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Rojava, where water is twice as expensive as oil

Turkey is now in Jarablus town with Special Forces personnel and heavy weapons including tanks, and making advances enabling it to control a strategic part of the region.

Cemal Özkahraman
21 December 2016
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The Euphrates river at Duro-Europos, Syria, 2008. Flickr/Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Some rights reserved.The Kurds in northern Syria, or Rojava (western/Syrian Kurdistan), most of whom until recently had not been allowed to buy or rent land or even to carry ID cards, have now succeeded in establishing democratic autonomy, applying a model based on social justice, gender equality and sustainability, and raising the question - could this model be implemented throughout the Middle East?

However, Rojava is surrounded by hostile neighbours, Turkey, Syria and Iraq, making it an insecure environment in socio-economic terms.  The key factor with regard to Rojava’s sustainability and socioeconomic development may be the flow of the Euphrates. Since the river is mainly controlled by Turkish-supported rebels and so-called Islamic State or Daesh, the question arises, can Rojava exist without the water of the Euphrates?

Rojava consists of three quasi-federal cantons: ’Afrin, Kobanè and Cizîrè. While there are people of other ethnicities, including Arab, Asuri-Suryani and Armenian, in Rojava, the majority of the population is Kurdish. There is no doubt that the civil war in Syria has opened up a real possibility of autonomy for Syrian Kurds led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD). It has been a momentous time for them, as they  now aim at becoming autonomous if not independent, particularly after their successful fight against Daesh.

However, Rojava is currently a war zone. It is run on the basis of what they call a ‘social economy’ – an economic system built on a series of cooperatives across all economic sectors. The initial objective is to be self-sufficient in meeting basic needs such as food and fuel.

Since they are unable to access external aid, they have limited supplies in everything, including the necessities of daily life, electricity and clean water. In particular, since the Turkish state controls a key strategic area through which the Euphrates flows, including the town of Jarablus (in Syrian territory), and Daesh controls the majority of dams on the river from which Rojava used to get electricity, they now have to rely on diesel generators.  

In these circumstances water costs 25 cents a half-litre, while a litre of diesel costs 25 cents – water is twice as expensive as oil.

Access to water

Since Turkey sees Rojava as a potential enemy and a threat to its own geo-political security, it has imposed a political embargo on the region, closing all border crossings. With Iraq, there is a narrow border opening between Rojava and the region controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Although some oil refineries have been constructed as well as a number of publicly-run mills and dairy processing plants, the main necessity for Rojava is going to be water; not only now but in the future, if they are to construct their own autonomous or independent regime.

When I interviewed one of the PYD’s senior people in Rojava by telephone, he was clear that if there is no access to the water, there is no Rojava, and that means access to the Euphrates. So while the Kurds are fighting to open a corridor between ’Afrin canton and the rest of Rojava, which is crucial for geostrategic and geo-security reasons, they are also trying to secure this access. However, since Turkey does not want a Kurdish autonomous region in Syria, and, specifically, does not want the Kurds to be able to use the Euphrates water, Turkey has taken an aggressive stance, stating that the Kurds must not cross to the west bank of the Euphrates and that the river is their ‘red line’. 

Turkish attack

When the Kurdish fighters crossed over to the west bank, took Manbij, and continued to make advances in the area around the Euphrates, pushing back Daesh, Turkey responded.

Together with Syrian rebels, Turkey took Jarablus, next to the Turkish border, from Daesh, encountering no resistance, which raises the question - had Daesh and the Turkish state made some agreement on water flow? It should be borne in mind that when Daesh took Mosul city in Iraq on 9 June 2014, they took 49 Turkish consulate staff hostage. But while Daesh were brutally killing Iraqi shi’is, Christians and Yezidi Kurds, the staff were not harmed and three months later were all freed.

Turkey has explicitly declared that its intervention in northern Syria, around the Euphrates River area is not only targeting Daesh but also the Syrian Kurdish-led alliance that is attempting to advance on Jarablus and cross the Euphrates, and has warned the Kurdish forces that they must return to the east of the river. Turkey is now in Jarablus town with its Special Forces personnel and heavy weapons including tanks, and continuing to make advances enabling it to control a strategic part of the region, evidently waiting for an appropriate moment to attack the Kurds and push them back to the east of the Euphrates.

Much has been written to the effect that the next generation of warfare will be a battle over water. Although some see this as fantasy, the theory is reflected in practice by the ongoing fighting between Turkey, Daesh and the Kurdish-led coalition around the Euphrates. Previously the issue of water was between states, but since the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the outbreak of civil war in Syria, the hydro-politics of water has taken quite a different turn. This has been the case particularly since Daesh took control of significant water resources in Syria and Iraq, which, as Tobias von Lossow has chronicled, involved capturing large dams and reservoirs on the Euphrates and Tigris as a crucial part of its expansion strategy.

The crucial issue here is that the Euphrates water offers a significant advantage for the actors concerned, as it can be used not only for geostrategic and geosecurity purposes, but also to sustain socioeconomic development.

As my interviewee pointed out, the Euphrates River is crucial: if there is no access to water, there is no Rojava.

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