Tuesday, September 22

Making sense out of the Syrian conflict

"Now you can wash yourself for the next two months, but I will close the Ataturk Dam and I will dry the Euphrates River.”
Turkey's President to Bashar al-Assad's father, 1990

How it All Began

The most prominent American mass new media, which are strongly politicized, have done a whale of a job at obfusticating the situation in Syria. And the White House, along with the more hawkish American members of Congress (and strongest critics of President Obama's defense policy), and the U.S. Department of State, have added to the confusion with their pronouncements on Syria. 

Yet it's actually an American news outlet, and one connected with the U.S. government, which to date has provided the clearest explanation of one of the 4 key drivers of the conflict. (See the 2013 report below from Voice of America.) 

Without understanding the drivers it's not possible to resolve the conflict, which has been wrongly termed a civil war by the Western media.  A civil war is when the citizens of a country make war on each other. From the start the conflict in Syria was an uprising against the government; that it eventually drew in many Syrians who tried to fight back against the government's bombing raids doesn't change this. 

As to the American media's attempt to portray the conflict as a sectarian one -- i.e., a Sunni majority against the iron rule of an Alawite minority -- nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, it was the Alawite regime's open door policy toward Sunni then Shia refugees that if anything was one of the key drivers of resentment among the populace against the regime!  

KEY DRIVER: Syria's inability to cope with influx of Iraqi refugees

The following quotes are from Wikipedia's article on Iraqi refugees, they were written at least two years before the uprising in Syria began.  But the passages will give you an idea of the huge role that Syria played in taking in refugees and how this, coupled with the government's inability to effectively manage the huge refugee influx, eventually destabilized the society to a great degree (emphasis throughout mine):
Syria has historically offered assistance to Iraqi refugees.[17] At the beginning of 2007, the UNHCR estimated that the number of Iraqi refugees in Syria was over 1.2 million.[17] [1] 80-90% of the Iraqi refugee population lives in the capital city of Damascus.[5] The reason for its large refugee population can be attributed to more than just geography. Until 2007, Syria maintained an open-door policy to Iraqis fleeing the war-ravaged country. [1]
Early in the recent Iraq war, Iraqis in Syria were the politically threatened Baath party, including supporters of Hussein’s government.[5] But after the fighting began in Falluja in 2004, Shi’a were the main new entries to Syria.[5]Before the restrictions were imposed, Iraqis seeking refuge in Syria received 3 month visas or permits with extension possibilities.[5] However, the refugees are not entitled to work, but most do anyway due to lax enforcement on the part of the Syrian government.[5] There were few sanctions for those who overstay and fail to renew.[5]
Numbering over 1.2 million, Iraqi refugees comprise a large portion of Syria’s population of 18 million.[17] This has caused an increase in the cost of living and caused a strain on infrastructure.[17] [1] Sources like oil, heat, water and electricity were said to be becoming more scarce as demand had gone up.[20] Syrian's deputy foreign minister has stated that the price of food has increased by 30%, property prices by 40%, and rentals by 150%.[17] [1]
Water consumption rose by 21%,  costing the Syrian government about 6.8 million US dollars in 2006.[17] The Iraqi population also strained the labor market- Syrian unemployment was 18% in 2006.[17]
Refugees put a strain on health services (which are free in Syria), and Syria experienced public school overcrowding.[17] In 2005 and 2006, Syria used $162 million to offer aid to Iraqi refugees in the country.[17]
Syria once maintained an open border for Arab migrants, and entitled Iraqi refugees to Syrian health care and schools.[5] The Syrian government accepted Iraqis as prima facie refugees.[5] However, on October 1, 2007 news agencies reported that Syria re-imposed restrictions on Iraqi refugees, as stated by a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Under Syria's new rules, only Iraqi merchants, businessmen and university professors with visas acquired from Syrian embassies may enter Syria. [...]
As you can see, none of this has anything to do with sectarian disputes, the Golan Heights, Lebanon, or even Iran.  It has everything to do with the fact that historically the Alwaite secularized Baathist government in Syria was a kind of peacemaker or balancer for the different sectarian groups in the country. 

However, the government was blindsided not only by the expense and incredible drain on resources caused by the refugees, but also because it was admitting large numbers of Iraqi Muslims on opposing sides of an increasingly bitter sectarian divide in post-Saddam Iraq.

KEY DRIVER: Drought and water scarcity -- and a horrific Turkish act

Note the year and the place in the following photograph; it was a region-wide drought. But the water scarcity was largely man-made, courtesy of Turkey's government.  Did the other NATO governments know this?  Well gee let's ask them.

Adilla Finchaan, 50, and her husband, Ashore Mohammed, 60 walk their dried-up farmland in Iraq in this 2009 photograph. The Tigris-Euphrates region suffered consecutive years of drought. (Photo:  Associated Press)

Drought Called a Factor in Syria’s Uprising
By David Arnold
August 20, 2013 - 8:19 AM
Voice of America

Two-and-a-half years ago, a group of children in the Syrian city of Dara’a triggered one of the bloodiest conflicts in the 21st century when they painted some anti-government graffiti on a school wall in the ancient farming community.

The children were quickly detained and tortured, leading to widespread protests in the city that were met with harsh repression. The government’s brutal response led to a nationwide revolt that has now stagnated into a bloody stalemate with no end in sight.

Dara’a is a mostly agricultural community in a region that has suffered an unrelenting drought since 2001. Some experts say it’s no accident that Syria’s civil war began there.

In 2009, the United Nations and other international agencies found that more than 800,000 Syrian farmers and herdsmen had been forced off their lands because of drought, with many crowding into cities like Dara’a. Additionally, thousands of illegal wells were drilled, drastically lowering the nation’s ground water supply.

The effects of drought and water-mismanagement in the region were highlighted recently by the publication of U.S. National Aeronautic and Space Administration satellite photographs of Syria, Turkey and Iraq.

Faced with drought, Syrians crowding these farm towns started drilling deeper for fresh water in the aquifer beneath them. Experts estimated that 60 percent of the aquifer has been lost due to illegal drilling, and a total of 177 million-acre feet of water disappeared, the second-largest aquifer loss in the world.

Satellite images reveal depth of drought

“I actually don’t think the aquifer will recover,” said Jay Famiglietti, a hydrologist and leader of a study of seven years of NASA satellite data that show the Tigris-Euphrates region second only to India in the speed of its groundwater loss.

“The Middle East is the dry part of the world and now that climate change is expressing itself very clearly, one of the things that we will see is that the dry parts of the world will get drier,” Famiglietti said.

“Think of it as a persistent prolonged drought.”

Because of climate change, the Tigris-Euphrates basin and the underground reservoirs of fresh water that once nurtured this fragile desert climate may not be able to sustain future populations in Syria.

It all started in Dara’a

The Syrian uprising was unlike political uprisings in Egypt, Yemen and other Middle East states, all of which started in the major cities. Dara’a was a regional agricultural hub with a pre-war population of 90,000.

“Dara’a is the capital of an agricultural province, one of the most significant agricultural areas,” said Syria scholar Ayel Zisser of the Tel Aviv University.

Their protests spread from Dara’s at Syria’s southern border to communities north of Aleppo and across the vast al-Jazira plain that stretches from the banks of the Euphrates to the banks of the Tigris. The pattern of the protests followed the rural path of the drought.

“Even until today it’s been a peasant revolt isolated to the rural areas,” Zisser said.

Assad’s economic reforms focused on global trade that benefitted the urban middle classes, thereby worsening the plight of Syria’s farmers, according to Zisser.

The reforms were implemented “at the expense of the population in the rural areas, where they abolished agricultural subsidies,” Zisser said. “The regime turned its back to the rural population and the result was the revolt.”

Like other Middle Eastern countries, Syria’s population has increased dramatically in recent years.

“This is the first time in history that in less than 30 years, the Middle East doubled its population. It was between 1950 and 1980,” said Arnon Soffer, a demographer and the head of research at the University of Haifa and Israel’s National Defense College.

“If that’s not tragic enough, from 1980 to 2010 – another 30 years – this crazy area doubled itself again,” Soffer added.

Even before climate change threatened less rainfall in the region, water was a hot-button issue.

In 1973, Iraq rushed troops to Syria’s eastern border as upstream, Syria began filling its Tagba Dam with Euphrates water to create Lake Assad.

The real water power in the basin is Turkey

Syria and Iraq depend on the waters of the Euphrates and the Tigris, which flow from southern Turkey, for most of their agricultural irrigation. Farmers on both sides of the border also rely on traditional irrigation techniques that waste water resources.

“Turks use most of the water of the Euphrates,” said Bogochan Benli, a water expert who worked in the Aleppo labs of the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas during the years of the drought. Aleppo and many northern Syrian communities traditionally also depended on the Euphrates for their drinking water, he said.

In Turkey, Benli said since the 1970’s the Southeastern Anatolia project has created employment for a poor and arid region of Turkey. It’s the main income-generator for the region and their water policy “will never change.” The project is an ambitious development of 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric power plants to irrigate and provide electrical power in nine Turkish provinces.

The centerpiece is the massive Ataturk Dam and hydroelectric power plant that opened in 1990. According Arnon Soffer of Haifa University a few months before the dam was completed, then-Turkish president Turgut Ozal told Syria’s president, Hafez al-Assad, “Now you can wash yourself for the next two months, but I will close the Ataturk Dam and I will dry the Euphrates River.”

He said Ozal’s abrupt pronouncement to Hafez Assad was devastating to Syria. “The Euphrates became a wadi, a dry valley,” said Soffer. Assad Dam closed for a month. “The dam was empty and there was no electricity. Even up to today, I could not imagine how they could recover.”

Though Turkey and its downstream neighbors have discussed sharing their waters, Turkey has not signed away any rights.

With little or no regional cooperation on water issues, experts fear that the turmoil now wrecking Syria could be a prelude to other conflicts in the region.


That leaves two other key drivers to consider.


1 comment:

bdoran said...

Just a thought.

Hydroelectric desalination plant.

Carnegie thought of it first.