As the Ice Age ended, the Middle East was the cradle of Western civilization. The “four rivers” mentioned in the Bible met in the Persian Gulf. The Euphrates River Valley, cultivated with a sophisticated irrigation system, was a breadbasket for thousands of years. Unfortunately, the mountain waters coated the soil with clay long before iron and steel plows were invented. The climate warmed, and the introduction of sheep in the Central Asian steppes caused the grass to loose its purchase. The soil washed away in the rain. The carrying capacity of the land plummeted.
Today, much of the region is dessicated. Population levels are sustained by imports financed by oil revenues. Unfortunately, those revenues are not distributed uniformly. Both ethic and class prejudice allow a small minority to capture most of the wealth, while the less fortunate scrabble for bread and shelter.
What will happen when the oil is gone?
This is a significant factor in the rise of ISIS: the Sunni/Baath minority in Iraq lost control of oil revenues to the northern Kurds and southern Shias. While IS also uses extortion and sales of archaeological treasures to finance its operations, sale of oil from captured Iraqi and Syrian facilities is a mainstay.
The brutality of the regime is intense. As in failed African states, many of its fighters are locals without any other means of support.
Is there any means for external actors to control the downward spiral in such situations? Obviously the oil economy allowed the Sunni/Baath community to amass enormous wealth, and given the focus on capturing territory over sustaining a viable economy, an investment in guns and bullets reaps huge gains for the violent few. The material left by the US for use by Iraqi government forces was also a boon to IS. But is it reasonable to expect that we can keep weapons out of the region?
The harsh climate and conditions also make it difficult to secure borders. IS is now spreading eastwards into Afghanistan, the source of much of the world’s opium, a cash crop that has moved for decades into the Western world in spite of efforts to suppress it.
The response of much of the Syrian population has been to flee. Is it possible to supply them in the region, or must they relocate to more stable societies? The Palestinian refuge camps in the ’70s and ’80s were not successful. Do we have the wisdom and skills to do better now?
My concern is that if we do not set about applying ourselves to understanding how to manage this kind of chaos, we are going to be facing the same situation all over the world in the next eighty years. Although driven initially by natural glacial cycles, the Middle East and Central Asia are archetypes for the ecological collapse and social instability that comes with global warming.