Originally posted June 2008

Intra-basin dynamics amongst the Euphrates and Tigris co-riparians — Iraq, Syria, and Turkey — are better described as leading to conflict transformation rather than conflict resolution. The process of interaction has effectively seen the de-securitization of water issues, but the roots of the conflict have not yet been fully addressed.

The interaction between the three co-riparians on the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers reflects the fundamental upstream-downstream characteristic of their relationship. This geographic asymmetry is reinforced by the economic and military advantages that favor the upstream riparian, Turkey. A combination of upstream projects in Turkey (GAP Project) and Syria impact the lowest downstream riparian (Iraq). Officially, the GAP Project is scheduled for finalization in 2014, while unofficial sources anticipate that the project would be completed in 2050 if it were to be fully implemented. The consequences for downstream Syria are also highly problematic in light of the centrality of the Euphrates Basin for the country’s overall water supply (65% of total water volume). Considering the actual level of completion of the GAP (45%), the current issue is less quantitative than qualitative, as waters reaching Syria and Iraq are increasingly being polluted with pesticides and herbicides.

The process of negotiation has been mixed with peaks of crisis and periods of cooperation that saw the signing of three bilateral agreements. In the multi-purpose Protocol of 1987, Turkey committed in writing to let a minimum volume of 500 m3/second pass through the Syrian border. A bilateral agreement on water was reached for the first time. The two downstream countries agreed in 1989 to a 58% allocation of these waters to Iraq and 42% to Syria. Following a resumption of their water meetings, Syria and Turkey issued a Joint Communiqué on August 23, 2001. In the consecutive Implementation Document of June 19, 2002, the respective water administrations committed to implement common research projects and training programs.

This shift in Syria’s and Turkey’s mutual dynamics over water and security was greatly favored by the settlement of their pending “Kurdish issue.” In the 1998 Adana Protocol, Syria committed to terminating support for the PKK and expelling ‘Abdullah Öcalan from its territory. Öcalan’s capture by Turkish authorities in February 1999, with the help of Israeli intelligence services, served as the first major catalyst for the severing of the link between security and water issues. The occupation of Iraq and the redistribution of cards for the control of strategic resources and areas of influence, and the consecutive shift in power relations, constituted additional turning points.

In 2003, the “new” Iraqi entity shifted from an economic and strategic partner over oil and Kurdish separatism to an unpredictable neighbor, backed by a powerful American occupier. An interdependent network of family and tribal relationships links the (Kurdish) Iraqi Minister for Water Resources, Abdul Latîf Rashid, to his counterpart in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) through Jalal Talabani (President of Iraq) and Masud Barzani (President of the Kurdistan Regional Government), both of whom had benefitted from Syria’s protection and citizenship during the Saddam Husayn era. Turkey and Syria have therefore been greatly concerned by the concretization of Kurdish claims in Iraq and the possible impact on their own population. Syria was eager to contain the birth of irredentism in its northeastern provinces, and keen on developing security arrangements with the central government of Nuri al-Maliki. In 2008, Turkey took a step further by launching military incursions in the Kurdish-controlled territory in northern Iraq, with the objective to put an end to PKK attacks. In doing so, Turkey revived past military incursions carried out in line with “hot pursuit” agreements reached in the 1980s with Saddam Husayn. The GAP authorities also have been less eager to expand water and socioeconomic infrastructures in the southeastern Anatolian region, in the heart of Kurdish activism.

Since 2005, Track Two channels have gather experts and former officials from the three co-riparian countries through the Euphrates and Tigris Initiative for Cooperation (ETIC). The objective is to pave the way for the resumption of official discussions over shared water resources. Since the early 2000s, Turkey has shifted its discourse over transboundary waters from focusing on sovereignty to the advocacy of benefit-sharing on a bilateral basis with Syria. As a NATO member and neighbor to Syria and Iraq, Turkey’s concern with regional stability resulted in active mediation in bringing Syria and Israel into a process of indirect negotiations over the Golan Heights. Multi-purpose cooperation with Baghdad over water and oil also has been sporadically evoked by the two upstream riparians, and recent declarations called for the start of trilateral talks. However, no concrete steps have been taken so far. The third bilateral agreement between Syria and Turkey in 2001 opened a new chapter while failing to address volumetric and qualitative allocations, and the status of the third co-riparian.

The years ahead will show whether an evolution in the regional and international context will bring about a resolution rather than a transformation of the conflict over the transboundary waters in the Euphrates and Tigris basins.