by Rhodri C. Williams
Just a quick Sunday morning posting inspired by two commentaries plucked out of the Swedish foreign ministry’s list of current readings. Taken together, they arguably reflect two fundamental factors at risk of being obscured by the frenetic flow of images and information constantly pumping out of the contemporary Middle East – namely the unprecedented nature of some of the underlying changes driving the unrest and the antediluvian inability of human governance institutions to react effectively.
First out is Thomas Friedman, with an NYT commentary on how the Arab Spring is driven “not only by political and economic stresses, but, less visibly, by environmental, population and climate stresses as well.” Friedman goes beyond my (and others’) observations last year that the Arab Spring was partly motivated by distributional inequalities related to land rights to observe that the productivity of land in the Middle East and North Africa is fundamentally threatened by climate change. For instance, a UN report found that persistent winter droughts wiped out 800,000 Syrian farmers in the five years leading up to the current revolt, and such trends appear to be the new rule rather than the exception.
Friedman extensively cites a report by Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell of the Center for Climate and Security in Washington recommending a broader vision for responding to the environmental as well as the political risk factors in the Middle East:
“If climate projections stay on their current path, the drought situation in North Africa and the Middle East is going to get progressively worse, and you will end up witnessing cycle after cycle of instability that may be the impetus for future authoritarian responses,” argues Femia. “There are a few ways that the U.S. can be on the right side of history in the Arab world. One is to enthusiastically and robustly support democratic movements.” The other is to invest in climate-adaptive infrastructure and improvements in water management — to make these countries more resilient in an age of disruptive climate change.
However, a second commentary by Timothy Garton Ash demonstrates how difficult engineering such a response may be. Garton Ash alleges that Syria is being left to an “Ottoman fate” – one that is almost entirely subject to local and regional calculations of power and interest that have have little time for the suffering of ordinary civilians caught up in the violence. Garton alleges that the reason that Europe, in particular, has failed to recognize its interest in seeking a just resolution of the issue is related to its dithering over Turkey’s candidacy to the EU:
The balance of forces around Syria would be different if the historically new, shared sovereignty model of the EU had reached out to embrace Turkey, as it has been promising to do – incredibly, in both senses of the word – for nearly 50 years, since the association agreement of 1963. But it has not. Europe, as Europe, is inaudible on Syria as on so many other issues. And so the fate of that country’s brave resisters and suffering civilians depends on the old-fashioned regional competition of diverse sovereign powers.