The policies were made worse by a drought, which of course today is blamed on "global warming".
Reuters doesn't like to be quoted, but the story is here.
The Green Prophet (2012) has more background HERE.
and HERE is a report from the Carnagie foundation, which hopefully I can quote without getting a nasty email.
The desertfication of the area is not new, and complicated irrigation systems were the way folks lived there and were the impetus behind the birth of civilization.
A local journalist speaking to the International Crisis Group in 2009 insisted that the drought was just “a convenient excuse” for Assad, whose poorly planned and executed reforms lay at the heart of the agricultural crisis:
Semi-arid areas around the Euphrates and the Khabur River, where agriculture was banned in favour of grazing, were turned into arable land used for intensive agriculture, at the cost of pumping the water table dry.
The drought only brought to light a man-made disaster. And yet, the regime continues to bring diplomats to the north east and tells them it all has to do with global warming!
In a recent study, Francesca de Châtel of the Netherlands’ Radboud University describes “years of unsustainable management” of Syria’s agricultural sector: The lack of transparency, corruption and absence of reliable data leads to a lack of accountability.
Ambitious policies are drafted on paper, but never implemented; special committees are formed to “study” various aspects of sector modernization, but final reports are never produced; studies are carried out, but never followed up on; laws are issued, but inconsistently enforced.
To these self-inflicted problems was then added a disaster not of Assad’s making, namely the drought of 2006–2010. The peak season in 2007–2008 amounted to “the worst regional drought in 40 years,” yet in Syria, says de Châtel, the crisis was “undoubtedly exacerbated by a long legacy of resource mismanagement.”
However, the pumping of groundwater that isn't being replaced is a problem. Saudi Arabia faces the loss of their irrigation water in the near future. In Egypt, the problem might be that countries upstream on the Nile are now making dams that could affect their ability to grow food too.
Another picture of how people will cope can be found in Israel, which is actually confronting the problem
Driven by a combination of necessity and inventiveness, the country has become one of the world’s leaders in how to wring the most out of parsimonious amounts of rainfall and turn a parched landscape into a productive garden.
The Israelis are turning seawater into tap water, pioneering new types of irrigation, and reusing wastewater at the highest rate of any country in the world. Last year, despite having the driest year on record, the country recorded a surplus of water. As climate change creates more severe patterns of weather – including, notably, devastating droughts – Israeli technology and ideas are increasingly being adopted around the world.
(although some say it might be because they are stealing the ground water from their neighbors)
These things are just as important to recognize as the "religious" stuff you read about, and a short perusal of history shows that such problems have been occurring for 5000 years.
So if you run governments in these areas, do you develop policies that enable people to live, do you encourage migration, or do you hyperventillate and demand oodles of money to "help" you people so that you can divert funds into your pocket?
except on StrategyPage, the problem of corruption is another story that is rarely covered because it is so common and so boring.
If I am sarcastic about the "global warming" stuff, it is partly because it seems to be a scam by the elites to get power to rule the world. And of course, it is also a godsend (!) for third world politicians to get rich by skimming the funds sent to help poor people cope with environmental challenges.
Screenwriter Roger Simon quotes Mencken:
Meanwhile, scads of money have been made on the climate scam, most notably by Maurice Strong, the former UN official until recently hiding out in Beijing, and the whole crowd who set up those carbon trading exchanges that flitted briefly through Europe, selling so-called "carbon credits," until there weren't any suckers left. It was always about the money, even when they pretended it was about the en-vir-on-ment. Or, in the immortal words of H. L. Mencken, "When somebody says it's not about the money, it's about the money."
related item: StrategyPage's depressing summary of how the war in Syria is going now that Russia and France are getting their feet wet