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Water Wars? Lessons from the Middle East & North Africa
Water Wars? Lessons from the Middle East & North Africa
A man gestures as people rush to a site hit by what activists said was heavy shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Douma neighborhood of Damascus, on 16 June 2015. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
Report 163 / Middle East & North Africa

New Approach in Southern Syria

Syria’s civil war is stuck in a vicious cycle, and the U.S. is best placed to change the appalling status quo. Washington should take advantage of opportunities in southern Syria to launch a new policy to improve the chance of a political settlement, chiefly by deterring regime aerial attacks on rebel-held civilian areas.

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Executive Summary

The Syrian war rages on, its devastating civilian toll rising with no viable political solution in sight. Diplomacy is stymied by the warring parties’ uncompromising positions, reinforced by political deadlock between their external backers. The U.S. is best placed to transform the status quo. A significant but realistic policy shift focused on dissuading, deterring or otherwise preventing the regime from conducting aerial attacks within opposition-held areas could improve the odds of a political settlement. This would be important, because today they are virtually nil. Such a policy shift could begin in southern Syria, where conditions are currently most favourable.

While the White House has declared its desire for an end of President Bashar Assad’s rule, it has shied from concrete steps toward this goal, pursuing instead a strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State (IS), which it deems a more serious threat to its interests. Yet, a year into that strategy, the overall power of Salafi-jihadi groups in Syria (as in Iraq) has risen. This is no surprise: the Assad regime’s sectarian strategy, collective punishment tactics and reliance on Iran-backed militias, among other factors, help perpetuate ideal recruitment conditions for these groups. By attacking IS while ignoring the regime’s ongoing bombardment of civilians, the U.S. inadvertently strengthens important aspects of the Salafi-jihadi narrative depicting the West as colluding with Tehran and Damascus to subjugate Sunnis.

Salafi-jihadi groups, including IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate which fights both IS and the regime, are strongest in the north and east, where they have exploited disarray and conflicting priorities among the opposition’s external sponsors. While the U.S. has attached greatest importance to the battle against IS, for example, Turkey has pressed for a more concerted effort to topple the Assad regime, while pushing back against Kurdish groups allied with Iran. Continuing disagreement has prevented establishment of a northern no-fly zone, a key Turkish demand.

Southern Syria currently provides the best environment for a new approach. Beginning in early 2014, increased assistance from Western and Arab states and improved coordination among the southern armed opposition factions they support sparked a string of victories against regime forces, enabling these factions to gain strength relative to Salafi-jihadi groups. With these factions in the lead, by late January 2015 opposition forces had gained control over contiguous territory encompassing most of Quneitra province and the western third of Deraa province. A major regime counter-offensive the next month south of Damascus, with unprecedented Iranian and Hizbollah support, recaptured only a small share of territory and failed to halt the momentum of opposition forces that extended their territory through much of eastern Deraa between March and June. An opposition offensive is ongoing in late summer to capture the portion of Deraa’s provincial capital still under regime control.

Some of this success can be attributed to the steady erosion of regime military capacity, which manpower constraints suggest will continue. This may force Assad to deepen reliance on Iran-backed militias in areas he fears losing, or concede these to the opposition and resort to aerial attacks (including barrel bombs) to keep them ungovernable. In either scenario, Salafi-jihadi groups would gain further traction, lowering prospects for resolving the conflict politically. Avoiding this requires a joint strategy among the opposition’s backers to empower credible opposition elements to fill the military and civil voids on the ground by establishing effective civil administrations. The south, where Salafi-jihadi groups are weakest, is the most favourable starting ground.

As has become clear throughout Syria, however, opposition elements cannot build effective governance amid the death and destruction caused by aerial bombardment, particularly given the regime’s tendency to target precisely those facilities necessary for capacity to emerge. Diplomatic admonitions which are not backed by concrete action carry little weight with the regime’s backers, and are unlikely to halt Assad’s use of air attacks as part of a scorched-earth strategy and a way to mete out collective punishment. The U.S. needs to be ready to pursue other means at its disposal, and to signal that readiness.

The Obama administration has sought to avoid that deeper involvement in the conflict, due to scepticism about what a more robust policy could achieve and concern that the regime’s allies might retaliate against U.S. personnel and interests elsewhere. But this conflict will not end without a shift in U.S. policy. In addition to improving living conditions in the south, it could also significantly help in degrading Salafi-jihadi power and otherwise improve prospects for an eventual negotiated end of the war.

It would do so, first, by enabling opposition groups to consolidate military control and establish governance capacity in the south. This would improve their strength and credibility vis-à-vis Salafi-jihadi groups and could incentivise their development as political actors capable of governing their areas.

Secondly, achieving a zone free of aerial attacks in the south could provide a model for a different approach by the rebels’ state backers in the north, where poor coordination and divergent priorities with Ankara, Doha and Riyadh have contributed to a situation not conducive to an escalated U.S. role. A move by Washington to halt regime aerial attacks in the south could signal it would consider doing so in the north as well, if those allies would assist in bringing about a similar shift in the northern balance of power away from Salafi-jihadi groups.

Thirdly, a U.S. push to halt regime air attacks in the south would signal resolve to the regime’s most important backers, Iran and Hizbollah, and demonstrate that the returns on their investments in the status quo will further diminish. Iranian and Hiz­bollah officials play down the long-term costs of their involvement, believing they can outlast their opponents in a proxy war of attrition, and viewing the price of doing so as preferable to negotiating a resolution that includes an end to Assad’s rule. Their view appears based, in part, on the assumption that Washington’s narrow focus on IS and reluctance to confront the regime are pushing its policy toward accepting Assad’s political survival and thus, ultimately, a resolution of the conflict more favourable to them.

The U.S. initiative described here could help refute that assumption and put weight behind the White House’s assertions that the nuclear deal will not pave the way for Iranian hegemony in the region. This message of resolve should be paired with a parallel one indicating U.S. willingness to take the core interests of the regime’s backers into account in any political deal to end the war.

Beirut/Brussels, 2 September 2015

The Royal Engineers Boat Group, a British military unit, patrols the Shatt al-Arab waterway between Iran and Iraq in October 2006. FLICKR/David Axe

Water Wars? Lessons from the Middle East & North Africa

In a keynote speech for the World Water Week in Stockholm on 28 August 2016, our MENA Program Director Joost Hiltermann assesses the role of water in Middle East conflicts – even, potentially, when used in the cultivation of Yemen’s beloved stimulant, qat.

I want to thank the organisers – AGWA, the Rockefeller Foundation, SIWI and UNESCO-IHP – for inviting me to speak here today, and in particular Anders Jägerskog of SIDA at the Swedish Embassy in Amman for his support.

I head the Middle East & North Africa Program at the International Crisis Group, an independent organisation working through field-based analysis and high-level advocacy to prevent and resolve deadly conflict. In that capacity I have asked myself at times: Why haven’t we worked on water and conflict in the region I cover? Aren’t there plenty of reasons to do so? Indeed, conflict over water was practically invented in the Middle East. I’m going to do something now that I don’t often do: I’m going to quote from the Bible. It’s Sunday, after all.

This is from Genesis:

“Isaac’s servants also dug in the Gerar Valley and discovered a well of fresh water. But then the shepherds from Gerar came and claimed the spring. ‘This is our water’, they said, and they argued over it with Isaac’s herdsmen. So Isaac named the well Esek (which means ‘argument’). Isaac’s men then dug another well, but again there was a dispute over it. So Isaac named it Sitnah (which means ‘hostility’). Abandoning that one, Isaac moved on and dug another well. This time there was no dispute over it, so Isaac named the place Rehoboth (which means ‘open space’), for he said, ‘At last the Lord has created enough space for us to prosper in this land’”.

Well, dream on, I say! There appear to be no open spaces left in the Middle East, and “argument” and “hostility” have become the name of the game.

Instead of a sermon, though, I’m going to say a few things about how water relates to the potential for conflict. As an organisation, we have focused on the drivers of, and actors in, “hot” conflict, of which we have plenty in the region right now: Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, always Palestine/Israel, and others. This distracts from the important underlying, longer-term issues that require attention, such as pressures on water resources. One can find examples of disputes over water triggering a “hot” war, but not many, at least not in recent times. The obvious one that comes to mind is the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and the fight over access to the Shatt al-Arab, the waterway that is the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates as they flow toward the …eh… Persian Gulf? Arab Gulf? You see, there is another problem right there. Let’s just say “the Gulf,” and agree that we all know what we’re talking about.

But other than that war (about which more in a minute), I can’t cite any recent examples. Yet once we take a closer look at the water question, we find interesting things. There is a very good piece in a recent issue of Middle East Report that discusses developments in a place called Wadi Barada in Syria and how these relate to the 2011 popular uprising against the rule of Bashar al-Assad. It turns out that the fact that the river that runs through Wadi Barada dried up in the mid-1990s was a key contributing factor to why that area of the country joined the uprising. It’s clear from this example that any student or activist interested in the relationship between water and conflict would do well to pay close attention to developments such as these well before they lead to violent conflict. More about Wadi Barada in a moment.

What I have learned from my little research before this conference is that, broadly speaking, there are three categories of water and conflict: conflicts over access to water, conflicts over the allocation of water, and the use of water as a weapon in conflict. I will give examples of each, but let me first give some general characteristics about these three categories: (1) issues of access, allocation, and use as weapon can occur in internal and in cross-border situations (the term “transboundary” can denote both internal and cross-border); (2) they can be a cause, a contributing factor, or a pretext for armed conflict; and (3) they can be aggravated by weak governance resulting in poor water management. The question of state policy is important in all cases.

First, access. Conflicts over access usually concern a body of water or a water basin, and are made worse if they have a transboundary dimension. Let’s take another look at the example of the Shatt al-Arab. Access to this waterway has long been a matter of dispute between Iran and Iraq. To Iraq, the river provides critical access to the Gulf; it’s almost existential. To Iran, which has a long coast line on the Gulf, the matter is different, but because it has cities with major oil facilities on the Shatt it needs the river for transportation. Iraq had exclusive access to the Shatt in the early 1970s when Iran, for a number of reasons – of which access to the Shatt was one – began supporting Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq in order to press the Iraqi government to make concessions. Which it did: in 1975 the Shah and Saddam Hussein signed the Algiers Agreement, in which they undertook to share the Shatt by dividing it along the thalweg, the line connecting the river’s lowest points.

In 1980, Iraqi forces invaded Iran by crossing the Shatt into Khuzestan. Saddam wanted to take advantage of post-revolution disarray in Tehran to deal the regime a setback or even bring it to collapse. The issue of the Shatt was merely one of a number of grievances Iraq had vis-à-vis Iran, but Saddam mentioned it as the primary casus belli. It was clearly a pretext for the invasion, not the main reason. (During the war, the Shatt was unnavigable; afterward it was again shared, if uneasily, between the two protagonists.)

So the Iran-Iraq war example offers the following: a conflict at least partly over access to a vital waterway; a combination of cause, contributing factor, and pretext, but arguably mainly the latter; a transboundary/international conflict; and instead of weak governance the actions of two autocratic governments that had little political will and limited capacity to establish mechanisms for resolving disputes.

Second, allocation. Here I go back to the example of the Wadi Barada, which is located between Damascus and the border with Lebanon. Because of the exponential growth of the capital in recent decades, including in the direction of Lebanon in the form of large housing estates for army officers and Alawite and Druze elites, water was diverted from the spring that fed the river flowing through the Wadi Barada in order to provide drinking water for the expanding population, and by the mid-1990s the river had dried up. Perhaps no surprise, therefore, that when protests broke out in southern Syria in the spring of 2011, the people of Wadi Barada quickly joined in, giving voice to their own specific grievances. Their main demands on the government were: (1) restore the river; (2) give access to clean drinking water; and (3) provide fair compensation for the agricultural lands expropriated in the 1970s and 1980s.

The plight of these locals was the direct result of state policies: discriminatory water allocation by an autocratic state and land expropriation, without redress (in the absence of an independent judiciary). After government negotiators met with representatives of the area, they made certain promises, but then nothing happened, the protests continued, and soon government forces came to suppress them. The result was an active and violent revolt, in tune with what was going on elsewhere in Syria, but in the case of Wadi Barada specifically because of what had happened earlier with the land expropriations and water diversion. Discriminatory water allocation therefore was an important contributing factor to the uprising in that part of Syria.

Third, as weapon. I’m not about to throw this bottle of water at you, but … the threat to unleash water collected behind a dam on a city can be quite powerful. The Iraqi regime feared Iran might be planning something along these lines when the latter invaded northern Iraq in the last year of the war, in 1988, aiming for the Darbandikhan dam that sits on the Diyala river; opening it could have flooded Baghdad downstream. Likewise, the Mosul dam became a strategic asset in 2014 after the Islamic State overran Iraqi government positions and captured Mosul and surroundings in June 2014. The risk of waters being unleashed and submerging Mosul threatened to turn a river into a weapon of war. (There has also been a risk of the dam’s collapse as a result of structural faults and lack of maintenance.)

So what is to be done? It is clear that those involved in conflict prevention need to take a closer look at the predictors of deadly conflict when it concerns water disputes:

Firstly, look more closely at disputes over access to water, water allocation, and the potential use of water as a weapon, and assess how they are being managed, by what mechanisms, by what degree of governance, what the recourse is, and so on.

Secondly, analyse the strength and adaptability of institutions and processes of transboundary water management and dispute resolution between riparian governments: how robust are these? Could they break down? How and when?

Thirdly, in times of conflict and crisis: Determine how to achieve water management despite such adverse conditions, and include it as an essential element of a peace settlement and post-conflict peace building.

That’s the agenda we face. Now I’ll end with a short anecdote. Some years ago, I was in Sanaa, and one of the meetings we had was with the minister of water, a very smart and engaging man, who for an hour related to us the difficulties of stamping out the culture of qat chewing, with qat being the kind of rather useless agricultural product whose cultivation was nevertheless consuming inordinate amounts of water. It was getting to be close to 2pm, however, and so rather late in the ministry’s working day, and the minister made it clear that the meeting was over, and it was time for him to hasten home … and preside over his afternoon qat chew.

Cultural habits are deeply ingrained. The misallocation of water for qat production in Yemen is going to run up against more pressing needs for water, and will trigger conflict sooner or later. The current war is not over water, but when it is ended – and let’s hope that moment will come soon – it will be incumbent on policymakers to tackle the knotty qat question, lest Yemen find itself in a Wadi Barada-type of situation sometime down the line.

Thank you.