Syria trends: Mining underused data

The run-up to the crisis

No amount of quantitative data can do justice to the depth and complexity of the crisis that broke out in Syria in 2011. It can, however, provide a much-needed dose of historical perspective around a conflict whose narrative is now dominated by relentless bloodshed and geopolitical rivalries.

The data presented here highlights a number of trends that shaped Syria’s domestic landscape in the years before the uprising and ensuing armed conflict. The Syria of the late-20th and early-21st centuries witnessed deepening environmental, socioeconomic and governance challenges. The war may have eclipsed these problems, but it has not resolved them—on the contrary, many such trends have been exacerbated, and will come back to the fore as the war’s worst violence ebbs.

This snapshot of the day before therefore aims to do more than account for the country’s breakdown: It offers a set of benchmarks against which to track the governance issues that will continue to bedevil Syria the day after.

The raw data belongs to the World Bank’s open source repository, which focuses on “global development” thematics such as demographics, economics and climate, and contains roughly 1500 datasets specifically pertaining to Syria. Although the data is free to access, the process of parsing, cleaning, analysis and visualisation entails considerable work and inevitable editorial decisions. The selection below is our best attempt at paring tens of thousands of figures down to their most relevant, reliable and readable core. To the extent possible, we will let the data speak for itself, and therefore restrict commentary to the minimum.

Environment & agriculture

Available statistics offer valuable context relating to climate change, which is frequently invoked as a trigger for the crisis. One clear takeaway is that average temperatures increased markedly over the past half-century, especially during the hottest times of the year.

Meanwhile, Syria’s unpredictable rainfall and regular summer droughts leave agriculture wholly dependent on irrigation. These factors also historically led authorities to prioritize food security, through top-down policies controlling the agricultural sector.

Reliance on irrigation in turn renders water security a paramount concern, which has become all the more urgent as overall rainfall has declined in recent decades.

Even as rainfall declined, average annual cereal yields tripled over the same 50 year period. Notably, however, that overall increase coincided with spectacular year-to-year variations. Against this backdrop, the disastrous harvest of 2008—which corresponds to the drought often blamed for catalyzing the uprising through mass rural displacement—clearly has numerous precedents, and thus offers at best an incomplete account of environmental factors.

A more compelling explanation lies in the transformation of Syria’s agricultural sector, especially in the decade before the uprising. Following his takeover in 2000, Bashar Assad dramatically liberalized the food market-as seen in skyrocketing imports and exports. Shifting to intensive agriculture often at the expense of traditional farmers, Damascus invested heavily in water intensive “cash crops” like cotton, while doing little to offset the impact in terms of water security.

The socioeconomic impact on rural communities was devastating, cutting the agricultural workforce in half between 2000-2010. The consequent, unregulated growth of cities inevitably fed the conflict, which saw peripheral, informal neighborhoods play a central role, along with depleted rural areas.


In the meantime, Syria’s demographics were evolving in other equally important ways. Most obviously, and much like the rest of the Arab world, its population remained astonishingly young—with Syrians under 35 averaging 80 percent of the total population throughout the past half-century.

This massive youth concentration relates to the country’s relatively recent transition from high birth and death rates to the lower ratios that typically accompany economic development. Specifically, the effects of better healthcare and lower fertility rates only started to remodel the population pyramid in the 1980s.

Given time, this transition would have produced a more balanced distribution of age groups. But in 2010, on the eve of the uprising, Syrians between 20 and 35 years old happened to be the fastest growing cohorts, forming an unmistakable youth bulge.

This surge coincided with the emerging “connectedness” that characterized Syria under Bashar’s rule, in contrast with his father’s era.


Meanwhile, young Syrians reached employment age as more free market policies began to erode the country’s socialist introversion. In particular, spiking foreign direct investment—peaking with the post-2008 normalization with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, France and the US—reflected a measure of integration into the global economy.

In reality, however, the economy was far less energetic than it appeared, with apparent growth largely driven by rapid inflation.  

Indeed, the defining characteristic of this era was, arguably, ordinary Syrians’ declining purchasing power. (Other relevant phenomena such as the concentration of wealth in cities like Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, growing inequality and the increasingly ostentatious lifestyles of the elites are more difficult to visualize through available data.)

Moreover, a reformist drive intended to kickstart the sluggish, statist economy created more burdens than benefits for the average Syrian. One useful measure of this tension relates to CO2 emissions, which serve as an effective proxy for overall economic activity in fossil fuel-reliant countries. Data on CO2 shows how the 2008 cut of fuel subsidies impacted transport, heating and other basic services, creating a powerful sense of regression.

Another indicator with particularly direct relevance to the 2011 crisis concerns the proportion of state spending on the Syrian army. A clear build-up occurred in the aftermath of the 1973 war with Israel, followed by the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. This surge was largely subsidized by the Soviet Union, as part of an alliance that fizzled in the mid-1980s. The subsequent collapse of military spending helps explain the dismal state of the Syrian army in 2011, and the subsequent recourse to homegrown and imported militias, direct Russian and Iranian involvement, and so on.  

Déjà vu?

There are many ways of telling the story of the 2011 breakdown, and none will prove fully satisfactory. While the data above cannot illuminate the conflict as a whole, it does shed light on a number of issues that remain as relevant today as they were in 2011. Such data may provide building blocks for more ambitious analysis aimed at grasping not just the roots of the conflict, but also Syria’s trajectory moving forward.

What we know for sure is that the war has solved nothing, and indeed has piled new layers onto decades-old social, economic and environmental woes. Given the unlikelihood of any genuine reform or reconciliation, the risks are high that familiar problems will reignite conflict in the years ahead. For now, nobody—whether Damascus, its friends or its enemies—has anything on offer that would arrest that drift.

16 April 2018

Illustration credits: charts by Rosalie Berthier for Synaps, Syria on the globe by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.