Turkey is ignoring international calls to resume the water flow to the Kurdish-held areas of northeastern Syria. Instead, it is using the water flow as a weapon against the Kurdish leaders.

James Jeffrey, the United States envoy to Syria, was met with deaf ears in urging Ankara to turn the water back on. Simultaneously, the Russians, eager to win favor with the Kurdish people, have been attempting to build a water pipeline to bring water into an area that has been without water all summer. 

For now, the Kurdish civilians are being forced to rely on water trucks coming into the towns. Yet, these aren’t keeping up with the demand. And attempts to drill wells in the area have had limited success since most of the pumped water is not drinkable.

In October last year, Turkey and its Syrian proxy militias launched “Operation Peace Spring,” that targeted the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeastern Syria. The SDF is mostly made up of members of the People’s Protection Units. They are considered a terror group by the Turks because of their connection to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (KPP), which has been backing an insurgency in Turkey since 1984.

The SDF had spearheaded the U.S.-backed coalition campaign against ISIS in northern Syria, destroying the militants’ last holdouts in Deir ez-Zor in March 2019. However, in a stunning reversal to appease Erdogan, the United States abandoned the Kurds. It stood by while Turkish units launched a huge offensive against the SDF in October of last year. This forced the Kurds to withdraw from their positions along the Turkish border.

Now, the Turks are using water as a weapon in their quest to bring the Kurds to heel by creating a self-declared safe zone reaching some 30 kilometers into Syrian territory. Of particular importance in that is the water pumping station at Alouk. The station supplies drinking water to almost a million people in the al-Hasakah region. It is located only five kilometers from the Kurdish-held towns at Ras al-Ain. Immediately upon the start of their offensive, Turkish artillery targeted the Alouk pumping station, knocking it out. It was repaired, under international oversight. Yet, now the station is under Turkish control.

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The United Nations has confirmed that the Turkish government has cut the water to the region 13 times this year to bring pressure on the Kurdish Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES).  

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a U.K.-based watchdog on the Syrian Civil War, the Turks cut off Hasakah’s water supply to pressure the NES to supply more electricity from its Mabrouka power plant to areas controlled by Turkey’s Syrian proxy militias. But Turkey’s Ministry of National Defense insisted in early August that Alouk was under maintenance and that Hasakah was continuing to receive water.

The entire region of al-Hasakah spent two weeks in the oppressive August heat without water. Some areas went more than two months without any water being delivered. The first cuts started last March, according to the official Syrian news agency SANA. Mahmoud al-Ulka, the manager of the al-Hasakah Water Company, has said that cutting off the water supply puts the lives of more than 600,000 people who depend on the Alouk plant, at risk. 

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Kurdish people are suffering an increased risk due to the lack of adequate water. The Kurdish Red Crescent and other aid agencies are scrambling to find enough water to sustain the population. al-Ulka added that the Turkish army had done everything possible to prevent the company’s teams from working again to bring the plant into operation. According to the Kurdish Red Crescent, this is a war crime.

“According to international humanitarian law and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, to cut the water supply to a civilian population is a crime against humanity and a war crime,” Sara Montinaro, a lawyer and project manager for the Kurdish Red Crescent, said in an interview with Arab News.

“With the current COVID-19 situation, the situation on the ground is even worse than before, yet Turkey does not seem to be changing its behavior towards the Syrian Kurds,” Montinaro added.

“There are now several statements from the U.N. asking Turkey to stop cutting off water from the people, but until now they haven’t done anything. What is happening is a violation of international humanitarian law.”