Marwa Daoudy, The Origins of the Syrian Conflict: Climate Change and Human Security (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Marwa Daoudy (MD): In 2011, the Arab Spring followed by the Syrian uprising took everyone by surprise. Demanding social justice and equal opportunity, the Syrian Revolution turned into a national uprising. Soon dreams of change and hope became a tragedy. As a native Syrian scholar of environmental security and Middle East politics, this key moment in Syria’s history and the larger region changed the focus of my research to the interconnection between climate change, water scarcity, and the Syrian uprising.

Over the past decades, a climate-conflict nexus emerged and was applied to the Syrian case. According to this logic, climate change caused the 2006-2010 drought in Syria, the drought caused agricultural failure, agricultural failure caused poverty and discontent, culminating in the uprising. The bulk of climate-based analyses were made by US climate scientists and think-tanks lacking expertise on Syria. By challenging this line of reasoning, my goal was to contribute to the ongoing conversation on Syria from an insider perspective.

While global warming is real and international action is urgently needed, climate change was not at the forefront of the minds of Syrians in 2011. Instead, most people were focused on a moral ideal: the end of repression and social injustice. These are issues I care deeply about.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

MD: The tensions outlined above illustrate the need for a systematic framework. As such, I offer a new conceptual framework, which I call “Human-Environmental-Climate Security” (HECS), to analyze the interactions between human security, climate security, and political and economic structures. My framework also outlines unequal power structures that cause or encourage human suffering with significant implications for climate insecurity and its consequences for unequal power relations between the Global North and South, or a central government and its marginalized subjects. Where environmentally deterministic narratives remove people’s agency by placing it in the hands of external developments, this book gives them a voice.

Building on a critical environmental security perspective, the HECS framework challenges core assumptions behind the climate-conflict hypothesis by bringing in economic and sociopolitical factors that interact with resource variation. It also seeks to move beyond deterministic narratives and orientalist biases about the risks of population growth and mobility, demand-induced scarcity, resource depletion, and insecurity—all of which fall into patterns of core-periphery and North-South divides. I identify the ideological and policy drivers of human insecurity which impacted Syria’s water and food security. Using official primary sources, debates amongst experts at the domestic level, as well as interviews with Syrian experts, activists, and refugees in Lebanon and Turkey, I explore how the policy decisions of the Syrian government under Hafez al-Assad and Bashar al-Assad significantly contributed to the vulnerability of the rural population in the decades that preceded the uprising. The book concludes that, ultimately, political factors were more important than a climate-induced drought in the build up to 2011. This perspective can be applied more broadly to the Global South.

The book starts by exploring the securitization of climate change and engages with the scholarly debate around climate, human, water, and food security, and climate-induced migration. The first sections outline the broadening of traditional security by critical security studies to include non-Western perspectives. The structural inequalities of power and resource distribution reveal the role played by states as providers of insecurity. The discussion also shows how debates on modernization and development still grapple with the concept of food security, which has evolved to include food availability, affordability, basic needs, and entitlement programs. However, this literature has not conclusively demonstrated linkages between climate change, food insecurity, migration, and conflict.

Through a historical assessment of water policy in Syria and the Middle East, I offer insight into the cultural and institutional norms surrounding water over the last millennia. The newly independent Syria in in the 1940s drew on water legislation from Shari’a law, the Ottoman Majalla Code, and the French Water Code, and featured water security promotion and environmental security values that date back to the beginnings of Islam. This historical overview also explains how Islamic norms would become to be treated as best practices, as they are now: social justice, sustainability, and responsible water usage.

I also show how ideology and specific policies shape the human insecurity of vulnerable people in Syria, contributing to poverty, unemployment, marginalization, and the failure of sustainable development. The research identifies key policy decisions taken at critical times of Syria’s history, from the “rural contract,” to “collectivizing agriculture,” to strategic increases in food production. Eventually, the “peasant” became a symbol of the new Ba’athist ideology and a path to prosperity and legitimacy.

Agrarian reforms enhanced living conditions in the countryside. However, the improved opportunities came at the expense of sustainable water use, since large-scale irrigation in rural areas depleted groundwater resources, degraded soil quality, and ultimately, resulted in human insecurity in the form of land tenure disputes and population displacement. There were also social costs. The “Arab Belt” policy excluded Syrian Kurds from agricultural gains in the second half of the twentieth century. Ba’athist preferences also led to the implementation of water, food, and fuel subsidies that distorted market prices.

De-collectivization started early on under Hafez al-Assad but intensified when his son Bashar gained power in 2000. The liberalization policies during the 1970s-1990s aimed to increase the role of the private sector, also in the provision of welfare services. In 2005, a major ideological shift occurred with the introduction of the social market economy, intended to model Syria’s new economic transition on Germany’s economic model after World War II. Under Bashar al-Assad, the regime tried to cater to urban businessmen and neoliberal international organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) by cutting key food and fuel subsidies and removing safety nets for farmers. These new policies coincided with a historically severe drought in 2006.

A longitudinal analysis of key indicators in 1998-2001 (“Drought 1”) and 2006-2010 (“Drought 2”) clearly points to a vulnerability nexus in the three governorates (Hassake, Deir ez-Zor, and Raqqa) where unusually high levels of poverty, unemployment (particularly in agriculture), and high dependence on the agricultural sector already existed. These dynamics increased economic and social vulnerability, creating an urban-rural divide. Corruption and migration were especially large sources of human insecurity. By 2010, it was clear that the neoliberal reforms had not been successful.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

MD: This study is a natural extension of my previous inter-disciplinary work in International Relations and hydro-politics. My research has focused on the intersection of politics, economics, and law over water-sharing and the sources of state power in international river basins.

I have contributed to the emergence of “hydro hegemony” studies. My first book, The Water Divide between Syria, Turkey and Iraq: Negotiation, Security and Power Asymmetry (2005), explored how water-sharing agreements reflect power asymmetries and security differences between rivalrous riparian states. It combined negotiation and power theory to outline the different forms of power and the strategies deployed by each actor.

In other publications, I elaborated on this analysis of power dynamics and contributed to the analysis of international water law by analyzing legal discourses and the positions held by Middle Eastern actors during state negotiations and the codification process of the UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses at the UN International Law Commission. Building on this research agenda, I also reflected and wrote on the role played by water-sharing in international peace negotiations, and more specifically between Israel-Syria. More recently, I applied International Relations theory, more specifically realist constructivism, to explain the post-2011 collapse between Turkey and Syria.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

MD: This book has the potential to reach a wider audience including academics in other disciplines, for example climate analysts working on climate-conflict issues and historians, as well as scholars and students interested in International Relations, the environment, Security Studies, and the Middle East, as well as policy-makers and an informed public interested in climate change and/or the Syrian conflict.

At a time when Syria is disappearing from the public eye, I hope my research will refocus academic and policy attention on the ongoing human insecurity in Syria. Rather than building intrinsic resilience, the current post-war reconstruction phase is paving the way for regime resilience on the bases of structural inequalities, while increasing the population’s vulnerability, particularly the refugees who are forced to return home under unsafe conditions. In addition to its deadly impact, the current COVID-19 crisis has far-reaching social and economic consequences for them.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

MD: My new focus is on the security of individuals versus states, with interactions at sub-state levels over issues of identity, food security, and climate and conflict-induced displacement. I am working to shift the focus from regional and international state interests to critical security studies, and more specifically the Welsh School that emphasizes emancipation. By prioritizing the marginal and dispossessed, a focus on these issues can help unveil the discourses and practices that frame and refine our understanding of what it means to be (in)secure. To this end, I want to develop cross-regional comparisons with a few countries in Africa to generalize my research findings.

J: Who is your book dedicated to?

MD: To my daughter and all the children of Syria.


Excerpt from the book 



“Climatic facts are not facts in themselves; they assume importance only in relation to the restructuring of the environment within different systems of production.”

—Rolando Garcia, Nature Pleads Not Guilty: The 1972 Case History, 1981

“I just discover as we speak this thesis about our Revolution being climate-induced and I fail to understand the purpose and context for such a claim. People who voice such explanations are obviously ignorant of our situation and history” 

—Author’s personal discussion with Yassin al-Haj Saleh, prominent Syrian writer and political dissident. Istanbul, July 18, 2016

We are who we are today because of past climatic changes. Yves Coppens, the paleoanthropologist who discovered an Australopithecus hominin called ‘Lucy’ in Ethiopia in 1974, argued in his recently published memoirs that our human species emerged as a result of past climate change. Forced to survive under drier climatic conditions, animal species—including humans—developed new physiological adaptations like teeth or better paw shapes, some of which produced the Homo sapiens of today. Just as we are physically products of past climate changes, so too are the structures of our contemporary societies. […]

The theory that societies have been shaped by their climates was popularized in the 19th century by Social Darwinists, who sought to justify European colonialism by arguing that European societies were naturally superior because of the continent’s climate and geography. Imperialists alleged that the environment determines a country’s social and cultural development to create narratives about the inevitable and precocious rise of European civilizations and the alleged delay of societies in Africa and the Middle East. According to these theories of geographical context, temperate climate and access to the sea made societies stronger, whereas drought and being landlocked paved the way for military, political and cultural domination. This environmental determinism also obscured imperial responsibilities in managing disasters like famines. In a compelling book entitled Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis (2001) notes that devastating famines in British India, China, Brazil, Ethiopia, Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and New Caledonia in late 19th century were not only a result of drought, but also of bad imperial policies and the international political economy. […] Imperial rule had weakened infrastructure and increased corruption, while also manipulating the price of crops […].

As much as humans have been shaped by the environment, the environment has also been shaped by humans from the birth of agriculture to the rise of the industrial revolution. Although climate is always naturally changing and evolving, human activities have shaped global, regional, and local climates. Starting in about 1800, greenhouse gas emissions from human activities—primarily related to the combustion of fossil fuels—spurred climate changes, most notably through an average global temperature increase. Since the “Great Acceleration” beginning in the 1950s, these changes have been occurring at an alarming and unprecedented rate. […] While it has been widely accepted for decades that humans have an impact on the environment, the exact nature and magnitude of this impact remained less certain. […] Although the impacts of climate change will be felt globally, the most detrimental impacts will likely be experienced in the developing world and Global South.


Over the last three decades, scholars and policymakers in the U.S. and Europe have endlessly debated whether climate change can be linked to violent conflict, developing a climate-conflict discourse similar to that of the “water wars” scenario of the 1990s. Framed within discussions of climate security, climate-conflict narratives focus on the risks posed by climate change to human and ecological life. In particular, threats are perceived to arise from drought and famine in vulnerable areas of the world. […] The “threats” associated with climate change are therefore legitimized by security actors when they incorporate climate scholars and practitioners into their field.


A wide spectrum of voices, from prominent politicians to media moguls, have relayed the increasingly popular narrative of a climate-conflict nexus. […] These narratives offer dramatic and disastrous predictions of vast societal collapse as a result of climate-induced conflict, spawning a new discourse of “collapsology.” This term, coined by French researchers Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens (2015), refers to a general collapse of societies induced by climate change, scarcity of resources, vast extinctions, and natural disasters. […] Narratives of collapse have been used with the aim of incentivizing climate action, given the assumption that fear is a powerful catalyst, though the expected action has largely not taken place.

The response to “collapsology” has been diverse. While it has been embraced by some scholars, others have treated it as an opportunity to question both capitalist modes of production or the distribution and the relationships between humans and their environment. For example, the philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour has proposed a new form of agency shared by both nature and society in the Anthropocene to replace traditional models where all agency is given to either nature or humans in a binary subject-object divide. On the other end of the spectrum, climate optimists argue that human adaptive capacity can match the scale of ecological threats, so we will be able to respond well to climate change. Steven Pinker (2018), a cognitive psychologist and linguist by training, points to the immense progress humanity has made in improving living standards over the last 250 years as a sign that we can respond effectively to the new threats of climate change.

Nevertheless, the consensus is that climate change is happening and global action is indeed urgently needed. The question, then, becomes: should we securitize climate change in order to raise awareness and spur action? The answer, to some, is no. […] These narratives can be used to justify repressive measures to stop human mobility at the domestic and international levels, feeding perceptions of the responsibility of “environmental migrants” rather than authoritarian regimes in triggering social and political unrest. Employing this climate-conflict nexus narrative also makes autonomous governments, particularly those in the Global South, passive actors and mere victims of nature, rather than political actors with the will and power to make their own policy to address climate instability. The conflation of climate change and conflict could also obfuscate the relevant drivers of conflict […]. This is particularly apparent when governments and their policies are themselves at the root of unrest and conflict, as in the Syrian case.


When little Aylan—who traveled on a boat with his family from Syria—was found dead on a Turkish beach and had his picture widely disseminated, the Canadian National Observer proclaimed: “this is what a climate refugee looks like.” The idea that the Syrian conflict was a product of climate change was not a new or marginal one. In Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary Before the Flood (2016), President Obama links drought to civil unrest in Syria, a thought that was echoed a few months later in an interview with Prince Charles prior to the opening of the COP 21 global climate summit in Paris. The narrative of a climate-induced conflict was applied years earlier to the conflict in Darfur: a 2007 opinion piece in The Atlantic named climate change among the “real” roots of the conflict, and this claim was quickly reproduced in a statement by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on the “real culprit in Darfur.”

In 2011, however, climate change was not at the forefront of the minds of people on the streets in Syria and across the Arab world. Instead, most people were focused on a moral ideal: the end of repression and injustice. The unrest in Egypt and Tunisia in early 2011 triggered brewing discontent of populations in other part of the Arab world, like Syria, and on March 18, 2011, the people of Deraa in south-western Syria came out in massive numbers to protest the torture of school children by security services. Sit-ins had already taken place on March 15, 2011 in the capital, Damascus, in solidarity with the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions […]. The country saw popular protests on an unprecedented scale, and the regime opted for a strategy of sheer survival: responding with brutal repression and the threat of chaos and civil war. Activists, intellectuals, and ordinary people turned the initial mobilization into a national uprising, labelled the Syrian Revolution. Quickly, however, dreams of change and hope shifted into tragedy as the country went from peaceful demonstrations and youth activism to armed insurgency, counter-insurgency, civil war and a regional proxy conflict. The military involvement of foreign powers like the U.S., Russia, Iran, and Turkey, and the financial support of Arab Gulf states for Islamist armed groups on the ground, transformed the initial popular mobilizations into an international conflict. Meanwhile, the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) and its conquest and loss of large sections of territory and infrastructures in Syria from 2014 to 2019 added an additional geostrategic layer to the Syrian conflict.

[This article was originally published by Jadaliyya on their NEWTON page on 22 April, 2020.]