Syrian Civil War Rooted In Drought Years Before Fighting Began

Robert Siegel talks to William R. Polk about how a drought in Syria several years ago forced farmers and families into the cities and contributed to the tensions that led to a government crackdown that led to the uprising. He's the author of Violent Politics: Insurgency and Terrorism, Understanding Iraq and Understanding Iran and has written a piece on Syria.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

William Polk was a voice of caution against U.S. intervention in Iraq. And he is once again urging caution, this time against intervention in Syria. He knows the country; he traveled there for the first time in the 1940s. Polk served in Policy Planning at the State Department under President Kennedy. He also taught for many years, first at Harvard and then at the University of Chicago where he founded the Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

William Polk says the roots of the Syrian uprising began with climate change and the devastating four-year drought in the Eastern Mediterranean, much like America's Dust Bowl.

WILLIAM POLK: The wind blew all of the tops all away. The farmers were thrown off their land. There were 800,000 Syrians who lost their livelihood. Two hundred thousand of them simply abandoned their land. And there wasn't any California for them to run away to, so they all ended up in the slums of Damascus and Aleppo, and the various other cities. And obviously, they were angry.

And they, unlike the Okies in America, they demonstrated against the government. And the Syrian government at that time was very authoritarian, and it regarded what they were doing as subversion. And so, it tried to crack down on them and that spread the revolt all over the country. That started in March of 2011 - that's when really the civil war started.

SIEGEL: But I mean there was also the sequence of protest and repression that was sufficiently familiar from the region, the people spoke of an Arab Spring that was happening in not just in Syria but in Egypt, in Bahrain and in Libya. I mean there were straight political roots of this conflict, weren't there?

POLK: Very strong political roots and people stopped being content with allowing the government to simply make all the decisions, particularly when the government was incompetent of making the decisions, as it was in Syria. The government, for example, sold all the national reserves of wheat because the market was high. And so, they had nothing to give the farmers.

But in addition, there was the introduction of Islam - fundamentalist Islam - and that became the rallying cry of the people against the government.

SIEGEL: You have warned against Balkanization of Syria, the breakup either formally or practically into different provinces, different regions controlled by different minorities. But on the other hand, in Lebanon, in Iraq and now in Syria, there's this huge challenge to hold together countries that are really, when you come down to it, they're artifacts of imperialism. Are we pursuing the wrong end to figure out how to hold together countries that don't have a natural unifying identity?

POLK: I think there's a lot in that. The question is whether or not we couldn't do something more subtle that's in between. What I see that as being as federalism. You can have a central government and then you can have the various provinces, more or less running their own show.

SIEGEL: Thinking of Egypt and Syria, as two countries that have witnessed terrible upheavals in the past couple of years, Egypt is a country. I mean, Egypt is the Nile River and the people who live along side it, essentially - then a bit of the Sinai and the Mediterranean coast. You go to Upper Egypt, you can see that this, you know, this is a country that has a definition; it has a unifying story.

Does Syria have a future? Syria which for years claimed Lebanon to be part of it, Syria and Iraq which have had this rivalry, does this idea survived more than a few more years?

POLK: I think it depends very much on whether or not it would be beneficial to keep Syria together, among other reasons, because the oil, the small oil industry that they have is all in the east part of the country. And that will be under the control of eventually of, as it is today, of the Islamic fundamentalists. And the central government and the area alongside of Lebanon, alongside of the coast, has really very few resources. And so to make the country function, even to the degree that it is, is going to be a difficult process economically.

SIEGEL: William Polk, thank you very much for talking with us today.

POLK: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: Mr. Polk is founder of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago.

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