The role of water in the Syrian and Iraqi Civil Wars

05 Mar 2020 - 15:57
The importance of water as weapon in the Middle-East

This commentary was originally published by ISPI (Italian Institute for International Political Studies) on 26 February 2020. It is part of the dossier MENA’s Fertile Crescent in the Time of Dry Geopolitics.

The Tigris and Euphrates rivers are a crucial source of socio-economic development for Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Competition over water reflected in intensifying contentions among those states, domestic popular unrest and mass flows of internally displaced people. This transboundary watercourse system also played a strategic role in the recent violent conflicts affecting the area, further highlighting the geopolitical relevance of the basin. How do the rivers intersect with regional geopolitical dynamics? What measures are being put in place to address the water crisis? Is a shared, equitable and sustainable water management framework achievable in this area?

"In Syria, almost all of the war factions have attacked water infrastructures in the course of the conflict."

Besides conflicts over water, the Euphrates and Tigris basin has been the site of a very specific kind of water-related security aspect over the last decade: the role of water as a strategic asset and powerful tool during violent conflict and war. This phenomenon is not new but became particularly relevant in the recent conflicts in Syria and Iraq where water resources have been used as a weapon, water infrastructures targeted and the provision of water supplies turned into a recruitment tool or means to gain political legitimacy. The weaponization of water gained prominent attention when the so-called Islamic State (IS) began to frequently and systematically use water as a weapon. In Syria, almost all of the war factions have applied this practice or attacked water infrastructures in the course of the conflict. Supplies for Aleppo, for example, were several times interrupted or destroyed by different actors – depending on which party was about to capture the city or controlled which part of it. Incidents attributed to forces allied with the Assad regime or the opposition even outnumber acts committed by IS as of 2020. But as the militia used the water weapon in a very consistent and yet flexible way, the example of IS illustrates the motivations, considerations and large spectrum of this practice that has been re-emerging in contemporary armed conflicts in the Euphrates and Tigris basin and the Middle East at large.

IS’ use of water as a weapon

Gaining control over important water resources and capturing key water infrastructures was part of IS' territorial expansion strategy. Particularly the large dams along the Euphrates and Tigris allowed IS to effectively manipulate the region’s most important resources and to amplify the impact of weaponizing water. The militia used water as a weapon in various ways to further its strategic political as well as tactical military goals. Water served, for example, to break resistance, demonstrate power, exert control over territories or achieve military advantages on the battlefield. Similar to the logics and psychological impact of a nuclear bomb, the control of the resources by a radical militia and potential weaponization, for example by breaching a dam, is already threatening – no matter if this act is actually executed. The weaponization of water allowed IS also to threaten predominantly Shia areas downstream in Iraq, without having these regions under direct military control.

There were mainly three ways in which IS used water as a weapon. First, by retaining water behind dams, diverting resources or temporarily cutting off supplies for communities, certain areas were provided too little resources and thus drained. Second, by releasing water at dams and flooding, IS was responsible for too much water in certain territories. Third, by contaminating water the militia rendered resources undrinkable. While the former two practices were mainly prevalent during the militia’s territorial expansion, the latter was repeatedly applied when IS was pushed back in 2016 and 2017 and began looting, damaging and destroying water infrastructures.

The example of Fallujah Dam in April 2014 illustrates in a “nutshell” the broad spectrum and multiplicity of the weaponization of water by IS – even if this example was exceptional in scale and scope, applying different kinds of practices for various purposes within a few days. After capturing the dam, IS closed the floodgates and withheld the Euphrates water in the reservoir reducing the water flow to Baghdad, and the agricultural centres in central and southern Iraq. At the same time, the water table behind the dam was rising and flooded government facilities and military positions at the banks of the reservoir. As the increasing water was about to also flood IS positions, the militia released water through an irrigation channel into a side valley two days later. This resulted a massive flooding of an area of 200 square kilometers, inundating territories up to 100 kilometers away and putting the city of Abu Ghraib up to four meters under water. Up to 60,000 people lost their livelihoods and had to flee, 10,000 houses and the harvest were destroyed and livestock was killed. At the same time, the water masses served to slow down the advance of follow-on units of the Iraqi army that were supposed to approach IS in Fallujah through this valley. In addition, the flooding hampered the parliamentary elections, as only one third of the polling stations in Anbar region were able to open.

"Beyond weaponization, water had another purpose for the IS: water resources for its military operations and to supply the population in the conquered territories."

Beyond weaponization, water had another purpose for the IS. The militia needed water resources for its military operations and to supply the population in the conquered territories with basic water and electricity services. This helped to gain support or at least to neutralize opposition among the population, particularly in areas that had previously been neglected. Delivering such core state functions increased the legitimacy and credibility of the militia as a state-like entity, being able to consolidate the proclaimed caliphate which was fundamental for IS ideology. This aspect limited the options for IS to weaponize water, which is why IS – with a few exceptions such as Fallujah – did not severely damage water infrastructures or flood larger areas during its territorial expansion. Larger water-related damages in Iraq, such as at the Ramadi dam or acts of poisoning hundreds of wells, were only committed when the militia was militarily pushed back and had to retreat from the occupied territory.

During the anti-IS campaigns, it was difficult to retake the infrastructures and dams from IS. As the sites could not be attacked via airstrikes, dams were strategic and relatively safe places for IS. The militia even hosted parts of the military command and important prisoners at the Euphrates dam. Anti-IS forces needed to retake the dams upstream of the urban centres first before approaching the cities, such as in the case of Fallujah, Ramadi or Raqqa – also to avoid revanche acts carried out with water. During the liberation of the Euphrates dam the militia and forces of the anti-IS coalition were facing each other literally over the dam crest for six weeks before IS withdrew from the site.

Contextualizing IS’ weaponization of water

In violent conflicts and wars in the region water has always played an important strategic role. Cyrus the Great used water as a weapon when he conquered Babylon in 539 BC: He ordered diverting the waters of the Euphrates surrounding the city, which allowed his troops to cross the riverbed one day later and to easily invade Babylon, which was not prepared for such an attack. Also in modern times, various actors deliberately weaponized water in the Euphrates and Tigris basin. But IS was a frontrunner in integrating these practices into the portfolio of its day-to-day military actions. The militia, which changed the traditional character of this practice. In the past decades the use of water as a weapon – a violation of international humanitarian law and war law – used to be portrayed as an exceptional one-off matter or game changer in a violent conflict.

The access to and control over water resources and supplies are generally critical assets in fragile and conflict or war contexts. But the specific climatic, hydrological, political and socio-economic parameters in the Euphrates and Tigris basin and, generally, in the Middle East, make water resources even more important and the weaponization of water more harmful, effective and thus more attractive. As most of these parameters in the region will deteriorate in the years to come, water will even more frequently be weaponized in the future. Even beyond Syria and Iraq, the last years already indicated this worrying broader trend of water being used as weapon and water infrastructures deliberately attacked, as for instance in the cases of Libya or Yemen.