“I would like to affirm the Syrian Arab Republic’s commitment to the Paris climate change accord,” deputy Environment Minister Wadah Katmawi told a meeting of almost 200 nations during the plenary of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement Bureau or APA, yesterday, November 7. The delegate explained that Syria is waiting on some pending paperwork in order to officially sign the Paris Agreement.

The news caused a flurry on the second day of the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP23) in Bonn – and not just because the Syrian delegates disappeared immediately after the announcement. Syria’s signing of the Paris Agreement means that the only country in the world left out of the agreement today is the United States of America.

“Climate Change is not an urgent matter for a country that [has] suffered from this destructive conflict,” says Syrian political and environmental expert Lama Ranjous, who works at the Global Focal Point on Migration at United Nations Major Group of Children and Youth and is a member of the Academic Advisory Committee of the thematic paper on the impact of Climate Change on Youth, Peace and Security. “I think it is very clear that the Syrian government’s decision to sign and ratify the agreement [is about making a political statement], for sure.”

Syria

A shell explodes on November 13, 2014 in the Syrian city of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, as seen from the Turkish border village of Mursitpinar, Sanliurfa province. CC: Jordi Bernabeu Farrús

The armed conflict in Syria has been going on for six years now, and involves more than ten parties. The Russian-backed Syrian army, has been fighting militias and armed forces backed by more than four countries in a conflict that has claimed more than 480,000 lives – 7,203 of which were in 2017 alone.

“The assessment of the impact of a commitment such as the Paris Accord on the economy of a country at war takes time,” a negotiating member close to the Syrian delegation told progrss on the condition of remaining anonymous. “The decision whether or not to join the Agreement and its impacts were being discussed in recent months. Syria was convinced by partners that this was the best way forward.” When asked to clarify whether these ‘partners’ referred to Russia, Syria’s closest ally, the source refused to comment.

Ranjous tells progrss that while the Syrian conflict is still ongoing in some parts of the country and the scale of destruction is tremendous, the Syrian government seems to be moving forward to rebuild the cities that are already under its control, particularly Aleppo and Homs. “I think the implementation of the agreement will be limited and will need huge international support,” she adds.

In December 2016, Aleppo – once Syria’s second city and most populous metropolitan center – was reclaimed by the Syrian government from the Free Syrian Army, while Homs was fully reclaimed in May 2017. Today, Aleppo is the second most populous city after the Syrian capital, Damascus, which continues to house central government buildings and the country’s most prominent figures, making it the most secure city in Syria. Homs, on the other hand, was the third most populous city after Aleppo and Damascus, serving as the major industrial center with a diverse population composed of Muslim Sunnis, Christians and Alawites – a religious minority to which the ruling elite and President Bashar Al-Assad belong.

Prior to the start of the conflict, the country’s main environmental concern was drought, according to Ranjous. Indeed, Syria experienced one of the biggest demographic shifts in its history in the form of an unprecedented rate of rural-urban migration between 2007 and 2010 due to a drought in the Fertile Crescent.

“Syria’s resilience strategies were moving very slowly before the war,” says Ranjous. She argues that the failure of the implementation of those strategies was one of the issues that caused the conflict to erupt. “For example, the government response to the rural migration to the urban areas, and the social and economic problems that came with it, was not enough.” Like many states in the region, the Syrian government failed to effectively handle manage waste in Aleppo, Damascus and Homs, among other large cities, prior to the outbreak of the conflict.

According to PAX’s report on the environmental impacts of the war on Syria, destruction has widely spread in residential and light industrial areas in Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Idlib, Deir ez-Zor, and around Damascus. It warns that the management of the vast quantities of rubble the conflict has created will pose a significant challenge. That is because the pulverized building materials containing cement dust, household waste, medical waste, asbestos, and other hazardous substances can pose acute and long-term exposure hazards to civilians living in or returning to these areas.

In the same report, PAX highlights that air pollution has amplified as a growing concern in industrialized areas of coast cities like Tartous, Banyas and Latakia, the midlands Hama, Homs, and large cities such as Damascus and Aleppo. “The limited data available on air quality showed high levels of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide in Damascus as well as Aleppo prior to the conflict. Lead emissions were also high, for example from the recycling of used car batteries in lead smelters located near the cities of Aleppo and Damascus,” the report reads.

After taking control of oil refineries in Syria, ISIS excavated oil from Syrian grounds, and sold it on the black market, driving down global oil prices. But claiming oil-rich territory has had an environmental impact as well. ISIS began lighting the oil on fire to refine it, releasing hazardous substances such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and lead into the air. On the long run, this is expected to result in diseases like respiratory disorders, livers problems, kidney disorders, and cancers. However on the short term, it has affected soil quality and wildlife in these urban centers.

If the Syrian delegation is actually serious about signing the Paris Agreement and isn’t just using it as a political stunt, there is much to be done to rebuild the country’s affected urban centers in a sustainable fashion and support them as they recover from the losses and damages inflicted by a conflict that has gone on for the past six years.

*Never miss a story like this - subscribe to our weekly highlights and stay up-to-date