As snapshots of Syria’s environmental degradation go, Jebel Abdelaziz, in the northeastern part of the country, is hard to beat. The mountain’s rocky flanks offer little for livestock. The semi-arid surrounding plain offers little for man or beast. Extending over 50km (31 miles) from Hasakah into the lightly populated scrub in the country’s northeast, the Jebel, or mountain – and the villages that border it – are a study in scarcity, hopelessness, and grinding poverty.
“We are the poorest of the poor,” said Abdelaziz Abdelrahman who has lost half his sheep to starvation this year and whose five remaining animals look like they might soon join the others.
“We have nothing,” echoed Om Mohammed, a mother of seven and resident of Jouran Abyad village, when we met on a field visit in September. Her clothes threadbare and lone field uncultivable, she was barely exaggerating.
Mired in one of the deepest droughts in recorded history – and with fewer coping mechanisms than ever ten years into the war, no one is faring well in northeastern Syria. But what sets the Jebel apart is the extent to which its experience and the depth of its problems in the decades preceding the war arguably foretold the chaos to come. State mismanagement, particularly in establishing a protected area without local buy-in, hobbled the area’s pastoralism-propelled economy. Climate stresses compounded those difficulties. When the spark came, in the form of nationwide protests against the Assad regime in 2011, locals were only too keen to unleash years of pent-up fury.
This is no historical footnote, either. Because while the Jebel is largely peaceful now under the not-wholly-welcome control of the US-backed, Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), there’s no guarantee it will remain that way. ISIS elements are already expanding their local presence only five years after their occupation ended, according to security sources and a local NGO. Crime is proliferating among villages where social cohesion once mostly kept it in check. Unless authorities and their civil society partners can address the circumstances that gave rise to that initial discontent, it’s hard to imagine that Jebel Abdelaziz and similar swathes of Syria will ever again be at peace.
Some of the Jebel’s problems are at least partly grounded in early and mid-20th century flux. The breakup of the Ottoman Empire and subsequent formation of new hard borders deprived herders of favored pasture around Mardin, while years of intermittent massacres in Turkey and Iraq drove thousands of mostly Assyrian and Armenian Christians into the nearby Khabur river valley. Under the direction of the French colonial administration and then independent Syria, Damascus sponsored the development of mass irrigated agriculture across the northeast from the 1930s, generally to herders’ detriment. Once a motley mix of forest and desert, northeast Syria soon morphed into the country’s wheat and cotton-growing ‘breadbasket.’
But most locals blame the worst of their problems on a government afforestation drive from the 1980s and the establishment of a protected area around the Jebel in 1994. As recounted in a detailed scoping study conducted in 2007 by Géraldine Chatelard and Kate Washington, these initiatives, while well-intentioned in their bid to re-green the region, were introduced in such a way as to effectively proscribe profitable pastoralism. Tracts of communal land were appropriated for tree-planting, all without compensation. That expanding forest was effectively placed out of bounds – and tightly policed by rangers. In a manner characteristic of the regime’s heavy-handed, overly centralized approach, locals were neither consulted on any of this, nor awarded with what they saw as a fair share of jobs as forest wardens, many of which went to Syrians from elsewhere.
Then, just when locals thought things could get no worse, intensifying climate woes – and the state’s response to them – pitched them even deeper into poverty. Determined to preserve agricultural returns at a time of worsening drought, the state banned irrigation and most well-digging on what they deemed to be marginal land, such as the Jebel area. The fallout was immediate as pastoralists who had once been able to account for about 70% of their own fodder needs now found an average of 10%, according to Chatelard and Washington. Their now scraggly and undersized sheep could no longer be sold, or at least not at competitive prices. By 2011, locals were clashing with security services, a prelude to the gusto with which they soon joined the revolution.
Unsurprisingly, the situation has only deteriorated during the war, with even more disrupted access to pasture and markets. But in a measure of just how desperate and resentful the Jebel had become, some locals weren’t shy about siding with ISIS when it tore across the desert in early 2013. There are no precise statistics, but an SDF security source reported that at least 100 local men signed on with the group. Many others, seemingly knowing they had little to fear from the extremists, stayed put. Even now, with the SDF stationed on the mountain, an SDF artillery proving ground to its south, and SDF checkpoints crisscrossing its roads, the area is reputed to host extremist sleeper cells. Outsiders are counselled not to stick around for long.
In some ways, it can be tricky to see much hope for the Jebel. Residents are so poor that they’ve taken to fighting one another over wheat chaff, as has happened on several recent occasions. Even fewer children go to school than ever before, as families can’t afford uniforms or textbooks or transport costs. With almost no economic prospects, out-migration, particularly of young men, has swelled to such a point that there are unprecedented numbers of unmarried women. That’s added to communal tensions that were already being stretched by an epidemic of sheep rustling and roadside banditry.
This isn’t an utterly hopeless tale, though. Because while the mountain forest suffered from rampant deforestation in 2013-14, losing over 70,000 trees, according to Ashna, an NGO in Hasakah, ground validation and a remote sensing analysis by Wim Zwijnenburg of PAX suggests it’s lost relatively little since then. And the lesson from that could be profound. Having grown to appreciate the foliage the forest provides for their otherwise fodder-less sheep, Jebel villagers say they’re now loathe to log, however much they might need wood for heat and cooking fuel. If only their needs had been accommodated within the protected area, civil society representatives wonder, perhaps the worst of this localized insecurity could have been avoided.