Why are so many of these states falling apart now and generating great floods of refugees? What internal flaws or unsustainable outside pressures do they have in common? Most of them achieved self-determination when imperial powers withdrew after the Second World War. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, they were ruled by military leaders who ran police states and justified their monopolies of power and wealth by claiming that they were necessary to establish public order, modernise their countries, gain control of natural resources and withstand fissiparous sectarian and ethnic pressures.
These were generally nationalist and often socialist regimes whose outlook was overwhelmingly secular. Because these justifications for authoritarianism were usually hypocritical, self-interested and masked pervasive corruption by the ruling elite, it was often forgotten that countries like Iraq, Syria and Libya had powerful central governments for a reason – and would disintegrate without them.
Patrick Cockburn, ‘Refugee crisis: Where are all these people coming from and why?‘ in The Independent, September 8th, 2015
Syria and Iraq are the main sources of refugees flowing into south-east Europe, while Libya is the main point of departure for those crossing the sea directly from the south. Each appears to be following on the heels of Somalia, which collapsed into “failed state” status a generation ago. The war in Somalia turned out to be endless, and that increasingly looks to be the fate of the other three. And they’re not alone. As Cockburn puts it, religious, ethnic and separatist conflicts are tearing countries apart in a “vast swathe of territory between the Hindu Kush mountains and the western side of the Saraha”, with wars raging in Afghanistan, south-east Turkey, Yemen, Sudan and north-east Nigeria.
Syria, Iraq and Libya were held intact for decades by their respective versions of authoritarian, secular nationalism. The lynchpin came loose and the centre did not hold. Out came sectarian nihilists, running amok in a region already awash with firepower.
How did this happen? Corrupt, inept political leaders – check. Ill-informed foreign military interventions – check. And one other major factor, possibly the crucial one – environmental stress. “Syria was destabilized by 1.5 million migrants from a three-year drought that was made more intense and persistent by human-driven climate change, which is steadily making the whole eastern Mediterranean and Middle East region even more arid”, according to Prof. Richard Seager of Columbia University, who co-authored this paper on climate change and the Syrian drought of 2007-2010. The study shows that the drying out of the region neatly matches models of human-induced climate change, and cannot easily be attributed to natural variability.
Source: The Earth Institute at Columbia University, NASA
The map depicts the effects of the drought in that period, several years before ISIS came into being. The area of burnt brown, ranging from Baghdad, up across northern Iraq and Syria and down towards Lebanon, corresponds almost exactly with the outlines of today’s demonic “Islamic State”.
It’s the same gentle curve that marks the hilly flanks of the Fertile Crescent, the zone where the remains of the world’s earliest agricultural communities have been found, the very cradle of human civilization.