The course of action decided upon by President Obama, the US Congress and the international community regarding al-Assad's unconscionable use of chemical weapons on his own people to maintain military and political control will have repercussions far beyond Syria and the Middle East.
It should come as no surprise that the situation in Syria is among the bloodiest civil wars in recent history--conditions there created the perfect storm. Assad's rule has been dictatorial, out-of-touch, corrupt, and mismanaged. Syria is home to numerous combative sectarian and ethnic groups. It is in the center of power struggles between the US and Russia, Israel and Iran, al Qaeda and a number of other groups.
And while Syria may be a prime example of a state poised on the brink of disarray, there are all too many other states that display similar conditions.
The match that set the Syrian situation ablaze was an unprecedented five-year drought, reported to be the worst since western civilization started in the Fertile Cresent many millennia ago. It decimated Syria's agricultural areas. The country's water resources dropped by half between 2002-8 when drought was added to mismanagement, waste and overuse.
For example, in 2009, the UN and IFRC reported that over 800,000 Syrians had lost all their livestock. In some areas of northern Syria herders lost around 85% of their livestock.
More important for Syria, wheat had been a staple crop for centuries and is a part of its identity. Syria was traditionally an exporter, but in recent years has been forced to import it. But wheat (and cotton, the other staple crop encouraged by the Assad regime) requires considerable amounts of water. As the drought worsened, rains came infrequently, rivers ran dry, and underground aquifers were drained. Dust Bowl conditions set in.
Only 6-8% of global wheat production is traded across borders, so any decrease in supply seriously impacts wheat importing countries like Syria (the world's nine leading wheat importing countries are in the Middle East). When China and Russia experienced crop-devastating heat waves in 2010-12, Middle Eastern countries that spend 35% of their incomes on food (as compared with 10% in developed countries) the price of wheat doubled and unrest followed.
By 2011 the extremely food insecure in Syria numbered at over one million, those affected to a lesser extent came to 2-3 million.
Most important--as far as the raging civil war in Syria is concerned--about a million people were forced to abandon hundreds of small, agricultural villages where their families had been farming for centuries. They fled to cities like Aleppo and Dara'a where supplies of water and food were already strained. These are the cities where discontent first blossomed.
Syria's resources were already stressed by a million refugees from the war in Iraq and a rapidly growing population. Syria's oil production and reserves had fallen to a level where it could not use that precious resource--as can other nations in the region--to rescue itself from such a dire situation.
Syria might be the perfect storm, but storm clouds exist all over the globe--not just in the Middle East but Central and South America, South Asia, and Africa. The lesson for all of us is that as global temperatures warm, the numbers of extreme weather events--droughts, heat waves, floods, storm, fires--are bound to increase. The dice have been loaded.
Every climate science organization and all the National Academies of Science in the world agree that the planet is warming--and will continue to do so. Those responsible for assessing the risks global warming poses--our Department of Defense, US Intelligence Agencies, NATO, large insurance companies, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and organizations representing tens of trillions of dollars of invested assets--all warn us of the multiple challenges we will face from the extreme weather events such warming will bring.
We are entering a new era when the US and the world community will have to make more decisions like the one facing us in Syria. The manner in which we handle this situation and the decisions we make will provide precedents and lessons for a world in which a warmer climate and more extreme weather events will, unfortunately, present us with ever more Syrias.