The Landscape of Syrian Economy and the Oil Industry

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Syria is a country located in the Middle East on the boundary of the Mediterranean Sea. (CIA, n.d., under “Location”) According to Central Intelligence Agency, “more than half of [Syria’s] population lives in the coastal plain… and the Euphrates River valley.” (n.d., under “Geography”) Syria’s landscape consists of nearly 200,000 square kilometers of land, three quarters of which is used for agricultural purposes. (CIA, n.d., under “Geography) While it’s difficult to accurately quantify the country’s population because of pervasive war and instability, as of 2017 Syria was inhabited by roughly 18 million people. (“Syria Population 2019” 2019) This is a decrease from what was thought to be its population in 2012, nearly 23 million. Syria’s population has been dwindling rapidly and is projected to continue on this trend. (“Syria Population 2019” 2019) Overall, Syria has large population, much of which is over-crowded into a relatively small terrain.

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Syria experiences a fairly arid climate with very little rainfall year-round. Coastal regions receive about 30 to 40 inches of rainfall annually, while inland regions, only about 10 to 20 inches. (Scullard et al. 2019) In his article, “Syria, Yemen, Libya -- One Factor Unites these States, and it isn’t Religion,” writer Jack Goldstone references the period between 2006 and 2009, just prior to Syria’s civil war, as “[Syria’s] worst drought in modern history.” (2015, para. 3) This is believed to be attributed/exacerbated by climate change and poor water management. (Goldstone 2015) As so much of Syria’s population and economy depends on agriculture, this caused social and economic unrest for all, but especially for farmers in the north. (“Syrian Civil War: The Role of Climate Change,” n.d.) According to Goldstone, “seventy-five percent of farmers suffered total-crop failure, and 80 percent of livestock died.” (2015, para. 4) One estimate suggests that food production and land-arability was hit so drastically that farmers were unable to provide food for themselves, let alone the rest of the population, leading to the country being forced to import an increased “1.5 million” tons of basic necessities like rice and flour annually.” (Jones 2017, para. 7) Consequently, the availability of food for the region and its prices were also impacted. (Jones 2017) Because many men and their families had lost land and were unemployed due to the drought, “around 1.5 million farming families migrated to cities to look for work and food, joining the [already] millions of refugees in Palestine and Iraq.” (Goldstone 2015, para. 4) This mass-migration led to what Homer-Dixon calls group-identity conflicts. (1994) As a whole, approximately two to three million people were affected by some level of food insecurity. (Gleick 2014) Economically, the drought’s impact during these years caused Syria’s GDP per capita to drop from $5000 to just shy of $3000. (Suter 2017, para. 3)

Outside of the drought and its impacts, the Euphrates River is strategic in that it has provided much of Syria’s population with irrigation, electricity, and consumption. As a result, it has, historically, been a source of contention as the river is shared between several other countries, including Iraq and Turkey. (“Euphrates River Basin,” n.d.) There have been ongoing and aggressive debates about who should control how much of the basin and who is indebted to its resources, none of which have been resolved. (O’Connor 2018) According to an article written for the Atlantic Council, rebel groups have often attempted to and succeeded at seizing the Euphrates River, using it as a source of taxation for profit. (Suter 2017) Syrian rebels at one point gained control of the “Tishrin,” a hydroelectric dam on the river that provides electricity for the population. (Suter 2017, para. 4) According to the Atlantic Council, the Syrian government itself cut off water entirely to its capital, Damascus, in 2016 and allegedly “contaminated the water supply with diesel fuel.” (Suter 2017, para. 4) As of 2017, the main water supply to Aleppo has been under siege by the Islamic State. Nearly two million people have had their water supply cut off, according to the United Nations. (2017) According to the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) the Tigris-Euphrates basin is “losing water faster than any other place in the world,” due to both climate change and corrupt management. (Hammer 2013, para. 2)

Another particularly valuable resource to the Syrian landscape is oil, and in extension, gas. Syria’s oil production tends to be centered near Iraq and the Euphrates River Valley, with nearly “2.5 billion barrels of reserves.” (Energy Information Administration 2011, para. 4) The country’s main export recipients are European countries, with particular attention to Germany and Italy. (Energy Information Administration 2011) Prior to civil war, “Syria produced about 400,000 barrels per day of crude and other petroleum liquids,” but this number has been dwindling due to impacts of the war. (Energy Information Administration 2011, para.1) According to writer David Adesnik, prior to the war, “one-fifth of the regime’s annual revenue” came from its oil industry, scraping in “$5.5 billion.” (2018, para. 5)

Being a critical part of Syria’s economy, whatever is left of the oil industry has been shifting between hands of those who seek to reap its benefits. For several years and up until recently, rebel group ISIS seized many oil fields in Syria with the intention of selling it illegally to independent traders. (Solomon et al. 2016) In 2018, the U.S. had taken over about “30 percent” of Syrian oil fields, mainly near the Euphrates river. (Webb 2018, para. 2) Due to its strategic benefits, Russia is also increasingly interested in this territory. Consequently, this area has been prone to airstrikes by both sides looking to gain control, killing hundreds of soldiers. (Osseiran 2018) While resources and the mishandling of resources in Syria has not directly led the country into its war, these issues certainly have exacerbated the issues that are already plaguing the region.

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