Why Turkey should swap military strikes for water diplomacy

    23 Oct 2021

    Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has voiced his anger over the killing of two Turkish policemen by Kurdish forces in Syria, describing the attack as “the final straw” and warning that Ankara will take decisive action to eliminate what it views as a terrorist threat against its citizens.

    However, can Turkey be sure another military campaign will serve its purposes, especially in the lead-up to what appears to be a tightly contested election? A military strike can have unintended consequences and might not be the best choice, while any entanglement is unlikely to foster the sense of stability necessary to attract investors to the country. Since the Turkish leader has been focusing on attracting investment, a deal might be a better alternative.

    What can Turkey offer to turn its adversaries into partners? Water.

    At least, this is the opinion written by Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib. She’s a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II. She is also an affiliate scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.

    Let’s read her full text.


    Problems with water supply have grown since 1975, when Turkey’s dam construction program cut the flow of water to Iraq by 80% and to Syria by 40%. Studies have shown that the Tigris and Euphrates basin, which covers Turkey, Syria, Iraq and western Iran, is losing water faster than any other area in the world, except northern India.

    To add to that, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s policies have focused on the urban sector at the expense of rural areas. This problem has been aggravated by the conflict. As a result, basic commodities have become more costly and the price of bread has soared. Water scarcity in Syria’s northeast, a major agricultural area, has contributed to instability. A RAND Corporation study found that a secure water supply is essential to prevent the re-emergence of Daesh.

    Water can be a major factor in encouraging people to return to their communities. During the conflict, water has been used as a weapon by the warring parties, while lack of access to secure supplies has been cited as a leading reason behind the rise in refugee numbers as people abandon their communities. Daesh cut off water supplies to northern Iraq in 2015.

    In Iraq, poor governance has led to the targeting of irrigation department officials and clashes between rural clans. Water supplies in the country are also under threat because of the growing population. The current water management infrastructure dates back to the 1970s and is less efficient than modern systems. More serious still, the city of Mosul faces the threat of a dam collapse, a disaster that would affect 2 million people and kill hundreds of thousands.

    Turkey is an upstream power and, hence, has a valuable asset that can be used to make people’s lives easy or difficult.

    Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib

    Turkey is an upstream power and, hence, has a valuable asset that can be used to make people’s lives easy or difficult. The Euphrates and Tigris rivers flow from the mountains of eastern Turkey into Iraq and Syria. Turkey can use water to forge better relations with Baghdad and entice the Kurdish factions in the northeast of Syria into an arrangement that guarantees its security. Ankara would be better off entering into an arrangement with the Kurds in Syria under US mediation rather than looking on as Assad agrees to a deal with the Kurds via Russian efforts.

    To build trust, a commission made up of representatives from Turkey, Syria’s northeast and Iraq, with a rotating presidency, could be created to manage water across the three countries and explore economically beneficial projects. A similar commission has been created for the Mekong River to manage water among Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

    Turkey could also help to upgrade aging infrastructure in locations such in Mosul. This could be done with US and European assistance. Public-private partnerships could be created to carry out such projects, with Turkish companies joining forces with local governments. These deals would strengthen Erdogan’s efforts to attract investment to Turkey and bring contracts to Turkish companies.

    This approach would also lead to an improvement in Turkey’s relations with the Iraqi government, which have been soured by Turkish incursions into Iraq to pursue Kurdish militants hiding in the mountains. Any deal over water could require the Iraqi government to target the PKK and the pro-Iran militias protecting it. This will be less costly to Turkey than an incursion in terms of finances and the lives of Turkish soldiers, as well as diplomatic capital with Iraq and other Arab countries. The Arab League has condemned Turkey for carrying out military operations in Iraq.

    As Turkey finds itself with far too many enemies in its neighborhood, water could be an ideal diplomatic tool, improving Ankara’s standing and adding to the number of friends it has in the region.

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