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Water Wars? Lessons from the Middle East & North Africa
Water Wars? Lessons from the Middle East & North Africa
The Eleventh Hour for Idlib, Syria’s Last Rebel Bastion
The Eleventh Hour for Idlib, Syria’s Last Rebel Bastion
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.

On 28 January 2020, Syrians displaced by the attacks carried out by the Assad regime and Russia in Idlib make their way to safer areas near the Turkish border. ANADOLU AGENCY/Ibrahim Hatib

The Eleventh Hour for Idlib, Syria’s Last Rebel Bastion

The Syrian regime’s deliberate but devastating campaign to retake Idlib has picked up in intensity, threatening death and displacement at levels unseen in Syria’s conflict, terrible as it has been to date. Damascus and its Russian backers must conclude an immediate ceasefire with rebel forces.

The worst humanitarian catastrophe of the Syrian war may be about to unfold. On 28 January, forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad’s regime captured densely populated centres south of Idlib, capital of the north-western province of the same name that is the rebellion’s last redoubt. Russia aided the regime forces’ advance with brutal aerial bombardment. As the number of civilian casualties grows, vehicles packed with Syrians – some of them already displaced twice or thrice from other parts of the country – are streaming toward the Turkish border. Should Assad greenlight an all-out offensive to retake the entirety of Idlib, and Russia give it air support, the rebels will likely be unable to stop it. But such a step would be exceptionally costly for all parties. It would cause a bloodbath, as well as a new and unprecedented wave of northward displacement. Moreover, it would risk a serious confrontation between the regime and Russia, on one side, and Turkey, on the other. All parties ought to reach an immediate ceasefire before regime forces push any further into residential areas.

The regime and Russia have pursued Idlib’s conquest in increments. On 29 April 2019, they launched what Russian officials described at the time as a “limited” offensive geared toward pushing back rebel fighters from their positions in northern Hama and southern Idlib provinces. In off-and-on combat over the past nine months, the Syrian army and Russian fighter jets have forced rebels from strategic positions along key roads with the apparent interim objective of encircling and seizing the area’s larger cities.

Yet despite their heavy investment, and the human cost, the regime and its Russian backers can boast of only limited military progress.

The regime’s assault has exacted a terrible human toll. Extensive Russian airpower, which compensates for the regime’s weakness on the ground, has been particularly destructive. Air and artillery strikes have destroyed hospitals, bakeries, schools and other vital infrastructure, on purpose, as a way to demoralise and uproot Idlib’s civilian population and undermine its civilian administration. The onslaught on villages and towns such as Qalaat al-Madiq, Kafr Nabuda, Khan Sheikhoun and Maaret al-Numan, which the regime subsequently seized, prompted the local population to flee northward. Other targeted areas, such as Saraqeb or Ariha, which the regime has yet to enter, are nearly empty due to heavy shelling and residents’ fear of a vengeful regime’s return. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, at least 1,500 civilians have been killed in these strikes since the end of April 2019, while hundreds of thousands have been displaced and 53 medical facilities levelled.

Yet despite their heavy investment, and the human cost, the regime and its Russian backers can boast of only limited military progress. During the offensive’s nine months, the regime has captured only the province’s outer ring, about 25 per cent of all rebel-held territories. The narrow achievement suggests that any attempt to take the rest of the province would require a significant military escalation, one that would almost certainly be much more lethal.

Damascus’s uncompromising rhetoric vis-à-vis the rebels – stating it will not talk to “terrorists” – and its bloody dispatch of past opponents make it hard to conceive of a peaceful middle ground in settling the fate of the province and its inhabitants. The regime is fighting an array of battle-hardened rebel groups embedded in a population that for the most part is also deeply antagonistic. Idlib has long been the destination for civilians and rebel fighters who either fled regime offensives elsewhere in Syria or were displaced there in the course of “reconciliation deals” – negotiated surrenders of rebel areas under regime siege. More than three million people now live in the province, which is heavily agrarian. The overwhelming majority are civilians, but there are also thousands of fighters in jihadist and other armed opposition factions. For the many rebels who lost battles elsewhere in Syria, capitulating to the regime in Idlib, their last stronghold, is hardly an option. The regime, in any case, deems the fighters who chose passage to Idlib over the “reconciliation deals” to be “irreconcilable”, suggesting that it will entertain no such bargain this time.

In addition to the risks of causing a humanitarian tragedy, the situation in Idlib could dangerously heighten tensions between Russia and Turkey. It has already triggered a confrontation between Turkish and Syrian regime forces that could escalate further. For Turkey, the stakes are high. It has around 12,000 troops deployed in twelve outposts in Idlib province and its immediate surroundings. An offensive that would precipitate a new wave of refugees, possibly with fleeing jihadists mixed in, would destabilise Turkish-controlled areas north of Aleppo or, worse in Ankara’s eyes, Turkish territory, where President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan already struggles with public discontent over the current number of refugees (estimated at 3.5 million). Turkey also has a political interest in maintaining influence in rebel-held Idlib, as that could give it a bigger say in talks over Syria’s future and the ability to contain the area’s problems within Syria’s borders.

[Erdoğan's] words were no idle chatter: according to Ankara, dozens of Syrian soldiers were killed by its artillery, which targeted over fifty sites across Idlib province.

As Turkey sees it, Moscow may have overreached with the latest offensive in Idlib. On 31 January, Turkey’s National Security Council, chaired by Erdoğan, issued a statement declaring that “Turkey will now take extraordinary measures in Idlib … to protect civilians”. Subsequently, Turkey sent significant reinforcements to the rebels and to its own observation posts in Idlib, including a large number of battle tanks and armoured vehicles, as well as allied Syrian fighters from parts of western Aleppo it controls. This support enabled the rebels to launch a counter-offensive against regime forces north east of Aleppo city on 2 February. By opening this new front, Turkey appears to be trying to weaken the Syrian Arab Army by compelling it to divide its forces and thus to slow its advance. While Ankara is aware that the assistance it provides to rebels cannot possibly counter-balance Russian airpower, it appears to be signalling to Moscow that it can drive up the cost of a regime offensive. On 5 February, Erdoğan ramped up the rhetoric, threatening military action against regime forces if they fail to withdraw to previous positions by the end of the month. His words were no idle chatter: according to Ankara, dozens of Syrian soldiers were killed by its artillery, which targeted over fifty sites across Idlib province. As a result, the risk of more serious Turkish-Syrian confrontation, or even a Turkish-Russian one, is rising.

To prevent such a scenario, and to save civilian lives, all stakeholders should agree to an immediate ceasefire before the regime advances further toward Idlib city. The offensive’ continuation would push more Syrians toward, and possibly across, the Turkish border or into other parts of Turkish-controlled northern Syria, likely destabilising these locales. Jihadist fighters might scatter across Syria and beyond, taking their ideology and methods to Turkey or their home countries, including Russia. The cost of an all-out offensive could be high in terms of regime manpower as well. The rebels’ strength and familiarity with Idlib’s rugged terrain will play to the regime’s immediate disadvantage and leave it more vulnerable to enduring insurgency in Idlib and elsewhere. Already, Damascus is struggling to contain both mounting insurgencies in formerly opposition-held areas in the south and an ISIS resurgence in the east. Considering the attrition that regime forces would suffer in Idlib, and the risk that militants might slip away into other provinces, “success” in Idlib could threaten Damascus’s capacity to maintain control across the full expanse of its territory. In sum, the regime and its Russian backer could end up with what would rightly be termed a catastrophic military victory.

Instead of fuelling the conflict further in this direction, Russia would be better served by halting fire in Idlib while curbing the regime’s desire to press ahead. But the lesson of the past several months is that a ceasefire will not suffice; at some point down the line, Moscow and Damascus will complain that jihadists have not been brought to heel and will resume their offensive to retake territory. To avoid repetition of this scenario, Russia ought to engage in more substantive talks with Turkey and the U.S. to ensure that the ceasefire agreement includes all rebel groups operating in Idlib, including notably Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). How to engage them is the topic of a forthcoming Crisis Group briefing. But the bottom line is that, beyond the enormous human cost, any effort to destroy HTS by force of arms is likely to splinter it and make it harder to contain. The alternative is difficult and controversial. But it is necessary and, in the longer run, far less costly.