Water issue leads to new area of Turkey-Russia cooperation
Turkish and Russian military delegations reached an agreement to cooperate in finding a solution to the electricity-related water problem in northeast Syria during their visit to the Allouk Water Station and the Mabrouka Power Plant this week.
Located in the Hassakeh province, the Allouk Water Station is considered by the UN as the only viable water source in northeast Syria. It has been experiencing interruptions caused by the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is the Syrian wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The YPG occupies the electric center in Darbasiyah where states operate on power. The Turkish and Russian military delegations have been holding talks on solving the problem for a while.
The Allouk station supplies water to almost 460,000 people in both areas controlled by Turkish forces and the YPG in northeast Syria. However, it has been reported that the YPG has deprived the people living in Turkish-controlled areas of electricity produced from the dams on the Euphrates River since April. This has adversely affected the agricultural sector, which is the main source of income for that region.
On the other side, the YPG claims Turkey is using water as a tool to pressure the local authorities into giving them more electricity in Turkish-controlled areas. In an attempt to incite international hostility against Turkey, the YPG and the Syrian regime have frequently claimed that Turkey was the reason for water shortages.
According to Syrian media, Syrian People’s Assembly Speaker Hammoudeh Sabbagh has sent 48 letters to the UN secretary-general, high commissioner for human rights, and Arab parliamentary organizations urging them to condemn Turkey over water cut-offs in the northeastern Hassakeh province. The matter was also raised by the UN but Ankara rejected the approach taken by the international body, asking it to avoid acting in a biased manner over the issue.
This is not the first time the Syrian regime has brought the water issue to the table in an attempt to create international pressure on Turkey. Throughout the 1990s, the friction over water between Turkey and Syria was linked to Turkey’s security issue. Therefore, it is significant to explain what the water dispute is. The disagreement between Turkey and Syria over the appropriation of the downstream waters from the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers erupted in the 1970s when Turkey started to construct dams on these rivers to develop agriculture and industry in the southeast of the country. Turkey’s filling of the Ataturk Dam in 1990 reduced the water flow of the Euphrates and led to water shortages in Syria and Iraq.
Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), which includes the construction of dams on the Euphrates, deepened the dispute further between Turkey and Syria and triggered the latter to support the PKK terrorist organization. According to Joost Jongerden, a Kurdish issue expert, “although GAP started as an energy and irrigation project to utilize the potential of the rich water and land resources in the region, the project also turned into a key element in the Turkish state’s tackling of the Kurdish issue.”
As a retaliatory response to Turkey’s water policy, Syria used the PKK as leverage in the 1990s. It permitted the organization and its leader Abdullah Ocalan to have shelter in Syria and set up training camps on its soil and in Lebanon. As the PKK insurgency escalated in the late 1980s and early 1990s, having realized that a diplomatic settlement is required with Syria, high-ranking Turkish officials launched initiatives to find a solution that would address Syria’s concerns over water in return for an end to its support of the PKK. After these initiatives failed, Turkish officials hardened their rhetoric against Syria. The speech delivered by then Turkish Foreign Minister Deniz Baykal is worth recording here: “Syria, as a neighboring country, should stop being the headquarters of a terrorist organization. It can be thought that hands with the blood of terror could be washed with more ‘water.’ However, Turkey will never bargain the use of terror for war.”
Thus, the water issue and the PKK became an interwoven issue between Ankara and Damascus throughout the 1990s. Damascus’ stance to pressure Turkey in the dispute over water received maximum support from other Arab countries.
It seems Turkey wants to avoid such support now, especially after Iraq and Syria recently signed an agreement to regulate water resources between the two countries. After this development, the Turkish side immediately announced that it will send a delegation from the Turkish Ministry of Water to Iraq for talks. Iraq’s Water Resources Minister Mahdi Rashid Al-Hamdani and his Syrian counterpart, Tammam Raad, signed a joint agreement to exchange data related to the imports of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers “periodically and in emergency situations.” The deal also included the creation of technical committees and the unification of positions regarding the quantities of water received at the Turkish-Syrian border.
In remarks to Iraqi state media, Turkey's consul general in Mosul said the water issue was a matter of great importance and that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had formed a team to solve the water problems impacting Iraq. In regard to low water levels this year, the consul general said that the reason is due to low rainfall, claiming that “Ankara has never blocked the water” flowing across its border.
Two states of the Astana peace process, which also involves Iran, have found the water issue a new area for cooperation
Despite their conflicting interests, Syria has been the main political issue between Ankara and Moscow for a decade. Thanks to ambivalences in Turkish-American relations, Russia took the opportunity to overcome its differences with Ankara concerning Syria. The matter of US support for the YPG/SDF has especially bedeviled relations between Washington and Ankara and has pushed the latter to increase its cooperation with Russia over the Kurdish threat. In recent years, Moscow and Ankara have been motivated to work together to counter US influence in northeastern Syria and American cooperation with YPG/SDF forces.
Russia and Turkey have weathered storms in their complicated relations through cooperation in multiple areas. Thus, two states of the Astana peace process, which also involves Iran, have found the water issue a new area for cooperation. In the water issue, Russia, rather than the US, has become the main actor on the ground, seeking a solution between Turkey and the Kurdish militias. Russia emphatically does not want the water issue to turn into a serious problem between the Kurdish militias and Turkey while at the same time, Ankara does not want history to repeat itself with water and terrorism.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz