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Water Supply to This Small Syrian Town Is More Than Just Another Local Power Struggle

For Turkey, tensions over Syrian Kurdish town are part of a major diplomatic campaign, almost a war between great powers

Zvi Bar'el
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Residents fill up water from cisterns provided by humanitarian organizations during a water outage in Syria's northeastern city of Hasakah on August 22, 2020.
Residents fill up water from cisterns provided by humanitarian organizations during a water outage in Syria's northeastern city of Hasakah on August 22, 2020. Credit: Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP
Zvi Bar'el

The small town of Ras al-Ayn in northern Syria has become one of the international centers of the war in that country. Recently, the town’s water supply was cut off for around 10 days. The drinking water for its 20,000 residents is brought by water tankers, which don’t appear regularly. Residents use salty well water for washing. Maintaining personal hygiene as the coronavirus spreads in the area is almost impossible. And in the intense summer heat, there is a fear that the residents will simply die of thirst.

The town is in the al-Hasakah governorate, controlled by the autonomous Kurdish administration that administers the Kurdish districts in northern Syria. It used to get running water from a large pumping station at the Allouk water station, which is under control of the Turkish forces that invaded northern Syria. This is a station that provides water to over 800,000 residents in the district, and is the source of the water for the tankers, which distribute it in the rural regions that are cut off from the district water network.

Since the start of the year, Turkey has cut off the water supply from the station eight times, with the excuse that this was required for maintenance work. But apparently the real reason is Turkey’s battle with district authorities over additional electricity required for the Turkish forces – electricity supplied by the Kurdish district and on which the water station also relies. Turkey claims that the district is responsible for the water stoppage, since its people cut off the flow of electricity, making the station unable to operate. The Kurds don’t deny that they cut off the electricity, but say that they did so in response to the fact that Turkey stopped the water flow.

Ostensibly, it’s another one of the local power struggles that don’t make media headlines and are drowned out amid reports about the conflict that is still taking place in Syria. But this time, the water crisis managed to breach the walls of indifference and to interest the international community, which has been pressuring Turkey, so far with limited success.

The U.S. special envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, reported that he was conducting talks with the Turkish leadership in order to renew the water supply. Russia is also working to open the water pipeline to the Kurdish town, as are several European countries.

But as far as Turkey is concerned, this is a far greater diplomatic battle that dwarfs the needs of the town, almost a war among the great powers. Russia, which is interested in promoting steps designed to lead to a diplomatic solution to the war in Syria, attributes importance to the participation of the Kurds in discussion of the new constitution, since without them, says Russia, it will be impossible to establish a mutually acceptable government and to build a united country.

Turkey is opposed to the participation of the Syrian Kurds, whom it considers an arm of the Kurdistan Workers Party, also known as the PKK, which is defined as a terror organization in several places, including Turkey, the United States and the EU. The U.S. is vacillating between continued support for the Kurds, who were the spearhead in the war against ISIS, and its desire to maintain its good relations with Turkey. The U.S. administration therefore prefers to see the water crisis in Ras al-Ayn as a humanitarian issue rather than as a basis for an arm-wrestling competition.

That’s not how Turkey views it. In its view, any concession on the local level is likely to have consequences for its image and its ability to achieve its objectives in northern Syria, which include pushing the Kurdish population deep into Syrian territory.

A Syrian man fills up water from cisterns provided by humanitarian organizations during a water outage in Syria's northeastern city of Hasakah on August 22, 2020.
A Syrian man fills up water from cisterns provided by humanitarian organizations during a water outage in Syria's northeastern city of Hasakah on August 22, 2020.Credit: Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP

Ras al-Ayn has a fascinating history. In the 19th century, it served as a refuge for Chechen refugees who were fleeing from the Russian invasion of the Caucasus, and the Ottoman government even built a fortress nearby in order to protect them from their persecutors. Later, when the Ottoman Empire expelled and slaughtered the Armenian minority in 1915, thousands of Armenians found a refuge in this town and its environs in the camps built for them.

When the empire collapsed after World War I and its territory was divided among the victorious powers, the town was divided between Turkey and Syria, and today its two parts are separated by a border fence with a large metal gate that is used as the only crossing between the town and Turkey. In recent days, residents and the Syrian militias acting under Turkish sponsorship have been waging a battle over the gate, after Turkey decided to appoint a soldier on behalf of the militias to supervise the crossing. The residents are afraid that appointing a Turkish soldier is likely to mean that merchandise coming from the other side of the border will come into hands of the local militias rather than the hands of the residents.

The power struggles surrounding Ras al-Ayn are a good reflection of the tiny, local wars taking place in other parts of Syria, including Daraa in the south of the country, Quneitra, Deir el-Zour and the suburbs of Damascus. These are no longer the same violent battles between rebels and the regime, but primarily power struggles between local militias, conflicts between tribes and families, between small units of the Syrian army and armed groups over control, seizing assets, collecting fees and smuggling goods. However, they attest to the tremendous difficulty awaiting a future Syrian government to stabilize the country and subordinate it to administrative and legal arrangements.

On top of all this, Syria is on the alert for the coming major battle over the district of Idlib, where tens of thousands of militia fighters are concentrated, mainly members of the Nusra Front. Military and diplomatic steps by Turkey, Russia and Syria have so far failed to evict them from the district. When that battle begins, Ras al-Ayn will no longer interest anyone.

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