Inside the Syrian Dust Bowl

The Assad family’s favorite international development organization tried to turn Syria into an agricultural powerhouse. Its failure sparked a civil war.

  • By Peter Schwartzstein

On July 15, 2012, Mahmoud Solh at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) received the news he’d long been dreading: Syrian rebel fighters had drawn too close to the center’s headquarters near Aleppo for the board of trustees’ comfort. As the director-general of an organization with 600 employees and a net expenditure of $71 million in 2014, he was going to have to shut most operations down.

The uprooting of the Middle East’s largest agricultural organization was an ominous early warning of the chaos that has since engulfed most of Syria. But it did not come as much of a surprise to the employees at ICARDA’s sprawling 2,500-acre research station in the village of Tel Hadya. As members of an organization charged with boosting food security in Syria, they knew that one of the underlying causes of the conflict — the poor agricultural conditions that fueled popular discontent across the country — was not getting any better. For years, they had witnessed the hardship of Syrian villagers up close, as extended bouts of low rainfall cut crop yields and pushed farmers off their land, which ultimately led some of them to take up arms.

“After the first year without rain, we started to see people struggle a lot. After the second, there was desperation,” an ICARDA plant breeder said, speaking on the condition of anonymity as he sometimes still works in Syria. “And after the fourth, it wasn’t really a surprise to see them rise up.”

Solh, too, saw some of this coming. “What it did was that it forced migration from rural areas to cities,” he told me when we met at the organization’s temporary headquarters in a residential apartment building in an upscale Beirut neighborhood. “With more migration, there was more unemployment. Certainly among the young, there was a lot of frustration.”

But in 2012, after the kidnapping of two lab technicians by a local rebel group, along with an uptick in skirmishes on the adjacent highway, ICARDA’s departure suddenly took on a new urgency. The organization put previously laid evacuation plans into motion, ferrying more than 100 expat agronomists and hydrologists to Aleppo’s airport and flying them out of harm’s way. Syrian staff then hastily set about transferring the station’s most valuable technology to their annex in the city center while also dispersing ICARDA’s 400 sheep among local farmers for safekeeping. More than two-thirds of the flock was stolen and eaten before its transport to new pastures in Lebanon could be arranged.

As the situation continued to deteriorate through the fall of 2012, 100 remaining staff members, all of them Syrians, hurried to complete the drawdown. They took last-minute readings for decade-long research projects and scoured the black market to secure diesel to power generators for the station’s treasured seed bank.

When rebel militias, including the Salafi group Ahrar al-Sham, assumed total control of Tel Hadya in 2012, the last researchers were forced to leave ICARDA’s headquarters. Like more than half of the Syrian population, they have been scattered across the country and into neighboring states.

With the war showing few signs of abating, there’s little suggestion their technical know-how will be put to use in rebuilding the country anytime soon.

With the war showing few signs of abating, there’s little suggestion their technical know-how will be put to use in rebuilding the country anytime soon.

But some experts and former staff members, assessing ICARDA’s past activities, wonder if that might not be a bad thing. The projects that the organization pursued within Syria in cooperation with the country’s government are now earning the scrutiny of critics. And it’s not just the organization’s moral judgment they question, but also its professional competence.

ICARDA and the Assads

There is plenty of tragedy, but also some irony, in ICARDA’s forced departure from Syria. The reason the organization was based there in the first place was in large part because Hafez al-Assad, the country’s longtime dictator and father to Bashar, hoped it would prevent a catastrophic drought of the sort that is now fueling the country’s ongoing war.

Founded at the height of the Middle East’s population boom in the 1970s, ICARDA’s mandate was to improve agriculture in “marginal” environments around the world, where poor soil and water conditions made large-scale crop production difficult. The organization originally intended to operate from across the border in Lebanon but began fishing around for alternative bases when the civil war struck Beirut in 1975. The elder Assad, keen to increase Syria’s food production and thereby insulate his regime from external pressures, made the fledgling group such an attractive offer of land to the south of Aleppo that two years later it didn’t feel able to refuse.

Today, ICARDA receives funding from a range of states and development groups, including the Afghan government and the U.S. Agency for International Development, to operate in dozens of countries around the world. At the time of its flight from its Syrian headquarters, it had more than 120 projects outside Syria in progress, from Sudan to Uzbekistan.

But much of the organization’s attention was devoted to Syria. Even now, the financially stricken authorities in Damascus pay ICARDA its annual dues of half a million dollars. (Senior directors say money for projects in the eastern Mediterranean is increasingly hard to come by as donors redirect their giving toward Syria’s refugees.)

And the organization did assist Syria in earning a reputation, until recently, as the region’s agricultural powerhouse. For more than a decade, the country was self-sufficient in cereals and had been exporting wheat to Jordan and Egypt. To many neighboring states, which regularly spend large sums of money to buy foreign foodstuffs, Syria seemed the picture of agricultural health.

But all wasn’t well, and the measures taken to turn Syria into an agricultural power in the first place had a lot to do with this. The government sponsored the expansion of farmland, which grew from about 1.5 million acres in the mid-1980s to roughly 3 million acres by 2000. It also almost doubled the number of wells, which contributed to a rapidly falling water table. At the Tel Hadya station, ICARDA recorded a 40-meter drop in local water levels between 1984 and 2010. When the rains failed starting in 2006, farmers turned to groundwater for supplemental irrigation as they had during past droughts — but found that many of the wells had run dry or turned saline.

The Syrian government wasn’t blind to the perils of fast-depleting aquifers and moved to tackle the overuse of well water. But some of its solutions, while likely necessary from a purely environmental perspective, only contributed to rural hardship. In May 2008, authorities in Damascus dramatically cut diesel subsidies, raising the price of fuel from 7 Syrian pounds ($0.14) per liter to 25 pounds ($0.53) overnight. For many farmers, whose income had already tanked with reduced yields, the heightened cost of operating their pumps and transporting their goods to market was the final straw.

“Everything from the weather to the government was bad, but after the oil price [increase], we just gave up,” said Ahmed Talib, a former farmer from the town of Binnish, which is about 5 miles from the ICARDA station.

The fact that ICARDA was a close partner of the Syrian government as Damascus pursued these unsound policies means it must now shoulder a share of the blame, two middle-ranking employees of the organization suggested. Perhaps its senior directors, who enjoyed close relations with regime officials, could have pushed their friends to change tack.

“It was a culture of deference,” the ICARDA plant breeder said.

“No one was willing to be brave.”

“No one was willing to be brave.”

Mahmoud Solh, the director-general, rejects this argument, insisting that ICARDA had a limited local remit and that it held up its part of the bargain for several decades by helping boost overall food production in Syria. “This is why the government still appreciates us,” he said.

Solh also acknowledges, however, that the country’s use of water was “unsustainable.” The situation, he said, “was not optimal.”

ICARDA had good reason to be worried about the consequences of opposing the Syrian government. Ordinary citizens were fearful of speaking out against a government renowned for its intolerance of dissent. International organizations seemingly were too.

“If you are too critical, then they won’t cooperate with you,” said Adriana Bruggeman, a hydrologist at the Cyprus Institute who previously worked for ICARDA in Aleppo for 11 years. “Syria was our host. We were their guests, and you can’t keep on kicking your hosts.”

As the water situation spiraled out of control, farmers very soon also found themselves battling an array of botanical diseases, some of which agronomists attribute to climate change. An outbreak of wheat stripe rust, which stunts plant growth and shrivels wheat grains, killed off many crops in northwest Syria in the years prior to the war. With sky-high population growth raising demand for scarce resources by the year, no manner of innovations could overcome the challenging environment.

“Poverty, climate change, food security, [and] increasing populations are all worsening at a pace that I think is faster than the rate we can make improvements,” said Hassan Machlab, ICARDA’s Lebanon director.

The result for farmers like Talib was their forced exodus from their homes. Talib ended up in one of Aleppo’s fast-expanding migrant neighborhoods in 2010, before traveling south to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley when the war worsened in 2012. The town sided with the rebels early in the conflict and was subsequently heavily shelled by government forces. Not entirely coincidently, perhaps, Binnish is also the hometown of Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the Islamic State’s former chief propagandist who was killed this week, and a number of other senior jihadis.

Syria’s Brain Drain

If Syria is ever to recover from a war that shows few signs of ending soon, the likes of ICARDA will be sorely needed. Up to 50 percent of citizens derived at least some of their income from agriculture before the uprising, and with swaths of the country’s irrigation infrastructure now crippled and some soils denatured from wartime farming without fertilizers, the rural economy will need all the help it can get.

For this reason, ICARDA has worked to maintain a presence in Syria throughout the war. Several dozen employees have remained behind at the group’s Aleppo offices in the government-controlled district of Azamieh, where they keep an eye on ICARDA property and participate in several agricultural studies with their Syrian government counterparts on the city’s outskirts.

On the other side of the battle lines, the organization maintains loose connections with villagers, a number of whom keep tabs on the status of the Tel Hadya station and report back through Viber. They’re often paid in cash by couriers who cross the front line during lulls in combat. ICARDA received an exemption from the U.S. Treasury Department to conduct transactions in a sanctioned country.

Above all,

ICARDA is intent on preventing the destruction of its precious seed bank

ICARDA is intent on preventing the destruction of its precious seed bank, which was built to maintain genetic crop diversity in the Middle East and contains 143,000 deposits. Many of its samples existed nowhere else in the world until 2012. In a much publicized rescue operation, employees drove through the night and over the back roads of northern Syria to deliver more than 20,000 unduplicated gene samples to the Turkish border. And, so far at least, the news is good, with the facility still functional despite intermittent electricity supply.

Despite some looting of the sheep that sat next to the perimeter fence and a number of old cars, the entire station appears to be largely undamaged. Tel Hadya has avoided the brunt of government airstrikes. Ali Shehadeh, who managed the seed bank and is the most senior official remaining in Aleppo, says the disparate groups of rebels that have exchanged control of the facility over the past four years appear to understand the seed bank’s value and have left it untouched despite its array of valuable equipment.

“I think the international media effect … has helped,” he said. “We have the impression that they know how it helps Syria and the world.”

But even if the conflict comes to a close soon and Tel Hadya remains salvageable, ICARDA won’t ever again operate in Syria as it did before the war. With at least one veterinarian still missing — his fate unknown having being kidnapped shortly after the two abducted lab technicians were released — the memories remain too raw for some employees to return. Everything that has happened also brought home to the senior management the pitfalls of basing all their operations in one location. They’ve since decentralized their work and spread their staff around a range of new installations from Morocco to Ethiopia and India.

“We were naive. We thought it would be war [for] maybe a year and then we could come back,” Solh said. “But it won’t be like before.”

Neither, it seems, will anything in Syria.


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