How Armed Groups Can Exploit the Climate Crisis

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In the Middle East and North Africa, non-state actors weaponizing the effects of climate change are already a reality, not a future scenario.

By the end of July 2021, wildfires ravaged geographic areas ranging from Siberia to the Pacific Northwest to the Mediterranean, hitting the islands of Sardinia and Cyprus, southern Turkey, northern Greece, and northern Lebanon, spreading to Syria.

The wildfires afflicting Lebanon and Syria, nations with weak states and armed groups, raises the question of how climate change will exacerbate insecurity in the Middle East and North Africa region.

Climate change has been described as a “threat multiplier,” as opposed to a direct, causal source of societal conflicts, civil war, or terrorism. Nevertheless, armed groups will capitalize on fluctuations caused by extreme climate events and ensuing vulnerabilities to further their goals.

Wildfires and climate change

Wildfires and climate change

Lebanon has been a victim of wildfires before. Demonstrations erupted across Lebanon in October 2019, protesting the failure of the state to provide reliable governance and services for decades, including its failure to adequately respond to wildfires that month.

The October wildfires were an anomalous climactic event, aided by gusty dry winds and unseasonably high temperatures, scorching the Mount Lebanon mountain range.

Lebanon’s three aircraft specialized in fire-fighting remained grounded due to a lack of maintenance, an example the Lebanese invoked of the state’s failing governance, demonstrated tragically less than a year later in August 2020 during the port of Beirut explosion.

In response to this year’s wildfires, Cagatay Tavsanoglu, a professor specializing in fire ecology at Hacettepe University in Ankara, said the conflagrations in the Mediterranean basin should serve as a warning: “It is just the first indications of what climate change would do to the Mediterranean region in the future.”

Given the number of armed groups in the greater Mediterranean basin, from North Africa to Iraq, climate fluctuations indeed have the potential of exacerbating pre-existing conflicts.

Climate threat multipliers 

Climate threat multipliers 

The debate around security and climate change can be traced to a 2007 Center for Naval Analyses study setting the agenda amongst policy elites in the Washington beltway, linking climate change and international security

The Center for Naval Analyses’ Military Advisory Board, which is composed of former American military commanders, categorized climate change as a nontraditional “threat multiplier,” impacting the global security landscape in the coming decades.

Since then scenarios have predicted how rising sea levels would threaten to flood coastal cities, and droughts would undermine food production systems, exacerbating the security situation in already unstable and resource-scarce regions.

For example, David Wallace-Wells, in his 2019 book, The Uninhabitable Earth,predicted extreme climate events would subsequently result in large scale migratory flows, border militarisation and ensuing resource conflicts, insurgencies, and terrorism, with the potential to impact the socioeconomic and political security of one or more nation-states.

In Foreign Affairs, Joshua Busby and Nina von Uexkull argued that the language of “threat multiplier” served its purpose in the first decade of the 21st century in linking climate change and security.

However, a combination of other factors exists that exacerbate domestic security when climate disruptions occur. Only when these combinations are elucidated, can policymakers develop strategies to mitigate the negative security consequences of extreme climate events.

The Middle East and climate instability

Busby and von Uexkull argue that societies with a history of conflict, agricultural dependence, water deficits, and political exclusion, where ethnic or religious groups have no representation in government, are prone to instability due to climate change.

In the Middle East and North Africa region, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen meet all of these conditions.

Based on these criteria, extreme climate events benefitting armed groups is not a future scenario. It has already occurred in the Middle East.

A decrease in food production, combined with weak and oppressive governance, led to increasing local support for armed groups, ranging from Daesh to Shia militias.

In Iraq, for example, around 25 percent of the country’s population is dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods and this diminishing resource will provide recruitment for militant groups, especially among neglected and marginalized communities, as Daesh demonstrated prior to its rise in 2014.

Daesh also set a precedent for weaponising Syria and Iraq’s ever-diminishing rivers, providing water to local populations under its control, while depriving the flow to areas under government control.

In order to anticipate threats emerging from climate change and ensuing violence and instability, states and international security organizations need to reimagine and integrate climate change mitigation planning into their strategic culture and security doctrine.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe needs to expand its mandate to the Middle East and North Africa region, due to its vulnerability to climate risk.

During the 2019 heatwave, I argued in this publication that NATO needs to evolve into a Climate Alliance Treaty Organization or CATO in the Middle East.

NATO has been present in the Middle East ever since Turkey joined the Alliance in the early 1950s. In the mid-1990s, NATO initiated the Mediterranean Dialogues a platform for cooperation with Jordan, Egypt, Israel, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Mauritania. The 2004 Istanbul Cooperation Initiative expanded this relationship with Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates.

Such agreements include joint exercises in maritime security, counter-piracy, non-proliferation, and energy security. The 2021 wildfires demonstrated that they need to include climate-related domains, not in the form of environmental neocolonialism, but through authentic collaboration to manage these shared risks.


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