Rivers, dams and war: part 3

6 mins read

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.


What next?

Ideally, someone would go back in time and redraw the borders to better suit the natural geography of the region. However, the best scenario for Syria will be to trade in their support for the DFNS and the PKK for an agreement between Syria and Turkey over water rights. This is to say, that their best option might be to support the north against Turkey until such a time as it becomes convenient to betray them for a better agreement over shared resources. In other words: repeat the strategy of the 90s.

This could lead to a far better and more sustainable state of affairs in the long run, but it depends upon Turkey eventually backing down. Turkey could potentially take over the entirety of the DFNS, even with Syrian support, and leave it to a new rebel group. In this way they could cause the war to continue, weaken Syria and prevent the water issue from being dealt with.

Alternatively, Syria could fully make peace with the DFNS and accept some of the necessary concessions. This could risk an even more direct conflict between Syria and Turkey but would ideally result in an easing of tensions between the two countries. Nonetheless, in the long run the water issue would not be dealt with and could lead to further conflict in the future. In fact, a Syria with a more enfranchised north would be more likely to increase tensions with Turkey. In the context of a drought a unified Syria could be willing to challenge Turkey more directly. But such a situation could make violence in the region worse.

Syria could also just do nothing. Let Turkey handle the Kurds and then clean up afterwards. This would maybe make relations with Turkey better but it would not increase Syria’s bargaining power as regards the water issue.

A pattern can be seen here. All scenarios seem to lead to the continuation of armed conflict and the water issue, which remains unlikely to be resolved in the short term, is exacerbating the problem. While it is possible for it to be resolved in the long term, there is a very real possibility that another drought on the Euphrates makes long term strategy irrelevant for Syria, as the damage could be done in the short term.

What is necessary is a radical shift in how these countries conceive of shared water management and cooperation. This is not likely to happen if we consider only Syria, Turkey and Iraq; Turkey has the better development and so is unlikely to change their conception of water rights, and neither Syria nor Iraq are in a position where efficient use is achievable. As a result, Turkey is incentivized to maintain their position and Syria is incentivized to fight for change.

However, the risk of conflict likely overrides any kind of economic or environmental gains that the GAP project and Turkey’s position on water law achieves. If there is war, then the economy and environment will suffer to an extent that efficient water management cannot compensate for. It is possible that Turkey could be convinced by arguments such as this, but probably only to the extent that there are external incentives.

Turkey has already harmonized much of their environmental law and impact assessment with EU law. It is not ridiculous to assume that they would agree to the Watercourses Convention if it was seen as a means to enter the European Union. External actors are likely to be deciding factors in the region in this next stage of the war, however it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss this in any more detail. The point is that it does not appear that there is anything internal to the state of the situation that is likely to do anything other than reinforce already existing tensions.  

Some issues to consider

I think conceptualizing the Syrian civil war in terms of water relations shows an aspect of the war that will have some influence on future outcomes. However, this article should not be taken on its own and other issues should be considered.

Water is not the only natural resource that matters here. While agriculture is a huge section of the economy in Syria, crude oil and gas might be a more important factor in the relations between the Assad regime and the DFNS. A large portion of these resources are found in the Northeastern and Eastern areas of Syria, particularly around Deir ez Zor. These are areas that the DFNS are currently in control of. There has been cooperation between the government and the DFNS in the past, and there is potential for conflict over the newly acquired territory. In short, other natural resources may be more important to the two factions than water.

International actors may have greater influence than I have made out. The Syrian civil war is far bigger than Assad, Erdogan, the DFNS and the PKK. The recent statement from Erdogan that was mentioned above, about a military operation to the East of the Euphrates, arguably only happened because of President Trump’s approval. It is possible that the Assad regime would have been defeated if not for assistance from allies such as Iran or Russia. International influences will be able to influence outcomes to a great degree, however it should be recognized that they are not likely to change the underlying tensions significantly. Whoever ends up in power, the fact will still be that there is a project in Turkey upstream of Syria which will affect Syria and its access to water from the Euphrates and Tigris.

It is also possible that I am overemphasizing the effect the water issue has on relations of the DFNS and the PKK with each other and other countries. Thus, if decision makers were to use this as a guide for action, they would be best advised to consider it as only one of many factors that go into influencing the relations of these two actors.

Another issue I have left out concerns the international legal regime. It has been implied that the legal tension has been caused by conflict between the rights-based approach in the Watercourses Convention and the needs/efficiency based approach of Turkey. However, it is arguable that even if both parties agreed to the convention the situation could still result in significant harm being done to Syria. This is because while it would be a requirement that Turkey considers the risk of significant harm as part of their international environmental impact assessment, it may not be a requirement that Turkey consider Syria’s capacity to adapt to change as part of the assessment of significant harm. This would allow the efficiency argument to return in another form: “there is no significant harm if you adapt”, even though Syria has no capacity to adapt. This is an interesting legal issue that could potentially influence the future of international environmental law beyond the region.

One last point to consider is the extent to which the water issue should be considered in terms of pure Syria-Turkey relations, as state-centric international theories have become less useful for talking about international relations in the contemporary world. I’ve talked about the influence of the PKK and the DFNS extensively. However, what I haven’t talked about is the degree to which the GAP project is more market friendly, and the private sector invests in and controls a significant portion of the project. Similarly, several biodiversity and watershed rehabilitation programs that form part of the broader project are funded by the World Bank and similar organisations in partnership with Turkey.


The Syrian Civil War is coming into a new stage, and at the same time there continues to be tension between Syria and Turkey regarding access to water from the Euphrates-Tigris Basin. This tension could shape how Syria considers its relationship with the DFNS, and in turn these relations with the north could increase tensions with Turkey. The future of the water issue may be determined by how the factions in the civil war organize peace in the country or fail to do so. In turn, Turkey’s interests in the water issue may play into how this peace is achieved. These are not the only tensions that will exist in this next stage of the war, but they are tensions that are very unlikely to be resolved in the near 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

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