I am going to mention here a few points which I formerly mentioned in my Arabic blog.
It is commonly claimed that the Syrian uprising was caused by deteriorating agriculture due to climate change. This hypothesis is incorrect, because the Syrian uprising did not start in the provinces that were most affected by climate deterioration.
The problem of agriculture deterioration which many refer to reached its peak around 2007. That problem affected mostly the northern provinces (Hassakah, Raqqah, and Aleppo). Those provinces, along with the eastern Dayr Az-Zor, are traditionally colonies of Damascus. Damascus profited for decades of their natural resources (oil and agriculture), but Damascus never cared to develop those provinces. In fact, Damascus imposed many restrictions on those provinces in order to prevent them from developing (for political imperialist reasons that I am not going to discuss now).
When the climate crisis reached its peak around 2007, there were famines and massive migrations from the northern colonies. The UN intervened and started delivering humanitarian aid to those colonies. The UN intervention embarrassed Assad, so he started to change the traditional Damascene imperialist policy towards the colonies. For the first time in the history of “Syria,” Damascus started to spend money taken from the colonies on developing the colonies. In the few years that immediately preceded the uprising in 2011, Assad authorized many developmental projects in the colonies. The combined effect of this new Damascene policy and the UN aid was increased support for Assad in the colonies.
This explains why the colonies were quite late to join the uprising of 2011. (I personally believe that the colonies never joined the uprising. When Assad withdrew his troops from the colonies in 2012, most of the inhabitants there were still against the uprising and supportive of Assad’s government. Note that the Kurds, for example, have not shown serious antipathy to Assad. The same is true with regard to the tribes and the inhabitants of Aleppo city. All of those never joined the uprising.)
The uprising of 2011 started in Damascus, Deraa, Homs, and the coastal region. Those areas were the core of the Damascene empire led by the Assads. Those were the favored areas that provided most of government officials and received most of goverment spending.
The idea that the Syrian uprising was caused by economic marginalization or climate change is ludicrous. This idea was first propagated by Assad who wanted to mask the true reasons behind the uprising, and it is sad that many foreign observers fell for it.
It has been said that the people of Deraa were angry against Assad because he had clamped down on illegal smuggling activities in their area. I tend to believe this, because Deraa is a border town, and border towns in Syria often live by smuggling. It should be noted that towns located near the Turkish border were exceptional in the north in that they joined the uprising relatively early (this includes such towns as Azaz, the people of which are famed smugglers.)
In Homs the residents of the old town were angry against Assad’s plan to modernize their area. Assad (or perhaps his wife’s family) wanted to do in central Homs something similar to what Rafik Hariri did in central Beirut. Like in Beirut, property-owners in central Homs did not want to give up their properties to an investor who was a businesses partner of Assad (or possibly his wife’s family). As usual in Syria under the Assads, this problem developed into a sectarian tension between the Sunnis and Alawis in Homs. (Although the Alawis of Homs had nothing to do with this entire business, they were blamed for it by angry Sunnis, because of the automatic association between Assad and the Alawis.)
In the coastal region (the homeland of the Alawis) there is a long-standing and historic tension between the Alawis and the Sunnis. Historically the Alawis were in an inferior socioeconomic status to the Sunnis, but under the Assads the opposite became true: the former Alawi slaves rose up and became masters of the old Sunni lords. This is the root of the tensions in the coast. But to be fair, it seems that the modern coastal Sunnis are generally tolerant of the Alawis. The most vicious anti-Alawi rhetoric does not come from coastal Sunnis but from Sunnis who live inland (many of whom never lived with Alawis. They just hate the Alawis because of the equation Assad = Alawis).
In conclusion, it is likely that economic reasons did spark the Syrian uprising, but we need to differentiate between little economic sparks in the Damascene core area and the long-standing issue of economic marginalization and imperialism in the peripheral colonies. Those two issues are very different and unrelated.
According to official statistics from the Assad government, literacy rates in the Damascene core area were about 100% on the eve of uprising, but in Aleppo province the literacy rate was about 50%. Modern techniques of irrigation were used by about 100% of farmers in the Damascene core area (including in Deraa), but in the colonies they were used by 0% of farmers. Many such striking differences between the core area and the colonies can be seen in official statistics that Assad released himself. He released such statistics in the few years that preceded the uprising because he was seriously looking into developing the colonies. The UN intervention had been a big embarrassment for him.