There is an important aspect of the relationship of Turkey to its neighbours which has been largely overlooked in describing Turkey’s important role in the conflicts of the Middle East. There is a severe crisis of adequate supplies of fresh water in the region and Turkey’s geographical position as containing the source of both the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers gives it a great advantage in the competition for water.

The twin rivers rise in the high mountains of north-eastern Anatolia and flow through Turkey, Syria and Iraq before eventually merging to form the Shatt al-‘Arab, which empties into the Gulf. Turkey is the upstream country and has not traditionally enjoyed warm relations with the Arab countries downstream.

Turkey occupies a territory in the centre of the links between Europe and Asia; between the nations of the Arabian and Gulf heartland and the Iraqis and Iranians; and, most crucially, controls the water supply of the Euphrates-Tigris River Basin.

Agreements between these countries date back to 1926, with The Good Neighbourliness Agreement between Turkey and French Syria, outlining Syria’s water rights, and the Treaty of Friendship and Neighbourly Relations between Turkey and Iraq, under which Turkey agreed not to change the flow of the Euphrates or construct waterworks without first consulting Iraq.

In 1953, the fast-growing state in Ankara established a powerful institution to govern supply and distribution of water, the General Directorate of State Hydraulic Works (or DSI, by the Turkish acronym). DSI is central to Turkish political culture. Two of its water engineers and eventual directors, Süleyman Demirel and Turgut Özal, went on to become prime minister and president of the country.i

In the 1960s, Turkey, Syria and Iraq negotiated a new phase of their relationship over water, as a result of Turkey’s decision to construct the Keban Dam on the Euphrates. After prolonged negotiations, Turkey guaranteed to maintain a discharge of 350 m3/s immediately downstream from the dam, provided that the natural flow of the river was adequate to supply this discharge. This was communicated to Syria and Iraq the same year. Moreover, during this meeting, Turkey proposed the establishment of a Joint Technical Committee (JTC), which would inspect each river to determine its average yearly discharge.

In 1965, the three nations met again to exchange technical data on the Haditha (Iraq), Tabqa (Syria) and Keban (Turkey) dams being built on the Euphrates. There were several small procedural agreements over the next few years but there was no overall agreement on the ownership and use of the water. In 1987 the Turks and the Syrians made an interim protocol on the waters of the Euphrates as Turkey was filling its Ataturk dam.

A further protocol was arranged in the Water Allocation Agreement between Syria and Iraq: The Protocol of 1989. This regulated how much of the water that Turkey allowed to flow to Syria and then would be allowed by Syria to pass to Iraq.

The price for the agreement between Turkey and Syria was that the Syrians would crack down on the large Kurdish population living near the Turkish border.ii The fundamental problem in this division of the waters of the Tigris-Euphrates is that

the levels of water have been gradually diminishing and water shortages are an ever-growing problem for Syria and Iraq.iii Since 1975, Turkey’s extensive dam and hydropower construction has reportedly reduced water flows into Iraq and Syria by approximately 80 per cent and 40 per cent respectively. Approximately 90 per cent of the water flow in the Euphrates and 50 per cent in the Tigris originate in Turkey. This has left Syria and Iraq vulnerable.

The Turks only use about 35% of the water flow and this is largely because it manages the flow through an elaborate system of dams. The pièce de résistance of the program of dam-building in Turkey was the gigantic Southern Anatolian Project (known by its Turkish acronym, GAP), which commenced in the 1970s and encompasses 22 dams, 19 hydroelectric power plants and several irrigation networks. GAP remains the second biggest integrated water development project in the world, covering approximately 10 percent of Turkey’s population and an equivalent surface area.iv

Nonetheless there is and remains a critical shortage of water in the region.

It was the continuing crisis over water which provided the backdrop to the Syrian Crisis. By 2011, drought-related crop failure in Syria had pushed up to 1.5 million displaced farmers to abandon their land; the displaced became a wellspring of recruits for the Free Syrian Army and for such groups as the Islamic State (also called ISIS or Daesh) and al Qaeda. Testimonies gathered by reporters and activists in conflict zones suggested that the lack of government help during the drought was a central motivating factor in the anti-government rebellion in Syria. Moreover, a 2011 study shows that today’s rebel strongholds of Aleppo, Deir al-Zour, and Raqqa were among the areas hardest hit by crop failure.

In other words, drought changed the economic, social, and political landscape of Syria. Iraq, already reeling from Daesh and sectarian tension, was next. In 2006, a leaked U.S. State Department cable forecast that Syria’s “emerging water crisis carries the potential for severe economic volatility and even socio-political unrest.” This cable was a clear warning. By 2011, Iraqi wheat yields had fallen by over 50 percent. Much of the country’s livestock had died, affecting hundreds of thousands of fieldworkers and farmers. Despite losing 1.6 million tons of grain to Daesh and consuming 2.5 million tons more than it can produce, Iraq had planned to become a grain exporter by 2017. This closely mirrored Syria’s ambition at the time of the 2006 cable. In those years, Damascus hoped to dramatically increase agricultural production as a part of an economic diversification plan. Syria had already doubled its irrigated land in the preceding 15 years, and its 2006 five-year plan projected further increases.

In the cable, embassy officials note that agriculture experts believed that Syria’s growing water demand was outstripping water availability. Despite this situation of decreased water flows the Turks continued to build dams, restricting the flows even further. Between 1975 and 1991, on three occasions, Syria and Iraq threatened Turkey with military action (and at one point threatened each other) over reduced river flows due to dams in Turkey. Negotiations stopped and started as relations between the nations fluctuated. Since then, climate change and population growth have put extreme pressure on regional freshwater, heightening the impact of the damming of the two rivers.

Although current agreements between Syria and Turkey provide for 500 cubic meters per second, 46 percent of which goes to Iraq, summer flows can be far less. According to Jasim al Asadi, a hydrologist with Nature Iraq, by the time the Euphrates reaches Nasiriyah in Southern Iraq, a minimum of 90 cubic meters per second is required for municipal, industrial, and agricultural use. Sometimes, the flow can be as low as 18 cubic meters per second, so unsurprisingly the marshes are receding rapidly. Before major dam construction in the 1970s, the average flow in the Euphrates was about 720 cubic meters per second. Now it is about 260 as it enters Iraq.v

This situation was made critical with the rise of Daesh. The ongoing spread of Daesh across the region has ended up with “non-state actors” seizing control of water resources in both Syria and Iraq. Daesh is able to use water structures as a means to prevent local populations (especially near Baghdad and the Shiite population inhabiting the southern part of Iraq) from accessing water. However, Daesh in northern Syria and near Mosul in Iraq are dependent on water flows from Turkey. This means that there is a limited amount of pressure that either Iraq or Syria (and Daesh as well) can apply to Turkey without risking a severe shortage of water.

One of the most important of these dams is the Tabqa Dam. The Tabqa Dam is an earth-fill dam on the Euphrates, located 40 kilometres (25 mi) upstream from the city of Ar-Raqqah in Ar-Raqqah Governorate, Syria, the Daesh headquarters. The dam is 60 metres (200 ft) high and 4.5 kilometres (2.8 mi) long and is the largest dam in Syria. Its construction led to the creation of Lake Assad, Syria’s largest water reservoir. The dam was constructed between 1968 and 1973 with help from the Soviet Union. It was one of the first Syrian assets seized by Daesh. Its flow, however, can be regulated by the Keban Dam north of it in Turkey and, with a diminished flow, its salinity is increasing. Lake Assad is almost empty.

Daesh fought the Iraqi Army over the Fallujah Dam and took it over. With monstrous incompetence Daesh immediately closed the dam and stopped the water flow downstream. This left towns such as Karbala and Najaf without water. But it also caused the reservoir behind the dam to overflow east, flooding some 500 square kilometres of farmland and thousands of homes as far as Abu Ghraib, about 40 kilometres away on the outskirts of Baghdad. Later, Daesh suddenly reopened the dam, causing major flooding downstream. They then began the attack on the critical Haditha Dam; the dam seized by U.S. Rangers in 2003 to stop Saddam’s attempt to engage in hydrological warfare. The Iraqis resisted Daesh but it is still a conflicted area.

By far the most difficult challenge in the water wars is the battle for Mosul Dam. For several weeks in July and August 2014, Daesh captured and held Mosul Dam from the Peshmerga. On August 17, 2014, the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army launched a successful operation to retake control of the dam from Daesh. United States airstrikes assisted the Kurdish and Iraqi military, damaging or destroying 19 vehicles belonging to Daesh, as well as striking a Daesh checkpoint near the dam. Mosul Dam is the largest in Iraq. It barricades the Tigris about 40 kilometres upstream of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.

The Mosul Dam is an engineering disaster waiting to happen. Back in 2007, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called it “the most dangerous dam in the world.” Its foundations are built on porous gypsum that is constantly being dissolved by water in the reservoir, creating sinkholes that threaten to collapse the foundations. The U.S. Corps of Engineers outlined a worst-case scenario, in which a sudden collapse of the dam would flood Mosul under 65 feet (20 m) of water and Baghdad, a city of 7 million, to 15 feet (4.6 m), with an estimated death toll of 500,000.vi There is current fighting to take back the city of Mosul by the Peshmerga and Iraqi troops.

This conflict over the supply of water has been used by Turkey as an important political lever in its relationships with Syria and Iraq. Turkey has not followed a path of opposition to Daesh but rather provided shelter, arms, military hardware, explosives, safe passage for Daesh troops, intelligence and cash through the MIT (Turkish intelligence). However, it was able to cut off water supplies to Syria’s Lake Assad and Raqqa. While professing its opposition to Assad in Syria it has attempted to balance all its options in dealing with the region. Sometimes it expanded its relations with Israel and Jordan; sometimes it opposed them. It has played cat-and-mouse with the Russians. Through all of these twists and turns of policy Turkey has kept as its lodestar its mission to prevent Kurdish separatism and allocated to itself the right to bomb, not only its own Kurdish areas, but also Kurdish areas in Iraq. Recently it has cut back the export of Iraqi Kurdish oil through the port of Ceyhan dramatically and caused a severe shortfall in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) revenues.

While Turkey is still a member of NATO and the U.S. is still using Incirlik to base its planes for the fight against Daesh the abortive coup against Erdogan has changed the dynamics of the region. Erdogan has cracked down on his internal opposition with a vengeance, arresting over 60,000 people and pledging to restore the death penalty. This has finally confirmed to the EU the lack of civil liberties in Turkey and the EU is less willing to promote Turkey’s accession and visa-free entry to the Schengen Zone. Turkey has expressed hostility towards the U.S. and stated that the U.S. was complicit in the planning and execution of the coup. There is talk of suspending Turkey’s membership in NATO as a response to Turkey’s actions in denying basic civil rights to its citizens. In a recent meeting between Erdogan and Putin the Russians requested Erdogan’s assistance in resisting Daesh and allowing Assad to stay in office but Erdogan could not agree anything substantial with the Russians.

The most important aspect of Turkey’s relationship with the Middle East Conflict has been the expansion and cohesion of the Kurdish nascent state of Rojava. This battle with the Kurds relates directly to the question of water.

The areas of Turkey and Syria occupied by the Kurds overlaps the riverine territories of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Rojava is a fact on the ground with which Turkey has to deal. Despite Turkish shelling of the YPG forces in Syria and the civilian population in Kurdish areas of Turkey the Kurds are now fully established in a quasi-autonomous region of Syria which can cut off access to Al-Nusra and Daesh by the Turkish military and MIT, and with the full support of the U.S. The PKK, which had maintained good relations with Russia since the days of the Soviet Union, has opened a new office in Moscow as well as maintained its links with U.S. forces in Syria. Indeed, the U.S. is quite advanced in reconstituting two airbases in Kurdish Syria which will allow them to supply their YPG allies without having to go through the Turkish airbase in Incerlik.

The Turks are faced with a continuing Kurdish dilemma, On the one hand the Turks are adamant that any Kurdish politician, especially those of the domestic HDP party are potential, if not clandestine, members of the PKK and potential leaders who will separate out the Kurdish areas of Turkey from Greater Turkey. It fears the Syrian Kurds and their PYD and YPG groups who separate Turkey from Syria with an ethnic wall of Kurds across its southern border and who maintain good relations with both the U.S. and Russia, On the other hand the Turks are firmly in bed with the Barzani Kurds of Iraq who sell their crude through Turkish pipelines and who can supply petroleum products if the Russians restrict or overcharge Turkey for oil and gas. The diminishing of Barzani’s oil flows through Ceyhan has damaged this relationship between the KRG and Turkey.

On 17 March 2016 the Kurds announced the formation of a new Federation of Northern Syria that would take in Kurdish-majority areas of Jazeera, Kobane and Afrin, knowns as Rojava, plus Arab towns currently under Kurdish control. Salih Muslim Mohammed, the co-leader of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the largest Kurdish party in Syria, said the federation should not be seen as an autonomous Kurdistan region, but rather a blueprint for a future decentralised and democratic country, where everyone is represented in government.

“There is no autonomous Kurdish region, so there is no question of recognising it or not,” he said. “It is part of a democratic Syria, and it might expand all over Syria. We want to decentralise Syria, in which everyone has their rights. That same day, two hundred members, delegates and party members including Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, and Christians from the Kurdish areas of Syria and Syrian towns including Manbij, Aleppo, and al-Shahbaa elected a council of 31 members for the Democratic Federal System for Rojava and Northern Syria.vii

The spread of Rojava across the whole length of the Syrian-Turkish border is becoming ever more real each week, despite Turkey’s objection and support of the newest version of the Al-Nusrah front. If Turkey continues its crackdown of civil liberties inside Turkey, continues its bombing of the Kurdish area inside Turkey, its bombing of Kurdish areas in Iraq, and is suspended from NATO the most likely result would be the joining of the Kurdish areas of Turkey and Iraq with Rojava, forming, finally, a Kurdish state. This would effectively partition Turkey and take out of Turkish hands the power of controlling the crucial water supply in the region.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has already threatened the Iraqi Government in June 2016 that it might cut the water supplies from branches of Tigris river to the central and south areas of Iraq to encourage the Iraqi government stop discriminating against Kurds.viii

Erdogan may feel justified in his wave of repression against his opponents but he is very foolish in continuing his campaign against the U.S., NATO and the European Union. He is risking far more than just the enmity of these entities, he may well be risking the integrity of the Turkish state. His control of the water supply in that region of the Middle East may seem to be a powerful weapon to demand concessions from others but its very importance as an issue may lead these others to the conclusion that the Kurds are a better bet and that that they are in a better state to deal with the water issue.


i. Hilal Enver, “Turkey’s Rivers of Dispute”, MER254, 10/8/09

ii. “Water-Shortage Crisis Escalating in the Tigris-Euphrates Basin” Future Directions (Australia) 28 August 2012

iii. Aysegül Kibaroglu,,”Transboundary Water Governance in the Euphrates Tigris River Basin”, E-International Jul 22 2015

iv. Enver, op cit

v. Mukad Al Jabbari, Norman Ricklefs, and Robert Tollast , “Foreign Affairs” 23 August 2015

vi. Fred Pearce, “Mideast Water Wars: In Iraq, A Battle for Control of Water”, Enviro 360 23/8/14

vii. Wladimir van Wilgenburg, ‘This is a new Syria, not a new Kurdistan’, Middle East Eye, 20/3/16

viii. http://www.kurdistan24.net/en/news/66faa943-6947-4143-9df3-fba0aea86dcf/Kurdistan-considers-cutting-water-supplies-to-Iraq-

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