The Turkish Offensive on the Northern Borders of Syria: why Turkey’s ‘Operation Peace Spring’ is about hydro-politics

Hamza is an MA student currently studying War Studies. In this article, he examines the relationship between Turkey’s latest military action in Syria, ‘Operation Peace Spring’, and it’s hydro-politics.

On Tuesday October 9th, 2019, Turkey launched ‘Operation Peace Spring’, a military offensive on the Northern borders of Syria. Apparently, the Turkish military offensive aimed at creating a 32-kilometer (km) deep ‘’safe zone’’ enabling up to 2 million of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees residing in Turkey to return to their home territory. In doing so, Turkey’s armed forces and allied Syrian rebel factions pursued the objective of neutralising any presence of the YPG, PKK and DAESH [1] in the ‘’safe zone’’ area to prevent, in the words’ of Turkish President Erdogan: ‘’the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area’’ [2].
On another note, during the 1970s, Turkey launched one of the largest regional development projects ever realized in the Middle East: the Southeastern Anatolia Project (Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi) also known as the GAP project. The ambition of the $32 billion GAP project is for Turkey to produce hydroelectric energy domestically and irrigate 1.8 million hectares (ha) of land in the Southeastern Anatolia Region, situated South-East of Turkey with borders running along Northern Syria and Iraq[3].
The reason for mentioning ‘Operation Peace Spring’ next to Turkey’s GAP project is not by pure coincidence and neither is Turkey’s decision to make the ‘’safe zone’’ 32-km deep into Northern Syria. Water in the region of the Middle East has been of growing importance with states making increased demands upon the supply of this natural resource. Water permits the expansion of agriculture and raise the standard of living for increasing populations[4].
In the context of the GAP project, Turkey relies on the two rivers of the Euphrates and Tigris for the use of its 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric power plants. The Euphrates and Tigris rivers are also used by other riparian states, one being Syria.[5] Where the issue lies in in the share of cross-boundary water flow between the riparian states of Turkey and Syria (we can include Iraq in that list but it will not be the focus of the article). Moreover, the GAP project produced important security concerns for Syria, since it is a downflow riparian state and Turkey an up-flow riparian state. Ankara has the capacity to control the flow of the Euphrates and Tigris to downstream riparian states, and historic antecedents of Turkey drastically reducing the flow or completely shutting it down have been noted[6]. Furthermore, the GAP project is intimately related with the Kurdish Question and influenced debates and policies on how to resolve the conflict[7]. ‘Operation Peace Spring’ can serve as the latest decision in how to deal with this issue but it reinforces the primary grand strategy of Turkey: the search for hydro-power hegemony in the region and energy independence from importation[8].

Before delving into each of these issues, it is important to first understand the historic escalating tensions in hydro-politics between Turkey and Syria since the 70s in order to have a big picture of why ‘Operation Peace Spring’ has been executed by Turkey. During the 1970s-1980s, Turkey-Syrian relations were dominated by tensions over the share of water flow from the Euphrates which grew by the construction of a series of dams and irrigation projects from Turkey upon implementation of the GAP project. At that time, Turkey generally kept the Euphrates flow at around 500 cubic meters during the construction of the dams, apart from when it was filling its domestic reservoirs, raising tensions between Syria and Turkey[9]. Syria started to fear that Turkey would not just reduce the quantity of flow from the Euphrates, but also that Ankara would use the GAP project as a geostrategic and political tool: in the 1980s, Syria’s anxiety was manifested in the realisation that it could lose 40% of its water from the Euphrates[10].
To counterbalance the weight of power Turkey was starting to obtain over the flow of the Euphrates with the GAP project, Hafez Assad, then president of Syria, decided to give sanctuary to Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party – also known as the PKK[11]. Syria provided shelter and training grounds for the guerrilla group in 1980 with strongholds in the Lebanese Beqaa valley. Although other reasons have been stated for Syria to support the PKK, such as Turkey’s security partnership with Israel or the grievances over the ownership of the region of Hatay, it has been supported that Hafez’s use of the PKK and Turkey’s growing GAP project led to a dynamic of water for Kurdish guerrillas between Turkey and Syria[12]. When Ankara tried at several occasions to denounce Syria for supporting the labelled terrorist Kurdish group with intelligence of PKK activities emanating from Syria, Damascus simply denied the security concern and instead brought up the unequal share of water flow from Turkey[13].

Turkey considered a military option in Northern Syria unfeasible at that moment. Instead, Ankara disrupted relations with its Arab neighbours, an important means of displaying legitimate hegemony. Additionally, Turkey might not have been successful in finding Öcalan or destroying the PKK in Syria. It is worth noting that Syria could play the Arab nationalist card at that time and was therefore more legitimate in the eyes of other Arab states than Turkey. Ankara had yet to develop ties with Arab states and reinforce the completion of the GAP project[14]. One should also remember that Turkey then, did not have the burden of the Syrian refugees or the existence of a cross-border terrorist group such as DAESH that plundered several dams in Iraq and Syria, both providing arguments for intervention in Northern Syria[15].

Tensions came to a settlement when in 1998 Syria, under pressure from the joint military partnership of Israel and Turkey and Ankara’s threat of military intervention and the power granted to it by the GAP project, detached official support from the PKK and Öcalan. Syria’s decision paved the way for the Adana Agreement, signed in 1998, where bilateral relations between Turkey and Syria upon stronger cooperation for cross-boundary water flow policies were issued[16].

Yet, agreement on water flow sharing between Turkey and Syria remained difficult for several reasons.
Firstly, there is a lack of clarity in international law on cross-boundary water. The most relevant guidelines, as pointed out by Ozkahraman[17], upon the subject are found in ‘The Helsinki Rules on the Uses of the Waters of International Rivers’ of 1966. Adopted by the International Law Association, it does not address the right to water, only the right to beneficial use of water in the context of cross-boundary water[18].
Secondly, Ankara has been argued to be quite uncompromising on the matter which is reflected in the language it uses in speeches about cooperation with Syria[19]. To illustrate, in February 2001, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz told the Arab daily newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat that Syria will be invited to accept the inevability of the GAP project and to join negotiations on a rational use of waters where he explicitly mentions that the division of the Euphrates waters will not be equal[20]. Traces of this uncompromising language can even be underlined up to this day by a look on Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs official website: in its ‘Turkey’s Policy on Water Issues’ page, under the section ‘Turkey’s Transboundary Water Policy’, it is stated in the second point that ‘’Transboundary waters should be used in an equitable, reasonable and optimum manner’’, however the following third point states ‘’Equitable use does not mean the equal distribution of waters of a transboundary river among riparian states.’’[21].
Thirdly, the Syrian Civil War restrained or broke down all forms of institutions in Damascus with which Ankara could consult with upon policy agreements for cross-boundary water flow sharing[22].
Therefore, the sum of these issues led Turkey to unilaterally take matters into its own hands regarding the water flow from the Euphrates, similar in shape to its actions towards Iraq regarding the flow from the Tigris & Euphrates in the aftermath of 2003: the Iraqi government lost the use of a functioning armed forces strong enough to counterweight Turkey, was divided upon domestic issues, and was occupied with militias and insurgents trying to impose a central authority over the domestic fights. In such a context, Turkey could impose whatever policy it desired on Iraq regarding the quantity of flow from the two rivers: it gave Turkish water policymakers the opportunity to build the Ilisu and the other 11 dams on the Tigris in the provinces of Hakkari and Sirna, without facing a united political contestation from Iraq[23]. As of late 2019, the situation in Syria is not too dissimilar to Iraq post-2003, having its original army mostly broken up into diverse factions all holding by the strings of alliances. However, the presence of Russia and Iran on the ground has kept central authority from being too diluted from Assad’s regime[24].

Turkey’s GAP project has been argued to possess many dimensions: not just agricultural, economic or social, but also geostrategic security and hegemonic in nature[25].
Soft power and geostrategic security can be translated to two notable effects in the GAP project.
On the one hand, it can be used to put pressure on the co-riparian state of Syria by not releasing more than a certain amount of flow from the Euphrates river, and in some cases completely shutting down the flow. In the 1990s, when Turkey categorically made through many public statements that it would not negotiate the Euphrates’ downflow from Turkish dams if Syria was not willing to compromise the PKK card[26]. In cases where Turkey halted the flow, as in 1990 to fill the Ataturk Dam, the consequences of such a use had important effects for Syria: in 1990, due to low level of drought, Turkey decided to turn off the tap for nine days during the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice in June, reducing the flow from 500 cubic metres per second to 170 in contradiction with its agreement under the 1987 Protocol with Syria. This left Syria increasingly less water resources from the Euphrates to respond to irrigation and agricultural demands[27].
On another hand, Turkey put to effect the influence the GAP dams had in separating what was seen as PKK’s territory. In that process, GAP became a less violent means to deal with the Kurdish issue and the PKK, according to Leila Harris[28]. In 2010, Jongerden underlined that the GAP project used its dams as physical barriers against the mobility of the PKK[29]. Ozkahraman supported this view, arguing that the purpose of GAP dams acting as barriers against the PKK served to cut them off from the locals and limit interactions with other region-based Kurds in  South-Eastern Tukey such as in the example between the Ilisu and Cizre dams on the Tigris river creating a water border between Kurdish populations. The argument has also been made of flooding caves where PKK guerrillas hide strongholds due to the completion of the Ilisu and Cizre dams near the Iraq border, which reinforces the security and soft power dimension these dams hold[30].

‘Operation Peace Spring’ can be understood as the translation of GAP’s soft power effects into hard power in Northern Syria: instead of separating the Kurds and limit the coverage of territory of Kurdish guerrillas by dams, it is done through military means. The operation serves the same security dimensions of the GAP project, only extended 32-km deep in Northern Syrian territory.

As for why Turkey declared a 32-km deep ‘’safe zone’’ to be implemented in Northern Syria is due to two conceivable factors. First, it includes geographical areas where Kurdish militias fought against DAESH in cities such as Jarablus, serving as an entry point for the major downflow of the Euphrates river into Syria or Manbij, a city close to the Tishrin Dam (constructed on the Euphrates river) in Northern Syria[31]. Turkey gave a red line to Kurdish fighters of not crossing west of the Euphrates river in Syria and to return east, not joining fights against DAESH in the cities of Manbij or Jarablus[32].
Kurdish forces formed a pattern of fighting points which could have possibly caused worries for Turkey: they all happened along the Euphrates river in Northern Syria. They began from the Tishrin Dam (next to Manbij) up to Jarablus, a city being the first area of entry point for the downflow of the Euphrates river into Syria[33].
From an interview between Ozkahraman and a senior member of the Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) in Rojava (known also as western Kurdistan), there can be no existence of Rojava if there is no access to the water, which means Euphrates water[34]. Therefore, a core element to establish a feasible independent Kurdish state is by having control to some extent over the flow of Euphrates water in Northern Syria. Which explains why Kurdish forces such as the YPG have been willing to fight and control cities along the Euphrates river, North of Aleppo (meaning Manbij and Jarablus).
The importance with which Turkey views this pattern as a threat is underlined by the past military operations executed in Jarablus: the Turkish military carried out 61 artillery strikes on 20 targets around Jarablus in 24 hours according to Turkey’s state news agency Anadolu in 2016[35]. This also involved the use of tanks and Turkey’s special forces personnel to advance and take control over a strategic part of the area which relies on the water of the Euphrates. The strategy was to attack the Kurdish militias and try to push them back to the east of the river, thus leaving them without a secure source of water from the Euphrates, achieving the goal of marginalising Kurdish forces[36].
Furthermore, the first main city upon which the YPG Kurdish forces started their fights along the Euphrates river is Manbij: which is approximately around 30-32km away from Turkish Southern borders. According to Anadolu Agency website and its map measurement in a 2019 article, Manbij’s eastern side with the Sajur River is only concerned, but it is also where the line for the ‘’safe zone’’ starts[37]. Thus the main city centre of Manbij is at the border of the ‘’safe zone’’ and also involves the strategic assets of being one of the main logistic support route between Aleppo and Iraq[38]: therefore it became a stronghold for Kurdish forces under the SDF banner.
Secondly, the Tigris river forms a 40km deep natural border along North-Eastern Syria, starting from Turkish Southern borders in contact with Syria[39]. The 32-km deep ‘’safe zone’’ is more than half of the 40km Tigris river flowing on Syria’s North Eastern borders, which is a means to make sure no PKK or YPG units are in that area to establish a north-eastern equivalent of Rojava in Northern Syria. As discussed, there can be no independent foundation for a Kurdish stronghold in Syria if there is no control over an important entry point of downflow from a major river, should it be the Euphrates or the Tigris.
In light of these two analysis, ‘Operation Peace Spring’ arguably follows a pattern where Turkish armed forces and allies attacked cities and villages in Northern Syria from which the YPG, under the banner of the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), can establish an area close to water sources originating from the Euphrates: Tal Abyad and Ras Al-Ain have been the two main targets, according to Al-Jazeera news outlet, and both are near water sources in Northern Syria[40].
The two explanations for the reasoning of the 32-km deep ‘’safe zone’’ reinforces the case for Turkey killing two birds with 1 stone in ‘Operation Peace Spring’: safeguarding the non-establishment of a Kurdish independent stronghold in Northern Syria and dislocate the Kurdish guerrilla enough to not be a potential tool for Syria in future rounds of contentions surrounding the GAP dams. Thus, Turkey can maintain hydro-power hegemony over Syria.

 

The official narrative surrounding ‘Operation Peace Spring’ by Turkey is not a security issue with Syrian refugees[41] but one with the labelled PKK and YPG terrorist groups[42] (Turkey Ministry of Defence). However the issue of Turkey’s hydro-politics should not be overlooked in the context of ‘Operation Peace Spring’ due to the importance of the GAP project and objective of limiting interferences over its process by Syria or Kurdish guerrillas attempts to establish a zone near water sources of the Euphrates river.
As for questions regarding the aftermath of ‘Operation Peace Spring’, one could ask if Russia will serve as a new bargaining chip for Syria in limiting Turkey’s policy of becoming the hydro-power hegemon of the region, with example of Russian-Turkish joint-patrols of the Northern borders[43], potentially restraining Ankara’s freedom to go full-length with its hard power?
Or does the potential resurgence of ISIS or DAESH[44] benefits Turkey in staying in Northern Syria longer, buying enough time to reinforce a potential aspect of the GAP project in Turkey to achieve hydro-power hegemony over Syria and the region?

Citations:

[1] (Republic of Turkey Ministry Of National Defence, 2019)

[2] (BBC News, 2019)

[3] (Bilgen, 2018); (Yildiz, 2005)

[4] (Hudson, 1993)

[5] (Bilgen, 2018)

[6] (Yildiz, 2005)

[7] (Ozkahraman, 2017)

[8] Ibid.

[9] (Olson, 1997)

[10] (Ozkahraman, 2017)

[11] (Olson, 1997); (Ozkahraman, 2017)

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] (Ozkahraman, 2017)

[16] Ibid.

[17] (Ozkahraman, 2017)

[18] (Lorenz & Erickson, 1999)

[19] (Yildiz, 2005)

[20] (Asharq Al-Awsat, 2001)

[21] (Republic of Turkey Ministry Of Foreign Affairs, n.d.)

[22] (Ozkahraman, 2017)

[23] Ibid.

[24] (IISS, 2019)

[25] (Ozkahraman, 2017)

[26] (Olson, 1997)

[27] (Yildiz, 2005)

[28] (Harris, 2002)

[29] (Jongerden, 2010)

[30] (Ozkahraman, 2017)

[31] (BBC News, 2016); (Ozkahraman, 2017)

[32] (Ozkahraman, 2017)

[33] (BBC News, 2016)

[34] (Ozkahraman, 2017)

[35] (BBC News, 2016)

[36] (Ozkahraman, 2017)

[37] (Tok & Temizer, 2019)

[38] (Daraghi, 2019)

[39] (Yildiz, 2005)

[40] (Al Jazeera, 2019)

[41] (Zahra, 2017)

[42] (Republic of Turkey Ministry Of National Defence, 2019)

[43] (Usta, 2019)

[44] (Warrell, et al., 2019)

Bibliography:

Al Jazeera, 2019. Turkey’s military operation in Syria: All the latest updates. [Online]
Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/turkey-military-operation-syria-latest-updates-191010061648676.html
[Accessed 7 November 2019].

Asharq Al-Awsat, 2001. ‘Syria, Turkey and the water tension’. Asharq Al-Awsat, 13 February .

BBC News, 2016. Syria war: US warns over Turkish-Kurdish violence. BBC News, 29 August.

BBC News, 2019. Turkey’s Syria offensive explained in four maps. BBC News, 14 October.

Bilgen, A., 2018. Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP): a qualitative review of the literature. British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies.

Daraghi, B., 2019. Dangerous scramble on horizon for key Syrian city of Manbij. Independent, 14 October.

Harris, L. M., 2002. Water and Conflict Geographies of the Southeastern Anatolia Project. Society & Natural Resources, 15(8), pp. 743-759.

Hudson, J., 1993. Midlle East Policy Council. [Online]
Available at: https://www.mepc.org/water-wars-coming-conflicts-middle-east
[Accessed 7 November 2019].

IISS, 2019. Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa. Thed Military Balnce, 119(1), pp. 320-379.

Jongerden, J., 2010. Dams and Politics in Turkey: Utilizing Water, Developing Conflict. Middle East Policy, 17(1), pp. 137-143.

Lorenz, F. M. & Erickson, E. J., 1999. The Euphrates triangle: security implications of the Southeast Anatolia project. s.l.:National Defense University Press.

Olson, R., 1997. Turkey-Syria relations since the Gulf War: Kurds and water. Middle East Policy, 5(2), pp. 168-193.

Ozkahraman, C., 2017. Water power: the domestic and geostrategic dimensions of Turkey’s GAP Project. Conflict, Security & Development, 17(5), pp. 411-426.

Republic of Turkey Ministry Of Foreign Affairs, n.d. Turkey’s Policy on Water Issues. [Online]
Available at: http://www.mfa.gov.tr/turkey_s-policy-on-water-issues.en.mfa
[Accessed 5 November 2019].

Republic of Turkey Ministry Of National Defence, 2019. Press Release Regarding The Decisions of The US House of Represantatives and The National Assembly of France. [Online]
Available at: https://www.msb.gov.tr/en-US/Slide/3112019-54484
[Accessed 5 November 2019].

Tok, L. & Temizer, S., 2019. 32-km wide safe zone to be formed in northern Syria. Annadolu Agency, 15 January.

Usta, B., 2019. Turkey, Russia hold first joint patrol in northeast Syria. Reuters, 1 November.

Warrell, H., Cornish, C. & Pitel, L., 2019. Turkey’s military incursion into Syria threatens to revive Isis cells. Financial Times, 10 October.

Yildiz, K., 2005. The Kurds in Syria The Forgotten People. s.l.: Pluto Press .

Zahra, R. F., 2017. Securitization and De-securitization: Turkey-Syria Relations since the Syrian Crisis. Asian Journal of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, 11(2), pp. 27-39.

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