Syria's Drought and the Rise of a War Economy

by Omar S. Dahi | published April 14, 2014 - 10:19am

The grinding war in Syria brings new horrors with every passing week. The death toll and the number of displaced people continue to soar, as more areas of the country are reduced to rubble. This month, two additional issues with dire long-term consequences have been gaining attention: the possible drought affecting the northwest and the entrenchment of a war economy.

The World Food Programme (WFP) warns that this year’s rainfall is less than half the annual average. The resulting drought -- particularly in the northwest of the country -- could place about 2.3 million Syrians in need of emergency food aid. That number would be in addition to the 4.2 million already dependent on aid, for a total of 6.5 million.

Syria already experienced a severe drought from 2006 to 2010, leading some to make a link between climate change, water shortages, and the uprisings there and elsewhere in the Arab world. Yet others, such as Francesca de Châtel, argue that these discussions distract from the long-term mismanagement and overexploitation of the region’s water resources, particularly since the 1990s.

Either way, the food security policy that was a hallmark of the Syrian regime is unlikely to survive the war. After being the only country in the region that was self-sufficient in food production, the state is now a net importer of wheat. Before the uprising Syria had a “strategic reserve” of wheat estimated at around 3.5 million tons, roughly equivalent to one year’s consumption, and mostly stored in areas now outside regime control. In 2013, the government is reported to have imported about 2.4 million tons of wheat. These changes imply a bleak future for the Syrian countryside and suggest that the millions who have been displaced from the rural areas may never return there.

The entrenchment of the war economy, including competition over smuggled goods and black markets, control over natural energy resources (such as oil fields in the northeast) and foreign funding flows, has been equally devastating. As journalist Jihad Yazigi argues in a policy brief for the European Council for Foreign Relations, the collapse of public regulation and the emergence of new local actors with a material stake in continuing the conflict will only further delay a meaningful political settlement. Interestingly, while the rise of this warlordism exists mainly within rebel groups, it also occurs in regime-controlled areas.

Both the Syrian government and the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) are attempting to retain and project their economic authority over areas nominally under their control, albeit with differing results. In most areas under regime control, basic goods are available and the government’s institutions have shown remarkable resilience. Even state employees in many areas outside government control receive their salaries (albeit greatly devalued as a result of currency depreciation). No doubt the regime has received external financial support and is likely to have depleted its foreign exchange reserves or incurred large debts, but it has also proactively slashed investment spending and raised tariffs on some luxury goods. So far it has managed the economic crisis skillfully, as demonstrated by its ability to secure the large wheat imports mentioned earlier. For its part, the SNC’s recent efforts include printing half a million schoolbooks and declaring all fired Syrian state workers as employees in the Interim Syrian Government. Its actual presence and authority in areas outside Syrian government control is almost non-existent, however, and remains largely an aspiration rather than a reality -- especially as local groups assert more control.

Of course, for the many millions of displaced Syrians completely dependent on relief, the scorecard of who “controls” which area no longer matters. Their actions are directed toward ensuring their survival and that of their families, and most of their thoughts are occupied by the question of when, if ever, their nightmare will end.

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