Overgrazing is a major cause of the horror in Syria

The civil war in Syria and the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq has been attributed to many things as root causes. Perhaps it is all a matter of a particular religion? Is it due to an eye doctor turned horrible autocrat in Damascus, Syria (Bashar al-Assad)? Is it due to inevitable total conflict between Shia and Sunni factions of Islam? Are the many past incursions of European and the U.S. government responsible — their wars and proxy wars in the area? Did the Russians somehow do it? How about climate change?

Most observers are consulting their favorite ideology or accustomed method of foreign policy analysis for explanations.

There is one that is rarely looked at by these politicians, analysts, or rabble rousers and demagogues. In 1958, the vast semi-arid to arid Syrian steppe was made into a free access (unrestricted) commons by the Syrian national government. This overturned the sustainable type of grazing practiced by the Bedouins for centuries. The tribes and clans of the steppe had developed systems of limiting exploitation of the steppe beyond the grazing that would be sustainable. They even had large rest and restoration areas set by tribal custom and decision.

Turning the whole thing into a commons led exactly to what we should expect, “the tragedy of the commons.” After almost 50 years of this degradation came the 2006–10 drought. Then came the collapse of the economy and great destabilization of society in the rural interior. The rebellion against the Syrian government had its origins there. A different religious culture would not have led to ISIS, but regardless there would have been unrest, turmoil, likely Civil War, and extremist movements. The attempt by ISIS to establish a 9th century Islamic state in the 21st century is a prime example.


Read: “Over-grazing and desertification in the Syrian steppe are the root causes of war.” By  Gianluca Serra.  5th June 2015. Ecologist.





  1. Amre Avatar

    Fascinating. It’s crazy how simple mis-management of grazing can lead to so much.

  2. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    I wonder about this too – we don’t seem to want to hear this, and as our population continues to grow and resources become more and more strained, it’s going to get worse.

    1. Theo Chu Avatar
      Theo Chu

      Hey I’ve got a brilliant idea! Let’s defund Planned Parenthood.

      1. Nancy Avatar

        “Hey I’ve got a brilliant idea! Let’s defund Planned Parenthood”

        Interesting comment, Theo Chu.


  3. Maggie Brasted Avatar
    Maggie Brasted

    Ida’s comments points to the real root cause of the root cause–human population growth. We’ve been unwilling to face that issue for decades.

  4. Mareks Vilkins Avatar
    Mareks Vilkins


    In 2012, researchers affiliated with MIT demonstrated that there was a correlation between rising global food prices and the outbreak of civil unrest worldwide: Whenever prices eclipsed 210 on the UN’s FAO Food Index, a measure of the monthly change in international prices of core food commodities, riots and conflict became much more likely.

    So, it’s true enough that when food prices climb high enough, unrest follows. But NECSI and Bar-Yam were curious as to why food prices were rising, too. They knew that several factors contributed to the food price spikes that precipitated the violence—grain shortages due to weather anomalies, booming demand from China, financial speculation, and the conversion during that time of crops to ethanol, among them—but nobody knew which causes were at the root.

    “We looked at the set of causes that were being discussed as potential reasons for price increases and showed mathematically that none of them could be large enough except two: corn to ethanol conversion and speculation,” Yaneer Bar-Yam, NECSI’s founding president, told me in an email. “We then constructed a quantitative model of the impact of those two remaining causes which fit the price behavior very accurately.”

    Essentially, financial speculation caused the abrupt spikes, while ethanol conversion was driving a slow background rise in food prices.

    Note that there are localized reasons for specific conflicts, too—it’s been fairly well established that the drought that wracked Syria in the years leading up to its civil war (and which many argue was exacerbated by climate change) drove erstwhile farmers into urban areas, and the subsequent crowding and poverty set the stage for conflict.

  5. Mareks Vilkins Avatar
    Mareks Vilkins

    Peak oil, climate change and pipeline geopolitics driving Syria conflict

    The crunch came in the context of an intensifying and increasingly regular drought cycle linked to climate change. Between 2002 and 2008, the country’s total water resources dropped by half through both overuse and waste.
    Once self-sufficient in wheat, Syria has become increasingly dependent on increasingly costly grain imports, which rose by 1m tonnes in 2011-12, then rose again by nearly 30% to about 4m in 2012-13. The drought ravaged Syria’s farmlands, led to several crop failures, and drove hundreds of thousands of people from predominantly Sunni rural areas into coastal cities traditionally dominated by the Alawite minority.
    The exodus inflamed sectarian tensions rooted in Assad’s longstanding favouritism of his Alawite sect – many members of which are relatives and tribal allies – over the Sunni majority.

    Since 2001 in particular, Syrian politics was increasingly repressive even by regional standards, while Assad’s focus on IMF-backed market reform escalated unemployment and inequality. The new economic policies undermined the rural Sunni poor while expanding the regime-linked private sector through a web of corrupt, government-backed joint ventures that empowered the Alawite military elite and a parasitic business aristocracy.

    Then from 2010 to 2011, the price of wheat doubled – fueled by a combination of extreme weather events linked to climate change, oil price spikes and intensified speculation on food commodities – impacting on Syrian wheat imports. Assad’s inability to maintain subsidies due to rapidly declining oil revenues worsened the situation.

    The food price hikes triggered the protests that evolved into armed rebellion, in response to Assad’s indiscriminate violence against demonstrators. The rural town of Dara’a, hit by five prior years of drought and water scarcity with little relief from the government, was a focal point for the 2011 protests.

    The origins of Syria’s ‘war by proxy’ are therefore unmistakeable – the result of converging climate, oil and debt crises within a politically repressive state, the conflict’s future continues to be at the mercy of rival foreign geopolitical interests in dominating the energy corridors of the Middle East and North Africa.

    1. Mareks Vilkins Avatar
      Mareks Vilkins


      Tensions between nations are also high. Since 1975, Turkey’s dam and hydropower construction has cut water flow to Iraq by 80 percent and to Syria by 40 percent. Syria and Iraq have accused Turkey of hoarding water.

  6. Nancy Avatar

    The final episode of the BBC Planet Earth series of videos (watching it again tonight)

    The entire series is a beautiful but very realistic look at wildlife and wild lands around the planet and concerns about their future and ours.


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Ralph Maughan