When the sounds of rifles and drums of war die down in the region, they will be replaced with conflicts over the Euphrates and Tigris basins. The Syrian-Turkish-Iraqi dispute over the waters of the two rivers will take on an international turn and water will become a political weapon. Turkey will likely wield its grand Ataturk Dam as a weapon to pressure each of Syria and Iraq.
The term “water war” in the eastern Mediterranean refers to the use of water as a weapon to control sources of rivers or to transform it into a commercial product to achieve political goals.
In Iran, the issue is no less complicated than the complications facing its neighbors. On the one hand, the dams it set up are a main arm of its nuclear program and on the other, it has used dams and water projects for “social engineering”. This saw Tehran divert water flows from minority regions to predominantly Persian ones.
Drought and water shortages had sparked protests in Syria, Iraq and Iran’s Ahwaz region. Iranian authorities have acknowledged the problem, which can be added to the challenges that Tehran is confronted with lately.
Asharq Al-Awsat will examine the various water projects between Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran and the complications and disputes that have arisen over this sensitive and vital issue.
Syria and Turkey
As the fighting dies down in Syria and Iraq, water disputes with Turkey are beginning to emerge. The main focus of the tensions are the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, both of which flow from Turkey.
Strikes against armed groups in Turkey and the war in western Iraq have destroyed water canals and dams, leaving these regions without irrigation and drinking water and vulnerable to seismic activity. The 2011 protests in Syria, which marked the beginning of its conflict, were originally sparked by a drought that had affected Euphrates regions. The drought led to the displacement of nearly a million farmers to Daraa, where the uprising began.
Many wonder if this is only the beginning. Will it be followed by greater damage in the future when Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP) is complete? The project, which involves both the Euphrates and the Tigris, has so far led to an alarming drop in water levels in Syria’s al-Tabqa Lake. This has affected power generation in the area, left farmers with insufficient irrigation water and affected cattle farmers.
Political relations have over the past decades played a role in securing water rights between the concerned countries. One cannot speak of claims to the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers without reviewing the political conflicts that erupted between Syria and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Many have wondered why Syrian-Turkish negotiations had failed in the past. The reality paints a complicated political-water picture. Political disputes between Turkey and Syria are deep-rooted and focus on three issues: Water, the Kurds and Iskandaroun region.
Syria is prepared to cede the Iskandaroun region, strike a comprehensive water agreement and cooperate with Turkey to target Kurdish ambitions in eastern Turkey, specifically in source regions of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. This explains Turkey’s concern about separatist Kurds and the security of the Ataturk dam projects. A 5,000 strong Turkish unit has been tasked with protecting the dam. Ankara had also previously accused Syria of harboring Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) members.
The Iskandaroun region may have been a cause for Syrian-Turkish tensions in the past, but today the dispute over water and the Kurds have come to the spotlight.
Ankara and Damascus first held negotiations over investing in the Euphrates basin in 1962. A series of negotiations continued over the decades, culminating in a 1987 protocol that granted Turkey 50 percent of the Euphrates waters to fill in the Ataturk dam reservoir until 1993. After 1993, Turkey’s share would drop to a third.
In September 1992, Syria and Turkey signed a security cooperation protocol agreement that calls for Damascus to crackdown on Turkish-Kurd activity in Syria and Lebanon. Turkish forces were also given permission to crackdown on the PKK inside Syria. The implementation of the water protocol hinged on Syria’s commitment to the security angle of the deal.
As Syrian-Turkish relations improved significantly after Bashar Assad came to power and as Turkish-Israeli ties declined, Ankara and Damascus reached a preliminary deal to construct a joint dam on the Assi (Orontes) River. The river, which flows from Lebanon, traverses both their countries and is close to the Iskandaroun region. The dispute appeared to be laid to rest after Assad paid a visit to Turkey in 2004. The two sides signed economic and trade cooperation on Iskandaroun, but they came to a halt with the eruption of the 2011 uprising and Ankara’s now hostile stance towards the Damascus regime.
Since 1962, Damascus and Baghdad held eight rounds of negotiations on their share of the Euphrates water, all of which failed in meeting a conclusion that would satisfy both sides. A ninth round of talks, held in Damascus in 1971, appeared to make some progress. In 1980, the two sides agreed to form the Turkish Iraqi-Syrian committee in order to share the Euphrates water between Ankara, Damascus and Baghdad.
Years later, Iraq would object to the 1987 protocol signed between Syria and Turkey because it was not included in the deal. Iraq charged that it should have been a part of it because it suffers from low levels of water drainage. This has led to a drop in water quality that turned arable land into non-arable ones.
A temporary agreement was eventually reached with Iraq in 1990. It does not however address the Tigris River. A year later, Syria and Iraq signed an economic cooperation protocol that would grant Baghdad 58 percent of the Euphrates water.
The Turkish angle
Turkey bases its share of its water wealth by comparing the economic yield of its crops to the yield of Syria and Iraq. It says that it should enjoy the greatest share of water given that its land is more fertile than those of its neighbors. Syria and Iraq must therefore, stop their agricultural projects and turn to Turkish ones instead, because they yield crops three times per year. Syria and Iraq have opposed the proposal.
Turkey addresses its water problems with its neighbors by imposing a status quo and banking on the time factor to complete its dam projects.
Since the 1970s, Ankara has kept its giant irrigation projects away from the prying eyes of Syria and Iraq, because they both lacked a joint agricultural strategy. Ankara took advantage of the political disputes between Damascus and Baghdad to hoard greater quantities of the Euphrates. By imposing their own water strategy on the region, Turkey and Israel are collecting the greatest quantities of water.
Ankara compares its right to the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers water shares to how oil countries have the right to control their oil wealth. It views them as two transboundary rivers that flow from its country and that it therefore, has the right to control how much of the water reaches its neighbors.
One of the early signs of tension over water between Damascus and Ankara emerged over the Queiq River, which flowed from Turkey and provided drinking water to residents of Syria’s Aleppo. In the 1940s, Turkey set up agricultural projects on the river that affected its flow into Syria. In the 1950s, Turkey completely altered its flow, cutting off drinking water from Aleppo and forcing Damascus to pump water from the Euphrates to the city.
Syria insists that the Euphrates be treated as an international river, not a transboundary one. Each designation has different international rules that apply on how the water wealth can be exploited by each country.
The Assi River, which ends in the Iskandaroun region, is another point of contention. Syria still has reservations over Turkey’s claim to the disputed region and consequently its control over the Assi waters giving the dispute more a political aspect. Turkey is seeking to exploit this issue to obtain a Syrian recognition of Turkey’s claim to Iskandaroun.
*Nabil al-Samman is a Syrian expert on international waters.