Current Climate Change Reports

, Volume 4, Issue 4, pp 347–354 | Cite as

Climate War in the Middle East? Drought, the Syrian Civil War and the State of Climate-Conflict Research

  • Tobias IdeEmail author
Climate Change and Conflicts (E Gilmore, Section Editor)
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Topical Collection on Climate Change and Conflicts


Purpose of Review

This article reviews existing evidence for a climate-conflict link in Syria and examines how the respective debate reproduces three important shortcomings of climate-conflict research.

Recent Findings

The potential climate-conflict link for Syria can be conceived of as a four-stage process, with various levels of scientific evidence and consensus existing for each stage: (1) climate change inducing the heavy 2006–2009 drought (plausible, but not proven); (2) massive loss of agricultural livelihoods, significantly attributable to the drought (supported by a majority of studies, but contested); (3) massive rural-to-urban migration triggered by livelihood loss in combination with other factors (supported by a majority of studies, but contested); and (4) migration intensifying existing grievances and facilitating the onset of protests and the subsequent civil war (possible, but little knowledge exists).


The debate about the Syrian case reproduces three important shortcomings of climate-conflict research: limited dialogue between different methods, an overstatement of differences, and a lack of theoretical engagement. These shortcomings also have adverse impacts in terms of policy advice.


Climate change Drought Conflict Civil war Syria Middle East Migration 


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The author states that there is no conflict of interest.


Papers of particular interest, published recently, have been highlighted as: • Of importance •• Of major importance

  1. 1.
    Friedman TL (2018) The tweet Trump could never send Tehran. Accessed 01/02/2018.
  2. 2.
    Allansson M, Melander E, Themnér L. Organized violence, 1989-2016. J Peace Res. 2017;54(4):574–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3•.
    Gleick P. Water, drought, climate change, and conflict in Syria. Weather Clim Soc. 2014;6(3):331–40. An early and groundbreaking study claiming a link between climate change and the Syrian civil war. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    Werrell CE, Femia F, Sternberg T. Did we see it coming? State fragility, climate vulnerability, and the uprisings in Syria and Egypt. SAIS Rev Int Aff. 2015;35(1):29–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 5.
    de Châtel F. The role of drought and climate change in the Syrian uprising: untangling the triggers of the revolution. Middle East Stud. 2014;50(4):521–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 6•.
    Kelley CP, Mohtadib S, Cane MA, Seager R, Kushnir Y. Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought. PNAS. 2015;112(11):3241–6. The article which made the climate-conflict thesis for the case of Syria widely known. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 7.
    Weinthal E, Zawahri N, Sowers J. Securitizing water, climate, and migration in Israel, Jordan, and Syria. Int Environ Agreements. 2015;15(3):293–307.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 8••.
    Feitelson E, Tubi A. A main driver or an intermediate variable? Climate change, water and security in the Middle East. Glob Environ Chang. 2017;44(1):39–48. The study povides an elaborated theoretical framework, which is used to compare the impacts of the 2006–2009 drought and the potential conflict implications for six Middle Eastern countries. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 9•.
    Fröhlich C. Climate migrants as protestors? Dispelling misconceptions about global environmental change in pre-revolutionary Syria. Contemporary Levant. 2016;1(1):38–50. In-depth, interview-based study on migration-conflict links and the Syrian civil war. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 10.
    Femia F, Werrell CE. An unstable, stable nation? Climate, water, migration and security in Syria from 2006–2011. In: Sternberg T, editor. Climate hazard crises in Asian societies and environments. London: Routledge; 2017. p. 1–10.Google Scholar
  11. 11•.
    Selby J, Dahi OS, Fröhlich C, Hulme M. Climate change and the Syrian civil war revisited. Polit Geogr. 2017;60(1):232–44. The most convincing critique of studies linking climate change to the civil war in Syria. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 12.
    Gleick PH. Climate, water, and conflict: a comment on Selby et al. Polit Geogr. 2017;60(1):248–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 13.
    Hendrix CS. A comment on “climate change and the Syrian civil war revisited”. Polit Geogr. 2017;60(1):251–2.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 14.
    Kelley CP, Mohtadib S, Cane MA, Seager R, Kushnir Y. Commentary on the Syria case: climate as a contributing factor. Polit Geogr. 2017;60(1):245–7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 15.
    Selby J, Dahi OS, Fröhlich C, Hulme M. Climate change and the Syrian civil war revisited: a rejoinder. Polit Geogr. 2017;60(1):253–5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 16.
    Selby J. Climate change and the Syrian civil war, part II: the Jazira’s agrarian crisis. Geoforum, online ahead of print. 2018;Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Müller MF, Yoon J, Gorelick SM, Avisse N, Tilmant A. Impact of the Syrian refugee crisis on land use and transboundary freshwater resources. PNAS. 2016;113(52):14932–7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 18.
    Syria:direct. Grain shortages and financial ruin plague Hasakah farmers as crops fail after devastating drought. (2018). Accessed 17/07/2018.
  19. 19.
    Adams C, Ide T, Barnett J, Detges A. Sampling bias in climate-conflict research. Nat Clim Chang. 2018;8(3):200–3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 20.
    Flyvbjerg B. Five misunderstanding about case-study research. Qual Inq. 2006;12(2):219–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 21.
    UN-OCHA. Syria drought response plan. New York: UN; 2009.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Cook BI, Anchukaitis KJ, Touchan R, Meko DM, Cook ER. Spatiotemporal drought variability in the Mediterranean over the last 900 years. JGR: Atmospheres. 2016;121(5):2060–74.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Hoerling M, Eischeid J, Perlwitz J, Quan X, Zhang T, Pegion P. On the increased frequency of Mediterranean drought. J Clim. 2012;25(6):2146–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 24.
    Mathbouta S, Lopez-Bustins JA, Martin-Vide J, Bech J, Rodrigo FS. Spatial and temporal analysis of drought variability at several time scales in Syria during 1961–2012. Atmos Res. 2018;200(1):153–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 25.
    IPCC. Climate change 2013: the physical science basis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2013.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    WWA. World weather attribution: analyses. (2018). Accessed 17/07/2018.
  27. 27.
    World Bank. Climate change knowledge portal. (2016). Accessed 07/03/2018.
  28. 28.
    Dukhan H. Tribes and tribalism in the Syrian uprising. Syrian Stud. 2014;6(2):1–128.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Eklund L, Thompson D. Differences in resource management affects drought vulnerability across the borders between Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Ecol Soc. 2017;22(4):1–11.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. 30.
    Ansani A, Vittorio D. About a revolution: the economic motivations of the Arab Spring. Int J Dev Conflict. 2012;2(3):1–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. 31.
    Azmeh S. Syria’s passage to conflict: the end of the “developmental rentier fix” and the consolidation of new elite rule. Polit Soc. 2016;44(4):499–523.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. 32.
    Barnett J, Adger WN. Climate change, human security and violent conflict. Polit Geogr. 2007;26(6):639–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. 33.
    Benjaminsen T, Alinon K, Buhaug H, Buseth JT. Does climate change drive land-use conflict in the Sahel? J Peace Res. 2012;49(1):97–111.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. 34.
    De Juan A. Long-term environmental change and geographical patterns of violence in Darfur, 2003–2005. Polit Geogr. 2015;45(1):22–33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. 35.
    Solow AR. A call for peace on climate and conflict. Nature. 2013;497(7448):179–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. 36.
    Ide T. Research methods for exploring the links between climate change and conflict. Wiley Interdiscip Rev Clim Chang. 2017;8(3):1–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. 37.
    Selby J. Positivist climate conflict research: a critique. Geopolitics. 2014;19(4):829–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. 38.
    Verhoeven H. Gardens of Eden or hearts of darkness? The genealogy of discourses on environmental insecurity and climate wars in Africa. Geopolitics. 2014;19(4):784–805.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. 39.
    Gerring J. Case study research: principles and practices. New York: Cambridge University Press; 2007.Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    Anderson C. Heat and violence. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 2001;10(1):33–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. 41.
    Detges A. Local conditions of drought-related violence in Sub-Saharan Africa: the role of road and water infrastructures. J Peace Res. 2016;53(5):696–710.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. 42.
    Schleussner C-F, Donges JF, Donner RV, Schellnhuber HJ. Armed-conflict risks enhanced by climate-related disasters in ethnically fractionized countries. PNAS. 2016;113(33):9216–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. 43.
    von Uexkull N, Croicu M, Fjelde H, Buhaug H. Civil conflict sensitivity to growing-season drought. PNAS. 2016;113(44):12391–6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. 44.
    Böhmelt T, Bernauer T, Buhaug H, Gleditsch NPG, Tribaldos T, Wischnath G. Demand, supply, and restraint: determinants of domestic water conflict and cooperation. Glob Environ Chang. 2014;29(1):337–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. 45.
    Schrodt PA. Seven deadly sins of contemporary quantitative political analysis. J Peace Res. 2013;51(2):287–300.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. 46.
    Abrahams DR, Carr ER. Understanding the connections between climate change and conflict: contributions from geography and political ecology. Curr Clim Chang Rep. 2017;3(4):233–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. 47.
    Ide T. Towards a constructivist understanding of socio-environmental conflicts. Civil Wars. 2016;18(1):69–90.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. 48.
    Buhaug H, Nordkvelle J, Bernauer TB, Böhmelt T, Brzoska M, Busby JW, et al. One effect to rule them all? A comment on climate and conflict. Clim Chang. 2014;127(3):391–7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. 49.
    Hsiang S, Burke M, Miguel E. Quantifying the influence of climate on human conflict. Science. 2013;341(6151):1–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. 50.
    Saublet S, Larivière V. Mapping the ‘enviro-security’ field: rivalry and cooperation in the construction of knowledge. European Political Science. 2016.
  51. 51.
    Witsenburg KM, Adano WR. Of rain and raids: violent livestock raiding in Northern Kenya. Civil Wars. 2009;11(4):514–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. 52.
    Brown IA. Assessing eco-scarcity as a cause of the outbreak of conflict in Darfur: a remote sensing approach. Int J Remote Sens. 2010;31(10):2513–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. 53.
    Schilling J, Opiyo F, Scheffran J. Raiding pastoral livelihoods: motives and effects of violent conflict in north-eastern Kenya. Pastoralism. 2012;2(25):1–16.Google Scholar
  54. 54.
    UN-OCHA. Syria drought response plan: 2009–2010 mid-term review. New York: UN; 2010.Google Scholar
  55. 55.
    Ali M. Years of drought: a report on the effects of drought on the Syrian peninsula. Beirut: Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Middle East; 2010.Google Scholar
  56. 56.
    Black R, Bennett S, Thomas SM, Beddington JR. Migration as adaptation. Nature. 2011;478(7370):447–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. 57.
    Worth, RF. Earth is parched where Syrian farms thrived. (2010). Accessed 17/07/2018.
  58. 58.
    Buhaug, H. What do the experts think? (2017). Accessed 17/07/2018.
  59. 59.
    Landis ST. Temperature seasonality and violent conflict: the inconsistencies of a warming planet. J Peace Res. 2014;51(5):603–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. 60.
    Shaffer LJ. An anthropological perspective on the climate change and violence relationship. Curr Clim Chang Rep. 2017;3(4):222–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. 61.
    Buhaug H. Climate–conflict research: some reflections on the way forward. Wiley Interdiscip Rev Clim Chang. 2015;6(3):269–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. 62.
    Peluso NL, Watts M. Violent environments. In: Peluso NL, Watts M, editors. Violent environments. Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press; 2001. p. 3–38.Google Scholar
  63. 63.
    Sakaguchi K, Varughese A, Auld G. Climate wars? A systematic review of empirical analyses on the links between climate change and violent conflict. Int Stud Rev. 2017;19(4):622–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. 64.
    Gosselin, PL. Spiegel demolishes Syria war-climate change paper by Kelley et al. (2015). Accessed 17/07/2018.
  65. 65.
    Kalte Sonne. Deutsches Klimakonsortium pfeift Rahmstorf zurück: Klimawandel ist nur ein Treiber von vielen im Syrienkonflikt. (2016). Accessed 17/07/2018.

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook ResearchBrunswickGermany

Personalised recommendations