Water security takes center stage in Syria-Turkiye talks

The Cradle, May 3, 2023 —

Russian-brokered talks to reconcile Ankara and Damascus will hit a wall if Turkiye doesn’t strike a deal to allow Syria and Iraq access to their share of water. Drought has now made water a region-wide security issue, and Ankara is officially on notice.

On 4 April, representatives from Syria, Turkiye, Iran, and Russia met for five hours in Moscow to address outstanding issues between Damascus and Ankara in their efforts to reinstate relations. Among the items under discussion were the Turkish and US military occupation in north and northeastern Syria, the Syrian refugee crisis, and Syria’s water security.

Today, authorities in Damascus have placed the latter at the top of their normalization agenda with Turkiye. During the Moscow meeting, informed sources tell The Cradle, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Ayman Soussan stressed that water security is no less important than the political and military issues that dominate headlines.

He accused Ankara of using water as a weapon in its war on Syrian soil by exercising control over the quantity of water flowing through the Euphrates River, unleashing natural disasters along the Euphrates basin in both Syria and Iraq and leaving hundreds of thousands of inhabitants in eastern Syria without access to drinking water.

While Ankara typically attributes the fluctuation in the Syrian water supply to drought-related issues, Damascus insists that its diminished water access is caused by willful Turkish aggression against Syria and has asked Russian and Iranian mediators for guarantees from Turkiye to regain access to Syria’s most important water source, The Euphrates River.

The Euphrates, which supplies 56 percent of Syria’s water needs, originates from Turkiye, crosses the Turkish Taurus Mountains, enters Syria at Jarabulus, then Iraq at Al-Qaim in Anbar.

Decades-old dispute

The dispute over water between Turkiye and Syria (and Iraq) is not new. Ankara has refused to classify the Tigris and Euphrates as cross-border rivers, which essentially means that international laws for the sharing of river water do not apply, but rather bilateral agreements that are easily violated.

In 1987, Ankara and Damascus signed a protocol in which Turkiye committed to the flow of 500 cubic meters of water per second to Syria, 58 percent of which goes to Iraq. Despite positive Turkish-Syrian relations in the first decade of this century, Turkiye did not strictly adhere to the terms of the protocol. The situation worsened when Ankara began to weaponize water in 2011 in a bid to bring about regime change in Syria.

This coincided with Turkiye’s move to build huge dams on the riverbed as part of the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), which aims to construct 22 dams and 19 power plants, 13 of which have so far been built on the Euphrates and Tigris. Currently, Turkiye allows no more than 200 cubic meters per second to flow into Syria, in clear violation of the 1987 protocol.

The low water levels have severely harmed farmers in Syria, causing food security to worsen, especially in eastern Syria, which is the country’s basket of strategic crops. The low water levels have also increased the levels of salinity and pollution in the river water, depriving many cities and villages of electricity, and further reducing Iraq’s share of water supply, which has resulted in an unprecedented drought crisis in the country. Water cuts have also contributed to the spread of cholera in war-torn Syria.

Drought worsens the crisis

Since 2020, Baghdad and Damascus have held numerous meetings to discuss their water crisis. Since the 2019 operation of the controversial Ilisu Dam – Turkiye’s second largest dam – the crisis has grown exponentially in Iraq by worsening the repercussions of drought.

Despite attempts to urge the Turkish government to abide by its commitments, Ankara insists on completing its projects and has blatantly ignored its disastrous consequences. This has prompted Iraqi officials to warn of an even greater catastrophe in the next agricultural season, after water quantities declined to only 30 percent.

This comes with a wave of drought, the worst in seven decades, which relief organizations expect to lead to a decline in crops in northeastern Syria (the Syrian wheat reservoir) by about 80 percent in 2022 compared to 2020.

The current drought affecting West Asia and North Africa, particularly Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon, has prompted these countries to pursue joint initiatives to resolve the problem. Recently, their respective ministers of agriculture met in Damascus to lay the foundations for a joint cooperation program to confront the crisis.

Prioritizing economic and refugee issues

The Syrian-Turkish reconciliation negotiations, sponsored by Russia and Iran, began to gain steam after their deputy foreign ministers met in March 2023, the first public meeting of political officials since the 2011 onset of the Syrian war.

However, to date, there have been no concrete breakthroughs on the key issues, including Turkish military occupation of northern Syria, the crisis of refugees and displaced Syrians and Kurds, Turkish-backed jihadist factions in northwestern Syria, water security, and other economic issues.

Reliable sources have informed The Cradle that Ankara prioritizes  economic issues and the refugee crisis, and links the withdrawal of its troops and the water problem to a final resolution of the Syrian crisis. Damascus, in turn, insists on establishing a specific schedule to decide all these issues, including the water crisis.

The sources confirm that Damascus and Moscow’s views have converged over the urgency of the water security issue, largely due to its huge impact on living standards and the rehabilitation of infrastructure for the return of refugees.

The Russians have weighed in on the water issue in several UN Security Council sessions, during discussions of humanitarian aid deliveries across the Turkish border and via Damascus. Moscow has conditioned its increased support for early recovery projects on the passage of this aid, with a focus on repairing Syria’s water and electricity networks. Therefore, striking a clear water agreement between Turkiye and Syria is at the forefront of Moscow’s brokering endeavors.

Water deal crucial for regional security

Syrian-Turkish reconciliation talks are currently in a lull, as Damascus seeks to reduce its impact on the upcoming 14 May election that has polarized the Turkish electorate. This will likely postpone reaching clear agreements until after the elections.

However, sources tell The Cradle that any future negotiations will likely include a clear resolution of the water issue to increase and guarantee Syrian and Iraqi water shares. If Turkiye genuinely seeks to move forward with its neighbors – economically and diplomatically – it will have to first undo the deep wound caused by its attack on the most essential of all resources.

In the meantime, the water dispute between Syria and Turkiye continues to be a major sore spot in efforts to fully normalize relations. The conflict over the Euphrates River’s flow and Turkiye’s construction of dams has caused natural disasters, harmed farmers, and caused food and water scarcity in Syria and Iraq.

But with the renewed regional focus on water security, and West Asia’s desire to avert even greater humanitarian catastrophes (particularly in the aftermath of the Turkish and Syrian earthquake disaster), all parties appear to be prioritizing this issue. The success of these negotiations will not only affect the immediate livelihoods of those in the region but also have long-term implications for the rehabilitation of infrastructure and the return of refugees.

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