First Published: 2017-04-02

In Syria, everyone uses water as a weapon of war
Kurdish fighters hold the northern end of the Tabqa dam and ISIS the southern one.
Middle East Online

By Ed Blanche - BEIRUT

Syrian Red Crescent members, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) inspect Tabqa dam

As US-backed Kurdish irregulars advance on the strategic city of Raqqa in northern Syria held by the Islamic State (ISIS), a major fight is under way for control of the nearby Tabqa dam, one of the biggest in the country. The outcome of that battle could hasten the defeat of the jihadists and determine the future of the devastated Syrian state.

This is part of a sub-conflict in the Syrian war, now in its seventh year, that has become known as the war for water as competing powers in the region scramble for control of a rapidly diminishing resource.

The dam on the Euphrates river is 40km upstream from Raqqa, de facto capital of ISISs self-proclaimed caliphate, which in 2014 spanned northern Syria and eastern Iraq. Today it is steadily crumbling in the face of major US-supported military offensives in both countries.

If the Kurdish fighters can take the dam, which ISIS has held since 2015, they would open a new assault corridor against Raqqa, a key strategic target for ISISs many enemies.

Kurdish fighters hold the northern end of the 4.5-km-long dam and ISIS the southern. ISIS has threatened to unleash the dams waters if the group is in danger of being defeated, threatening hundreds of thousands of people living downriver.

There have been conflicting reports about the dams stability because heavy rains have filled the reservoir and increased pressure on the massive structure. Russia and ISIS claim US-led air strikes weakened the dam.

The United Nations warned this could lead to massive flooding across Raqqa and as far away as Deir ez-Zor, another ISIS stronghold further down the Euphrates. This caused panic among the 90,000 civilians still in Raqqa and hundreds reportedly began fleeing the city on March 26th.

State engineers say two spillways, used to run off water behind the dam to ease the pressure, are out of action. The dam manager and his assistant were reported killed by ISIS shellfire on March 27th when they tried to reach the spillway mechanism to free some of the water.

The dam, built by the Soviets in the 1970s, supplies most of the electricity for northern Syria and its destruction or incapacitation would cripple the region and seriously impede the anticipated post-war reconstruction. Given the scale of destruction across Syria from six years of merciless war, rebuilding will be an immense undertaking.

There was a similar alarm in 2016 for a major dam 60km north of the embattled city of Mosul in northern Iraq, the first major urban centre captured by ISIS in June 2014 and its main stronghold.

US-backed Iraqi state forces have recaptured the eastern half of the city divided by the Tigris river and are slowly advancing in the face of fierce opposition in the western sector.

The Americans warned that if the 3.4km-long Mosul dam, reportedly built on unsound foundations, collapsed or was sabotaged, 11.11 million cubic feet of floodwater would kill up to 1.47 million people living downstream along the Tigris.

However, the dam is still in operation, although it remains a potential danger if one side or the other reaches for a doomsday disaster before they go down.

In December, water was the centre of another battle when Syrian regime forces bombed the Ayn al- Fijjeh springs, 18km north-west of Damascus.

The spring feeds the Barada river, which supplies 70% of the water for the Syrian capital and its sprawling environs with a war-swollen population of about 9 million.

It was initially reported by pro-regime websites on December 22nd that rebels who have held Wadi Barada since mid-2012 had deliberately polluted the waters of Ayn al-Fijjeh, which forced authorities to cut off the water supply.

The regime used the alleged sabotage as a pretext for an offensive against the rebel forces holding the springs to seize control of the capitals water supply despite a nationwide ceasefire proclaimed on December 30th.

The water infrastructure in Wadi Barada was badly damaged by Syrian Air Force strikes.

The regime has used similar tactics in the continuing battle for resources, which has become a central aspect of the Syrian war part and parcel of its widely criticised surrender or starve tactics against rebel-held cities and towns.

The water crisis caused by the attempts to blast the Wadi Barada facilities led to panic and anger and drove the price of water well beyond the means of most of the population around the capital.

Other forces in Syrias multisided war also use water as a weapon, particularly ISIS, which understands how critical water is to the caliphate they tried to establish.

At one point, ISIS forces shut down a major water flow from the Taqba dam to the battered city of Aleppo, which finally fell to the regime in December 2016 after a ferocious months-long bombardment.

After ISIS began expanding its territorial claims in western Syria in 2015, it used water as a tool in its broader strategy of advancing and establishing control over new land, the US-based global security consultancy Stratfor observed.

True, the Islamic State has also (and perhaps more visibly) targeted strategic oil and natural gas fields in both Syria and Iraq but a close look at the groups movements clearly indicates that the Tigris and Euphrates rivers hold a central role in its planning, Stratfor said.

Ed Blanche has covered Middle East affairs since 1967. He is the Arab Weekly analyses section editor.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.

 

Russia mulls supplying S-300 missile systems to Syria

Bashir fires Sudan foreign minister

Washington: Assad still has 'limited' chemical capability

US has 'concerns' about Turkey holding fair vote under state of emergency

Saudi women embrace sports headscarves

Fiery kites adopted as new tactic by Gaza protesters

HRW criticises Lebanon for evicting Syria refugees

Saudi says intercepted ballistic missile from Yemen

European MPs urge US not to scrap Iran deal

Oil price soars to highest level in years

Two more pro-Kurdish MPs stripped of Turkey seats

Oil theft 'costing Libya over $750 million annually'

Turkey's snap polls: bold gambit or checkmate for Erdogan?

Iran arrests senior official over public concert

Bahrain sentences 24 to jail, strips citizenship

UN experts urge Iran to cancel Kurd's death sentence

Moderate quake strikes near Iran nuclear power plant

Syria regime forces caught in surprise IS attack

Turkey sentences 18 to life for killing ‘hero’ coup soldier

Exxon faces setback in Iraq as oil and water mix

Libya to clamp down on fuel smuggling

Yemen to arrest colonel for overlooking African migrant rape

Erdogan sends Turkey to snap polls on June 24

Qatar joins Gulf military exercise in apparent compromise

Saudi-Russia oil alliance likely to undercut OPEC

UN in security talks with Syria on chemical probe

Riyadh says two al Qaeda militants killed in Yemen

Record of women candidates in Lebanon, but you can't tell from TV

Sudan protests to UN over Egypt voting in disputed area

Erdogan calls Turkey snap polls for June 24

Rights watchdog say African migrants face rape, torture in Yemen

Nine years since last vote, Lebanon in election fever

Israeli fire neat Gaza border injures five Palestinian

Egypt army says killed jihadist leader in Sinai

Iraq sentences over 300 people to death for IS links

Syria chemical weapons visit delayed after gunfire

Syria regime shells last jihadist pockets in Damascus

After the war is won, ‘we shall not return’ to Mosul

Saudi Arabia to host cinema test screening with 'Black Panther'

Trump voices support for US pastor jailed in Turkey

Rouhani says Iran will make or buy any weapons it needs

US fears ceding influence to Russia, Iran in Syria

Nationalist Erdogan ally calls for snap Turkey elections

Saudi renews offer to deploy troops to Syria

Kaveh Madani, Iran’s expat eco-warrior who was on too many fronts