There have been concerns that the fragile security situation in parts of north-eastern Syria could be undermined by a lack of water. According to Al-Monitor, Turkey increased its pressure on Kurdish-controlled north-eastern Syria last month, by stopping the Alok pumping station from operating in Turkish-occupied Ras al-Ain. The station is responsible for supplying water to nearly half a million people in north-eastern Syria, including those held in the al-Hol camp, which holds tens of thousands of Islamic State families. The al-Hol camp is one of two large detention centres, which are regarded by British and European officials as the biggest residual threat posed by the Islamic State.
Water is often both a weapon and a casualty in times of conflict and Syria has seen a number of such incidents. In 2016, for instance, nearly two million people were left without water in Aleppo, after attacks on water systems. Islamic State also frequently used water as a weapon; most effectively as a tool to control vulnerable populations. Similarly, Turkey has been accused of using threats to water security against its own minority Kurdish population. The Greater Anatolia Project (GAP) is ostensibly an irrigation and energy project, but is also a key part of Ankara’s Kurdish policy. The project was started to “dilute potential Kurdish national aspirations for an independent homeland”. To do this, the GAP and its dam projects enable monitoring and control of the Kurdish population, by cutting off routes used by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It would also force locals to use a limited number of military-controlled ferries for transport.
Turkey has long used its water resources as a bargaining chip in transnational negotiations. It encourages its downstream neighbours to outlaw the PKK, with the promise of greater co-operation over water issues or a guarantee of minimal annual flows. Domestically, Turkey’s construction of several dams has been criticised for the cultural destruction they will cause. This is especially true of the Ilisu dam, which has started to submerge the historic town of Hasankeyf and will ultimately displace around 80,000 people. A number of NGOs have sharply criticised the dam, complaining that it would erase an ancient culture in the Kurdish region. Although Turkey has downplayed this aspect of the GAP, the official language used on the project’s website at one point acknowledged its intention to remove the presence and influence of traditional institutions and organisations that “impede development “(the English-language version of the website now appears to be defunct).
Turkey’s use of water as a method of creating pressure is part of a Turkish push into Kurdish-held territory, since the US withdrew from the area. Turkey is particularly threatened by the People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish military group that Turkey insists is an extension of the PKK. Turkey is also concerned about the presence of Kurdish militias on its southern border, which it contends has created a ‘terror corridor’ on its doorstep.
A deal, made between Turkey and Russia, in October 2019 brought an end to a Turkish military operation against Kurdish militias in north-eastern Syria. The agreement has led to a fragile peace, but tensions are still high. By cutting off water supplies to north-eastern Syria, Turkey has demonstrated that the Kurdish issue in Syria is still a key concern; it also creates concern for the future of peace in Kurdish-held regions.