Towards climate civil wars?

“Climate wars” will not “only” be interstate wars.

In our precedent article, we saw that current conflicts are integrating climate related tensions. This process is literally transforming certain conflicts into “proto-climate wars” (Jean-Michel Valantin, “What are Climate Wars ?”, The Red Team Analysis Society, 2 November 2021). This transformation follows the way the chain of consequences of climate change influences the definition of the goals of war.

The same process most probably applies to internal tensions. Hence, we have to wonder if the interactions between climate change and domestic tension may lead to civil wars?

Civil war

In order to answer this question, we have to define what is a civil war. We propose to define it as a war that happens within the borders of a given country, between different but domestic armed parties fighting the state (Encyclopedia Britannica). 

According to Max Weber, a state is the “legitimate monopoly of violence” (“Politics as vocation“, 1919). So, a civil war both signals its weakness and worsens it. However, this weakening may very well turn a civil war into a “disagregation war”, when and where the opposite parties keep on fighting, while war becomes its own finality (Harald Welzer, Climate wars: what people will be killed for in the 21st century, 2012). 

Thus, a civil war implies a profound breaking down of the social, institutional and political order. As it happens, in certain areas and periods, climate change is already exerting effects on societies analogous to those of  civil war.  

So, we shall use the start of the Syrian war as a case study. First, we shall see how and why there was such social vulnerability in the face of the 2006-2011 long drought.

Then, we shall see how climate change and political tensions interacted in the Middle East and Syria during the Arab spring and the start of Syrian civil war in 2011.

Finally, we shall study how this led to the weakening of the Syrian State as a monopoly of violence.

First contact

Syria’s fragility

There are several studies about the links between climate change and the Syrian civil war. Several researchers identify the way the historic long drought of 2006-2010 destroyed the Syrian rural fabric (Werrell and Femia, The Arab Spring and Climate Change, 2013).

It led to a massive rural exodus of poor and destitute populations in badly prepared and managed cities. In this context, the ultra-rapid development of urban inequalities did create a vast reservoir of disaffiliated young people. Those were to become the first reservoirs of the insurgencies.

Building vulnerabilities

However, the very lack of resiliency of this semi-arid country, even in the face of a historical drought, is surprising. As it happens, the reasons for this vulnerability to drought takes root in the agricultural policy of the Assad regime since the 1990s (Aden W. Hassan et alii, “The impact of food and agricultural policies on groundwater use in Syria”, Journal of Hydrology, 29 March 2014).

At that time, the regime forcibly developed cotton cultivation for export to the international market. Cotton cultivation is very water intensive. So, the number of wells doubled between 1998 and 2006, thus overexploiting the quite limited Syrian water supply (Asan, ibid).

So, Syria was already suffering from an acute lack of water when the 2006 long drought started. Faced with this disaster, the Syrian state and its political authorities were basically impotent.

This crisis was even more profound that it took place in the larger climate-politics nexus of the 2011 Arab Springs.

The Arab Spring climate-bread-political nexus

The whole “Arab spring” process took place in the context of a general increase of commodity prices started a few years before. The impact on wheat was especially notable, particularly in 2007-2008, when, as corn and rice, wheat saw its price increasing by 100% (Michael Klare, “Entering a Resource-Shock World“, TomDispatch, April 21, 2013).

Consequently, food and, in particular, bread, the most important element (besides water) of the biological and social daily life for dozens of millions of poor Arab families and people in a dozen countries, cost more. This means: too much.

The world cereal market was under pressure because of three convergent factors. Those were a brutal spike of oil prices, a diversion from food to biofuel crops and financial speculation on commodities. It started an “epidemic” of food riots all around the third world (Michael Klare, “A Planet at the Brink“, TomDispatch, February 24, 2009).

Things grew even worse in 2010-2011, because of a series of extreme climate events on major areas of cereal production. There were giant droughts in Russia and China, and immense flooding in Australia. Russia decided immediately to withdraw what was left of its crops from the world market. Price spikes were the immediate market answer (Klare, 2013).

Thus, the bread prices heightened the Syrian social tensions, that were already embedded in the consequences of climate change.

Oil and Financial shock

However, in the same timeline as the drought, the Syrian oil output decreased dramatically because of geological depletion. The subsequent financial loss deprived the Syrian political authorities of their capabilities to answer the basic needs of the rapidly expanding very poor cities (Mathieu Auzanneau, Pétrole, Le Déclin est Proche, Le Seuil, 2021).

The state,  the Syrian civil war and geophysics

In order to apprehend the central role that the “state of the Syrian state” plays in this crisis, we have to remember that, according to major political thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes (The Leviathan, 1651), Max Weber (Politics as Vocation, 1919) and Norbert Elias (The Civilizing process, vol.II, State Formation and Civilization, 1982), the state concentrates the monopoly of legitimate violence and a great capital of legitimacy, i.e. the right to rule as recognised by the population protected by the state.

In other terms, the legitimacy of the state is deeply rooted in its capacity to forbid other actors the use of violence. When the State is efficient, it is thus able to protect people from the violence of invasion, civil war, disaster or widespread crime (Norbert Elias, ibid).

Agriculture as a climate change attractor

So, in 2011, the Syrian State faces the interactions between unsustainable agriculture, extreme drought and oil depletion. Sadly, it is unable to protect the Syrian people and social cohesion. The Assad regime is unable to manage this crisis (Jason Burke, The New Threat, The Past, Present and Future of Islamic Militancy, 2017).

It is in this context that, in 2011, different insurgencies emerge during the “Arab Spring”. As in Tunisia and Egypt, those movements contest both the living conditions as well as the legitimacy of the political authorities. As soon as July 2011, the Assad governed state starts to fight them.

In other words, if there is no direct and immediate causality between the Syrian civil war and climate change, there are deep connections between the economic and social vulnerabilities and the profound and sustainable shock that the long drought inflicts on the country. Those conditions are profoundly destabilising and weaken the authority and capabilities of the state.

The result is a set of volatile social, economic and political conditions that fuel contestation while destabilising and delegitimising institutions ((Acemoglu and Robinson, Why nations fail, 2012).

When this legitimacy and authority weaken, the means to protect the population decrease, while the risks of radicalisation and violence increase (John Gray, Black MassApocalyptic religion and the death of Utopia, 2007).

The climate-politics nexus as integrated dynamics

As it happens, these geophysical and social interactions have to be understood as an integrated process. Indeed, in an arid country, in order to remain sustainable, the uses of water for agricultural, human, and urban needs are basically dependent on the limited availability specific to this resource.

However, the water cycle is basically embedded within the dynamics of the climate (AssessmentJohann Rockstrom and al., “Planetary boundaries: Exploring the safe operating space for humanity”, Ecology and Society, 2009). Consequently, the uses of water literally attract the dynamics of climate change inside the very fabric of the Syrian society.

So, it appears that climate change may very well inter-plays with the fabric of national and domestic tensions leading to a civil war. This means that this process may emerge in other countries when similar dynamics appear.

Thus, it is not specific to Syria or other “non-western” countries. So, we may wonder if this lethal combination could emerge in a great power ?


Featured image: The Euphrates River flows through Lake Assad in Syria in this photograph from the International Space Station as it orbited 263 miles above. NASA, 22 April 2021. Public Domain.


Published by Dr Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris)

Dr Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Security Department of The Red Team Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defense sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy. He is the author of "Menace climatique sur l’ordre mondial" (Climatic threat on the world order), "Ecologie et gouvernance mondiale" (Ecology and world governance), "Guerre et Nature, l’Amérique prépare la guerre du climat, "(War and nature: America gets ready for climate war) and of "Hollywood, the Pentagon and Washington".

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

EN