar demonstrations struck Yemen and Jordan. In Egypt, where 40 percent of personal income is spent on food, and bread accounts for a third of the typical consumer’s calories, the food crisis fed popular discontent that spilled over into mass anti-government demonstrations on Tahrir Square that spring.
In Africa’s impoverished Sahel, drought and desertification drove hundreds of thousands of desperate migrants to Libya in recent years. The clash between indigenous Arabs and sub-Saharan black Africans helped trigger the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi. His opponents fueled the revolt by accusing black immigrants of taking jobs and becoming mercenaries to keep Gaddafi in power. As a result, Western-backed rebels brutally abused and slaughtered thousands of darker-skinned migrants.
In Syria, the worst four-year drought in its history drove hundreds of thousands of hungry families off their farms from 2006 to 2010. The mass migration overwhelmed the Assad government, which was already stressed by foreign economic sanctions and a huge influx of refugees from the U.S.-led war in Iraq. The tinder was laid for a revolt sparked by internal dissent, fanned by the regime’s overreactions, and stoked by foreign intervention [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Exploiting Global Warming for Geo-Politics.”]
Four years ago, the United Nations predicted that Egypt could become water scarce by 2025, in part due to population growth and upstream diversions of water from the Nile. Climate change has accelerated the timetable.
According to recent reports, “Drinking water shortages have left parts of Egypt going thirsty for up to two weeks in the run-up to Ramadan, with popular frustration over the failure of authorities to tackle the crisis spilling onto the streets. . . The water shortages have exacerbated an already difficult Ramadan in Egypt which saw food prices increase by 12.7 percent in April compared to the same month last year . . . The cost of rice, an Egyptian staple, has more than doubled compared to last year’s Ramadan.”
Climate change is battering war-torn Iraq as well. As three experts warned in Foreign Affairs magazine last year, “The Tigris-Euphrates river basin, which feeds Syria and Iraq, is rapidly drying up. This vast area already struggles to support at least ten million conflict-displaced people. And things could soon get worse; Iraq is reaching a crisis point. . . In Karbala, Iraq, farmers are in despair and are reportedly considering abandoning their land. In Baghdad, the poorest neighborhoods rely on the Red Cross for drinking water.”
Further south, Iraq’s famous marshes are drying up. What a recent report on NBC News called “a catastrophe in the making for one of the world’s most important wetlands,” is evolving into a human emergency. Besides wiping out the livelihood of herders and fishermen, it has contributed to a sharp rise in the frequency and intensity of sand and dust storms, extending deep into Iran and Kuwait. Many inhabitants report severe respiratory problems as a result.
Competition over fresh water supplies is aggravating conflicts within the region. Turkey, which lies upstream from Syria and Iraq, has radically reduced water flows to those neighbors since 1975 to serve its urban and farm needs and is building new dams to take even more, in the face of international protests and even threats of military action from its neighbors.
Meanwhile, in Iraq, the Kurdish regional government has threatened to withhold irrigation water as part of its power struggle with Baghdad. And ISIS, which controls major dams in the country, last year put farmers in four predominantly Shiite Iraqi provinces at risk by cutting flows down the Euphrates River.
The social, economic, and political challenges to the region of coping with heat, drought and related ills are certain to grow. As one climate scientist at Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory said recently, “The Mediterranean is one of the areas that is unanimously projected [in climate models] as going to dry in the future [due to man-made climate change].”
The World Bank estimated last month that future water shortages could slash the region’s GDP by 14 percent by the middle of this century unless countries in the Middle East undertake major investments and radically improve their water management practices to cope with drought. Such dry statistics likely portend further political upheavals, civil wars, and refugee migrations.
As President Obama said in 2014, “If you look at world history, whenever people are desperate, when people start lacking food, when people are not able to take make a living or take care of their families, that’s when ideologies arise that are dangerous.” Scientific studies prove him right.
More War Is Not an Answer
If we take his common-sense insight seriously, then sending more anti-tank rockets to insurgent rebels and bombing a continuously shifting array of opponents from Iraq to Yemen is unlikely to provide lasting solutions for the region. Washington should instead be providing technical assistance, aid to strengthen critical infrastructure, and encouragement for regional collaboration.
As two researchers at the Center for American Progress declared in 2013, “Given the shape of these challenges, a new approach is necessary. The United States, its allies, and the global community must de-emphasize traditional notions of hard security more suited to the Cold War, and should focus on more appropriate concepts such as human security, livelihood protection, and sustainable development.”
That lesson, of course, will apply increasingly around the world as droughts imperil food and power production, as rising sea levels swamp island nations and coastal cities, and as increasing heat spreads disease vectors.
If the United States want to act like an “indispensable” nation, it’s time for Washington to demonstrate greater leadership on combating climate change and helping other nations cope with the enormous stress it brings.
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”; “The US Hand in the Syrian Mess”; “Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War”; and “Israel Covets Golan’s Water and Now Oil.”]