The world’s deadliest conflict is raging in Syria. Protests over government repression and widespread poverty in 2011 were the apparent causes of the conflict. But what if there is a lot more to this story that we’ve ever considered?

Four years before the civil war started, Syria was hit by a drought that lasted until just before the revolution. A drought so devastating that it altered the lives of millions of Syrians.

Before the civil war, refugees like Farrah Naseef had lived through another disaster – the drought.  For Naseef, year after year there was less and less rain, and the Syrian “government doesn’t try to help in any kind of way,” and that the governments response made people so angry that they were eager to take to the streets. For refugees like Naseef, you cannot understand the civil war if you do not understand the drought.

“Most farmers moved from Damascus, to Homs. They lived in very poor parts of Damascus, like you can find ten persons in one room. If you notice most people in the revolution, they are the from countryside. The countryside of Syria.”

This drought was the worst in Syria’s modern history. And it happened in the four years just before the revolution. Over a million people were displaced, and according to the United Nations, more than two million were forced into extreme poverty.

This drought was part of a trend. According to a study conducted by the American Government’s Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, over the last forty years, climate change has caused the Mediterranean region to dry out, resulting in longer, more severe droughts. And Syria is right at the epicentre of this trend.

A confidential U.S diplomatic cable leaked online dated two years before the revolution also contained some troubling predictions. A UN official stationed in Syria predicted that the drought would throw the whole country into chaos.

But can there honestly be a connection between a drought and a civil war?

For U.S National Security Advisor Susan Rice, “climate change is now understood as a major security issue. A source of stress on the underlying causes of conflict. Drought, floods, food shortages, food scarcity, all of these drive human insecurity – and can contribute to conflict.”

Quantifying just how much the drought from 2006-2010 right on the eve of the revolution contributed to the Syrian conflict is difficult. However where there is drought, and when there is insecurity, poverty, hunger, poor governance and oppressive policies, for Rice, that may make the “tinder in the box more ignitable.” In other words, if a drought is bad enough, it can help push an already stressed society to breaking point.

Is that what happened in Syria?

The stories of the refugees who have ended up in Turkey certainly give weight to this theory. Many who have ended up in Turkey, like 23 year old Mohammad and his mother, used to own farmland in Syria before the drought. According to them, “the land used to be well watered. And then suddenly the drought occurred. The land became like a desert, a salt wasteland.”

Eventually Mohammad’s family lost the land, and their way of life changed completely. “We spoke about the drought, saying the government must help. But no one gave a damn. Instead, they bought us in for interrogation, and detained us for two months.”

They were eventually released, provided they kept their mouths shut. But this kind of response from their own government changed Mohammad and his family. “From the first call of Allahu Akbar, we joined the revolution, right away.” Mohammad and his family embedded with the fighters, until Mohammad got injured and his family fled to Turkey. They plan on returning to Syria and “finish what we were forced to start.”

When New York Times journalist Thomas L. Freidman travelled to Syria, he met Abu Khalil, the commander of a group of failed-farmers turned revolutionary fighters. Khalil himself used to be cotton farmer, but when the drought hit he had to turn to smuggling illegal goods to make ends meet. “The regime would arrest me and throw me in jail, but as soon as I was released I would go back to smuggling because I had to feed my family.”

For Khalil, the revolution is a response to the government turning its backs on hungry people. It is a revolution of freedom, and a revolution of the hungry.

Droughts are nothing new. Neither are brutal dictators or conflicts, or people’s desire for freedom. But for the Syrians who live through it, drought will be forever seared into their memories, and whatever shapes their feelings towards to the regime they seek to overthrow.

The rest of us should take notice. This volatile part of the world is only getting hotter and dryer. More droughts may mean more people displaced, more lives uprooted, maybe even more more wars.

When they write the history of this revolution, how important will the drought be?

Source: Years Of Living Dangerously, Showtime