Environmental issues such as climate change and droughts are transnational problems that fail to respect the socially constructed concept of sovereignty and borders. Thus, it is not surprising that these issues are also prominent cleavages in current global affairs (Newell, 71). Addressing these problems requires international cooperation, which is difficult to achieve in an anarchical international system where the collective action problem prevails (78). Although several scholars have identified the immanent long-term consequences of neglected environmental degradation, very few have noted how these environmental issues can influence the proliferation of conflict between states and groups of people (Homer-Dixon, 11). The purpose of this essay is to use the study of political ecology and Homer-Dixon’s theory of resource wars, to demonstrate that environmental issues have an important, yet neglected influence on the outbreak of conflict. The essay will present this argument through an analysis of the Syrian drought (2006 – 2011), a devastating environmental issue in the global south attributed to global climate change and unregulated environmental laws (Gleick, 334). More specifically, it will construct a comparison on the varying political, social and economic effects of the drought in Damascus and Raqqa. Through this comparison it will invite the reader to consider how the drought destabilized the already weak structure of the local and federal governments, how it aggravated existing ethnic group tensions and how it disrupted the economic livelihoods of individual’s dependent on the environment. In considering all the above, it is important to note and distinguish that this paper does not claim environmental issues are the catalyst of the complex Syrian conflict. Instead it seeks to illustrate that environmental issues are meaningful aspects of these multi-layered conflicts, and they can provide further insight into the behaviour and rationale of actors who dictate their outcomes.
The essay will begin by defining the key concepts of political ecology and resource wars, as they apply herein. It will then provide some necessary context on the history and geopolitics of Syria. Using this information, the paper will compare the effects of the drought in Damascus and Raqqa, to demonstrate how this environmental issue escalated existing tensions amongst the variety of actors, through the restriction of access to water. Following the comparison, it will consider the drought’s effect on increased foreign state aggression. Lastly, the paper will discuss and refute commonly presented criticisms to the above argument.
Understanding human-environment interactions
According to Tim Forsyth, political ecology can be understood as the “social, [economic] and political conditions surrounding the causes, experience and management of environmental problems” (Forsyth, 3). Simply put, political ecology is the study of how humans interact with their natural environment. It is a combination of both the physical and social sciences, which highlights the important role of the environment in our daily lives. For example, through the epistemological lens of political ecology one may observe the socially constructed relationship between humans and the environment. Through these observations, scholars such as Peter Walker (75) have been able to recognize the social tendency to primarily view and portray the environment as a resource. Understanding this social relationship helps explain why environmental issues persist today, even in the face of irrefutable evidence by ecologists (79). Therefore, political ecology is a broad theoretical approach to explore the multifaceted relationship between humans and the environment. It is the same approach that has led to development of new and thought provoking theories such as Homer-Dixon’s theory of resource wars.
In the article “Environmental Scarcities and Violent Conflict” Thomas Homer-Dixon relies on the concept of political ecology to derive the theory of resource wars. This theory states that environmental events which produce threats by means of limiting resources necessary for the survival of states and their citizenry, will result in devastating human conflict and the outbreak of violence (Homer-Dixon, 7). Homer-Dixon offers three arguments about how resource scarcity caused by environmental issues can lead to armed conflict, referred to as “resource wars” (5). His first argument relies on the deprivation and aggression thesis, which claims that the deprivation of resources necessary for survival will undoubtedly frustrate people and encourage them to act aggressively, in order to attain said resources. Using this thesis, he demonstrates that the diminishment or restriction of access to resources essential for the survival of a state will also cause states to act aggressively (19). Homer-Dixon’s second argument explores how environmental issues affecting one state, can have negative social consequences for neighbouring states. Forced environmental migration, one of the most frequently observed consequences of environmental issues, can often lead to inter-group and interstate conflicts (26). Homer-Dixon’s last argument showcases how the scarcity of resources can cause domestic social disruption, preventing state sovereigns from effectively enforcing their laws (33). The ongoing conflict in Syria is so vast in terms of its political dimensions that it can certainly not be understood by the single theory of resource wars. However, this theory provides noteworthy arguments that help scholars obtain a better grasp of the complex political dimensions of the conflict. The first argument can be applied to explain the ongoing fighting among different factions in Syria over strategic resources, such as fresh water. Furthermore, the second argument can help demonstrate the increasing tensions between neighbouring states and military involvement of said states, given the influx of Syrian refugees. The third argument can portray how the Syrian government is losing its sovereign authority due to instability created by a lack of fundamental resources, hence the creation of insurgency groups such as the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant, (ISIS) which have seized control of major parts of the country.
The Assad Regime and the Syrian Drought
In order to develop the arguments of this paper it is important to provide some context regarding the incumbent Syrian government and the history of the state. Syria like many other states in the Middle East is considered to be highly multicultural (Fildis, 148). This is evident by the demographics of Syria, which is made up of a variety of different ethnic and religious groups (148). From the 16th century till the early 20th century Syria was a part of the Ottoman Empire. During this period the various ethnic and religious groups co-existed peacefully, because they were allowed to self-segregate within their own communities (149). Though after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, France took control of present day Syria and Lebanon, partitioning the territories into six quasi-states (151). The French Mandate of Syria empowered several ethnic groups over others, most prominently it empowered the Alawites ethnic group by providing them with their own province and recruiting many Alawites into the armed forces (Kaplan, “Syria Identity Crisis). Although the Alawite province was later dismantled alongside all other exclusive regions created by France, the Alawites held a considerable amount of influence on the Syrian Army (Kaplan). In 1946 Syria became an independent state, though it faced many years of instability through internal and external conflict. Though in 1970 an Alawite Air Force General named Hafez Al-Assad consolidated power through a military coup. A year later Hafez-Al-Assad declared himself president of Syria, shocking the Sunni majority population. This came as a shock because up until this point the Syrian constitution did not permit Shias such as the Alawite or Orthodox Christians to hold the office of president (Kaplan). Since this coup, the Al-Assad family has formed an oligarchic-authoritarian regime that has severely marginalized other ethnic and religious groups with the state (Kaplan). Through this regime Hafez Al-Assad consolidated power for his family, and established minority rule. The Alawites, which only make up 11% of the population, have a strict control over political and economic capital (Fildis, 155). This brief historical summary of Syria and the Alawite is important because it demonstrates the role of social and cultural identity within the current conflict, and further illustrates that the Syrian Civil War had deeply rooted historical factors.
Fast forwarded 30 years and Bashar Al-Assad the son of Hafez Al-Assad is the president of the country, he is considered to be a moderate and Syria is perceived as a stable state (Hughes, 522). Though simultaneously during this period, Syria like many other states in the Middle East was threatened by a variety of destabilizing factors. Notably the U.S invasion of Iraq, which increased anti-western rhetoric and enabled the springing of various religious insurgency groups (527). Additionally, many countries in the Middle East where burdening the brutish consequences of a drought (Gleick, 331). In Syria the combination of these two factors provided the necessary framework for civil conflict. Many rural areas in the country, which were primarily effected by the drought and whom had been marginalized by the incumbent government began to resist and protest. In the wake of the Arab Spring, a series of revolutions and revolts in different Arab states, many Syrians were optimistic to achieve constitutional and governmental change (Hokayem, 38). Though these protests soon erupted into conflicts, making Syria a hotspot for various insurgency groups fleeing bordering Iraq. In 2011, ISIS declared its caliphate and began the annexation of various regions in Iraq and Syria (Nance, “Defeating ISIS”). Since then the conflict has only accelerated with various other countries getting involved. Thus, environmental issues such as droughts evidently have the ability to alter to aid the proliferation of conflict. The next section of this essay will examine the effect of environmental issues on Raqqa and Damascus, in order to demonstrate how environmental issues have aided the political agenda of various actors in proliferation the civil war.
Comparing Damascus to Raqqa
Damascus and Raqqa are considered to be the epicenters of the current Syrian conflict (Nance, “Defeating ISIS”). Damascus is reasonably considered to be a prime focus in the conflict due to the fact that it is the capital of Bashar Al-Assad’s government. As such Damascus has played an important role in the development of major events in the conflict, it is the source of the Syrian regimes political, economic and military actions (Dobbins et al., “A Peace Plan for Syria”). Similarly, Raqqa was a decisive source of action in the evolution of the Syrian conflict. Since its capture by the Islamic State, it has acted as quasi-capital for the insurgency group (Nance, “Defeating ISIS”). Therefore, it is evident that both these urban centers play a crucial role in deciding the course of action taken by two of the most prominent actors in this conflict, namely the Assad government and ISIS. Let us now consider the different consequences of the drought on these two cities.
In terms of territorial size and population Damascus is the largest city in Syria (Burns, 14). Damascus is situated in a strategic location, on the east of the Mediterranean Sea. The city’s location is considered strategic because it lies on the south Bank of the river Barada, which acts as a crucial source of water (7). The city’s location is also strategic because it is the geographic route that links Asia to North East Africa (8). From a geopolitical perspective, the city is considered important because it acts as a natural fortress due to the large mountain ranges and dessert that surround it (21). As a result, scholars such as Michael Klare have noted that these features would prove resourceful to any actor that seeks to consolidate power in the region (13). Given the natural advantages of Damascus, it is not surprising that the city has remained relatively stable throughout the conflict, enduring significantly less violence than other regions of Syria. Although the impact of the conflict varied in Syria, the impact of the drought was relatively homogenous throughout the state. This is best portrayed in Damascus by the drying of the River Barda, which was considered the bloodline of the city (Gleick, 333). To provide context, this river was crucial to Damascus not only because it was a major source of fresh water, but also because several of the city’s industries were heavily reliant on it (Burns, 249). Subsequently, many individuals who relied on the river lost their economic livelihoods, which led to an influx of unemployment. In light of these consequences it necessary to consider the demographics of Damascus. Damascus like many parts of Syria is primarily inhabited by Sunni Muslims, though Damascus is different in the sense that it also consists of large concentration of minority groups, most importantly the Alawite Shias. This is consideration was critical due to its implications on ethno-group relations. Throughout the drought the residents of Damascus endured less socioeconomic hardships, because the state made an active effort to transport groundwater and surface water from other regions of Syria, who were equally challenged by the drought (De Châtel, 528). From the perspective of the government, these actions can be considered rational because they seemed to ensure the stability of the state’s capital. Though from the perspective of marginalized groups, these actions echoed the rhetoric that the Assad’s minority rule government was further entrenching disparities.
In regards to its geographic location the city of Raqqa shares similar strategical advantages with Damascus. Raqqa is located north east of Damascus, and is situated on the banks of the Euphrates river, a historically important source of water in the region. Additionally, the city of Raqqa is considered to be important due to its vicinity to the Tabqa Dam, Syria’s largest dam (Remnick, “Telling the truth about ISIS and Raqqa”). Not only does the dam act as the state’s biggest water reservoir, but it also plays a central role in agricultural irrigation and the production of hydroelectric power. One would expect that given the city’s proximity to the dam and Lake Assad, it would be less severely impacted by the drought. However, the federal government’s actions in transporting water to Damascus and decrease in the flow of the river that affected all cities situated on the banks of the river, increased the devastating influence of the drought. Therefore, the drought jeopardized the socioeconomic and political stability of Raqqa, making the city vulnerable to internal civil unrest and external occupation. As a result, independent insurgency groups were provided with the necessary conditions to expropriate ethnic tensions as means of obtaining their political agenda (Remnick). In 2013 ISIS captured the city in the first Battle of Raqqa, and ever since the city has been a primary target of armed conflict. Its strategic location makes it an important asset to all actors involved in the conflict (Remnick).
Therefore, it is evident that the implications of the drought were different in each city. Understanding these differences is necessary because they enable us to better comprehend the circumstances that persuaded actors to instigate an armed conflict. Although the actions of each actor leading to the conflict may seem irrational, they are in fact rational decisions caused by the imposing security threat of resource scarcity. For instance, following the five-year drought, Lake Assad one of the largest sources of fresh water in Syria had shrunken in half. In their attempts to secure this resource, the actors above all adopted a series of actions that enabled the instigation of armed conflict (De Châtel, 529). While any action that may cause armed conflict is considered irrational, due to the inherent risks and costs, in the face of immanent threats the decision to instigate conflicts may be the most viable course of action. Contrary to common belief actors often consider the risk associated with armed conflict, hence through their perspective no viable peaceful solution can be made without some outrageous loss (Fearon, 391). This is why the city of Raqqa, which is situated next to the lake, has endured the majority of Syrian civil wars burdens (De Châtel, 523). As a result, this comparison shows how environmental issues that cause the scarcity of vital resources can influence conflict in variety of ways.
Discussing the role international actors
The comparison above demonstrates how the Syrian drought produced the necessary conditions to elevate tensions among the different ethnic groups in Syria. The economic consequences of the drought established relative and absolute deprivation in Raqqa, allowing for the escalation of conflict. Through this the drought had a multitude of other implications, which also increased tensions among states and led to several foreign military interventions by Iran, Russia, Iraq, Turkey and the United States. One of the implications of this drought was its ability to destabilize the government of Syria, creating a dangerous power vacuum (Hokayem, 39). Thus several countries sought to stabilize this threatening power vacuum, leading to the development of a proxy wars amongst regional and international rivals (40). Iran and Saudi Arabia, states that are competing for hegemony in the Middle East have a vested interest in the outcome of the conflict. For example, Iran which currently benefits from its strategic alliance with the Shia government of Bashar Al-Assad, has involved itself militarily to ensure it insolates its authority within the region (54). Likewise, the government of Turkey has a desire to obtain greater influence over the region, though they are also severely impacted by the voluntary and forced migration of thousands of Syrians. During the drought many Syrians migrated to Turkey for better economic opportunities, though the escalation of conflict has led to the forced migration of millions of Syrians into Turkey (Can, 174). This migration poses a significant security threat to Turkey, hence the militarization of the Turkey-Syrian border and Turkey’s military engagement in various bordering Syrian towns (177). Iraq is another foreign actor that has stakes within this conflict, not only because of ISIS’s control over its territories, but also due to the fact that the Euphrates river is a vital water source that runs through Iraq (Hughes, 536). Therefore, the drought and the decrease in the river’s flow due to the Syrian government’s actions have had negative socioeconomic effects on the citizens of Iraq. Lastly, the Syrian conflict is also the source of much tension between Russia and the United States, two global powers who seek to establish their influence within the region (537). This discussion exhibits the complexity and vastness of the conflict in Syria. Though it also portrays how the drought in Syria has indirectly and directly impacted foreign actors, resulting in changes in their foreign policies. Ultimately it cannot be argued that the Syrian conflict was primarily caused and driven by an environmental issue, but it is evident that this environmental issue was a significant aspect of the conflict that should not be ignored.
In presenting and justifying the above thesis, it is also vital to evaluate some potential criticisms. As argued by Jon Barnnet, scarcity of resources caused by environmental issues are relative phenomenon. The problem of scarcity and conflict arises from expectations of abundance, which are denied for structural reasons, rather than environmental ones (56). This criticism is valuable because it challenges mainstream arguments that the Global South is unable to deal with consequences of climate change due to weak governments and poor policies. Instead, the conditions experienced by the Global South in the rise of an environmental issue are caused by their lack of resilience, caused by the North’s exploitation of the South (64). Barnet’s perspective enables us to consider the concept of environmental justice, the study of the equitable distribution of environmental burdens and benefits (Newell, 71). This critical outlook shows that the growing number of conflicts in the Global South caused by environmental issues are prominent examples of environmental injustice (Levy, 315). Nevertheless, this criticism does not justify the rejection of the above argument, because environmental issues that lead to deprivation or depreciation of basic resources will have major impacts on conflicts. Furthermore, Barnette’s argument fails to consider the reality that states of the Global North will similarly engage in conflict, though of much larger caliber, should their access to basic necessary resources be limited. As argued by Homer-Dixon, environmental issues have the ability to destabilize even the most stable developed country in the world (17).
Another potential criticism to the arguments made by this paper is its use of the concept of ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism refers to a social and physiological process, whereby an individual judges the culture of other groups of people in comparison to their own (Dovidio and Gaertner). This process often leads to the creation of competition among groups of individuals that consist of people who share similar cultural, racial, religious or philosophical values (Dovido and Gaertner). Scholars such as Janice Stein would critique the arguments of this paper by stating that it does not consider the social construction of group identities. (292) Stein’s arguments would suggest that the above analysis of ethnic groups, such as the Alawite, is overtly simplified. Furthermore, she would claim that the argument has prescribed “western rationality” onto ethnic identities (301). These criticisms identify valid points that need to need be considered when presenting an argument that relies on ethnic group comparison. There is no doubt that Sunni and Shia differences mentioned in the arguments of this paper are a product of ethnic social construction, meaning that these identities are constantly evolving and that they cannot be easily summarized. However, this does not justify the claims that ethnic comparison does not exist, nor those it rationalizes the claim that environmental issues can increase intra-group conflicts. As argued by Michael Ignatieff, social entrepreneurs with self-interested political agendas often take minor social differences between groups, and exaggerate them beyond proportion (13). This sort of exaggeration creates a sense of superiority within an ethnic group, and can be used incite ethnic group conflict (16). This was evident in Syria, as ISIS relied on the exaggeration of Sunni-Shia differences to further extend existing tensions and obtain its political goals (Dobbins et al., “A Peace Plan for Syria). Thus these criticisms are important because they exhibit how injustices occurred due to environmental issues and existence bias social structures, can be used to incite ethnic conflict even though the basis of these ethnic groups are socially constructed. This is one factor that makes the current conflict in Syria so complex and difficult to resolve.
In conclusion, through the lens of political ecology this essay used Homer-Dixon’s theory of resource wars, in order to demonstrate that the drought in Syria had a significant influence that paved the road for certain aspects of the current conflict. Though it is important to note that this essay does not claim that environmental issues are the sole causal factor of conflict. Instead it is demonstrating that in a world with growing concern for the environment, the consequences of environmental degradation have a significant impact on contemporary conflicts (Barnet, 68). Thus, the study of political ecology demonstrates the importance of considering human-environmental interactions, given the rapid changes caused by human induced climate change. Moreover, through the consideration of alternative theories, this essay also reveals how conflicts established by environmental issues are example of environmental justice, since they proliferate in countries of the Global South.
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