Turkey has planted the seeds of a humanitarian crisis that will affect millions

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of SyriacPress.

By Kevin T. Mason, Independent Researcher and Writer

In a series of devastating attacks, Turkey’s intensified airstrike campaign targeting vital civilian infrastructure in North and East Syria has compounded existing water, fuel, and economic crises, ensuring a severe humanitarian disaster as winter approaches.

Since its invasion of the region in 2019, Turkey has persistently conducted airstrikes, predominantly via drones, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of civilians. The current bombing campaign is the most severe escalation since the separate ceasefire agreements brokered by the US and Russia to end the 2019 invasion.

The recent escalation in Turkey’s airstrike campaign comes in the wake of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) attack in Ankara on 1 October.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have denied Turkish accusations connecting the Ankara attack to North and East Syria. SDF General Commander Mazloum Abdi condemned Turkey’s use of the situation as a pretext for further military aggression. Abdi emphasized the SDF’s non-involvement in Turkey’s internal conflicts and called for an immediate cessation of hostilities.

The SDF, which Turkey considers a wing of the PKK, is a key partner of the US and the force most responsible for the military defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria.

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, stressing Turkey’s direct attack on the infrastructure in a region home to millions of people, including displaced civilians.

The accusations and counter-accusations between Turkey and the SDF add a layer of complexity to an already volatile situation. The international community’s role in mediating and seeking a peaceful resolution to these disputes is crucial to preventing further escalation.

Escalation of Airstrikes Targeting Civilian Infrastructure

Despite the SDF’s denial of responsibility and calls from the US to deescalate, Turkish warplanes and drones have been relentlessly targeting vital civilian infrastructure, including facilities for power generation, water pumping, oil refining, and the region’s only cooking gas bottling plant. Over 200 sites have been struck. Villages, towns, and even a camp for internally displaced persons have been targeted, resulting in civilian casualties and exacerbating the precarious security situation in the region.

Reports from the Rojava Information Center shed light on the economic impacts of Turkey’s airstrikes. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria’s (AANES) revenue heavily relies on oil, and the systematic strikes on oil infrastructure are significantly undermining economic stability at a time where the Syrian economy in general is deteriorating.

Power transfer station damaged by Turkish airstrikes outside of Zalin (Qamishli), North and East Syria. (Image: Rojava Information Center)

Turkey’s targeted attacks on electrical infrastructure have eroded gains made in electricity network upgrades, leaving Gozarto (Jazira) Region without power as winter approaches.

The destruction of key economic infrastructure not only cripples the region’s ability to recover from the ravages of the Islamic State (ISIS) but also deepens the humanitarian crisis by limiting the capacity to provide basic services to the population.

Weaponization of Water

Turkey has also targeted water facilities, causing severe water shortages across North and East Syria. In Zalin (Qamishli), hospitals and healthcare facilities are now operating under extreme pressure due to interrupted water and electricity, leading to concerns about potential closures.

Turkey’s use of water as a weapon is a longstanding strategy designed to make life in North and East Syria more difficult and undermine popular support for AANES. The deliberate targeting of water facilities is a grave violation of international law, particularly given the already existing water crisis in the region.

While drought exacerbated by climate change is a key factor in the region’s recent water scarcity, Turkey’s weaponization of water resources, specifically through the reduction of the flow of the Euphrates River and the repeated closing of the Alouk Water Station, had already compounded the crisis.

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.

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. Turkey’s actions represent a serious breach of the 1987 water-sharing agreement, further jeopardizing the well-being of the affected population and the ecology of the region.

The dry bed of the Khabur River in November 2021. (Image: Wim Zwijnenburg).

The Khabur River, which runs through the heart of the Syriac–Assyrian Khabur River Valley, has been hit particularly hard.

The residents of Tel Tamr, the largest town in the Khabur River Valley, heavily depend on the river for irrigation, as their lands are situated along its banks. However, they have been facing increasing hardships for several years, made worse by the construction of dams upstream by the Turkish-proxy Syrian National Army (SNA).

Even before the invasion of 2019, Turkey cut off the river’s water flow, all but drying it up. Once a vital source of life, the Khabur River has become an unusable breeding ground for disease-carrying insects. Leishmaniasis has become particularly endemic, causing numerous cases daily since the summer.

Access to clean water is a fundamental human right, and any actions that compromise this right must be strongly condemned by the international community.

Calls for Intervention Unheard or Ignored

A joint statement by 151 Syrian organizations called for an immediate end to Turkey’s bombing campaign. In September, many of the same organizations released a joint statement calling for urgent international intervention as the water crisis in North and East Syria deepens. Although the situation has garnered some attention on social media, notable with President of the International Religious Freedom Secretariat and former Chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Nadine Maenza highlighting the destruction caused by Turkey’s airstrikes, the international response to the crisis has been mixed. While some countries have condemned Turkey’s actions, many have remained silent. In the last week, Turkey’s bombardment campaign has been so fully eclipsed by the explosion of the conflict between the Israeli government and Hamas that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan can publicly admonish Tel Aviv for cutting water and electricity to Gaza without eliciting accusations of hypocrisy.

It is unclear if Turkey’s attempts to make North and East Syria unlivable for civilians is merely collective punishment or a prelude to a renewed ground invasion. Regardless of its motivations, the compounded impact of Turkey’s airstrikes and the water crisis in North and East Syria has created a dire humanitarian situation and has sowed the seeds of an even worse catastrophe.

Immediate international intervention is imperative to address the escalating crisis, ensure fair water distribution, uphold agreements, and safeguard the well-being of the people and ecology in North and East Syria. The international community must act swiftly to prevent irreversible consequences and alleviate the suffering of civilian populations affected by Turkey’s aggression.

The international community, especially the United States and European Union, must exert greater diplomatic pressure on Turkey to adhere to international norms and agreements, particularly in ensuring access to clean water for civilian populations.

It is a collective responsibility 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 robust and 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. The alternative is the mass displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians and the resurgence of violent extremist groups in the region, namely ISIS.

Kevin T. Mason is an independent researcher and writer focusing on social issues and governance in the Middle East. He can be reached at kevin@pillars.consulting