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Turkey's war of attrition against Syria's Kurds

Alongside shelling and drones, Turkey is weaponizing water supplies in northeast Syria, turning an already horrible situation into a nightmare
DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

KHABUR VALLEY, Northeast Syria — A concrete shack pockmarked with bullet holes and with no running water, electricity, windows or doors is what Faslah Hussein Osman, her husband and five children call home.  

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

The Osmans are among an estimated 350 Kurdish and Arab Muslim families struggling to survive in the ruins of Tel Nasr, one of 36 Syriac villages that lie abandoned in the once bucolic Khabur Valley. They fled their homes when the Turkish military and its Sunni opposition allies in the Syrian National Army invaded a broad swath of Kurdish-controlled territory in northeast Syria in October 2019. The operation called “Peace Spring” that was greenlit by former US President Donald Trump provoked an international outcry, forcing Trump to reverse his decision to withdraw some 900 US special operations forces defending the area.

Two years on, displaced families here are gripped with fear as Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, threatens to mount yet another offensive against 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,” said Halise Khalil, a 40-year-old mother of 10. Her house in the town of Ras al-Ain, also known as Serekaniye in Kurdish, is currently occupied by Turkish-backed Sunni rebels who are accused of war crimes by the United Nations. “If Erdogan attacks, I will lose that too,” Khalil told Al-Monitor.

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

 

Turkey insists that the SDF poses a threat to its national security because many of the American-backed group’s Kurdish leaders have links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a rebel army that has been fighting Turkey since 1984 for Kurdish self-rule. Since 2016, Turkey has mounted three large-scale incursions against the SDF, occupying large chunks of northern Syria where lawlessness and rights abuses are rampant.

Over the past two years, the local administration, responding to US pressure, has made an effort to tone down symbols that evoke the PKK. For example, rocks arranged to spell the acronyms of the all-female and all-male Syrian Kurdish fighting forces that were formed under PKK mentorship have been removed from a hillside facing visitors as they cross over from Iraqi Kurdistan into Rojava, or Syrian Kurdistan.

As pundits mull when or if the next big Turkish assault will occur, Turkey is already in a perpetual state of war against the Kurdish-led autonomous administration in northeast Syria. Its drones hover menacingly above, hunting for alleged PKK targets and killing them, sometimes along with hapless civilians. On Nov. 9, three people from the same family — an 85 year old and his two grandchildren — were killed in a Turkish drone attack in the border town of Qamishli. Turkey’s intended target, an SDF commander, was not in the vehicle that was blown up. 

In breach of separate agreements signed in October 2019 with Russia and the United States to demarcate a new buffer zone between Ankara and the SDF, Turkish-backed forces continue to shell the Kurdish-run region almost daily, causing damage to crops, livestock and power lines.

The Osmans were driven out of their home in Zargan near the Turkish SDF front line a year ago. “Shells were landing all around us,” Osman said. In mid-August, Turkish shelling killed a woman and a child and injured more than a dozen others according to Syrians for Truth and Justice, a nonprofit that monitors the now decade-old Syrian conflict.

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Al-Hasakah, the hardest hit by Turkish water cuts, is cloaked in a permanent cloud of dust (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)
Al-Hasakah, the hardest hit by Turkish water cuts, is cloaked in a permanent cloud of dust. (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

 

Matay Hanna, spokesperson for the SDF-affiliated Syriac Military Council, changed into civilian clothes to accompany a foreign reporter to Tel Nasr. Two days earlier a fellow council member perished in a Turkish attack. “I don’t want us to be targeted by a Turkish drone,” Hanna explained.

He reckons half of the Syrian Orthodox Christians who once lived here are descendants of people killed in the genocide carried out by Ottoman forces in 1915 that wiped out over one million of its Christian subjects as the empire collapsed.

“Turkey’s aim is demographic change and to prepare the infrastructure for a 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.

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

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St. Mary's Church in Tel Nasr was gutted by the Islamic State in 2015. (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)
St. Mary's Church in Tel Nasr was gutted by the Islamic State in 2015. (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

 

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.

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Children play in Tel Nasr on Nov. 4 (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)
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 tell us, 'Be serok, jiyan nabe,'” said a Kurdish man called Najdet who earns $ 30 per month working for the Syrian government-run electricity board in al-Hasakah. He was quoting a popular slogan demanding Ocalan’s freedom that roughly means, “No leader, no life.”

“No water, no life, that’s the reality,” Najdet said. “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 father of four said. “Holland, we will go to Holland,” his wife interjected.

Locals have turned to private providers to make up for the shortfall. Water stored in large red plastic barrels costs around four dollars apiece and is unfit to drink.

International nongovernmental organizations and USAID are trying to help, Saleh acknowledged. The British charity Save the Children drilled five wells to extract water in al-Hasakah recently and USAID is working on a project to carry water from the Euphrates River from Deir ez-Zor to al-Hasakah. But funding remains an obstacle, with the United States providing only 15% of the money needed, she said. Were the Arab Gulf states offering any aid? “They gave us nothing,” she said.

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

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

 

Her pessimism will have been vindicated by the latest actions of the Syrian National Army. It has built three new earth dams in areas under its control, cutting off what little flow remains of the Khabur, a tributary of the Euphrates, to al-Hasakah. The Khabur, which ran west to east through al-Hasakah, is now completely dry.  

The damming has been documented by Dutch nonprofit PAX using satellite 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,” said Wim Zwijnenburg, a researcher for PAX who closely monitors 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 officials did not return Al-Monitor’s request for comment.

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