Academics, generals, and the intelligence community are generally in agreement concerning the changing character of war: yesterday’s wars were waged over land, today’s for energy, while tomorrow’s will be fought for increasingly-scarce water resources.

If this assessment is correct, world leaders have good reason to worry that competition for dwindling water resources along the Tigris-Euphrates is likely to foil any efforts at establishing a sustainable Mesopotamian peace. If and when the guns fall silent, no matter who governs and inhabits the territory constituting present day Iraq and Syria, competition over water will catalyze the “conflict trap” to which all war-torn regions are already susceptible.

Mesopotamia’s History of Hydro-Conflict

The “Fertile Crescent” has historically been a flashpoint of interstate water conflict. As far back as 4,500 years ago, two city-states occupying modern-day southern Iraq waged a war over water. However, we need not reference ancient history; the Cold War period offers much more recent examples of water-based militarized interstate disputes along the Tigris-Euphrates river system. For instance, Iraq deployed troops to its Syrian border and threatened to strike Syria’s al-Thawra dam over alleged reduced flow of the Euphrates in 1974. In spring of the following year, Iraq claimed once again that Syria had diminished the Euphrates’ flow to an intolerable level. The situation escalated when Iraqstated that it “would take any action necessary to ensure the Euphrates’ flow” and demanded Arab League intervention. Syria responded by closing its airspace to Iraqi air traffic and redeploying troops to the Iraqi border. Saudi diplomacy successfully mediated the conflict just short of war.

Later, Turkey’s early-1990s development of the Ataturk Dam intensified an already-strained tripartite relationship. To begin filling up the reservoir in 1990, Turkey cut water flow to its downstream neighbors for a month. Though the Turks claimed that contiguous states were previously notified of the damming, Iraq retaliated with threats to bomb the dam while Syria briefly ramped up its support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), enhancing the paramilitary group’s insurgency in Turkey. Tensions escalated when Turkey redeployed troops to the southern border and threatened to permanently cut water flow to Syria and Iraq.

These regional water-based confrontations stopped short of war, and globally, water competition has historically led to resource distribution treaties. But as one recent article posits, the future of water competition “may look nothing like the past” due to a slew of demographic and ecological trends.

Turkey’s Upstream Advantage

Following the end of the Cold War, Turkey continued its ambitious dam construction project, which forms the centerpiece of its Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP). The water-management scheme aims to increase electricity generation and extend arable land in the impoverished southeastern Anatolia region of the country. Increased water management and hydroelectric infrastructure gives Turkey the ability to choke downstream water movement at will – a necessity during the reservoir-filling stages of dam construction. Turkey has also demonstrated its willingness to use this tool as a weapon as recently as last year.

Regardless of the outcome of the Syrian Civil War and the insurgency in Iraq, capital investment committed to, and the anticipated economic benefits of, the project all but guarantee that Turkey will proceed with its plans to double its dam facilities. Turkey has already allocated upwards of $32 billion toward the production of several new dams and power plants. The country also anticipates an impressive development payoff for its investment, including a doubling of its irrigable land and hydroelectricity production, a significant increase in per capita income and the creation of two million new jobs in the economically stagnant area, and a sizable boost in Turkey’s gross national product. For a country enjoying generally consistent economic expansion at a time of global recession, there is little reason to believe that Turkey will discontinue plans for hydro-infrastructure investment without proper incentives (coercive or otherwise). Such incentives are unlikely to come from Turkey’s downstream riparian neighbors, which are now hardly in any position to credibly leverage military and economic power, as they had in the past.

Syrian Deindustrialization

Four years of urban conflict in Syria has resulted in massive deindustrialization, damaging the country’s agricultural, internal trade, transportation, and finance sectors. Syria’s industry – comprised principally of mining, manufacturing, and construction – accounted for nearly a quarter of its prewar gross domestic product, whereas now it constitutes only 10% of a significantly shrunken GDP. U.N. estimatessuggest GDP losses amount to $120 billion, or 229%of prewar GDP. Further, the destruction of “capital stock,” defined as the physical features of production (e.g. factories, machinery, and infrastructure), is valued at $72 billion. This capital-stock loss cannot be overstated, as it dramatically increases the expenses and elongates the timeline associated with economic recovery. Along with increased Syrian military expenditures, the conflict has resulted in overall economic losses exceeding $202.6 billion.

Increased water management and hydroelectric infrastructure gives Turkey the ability to choke downstream water movement at will

Internal trade, plagued by disruptions to its logistics networks, has taken the heaviest blow of any sector (constituting 22.2% of total GDP losses), resulting in market fragmentation and food supply shortages. In the past, dismal agricultural prospects led to urban migrations; however, with Syria’s cities in ruin, subsistence farming appears to be the only viable option to make ends meet for millions of Syrians.

This labor- and resource-intensive agricultural method lacks economies of scale and threatens to exhaust Syria’s renewable surface-water capacity which is already undermined by years of recurring droughts.

The Right of Return and Downstream Consequences

The region’s water troubles will be further exacerbated by the repatriation of Syrian refugees (somefour million) who will increase water demand upstream of Iraq. Many refugees will repatriate to Syria once the civil war subsides for several reasons. First, most still harbor a “dream” of voluntarily returning home. Second, following the cessation of major hostilities in Syria, host countries like Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan – places of limited resources strained for decades by the costs of hosting refugee populations – will begin to “incentivize” repatriation for fear of their own internal instability.

Acknowledging resource scarcities of their own, host states have introduced barriers to Syrian refugees seeking asylum. That these policies are being implemented amid a raging civil war and accompanying international scrutiny suggests that more coercive policies may be implemented to ensure Syrians’ return once major fighting ends and Syria fades from the news cycle. The history of Palestinian refugees in these host states indicates that there remain several policy options short of forcible repatriation that would encourage Syrian refugees to return to their home country. Life as a second-class citizen in a host nation, wherein refugees are commonly denied social services, barred from respectable jobs, and left to cope with life in segregated slums, will promote repatriation. Likewise, Europe’s current benevolence vis-a-vis the refugee crisis is already showing signs of waning. Unlike the stateless Palestinians who have no territory to which they can return, Syrians will have, in one shape or another, a homeland to reclaim.

With Syrian refugees returning to destroyed cities and few urban employment opportunities, the country will likely undergo a quasi-ruralization. At least in the immediate post-war period, the lack of domestic and external capital investment needed to rebuild Syrian industry will incentivize the repatriated population’s movement to suburban and rural areas. Of course, cooperative farms may appear as communities reorganize and rebuild, eventually developing some semblance of economies of scale. However, revitalizing the industrial and service sectors of Syria’s economy won’t happen overnight. Reconstituting (or founding wholly-new) communities requires considerable resources, effort, leadership, and above all, time. In the interim, we can expect inefficient and resource-intensive agricultural practices, such as subsistence farming, to deplete the country’s already scarce water resources.

Such a scenario does not bode well for Syria’s downstream neighbor, Iraq, for whom 98 percent of its renewable fresh water originates outside of its borders. The Euphrates’ flow depends on upstream rainfall and Turkish and Syrian water usage rates, producing uncertainty in Iraq’s annual water supply. Moreover, the country lacks the proper domestic infrastructure to efficiently distribute water among its population. Thus any upstream disruption compromises Iraq’s food security and its agricultural sector, which employs 21% of its labor force.

A Perfect Storm: Regressing to Conflict

Imagine a post-war scenario in which Turkey fills a new reservoir to allow for dam construction, requiring it to choke a vital river flow for months. Despite the war’s end, lingering tensions persist, small arms remain ubiquitous, and recently demobilized militias maintain their member networks which have fought and bled together for years. Roughly two million Syrian refugees have repatriated from across the region, many taking up subsistence farming but all competing for access to limited fresh water. These factors alone create a dangerous situation, contributing to a common phenomenon plaguing states emerging from civil war known as the “conflict trap.” Then, a severe drought further exacerbates the region’s water scarcity, pushing the fragile system to a breaking point.

Demonstrations over unemployment, broad dissatisfaction over governments’ inability to quickly spur economic growth, and people’s lack of access to the most crucial life-sustaining resource known to man – water — lead to inter-communal violence as factions seek to secure what little remains. The leadership of Syria’s new regime exploits the populist resentment to secure its domestic base by channeling frustration externally, political behavior consistent with the formation of new, transitional governments. Rapidly rising tensions then engender a relapse into inter- and intra-state war.

The convergence (of at least some) of these contingencies is not only possible, but perhaps only a matter of time without a solution to the Mesopotamian water problem.

The Dim Prospects of a Trilateral Resolution

The Tigris-Euphrates’ balance of military power strongly favors Turkey, a fact that will not change for the foreseeable future. Following foreign military intervention and attrition induced by years of civil war and insurgency, Iraq and Syria’s once regionally-formidable militaries are now a shadow of their former selves. Their economies have fared little better; both have contracted over the past few years and will take decades to recover to pre-war levels.  Simply put, Iraq and Syria will be weak states when the guns fall silent, unable to exert any hard-power leverage against a riparian hegemon that boasts an expanding economy and the second-largest military in NATO.

An economic solution is possible but unlikely. In an ideal world, Syria and Iraq would develop the industrial and service sectors of their economies while phasing out agriculture. They would then leverage the global economy to import virtual water in exchange for exported goods and services. Unfortunately, practical implementation will be difficult because agriculture is ingrained in cultural and historical identities of those inhabiting the “Fertile Crescent” and political leaders remain wary of outsourcing domestic food production for perceived national security reasons. Further, it is unclear what Syria and Iraq can competitively offer the world economy aside from oil, a product of diminished value owing to oversaturated global energy markets.

The Tigris-Euphrates’ balance of military power strongly favors Turkey, a fact that will not change for the foreseeable future

With no credible military solution and economic restructuring highly improbable, diplomacy remains the most viable, if obstacle-laden, route toward resolving the water issue. A diplomatic resolution cannot come from within the region, however, since the coercive instruments required for credible diplomacy are wanting. Further, holding our breath for international law to enforce fair water distribution would be foolish. Unsurprisingly, Turkey refuses to adopt the U.N.’s 1997 Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, a document ratified by Iraq and Syria but lacking the requisite member-state signatures to be law, let alone to be enforced.

Absent such exogenous pressure, however, Turkey seemingly has little reason to negotiate with its downstream neighbors. Nonetheless, a water-distribution deal is not a forlorn hope. In light of Europe’s exposure to security risks from Mesopotamian violence (more so than other extra-regional powers) – owing to Western Europe’s proximity to the conflict zone and the propensity of its citizens to join the ranks of Islamist fighters – the European Union possesses the incentive to broker a regional water-distribution deal. And given Turkey’s continuing strategic interest in acceding to the EU, the European Union might not only possess a greater incentive, but more importantly greater leverage than other extra-regional powers to broker a deal.

Mesopotamia is undergoing the long and violent process of aligning political boundaries to the social, demographic, and economic realities on the ground – realities outsiders may find unpleasant but ultimately beyond their power to determine. Water scarcity will likely further inflame regional tensions during this process, its worst effects becoming most apparent in the decade ahead. Meanwhile, the West’s current unstated policy of containment, or managing the toxic output of the Middle East’s internal conflicts, might well prove the most prudential course of action. The Islamic State’s eventual defeat matters, but it remains only one of many means toward the strategic end of regional stability. As the U.S. and her allies have learned in this past (long) decade, if the strategy conflates ends and means, then the most vexing problems appear only once the smoke clears and the guns fall silent.


[Photo: Flickr CC: PBS NewsHour]


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