Over the past couple of weeks videos of Syrian civilians suffering the effects of a chemical weapons attack have been circulating widely on the internet and on television. Although Syrian President Bashar al Assad has denied Syrian military involvement in the attack, most recently in an interview with Charlie Rose of CBS and PBS, tonight US President Barack Obama will address the nation from the Oval Office to argue that Assad’s regime is responsible for the attack and that the US must take military action to prevent further use of chemical weapons. Meanwhile, Russia has offered to oversee the handover of Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons, a plan which apparently has backing from the United Nations.
While the story has dominated news headlines and talk shows, I have heard no discussion of the ecological and environmental justice aspects of this very important event. Modern chemical warfare requires access to the natural resources and scientific knowledge to create deadly chemical reactions, the resources and know-how to manufacture and deploy precision guided rockets, and sufficient control over media resources to frame the debate over the uses of such weapons. In short, such warfare depends on the ability of human beings to manipulate the natural environment in increasingly sophisticated ways. The use of both conventional weapons in Syria, which used by government forces, opposition rebels, foreign fighters, and terrorist groups to kill more than 100,000 civilians, and the recent chemical attacks that killed more than 1000 civilians include aspects of both social and environmental injustice.
In a larger geopolitical context, very little discussion of the links between oil, water, and other natural resources and the situation in Syria have been made. According to non-profit organizations like The Water Project and reports by the UN and news outlets in the Middle East like The National (based in the United Arab Emirates), Syria has been suffering from a severe water shortage for the past several years, which has exacerbated the ongoing struggle by opposition forces to wrest control of the government from al Assad. While the issue of oil loomed large in discussions of the Iraq invasion in 2003, very little mention has been made of oil in current coverage of the Syrian situation. Russia, which has blocked the UN from taking action in Syria and which has now offered to mediate the handover of Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles, has a long established economic relationship with Syria that revolves almost exclusively around oil and weapons. Garry Kasparov, a longtime opponent of Russian President Vladamir Putin, has recently claimed in an interview with Al-Arabiya that Putin’s staunch defense of Syria has much to do with Russia’s close ties to the Syrian industry. In 2012, both Russia and China blocked the UN from issuing economic sanctions against Syria. That same year, Assad’s regime, struggling to maintain control over Syria, struck a deal that was very favorable to Russia. According to Reuters, Syria agreed to send more than 100,000 barrels of crude oil per day to Russia in return from much needed refined oil products such as gasoline.
There’s obviously more to say, but perhaps these brief comments will be useful in framing President Obama’s speech this evening and all of the recent media coverage of the Syrian crisis through an ecocritical lens. For me this ecocritical perspective is useful for putting the debate of the use of US military force in a larger context. It also has me thinking it is time to take another look at writer/director Stephen Gaghan’s 2005 film Syriana. In an interview with the Washington Post at the time of the film’s release, Gaghan’s said something that offered a great perspective on the Iraq war and which definitely applies to the Syrian conflict: “War and, apparently, hurricanes are very good for the oil business. But I’ve got to believe at a certain point, as a nation, we’re going to go in a different direction toward an increased sense of personal responsibility, a lowering of each individual’s carbon footprint and a real collaborative effort to help sustain our planet.”