By Ethan Carlsson
The Syrian civil war has gone on for upwards of seven years now. As of February 2019, ISIS holds almost no territory, and they probably won’t be a central driving force behind the conflict. This may change the goals of foreign actors and the legitimacy of their involvement. However, the war is very unlikely to end any time soon. Rather than ending, the conflict will enter a new stage, characterised by new tensions and risks for future conflict. In a series of three articles, I want to focus on one specific tension that could shape the future of the region: the management of the Euphrates-Tigris River Basin, within Syria and between Syria, Iraq and Turkey.
Cooperation and conflict between the states
The risk of conflict over the rivers has always been present in the region. In fact what may be the earliest recorded treaty happened because of a water dispute between two Sumerian city states over the Tigris river.
In more recent times the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP) and similar projects have resulted in disputes between Turkey, Iraq and Syria. In the late 60s and 70s war almost broke out between Iraq and Syria; a severe drought occurred, and Iraq, being downstream of both Syria and Turkey suffered the worst of it. Iraq claimed that they were hoarding water after the construction of the Tabqa Dam; Syria claimed that it was Turkey hoarding water after the construction of one of the GAP project dams (Keban). Mediation led to Syria releasing water to Iraq, but there was a real risk of war.
In 1989, Syria and Iraq became aware of a decreased flow of water after the development of the largest of the GAP dams, the Attatürk Dam. This led to bilateral agreements between Turkey and the other two countries, which ensured that 58 percent of the water from the Euphrates was to flow into the other two countries and Turkey would be able to keep the remaining 42 percent. However, the treaty relevantly did not deal with how the GAP project might affect the quality of water in the Euphrates; it did not deal with accident prevention, and most worryingly given the effects of climate change and the depletion of water in the Basin from human intervention, it did not deal with what would happen if the water flow changed.
The water issue and Kurdish insurgency
Real cooperation in the management of the river – between Turkey and Syria – did not occur until the 1990s. During the cold war, Syria had been the primary supporter of the Kurdistan Workers Party (the PKK), an armed Kurdish separatist group inside Turkey. Syria provided the PKK with logistical, financial and military support and also harboured PKK leaders within Syrian territory. The PKK operated, and continues to operate, primarily within the South Eastern Anatolia Region. Syria used this support to try and pressure Turkey into an agreement based on a principle of water sharing. In turn Turkey used the rivers as a bargaining chip; refusing to discuss water sharing until Syria stopped hosting PKK leadership and pledged to stop supporting the PKK. Increased cooperation between the two countries was in some sense achieved when Syria agreed to end support for the PKK and force Abdullah Ocalan and other PKK leaders out of Syria.
By resolving the tensions over the PKK, Syria and Turkey were able to form the Ceyhan Security Agreement, and the establishment of joint communication between the Turkish GAP Administration and the Syrian General Organisation for Land Development (GOLD). However, it still did not provide for what would happen in the case of changing water flows and there continues to be disagreement about water rights.
The cross-cutting relationship between Kurdish insurgency and the water issue will be core when we begin to discuss the future decision making about, and within, Syria. The current situation in Syria is highly beneficial to the PKK. There is argument over the extent to which the PKK and the DFNS are linked. However, the current leading political party (The Democratic Union Party (PYD) is part of the same umbrella organisation (the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) as the PKK. It is also very clear that DFNS control means that PKK members can avoid Turkey by hiding in Syria, just as they did before 1998. Finally, the influx of refugees from Syria offers the PKK an opportunity for new recruits.
This is all happening at a time when it was predicted that the PKK would be weakened. In fact, the GAP project was envisaged as a tool with which to defeat the PKK. The project, being primarily within PKK territory, would firstly take away recruits from the PKK because it would offer opportunities to those recruits other than militancy. On a more practical level it increases the size of the rivers, making it more difficult for the PKK to conduct guerrilla activity. This, along with the destruction of Kurdish heritage sites around the GAP project, has caused the PKK to oppose the project regardless of Syrian support. The PKK has attacked the dams as a result and attacks are one of the main political risks identified by investors.
Where can things go from here?
All these issues should now be brought together so that we can understand the possible options that are available to decision makers in the region, and the potential for lasting peace. In doing so I will break down the actors and their relations one more time.
The Syrian government and the DFNS have somewhat aligned interests regarding the water. There is always a possibility of conflict over management on shared water. However, they are both in a position where any harm done to the river will be felt almost equally by the two factions. This suggests that joint management of the river may actually be an opportunity build confidence between the two factions. Historically, joint water management is more likely to lend itself towards peaceful conflict resolution than violent conflict resolution. Thus, to the extent that decision makers in the region are interested in peace, it may be worthwhile to promote joint management along the river.
However, the interests of the two factions are contrary to that of the upper riparian, Turkey. This is because the GAP project reduces the flow of water and increases salination for the lower riparian factions. Furthermore, the current position Turkey takes towards water law means that Syria will only be able to argue for increased water supply if it increases the efficiency of its water use. This is probably not possible. The Syrian government is not in a position where they can improve the efficiency of their water usage; they lack the money and don’t even control a significant portion of the river’s infrastructure.
The relationship between the DFNS and Turkey is even worse. Firstly, they cannot make any of these international law arguments, as they are not a de jure state. Thus, they are completely reliant on the Syrian government to advocate for water rights. This reliance could bring about a closer relationship with the Syrian government if water supply becomes a problem. However, it is likely that this will simply increase support for the PKK within the DFNS, and the DFNS is likely to become increasingly hostile to Turkey. This is particularly true after Turkey’s Olive Branch and Euphrates shield operations. These operations by the Turkish armed forces led to the Syrian Democratic Forces (the military of the DFNS) losing control of Afrin. Afrin is now controlled by Turkish backed rebels, who redirect cheap olive oil exports away from Syria and the PKK and towards major Turkish cities. The goal of these operations is to reduce the wealth and power of the PKK and their supporters. The Turkish President has indicated recently that these operations will continue east of the Euphrates.
Turkey’s aggressive actions mean that full peace between the DFNS and the Syrian government is unlikely to occur. This is because the DFNS is more valuable as a bargaining chip for the Syrian government. The Syrian government has the opportunity to return to the policy of the 1990s and push for a better water agreement by supporting both the PKK and DFNS indirectly. The extent to which the Syrian government would be incentivized to use this for the purposes of a water agreement will depend upon the flow of water and the intensity of a potential drought.
If this is the direction of the war, then Turkey will continue to invade and leave damaging rebel groups in their midst. This, along with the possibility of another drought, will likely increase tension between the Syrian and Turkish governments; tension that will further increase if DFNS-Syrian relations improve. This feedback loop, in which cooperation with DFNS worsens Turkish relations, and worsening Turkish relations increases cooperation with the DFNS, may increase the risk of even more direct conflict between Syria and Turkey, especially if water supply becomes an issue in the future.
Ethan Carlsson is an exchange student from Australia, where he studies both a Law and an International Relations Degree. He runs a website devoted to policy development and analysis and is a contributor to the Syria Community of Practice at the Australian Council for International Development. He loves reading about political philosophy, playing guitar and cooking unhealthy food.
Cover photo: Wikimedia Commons