Syria has “got a lot of sand over there,” Trump said. “So there’s a lot of sand that they can play with.”
He’s used similar language before.
“We’re talking about sand and death, that’s what we’re talking about,” Trump told reporters in January.
To be precise: Syria has dusty — not sandy — deserts. (And the area, once widely known as part of the Fertile Crescent, also has a rich history of agriculture.)
While about two-thirds of Syria is classified as desert, it’s more of a dusty semidesert than the stereotypical rolling-sand-dunes-style desert, according to experts.
“Syria is a dry country,” said Syrian environmental journalist Muhammad Fares. “It has fertile areas in other ways.”
Fares distinguished between Syria’s dusty and dry semidesert (called badia in Arabic) with the sandy sahara (which means desert in Arabic) found in other Middle Eastern and North African countries, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco.
“There’s been plenty of opportunity for successful agriculture [in Syria] over a long period of time,” noted Colin Kelley of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) at Columbia University. “Even though we know that the area is aridifying due to climate change, it’s certainly not only desert.”
The disputed Golan Heights — which Israel captured from Syria in 1967 and the Trump administration controversially recognized as annexed Israeli territory in April — is particularly renowned for its lush, rolling green hills and apple and grape orchards.
There is one area where Trump could find his sand: western Syria, where there are two mountainous coastal cities, Latakia and Tartus, home to sandy beaches and nearby Russian military bases.
Moreover, northeastern Syria, which borders Turkey and was the direct target of Trump’s latest comments, is in fact one of the least desertlike parts of Syria. This area is historically part of the Fertile Crescent, where scientists say agricultural and herding society began 12,000 years ago.
“The real significance of the Kurdish-controlled northeast is that that’s the traditionally wheat and cotton basket of Syria, as well as the part of the country that has a significant chunk of the oil,” said Peter Schwartzstein, a journalist and fellow with the Center for Climate & Security.
There is a connection between Syria’s climate and conflict, just not the Orientalist Arabs-fighting-in-sand image that Trump’s word choice may conjure up, experts said.
Kelley was part of a team of scientists that published a report in 2015 analyzing how decades of Syrian agricultural policies forced an overuse of groundwater that led to a major drought in 2006. They argued that the drought then destabilized the country’s economy and society, setting the stage for much of the dissatisfaction that drove people to the streets in 2011.
“President Bashar al-Assad’s liberal economic policies increased destabilization by removing fuel and food subsidies that many rural families depend on for their livelihoods,” the study concluded. “These policies continued despite the drought, making agricultural work unsustainable, thus inducing mass migration of rural families to cities.”
Fares, the Syrian journalist, said he sometimes laughs when he hears Westerners describing Syria as just a country of sand and camels. But more often, “it’s really just sad,” he said.
In addition to its human cost, the Syrian conflict, now in its eighth year, has worsened many of the country’s already dire environmental issues, such as desertification and deforestation.
Fares said Trump’s comments upset him most because it felt “as if there are no people” in Syria. He likened the mind-set to how the Syrian government, which has been accused of committing war crimes, sees Syria’s people and environment.
“It’s the same way the Syrian regime looks at the country,” he said, as just “resources to exploit.”