Climate change alone cannot be blamed for the outbreak of war in Syria in 2011. However, neither can it be ignored as a reason the once blossoming country became a parched, war-torn place
"Syria serves as prime example for the impact of climate change on pre-existing issues such as political instability, poverty and scarce resources," Jamal Saghir, Professor at the Institute for the Study of International Development at McGill University, told DW.
"Climate disruption was an amplifier and multiplier of the political crisis that was building up in Syria," as Staffan de Mistura, former UN Special Envoy for Syria between 2014 and 2018, explained. "A toxic cocktail started to turn into an explosive mixture with the ingredients of the Arab Spring, the anger of losing jobs, migration to cities, as well as the purchasing power decline and the anger against the very tough and very cruel reactions by the government," de Mistura said.
In the past, Syria's farmers have benefited from relatively fertile and productive lands, as well as the state's promotion of staple crop production between the 1970s and 1990s. The country of around 17 million people has been hit by three droughts since the 1980s. The most recent stretched from 2006 to 2010, and was recorded as the worst multiyear drought in around 900 years.
Decreased precipitation combined with rising temperatures resulted in desertification and devastation of agricultural land, particularly in eastern Syria. Along with this, 800,000 people lost their income and 85% of the country's livestock died.
Since crop yields had also plummeted by up to two-thirds, the country had to start importing large quantities of grain. Consequently, food prices doubled. "But the drought still continued and people were hopeless," Saghir said, thus explaining why 1.5 million rural workers headed to the cities for work. Those who stayed were mainly impoverished farmers who became easy targets for terrorist recruiters from groups like the so-called Islamic State (IS).
The crisis was aggravated by Bashar Assad's decisions to reduce fuel, water and food subsidies over the years. In addition to water scarcity in rural areas, tensions rose between Kurds, Arabs, Alawites and Sunnis.
Geopolitically, the situation didn't become any easier with ongoing competition over Syria between archenemies Iran and Saudi Arabia. "We started seeing horrible medieval sieges around many cities or villages when people were cut off from food and water, like in Homs or Aleppo," de Mistura remembered.
Vast parts of the country have been devastated by war, water remains scarce and infrastructure is in dire need repair across almost the entire country.
"Assad has almost won the territorial war but is still very far from winning peace," said de Mistura.
Jamal Saghir agrees: "For peace, you need reconstruction," he said.
But with economic sanctions still imposed and Assad's allies reluctant to invest the future is far from promising.