The current literature on the Syrian conflict focuses on different causes for triggering the disputes. Some blame the Assad regime, while others blame the "deep religious divides" within Syrian society, or economic factors.1,2,3 However, qualifying the conflict as sectarian, or purely political, is not satisfactory. The conflict found its roots in a myriad of factors. Contrary to what is often portrayed, the diverse ethno-religious communities of Syria have accomplished a role of harmonization of the conflict throughout Syrian history.4 Additionally, most research on Syria was conducted before the conflict started in 2011. The following years proved to be difficult for western researchers to access the country, impeding up-to-date and unbiased field research made during the conflict. Thus, this paper intends to share the most recent information directly from the field, from investigations ran during the conflict between 2017 and 2020 in Damascus, Malula, Homs and Aleppo.
In its first part, this article will focus on the effects of Climate Change that contributed to triggering the first rebellions in Syria by 2011, by investigating the deterioration of drought cycles in the country.5 These droughts, specifically the one that took place between 2006 and 2010, led to the depletion of natural resources and arable land in the rural areas, as well as the displacement of the impoverished and rebellious peasantry to the outskirts of the main cities by the end of the decade. Consequently, the droughts, summed to other socio-political grudges, might be connected to an increase in popular unsatisfaction and pressure to the government. In short, the article will investigate the correlation between the Syrian conflict and Climate Change.
In its second part, the research will analyze the 1951 Geneva Convention’s scope of protection of refugees. As the effects of Climate Change become more apparent – rising ocean levels, more severe cycles of drought, diminishing precipitation levels, all contributing to populational tension – international organizations start considering it as a "threat multiplier" and holding countries accountable for the degradation of their natural resources. Furthermore, in January 2020, there was a groundbreaking precedent established on "Teitiota v Chief Executive Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment of New Zealand", opening the possibility of applying non-refoulement to individuals hailing from regions affected by climate change. Non-refoulement is a key principle from the refugee protection framework that prohibits host or transit countries from sending asylum seekers and refugees back to their countries of origin. Ultimately, the research will aim to defend a potential expansion of the 1951 Geneva Convention’s scope of protection to include individuals, or social groups, seeking asylum due to environmental reasons that pose an immediate threat to their lives.
As sources to the article, the investigation relies on academic articles with in-depth weather analysis of the Levante, and reports from the United Nations. Also, the research will utilize the author’s findings gathered on the field in Syria during the conflict.
The Droughts of Syria and its Effects on the Peasantry – IDPs
In the last decades, the small country - though Syria is big, only 25% of its land is arable - became overpopulated. It faced a population growth from 3 million people in 1946 to almost 23 million in 2010. On top of that, Syria’s economy became unstable, contributing to the tenuous situation. According to the World Bank, until 2011 more than 20% of the country’s GDP consisted of agricultural output, while 17% of its population was employed in this sector. Therefore, with the cycles of droughts and their increased severity in the last two decades, the country’s production and income suffered drastic variations.
Droughts are not uncommon in semi-arid Syria. For centuries, the peasants of the region have endured its endless cycles. As a rule of thumb, the peasants of Malula say that rainfall cycles would last four or five years, then drought would arrive, forcing the local population to resort to their previous years’ savings and guarantee their subsistence. On top of the drought, farmers were also affected by constant sandstorms which, according to peasants interviewed in Chatel’s article, would "burn their crops" and remove the crop’s nutritious topsoil.6 In addition to the environmental hazards, some farms would use diesel powered water pumps in century-old wells, draining them far more than their capacities to be replenished, and other farmers would herd their tribes of goats in over-grazed areas, both anthropogenic factors contributing to the desertification of the biome.
Fundamentally, the scarce resources, the aggressive grazing, the mechanical pumping of water from deep beds, the constant droughts and the exponential growth of the birth rate – creating populational stress over water, land and food – culminated in an over-exploitation of the available resources and their eventual exhaustion in certain areas. Quite often in contemporary Syrian history, due to droughts there were intense movements of migration of peasants from rural areas to the cities, and then back again to their farms.7
However, as time passed, and the effects of Climate Change developed, these pendular migrations became unbalanced. Droughts became longer and more severe, and the weather became more and more unpredictably.
The Droughts Triggering the Conflict
It is impossible to state that one factor caused the 10-year old conflict. Different elements, namely the political, the ethno-religious or economic landscapes, have contributed to triggering the conflict and are deeply entangled in the historical circumstances that enabled the Syrian Crisis. Thus, it is difficult to isolate what started the Syrian Crisis. Having said that, this chapter will attempt to illustrate the context into which the droughts from 2006 to 2010 took place and allocate it within the broader cadre present in Syria by 2011.
Droughts have become more unpredictable during the last two decades. The drought of 2006-2010 saw precipitation levels plummeting. Also, rainfall would often come in winter, when it is less favorable for crops. Other areas of the country would receive insignificant amounts of rain, and still be affected by constant dust storms, killing their crops.8
Fundamentally, the already scarce lands became scarcer, the population, however, grew exponentially, augmenting the stress on the access to natural resources. The country’s poor peasants were especially vulnerable and fled to the outskirts of the big cities, where they remained unemployed, hungry, and angry.
The country’s breadbaskets were now dried up. On top of that, the strategic wheat reserves of the country were emptied, since they were all sold in the early 2000s due to the high international prices for wheat.9 Syria, a traditional net exporter of wheat, had to import it between 2007 and 2010, contributing to further weakening the country’s economy.
The country’s agriculture fell apart, water beds dried, food was scarce, and millions of dissatisfied peasants were forced to live in tents near the country's main political and economic hubs. The drought hit the hardest in areas such as Deir- ez-Zor, aj-Jazeera, and in the South in Daraa.10 Not coincidentally, these were the main areas where the government lost its control the earliest, and were under opposition’s control for longer, also the regions that fought the government the hardest.
The 1951 Geneva Convention
The four years of drought took a toll on the country. The main cities became social disasters, overcrowded outskirts with irregular makeshift tents, and the hungry, impoverished IDPs. The latter sparked the first protests in Dara’a in March of 2011. Today, nine years into this century’s biggest humanitarian crisis, half a million people are said to have been killed, more than four million fled the country looking for refuge elsewhere, and many other millions are now internally displaced people.
As soon as the conflict started in 2011, Syrians sought for refuge in neighboring countries, and eventually were granted the status of refugee. The definition of refugee is given by the 1st article, paragraph 2 of the Geneva Convention of 1951 as an individual who "owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country".11 In short, it is about an individual who sees his eventual return to the country of his nationality as an immediate threat to his life or freedom.
The scope of protection for refugees is comprehensive, and it is based on the non-refoulement principle, that states that refugees cannot be returned to their country of origin. However, this framework only covers individuals, or social groups, persecuted due to race, religion, political filiation or nationality and who are unwilling to let their protection remain under the responsibility of the country they fled from. However, this limitation can fail to guarantee an overarching safeguard to other migrants, as those impoverished in economic-crisis-stricken countries like Venezuela and Zimbabwe; and even migrants who fled their homes due to climate related life-threatening situations, such as pre-war Syrians who had their livelihoods affected by drought, desertification and soil erosion, as well as the case of Mr. Teitiota who fled the Island of Kiribati due to the threat posed to his livelihood and basic human rights by the rising sea level, which will be discussed in the next chapters.
Importantly, there are two key concepts within the definition of a refugee provided by the Convention. Both are of utmost necessity to even consider including climate refugees under the framework’s protection. The first is persecution: The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) states that this concept was deliberately left undefined in order to "be interpreted in a sufficiently flexible manner so as to encompass ever-changing forms of persecution".12 This allows expanding the interpretation of the current mainly political persecution, to a more comprehensive form, where human-generated environmental factors are also considered a form of persecution. Secondly, the concept of "social group" provided by the Convention, which could characterize a group of climate migrants, for example, unwilling to avail itself of the protection of its country of origin.
The Gaps in Protection
People forced to migrate across international borders due to climate change or environmental hazards do not find official definition or recognition under International Law. Meaning that those who fled and were unable to prove political persecution from where they came from would fall through the gaps of the Convention’s protection.
However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) attested that almost 10% of the world’s population (600 million people), who live in low-lying coastal areas, called climate-hotspots, such as the south-eastern Asian mega deltas and islands, will be directly at risk of catastrophic threats of climate change during this century.13 On top of that, by 2050, or earlier, initial predictions of mass migration point to 200 million people being forced to move due to climate change effects, namely in China (73 million), Bangladesh (26 million), India (20 million), Egypt (12 million) and small island states (31 million). On top of these migrants fleeing the rising sea levels, another 50 million people will be put at severe risk and be forced to move due to harsher droughts and other climate disruptions.14
Under our current International Law’s framework, these cross-border migrations would be afforded little to no protection or assistance mechanisms, as the first Syrian climate migrants could not find before and during the war. Mainly because these hordes of climate migrants crossing borders are inexistent in today’s international law, since they are not configured nor defined in our existing treaties and conventions. If the limitation is not sought after in the coming years, the potential of massive social disasters and breaches to very basic human rights is immense, due to lack of coordination and preparedness by the international community to manage these communities. Hence the absolute necessity of expanding the scope of protection of the convention, aiming to guarantee a coordinated and human rights’-based approach to this modality of migration. One can wonder whether the popular dissatisfaction of the Syrians of 2011 would have been as strong as they were, had they found international and national coordinated assistance and protection during the drought and desertification of their lands.
It is important to mention that climate change is not a natural phenomenon such as hurricanes or earthquakes, as the IPCC on 2013 has assessed that "it is extremely likely (90%) that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century," meaning that Climate Change is almost certainly human driven, therefore can be held up against governments to make them liable for unsustainable degradation of its environment.15
Accordingly, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) established the concept of common but differentiated responsibilities, which posits that each state is responsible for combating climate change, according to its respective capabilities and resources.16 Thus, each country is responsible for the degradation of their environmental resources, having an obligation to guarantee a safe environment for its citizens and counterparts. Whenever the government neglects its environment, it neglects its citizens, if this neglection is targeted to a certain community, it can configure persecution.
This idea that governments are responsible for the degradation of the environment will resonate with the following paragraphs and open a new perspective on guaranteeing international protection and assistance to climate-migrants.
Teitiota vs New Zealand – Threat Multiplier
In January 2020, an unprecedented decision took place in the case between Mr. Teitiota and New Zealand. In the case, the host country denied asylum to Mr. Teitiota and threatened to send him back to Kiribati, a Pacific Island in risk of being entirely submerged by rising sea levels. The rise in sea level, along with other climate distortions rendered the island uninhabitable. Teitiota witnessed violent disputes for land that became scarce, while degradation of the local environment rendered subsistence farming impossible, as fresh water bodies and supplies were being contaminated by salt water caused by the rising sea levels. The UN, worried about the risks to the asylum seeker’s life, proffered a non-binding ruling concerning the guarantee of non-refoulement to Mr. Teitiota.
The ruling stated that sending asylum seekers home when their lives are threatened by the climate crisis "may expose individuals to a violation of their rights. Given that the risk of an entire country becoming submerged under water is such an extreme risk, the conditions of life in such a country may become incompatible with the right to life with dignity before the risk is realized".17 The ruling also stated that the asylum seekers are not required to prove that they would face imminent harm, as there are sudden-onset events (flooding/storms) as well as slow-onset events (droughts, sea level rise, desertification) that can prompt these communities to cross borders and seek asylum from climate-change related issues. In short, the ruling posits that human rights would be breached in case individuals are sent back to their countries of origin affected by environmental hazards.
It is one of the first times that the international community is advising non-refoulement to a climate-migrant. According to the proposed interpretation of the Convention discussed above, Mr. Teitiota is part of a social group: the climate-migrants of Kiribati who found little support from their State fighting the causes and effects of climate change and is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country. In the future decades, if climate migrants are sent back to their submerged or drought ridden countries, they could face extreme poverty, famine, and find their lives threatened. Though Teitiota’s request was denied, this ruling serves as a new standard that can streamline the success of future climate-migrants' claims.
Syria: The First Large Scale Climate War and the First Climate Refugees
There is, as investigated above, a connection among climate change as a threat multiplier, the growing unsatisfaction within the peasant community, and the triggering of the full-fledged conflict that caused the mass migration – alongside other concomitant political, economic and geopolitical factors.
Most importantly, one must be reminded that on top of the destruction caused by warfare, the already scarce structure and resources of Syria have been further exhausted during the last ten years by over-exploitation, overpopulation, sanctions, and the increase of climate change effects on the country. Even with peace, returnees can find themselves in a worse situation than before and face immediate life-threatening dangers.
The first peasants who fled to the outskirts of the main cities in 2007, were already climate-IDPs. Lavandius Chaloub, a resident of the countryside of Syria who fled to the outskirts of Damascus and lived with other IDPs, said that their lands became deserts, their crops were ruined by sandstorms and drought, they had no water in their already deep wells, nor could cultivate food to feed their families. Famine and thirst were life-threatening factors surrounding their return, many could die of starvation or thirst in case they remained or were sent back to their lands.18
Can the Gap be Filled?
There are different paths to guarantee a comprehensive protection to climate-refugees. One must understand that reforming an international treaty depends on every signing party’s agreement: it is a difficult, slow and multifaceted process, but is legally possible. Reform would mean that the signatory countries would reassemble and put the Convention under revision. However, this is politically quite impossible and might end up in more restrictions than expansion of rights, due to the populist agendas of many stakeholders, especially after the migration events in 2015 in Europe.
If reform is tricky, a second option would be for countries to reunite and draft a new Convention focused on the protection of climate migrants. This, as difficult as it may seem, could officially put the concept of climate migrants and refugees in the annals of International Law and guarantee assistance and protection to these communities in the future.
As a last resort, avoiding much political debacle or intergovernmental coordination, the international community could agree to a broader interpretation of the definitions of persecution and social groups, predicted on the Geneva Convention of 1951. As previously stated, persecution was left undefined to guarantee flexibility and encompass the new forms of persecution. The customary international law, based in UN rulings and multilateral findings (IPCC), starts to see persecution as a form human rights abuse - or serious harm – happening often, but not always, with a systematic or repetitive element; specially if targeted at a social group (climate migrants). Thus, a targeted systematic disrespect to life (caused by drought, famine, thirst, desertification, or rising sea level) rooted in human-caused climate change could be interpreted as persecution. Especially in cases where there is clear State negligence, namely failing to fight the causes and effects of climate change in favor of its most vulnerable citizens, to a determined social group, the climate migrants.
Nevertheless, the ruling of the UN over Teitiota’s case, as well as the work scholars who research on the situation of climate migrants and the assessments of the developments of climate change made by multilateral groups, such as the IPCC and the UNFCCC, demonstrate a certain predisposition of the international community to work in favor of climate migrants. The main goal of these stakeholders, one can say, is to avoid unmanageable and uncoordinated migration issues and massive breaches to human rights in the near future, where hordes of climate migrants cross international borders fleeing famine, drought, or the invading sea.
On a specific tone, due to the lien correlating climate change and the triggering of the war, the conflict of Syria can be considered one of the world’s first large scale climate-conflict. Potentially, an overarching protection and assistance framework rooted on an international convention could have diminished the popular anger and unsatisfaction of the first Syrian climate IDPs and migrants in 2007, thus diminishing the violence of the revolts of 2011. To avoid "ifs" in history, this article emphasizes the utmost importance of guaranteeing a comprehensive framework of climate related protection and assistance to returnee Syrian migrants who will be resettled on climate change affected areas, in order to avoid the breach of human rights by sending them to desertification ridden and overgrazed lands.
On a general tone, based on the predictions made by the IPCC for the coming years, a more inclusive migration policy is of the utmost necessity. Before the century is over, 600 million climate migrants all over the world will be forced to flee their lands due to the rising of sea levels and other climate distortions. Our current legal framework lacks reach and agency to deal with that magnitude. By today’s legal standards, these peoples would find themselves in a legal void, within extremely threatening situations lacking guidance or protection, and risk being sent back to their submerged or famine-stricken countries. If not expanded, the current framework of protection would give space for disastrous humanitarian crises to take place.
Ultimately, putting the Convention under revision is virtually possible, however politically impossible as it risks bringing more setbacks than expansions to refugee’s protection. On the same note, drafting a new Convention that defines Climate-Migrants legally and guarantees their own set of protections, though ideal, demands an unprecedented level of intergovernmental coordination to guarantee its universality. Therefore, to avoid much political debacle and interstate coordination, the fastest solutions for the issues at hand can come with a broader interpretation of the terminology proposed by the 1951 Geneva Convention, namely "persecution" and "social group", to include a comprehensive protection to climate migrants.
1 Aslam Farouk-Alli, "Sectarianism in Alawi Syria: Exploring the Paradoxes of Politics and Religion," Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 34(3) (2014): 207-226.
2 Geneive Abdo, The New Sectarianism. The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi'a-Sunni Divide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
3 Raymond Hinnebusch and Omar Imady, The Syrian Uprising. Domestic and Early Trajectory (London. New York: Routledge, 2018 Ed.)
4 Najib George Awad, "Chapter 3, Social Harmony in the Middle East: The Christian Contribution." In Christian Citizenship in the Middle East: Divided Allegiance or Dual Belonging?, edited by Mohammed Girma and Cristian Romocea, 1–19. London, UK: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2017, link.
5 Francesca de Chatel, "The role of drought and climate change in the Syrian Insurgency: Untangling the Triggers of the Revolution," Middle Eastern Studies 50(4), (2014): 521-535.
6 Chatel, "The role of drought and climate change in the Syrian Insurgency: Untangling the Triggers of the Revolution," 521-535.
7 Hanna Batatu, Syria's Peasantry, the Descendants of Its Lesser Rural Notables, and Their Politics, Princeton; New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999.
8 William Polk, "Understanding Syria: From Pre-Civil War to Post-Assad," The Atlantic, December 10, 2013, link.
9 Polk, "Understanding Syria: From Pre-Civil War to Post-Assad."
10 Chatel, "The role of drought and climate change in the Syrian Insurgency: Untangling the Triggers of the Revolution," 521-535.
11 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951, Geneva, 2 to 25 July 1951, Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, published by: UNHCR Communications and Public Information Service, 14-15, link.
12 UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), RLD1 - An Introduction to the International Protection of Refugees, 1 August 2005, RLD1, link.
13 IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, Pachauri, R.K and Reisinger, A. (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, p. 50.
14 Norman Myers, "Environmental Refugees: A Growing Phenomenon of the 21st Century." The Royal Society, October 19, 2001, 611, link.
15 IPCC, 2013: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, p.17.
16 United Nations and Canada, 1992. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. [New York]: United Nations, General Assembly, p.4.
17 Tania Maria Rocholl, Yadh Ben Achour, Ilze Brands, Christopher Bulkan, Ahmed Fathalla, Shuichi Furuya, Christof Heyns, et al, "OHCHR," UN Treaty Body Database, January 7, 2020, link.
18 Chalhoub Lawandius, Interview by Guilherme Feierabend, Voice Recording Interview, Malula, Syria, 16 February 2020.