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«Managing Blue Gold New Perspectives on Water Security in the Levantine Middle East Mari Luomi (editor) Managing Blue Gold New Perspectives on Water ...»

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In 2002, just before the AK Party ascended to power, the two sides signed a joint communiqué, which promotes joint irrigated agricultural research projects, exchange programmes, field trips and technical cooperation.53 Moreover, in the second half of the 2000s, on Turkey’s initiative, tripartite cooperation between Turkey, Syria and Iraq also expanded to cover the areas of environment, forestry, and meteorology. In 2008, the three countries intensified their cooperation by resolving to establish a water institute at the muchcriticized Atatürk Dam, to deal with the water issue, including effective management and information- and technology-sharing in the areas of irrigation and potable water systems. Turkey is expected to cover the expenses of the institute, and provide information and technology for the renovation of the irrigation and potable water systems. The institute is expected to map water resources in the region and draw up a report on measures that the respective countries 52 General Directorate of State Water Works of Turkey (DSI) in 2008. See e.g. Tümgazeteler, ‘Kişi başına düşen su miktarı gitgide düşüyor’ (23 March 2008). http://www.tumgazeteler.

com/?a=2659077. Accessed on 17 July 2010.

53 ESCWA, BGR, GTZ, Enhancing Negotiation Skills, pp. 9-10.

FIIA REPORT 25/2010 39 should take for the effective management of these resources.54 Turkey and Syria have also agreed to take significant steps in preventing the pollution of the Euphrates and Orontes Rivers. 55 Despite the recent confidence-building measures, Turkey continues to regard the Euphrates and Tigris as transboundary rivers, while Syria and Iraq see them as international watercourses and demand an equal division of water. Turkey’s long-held position has been that it allocates enough water to both Syria and Iraq, and it rejects the equal division formula presented by the two countries. In fact, Turkey claims exclusive sovereignty over the Euphrates up to the Syrian border.56 According to the Syrian and Iraqi view, this common water resource should be shared equally and fairly and they should enjoy equal riparian rights with Turkey.57 With 31 billion cubic metres of water per year, Turkey contributes about 89% of the Euphrates’ annual flow. At present, Turkey uses a limited portion, 35%, of the waters of the Euphrates River and only a minimal fraction of the waters of the Tigris River.58 However, the Euphrates and the Tigris are expected to be increasingly utilized by Turkey for irrigation and hydroelectric production by 2020, when the GAP is completed. 59 Therefore, it is expected that Turkey’s future water needs will complicate the reaching of a sustainable agreement on the two rivers.

54 Today’s Zaman, ‘Turkey, Syria and Iraq to initiate water talks’ (12 March 2008).

55 World Bulletin, ‘Turkey, Syria sign specifications on dam project’ (21 June 2010), http:// www.worldbulletin.net/news_detail.php?id=60252. Accessed on 5 July 2010.

56 Aras and Köni, ‘Turkish-Syrian Relations Revisited’, p. 53.

57 George E. Gruen, ‘Turkish Water Exports: A Model for Regional Cooperation in the Development of Water Resources’, Columbia University Middle East Institute, IPCRI Water Conference (2007), p. 2.

58 Ankara Chamber of Commerce, Su Raporu (Water Report), http://www.atonet.org.tr/ turkce/bulten/bulten.php3?sira=381. Accessed on 5 July 2010.

59 American University, Tigris-Euphrates River Dispute, Inventory of Conflict and Environment Case Studies (Washington, 1997), http://www1.american.edu/ted/ice/tigris.htm.

Accessed on 13 August 2010.

40 FIIA REPORT 25/2010The three bilateral problems

For a long time, there were three main problems in Turkish-Syrian relations, only one of which, namely the water issue, remains unresolved. The first problem concerned the territorial dispute over Hatay (Alexandretta) Province, which started in 1939 when Turkey took over the area from France. The second issue was related to the Tigris-Euphrates river basin and started with Turkey’s plan to build dams on these rivers, worsening in the 1980s when their construction began, and reducing the flow of water to Syria. The third issue was Syrian support for the Turkish Kurdish separatist organization, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Mindful of the water issue, Syria used the PKK as leverage in the 1990s, allowing the party to set up its headquarters and military training camps on its soil and in Lebanon as a retaliatory strategy against Turkey’s water policy concerning the Euphrates.

Turkish-Syrian relations had already deteriorated in the 1990s due to Syria’s support for the PKK, and escalated when Turkey issued an ultimatum to Syria to end the support, mobilizing troops along the border in September 1998. As a result, Syria stepped back, expelling the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, and withdrawing support for the group’s activities on its soil in line with the Adana Accords in October 1998. The signing of these accords has been regarded as a milestone in Turkish-Syrian relations because after the event bilateral relations began to develop very quickly. The results of the Adana Accords, and more than 50 agreements that have been signed since, exceeded expectations and established a basis for future integration in a wide array of fields. A further fillip to recovery and normalization took place in 2000 when Ahmet Necdet Sezer, the then President of Turkey, attended the funeral of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.

A thaw in the relationship began when the AK Party ascended to power in 2002, while in Syria the presidency was assumed by Hafez’s son, Bashar al-Assad. Despite willingness on both sides to improve bilateral relations, the Hatay issue still hindered progress.

Initially, Turkey emphasized cooperation on security matters and wanted to leave the water and Hatay issues aside. Turkey insisted that Syria relinquish all claims to the province in return for holding joint military training exercises, which would have reinforced the nascent military cooperation. The Syrian leadership rejected the deal on the FIIA REPORT 25/2010 41 grounds that it would need time to gain acceptance from the Syrian public.60 The issue is generally considered to have been resolved with an additional article to the Free Trade Agreement signed in 2004, according to which the two sides recognized each other’s borders.

Finally, the agreement to build a dam jointly on the Orontes River on the border between Hatay and Syria in 2010 can be interpreted as an official seal on Syria’s acceptance of Hatay as a part of Turkey.

This series of events strongly suggests that the two sides have buried the hatchet, preferring to resolve problems through cooperation and joint projects.

Turkey’s new regionalism

Importantly, the prevailing positive climate has spilled over to Lebanon and Jordan. In 2010, the foreign ministers of Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon decided to set up a ‘high-level quartet cooperation council’ to strengthen the existing cooperation, develop a strategic partnership, and enhance economic integration. Most importantly, the countries also decided to establish a free trade zone with free movement of products and people. 61 The current level of cooperation between Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan provides strong evidence for arguing that there is a new, emerging regionalism in the Middle East.62 Prior to Turkey’s new opening in the Middle East within the ‘zero problem policy with neighbours’ framework, there were few, if any, cooperation initiatives in the Levant region. In the late 2000s, Turkey’s southern neighbours 60 See e.g. Özlem Tür, ‘Turkish-Syrian Relations - Where Are We Going?’, UNISCI Discussion Papers, No: 23 (May 2010), p. 167.

61 World Bulletin, ‘Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon on first step to set up Mideast’s “EU”’, (1 August 2010), http://www.worldbulletin.net/news_detail.php?id=62093. Accessed on 10 September 2010.

62 Regionalism is a broad term, which refers to all forms of institutionalized cooperation within regions. The concept can be divided into ‘old’ and ‘new’ regionalism. Old regionalism usually refers to state-centric regionalism created from above, whereas new regionalism is spontaneous and created from below by non-state actors. According to an extreme interpretation, new regionalism can only take shape in democracies since civil society finds no living space in non-democratic countries.

42 FIIA REPORT 25/2010 have come to recognize the potential that Turkey has in terms of accelerating regional cooperation. Despite the fact that some critics have accused Turkey of axis shifting, this new regional cooperation is a promising step towards more widespread cooperation in the region, through which the water issue, among others, is largely expected by Turkey, Syria and Iraq to be handled and resolved peacefully within the regional framework.63

The changing role of water in Turkish-Syrian relations

While scholars of Middle Eastern water scarcity often argue that water is either a cause of conflict or a tool for enhancing cooperation in the region, in light of the evolution of Turkish-Syrian relations it seems that neither of these arguments holds true.

This is, however, not to say that the sharing of the waters of the Euphrates and the Orontes rivers has been devoid of tensions: Syria and Iraq have consistently demanded more water from the Euphrates and the Tigris, while Turkey still accuses Syria of utilizing most of the water of the Orontes.64 Importantly, there was a clear link between security and the water issue until the capture of the PKK’s Abdullah Öcalan. While, according to the protocol signed in 1987, Turkey guaranteed Syria 500 cubic metres per second via the Euphrates, in the aftermath of the Öcalan crisis in 1998 the flow was raised to more than 900 cubic metres.65 This gesture can be interpreted as an award or an attempt by Turkey to encourage Syria to cooperate.

Once Turkey and Syria succeeded in normalizing their relations and began perceiving each other as friends, their approach to problematic issues changed rapidly. It should be underlined that cooperation between Turkey and Syria in the 2000s started with military cooperation and then extended to other areas: the improvement of political relations boosted economic cooperation, and a Free Trade Zone Agreement came into force in 2007. The two sides also held joint military exercises for the very first time in 2008. Moreover, in 2009, 63 See for example: Today’s Zaman, ‘Turkey, Syria and Iraq to initiate’.

64 Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ‘Water Issues between Turkey, Syria and Iraq’, Perceptions, Vol. 1, (June-August 1996), p. 5.

65 Aras and Köni, ‘Turkish-Syrian Relations Revisited’, p. 53.

FIIA REPORT 25/2010 43 both sides lifted visa requirements, which is generally considered as a first step in economic and political integration between countries.66 As a result, Turkey and Syria have also started to play an active role in regional issues and have taken unitary positions on, for example, Israeli aggressions against the Gaza Strip. Accordingly, water has also ceased to be a security issue and has mainly become a technical matter. Despite this, enhanced cooperation has still not been visible in the most problematic bilateral issues, the Hatay question and the water issue, to the extent that one might expect. It is argued that this is due to President Bashar al-Assad’s difficulties in explaining to Syrians that Hatay is lost for forever and, in the case of water, that the scarcity of water resources is caused by increasing demand and, possibly, the early effects of climate change in the form of the droughts that have plagued Syria in particular in recent years.

However, in 2008, Veysel Eroglu, the Turkish Minister of Environment and Forestry, described the prevailing spirit from Turkey’s perspective: ‘No war over water resources will erupt in the region. Instead of having problems over water with our neighbours, we prefer developing joint projects. Contrary to what some people claim, a war over water resources in this region won’t emerge…’ The achieved point in the tripartite cooperation seems to discredit the water war thesis in the Middle East, at least in the case of Turkey, Syria and Iraq. 67


While in 1998 Turkey and Syria were talking war, now the countries are striving towards cooperation and integration. The recent positive

developments emphasize the importance of increased regionalism:

the more regionalism develops, the lower the risk of conflict over water in the Middle East. Furthermore, the planned water-related joint projects, such as the dam on the Orontes and the water institute to be established in Turkey, can be seen as initial steps towards joint water management, which would further enhance water security in the region.

66 See e.g. Emrullah Uslu, ‘Turkey Signs Strategic Cooperation Agreements with Syria and Iraq’, Euroasia Daily Monitor, 6:190 (16 October 2009).

67 Today’s Zaman, ‘Turkey, Syria and Iraq to initiate’.

44 FIIA REPORT 25/2010 It is largely accepted that as long as the AK Party stays in power there will be no change in Turkey’s recent tendency towards regionalism in its neighbourhood. Therefore, there is every reason to believe that water-related issues, which used to be a source of disagreement, have become a secondary issue in the recovery process of Turkish-Syrian relations. As a result, further regionalist steps will not only increase the likelihood of water-related issues being resolved peacefully, but also boost opportunities for peace and prosperity.

It should be underlined that the reason for the success of TurkishSyrian relations lay in the win-win setting. Both sides are benefiting from the cooperation in many ways: Syria was a stepping- stone for Turkey to broaden its horizons towards the long-neglected Middle East, whereas Syria is lessening its international isolation through the cooperation with Turkey. After a little more than a decade, the level of cooperation the two sides have achieved can be described as admirable. Moreover, the dynamics of this cooperation have spread to other Middle Eastern countries, such as Lebanon and Jordan.

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