Water turns into Turkey’s high weapon in opposition to Syria’s Kurds

KHABUR VALLEY, Northeast Syria — A concrete shack pockmarked with bullet holes and with no operating water, electrical energy, home windows or doorways is what Faslah Hussein Osman, her husband and 5 kids name home.  

It faces the remnants of Saint Mary’s church in Tel Nasr, a village that was primarily inhabited by Syrian Orthodox Christians who fled en masse shortly earlier than the Islamic State struck in February 2015.

The Osmans are amongst an estimated 350 Kurdish and Arab Muslim households struggling to outlive within the ruins of Tel Nasr, one among 36 Syriac villages that lie deserted within the as soon as bucolic Khabur Valley. They fled their houses when the Turkish army and its Sunni opposition allies within the Syrian National Army invaded a broad swath of Kurdish-controlled territory in northeast Syria in October 2019. The operation known as “Peace Spring” that was greenlit by former US President Donald Trump provoked a world outcry, forcing Trump to reverse his resolution to withdraw some 900 US particular operations forces defending the realm.

Two years on, displaced households listed below are gripped with fear as Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, threatens to mount one more offensive in opposition to the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-led group that crushed IS in Syria.

“All I have left is a blanket. They stole everything: the fridge, the television, everything,” mentioned Halise Khalil, a 40-year-old mom of 10. Her home within the city of Ras al-Ain, also referred to as Serekaniye in Kurdish, is at present occupied by Turkish-backed Sunni rebels who’re accused of conflict crimes by the United Nations. “If Erdogan attacks, I will lose that too,” Khalil advised Al-Monitor.

Faslah Hussein Osman was displaced from her home in Sefa, near the entrance line, by fixed Turkish shelling. (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

Turkey insists that the SDF poses a menace to its nationwide safety as a result of most of the American-backed group’s Kurdish leaders have hyperlinks to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a insurgent military that has been preventing Turkey since 1984 for Kurdish self-rule. Since 2016, Turkey has mounted three large-scale incursions in opposition to the SDF, occupying giant chunks of northern Syria the place lawlessness and rights abuses are rampant.

Over the previous two years, the native administration, responding to US stress, has made an effort to tone down symbols that evoke the PKK. For instance, rocks organized to spell the acronyms of the all-female and all-male Syrian Kurdish preventing forces that have been fashioned underneath PKK mentorship have been faraway from a hillside dealing with guests as they cross over from Iraqi Kurdistan into Rojava, or Syrian Kurdistan.

As pundits mull when or if the following large Turkish assault will happen, Turkey is already in a perpetual state of conflict in opposition to the Kurdish-led autonomous administration in northeast Syria. Its drones hover menacingly above, trying to find alleged PKK targets and killing them, generally together with hapless civilians. On Nov. 9, three younger folks from the identical household have been killed in a Turkish drone assault within the border city of Qamishli. Turkey’s supposed goal, an SDF commander and the brother of one of many victims, was not within the car that was blown up. 

In breach of separate agreements signed in October 2019 with Russia and the United States to demarcate a brand new buffer zone between Ankara and the SDF, Turkish-backed forces proceed to shell the Kurdish-run area almost day by day, inflicting injury to crops, livestock and energy traces.

The Osmans have been pushed out of their home in Zargan near the Turkish SDF entrance line a yr in the past. “Shells were landing all around us,” Osman mentioned. In mid-August, Turkish shelling killed a lady and a toddler and injured greater than a dozen others in response to Syrians for Truth and Justice, a nonprofit that screens the now decade-old Syrian battle.

Al-Hasakah, the toughest hit by Turkish water cuts, is cloaked in a everlasting cloud of mud. (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

Matai Hanna, spokesperson for the SDF-affiliated Syriac Military Council, become civilian garments to accompany a overseas reporter to Tel Nasr. Two days earlier a fellow council member perished in a Turkish assault. “I don’t want us to be targeted by a Turkish drone,” Hanna defined.

He reckons half of the Syrian Orthodox Christians who as soon as lived listed below are descendants of individuals killed within the genocide carried out by Ottoman forces in 1915 that worn out over a million of its Christian topics because the empire collapsed.

“Turkey’s goal is demographic change and to organize the infrastructure for a brand new [Islamic State] ideology,” he said, echoing local officials’ charges that Ankara is deliberately pushing Christians and Kurds away from its borders and replacing them with Sunni Arabs. “They are still shelling [the Christian] holy places and the graves,” Hanna said.

Hanna said much of the shelling in the area comes from a Turkish military base in Tell Menagh, 34 kilometers (21 miles) north of Tell Tamar. “Russia is a cease-fire guarantor, but Turkey doesn’t care. The last [Turkish] shelling was close to the Russian base,” Hanna told Al-Monitor in a Nov. 2 interview. “Turkey wants to occupy more areas. Every place is in danger.”

Mazlum Kobane, the commander-in-chief of the SDF, is not as worried. He told Al-Monitor in a Nov. 5 interview that Turkey is unlikely to intervene because US and Russian leaders have firmly stated their opposition in their exchanges with Erdogan.  

Fawza al-Yusuf, a senior member of the ruling Democratic Unity Party, is less sanguine. “Erdogan is out of control, he’s like a truck going down a hill with broken brakes,” she told Al-Monitor. “He can do anything.” The Turkish leader has grown increasingly erratic in recent months as his poll numbers slip in the face of a growing economic crisis, much of it of his own making. War could serve as a distraction.

The avuncular PYD veteran Salih Muslim, who fans affectionately call “panda,” struck a pugnacious tone in an interview with Al-Monitor. “We fought the Islamic State, we have guns and we have experience. We will resist,” he vowed. “Nobody can trick us again. Neither Americans nor Russians.” Muslim was alluding to the Trump administration’s efforts to reconcile Ankara and the SDF, with the SDF making all the concessions only to get attacked.

Syrian Kurdish leader Salih Muslim in al-Hasakah on Nov. 4. (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

The spirit of defiance is broadcast by Orkesh FM, a local radio station that sprinkles its programming with robust guerilla tunes. “We are the hawks of the Zagros [mountains] we will prevail against the Ottomans.”

The bravura is of little succor to the refugees in Tel Nasr, a once prosperous farming village where Christian residents built kidney-shaped dipping pools in their gardens to cool off in the summer months. It’s littered with rubble and twisted metal. A large rusty cross lies on the ground a few meters away from a similarly forlorn belfry. The jihadis dismantled but failed to destroy them.

The men here eke out a living doing odd jobs. The last time the Osmans ate red meat was a year ago. The last time villagers were supplied with water — from a tanker — was a week ago. Unhygienic conditions have led to severe outbreaks of dysentery, typhus and other infectious diseases. Sabiha Omar, a 40-year-old who had her eighth child a week ago, brushed flies off an open sore near her nose. She has leshmaniasis, a parasitic disease that’s spreading across the northeast along with COVID-19 “like fire,” according to Juan Mustafa, the top health official in the autonomous administration.

Like much of the northeast, the Khabur Valley is stricken by the most debilitating drought in Syria’s recent history, adding to people’s misery.

Rivers and streams are running dry and water levels in the main dams are plunging to nothing. Debt-strapped farmers are unable to plant crops and potable water is in critically short supply. Temperatures soared to 40 degrees Celsius plus in August and remain unseasonably high.

Turkey is turning an already horrible situation into a nightmare by weaponizing the Alouk water-pumping station near Ras al-Ain on which over a million of the northeast’s residents rely, local administration officials say.

Since seizing control of the station, Turkish-backed forces have repeatedly cut off the water supply from Alouk. Faced with public rebukes even from habitually reserved UN officials, Ankara denies it is deliberately depriving people of water and has blamed technical glitches for the outages. Turkey is also demanding more electricity from the Mabrouka power station run by the autonomous administration at the expense of people living under its control.

“I don’t want Erdogan to die, I want him to be paralyzed so he suffers every day,” said Mohammed Iso, a landowner from the border town of Kobani who says investment has stopped because of the uncertainty caused by Turkish warmongering.

Children play in Tel Nasr on Nov. 4. (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

Under the most recent agreement brokered by Russia around two months ago, the Turkish side has resumed the supply from Alouk. “Every day, they send 18,000 cubic meters. In the city our need is 1.2 million cubic meters per day,” Saleh told al-Monitor. And that doesn’t account for the 15,000 people displaced by the latest Turkish invasion who are sheltering in displacement camps or a further 60,000 crammed in the notorious Al-Hol camp where the families of IS fighters live, she added.

At the current capacity, water is provided to al-Hasakah’s five main districts, including one where Syrian government troops are based, on a rotating basis. “Each district receives water every five days,” Saleh explained. Taller buildings are a challenge because there is not enough pressure to get the water to the higher floors.

If Turkey’s aim is indeed to dent the credibility of the Kurdish-run administration by making life miserable for its residents, it may be making some headway. “The authorities inform us, ‘Be serok, jiyan nabe,’” mentioned a Kurdish man known as Najdet who earns $ 30 monthly working for the Syrian government-run electrical energy board in al-Hasakah. He was quoting a well-liked slogan demanding Ocalan’s freedom that roughly means, “No leader, no life.”

“No water, no life, that’s the reality,” Najdet mentioned. “Two months ago, there was no water at all. Now we get water every four or five days.  Because of the lack of water, we are thinking of going to Europe. We all had corona,” the daddy of 4 mentioned. “Holland, we will go to Holland,” his spouse interjected.

Locals have turned to non-public suppliers to make up for the shortfall. Water saved in giant purple plastic barrels prices round 4 {dollars} apiece and is unfit to drink.

International nongovernmental organizations and USAID are attempting to assist, Saleh acknowledged. The British charity Save the Children drilled 5 wells to extract water in al-Hasakah not too long ago and USAID is engaged on a challenge to hold water from the Euphrates River from Deir ez-Zor to al-Hasakah. But funding stays an impediment, with the United States offering solely 15% of the cash wanted, she mentioned. Were the Arab Gulf states providing any assist? “They gave us nothing,” she mentioned.

Saleh aired skepticism in regards to the longevity of the Russian-mediated deal. “So many signed, none honored.”

Co-chair of the autonomous administration’s water authority Selweh Saleh in her workplace in al-Hasakah on Oct. 31. (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

Her pessimism can have been vindicated by the newest actions of the Syrian National Army. It has constructed three new earth dams in areas underneath its management, chopping off what little circulation stays of the Khabur, a tributary of the Euphrates, to al-Hasakah. The Khabur, which ran west to east by means of al-Hasakah, is now fully dry.  

The damming has been documented by Dutch nonprofit PAX utilizing satellite tv for pc imagery.

“We found three dams that were constructed late May and early June 2021 in areas controlled by the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army. This would be the first time, to our knowledge, that dams were built in this area by armed groups that prevent the flow of the water,” mentioned Wim Zwijnenburg, a researcher for PAX who carefully screens Syria and Iraq.

“The Syrian National Army would know that this would deprive communities downstream from access to water and implies a calculated move. As the Syrian National Army is backed by Turkey, by paying their salaries, providing weapons and Turkish troops still present in the area, Turkey has an obligation under international law to end this practice,” Zwijnenburg added. Turkish officers didn’t return Al-Monitor’s request for remark.

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