The Changing Nature of Oil as a Political Tool in the Middle East and How This Might Positively Impact the Natural Environment

Action on Armed Violence is a research-based NGO that has extensively investigated the environmental impact of explosive weapons in Syria, specifically reporting in the organisation’s 2020 report titled, “The Broken Land.” The research exposes an ignorance within the discourse of the fatality link between explosive weapons and their effect on the environment, whereby a weapon’s chemical capacity dissolves ecosystems part of the natural landscape and climate that facilitates long-term negative impact on the public health. A person’s life expectancy is severely reduced as access to clean air, water, and food are stifled. The devastating consequences of an ongoing nine-year civil war under President Bashar al-Assad’s regime have had massive implications for civilians’ lives and the country’s climate and natural landscape.


In July this year, the US under the President Donald Trump administration continued its imposed sanctions on Syrian officials – known as the Caesar Act that was set in motion from December of last year – that includes Bashar al-Assad’s son and 13 other Syrian regime collaborators. These July sanctions were delivered at a moment of increased tension recently in southern Syria where civilian protests had emerged with the intent to isolate Assad as he continues to disengage with peace negotiation recommended by the international community. Currently, Assad’s regime prevents the return of displaced Syrians and a sense of security for those that remain within the country’s borders. Arguably, these individual sanctions pave a way towards a top-down approach to the political crisis in Syria, unlike previous airstrikes approved by western countries that directly affected civilian lives. The deployment of armed violence also ignores the fatality link between explosive weapons and their effect on the environment, which will exacerbate peace-building processes that the country must engage with in a post-regime socio-political landscape.


The use of sanction addresses the necessity of Assad’s removal from power but fails to interweave the environmental complexities that prevent sustainable peace-building processes for Syrians. This becomes further complicated when we consider the onset of climate change.

Research produced by Action on Armed Violence attempts to tackle this gap between the environmental impact of explosive weapons and their detrimental impact on civilians’ lives in Syria. The 2020 report employs a methodological approach consisting of desk-based research, as well as interviews and on-the-ground investigations at the Syrian border in Lebanon. Four main environmental issues are addressed in the report including unexploded ordnance (UXO), agriculture, infrastructural damage, and flora and fauna. It has been estimated that conflict in Syria has generated 15 million tonnes of rubble in Aleppo and 5.3 million in Homs. Infrastructural redevelopment is difficult to engage with due to high levels of UXO contamination since exposure to dust and debris produced by explosive weapons is linked to cancers and other health issues.

Many of Syria’s oil and gas infrastructures have also been severely devastated largely due to the Islamic State’s control of over 60% of the country’s finite resources at the peak of the group’s influence. These locations in Syria were then targeted by a U.S-led coalition that has resulted in much of the devastation caused across the country. Oil and gas resources in the Middle East have historically been utilised by state and non-state actors to fulfill their political endeavors. For instance, the U.S. has engaged in warfare practices for decades to seek influence over oil-rich countries within the region. Marxist geographer, David Harvey, has equated the ‘War on Terror’ U.S. foreign policy as a means to, “facilitate conditions for profitable capital and accumulation on the part of both domestic and foreign capital.”


Yet in an Al Jazeera article published last month, the question of whether the peak of demand for oil is over was posed? The article situates the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on oil production for OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) countries and expresses a shift in demand. The overall demand for oil within the region is changing, which implies that the function of oil as a political tool will also change. Although Syria isn’t actually a member of the OPEC, the shift in demand for oil-rich Middle Eastern countries will also impact Syrian oil production.


OPEC countries have dealt with supply shocks throughout the Gulf conflicts during the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Yet the situation for oil-rich countries in the Middle East today is remarkably different from the problems that they faced in the last few decades. Interviews held by Reuters with OPEC current and former officials stated that the pandemic make oil price drop below $16 a barrel, which then prompted OPEC and its 13 members to re-evaluate the demand growth outlook. The pandemic has exacerbated the impact of the “rise of electric vehicles and a shift to renewable energy sources” on long-term oil demand,” as reported by Al Jazeera.


This then suggests that oil infrastructures in Syria will become less desirable to those pursuing political objectives, since the resource is becoming less desirable economically. Under global capitalist structures, the Middle East is experiencing the early stages of a transition into a new era where the oil-rich countries will no longer have the leverage over other countries and be a tool for powerful countries to pursue their own political agendas.


Furthermore, as countries continue to address the onset of climate change, environmental issues will become interwoven into international standards. The 2020 report published by Action on Armed Violence recommends that state and non-state actors should “develop stronger international standards, including certain prohibitions and restrictions on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.” Emphasising the impact of explosive weapons on the environment through research will work towards raising awareness of the fatality link between explosive weapons and their impact on the environment that causes long-term human suffering. Thus, the work presented in the 2020 report must be built on by NGOs, academia, and policymakers alike so that accurate recommendations can be implemented within international law.


For displaced Syrians and those living under Assad’s regime, rebuilding the country’s political structural organisation must incorporate the dismissal of corrupt individuals in power, as well as a sober realisation of the impact of war on Syrian climate and natural landscape. Conceptualising the fatality link between explosive weapons and their effect on Syria’s environment is where we can begin, which has been initiated by the research produced by Action on Armed Violence. In a changing socio-political landscape within the region, oil as a finite resource is starting to experience the deterioration of its power as a political tool for both state and non-state actors. Historically, the region has been targeted for its oil-rich resources, but the new era of the green transition will alter the ways countries in the Middle East navigate their political endeavors, as well as how Western countries implicate these countries into their own national endeavors.


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