I just spent a day in the northeast Syrian town of Tel Abyad. It was terrifying — much more so than I anticipated — but not because we were threatened in any way by the Free Syrian Army soldiers who took us around, or by the Islamist Jabhat al-Nusra fighters who stayed hidden in the shadows. It was the local school that shook me up.
As we were driving back to the Turkish border, I noticed a school and asked the driver to turn around so I could explore it. It was empty — of students. However, war refugees had occupied the classrooms and little kids’ shirts and pants were drying on a line strung across the playground. The basketball backboard was rusted and a local parent volunteered to give me a tour of the bathrooms, which he described as disgusting. Classes had not been held in two years. And that is what terrified me. Men with guns I am used to. However, kids without books, teachers or classes for a long time — that is trouble. Big trouble.
They grow up to be teenagers with too many guns and too much free time, and I saw a lot of them in Tel Abyad. They are the law of the land here now, but no two of them wear the same uniform and many are just in jeans. These boys bravely joined the adults of their town to liberate it from the murderous tyranny of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but now the war has ground to a stalemate, so here, as in so many towns across Syria, life is frozen in a no man’s land between order and chaos. There is just enough patched-up order for people to live — some families have even rigged up bootleg stills that refine crude oil into gasoline to keep cars running — but not enough order to really rebuild, to send kids to school or to start businesses.
So Syria as a whole is slowly bleeding to death of self-inflicted gunshot wounds. You cannot help but ask whether it will ever be a unified country again and what kind of human disaster will play out here if a whole generation grows up without school.
“Syria is becoming Somalia,” said Zakaria Zakaria, a 28-year-old Syrian who graduated from college with a major in English and who acted as our guide.
“Students have now lost two years of school and there is no light at the end of the tunnel, and if this goes on for two more years it will be like Somalia, a failed country. But Somalia is off somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Syria is the heart of the Middle East. I don’t want this to happen to my country, but the more it goes on, the worse it will be,” he said.
This is the agony of Syria today. You cannot imagine the war here continuing for another year, let alone five. However, when you feel the depth of the rage against the al-Assad government and contemplate the sporadic, but barbaric sect-on-sect violence, you cannot imagine any peace deal happening or holding — not without international peacekeepers on the ground to enforce it. Eventually, we will all have to have that conversation, because this is no ordinary war.
This Syrian disaster is like a superstorm. It is what happens when an extreme weather event, the worst drought in Syria’s modern history, combines with a fast-growing population and a repressive and corrupt regime, and unleashes extreme sectarian and religious passions, fueled by money from rival outside powers — Iran and Hezbollah on one side; Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar on the other, each of which have an extreme interest in its Syrian allies defeating the other’s allies — all at a time when the US, in its post-Iraq/Afghanistan phase, is extremely wary of getting involved.
I came here to write my column and work on a film for the Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously, about the Jafaf, or drought, one of the key drivers of the Syrian war. In an age of climate change, we are likely to see many more such conflicts.
“The drought did not cause Syria’s civil war,” the Syrian economist Samir Aita said, but, he added, the failure of the government to respond to the drought played a huge role in fueling the uprising.
What happened, Aita explained, was that after al-Assad took over in 2000 he opened up the regulated agricultural sector in Syria for big farmers, many of them government cronies, to buy up land and drill as much water as they wanted, eventually severely diminishing the water table. This began driving small farmers off the land into towns, where they had to scrounge for work.
Because of the population explosion that started here in the 1980s and 1990s thanks to better healthcare, those leaving the countryside came with huge families and settled in towns around cities like Aleppo. Some of those small towns swelled from 2,000 people to 400,000 in a decade or so. The government failed to provide proper schools, jobs or services for this youth bulge, which hit its teens and 20s right when the revolution erupted.
Then, between 2006 and 2011, about 60 percent of Syria’s land mass was ravaged by the drought and, with the water table already too low and river irrigation shrunken, it wiped out the livelihoods of 800,000 Syrian farmers and herders, the UN reported.
“Half the population in Syria between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers left the land” for urban areas during the last decade, Aita said. And with al-Assad doing nothing to help the drought refugees, a lot of very simple farmers and their kids got politicized.
“State and government was invented in this part of the world, in ancient Mesopotamia, precisely to manage irrigation and crop growing, and al-Assad failed in that basic task,” Aita said.
Young people and farmers starved for jobs — and land starved for water — were a prescription for revolution. Just ask those who were here, starting with Faten, whom I met in her simple apartment in Sanliurfa, a Turkish city near the Syrian border. Faten, 38, a Sunni, fled there with her son Mohammed, 19, a member of the Free Syrian Army, who was badly wounded in a firefight a few months ago. Raised in the northeastern Syrian farming village of Mohasen, Faten, who asked me not to use her last name, told me her story.
She and her husband “used to own farmland,” Faten said. “We tended annual crops. We had wheat, barley and everyday food — vegetables, cucumbers, anything we could plant instead of buying in the market. Thank God there were rains and the harvests were very good before. And then suddenly, the drought happened.”
What did it look like?
“To see the land made us very sad,” she said. “The land became like a desert, like salt.” Everything turned yellow.
Did al-Assad’s government help?
“They didn’t do anything,” she said. “We asked for help, but they didn’t care. They didn’t care about this subject. Never, never. We had to solve our problems ourselves.”
So what did you do?
“When the drought happened, we could handle it for two years and then we said: ‘It’s enough.’ So we decided to move to the city. I got a government job as a nurse and my husband opened a shop. It was hard. The majority of people left the village and went to the city to find jobs, anything to make a living to eat,” she said.
The drought was particularly hard on young men who wanted to study or marry, but could no longer afford either, she added. Families married off daughters at earlier ages because they could not support them.
Faten, her head conservatively covered in a black scarf, said the drought and the government’s total lack of response radicalized her. So when the first spark of revolutionary protest was ignited in the small southern Syrian town of Daraa, in March 2011, Faten and other drought refugees could not wait to sign on.
“Since the first cry of Allahu Akbar (“God is great”), we all joined the revolution. Right away,” she said.
Was this about the drought?
“Of course,” she said, “the drought and unemployment were important in pushing people toward revolution.”
Zakaria Zakaria was a teenager in nearby Hasakah Province when the drought hit and he recalled the way it turned proud farmers, masters of their own little plots of land, into humiliated day laborers, working for meager wages in the towns “just to get some money to eat.”
What was most galling to many, said Zakaria, was that if you wanted a steady government job you had to bribe a bureaucrat or know someone in the state intelligence agency.
The best jobs in Hasakah Province, Syria’s oil-producing region, were with the oil companies. However, drought refugees, virtually all of whom were Sunni Muslims, could only dream of getting hired there.
“Most of those jobs went to Alawites from Tartous and Latakia,” Zakaria said, referring to the minority sect to which al-Assad belongs and which is concentrated in these coastal cities.
“It made people even more angry. The best jobs on our lands in our province were not for us, but for people who come from outside,” he added.
Only in the spring of 2011, after the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, did the al-Assad government start to worry about the drought refugees, Zakaria said, because on March 11 — a few days before the Syrian uprising would start in Daraa — al-Assad visited Hasakah, a very rare event.
“So I posted on my Facebook page: ‘Let him see how people are living,’” Zakaria said. “My friends said I should delete it right away, because it was dangerous. I wouldn’t. They didn’t care how people lived.”
Abu Khalil, 48, is one of those who did not just protest. A former cotton farmer who had to become a smuggler to make ends meet for his 16 children after the drought wiped out their farm, he is now the Free Syrian Army commander in the Tel Abyad area. We met at a crushed Syrian army checkpoint. After being introduced by our Syrian go-between, Abu Khalil, who was built like a tough little boxer, introduced me to his fighting unit. He did not introduce them by rank but by blood, pointing to each of the armed men around him and saying: “My nephew, my cousin, my brother, my cousin, my nephew, my son, my cousin ...”
Free Syrian Army units are often family affairs. In a country where the government for decades wanted no one to trust anyone else, it is no surprise.
“We could accept the drought because it was from Allah,” Abu Khalil said, “but we could not accept that the government would do nothing.”
Before we parted, he pulled me aside to say that all that his men needed were anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons and they could finish al-Assad off.
“Couldn’t Obama just let the Mafia send them to us?” he asked. “Don’t worry, we won’t use them against Israel.”
As part of our film we have been following a Syrian woman who is a political activist, Farah Nasif, a 27-year-old Damascus University graduate from Deir-az-Zour, whose family’s farm was also wiped out in the drought.
Nasif typifies the secular, connected, newly urbanized young people who spearheaded the democracy uprisings here and in Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia. They all have two things in common: They no longer fear their governments or their parents, and they want to live like citizens, with equal rights — not as sects with equal fears.
If this new generation had a motto, said Aita, the Syrian economist, it would actually be the same one Syrians used in their 1925 war of independence from France: “Religion is for God, and the country is for everyone.”
However, Nasif is torn right now. She wants al-Assad gone and all political prisoners released, but she knows that more war “will only destroy the rest of the country.” And her gut tells her that even once al-Assad is gone, there is no agreement on who or what should come next. So every option worries her — more war, a ceasefire, the present and the future.
This is the agony of Syria today — and why the closer you get to it, the less certain you are how to fix it.