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Rojava, where water is twice as expensive as oil

The Euphrates river at Duro-Europos, Syria, 2008. Flickr/Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Some rights reserved.The Kurds in northern Syria, or Rojava (western/Syrian
Kurdistan), most of whom until recently had not been allowed to buy or rent
land or even to carry ID cards, have now succeeded in establishing
democratic autonomy, applying a model based on social justice, gender equality
and sustainability, and raising the question – could this model be
implemented throughout the Middle East?

However, Rojava is surrounded by hostile neighbours,
Turkey, Syria and Iraq, making it an insecure environment in socio-economic terms.  The key factor with regard to Rojava’s
sustainability and socioeconomic development may be the flow of the Euphrates.
Since the river is mainly controlled by Turkish-supported
rebels and so-called Islamic State or Daesh, the question arises, can Rojava exist
without the water of the Euphrates?

Rojava
consists of three quasi-federal cantons: ’Afrin, Kobanè and Cizîrè. While
there are people of other ethnicities, including Arab, Asuri-Suryani and
Armenian, in Rojava, the majority of the population is Kurdish. There is no
doubt that the civil war in Syria has
opened up a real possibility of autonomy for Syrian Kurds led by the Democratic
Union Party (PYD). It has
been a momentous time for them, as they  now aim at becoming autonomous if not
independent, particularly after their successful fight against Daesh.

However, Rojava
is currently a war zone. It is run on the basis of what they call a ‘social
economy’ – an economic system built on a series of cooperatives across all
economic sectors. The initial objective is to be self-sufficient in meeting
basic needs such as food and fuel.

Since they are
unable to access external aid, they have limited supplies in everything, including
the necessities of daily life, electricity and clean water. In particular, since
the Turkish state controls a key strategic area through which the Euphrates
flows, including the town of Jarablus (in Syrian territory), and Daesh controls
the majority of dams on the river from which Rojava used to get electricity,
they now have to rely on diesel generators.  

In
these circumstances water costs 25 cents a half-litre, while a litre of diesel
costs 25 cents – water is twice as expensive as oil.

Access to water

Since
Turkey sees Rojava as a potential enemy and a threat to its own geo-political security,
it has imposed a political embargo on the region, closing all border crossings.
With Iraq, there is a narrow border opening between Rojava and the region controlled
by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Although some
oil refineries have been constructed as well as a number of publicly-run mills
and dairy processing plants, the main necessity for Rojava is going to be water;
not only now but in the future, if they are to construct their own autonomous
or independent regime.

When
I interviewed one of the PYD’s senior people in Rojava by telephone, he was
clear that if there is no access to the water, there is no Rojava, and that
means access to the Euphrates. So while the Kurds are fighting to open a
corridor between ’Afrin canton and the rest of Rojava, which is crucial for
geostrategic and geo-security reasons, they are also trying to secure this access.
However, since Turkey does not want a Kurdish autonomous region in Syria, and, specifically,
does not want the Kurds to be able to use the Euphrates water, Turkey has taken
an aggressive stance, stating that the Kurds must not cross to the west bank of
the Euphrates and that the river is their ‘red line’. 

Turkish attack

When the
Kurdish fighters crossed over to the west bank, took Manbij, and continued to make
advances in the area around the Euphrates, pushing back Daesh, Turkey responded.

Together
with Syrian rebels, Turkey took Jarablus, next to the Turkish border, from Daesh,
encountering no resistance, which raises the question – had Daesh and the Turkish state made some
agreement on water flow? It should be borne in mind that when Daesh took Mosul city in Iraq on 9 June 2014, they took 49 Turkish consulate staff hostage. But while Daesh were brutally
killing Iraqi shi’is, Christians and Yezidi Kurds,
the staff were not harmed and three months later were all freed.

Turkey
has explicitly declared that its intervention in northern Syria, around the
Euphrates River area is not only targeting Daesh but also the Syrian
Kurdish-led alliance that is attempting to advance on Jarablus and cross the Euphrates,
and has warned the Kurdish forces that they must return to the east of the river.
Turkey is now in Jarablus town with its Special Forces personnel and heavy weapons
including tanks, and continuing to make advances enabling it to control a
strategic part of the region, evidently waiting for an appropriate moment to
attack the Kurds and push them back to the east of the Euphrates.

Much has been
written to the effect that the next generation of warfare will be a battle over
water. Although some see this as fantasy, the theory is reflected in practice
by the ongoing fighting between Turkey, Daesh and the Kurdish-led coalition around
the Euphrates. Previously the issue of
water was between states, but since the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the
outbreak of civil war in Syria, the hydro-politics of water has taken quite a
different turn. This has been the case particularly since Daesh took control of
significant water resources in Syria and Iraq, which, as Tobias
von Lossow has chronicled, involved capturing large dams and reservoirs on
the Euphrates and Tigris as a crucial part of its expansion strategy.

The crucial issue here is that the Euphrates water
offers a significant advantage for the actors concerned, as it can be used not only for geostrategic
and geosecurity purposes, but also to sustain socioeconomic development.

As
my interviewee pointed out, the Euphrates River is crucial: if there is no
access to water, there is no Rojava.

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