Lessons from Syria 2: Anatomy of a modern conflict

  • The Syrian Civil War began in the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011.
  • It followed the collapse of Syrian agriculture due to drought.
  • Millions of displaced farmers joined Iraqi refugees in slums around the major cities.
  • Syria demonstrates several elements likely to become typical of future conflicts.

October 21, 2012 - Aleppo, Syria USA: Rebel fighters belonging to the Javata Harria Sham Qatebee watch over the enemy position during skirmishes at the first line of fire in Karmal Jabl neighborhood, district of Arkup, at the northeast of Aleppo CIty.  (Narciso Contreras/POLARIS)

Rebel fightersof the Javata Harria Sham Qatebee in Aleppo, 2012 (Freedom House [CC / Flickr])

2011 was the year Syrians had enough. They had seen 40 years of rule by the al-Assad family, starting when Hafez al-Assad seized power in 1971 and continuing after he was succeeded by his son, Bashar. When police fired on demonstrators against Bashar al-Assad’s autocratic rule, demonstrations became riots. As al-Assad watched the regimes of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya fall to popular risings, he must have feared that his own would be next to topple.

In the words of journalist Jeremy Bowen, broadcasting for the BBC World Service, al-Assad did not think those regimes fell because they made the mistake of cracking down too brutally. He believed their mistake was that they weren’t brutal enough.

From Arab Spring to Syrian disaster

Rather than putting down the rising, the army’s response escalated the situation into a civil war that has raged for four years. The war has drawn in factions from across a region that hasn’t been stable since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, and has spilled beyond Syria’s borders. The genocidal ‘Islamic State’ or ISIS was forged in fighting against the Syrian government forces, and now occupies large areas of Iraq. Meanwhile, millions of refugees have fled a war that is not of their making and are scattered across Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, and in smaller numbers in Europe.


Refugee camp on border between Syria and Turkey (Voice of America News: Henry Ridgwell [Wikimedia Commons])

I pontificated about the refugee situation last week. This week, I want to step back from the issues occupying the media today and explore the roots of the Syrian civil war. It’s a very modern conflict, from the contribution of climate change to pouring powder into the keg that exploded in 2011 to the smartphones that Syrian refugees are using to navigate across Europe.

Syria joins the ‘Arab Spring’

In 2011, the international media lumped together the risings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria as the ‘Arab Spring’, as though revolution was spreading across the Middle East like a cat meme through Facebook. Here in the west, many people thought they were about to see the rise of liberal democracy in the Middle East.

Many people were disappointed.

For one thing, the ‘Middle East’ in which the ‘spring’ was happening is as nebulous a concept as the ‘west’ that was observing it. Even the term ‘Arab Spring’ has the air of being cobbled together by bolting most obvious thing that the countries in question had in common, the dominance of Arabic ethnicity, on to the term ‘Prague Spring’, which referred to the brief liberalisation in Czechoslovakia in 1968. If the
people who bandied the term around had remembered that the Prague Spring ended up ground beneath the tracks of Soviet tanks, they might have been less surprised by what followed.


Kelley et al (2015) PNAS 112:3241

Media coverage of the Syrian civil war has tended to give the impression that it started with pro-democracy protests in 2011. However, the media’s focus on the political and religious factors that have come into play since 2011 neglects the fact that internal upheavals in Syria had been taking place for some time, albeit not in a way that attracts as much media attention as soldiers shooting at protestors.

Syria was highly volatile long before 2011. Colin Kelley of the University of California Santa Barbara’s Climate Hazards Group and colleagues described the environmental and demographic crisis that had been building up for a decade before the eruption of the Arab Spring into the world’s consciousness. Rainfall measurements do not seize headlines like poison gas or boatloads of refugees, but it was the failure of the rain to fall as much as the poison gas that drove the refugees into the boats.

The drying of Syria

After Hafez al-Assad seized the presidency in 1971, he pursued a policy of agricultural development. It subsidised farmer’s fuel and funded irrigation schemes, many of which were based on irreplaceable groundwater. The unsustainability was beginning to bite when Bashar al-Assad succeeded him in 2000, and he exacerbated the problem by cutting the fuel subsidies that farmers had come to depend on. At the same time, rainfall was dropping across the eastern Mediterranean region. More important than the poor rainfall in Syria itself was the loss of rainfall in the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Turkey, which supplied Syria’s irrigation schemes.


Kelley et al (2015) PNAS 112:3241

As Syria’s agriculture collapsed, the farmers did what farmers always do when they find their land no longer supports them: they moved to the cities in search of work. They found little demand for their skills in a country over-run with landless farmers, and most could only find poorly paid and insecure work. A million and a half internally displaced people settled in slums clustered around the cities, where they were joined by a similar number of refugees from the ongoing war in Iraq. By 2010, around one Syrian resident in five was either internally displaced or an Iraqi refugee.

The downtrodden rise, but only so far

They clustered in slums where employment was scarce and crime and corruption were the only ways to get ahead. They were poor, desperate and in many cases, angry. For many of the farmers, the government’s withdrawal of fuel subsidies was one of the main reasons they were now living in squalor. And they were concentrated very close to the centres of political and economic power in Damascus and Aleppo.


Anti-government demonstration in Homs, 2011. (Bo Yaser [Wikipedia Commons])

When protests against the government broke out in March 2011, these were people who were very ready to join them. When the police tried to suppress them with violence, they responded with violence of their own.  Police were killed, government buildings were burned down and weapons were seized. At that point, it was more of a riot than a rising. It was disorganised and ill equipped, and it’s not entirely clear how it transformed into the loose confederation of armed groups that are still fighting the government three and a half years later.

When disaffected soldiers formed the core of the Free Syrian Army, they gave the rising an armed and trained backbone that turned the situation into a full scale rebellion. As the civil war dragged on, more and more factions have emerged, occupying territory of their own and forming loose alliances.

The lessons of Syria

I’m not going to try to analyse a constantly changing situation here, or to try to disentangle facts from the propaganda put out by all sides involved. I’m more interested in what it can tell us about conflicts that are likely to emerge in the future. Some salient points are:

1/ Beware the limitations of the media.

Feb. 23, 2012. A Free Syrian Army member prepares to fight with a tank whose crew defected from government forces in al-Qsair

The Free Syrian Army prepares for combat in al-Qsair, 2012 (Freedom House [CC / Flickr])

Media attention only focused on Syria when the demonstrations started in 2011. At the time, there was very little discussion of the mass internal migrations of the preceding decade, but a lot of linkage to other Middle Eastern risings that arose out of different circumstances.

In News from No-Man’s Land, a memoir and analysis of the correspondent’s profession, veteran reporter John Simpson described the limitations reporters work under. They arrive in a country because a situation has flared up and have to condense the situation in front of them to bitesize ‘pieces to camera’ or newspaper reports. To a reporter arriving in Damascus in 2011, the demonstrations and riots were far more evident than a ten year drought in a different part of the country. Background information is often available through sources such as Kelley’s paper, but it has to be looked for.

2/ Climate change

Hafez al-Assad ruled Syria for nearly 30 years without a rising, even though he was no more democratic than his son. The difference between 1991 and 2011 lay not in the policies of the ruling regime but in the drought. Much of the drought did not even originate in Syria, but in the Taurus Mountains of southeast Turkey where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers rise. Climate change is only going to accelerate in the decades to come, so we can expect to see similar situations arising in the future. It will come down to governments to respond to them in ways that don’t make people refugees in their own country.

3/ Groundwater

Mountain views around Demirkazık

Taurus Mountains, Turkey (Vince Smith [CC / Flickr])

As with many of the world’s most fertile regions, Syrian agriculture was based on groundwater as much as rainfall. Most groundwater lies in aquifers that have been there since the last ice age and will not be replenished until there is another one. One of the largest in the world is the Ogalalla Aquifer under the USA’s Midwest, where it fuels the breadbasket of North America. As groundwater is drained to fuel agriculture, we will see agricultural land dry up, displacing more farmers whose land is no longer fertile.

4/ Urban migration

In a world with seven billion people and rising, we are losing our flexibility to adapt to climate change. Farmers whose land turns barren cannot move to new land because if that land is worth farming, someone will own it already. Consequently, they leave the countryside altogether to seek work. It’s a trend that has been underway for decades and more than half of the world’s population now live in cities. One of al-Assad’s critical mistakes was in mismanaging the migration to the cities, or perhaps in not managing it at all. If urban planners do not stay ahead of such migrations, people will still move to the cities but they will end up in the sort of slums that sprung up around the Syrian cities. Unemployment and a lack of sanitation do not make for a peaceful and well-ordered society.


Azaz in 2012 (Christiaan Triebert [CC / Flickr])

5/ War online

In the past, the people caught up in conflicts were often invisible to the outside world. While the warring factions control the media, nobody else could make their voice heard unless they happened upon a receptive journalist. In the Syrian conflict, people have been able to speak to people around the world on their phones and to post videos taken on their phones to Youtube.

The downside of having such easy access between the conflict zone and the outside world is that reports are impossible to verify. It isn’t possible to tell the difference between a witness to an atrocity and an information officer aiming to discredit their enemy. The combatants in Syria are well aware of the value of propaganda, and are likely to be using such apparently intimate stories in the same way that ISIS use the internet to disseminate their videos of beheadings.

Looking ahead

No end to the Syrian civil war is in sight. It will probably drag on for several more years until either one faction becomes powerful enough to outfight the others, or until all sides become so exhausted and depleted that they accept a settlement that allows them to keep the territory they occupy.

That settlement is very unlikely to involve the liberal democracy that the world hoped to see emerge from the 2011 protests. History tells us that the leaders who thrive in violent conflicts are those who organise their forces, and subsequently any country they seize with them, along military lines. The liberal democracies that have emerged in recent decades have arisen through peaceful and gradual transitions that do not capture the world’s attention.

Aleppo after barrel bombing one of its residential areas

Aleppo after barrel bombing one of its residential areas (Freedom House [Wikimedia Commons])

The environmental changes and mass migrations that led up to the Syrian civil war will be repeated elsewhere in the years to come. Whether or not they escalate into war will depend on how the world’s governments handle them. For those of us fortunate enough to live in democracies, our governments’ responses will have a lot to do with how they expect us to vote.

Which throws the responsibility back to us.

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