Alp Sevimlisoy

Water Wars: The Geopolitics of Resource Conflict in the Middle East

Across the Euphrates lies one of the most precious commodities, not a dark viscous liquid that we formally refer to as Petroleum or a shimmering precious metal such as gold, but rather a translucent substance that is imperative to our lives, simply called, water. The Euphrates Dam has been the site of many historical conquests ranging from the Akkadian Empire to the Seleucids and subsequently the Romans and the Ottomans. In more recent history it led to a standoff between the Turkish Armed Forces and the Syrian Republic when, during the 1990s, water disruptions led the Atatürk Dam in Southeast Turkey to be prioritized by the country’s national security apparatus, with an ultimatum being delivered that any obstructions would lead to Turkish troops entering Syria to restore order. Following the statement, the Arab Republic of Syria met Turkish demands and an agreement was made to ensure unobstructed flows of water across the Euphrates River across their shared border.

The Turkish Armed Forces conducted operation Euphrates Shield in 2016 to achieve a foothold in the area and clear out Marxist and religious fundamentalist groups; however, a secondary objective was to take control of water flows from the Euphrates. Many policy makers have been discussing diminishing oil reserves to be the main facet of resource-based conflicts, yet water – an imperative day-to-day commodity – is often overlooked and is in reality a major asset that is sought to be secured as a vital state interest.

The Euphrates Dam in Syria is currently in the hands of the aforementioned internationally outlawed groups whereby prior to this it was held by religious extremists, a point to outline with regard to many illegal groups seeing it as a base from which to ‘leverage’ their demands across the region. The liberation of the dam and a restoration to a mutual management of the Euphrates River via both the Atatürk Dam in Turkey and the Euphrates Dam in Syria is only possible via the cooperation of the Turkish Armed Forces and the Syrian Army in synchronicity with the National Iraqi forces also. Only via the control of nation states which have a proven track record of the successful upkeep and flow of water resources regionally can we ensure that proxy conflicts do not occur as a result of potential resource ‘blackmailing.’

The United States can leverage its existing presence in Northern Syria to achieve cooperation with the Turkish Armed Forces, one of the most active and powerful militaries in NATO, and put together a policy incorporating the Syrian leadership to ensure that those with the most on-the-ground capability within the vicinity are able to bring about a functional system that is able to withstand multiple generations with regard to a commodity that has stark national security implications. By being first-movers in this regard the US can ensure that the Russian Federation does not reposition its troops to the region in order to open another front at the Euphrates, one that aims to subdue or distract from our commitment as the Transatlantic alliance to support the Ukrainian defense of their homeland. This will also pre-empt any efforts by the People’s Republic of China to use infrastructure ‘coercion’ to weaponize the river against regional countries, which risk market repercussions on key strategic commodities such as oil and negative consequences on the daily functioning of a NATO state that has an equal participation on the waterway itself.

The Middle East has been the ‘dungeon master’ of multiple resource-based wars, all making the region weaker in turn and causing an even greater liability for the international community once the consequences of these conflicts are fully realized. The strengthening of water security at the Euphrates is one major step that can be taken today through the leadership of both the US and regional powers such as Turkey to secure the river such that it stands as an unalienable right of the populaces that depend on it, and not a tool that can be weaponized by those seeking to disrupt the lives of the citizenry of riparian states.

As resource-based conflicts spill into the mainstream in the post-pandemic landscape, water will loom large as a strategic commodity. The US together with NATO partners such as the Turkish Republic must prioritize the ‘realpolitik’ of the days of Secretary Kissinger and form ideologically-neutral alliances with regional players, be it Ba’athist Syria or the leadership in Iraq, in order to safeguard this fundamental of life; for as Napoleon Bonaparte once said: “water, air and cleanliness are the chief articles in my pharmacy.”


Alp Sevimlisoy originally featured as per: Geopolitical Monitor