6 October 1998

Syria Turkey Quarrel
Water is behind Turkey Syria Border Tension

By Adel Darwish 

Turkish President Suleyman Demirel, on 5 October backed his threat of force against neighbouring Syria by warning "the entire world" of the consequences if Damascus did not end its support for rebels of the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

"Syria's hostile attitude is neither commensurate with Islam, nor good neighbourliness,'' said President Demirel,'' Turkey has suffered enough." Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, was expected in Ankara on 6 October after being snubbed by Mr Demirel who said he was ''too busy to see him'' a day earlier as requested by the Egyptian leader who is trying to mediate between the two nations.

Mr Mubarak is reported to be carrying a message from President Hafez Assad of Syria, on the second leg of a mediation mission aimed at heading off a military confrontation.

Turkey is demanding that Syria hand over the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who is reported to be living in Damascus, and to shut down all PKK camps in its territory and the Bekaa Valley in the Lebanon. Turkish sources said unless Syria was prepared to meet the demand, Mr Mubarak's efforts would fail.

PKK sources said that Mr Ocalan has been living in the Bekaa Valley for months. Ismail Cem, the Turkish foreign minister, again accused Damascus of blocking a diplomatic solution, and said Turkey would be justified in "any measures we choose to take".

The latest round of sabre-rattling came amid continued reports of a military build-up along Turkey's 386-mile border with Syria. Nationalist fervour is especially high in the Turkish province of Hatay, which is predominantly populated by Arabs. It is only separated from Syria by barbed wire fencing and millions of land-mines. 

The origin of the conflict between the two nations lies in their failure to agree on the status of the Euphrates River.

Syria has long complained that a Turkish scheme to build a string of dams cross the Upper Euphrates as part of the £23 billion SouthEast Anatolia Project, is depriving it of water on which its agriculture so heavily depends.

In 1988 the Late President Turgut Ozal said:'' we don't tell Arabs what to do with their oil, so we don't accept any suggestion from them about what to do with our water.''

Damascus has been pressing Turkey to sign an agreement to share the water. In the same year President Ozal again said '' The oil is theirs [the Arabs] and the water, all the water is ours] in an indication that he was intended to use the water weapon against president Assad cunning manoeuvre using the PKK is a bargaining chip. Ankara's replies to Syria's demand for a water agreement was to say that it releases more than enough water downstream.

The Syrians complain not about the quantities released but the quality of water. The series of dams built by Turkey upstream on the Euphrates means that the water reaching Syria has been used several times for irrigation, thus increasing salinity and harming crops, as well as causing erosion on the banks since it runs faster after being deprived of silt.

Turkey said it has nothing to discuss until Syria ends its support for the PKK who are grieved by the South Anatolia water project drowning Kurdish villages and orchards. .

In 1989, when President Assad increased his support for the PKK, Turkey turned off the water flow to Syria and Iraq under the pretext it needs 30 days to fill the Attaturk Lake and test the dam. The move prompted urgent meetings in London between high level Baghdad and Damascus officials to take urgent measure to confront Turkey. It was the first time in 15 years such high level contacts were established since Syria and Iraq have been at daggers with each other's. On the advice from Foreign Office officials who spoke to the Iraq and Syrian officials and backed by the Americans, Turkey let the water flow again after two weeks in fear of war breaking with Syria and Iraq uniting to confront the water threat. ( see) Turkey_Syria.htm

The threats of war on the border between Turkey and Syria bear out the predictions of strategists that the next conflict in the Middle East may be over water, not oil. The scenario of such conflict was predicted in December 1993 in the book Water Wars by Adel Darwish and John Bulloch with fast-growing populations to feed, Syria and other Middle Eastern states are looking anxiously at where they will find the water for agriculture and industry. A regional expert said, "The Middle East has basically run out of water. Only in the Tigris and Euphrates is there some surplus and Turkey controls this vital resource. In 1996, a high level Iraq delegation visited Damascus to discuss ways of jointly confronting Turkey in the event of Ankara using the water weapon against Syria which will ultimately affect Iraq. A conflict between Syria and Turkey will almost certainly involve Iraq; thus making matters more complicated in the region.

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