Monday, 30th October 2017

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A climatic disaster

An alternative explanation of the crisis in Syria

By Writing on the wall - Ashok V. Desai
  • Published 27.09.16

Syria is a daily staple of television; pictures of bombed-out homes and mountains of rubble occupy hour after hour. As the scattered briquettes and the straight lanes show, Syria was once prosperous. As the absence of humans on those streets shows, those who are not dead or have not escaped are huddled indoors, hoping to escape the next bullet or bomb. For explanation, we have the choice of two narratives. The Russian narrative is that terrorists armed and financed by the West have been trying to bring down the Assad regime. The Western narrative is that Assad is a vile dictator, and that his entire populace is in revolt against him.

Not all of it. A few escaped across the border to Turkey and are stranded in terrible refugee camps. Some paid boatmen to take them across to Greece, and then sought their way across the Balkans to that European El Dorado, Germany. But soon the Greeks and East Europeans caught them out and fortified themselves to keep them out. In Germany, right-wing politicians have turned the few lakhs of hapless refugees into the second invasion of Europe by Mohammedans. Angela Merkel gave refuge to them, but consequently, she has been isolated; she may well lose power in the next election.

The populist tirade that dominates European press and its Indian copycats has completely overwhelmed that true story of Syria. It is a part of the Fertile Crescent, which runs down the valley of the Nile, across Palestine and Lebanon into the valleys of Tigris and Euphrates. This semicircle of sunny, well-watered slopes and valleys was where the Eurasian civilization first emerged. By 10,000 BC it was growing wheat, rye, barley and dals; by 5,000 BC it had developed irrigation. By 3,500 BC, Syrians learnt to make wool, domesticated sheep and stopped wearing hides. They invented the first beer; and when it made them sweat, they invented soap to keep clean.

Syria gets its rains in winter, from November to April. People have to store water for summer. The regime of Hafez al-Assad, the father of the present president, who came to power in 1971, developed agriculture by exploiting water resources: he built dams wherever the topography allowed it; he financed tube wells elsewhere and subsidized diesel oil for irrigation pumps.

The consequence was that the water table began to fall. Then in 2007-08, the rains failed, and there was a severe drought. It was not confined to one year; 7 of the 11 years from 1998 to 2009 saw below-normal rains. Farmers were left without income; cowherds and shepherds had to sell off or abandon their herds. They moved to towns; 1.5 million of them camped in slums outside the cities, and joined the 1.2 million Iraqi refugees that had escaped from the war there. Between 2002 and 2010, the population of Syrian cities went up from 8.9 to 13.8 million.

The decline in rainfall is a manifestation of global warming according to a paper by Colin P. Kelley and others in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of March 17, 2015. They calculated that winter rainfall had declined by 13 per cent since 1931.

Thus, there is an alternative explanation of the Syrian crisis to the Islam-centred story being constantly fed by the media - that it is due to global warming, which has reduced rain and forced roughly a sixth of the Syrian population to give up its traditional occupation of agriculture and herding and migrate to towns. That has led to competition for resources and livelihood, and law and order problems.

What are the possible solutions to the problem? The easiest solution would be relocation of the population. That is precisely what was happening. There was a precedent for it: Israelis, after they fought and took Palestine by force, threw the Palestinians out of their homes. Palestinians scattered, mainly to Jordan and Lebanon. The same could happen to the Syrians. But this time it has been prevented by the numerous governments that infest the Mediterranean and Europe. The only politician who has seen the need is Angela Merkel. She, however, has failed to gain support for her view, and is likely to lose power or hide her views.

If Syrians are not allowed to move, they have to live on somehow in Syria. But as I have shown, their livelihood opportunities have shrunk, thanks to climate change: Syria can no longer accommodate its population if it sticks to its traditional occupations. The people must do something else, make something else. But whatever they make must find a market. The Europeans are rich; they could, if they wanted, create industry and services in Syria and provide them with a market. But that too is unlikely: their heads are buried in sand, and they prefer it that way.

The third is that the population of Syria must shrink, through starvation and warfare. That is precisely what is happening, although we do not know to what extent and how fast. This is the solution implicit in the preferences of the Europeans.

Finally, someone could impose order on Syria and try to rebuild its economy. That is what Assad is trying with his Russian allies. This is a better solution than the last one, and the best solution if the previous two are ruled out. However, its chances of success are greatly reduced by the lack of bonhomie between Russia and the West.

This is where India could play a constructive role. It has a surplus of foodgrains that could feed Syria's destitute population: its numbers are small, and India could easily take care of them. Many of those who need help are already in refugee camps; more can be rescued and sheltered. India also has the kind of armed forces needed to tackle ISIS; it can provide the ground forces to work with Russia's air force. But if we succeeded in restoring peace, there would still be the problem of how to provide the Syrians with a livelihood. It would require planning, and take time. It would be difficult to organize from a distance. But if the Europeans could work with us and provide the funds and resources, it would become manageable.

So I think the Prime Minister should consider flying to Berlin and talking to Angela Merkel. He should even talk to the German rightists; the idea of keeping Syrians in Syria should appeal to them. There was a time when India joined every humanitarian effort around the world; it preferred that to joining military blocs. Compared to what we achieved - for instance, at the time of Partition or of the secession of East Pakistan - the task in Syria is modest. But Syria is much more central to the Arab and European worlds than anything happening in India was; it would be extremely satisfying if we could show them a better way of resolving their problem than they have found in four years. If we fail, we will leave Syria no worse. But if we succeed, we will leave a mark on the international canvas. It is a just the kind of daring leap the Prime Minister is so good at.