I’ve spent decades reporting on the Middle East, but I have to say: the events in Syria these days are some of the most heartbreaking I have ever seen. I thought I knew how it all started, with protests over government repression and widespread poverty in early 2011. But then I met Farrah Nasif, a young Syrian refugee living here in Washington DC. They were talking about drought when I was young. She said I couldn’t understand the civil war if I didn’t understand what happened in the drought. This drought was the worst in Syria’s modern history, and happened in the four years just before the revolution. Over a million people were displaced, and this drought is part of a trend. According to a study by the US government’s National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, over the last 40 years climate change has caused the Mediterranean region to dry out, resulting in longer, more severe droughts. The places in red are getting the worst of it.
And Syria is right at the epicenter. I also come across a confidential US diplomatic cable written two years before the revolution. It contains some dire predictions. A UN Official stationed in Syria feared the drought would throw the entire country into chaos. But can there really be a connection between the drought and a civil war? Climate change is now well understood to be a major national security issue, and a source of stress on a number of the underlying causes of conflict. How much do you feel that stress in northern Syria? It’s very hard to quantify. However, we all know that where there is drought, where there is insecurity, when there is poverty, hunger, poor governance, repressive policies… it may make the tinder in the box more readily ignitable. In other words: if a drought is bad enough, it can help push an already stressed society to the breaking point. Is that what happened in Syria? I learn about a family that recently fled the war and is now taking refuge here.
Two months!? They took you away for two months? How many other Syrians, I wonder, have a similar story to tell? The answer is on the other side of that border. I’m told there’s a rebel commander leading a group of failed farmers turned fighters. That’s where I’m headed. Once we cross the border, signs of war are everywhere. Tom. Pleased to meet you. The commander tells me he used to a cotton farmer. But when the drought hit, he had to turn to smuggling to feed his family. When they write the history of this revolution, how important will the drought be? It’s time to turn back. It’s dangerous to linger around here, even this close to the border. Later, I’ll find out that this town was taken over by Al-Qaeda and that one hundred people were executed. Droughts are nothing new. Neither are brutal dictators, religious conflicts, or people’s desire for freedom. But for the Syrians who lived through it, the drought will be forever seared into their memories, and forever shape their feelings towards the regime they now seek to overthrow.
And the rest of us should take notice. This volatile part of the world is only getting hotter and drier. More droughts may mean more people displaced, more lives uprooted, perhaps more war. And we’d be very foolish to think it won’t affect us..