Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

A Thirsty Syria May Make Turkey's Water Price of Peace

A POSSIBLE peace between archenemies Syria and Israel may be the crown jewel for Mideast tranquility, but the prospect is making Syria's big neighbor to the north, Turkey, very jittery.

As US Secretary of State Warren Christopher heads for more shuttle diplomacy between Israel and Syria, both Turkey and Syria are ratcheting up their rhetoric over an issue that lies at the heart of many Mideast problems: water.

About these ads

Turkey worries that Syria, headed by the shrewd Hafez al-Assad, will get more from a peace deal than the contested Golan Heights. He may persuade Israel and the United States to sweeten any deal by pressuring Turkey to release more of its pent-up water from the Euphrates River to downstream Syria.

An intelligence report recently prepared for Turkey's Foreign Ministry on the possible effects of a Syrian-Israeli peace supports this theory.

According to the report, some Israeli water experts are already saying Turkey should send more water from the Euphrates to Syria. If Syria gets more water from the Euphrates, it would be less dependent on the Golan Heights resources, which Israelis rely on. If a peace is reached, the two countries may share the Golan's water.

Israeli diplomats here deny that Israel is or intends to be engaged in such bargaining with the Syrians. "Our issues [with Syria] have nothing to do with Syrian-Turkish relations and the water dispute between those two countries," says an Israeli Embassy official in Ankara.

But Turkey and Syria are waging a war of words over the Euphrates' water. Syria is demanding more water; Turkey is balking.

The discord started about 20 years ago, when the Turks embarked on an ambitious development program in the country's southeast, partly to ease the economic woes of the country's ethnic Kurds.

The program called for the construction of giant dams and vast irrigation systems to harness the water of the Euphrates, which originates in southeastern Turkey, flows through Syria and Iraq, and empties into the Persian Gulf.

About these ads

The region has started to feel the benefits of this multibillion-dollar scheme - large tracts of previously barren land are now irrigated and covered with rich cotton fields. And energy from new hydroelectric stations reaches remote villages.

The Ataturk Dam, completed in 1991,was the first of 22 dams Turkey built. The Birecik Dam, the last, will be finished by 1999.

Syria never liked the dam projects and claimed that Turkey was reducing the amount of water flowing into its territory.

The two countries reached an agreement over the water in 1987. Syria was guaranteed 500 cubic meters per second of water from the Euphrates.

But the two countries have continued to squabble over the water, and in the last month, both have ratcheted up the rhetoric.

Syria convened a conference of Arab foreign ministers Dec. 20, who issued a declaration demanding a "just and acceptable agreement on the sharing" of the Euphrates waters. It criticized Turkey for building another dam without consulting Syria and for sending polluted water to Syria.

This set Turkey off on its own public-relations campaign. Foreign Minister Deniz Baykal said "some circles [in Syria] may claim that they need more water. Is this because they have to wash their hands from the blood of terrorism?" referring to Syria's protection of Kurdish militants.

Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the outlawed Kurdish Worker's Party (PKK), resides in Syria and is often interviewed by Western correspondents or met by European politicians there.

Turkey has repeatedly called on Syria to expel the PKK militants. But in spite of promises to do so, the Syrians have not cooperated.

The view in Ankara is that the Syrians want to play the "PKK card" in order to force Turkey to accept their terms on the water issue.

"The current Syrian campaign is politically motivated," Onur Oymen, the undersecretary at the Foreign Ministry, told the Monitor. "It comes at a time when the Syrian support of the PKK is internationally recognized. The Syrians want ... to play the PKK card to impose on us their conditions on the water issue.

"Those are two separate issues," Mr. Oymen says. "Syria has an obligation to cease its support of terrorism. Turkey is already abiding by the 1987 water agreement. We are ready to discuss the improvement of this accord along the lines of our three-phase plan."

That plan provides for jointly preparing an inventory of the water resources, an inventory of the land, and plans to determine the irrigation types and systems to minimize the water losses.

Turkey maintains that part of the water provided Syria is wasted, and offers technological assistance to Syria to help it make the most use of the water. But the Syrians still insist on a substantial increase in the supply of water - almost doubling the present amount.

Syria claims a right "to share the watercourse," while the Turks say they have no such legal obligation. Turkey expects Syria to recognize its sovereignty over the Euphrates and its right to allocate - not share - the water.

According to Oymen, Syria has taken advantage of the role of "good guy" by joining the US-sponsored peace talks with Israel. "The Syrians probably are encouraged by the favorable attitude by the US and the West toward them now that they show a willingness to take part in the peace process," he says. "Their action against Turkey on the water issue coincides with this new situation.... This could be more than a coincidence."

Turkish experts here on the Middle East seem convinced that President Assad will try to make the most of the peace talks to press Turkey on the water issue. According to one Turkish Ministry official, "It is most likely that if Syria makes peace with Israel, it will turn all its attention and hostility toward Turkey."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.