We’ve Found Who’s to Blame for Iraq’s Unfolding Genocide

Iraq and Syria seem to have fallen into a flaming abyss. The world is watching in horror as the “Islamic State” militants are alleged to have massacred religious minorities, including unarmed Chaldean Christians and Yezidis.

We pray; we lament; we give to relief agencies. But we also struggle to understand why this is happening and who’s to blame. And the TV news channels are quick to serve up all kinds of plausible-sounding answers:

  • If only President Obama hadn’t withdrawn American forces from Iraq…
  • If only President Bush and Cheney hadn’t invaded Iraq in the first place…
  • If only Prime Minister Maliki hadn’t persecuted Iraq’s Sunni minority…
  • If only Obama had armed the “moderate Syrian rebels” …
  • If only Congress had given Obama the authority he requested to use force in Syria…
  • If only the Gulf States hadn’t armed the jihadists to fight against Syria’s Assad regime…
  • If only Assad hadn’t fired chemical weapons on Syria’s majority Sunni population…

It looks like there is plenty of blame to go around. But have these pundits really gotten to the heart of the matter? Could this conflagration really be blamed on one prime minister, one congress or one president? Or are these charges – plus many others – contributing factors in some larger narrative?

Come back with me to February 2011, when the Syrian uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad first burst into the global news. Syrian security forces in the agricultural hub of Dara’a arrested a group of children for scrawling anti-government slogans on a school wall. Dara’a exploded in protest when its people discovered that Syrian soldiers had tortured the children. And then,  Assad’s forces massacred scores (or hundreds) of protesters, plunging Syria into what would become a civil war displacing six million refugees and claiming more than 100,000 lives — so far.

Dara'a protests were brutally suppressed by Assad

Dara’a protests were brutally suppressed by Assad. Photo: CNN.com

The rest – of course – is history. In the wake of the Dara’a massacre, Aleppo and Baghdad erupted in angry protests, leading to violent crackdowns by the regime; crackdowns radicalized the opposition, with increasing elements of jihadist fighters joining the fray; the moderate Free Syrian Army soon became eclipsed by Al-Qaeda-allied forces, including the hated Islamic State in Iraq & Syria (ISIS), which soon controlled Syria’s eastern provinces and much of its border with Iraq. Meanwhile in Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki established a Shiite-dominated regime, oppressing Sunni communities in the north, and driving many into the waiting arms of the ISIS jihadists.

A tragic story, of course. But why did Syria blow up in the first place? Civil wars don’t just materialize out of thin air, do they?

Well, it turns out that Syria was ripe for conflict in 2011, and initially, it didn’t have anything to do with politics, religion or jihad. Syria faced a devastating drought between 2006 and 2010, affecting its most fertile lands. The four years of drought turned almost 60 percent of the nation into a desert. The country could no longer support cattle trading and herding, as the drought killed about 80 percent of Syria’s cattle by 2009. In 2008, 90 percent of the barley crop failed. Food prices skyrocketed, forcing more than 80 percent of rural Syrians below the poverty line.

Syria's 4-year drought set 1.5 million climate refugees on the move. Photo: VOA News.

Syria’s 4-year drought set 1.5 million climate refugees on the move. Photo: VOA News.

Syria had seen droughts before – six of them over the 105 years before 2006, most lasting only one year. But the World Bank had been warning that today’s extreme climate conditions now threatened Syria with recurring drought conditions. And, sure enough, each of the four consecutive years of drought beginning in 2006 was worse than any of the droughts of the preceding century. As the drought destroyed Syria’s farm economy – 75 percent of Syria’s farmers suffered complete crop losses – it transformed over 1.5 million Sunni farmers into climate refugees looking for work in Alawite/Shiite-dominated cities, aggravating sectarian tensions there.

With water in short supply, the Assad regime began awarding licenses to drill wells to Alawite Muslims on a sectarian basis, so desperate Sunnis began drilling illegal wells for their survival. And by the time the children of Dara’a began scribbling anti-Assad slogans on their school walls, the whole country had become a sectarian tinderbox.

So what caused this mess? Are we arguing that climate change triggered the Syrian civil war, the rise of ISIS, and by extension, the persecution of Arab Christians and other religious minorities? Well, it’s never quite that simple, is it? To begin with, scientists almost never explicitly link any single storm or drought solely to climate change. But in some cases, the patterns are so clear that the dots are easily connected. In a 2011 report, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) attributed at least half of the Syrian drying over the last century to manmade climate change.

“The magnitude and frequency of the drying that has occurred is too great to be explained by natural variability alone,” said Martin Hoerling, lead author of the report. “This is not encouraging news for a region that already experiences water stress, because it implies natural variability alone is unlikely to return the region’s climate to normal.”

NOAA map: Syria and Jordan are ground zero for climate drying.

NOAA map: Syria and Jordan are ground zero for climate drying.

If NOAA is right, then this is a classic example of climate change aggravating existing tensions. The U.S. Armed Forces warned earlier this year: “The effects of [climate change] are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad, such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability and social tensions — conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence” (2014 Quadrennial Defense Review).

And if this is so, it fundamentally impacts the assessment of who is to blame for the devastation being suffered by millions of innocent people in the region. Sure, Republicans can blame Democrats (& v.v.), Christians can blame Muslims (& v.v.), Sunnis can blame Shiites (& v.v.), and Americans can blame the Iraqi government (& v.v.).

But to them all, we’ve now got to add John Elwood, whose rambling New Jersey farmhouse consumes far more heating oil than the world’s ecosystems can afford to absorb. John Elwood, contributor to genocide in Iraq? Is that even possible? I never meant to! I was only living a normal American life. You know: with my 17 tons of CO2 emissions every year – just like the average American.

But now you know who to blame for the unfolding ISIS catastrophe in Iraq and Syria. There’s Obama, of course, plus Boehner, Bush and Cheney. There’s Maliki, and Assad. And now, tragically, there’s Elwood. We need to hold these people accountable.

Any other names you care to add to that list? Because once we identify them, justice demands that they make their full contribution to the restoration and reconciliation for which this tortured region is groaning.

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