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Turkey-backed forces accused of cutting water to Syrian Kurdish-run region

Turkish-backed Syrian rebel forces have reportedly stopped a pumping station in Ras al-Ain from providing water hundreds of thousands of people including internally displaced Syrians and Islamic State captives and their families.
A vehicle belonging to Turkey-backed Syrian rebel fighters is parked next to a Turkish military bulldozer in the Syrian town of Ras al Ain, as seen from the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar, in Sanliurfa province, Turkey, October 30, 2019. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan - RC121F436090

Turkey’s pressure campaign on Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria took a fresh sinister turn this week when Turkish-backed Syrian rebel forces reportedly halted service at the Alok pumping station in the Turkish-occupied town of Ras al-Ain. The facility supplies water to approximately 460,000 people, including hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Syrians as well as Islamic State captives and their families.

“The Turkish-backed sources entered the water station [Feb. 24] and forced it to stop its work and threw out the technicians as well,” wrote Sozda Ahmed of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration in Northeast Syria. She told Al-Monitor via the Rojava Information Center in emailed comments, “As a result the city of al Hasakah, Tell Tamar and the rest of the Hasakah region — including Hol and Shedadi — have been left without water. Arisha camp, Hol camp [housing Islamic State fighters’ families] and Washokani camp [housing internally displaced Syrians from Ras al-Ain] have all been affected.”

Ankara has long been accused of seeking to suffocate the Syrian Kurdish-run region economically as well as militarily and politically, all part of a campaign to torpedo Kurdish aspirations of self-rule. Turkey's borders with the Kurdish-administered northeast from Manbij all the way to the Iraqi border further east remain sealed, including to humanitarian organizations.

“Water is a weapon that Turkey has used against Syria in the past and it will likely continue to do so,” Fabrice Balanche, Syria expert and associate professor at France’s Lyon II University, told Al-Monitor.

With all eyes trained on the rebel-held province of Idlib, where Russian-backed Syrian government forces and the Turkish army have been clashing since the start of this month, the Alok affair has largely slipped under the radar. A Russian delegation was expected to arrive in Ankara tomorrow to break a deadlock over Turkish demands for a cease-fire as close to a million displaced civilians remain massed along the Turkish border, reported the state-run Anadolu news agency.

At least 16 Turkish military personnel have died so far, some of them victims of Russian airstrikes.

Balanche reckons that despite all the hawkish rhetoric, the two sides will eventually agree. A putative deal might include Russia letting Turkish forces take the Kurdish-controlled town of Kobani and move people displaced from Idlib there, Arabizing Kobani as was done in Afrin, the Kurdish-majority enclave Turkey invaded in early 2018. “All depends on whether the Kurds cut a deal with regime and tell the Americans to go or not,” Balanche noted.

Meanwhile, coming amid a global scare over the coronavirus epidemic, a sustained water cut could spell disaster for Hasakah as local authorities struggle to cope with overcrowded displacement camps crammed with infants and children.

Ahmed said that the reasons for the stoppage were not clear to the local authorities. “We only know the station has been prevented from working. We don’t know why they did this or what they want from us.” Nor was it clear whether Turkey gave the orders.

The technicians who were allegedly evicted from the Alok facility are believed to be members of a Syrian government team that routinely visits the station for maintenance purposes and has continued to do so following Turkey’s October “Operation Peace Spring” invasion of Ras al-Ain. Alok was first put out of service by shelling during the Turkish push, the United Nations reported on Oct. 18.

 Kurdish authorities blamed Turkish artillery fire. Service was partially restored with the facility operating at about 20% of capacity.

Well-informed sources familiar with humanitarian relief efforts in northeast Syria said they had heard matching accounts of the situation at Alok from local authorities. 

“Alok water station remains a critically important source of clean water for nearly half a million people in northeast Syria. As was done last year, when the station was damaged in hostilities, the UN and humanitarian partners are advocating to parties to ensure the station runs uninterrupted,” Danielle Moylan, spokesperson for the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told Al-Monitor. “In addition, the UN and humanitarian partners are planning emergency water supplies to affected families in the area.”

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