Kevin T. Mason
In early October, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan stated that Turkey would target infrastructure facilities in Syria and Iraq in retaliation for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) attack in Ankara on 1 October which reportedly wounded two Turkish police officers. Soon thereafter, Turkey initiated a campaign of airstrikes on areas governed by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) as threatened, killing civilians and compounding existing water, fuel, and economic crises just as winter approaches.
Over the years, Turkey has continued to use drones and warplanes to strike the region, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of civilians. The current bombing campaign is the most serious escalation since separate ceasefire agreements brokered by the US and Russia following Turkey’s 2019 invasion of Syria that ended with Turkey and its proxy militias occupying Sere Kaniye (Ras al-Ayn / Rish Ayno) and Tal Abyad and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of the region’s inhabitants.
While Turkey has alleged that the Ankara attack was somehow linked to North and East Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the security forces of the region who were the leading ground force responsible for the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, have denied this. SDF General Commander Mazloum Abdi condemned Turkey’s use of the situation as a pretext for further military aggression and once again emphasized the SDF’s non-involvement in Turkey’s internal conflicts, calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities. Elham Ahmed, head of the Executive Committee of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political branch of the SDF, has also called on the international community to intervene, stating that this military aggression puts the lives of millions of people, including displaced civilians, at risk.
Turkey, with NATO’s second largest army and an unfettered ability to move throughout the airspace of North and East Syria, has a nearly free hand to do as it wishes in the region as long as the international community remains passive.
Escalation of Airstrikes Targeting Civilian Infrastructure
Turkish warplanes and drones relentlessly targeted vital civilian infrastructure, including power plants, water pumps, oil refineries, and the region’s only cooking gas bottling plant, hitting over 200 sites. Residential areas and even an internally displaced persons camp have been bombed, causing civilian casualties.
The Rojava Information Center continues to document the severe economic impact of this aggression. AANES relies heavily on oil revenue, and Turkish airstrikes are clearly aimed at undermining economic stability at a time where the Syrian economy in general is deteriorating.
Recent gains in modernizing electricity infrastructure have been wiped out by these airstrikes, leaving North and East Syria’s Jazira (Gozarto) Region without power. The destruction of the local economy prevents recovery from the ravages of ISIS but also deepens a persistent humanitarian crisis.
Weaponization of Water
Turkey’s weaponization of water resources is a longstanding strategy designed to target civilians in North and East Syria and undermine popular support for AANES. Targeting water infrastructure is a blatant and particularly grave violation of international law but has not elicited much of a reaction from the international community.
In Qamishlo (Qamishli / Zalin), hospitals and healthcare facilities are now operating under extreme pressure due to an undependable supply of water and electricity, leading to concerns about potential closures — a direct result of Turkey’s strikes on water facilities which have caused severe water shortages throughout the region.
Through both the reduction of the flow of the Euphrates River and the repeated closing of the Alouk Water Station in Hasakah, Syria, the water crisis has become particularly acute. Since taking control of Alouk during its 2019 invasion, Turkey has repeatedly stopped pumping water from the station to Hasakah for months at a time and rejected negotiation efforts by the United Nations to ensure its continued operation. The repeated shutting-down of Alouk jeopardized the water supply for over a million inhabitants and caused major health risks during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The illegal reduction of the Euphrates River’s flow by Turkey has nearly brought the Tishreen Dam Reservoir to complete halt, risking a catastrophic shutdown. In addition to representing a breach of basic international human rights conventions, Turkey’s actions also constitute a violation of the 1987 water-sharing agreement, placing the wellbeing of a large civilian population in great peril.
The Khabur River, which runs through the heart of the Khabur River Valley which includes a self-governing Christian Syriac-Assyrian enclave, has been hit particularly hard — placing this vulnerable and dwindling population in even greater risk. The residents of Tel Tamr, the largest town in the Khabur River Valley, depend on the river for irrigation. Now the construction of dams upstream by the Turkish-proxy Syrian National Army (SNA) is threatening their livelihood.
Even before the invasion of 2019, Turkey had cut off the river’s water flow, nearly drying it up and transforming this ancient river in the cradle of civilization in an unusual breeding ground for disease-carrying insects. Leishmaniasis has become endemic, with numerous cases reported daily since the summer.
Access to clean water is a fundamental human right, and any actions taken by states or their proxy forces that compromise this right must be promptly and strongly condemned by the international community.
Calls for Intervention Unheard and Ignored
One hundred ten Syrian organizations reflecting the various communities of North and East Syria issued a joint statement calling for urgent international intervention as the water crisis in their region deepens. Although the situation has garnered some attention internationally, most notably from Human Rights Watch and the President of the International Religious Freedom Secretariat and former Chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Nadine Maenza, the international response to the crisis has been muted, with only a few statements of condemnation and no action.
“By targeting critical infrastructure across northeast Syria, including power and water stations, Turkey has flouted its responsibility to ensure that its military actions do not aggravate the region’s already dire humanitarian crisis.” said Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “People in Hasakah city and its surroundings, already facing a severe water crisis for the past four years, must now also bear the brunt of increased bombardment and destruction, exacerbating their struggle to get essential water supplies.”
Over the last few weeks, Turkey’s premeditated attack on civilian infrastructure in Syria has been fully eclipsed by the explosion of the conflict between the Israeli government and Hamas in Gaza, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly admonishing Israel for cutting water and electricity to Gaza without being called-out for his as a hypocrite.
Turkey is clearly targeting civilians in North and East Syria, but it is not yet clear if these measures are meant only as a means of collective punishment (itself a war crime per the Geneva Conventions) or as a prelude to another ground invasion aimed at expanding Turkey’s zone of occupation in Syria and changing the demographics of the region. Regardless of Turkey’s motivations or ultimate strategy, the campaign of airstrikes against civilian infrastructure and the ongoing water crisis in North and East Syria has sowed the seeds of an even worse catastrophe in the near future.
The attacks are likely to continue. Recent statements by Fidan indicate that Turkey is not yet finished terrorizing the people of North and East Syria.
It is imperative that the international community, especially the United States and European Union, take a stand to address this crisis, ensure access to water, safeguard the well-being of the people and ecology in North and East Syria, and pressure Turkey to uphold the various international agreements and conventions to which it is a party. Without swift and decisive action, the civilian population of the region will suffer greatly in the weeks and months to come, and Turkey will be emboldened to continue committing war crimes in Syria and beyond.
It is the collective responsibility of the international community, and particularly those countries and organizations with particular strength and leverage over hostile parties, to protect the rights and well-being of civilians, uphold international law, and work towards a peaceful resolution of conflicts. The current crisis demands a concerted effort to address both the immediate humanitarian needs and the underlying causes of the conflict, ensuring a sustainable and just future for the people of North and East Syria. If the current situation persists, the consequences will be felt beyond the region and include the mass displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians and the resurgence of ISIS and other similar groups who can pose a threat to global national security.
Mr. Mason is an independent researcher and writer focusing on Iraq and North and East Syria.