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Climatic causes of War in Syria. A talk with Khaled, Syrian environmental journalist

by Raul Cazan //

IMAG7523Khaled Osta Esmael was an environmental, cultural and social journalist in Damascus. He used to cover only these topics since “we weren’t allowed by the regime to cover anything political; we did not have this freedom; if you wanted to cover political stuff you had to be a state journalist (reporter working for a state-owned medium, n.n.)”. Any journalist that wanted to report on political realities or analyze politics in any way had to be connected to “the Palace”.

After March 2011 when the Syrian Revolution commenced, “we broke the wall between us, journalists, and the political topics. ” Journalists had to talk about the war and, naturally, that implied politics. But they had not much experience, with the exception of the state media that had the use of political reporting, yet with a strong pro-Al-Assad twist.

Khaled is among the few journalists that gathered some skills after the war started and initiated his work as a trainer for younger reporters that learn to practice citizens’ journalism in Turkey and in the North of Syria, the part of the country that liberated itself from the Al-Assad regime – as to fall henceforth into deeper quagmires. Until 2013, Khaled covered political news on Syria for the Egyptian state TV, right after he quit being a correspondent for Radio France Internationale (RFI), the Arabic broadcast, in Syria. Eventually, he took refuge in Sweden.

Khaled reported before the revolution on the climatic conditions that contributed to displacements within Syria and finally to the social outburst of 2011. Between 2007 and 2010, Syria experienced the worst drought in its history of records. The drought was part of a trend of declining winter precipitation in North-Eastern Syria, that has been linked to climate change by some authors. Combined with natural resource mismanagement by the Assad regime, who subsidized water-intensive agriculture such as cotton-farming, and encouraged wasteful practices such as flood irrigation, this drought led to the loss of a significant percentage of Syria’s crop and rangeland, and the displacement of at least 2 million farmers and herders, many of whom fled to urban centers.

In short, from 2007 to 2010, a climate-exacerbated drought contributed to a mass internal displacement of peoples in Syria; that displacement further contributed to the instability that preceded the conflict, and that conflict is driving the current war and consequent refugee crisis.[1]

“I made a reportage about this in 2008, it was the reason I went to Copenhagen the next year,” says Khaled. “I was reporting on the farmers that left their lands because the water resources had finished there. And there was no rain because, as you said, global climate change. So they left their farms and went to Damascus and Aleppo to be workers.”

“While interviewing them I heard stories that they were millionaires; 10 years before they were earning a lot of money from their land. And the land was very productive.” In a decade however, everything changed radically. Productions turned poor and in a short while sad people from the North East flocked into the big cities. “They were sad, taking daily jobs in constructions.”

It was utterly unbelievable. “The government, the Assad regime, didn’t do anything for these people. They just didn’t care about them.”

This also strained the Syrian society before 2011. “Everything, all these elements, warmed up the country for revolution. The Eastern Syrians really suffered a lot and they rebelled against the regime; as an environmental journalist I mentioned the (drought) problem in the North East of Syria. These people were the real rebels.”

But aren’t they under ISIS control?

“They left or they were killed. Most of them left for Turkey, these are the ones in the Turkish camps. They ran away from the regime and ISIS at the same time. Now they are very poor.”

Journalism students are not that interested in geography, climate and the consequent situation before the revolution. However, environmental journalists do not report merely on nature, but also on democratic practices, essential for the ecology of the conflict. Those people were not able to negotiate and have their rights protected.

“Why I did this reportage? You will be surprised. I was afraid before, I couldn’t do it, but… there was a workshop with UNDP Syria, Denmark and the BBC, they were preparing for COP15, so, in collaboration with the government, they asked journalists to make environmental radio reportages. I was among them and I chose this topic and I was thinking … how I was free, how I was able to record those people; in Damascus they were living in big tents all around the city.

They were migrants.”

What is there to do now? Over the tragedy of the internal migrants and a changing climate, an infinitely more terrible tragedy ensued with Russians savagely bombing the North, ISIS controlling the “oil area” and still with a repressive regime in the capital.

“We could have done something, but the war didn’t listen to us.” Now that the refugees reached Europe and the world listens to them, “the situation got more complicated; the revolution changed into civil war and now into a proxy war: Iran with Russia and Hezbollah on one side and the Gulf states, USA, Turkey, on the other.

And where are the Syrians? The Syrians are either refugees or killed”.

 Syrians are controlled by outside forces. “If they live with ISIS – ISIS are migrants, they are not locals but foreigners that occupied the country. In the areas controlled by the regime there is Russia and Hezbollah. We are under occupation.”

“What can I do as a person now?

Can I face Russia? All I can do is tell the truth to the people. We had a Skype call with this citizen journalist from Aleppo and he was telling parts of the truth to my students and I saw how much they were surprised. He is a journalist sitting in Aleppo under the Russian bombs and he was just telling what was going on, did not exaggerate, did not reduce, he was just telling his personal story and you can know and analyze the situation. Now it’s about the war between Russia and the USA.”

“We just need to stop the war, not to have refugees received or to give weapons to the rebels, stopping the war is the solution. Instead Russia pays all this money, spends all this energy and stress; they can just sit all at the table and find a solution.”

And the first step to a solution is

“Al-Assad step down!”

[1] See Femia & Werrell’s analysis at

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