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Badia Landscape Imaginaries: Competing Worldviews on Climate Change and Environmental Degradation in the Syrian Crisis

Published onMar 30, 2018
Badia Landscape Imaginaries: Competing Worldviews on Climate Change and Environmental Degradation in the Syrian Crisis


Following a series of recent climatological studies in the Levant region, climate change emerged as a “threat multiplier” in the media narrative surrounding the Syrian crisis. While climate change has been a notable actor in the Syrian uprising, the critical drought must be understood as acting upon a historic fabric including landscapes that have been transformed and degraded as a result of decades of technocratic economic and agricultural policy enacted by the Baathist regime. We propose competing “landscape imaginaries”—shared ideas, norms and practices that shape the environment—as a framework for understanding the relationship between the contemporary crisis and the history of the Syrian landscape (particularly the arid Syrian steppe, or Badia) and its occupants. Recovery and resilience processes must attend to the conflicting imaginaries and associated landscape activities that helped to lay the groundwork for the crisis. By tying the physical history of actions on and in the Badia to the conceptual frameworks underpinning those activities, we propose that resilience-building activities consider physical adaptations in relation to ideations of place and territory.


Syrian steppe; drought; environmental displacement; nomadic cultures; technocratic planning; agriculture; resilience 


In 2015, a media narrative emerged connecting the Syrian uprising to climate change (Randall 2016). Reports were mainly based on a scientific article published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), entitled “Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought” (Kelley et al. 2015). In addition to mediatic echoes, the scientific argument prompted a cascade of remarks from political figures, academics and multilateral organizations[1] who reinforced the notion of climate change as a magnifier of prevailing vulnerabilities accentuating inequality, water and food scarcity, repression, and ultimately triggering armed conflict. In his book Tropic of Chaos, academic and investigative journalist Christian Parenti (2012) refers to the violent implications of these layered factors along with climate change impacts as a “catastrophic convergence.”  

Stemming from these narratives, Syria has become the illustration of the threat multiplier par excellence, with most of the debate surrounding available scientific data. While drought certainly has played a role in the Syrian crisis, linking climate change to the nation’s disruption requires more nuanced consideration, engaging the social, political, and epistemological in addition to the scientific. Fetishizing the role of climate in the conflict can obscure these factors underlying the catastrophic convergence; “there is a tendency to take certain events out of context and misinterpret or overstate their significance in relation to the current events unfolding in Syria” (de Chȃtel 2014). Sociologist Harald Welzer explains in Climate Wars (2012) that causality is a difficult claim to make regarding any social phenomenon, and in particular when the complexity of climate change is superimposed on existing issues such as land degradation, seasonal climatic patterns, and unstable governments. This complexity has even led some authors to dispute claims surrounding the role of climate change in the Syrian unrest.[2] In this paper, we have no intention to contest the significance of data used in previous articles about the Syrian crisis—we rather seek to provide an alternative analytical frame by emphasizing how Syria’s political projects not only created the social friction that helped lay the foundation for conflicts, but also how ideas about the environment compromised the capacity of the landscape—the physical territory of the nation—to regenerate from extreme climatic events.

This paper argues that the current crisis can only be understood through the confluence of climate change, a failed state-led development project, and conflicting landscape imaginaries. Layered drawings and diagrams accompany the text in order to visually unpack this convergence. We draw the concept of imaginaries from the interdisciplinary field of cultural studies, for which an imaginary implies a shared understanding of social life that legitimizes practices, norms, organizational structures, and idealized visions of the future (Anderson 1991; Castoriadis 2007; Taylor 2004; Jessop 2012). Particular attention is devoted to the ways imaginaries materialize in space; we therefore propose the term “landscape imaginary” as a way to perceive and structure the practices and understandings of a given social group in relation to their environment.

In Syria, climate—and landscape—have been conscripted as actors in the prolonged crisis. This is made explicit in the Syrian steppe (or Badia, in Arabic), which comprises a majority of Syria’s territory.  By examining the exploitation of the steppe over the past seventy years, we first seek to demonstrate the role of technology and regulatory systems in enacting political goals that intensified environmental degradation. In addition, we derive three core landscape imaginaries related to the Syrian steppe: “landscape as cyclical tradition”, “landscape as extractive commodity” and “landscape as boundless territory.”

Each Badia imaginary articulates a narrative that resonates with the values and interests of distinct actors: the Bedouins, the Ba’ath Party or the adepts of the Islamic caliphate. Profound contestation among these actors has emerged in recent history, a time of conflict etched in Syrian soils, water systems, and biota. For instance, since independence in 1946, Syrian governments have blamed the Bedouins, a nomadic culture of the arid lands, for degrading the environment, hence claiming the need for a centralized management of resources that challenged centuries-old customary rules and tribal authorities (Chatty 2010).  When the Ba’ath Party neutralized the power of adversarial tribal authorities, the vast steppe succumbed to the ideals of agricultural yield maximization. The steppe has since been governed through “quantifiable models of risk” (Appadurai 2013) in which national elites are relatively protected from drought effects by modern technologies, infrastructure and the strategic use of military defense while the disproportionately exposed small farmers and herders become increasingly vulnerable to social and environmental disasters. To complicate matters further, the resurrected notion of a boundless Islamic caliphate arises in opposition to nation-states and the values of modernity, taking advantage of the friction between “old” and “new” worldviews (Al-Rasheed, Kersten, and Shterin 2012).

Contemporary Syria epitomizes how the “securitization of nature” —when manipulated by an ethnocentric view­—can spread violence and fear that propagates from local to regional and eventually global spheres. As defined by Davoudi (2014, 366) “securitization of nature” refers to an era in which nature becomes a risk (or even an enemy) to be secured against. This is reflected in the government’s actions to regulate the steppe landscape through irrigation regimes, dam construction, and pastoral management. Exploring how imaginaries contribute to exposing or protecting landscapes from risk can provide new insights for the climate debate.

Degraded Landscapes: The Collapse of the Cradle of Agriculture

In August 2009, seven United Nations agencies in collaboration with the Syrian government launched a Drought Response Plan. The plan appealed for US$52.9 million in financial support to deliver food aid, distribute seeds and provide animal feed to some of the 300,000 most vulnerable Syrians affected by severe dry spells that began in 2007. Assessments conducted by the UN the same year warned of the risk of social unrest as a consequence of mass migration to crowded urban centers like Aleppo, Homs and Damascus. Having faced extreme crop and herd losses, rural families confronted further destitution in the city. The main purpose of the UN plan was therefore to provide emergency assistance for farmers so they could remain in their villages and access the necessary inputs for the planting season that October. The financial aid was time-critical, but the publicity surrounding the response was deceiving. A few weeks before the end of the annual planting period, only 8% of the plan had been funded[3].

At first glance, it was the failure of the emergency response that left the most vulnerable communities with no choice but to seek a living elsewhere. However, media images of a cracked and barren Syrian landscape eclipse millennia of practices by Syrian farmers and shepherds for coping with drought cycles (fig 01).

Fig. 1: Timeline. Rhythms and events in the agro-pastoral history of Syria as they relate to different groups and scales. Drawing by Lizzie Yarina. Data sourced from: Kelley et al (2015); Hole (2009); USDA Production, Supply and Demand Database; Skaf M., Mathbout S (2010).
(click to download full resolution image)

The Fertile Crescent, a sickle-shaped corridor that runs from the Nile valley into the area between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers crossing Syria, is generally believed to be the cradle of agriculture. A team of archeologists led by Lev-Yadun (2000) suggested that 10,000 years ago the center for innovation in agriculture laid down more precisely on what is today southeastern Turkey and northern Syria. The area coincides with the occurrence of wild ancestors of at least seven of the eight “founder crops”[4] and displays vestiges of civilization. The focus on Syria’s localized climatic stress and failed appeals for relief obscures these larger narratives and the practices this has encoded. Syria’s current unrest can only be understood through a long-term account of the crisis, one that underscores a land gradually degraded by unsustainable modes of economy and policy in the past several decades.

Let us begin with Syria’s key climatic features. Precipitation in Syria is highly concentrated, both in time–between the winter season from November to April–and in space, along the Mediterranean coast and in the northern region (Kelley et al. 2015). Some two-thirds of the country’s cultivated land depends on rainfall while the remainder relies on groundwater pumping and irrigation systems (Alpert, Jin, and Kitoh 2014). It has been estimated that between 1995 and 2005, right before the most recent prolonged drought, Syria had already accumulated a negative water balance of 651 million cubic meters. The agricultural sector was responsible for more than 80% of the total consumption (Erian, Katlan, and Babah 2010).

Since the 1960s several dry spells impacted regional agriculture and the Syrian economy, which is more dependent on food commodities than its oil-rich neighbors. Such events were characterized by different levels of severity, duration and extent, making comparison of drought episodes difficult, particularly in Syria where climate management procedures and institutions are nascent (Erian, Katlan, and Babah 2010). Despite the diversity of indicators, there is considerable agreement among researchers on three points. They first concur that the Mediterranean basin is a hotspot of global warming. Historical studies and modeling demonstrate that the winds that blow from the Mediterranean Sea have become weaker, a trend that significantly affects precipitation in the Fertile Crescent. Moreover, most scholars project a continued drying scenario for the region (Alpert, Jin, and Kitoh 2014; Kitoh, Yatagai, and Alpert 2008; Mariotti et al. 2008; Skaf and Mathbout, 2010; Kelley et al. 2015, Cook et al. 2016). Second, they highlight the increasing incidence and severity of multi-year droughts. Skaf and Mathbout (2010) compared the annual Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI)[5] for fifteen meteorological stations throughout Syria between 1958 and 2008 (see the bar chart in fig.01). They point out that while multi-year droughts are common phenomena with negative SPIs recorded in 1958-1961, 1983-1986, 1988-1990, it is from the late 1990s onwards that all factors combined (severity, duration, and extent) became acute. More recently, in a study that assessed tree rings collected over 900 years, from northern Africa, Greece, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Turkey, Cook et al. (2016) found a broad range of extreme dry and wet years; however, the period between 1998 to 2012 stands out. They concluded that “there is an 89%/98% likelihood that the recent Levant[6] drought is the worst of the last 900/500 years.” Third, in order to obtain a more accurate picture of the drought in Syria and its contribution to the uprising, it is necessary to examine the historical context that created a disproportionately high demand for water consumption in a predominantly arid territory. In Syria (as in many other countries) agricultural policy interventions and incentives have shaped the physical landscape. For some 40 years, the Syrian government has centrally planned agricultural policies to enhance self-sufficiency and increase the contribution of grains and livestock to employment and gross domestic product (GDP) (Wehrheim 2003). Making agricultural production competitive in the global market has been at the top of the governmental agenda. Trade, subsidies, as well as the provision of seeds, fertilizers and veterinary supplies for livestock remained broadly under state control. Until 2010, 46% of the Syrian population (10 million people) lived in rural areas and some 80% made a living in agriculture, generating nearly 18% of the country’s GDP (Ahmed and Hadi 2015).

Throughout these decades of agricultural intensification, the government prioritized the farming of cash crops like cotton and wheat (which cover large holdings in Syria and have major water footprints) to the detriment of water productivity. Intensifying the risks of water stress, subsidized agricultural credit favored short-term loans for seasonal operations rather than long-term capital investments to plan for and cope with dry spells (Wehrheim 2003; Varela-Ortega and Sagardoy 2003). As a consequence of the prolonged droughts in the 1990s, farmers began uncontrolled well-drilling, depleting the last of the freshwater resources. When the winter rains began to fail in 2007, about half of the livestock in the steppe died and many agricultural regions collapsed, including the Governorates of Al-Hasakah, Ar-Raqqah, Aleppo, and Deir ez-Zor, which together accounted for 75% of the country’s wheat production (Erian, Katlan, and Babah 2010). In addition, the government’s cancellation of a number of state subsidies in the midst of the drought multiplied agricultural expenses, driving many to flee their rural homes (de Chȃtel 2014).

In 2009 more than one million people in eastern Syria were affected by agricultural failures (De Schutter 2010) and by 2010 as many as 1.5 million impoverished farmers had migrated into urban peripheries in search of alternative livelihoods (Gleick 2014; Kelley et al. 2017). The displaced population included farmers from more fertile coastal and floodplain regions, as well as the traditionally nomadic Bedouins who graze their herds in the much drier steppe (fig 02).

Fig. 2: Map. Overlapping territorial claims of the Syrian steppe demonstrate how mobile tribal territories meet climatic regimes and ISIS territorial claims. Drawing by Lizzie Yarina. Data sourced from MAAR (1999); Masri (1964); World Atlas, Publisher Liban bookshop Beirut and Pabot, 1956; IHS Conflict Monitor (20117).
(click to download full resolution image)

According to a 2015 FAO report, over 9 million Syrians required assistance to sustain their livelihoods. Overall, an estimated 11 million have been displaced by the conflict since 2011 and 220,000 have lost their lives in the war (FAO 2016; Goodbody et al. 2013).

Internal displaced people were not the only ones arriving in Syrian cities. Since 2006 Iraqis had also been fleeing across the border and settling in urban centers. By December 2010, over 1.3 million refugees and asylum-seekers, of which one million were Iraqi, were estimated to be living in Syria (Kelley et al. 2015). The migrants flocked to urban peripheries, which saw the explosion of informal settlements that reinforced sectarian divisions and became the heart of the unrest that unfolded (Ismail 2013). Since the 2000s Syrian urban policies prioritized addressing informal settlements through urban renewal or regularization plans. But at the onset of the Arab Spring most urban projects and international investments were paralyzed and unable to address the existing demand let alone the increasing rural inflows (Clerc 2014). The displaced began to express anger at the Assad regime for the loss of their rural livelihoods and violent repression. By several accounts, these grievances became amplified in overburdened urban and peri-urban spaces where they were able to corroborate outrage towards the regime through emergent, densified social networks (Imady 2014; Randall 2016). Further pressure was created by rising commodity prices in urban areas: wheat, rice and other food items doubled in price, making living conditions in Syrian cities very harsh. Dara’a, one of the expanding towns in the agricultural drought zone, became the flashpoint that helped to initiate the Syrian crisis when protests began (Leenders 2012; de Châtel 2014). As the unrest has expanded, the Syrian steppe has been increasingly dominated by ISIS; the majority of the Islamic State territory is in the arid and thinly populated zone of the Badia.

This brief historical account of the gradual degradation of the Syrian landscape aims to disentangle some of the layered aspects framing the contemporary conflict. As Welzer (2012) contends, “at least initially, the consequences of climate change are not so much wars between states or threats to their territorial sovereignty as shortages of drinking water, declining food production, increased health risks and land degradation. Violent conflicts and climate change are thus linked in a series of stages and only exceptionally present a direct cause–effect relationship” (73).  In the case of Syria, these “linked stages” in the physical environment included rural-urban migration instigated by environmental stressors and landscape mismanagement, associated with the rapidly growing, overcrowded, and infrastructurally impoverished urban peripheries of Syria described above.

The actor network diagram (fig 03) illustrates the roles of various groups, objects and events in establishing this layered vulnerability as a linked series of overlapping and interrelated risk factors. In the next section, we investigate the formation and the interrelations of three contested landscape imaginaries through historical accounts, planning documents and landscape changes, in relation to the development of this “catastrophic convergence.” In doing so, we inquire into the role of these imaginaries in the construction of today’s conflict, but also examine the enduring visions of an idealized Syria they portray.

Fig. 3: Actor Network. Interrelations between groups and associated policies, practices, and events in the Syrian landscape. Drawing by Lizzie Yarina.
(click to download full resolution image)

Contested Landscape Imaginaries on the Syrian Steppe

Conflicts over change offer an exceptional opportunity to penetrate “the way ordinary people imagine their existence, […] their social surroundings,” as observed by Charles Taylor in Modern Social Imaginaries (2004) because those implicated in the dispute take sides by making their shared ideas and understandings of their surroundings more explicit and articulated. In the Syrian case, the scalar jump from local and traditional landscape management to national level policies—that favored the maximization of agro-pastoral yields, government land control and intensive underground water use—was a leading cause of ecological degradation, which ultimately left pastoralists as well as farmers highly vulnerable to droughts and disruptions. What conceptions of social life have underpinned the long-term uses and management of the Syrian landscape? How have these conceptions been challenged by increasing globalization, climate change and religious radicalism? What are the implications of these tensions in understanding the relationship of people with new configurations of the territory?  In order to understand these competing imaginaries in the context of the steppe, we propose the “landscape imaginary” as a conceptual model.

In the article “Contested imaginaries and the cultural political economy of climate change” Levy and Spicer (2013) devise a method to compare and contrast “climate imaginaries.” We draw from their analytical model to assess two dimensions of the following “landscape imaginaries” that have shaped the Syrian steppe. One dimension captures the assumptions about the environment: whether the steppe is perceived as resilient or fragile, and the consequent responses to drought tempered by each imaginary. A second dimension is related to the imagined extent of the Badia and the terms of its integration into the Syrian nation. Here we trace what is recognized by each imaginary as “the things in common” that would allow people “to function together” under a shared sovereign territory (Taylor 2004).

Below, we elucidate distinct imaginaries of tradition (pervasive in the Syrian Bedouin tribes) and modernity (in the Syrian elite) in the (re-)making of the Badia. We juxtapose the struggles of these viewpoints with an emerging collective belief formation, the imaginary of Islamist movements. Under the Caliphate model, landscapes are decreed by “the boundless sovereignty of God” (Hamdan 2016) with particular narratives strategically leveraged within local contexts.

Fig. 4: Landscape Imaginaries. Ideologies and practices of landscape by the Syrian government, rebel groups, and ISIS. Drawing by Lizzie Yarina
(click to download full resolution image)

Landscape as cyclical tradition. Survival in the remote steppe requires a deep understanding of the ecosystem and its limitations on supporting human activities. Speaking of Syria’s Bedouin population, Chatty observes (2010) “the very nature of the tribal way of life […] revolves around the need for constant flexibility and adaptation.” Archaeological remnants stress this idea, showing that settlements in the driest places of the Fertile Crescent have expanded in cycles of 200–300 years of good weather and retreated in cycles of one thousand or more years of droughts and political instability (Hole 2009; Weiss 1991). The steppe covers some 55% of the Syrian territory and receives less than 200 mm of erratic and unevenly distributed rainfall per year. The landscape is dominated by dwarf shrubs and annual grasses that serve as forage for herds as well as wildlife, and its boundaries are fluid due to varying climatic conditions (Louhaichi and Tastad 2010). In response to such fluctuations, this imaginary evokes a constant state of readiness for change epitomized by migratory pastoral economies, nomadism, and a strong sense of community that functions as a safety net for its adherents. In this view, climate is unpredictable, but the landscape—as a system of human and nonhuman actors—will eventually adapt and persist given time and careful management. The scarcity regime of the steppe is vulnerable to acute water and food crises, and its denizens use traditional models of cyclical and nomadic use in order to curb overexploitation.

Various groups of Bedouins are brought together around this imaginary. They move sheep, goat, and camel herds across large territories, through coordinated seasonal routes, allowing grazing areas to rest and regenerate periodically, through a rotational system known as hema. Typically, herds graze on the Badia at the onset of the autumn rains and move back to rain-fed areas in late spring; figure 02 illustrates some of these patterns of seasonal tribal migration. The cyclical relationship with the landscape has lasted for centuries, facilitated by customary laws that smoothed intra- and inter-tribal disputes.

These processes were disrupted when Syrian governments that succeeded the French Mandate in 1946 took steps to reduce the power of shaykhs and eliminate customary law. In 1952, all tribal lands were claimed under state control and in 1958 the tribes’ territories were formally abolished and opened for settlement and agriculture. However, shaykhs were not equally affected by those measures, illustrating how the Bedouins, like any other social category, encompass a diversity of groups that are continuously redefining. Those who offered allegiance to the Assad regime gained private land, subsidies and political power while others fled to neighboring countries after refusing to subordinate to the commodification trend. The alliances forged between national and tribal leaders in the past decades not only amplified the exploitation of the steppe, but also deepened the “asymmetric power relations within the tribal milieu” (Lange 2015).

However, despite these and numerous other attempts to dismantle customary rules in Syria, Bedouins could subsist as long as they were free to move with their flocks in the steppe. Mobility is a way to cope with drought and isolation; it is a fundamental source of resilience. But mobility too has been disavowed by the national government, which incentivized programs of sedentary agriculture. When farming became unsustainable, many Bedouin settled in the outskirts of cities where their acclimatization to high temperatures was perceived as an advantage for employment in infrastructure construction sites (Dukhan 2014).

The forced assimilation of Bedouin tribes into the national project eventually failed and a strong sense of cultural pride emanated from the struggles. Many solidarity bonds were reinforced, not only in Syria, but amongst the Sunni Arab majority in the region to whom Syrian Bedouins are ethnically and religiously related. During the Syrian conflict, Bedouins allied with both the Syrian government and the opposition, mostly following the pre-war allegiances that evolved under the Assad regime. As a response to central repressive force against protests in 2011, tribes from both sides militarized; this was made possible by the possession of arms from their nomadic lives and the flow of weapons through national and international networks.

Overall, the “cyclical tradition” landscape imaginary constitutes a common mental map to navigate the unstable Badia, provisioned with mechanisms for an inclusionary resource management system coordinated locally (Rae et al. 2001). Nonetheless, in recent history, this imaginary has been challenged; initially, by broad modern narratives of high productivity, central administration and market orientation that are conducive to progress. Later, the disruption infiltrated inner circles; some Bedouin leaders were seduced by the dream of producing a powerful modern nation and as a result networks of regional power and honor were undermined. The 2011 uprising suggests that the regime’s selective tolerance of tribal authority has not resolved social and environmental instabilities in the steppe, but merely sedated them. 

Landscape as extractive commodity. This imaginary, associated with Syria’s dominant Ba’ath regime, entangles landscape with national-scale development, embedded in visions of a rapid modernization in Syria. But imagined states are often confronted with complex realities on the ground as exemplified by frictions associated with the early years of the Ba’ath Party. When the Party took power through a coup in the 1960s, militant cadres promoted a Syrian state along Leninist lines.  However, during the first years of government, disagreements between two factions arose. One side, formed by leading hardline socialists, defended public sector expansion and incentives to cooperatives in agriculture and commerce. Led by the young officer Hafez al-Assad, the other side pushed for the reduction of public deficit and a liberalized economy (Gharabaghi 1995). When Assad eventually took over the cabinet in 1971, he promoted major deregulation of commercial and industrial sectors, but land remained the main governmental commodity, controlled through technocratic practices, including agricultural planning and productivity control, and military force.

The Syrian elite pushed to become a major regional player, competing in global markets with cash crops. If environmental constraints were recognized as one of the most significant downsides in advancing this imaginary, its advocates kept optimistic about the power of technological solutions to overcome landscape fragilities. Plans to operationalize the Euphrates basin had been in motion prior to the Assad regime, but it was not until 1973 that large-scale interventions including the Tabqa Dam became viable through technical and financial cooperation with the Soviet government. This project was intimately tied to regime legitimacy and national pride (Wasinger 2015); as the largest infrastructure in Syria, it was perceived as a symbol of state administrative capacity and maturity.

The ideation of a modern society implied serious threats to traditional steppe lifestyles. Bedouins were generally perceived by the Ba’ath Party as politically unreliable and a major pitfall in the realization of a cohesive nation (Rae et al, 2001; Dukhan, 2014). These readings translated into a narrative that blamed customary legal systems and nomadic practices for the degradation of large tracts of the territory. The Constitution of the Ba’ath Arab Socialist Party states. 

Bedouin life is a primitive social status that undermines the national production and renders a large portion of the nation paralyzed. It is a factor that precludes the development and progress of the nation. The party is striving to modernize Bedouin life and give Bedouins lands together with the cancellation of the tribal system and the enforcement of the State's laws on them. [7]

The “extractive commodity imaginary” dismisses the capacity of Bedouins to combine highly productive and sustainable systems in the steppe because of the belief that longstanding inter-tribal hostilities will prevent cooperation for mutual benefit.  The regime assumed that the Bedouins were trapped in a “tragedy of the commons,” and that a central authority was required to plan and regulate the best use of resources.   

Nationalizing land and inducing settlement of nomadic populations were not the only strategies to supplant customary systems. State interventions in the Badia also sought to train Bedouins to manage western grazing systems, particularly a shrub technology to rehabilitate the rangeland, known as Atriplex.

Fig. 5: Atriplex. Plant species applied as technical solution in the steppe landscape and its social/territorial implications. Drawing by Lizzie Yarina.
(click to download full resolution image)

The Steppe Directorate (SD), an arm of the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform created with the assistance of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), orchestrated the implementation. An Australian species (Atriplex nummularia) had successfully rehabilitated previously degraded arid lands in Africa with results considered satisfactory by its technocratic envoy and the shrub was introduced to Syria by international technical advisors as part of a package of “portable solutions” (Mehos and Moon, 2011).

Steppe agro-pastoralists were reluctant to sacrifice their barley fields to plant Atriplex nummularia for numerous reasons: (1) according to the customary system, planting of crops such as barley provides ownership claims to land, while fodder shrubs including Atriplex confer no territorial ownership; (2) barley post-harvest residue could be used for grazing and is more palatable to livestock; (3) to compensate the high concentration of salt in Atriplex, sheep must drink twice as much water, placing further strains on already dwindling supplies.  Poor adoption of Atriplex by steppe farmers led to the creation of state-run fodder shrub plantations, beginning in 1987. The government established enclosures with shrubs, trenched or fenced, and within a five-year period granted herders restricted access in the winter season (Rae et al. 2001). These were often sited within one or more of the existing tribal territories. Atriplex plantations further centralized the management of the steppe into the hands of the state, restricting mobility and fueling conflict among tribes. (Rae et al. 1996). 

Parallels to this managerial mode of imagining landscape and development can be found across the globe. However, as Tony Weis (2007) contends, “to recognize this is not to fall prey to a global determinism; […] understanding agrarian change anywhere starts with localized historical geographies.” Global practices and policies inevitably land in real ecologies and social structures resulting in unique formations on the ground; in Syria’s case this is made visible through enclosed Atriplex cooperatives, the sedentarization of nomads, and the planting of water-guzzling wheat in irrigated steppe landscapes.

Landscape as boundless territory. The appeal of the “boundless territory imaginary” associated with the transcendental unity of the Islamist movement[8] relies precisely on the fact that the spatial dimension of its legitimacy is interlocked to the bonds of faith and therefore transcends the physical boundaries of states. An alternative approach to the Pan-Arabism upheld by the Ba’ath Party’s early days, this imaginary praises religious authority, which rules based on Shari’a law, instead of secular authority, and governs a bounded territory hallowed in a constitution. In practice though, since the abolition of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924, Shari’a has coexisted in Syria with national legal systems, guiding spheres of personal life (including marriage, inheritance, custody) without necessarily defying nation-state borders or laws (Al-Rasheed, Kersten, and Shterin 2015). This tenuous balance has been debated among Islamic activists, but it was more profoundly probed in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. As failed nation-states and climate chaos threatened the very survival of people in the region, the concept of the Islamic caliphate was invigorated.

This imaginary presumes that landscape resilience is provisional: social divides signal weakness whereas religious unity entails power, overriding any tribal, ethnic, or linguistic distinction. The breakdown of tribes, the displacement of herders and farmers, and the disempowerment of traditional authorities in Syria offered a favorable ground for the spread of the Islamic State. The Badia region emerged as a strategic territory for the materialization of this imaginary. However, ISIS control of certain infrastructural systems, such as the weaponization of dams, has exacerbated the failure of the group in agricultural landscapes. Five dams along the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers have been threatened by or under control of ISIS at some point.[9] They are primarily used to fight against opposing forces and instill terror in urban and rural populations. For instance, in April 2014, ISIS closed the gates of the Fallujah Dam, some 25 miles from Baghdad, successfully dislodging government forces and causing water shortages for millions. Four months later, ISIS captured the Mosul Dam and put half a million Iraqis at risk of flooding and electricity blackouts.

Central to ISIS enterprise is the construction of collective practices and rituals on a transnational scale that emphasizes the identity of the Islamic world while producing meaningful localities. These efforts reflect a paradoxical rhetoric of universalism and localism as illustrated by Hamdan (2016) in his account of the video Eid Greetings from the Land of the Khilafah, released by al-Hayat—one of ISIS’s media houses—during the celebration of Ramadan in 2014. The video depicts the lives of new militants arriving in the Syrian city of Raqqa, typically armed men from children to middle age, hailing from different continents, speaking multiple languages and assimilating new names while resituating themselves as members of a community of global believers. Other videos stress the idea of community, such as the Mujatweets series, in which insurgents demonstrate their solidarity and communal bonds as they visit injured fighters in a hospital or hand out ice cream to children in public spaces whilst praising the group’s virtues. Most content is in English or subtitled, suggesting that they are carefully designed as a recruitment tool for Muslims in Europe and North America.[10]

 The adaptive expansion of the “boundless territory” imaginary is further outlined in Hamdan’s (2016) study of two besieged cities: Deir ez-Zor in southeast Syria and Gaziantep in Turkey. Along the same lines of Al-Rasheed, Hamdan argues that to make sense of ISIS geopolitics we must go beyond analyses of ideology and discourse and focus on its “pragmatic and adaptable character,” highly articulated with local interests; far from being bounded and homogenous, ISIS’ operations focus on the political opportunities each place represents, as a differentiated setting for human life. Deir ez-Zor is strategically located between Baghdad and Damascus and has been a hub for numerous tribes since the Ottoman Empire. During the Assad regime, the province became one of the country’s most prosperous oil and agricultural fields. However, since ISIS militants besieged it in 2014, apart from the protection of oil reserves, Deir ez-Zor has been excluded from government priorities, causing local grievances with the Syrian state. In 2015, after al-Sheitat tribesmen fought ISIS to defend oilfields, the militants executed at least 700 people, displaying tactics of brutality to punish insubordination. 

 In Gaziantep, about 80 miles from Aleppo, the ISIS campaign was relatively different even though assassinations and suicide bomb attacks have caused multiple casualties. Turned into a prosperous industrial and agricultural center with Turkish government incentives some years ago, Gaziantep has become a refuge for thousands of Syrian activists fleeing the Assad regime at the same time as it has been a logistics base for ISIS. Despite the spread of fear, various accounts highlight how the city accommodates a certain “everyday life.”  Such cases suggest that ISIS has different strategies according to the territory it seizes; presupposing they are “uniformly brutal” can oversimplify the imaginary we aim to expose.

 In order to operate as a boundless caliphate, ISIS adapts its tactics to the underlying physical and social conditions upon which it operates. In this way, the “boundless territory imaginary” operates through a dual vantage point. By “seeing” the landscape on the ground, as the territory of the Islamic State expands, it may appeal to a diversity of communities and tribes formally considered as impediments to development of modern nations. By unifying Muslims through faith—in the “boundless sovereignty of God” (Hamdan 2016)—this imaginary articulates a greater purpose that potentially extends to the vast community of Muslims around the world.

Conclusion: Reconciling a Contested Landscape?

In this paper, we have proposed the concept of “landscape imaginaries” to trace an alternative account of the crisis in Syria.  We argue that the civil war cannot be understood as a single-factor history of climate change-induced violence, but rather as a confluence of climate change, failed state-sponsored development, and violence (Parenti 2011). By incorporating landscape imaginaries into this complex context, we uncover some of the processes by which a strategic area for the conflict – the most arid Syrian region – has “come to be imagined, adapted, and transformed” by different social groups (Anderson, 1991).

 Table 1 summarizes the three competing landscape imaginaries (cyclical tradition, extractive commodity, boundless territory) we have defined and their assumptions regarding the ability of the environment and society to cope with stresses. These assumptions influence a set of social practices, norms and modes of organization. We also examine the physical boundaries associated with each imaginary. Drawing on Taylor’s (2004) and Jessop’s (2012) analyses of “modern,” “economic,” and “ecological” imaginaries, we attempt to show that certain modes of production and security shaping the landscape are a product of dominant ideas over time. Exploring these divergent imaginaries offers a new entry point to understanding the Syrian conflict through their exposition of prevailing social disjunctures. These competing imaginaries will likely require negotiation in the process of recovery from the war.

Table 1: Syrian Landscape Imaginaries

The rise of the extractive commodity imaginary disrupted the orientation of a pre-existing repertoire of environmental management practices whose main pillars were low-scale and cyclical production, regionally coordinated by customary authorities. The shift to a global, industrial, highly profitable way of production managed through technocratic processes in the 1970s undermined the Syrian steppe’s environmental capacity and traditional cultures. To carry out the plans of a fast-growing nation, the state used coercive methods to abate opposition, creating resentment and prompting unrest in a region which facilitated flows of arms and hosted historic ethnic and religious dissent. Short in environmental and social safeguards, Syria collapsed when it was hit by a multi-year severe drought, in 2007-2010. Climate change (in Syria and elsewhere) is not a “warmonger” in its own right, but rather acts as a destabilizing force against existing physical and social vulnerabilities.

Considering the current struggle, how might landscape imaginaries, as outlined here, inform recovery and resilience strategies? The long-term knowledge and capacity to persist in the steppe embodied in the cyclical tradition imaginary may offer considerations for an alternative approach to reconstruction. The assumption, long-held in the traditional knowledge of the Bedouin, that the environmental system is naturally in a dynamic non-equilibrium state could aid in adjusting responses to hazardous events or trends which continue to abound.  The cyclical tradition imaginary offers a longitudinal view of modes of adaptation to changes and may hold important information for restoring resilience. Incorporating this knowledge would depend on the existence of organizational conditions under which constituents of this imaginary could operate, which might imply the restructuring of centralized management and the redesign of pacts to accommodate decentralized modes of governance. This scenario does not infer a nostalgic return to the past, but rather the conscious recognition of environmental shifts and limitations. By improving resilience to environmental fluctuations on the ground, such a recognition is most likely to have a positive impact in peace-building. 

Regardless of the outcome of the war, the extractive commodity imaginary is likely to remain dominant due to its close alignment with elites interested in maintaining the supremacy of capitalist structures and nation-states, both in Syria and worldwide. The current crisis obscures whether and how adherents of this imaginary will advocate for a robust process of climate mitigation and adaptation. Studies show that anthropogenic climate change will exacerbate instabilities in the rainfall regime and soil moisture in most of the Fertile Crescent, and after the US’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, there is even more uncertainty about the direction the world will take regarding reliance on fossil fuel. This future uncertainty compels action in the arenas government and individuals can control: policy, economics, social organization and partnerships that can provide aid when the next heat wave disrupts livelihoods.

In acknowledgement of these and others failures of progress-oriented imaginaries, Islamist movements offer a worldview that challenges the establishment and nation-states by creating a faith-based transcendental unity without bounds; it reactivates a global spiritual allegiance that confronts the most cherished values of dominant imaginaries (i.e. freedom of speech, secularism, democracy), in Syria and elsewhere. Welzer (2012) puts it this way: “modern terrorism is a child of modernization processes,” because it feeds off of the failures to provide the benefits of progress for all. In this sense, the rise of the boundless territory imaginary is opportunistic, and transforms the landscape through struggle and militarization. In light of this context, it seems likely that this imaginary will eventually be sidelined, but not negated; rather, remaining a latent insurgency against modern grievances.

This phenomenon is not unique to Syria. Take the Fragile States Index[11], a map for hotspots of “catastrophic convergences”: all 15 countries in a high state of alert for failure—including South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, Yemen, and Syria—demonstrate parallel stories of conflict, famine, displacement, climate stresses, and persistent problems in the governing system. This sort of big data illustrates the patterns of chaos, but does not directly engender solutions, which must attend to local specificities (such as landscape imaginaries) which may be invisible to the satellites and formulas. In approaching climate change from the security standpoint, we should consider that most of the territories that are collapsing have been subjected to top-down delineation of extractive and productive processes, emerging from technocratic and managerial worldviews, thus hindering resilience.

With our exposition of landscape imaginaries on the Syrian steppe, we suggest that recovery and resilience processes must attend to the conflicting worldviews and associated landscape activities that helped to lay the groundwork for the crisis. By tying the physical history of actions on and in the Badia to the conceptual frameworks underpinning those activities, we propose that resilience-building activities consider physical adaptations in relation to ideations of place and territory. Indigenous imaginaries such as those associated with the Bedouin may provide a constructive counterpoint to the technocratic responses currently espoused in resiliency dialogues (de Block 2016). If the slippage between landscape as “cyclical tradition” and “extractive commodity” helped to create the gap in which ISIS found its foothold, perhaps that gap could be filled by incorporating traditional modes of adaptation as understood by indigenous communities into contemporary practices, helping to reconcile current and future conflict.



We would like to thank Marianne Potvin, in whose course “Spaces of Conflict” at the Harvard GSD this paper was initially developed. We would also like to thank two anonymous reviewers, whose feedback helped us to productively develop several key points in the article.



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[1] Notable comments included those of President Obama, who associated the study to the warnings from the Pentagon about climate change “as one of the most significant national security threats that we face over the next fifty years” (The Obama White House, 2016). Also in 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, and presidential candidate Martin O’Malley emphasized in their speeches the role of the severe 2007-2010 drought in Syria as a major factor contributing to the country’s destabilization. Earlier, in 2009, the UN General Assembly termed climate change as a “threat multiplier” and identified potential courses for action to minimize vulnerabilities. The term also infiltrated the World Bank lexicon in 2015, alerting the world to the asymmetric effects of climate change on its most vulnerable populations (Hallegatte 2015).

[2] In particular, Selby et al. (2017) inflamed the debate through their dispute of claims that climate change was a significant contributing factor to the Syrian unrest. The work points out some of the previous studies’ knowledge gaps–both in the physical and social analyses–but it does not contribute new research propositions. The paper also fails to counter one of its main critiques: the “threat multiplier” discourse by which climate change is converted into a matter of national and global security (CNA Corporation 2007; Davoudi 2014). In the end, Selby et al. focus on downplaying the quality of the research done so far without providing substantial evidence to refute it.

[3] At the end of October 2009, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) had received $700,000 from the Spanish government and $1.4 million from CERF (the Central Emergency Response Fund) while the World Food Program (WFP) had received $2.2 million out of the $23 million needed.  Source:  Financial Tracking Service (FTS) of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), <>

[4] The eight founder crops are einkorn wheat, emmer wheat, barley, lentil, pea, bitter vetch, chickpea and flax. Based on botanical, genetic and archeological evidence, Lev-Yadun et al. narrowed down their presumptive sites of domestication to a core area between the upper Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The article provides maps of the occurrence of seven wild crops within the Fertile Crescent.

[5] Skaf and Mathbout arranged rainfall time series into hydrological years (September-August). The SPI is calculated over long-term precipitation records (30 years or more) and is expressed in standard deviations from the long-term mean, usually varying from 3.0 (extremely wet) to -3.0 (extremely dry). See McKee et al. (1993) for detailed information on the index method.

[6] The Eastern Mediterranean, coincident with the historic Syrian region.

[7] For full text, consult

[8] In this paper, we opted to refer to “Islamist movement” when designating the community more broadly associated to the “boundless territory imaginary” and more specifically ISIS for the group closely related to the current Syrian crisis. Detailed descriptions of the terms and histories of the movement can be found in Cole Bunzel’s work From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State (2016).

[9] The Tabqa dam in Syria; Fallujah, Mosul, Haditha, and the Samarra Barrage in Iraq (Pearce 2014).

[10] By no means can we assume that the Islamic caliphate is a dominant imaginary or a general demand among Muslims. In a thorough collection of essays about the current state of Islamic caliphate, Madawi Al-Rasheed (2015) seeks to demystify the alarmist claim that the Muslim world is being radicalized.

[11] Produced by the think tank The Fund for Peace, the Fragile States Index uses large volumes of quantitative and qualitative data to assess nation’s vulnerabilities to collapse. Twelve conflict risk indicators are used to measure social, political and economic conditions as well as cohesion.

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