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Conflicting claims to Euphrates water muddy Syrian-Turkish relations

Mohamed Ali Kazem
Abul Fadl

When the Syrian ambassador in Washington, Walid al-Mu’allim, recently spoke about his country’s rights in the province of Alexandretta, he also signaled that the turbulent relations between Syria and Turkey have inched closer toward a crisis point. Until 1939 when the French Mandatory authorities sought to induce Ankara into a neutral position toward European conflicts by ceding the province to Turkey, Alexandretta (also known as Hatay in Turkish) was a Syrian province. However, since then, and although Syrian political elites never reconciled themselves to the loss of the province, the issue of Alexandretta has mainly been put on the back burner as they were largely preoccupied with the conflict against Israel.

Disagreements between Damascus and Ankara have been mounting since the Turkish ultra-secularist military generals, who maintain a firm grip on the process of policymaking in the country, embarked on an intense drive toward closer ties with Israel in order to undermine former prime minister Necmettin Erbekan’s efforts to defuse tensions and to cultivate better relations with other Muslim countries. These disagreements are compounded by a long history of mutual antagonisms and irreconcilable conceptions of the political and regional role of the other.

>From the Syrian viewpoint, Turkey has been pursuing a number of policies calculated to harm and encircle Syria, especially at a time when the latter is involved in delicate negotiations with its zionist arch-enemy under unfavourable strategic, political and diplomatic conditions. Particularly disturbing to the Syrian decision-makers, in this regard, is the rapid expansion of Turco-Israeli security and military cooperation.

The most recent twist in the process of rapprochement with Israel launched by Ankara in 1993 was the announcement last April that the two countries will soon start to jointly produce medium range missiles with a range of about 150 kilometers. An earlier series of reciprocal high-level political and military visits resulted in agreements providing for strategic cooperation against ‘terrorism’ and active Israeli participation in a number of Turkish military projects such as the development of the medium-range Popeye missile and the upgrading and maintenance of the aged Turkish fleet of F-4 and F-5 fighter jets.

Damascus also suspects that some of the ‘security breaches’ that have taken place inside Syria during the past five years were the ‘fruits’ of this increased Turco-Israeli security cooperation and policy coordination. For instance, a number of Syrian political and media sources have, either obliquely or directly, explained the explosion that took place some eighteen months ago in a Damascus bus station as a joint Israeli-Turkish covert operation aimed at weakening Syria’s ‘steadfastness’ through internal sabotage and instability.

In addition to this rankling stew of concerns, controversial water schemes in Turkey have had a significant bearing upon Ankara’s relations not only with Syria but also with Iraq. One of these schemes is the ambitious and multipurpose Southeastern Anatolia Project (Guneydogu Anadolu Projesi, or GAP), which is intended to double Turkeys hydroelectric power potential and irrigate vast areas of the south-east corner of the country.

Begun in 1983, GAP consists of a series of dams and hydroelectric stations on the Euphrates. Ultimately, the project seeks to create prosperity in six of Turkey’s poorest provinces which have long been plagued by political instability. On the politico-strategic level, Turkish officials conceive of GAP as a useful instrument designed to stem the Kurdish armed insurrection spearheaded by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has been raging in the south-eastern part of their country since the early 1980s.

The problem is that the project will result in a marked reduction of the discharge of the Euphrates into Syria and Iraq, the other two downstream riparians of the river. The January 1990 filling of the Ataturk dam, the linchpin of GAP, has already caused grave tension in Turkey’s relations with Syria. The entire flow of the river was then diverted for one month in order to begin impoundment of the dam.

Although Turkey had forewarned its downstream neighbours of the cutoff and tried to compensate them by releasing more water into the river during the months that preceded the diversion, tremendous damage was inflicted on Syria and Iraq. During the period of curtailed flow Syrian farmers were not able to irrigate their crops and Syria’s production of electricity was tremendously reduced. Iraq also suffered crop losses.

Turkey’s unilateral action during the Ataturk dam episode acted as a sharp reminder for Syrian policy makers of their vulnerability to future cutoffs and reductions. Subsequent Turkish policy pronouncements and actions regarding the simmering conflict over the Euphrates, especially their adamant refusal to enter into a basin-wide water-sharing agreement, have failed to allay Syria’s fear of having its future prosperity held hostage to Turkey’s will, whether good or ill. For instance, in November 1991, Turkey conducted another diversion that reduced the flow of the river without giving downstream riparians any notice, thus bringing into sharp focus the feebleness of both Syria’s and Iraq’s ‘water sovereignty.’

Moreover, at a news conference held shortly before inaugurating the Ataturk dam on July 25, 1992, then-Turkish prime minister Suleyman Demirel created a lot of unease not only in Damascus and Baghdad but also throughout the Arab world when he declared: ‘The water resources are Turkey’s. The oil resources are theirs [the Arabs’]. We don’t say we share their oil resources; and they cannot say they share our water resources.’

Syrian officials also worry that Ankara’s self-interested behaviour on the Euphrates is intended to choke their programme of economic recovery, which centers around a series of irrigation and electrical power generation schemes, and eventually force Damascus to enter into an agreement that legitimizes Turkey’s annexation of the Alexandretta region.

On the other hand, Syria possesses many pressure cards vis-a-vis Turkey. It maintains close ties with many forces in the Turkish opposition, including the PKK and other secular and Islamic groups. Although Syrian officials publicly deny lending assistance to the PKK guerrillas, the fact remains that Damascus has always expressed its irritation at the repeated Turkish military incursions into northern Iraq which are carried out under the pretext of ‘hot pursuit’ of PKK guerrillas.

Syria’s opposition to these military operations stems partly from the potential and actual threats they pose to the sovereignty and unity of Iraq. Syria also views these operations with unease as they relate in one way or another to the Turkish claims over the northern Iraqi province of Musil. Notwithstanding their differences with the regime of Saddam Husain, the Ba’athist rulers in Damascus are loathe to the partition and/or dismemberment of a fellow Arab State. Besides, Syria feels threatened by the spectre of a strong, westward-looking Turkey that attempts to internationalize its domestic problems through regional military adventurism.

Such unease on the part of Syria is heightened by a number of recent measures that deepen Turkey’s role in running Iraqi Kurdistan. Informed sources in Iraqi Kurdistan have told the authors that offices for a number of Turkish administrative departments and ministries were recently opened in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil. These include centres devoted for agricultural and educational purposes. Curiously enough, some of these have taken up offices close to the Iraqi self-rule offices in Kurdistan. Such developments, which would establish a precedent for Turkey in running the affairs of Iraqi Kurdistan, are a source of grave concern not only for Syria but other regional powers such as Iran.

As always in times of crisis in the Arab world, there is a strong belief in Syria that the ‘hostile’ Turkish moves have been ‘engineered,’ and that Turkey is only playing a role assigned to it, that is the role of a Trojan horse through which the Americans and the Israelis attempt to weaken the resolve of their adversaries in the Middle East. In response to this, Damascus has been keen to consolidate its alliance with Tehran, which has its own misgivings about the policy course charted by Ankara’s top brass.

It has also sought to improve relations with other regional heavyweights such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In this Syria has succeeded in galvanizing a good deal of Arab-Islamic support that would serve its cause in its escalating tug of war with Turkey.

Muslimedia: July 16-31, 1998

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 10

Rabi' al-Awwal 22, 14191998-07-16

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