Refleksi :Masalah air di Timur Tengah misalnya antara Siria, Irak dan Turki, 
serta antara  Israel-Palestinia-Yordania, apakah akan menjadi sumber sengketa 
dimasa mendatang?

 10 - 16 June 2010
Issue No. 1002

Turkey muddies the water
Syria's plan to divert the waters of the Tigris portends a long and bitter 
quarrel with Iraq, reports Bassel Oudat from Damascus 


Last year's severe drought in northeastern Syria dried up the Khabur River 
which is the lifeline in that region, causing some 500,000 Syrians to migrate 
to other areas inside Syria. In response, the government signed a deal with the 
Kuwaiti Fund for Arab Economic Development to begin a project on the Tigris 
close to the Syrian-Turkish-Iraqi border, diverting enough water to fertilise 
200,000 hectares.

Baghdad was infuriated by the project and called Damascus to an "emergency 
meeting" to clarify the details of the "surprise plan" which would divert river 
water over long distances inside Syrian territories. Iraq's Water Resources 
Ministry stated that any diverted water will affect Iraq's already meagre water 
quota, which would negatively influence local agriculture and the economy. 
Iraqi officials also predicted that the plan will jeopardise already worsening 
relations between the two neighbouring states.

Syria has not responded to Iraq's invitation. Informed Syrian sources asserted 
that the project was conceived decades ago, and not a new concept at all, as 
the Iraqis are claiming. In fact, it is an indicator of warming relations 
between Syria and Turkey, because Ankara gave Damascus the green light to go 
ahead and begin the project.

The plan is indeed old, but was delayed because previous governments in Turkey 
refused to sign any agreement to share water with Syria and Iraq. With 
encouragement from abroad, Ankara was fooled into believing that it would be 
stronger and have more leverage by controlling the water flow.

Syria and Iraq have fought over water resources in the past. In the 1980s, it 
threatened to ignite a war. Eventually the quarrel came to include Turkey, 
especially after Ankara began building large dams on the Euphrates and Tigris. 
So far, no three-way agreement has been reached because Turkey refuses to share 
the water with Syria and Iraq.

The heart of the problem lies in differences of interpretation of Syria and 
Iraq on the one hand, and Turkey on the other. Turkey believes the Tigris and 
Euphrates rivers, which originate in the Taurus Mountains in Turkey and pass 
through Syria and Iraq, to be "marginally cross-border rivers" because they 
barely pass inside the borders of Syria and Iraq. But Syria and Iraq consider 
them major international water bodies which should be evenly divided among 

When the regimes in Damascus and Baghdad fell out in the 1970-80s, this 
negatively affected their rights to the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris and 
a number of smaller rivers, because they refused to sit together or with the 
Turkish side. Ankara used Syrian- Iraqi tensions to exercise control over the 
waters of the rivers and keep a much larger share than stipulated in 
international water agreements for itself. It constructed massive dams on the 
rivers, using their waters in agricultural and industrial projects along their 
banks. It cut down the amount of water going to each country, and refused to 
recognise that the two rivers were international waterways but rather local 
Turkish rivers which happen to pass through Syria and Iraq on their way to the 
Arab shore, south of Basra in Iraq.

In 1974, Turkey began the Southeastern Anatolian (GAP) project which consists 
of 21 dams, 17 of which on the Euphrates including Ataturk Dam and four others 
on the River Tigris. It also included 19 power stations and 47 water 
reservoirs, and a variety of other projects in the fields of agriculture, 
industry, transportation, irrigation and communication. Ankara earmarked $32 
billion for the project and received a large part of the budget from 
international funding in the form of loans and grants, especially from the US, 
Canada, Israel and France.

In 1987, Syria and Iraq tried to gain some recognition over the waters of the 
two rivers, but it was too late. Turkey refused to negotiate with them as one 
party and dealt with each side separately, taking a disproportionate amount for 
itself. Damascus and Baghdad could do nothing, especially in light of the fact 
that Ankara continued its plans to construct dams and was able to cut off the 
flow of the river altogether to both neighbours.

In 1989, Syria and Iraq agreed to divide the quota of the Euphrates River given 
to them, whereby Syria's share amounted to 42 per cent and 52 per cent went to 
Iraq. Later, in 2000, the two sides agreed that Syria should receive a share of 
the Tigris water (which flows 50km inside its border), enough to irrigate 
almost 200,000 hectares of land.

In the end, sharing the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris became a capricious 
matter, not relying on clear and precise agreements based on international law. 
Turkey's whims dictate quotas with no base in international law. In 2007, a 
three-way meeting failed to result in a comprehensive agreement on the issue 
because Turkey refused to change the status quo and wanted to make it a de 
facto arrangement.

Syria's project to divert Tigris water, which it started publicly planning at 
the beginning of this year, has antagonised the Iraqis to an unexpected degree, 
and Baghdad's reaction came as a surprise to Damascus. This is especially true 
since there is a preliminary agreement regarding this issue with the previous 
regime in Iraq, which Iraqis today consider invalid. The Syrians counter that 
the agreement was concluded with a legitimate Iraqi government and not one 
person per se, and it is illogical to annul agreements between countries every 
time the regime changes.

Syrian political circles feel that Iraq's reasoning is another attempt by 
Iraq's government to raise tensions between the two countries, and manipulate 
this domestically now that Iraq is about to form a new government.

Relations between the two neighbours have not been at their best for almost one 
year, after Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki accused Syria of hosting and 
assisting Al-Baath Party elements who support the ousted regime in Baghdad. 
Iraq claims these elements are behind a number of attacks in Baghdad which have 
killed hundreds of Iraqis. These accusations also came as a surprise for the 
Syrians who said they have tried their utmost in the past few years to prevent 
fighters from going into Iraq by more vigilant control of the border. At the 
same time, Syria is home to 1.5 million Iraqi refugees and says it has 
cooperated with Iraqi authorities.

Syrian officials believe that Iraq's objections to the Tigris project are not a 
result of Iraqi concerns over water but have other political goals to do with 
domestic Iraqi politics, power struggles among Iraqi factions, and 
complications in forming Iraq's new cabinet.

No doubt, the quarrel between Syria and Iraq over the past decades has allowed 
Turkey to do as it pleases with the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris. Today, 
closer ties between Damascus and Ankara -- which could almost be described as a 
strategic alliance -- are still not enough to convince Turkey to admit that 
these are international rivers, and it continues to control them unilaterally.

Observers believe that rising political friction between Syria and Iraq, their 
distraction with secondary issues over more important ones, and their lax 
positions towards Turkey on the water issue and other matters have not only 
caused tension, but resulted in immense strategic losses for both parties. 

They will have to look beyond this current spat and focus on the real problem 
-- resolving the quota issue with Turkey.

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