TURKEY'S ASSAULT ON ROJAVA WATER STATIONS
HASAKEH CITY, SYRIA
“Turkey knows exactly where this station is and [has], on purpose, several times target[ed] it,” says Sozdar Ahmed, the Joint Administrator of Water for Hasakeh Governate.
Sitting in her office, not far from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) offices, Ahmed’s demeanour is direct and intent. She explains that this isn’t the first time the Alouk water station—just outside of Serekaniye—has been struck by Turkish forces.
“We ask the Red Cross that [the] station be [left] out of the battles, out of this war, but the Turkish [government] wouldn’t accept that,” she says via translator.
Though the most recent strikes happened during Turkey’s incursion into northeastern Syria (or Rojava, as the Kurds call it)— having been struck twice in the first month, with the initial airstrike damaging the station itself, and a subsequent one to the power lines supplying it—this isn’t the first time the station has been targeted, even prior to the incursion.
Alouk was targeted by artillery and machine gun fire in April of 2017, when tensions between the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia and the Turkish military escalated. The damage stopped operations for a 24 hour period before repairs could be made. This was followed by another strike in 2018, and another in July 2019, according to Ahmed.
The water station services over 440,000 people in the Hasakeh Governate, an area currently held by the SDF. This includes providing water access to Hasakeh City and Tal Tamer. It also provides water to all of the IDP camps in the area, including al Hol, where many ISIS families are being held.
Around 200,000 people were displaced in the first week of the Turkish incursion. They fled to the Kurdish Region of Iraq and are now largely located at Bardaresh Camp. Many also move to Hasakeh Governate. After a recent UN decision, aid is being scaled back extensively at the behest of the Security Council. Kurdish officials are saying this will be a significant detriment to everyone living in these camps, which are already surviving off of little supplies to begin with.
Targeting the water station also came in tow with a series of Turkish strikes on civilian infrastructure, including schools, bread factories, roads, and ambulances. Other human rights violations have occurred as well, primarily perpetrated by Turkish-backed militias (many with links to jihadist factions) that control the "buffer-zone" along Syria’s northern border with Turkey. These range anywhere from abuse of prisoners, to kidnapping and arrest, to murder.
There's been a lull in the intensity of the fighting, but Turkish air strikes have continued throughout beginning of the incursion to now.
“Its just a matter of conducting the war without due attention to civilian targets,” said Thomas McClure, a researcher at the Rojava Information Center. “Their direct strikes on military infrastructure is one question, but there’s also the careless way that the war is being conducted.”
McClure says the strike on the station has had one the farthest-reaching impacts on the civilian population, but also ties into a trend of Turkey attempting control over the water resources of its southern neighbours, including both Syria and Iraq.
“[It's] also interesting in terms of … the location of Northeast Syria. Turkey’s been able to ... control water flows here that come from Turkey,” says McClure. “Like the dam projects they have in Turkey also have an effect here in terms of agriculture, in terms of water shortages, more generally, not just in terms of this [airstrike].”
Turkey’s construction of a network of hydroelectric dams along the Tigris and Euphrates began in the 1960s. Work began more officially with the placement of dams on the Euphrates in 1974. Turkey has since leveraged this as part of a counterinsurgency measure against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a militant liberation group Turkey, the EU, and America considers a terrorist organisation. For example, in 1987, Turkey managed a deal with Syria to allow water flow along the Euphrates in exchange for a Syrian government crack down on PKK activities within its borders.
With ground water depleting from the region at an alarming rate, and the impact of climate change resulting in higher temperatures and reduced rain fall, Turkey has placed itself in a prime position to manufacture drought whenever it chooses. It's physically possible that Turkey can restrict water resources for the Kurds and other groups residing in the area to leverage a tactical advantage in war.
New dams continue to be constructed along the Tigris and Euphrates. Most recently the Ilisu Dam on the Tigris went into operation at nearly the same time as the withdrawal of US forces from Syria. The dam has the capacity to hold most of the Tigris for long periods of time.
Alouk Water Station was repaired on November 13th, though only after a 23 day period of negotiation between the Kurdish-led Self Administration of Northeastern Syria, Turkish forces, and third party intermediaries (including the Red Cross, UNICEF, and the UN). The Turkish military explicitly expressed that they would not allow a Kurdish team to assess and repair the station, requiring an all-Arab team for permission to be granted.
“[Turkish forces] don’t want people to get benefit of the water and say ‘Okay, the Kurds are providing people with water, they fixed it, they fixed the station,’” said Ahmed in regards to the negotiations.
The water station now remains within Turkish held territory. It's allegedly being used as a base of operations for Sultan Murad Brigade, a Turkish-backed militia. Amid cease fire negotiations, Turkey was able to broker a deal with Russians to exchange water for electricity in the countryside around Tal Abyad, perhaps guaranteeing short-term stability for the station.
Even after permission was granted to assess the damage by an Arab team of specialists, it was rescinded for a return trip to conduct repair. Further negotiation between the Turkish forces, Russians, and Rojava Self-Administration had to take place before repair could be completed. Ten of the 30 wells were repaired after permission had been granted again, but operations stopped once more after the water station staff were kidnapped by a "Free Syrian Army" militia. The staff were held for three days. Since then, the Russians have been escorting workers to and from the station to provide protection, but said they will not intervene if Free Syrian Army militias attack the station itself.
The Self Administration is currently reviewing a report from the Joint Administration of Water in Al Hasakeh over the water shortage, and is developing a contingency plan should the station be shut down again.
Ahmed believes both the initial strikes and interference over repair were part of a plan to further displace the population of Northeastern Syria.
“Without water, no life. People will get pissed off and they cannot leave [Northeastern Syria]. So they will be displaced, they'll need to leave their [homes],” she said.
Framing these strikes on the water station within the context of Turkey’s long-running control over water resources, the Kurds have been left in an undeniably vulnerable position, and with few avenues to circumvent Turkey’s exertions of power in the region. Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, thus far has been the only international leader to openly criticise Turkey for its military operation in Northeastern Syria.
Turkish president Erdogan recently announced intentions to build settlements within the buffer zone along the Turkish border, where, allegedly, 1 million Syrian refugees will be settled. The move has been seen as an attempt to change the ethnic-demographic along the Turkish border. Prior to this announcement, Kurdish language had been removed from road signs in the region and was not allowed to be taught in schools. Claims have been made that this area will be used to settle the families of Turkish backed militia fighters, rather than refugees. The only concrete evidence of this thus far though is a sign-up sheet for volunteers who wished to have their families resettled.
If Turkey goes through with its $26 million plan, Kurdish refugees and IDPs from the incursion will not be able to return to their homes.
Turkey’s strategy has paid off well when it comes to seizing control of parts of the Middle East and North Africa (Turkey is currently now fighting in the Libyan war, sending Syrian militiamen to fight there). This has worked not only militarily, but also in staking claim over a resource even more vital than oil.
This leaves a future of fear and uncertainty for the Kurds on Rojava. No community can be sustainable without water, the most paramount of necessities.