What Caused the Syrian Civil War?

JB Shreve
October 23, 2019 6 mins to read
Reading Time: 5 minutes

The questions of what caused the Syrian Civil War and ongoing chaos we are experiencing today do not seem to be a challenge to answer. Protests in the city of Deraa combined with a heavy-handed response from the Assad government in 2011 caused this modern hell to unleash and pour out into the earth.

But as I demonstrate through several case studies in my latest book, How the World Ends: Understanding the Growing Chaos, the narratives we are taught today are not always accurate if we really want to understand what is taking place in the world. Syria is a perfect example of this. What caused the Syrian Civil War goes far beyond what we are often led to believe.

What Caused the Syrian Civil War

The collapse of Syria and the resulting spread of turmoil throughout the Middle East region is not about religion, culture, democracy, or authoritarianism. All of those things might play a part in the escalation of the crisis, but the real causes lie much deeper. Understanding what really took place in Syria in the years preceding the outbreak of civil war in 2011 will help us understand why this chaos is not going to be contained and will only grow worse.

In 2007, long before the outbreak of civil war in Syria, GDP per capita (per person) was $2,000 a year. This translates to pretty low income and wealth for the average Syrian. Multiple economic factors demonstrated that the average Syrian was struggling financially.

In addition, more and more of those Syrians who were struggling financially were living close to one another. Syria is not a small country geographically speaking, but there are limitations on the land within Syria that is actually habitable. If you added all of these habitable places together, they would be about the size of the states of Maryland and Connecticut combined. That is not a lot of space for 23 million people, the pre-war population of Syria.

That population was growing too. The average pre-war Syrian had approximately 70% more children than the average American. The population was growing but GDP was not. A simple run through the math and we see how this means that the average Syrian was getting poorer even as their families grew larger.

Most of these Syrians made their living in the agriculture sector. Twenty percent of Syria’s pre-war economy was based here. Syria’s agricultural system has always struggled with droughts and famine. This is the lands that Abraham and the Apostle Paul walked and both of them dealt with issues of the climate’s impact upon agriculture thousands of years ago. But something shifted in the 21st century.

Massive dust storms in Syria

Between 2001 and 2010 Syria experienced over 60 major dust storms. These dust storms were symptomatic of a greater issue of dried up and dead farming lands. They are effectively stripping away the topsoil that is needed for farming. Then between 2006 and 2011, a major drought hit the country. The picture being painted in these natural disasters is similar to what the US went through during the Great Depression. Historically that was known as the Dust Bowl. Similar to what happened in the US during that time, Syria’s agriculture sector was being baked and then blown away.

One expert has said that the drought experienced in Syria during the first part of this century is, “The worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago.”

What Caused the Syrian Civil War

As the rain continued to diminish through these years in Syria, the water supply in the aquifers beneath the ground in Syria began to run dry. Farmers pulled on these underground water supplies as long as they could until finally the water quit coming. Across Syria, the farming systems began to collapse. As the farms failed many of the farmers and their families left the lands and homes where their parents and grandparents raised them and moved to the cities of Syria. Nearly 800,000 farmers lost their livelihood during these droughts. Two hundred thousand farmers abandoned their lands. There was a nearly 75% crop failure. Livestock deaths were just as high in many areas.

Moving to the cities offered little in the form of solutions for these frustrated members of Syria’s collapsing agricultural sector. The economic situation was still deteriorating here and made only worse by the influx of new populations. According to the United Nations, 2 to 3 million of Syria’s newly unemployed farmers were reduced to extreme poverty.

What Caused the Syrian Civil War

Among the barrage of Wikileaks revelations around this time was a 2008 discussion from a UN Food and Agriculture representative voicing concern that the situation in Syria was moving out of control as early as 2008. He referred to the unfolding situation in Syria’s society and economy as “the perfect storm.”

What Caused the Syrian Civil War

Adding insult to the injury, the incompetence of the Assad government, not yet considered a pariah by this point in history, sealed the fate of the Syrian economy and its people. In 2008 the price of wheat was skyrocketing globally thanks to the global food crisis occurring at that moment. To support the movement of so many farmers to the cities of Syria the government sold its wheat reserves on the global market. After 2008, as a result of this mismanagement, Syria had to import wheat and food to simply keep its population from starving to death.

These were the conditions of Syria’s economy and society that set the stage for protest and backlash in 2011. It was thought to be part of the Arab Spring when they first began to unfold. Harsh militaristic responses from the Assad government produced counter-responses from Syrian opposition groups. It did not take long for it to spin out of control and into a deadly civil war.

What Caused the Syrian Civil War

Today, hundreds of thousands of Syrians are dead as a result of this ongoing conflict. Half the country’s pre-war population lives in a displaced status or as refugees.

This is not an isolated event in Syria. We can trace these same root causes of what caused the Syrian Civil War to events in Yemen, South Sudan, Pakistan and many other places around the world. Crises of population, food, and water are having enormous repercussions throughout the world. Syria is not an anomaly but a first look at what is coming!

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