Was drought really the trigger behind the Syrian Civil War in 2011?

Arnon Karnieli, Alexandra Shtein, Natalya Panov, Noam Weisbrod, Alon Tal

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


The role played by unsustainable resource management in initiating international conflicts is well documented. The Syrian Civil War, commencing in March 2011, presents such a case. The prevailing opinion links the unrest with sequential droughts occurring from 2007-2010. Our research, however, reveals that the winter-rainfed agricultural conditions before 2011, as detected by satellite-derived vegetation indices, were similar and even better for Syrian farmers than for those of their Turkish counterparts across the border. Concurrently, summer-irrigated crops, heavily dependent on Euphrates River water originating from Turkey, notably declined in Syria while flourishing in Turkey. These findings are firmly supported by other independent and validated datasets, including long-term cross-border discharge, the water level in Syrian and Turkish reservoirs, and transborder groundwater flow. We conclude that the Turkish policy of unilaterally diverting the Euphrates water was the main reason for the agricultural collapse and subsequent instability in Syria in 2011. The obvious inference is that while prolonged drought exacerbated conditions, unsustainable anthropogenic water management in Turkey was the proximate cause behind the Syrian uprising.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1564
JournalWater (Switzerland)
Issue number8
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2019


  • Discharge
  • Euphrates
  • Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI)
  • Reservoir water level
  • Syrian CivilWar
  • Transborder groundwater flow
  • Turkish Southeastern Anatolia Project

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Biochemistry
  • Aquatic Science
  • Water Science and Technology


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