Turkish-Syrian friendship ends but ‘Friendship Dam project’ still under way

July 15, 2012, Sunday/ 12:56:00/ SİNEM CENGİZ

Although the Turkish-Syrian friendship has ended due to increased tension between the two neighbors, the construction of the Friendship Dam on the Asi (Orontes) River on the border between Turkey and Syria is ongoing.

With water supplies in the Middle East being depleted and demand growing rapidly, Turkey and Syria agreed to find ways to share water equitably through various projects. One project agreed to in principle by both nations was the Friendship Dam on the Asi River, which originates in Syria and flows through Turkey’s Hatay province before flowing into the Mediterranean Sea.

Amid increasing tensions between the two neighbors due to the Syrian regime’s brutal crackdown on its people, a statement was made by Forestry and Waterworks Minister Veysel Eroğlu last month to the effect that construction of the Friendship Dam would continue. Eroğlu said the foundations of the dam had been laid and construction had begun.

He noted that he did not know if a problem would emerge as the memorandum of understanding had been signed in Ankara in 2010.

“We are giving water to Syria, we are fulfilling our commitments,” said Eroğlu, adding that Syrian executives should do likewise.

Tuğba Evrim Maden, an expert on water issues at the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), told Sunday’s Zaman that Turkey is determined to finish construction of the dam, adding that due to the situation in Syria the date of completion for the dam remains uncertain. “Turkey is placing importance on the completion of construction of the dam for two reasons. First of all, the dam has significance because it is built on the border between Turkey and Syria. For many years Syria had claims on Hatay [Alexandretta] province and considered the dam to be within its own territory. But the dam is built on the border, and therefore Syrian claims came to an end and the Hatay issue became clearer,” said Maden.

Since France ceded the Alexandretta province of Syria to Turkey in 1939, discontent over its control by Ankara has festered in Syria, obstructing the two nations’ relations and at times exacerbating crises between them, most recently in 1998. Maden continued, “The second reason for its importance is that the dam was demonstrating the two countries’ cooperation on the water issue, which had also been a dispute between Turkey and Syria for a long period.” If the dam construction project is completed successfully it will make an immense contribution to nationwide energy production, with a capacity to produce 16 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity per year. Furthermore, the flooding of the Orontes River, which happens due to torrential rains from time to time, will no longer be a threat.

It has been said that Turkey and Syria would benefit from the dam on a 50-50 basis. According to the memorandum signed between the two countries, the nations will share the cost of the dam, estimated at $28.5 million.

However, Maden remarked, “According to the information I have obtained, Turkey is going to meet the whole cost of the dam, which it was claimed would be met by both countries,” further adding that the information was yet to be released by officials. The construction of the dam was delayed last year due to protests in Syria, now in their 16th month, attempting to loosen President Bashar al-Assad’s iron grip on power.

When asked whether Turkey ever cut off its supply of water to Syria -- due, for example, to increased tensions since Syria’s shooting down of an RF-4E Phantom, an unarmed reconnaissance version of the F4 fighter jet, last month -- Maden replied that Turkey has never used water as a trump card against any country. “Although the foreign press has pressured Turkey to use water as a trump card against the Syrian regime, Turkish authorities have made statements saying that Turkey would not cut off water and electricity to Syria. Turkey has always emphasized that the problem is not with the Syrian people but with the Syrian regime. Therefore, cutting off the water supply would contradict Turkey’s policies,” said Maden.

Earlier this month, Turkish Energy and Natural Resources Minister Taner Yıldız commented that Turkey does not intend to cut off its supply of electricity and water to Syria, despite tense relations with Damascus.

“Turkey will continue to supply Syria with electricity and water, which is supplied to the country through Iraqi territory,” said Yıldız.

Turkey supplies 232.2 million kWh of electricity to Syria every month.

Agreeing with Maden, Yücel Acer, an expert on international maritime law from the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), told Sunday’s Zaman that due to general legal principles Turkey is unlikely to use water as a trump card against the Syrian regime. “According to the principle of justice, one country should not harm the other. If Turkey uses water as a trump card and harms the Syrian people, then Turkey will be responsible for this act. Turkey can use this card politically, but legally this is not a card to be used. Turkey can use electricity as such a card, as there are agreements signed on this, but in this regard one should distinguish between water and electricity,” said Acer.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said last year that nations must be careful when imposing sanctions and taking measures against the Syrian regime. He said strong signals must be sent to the government, but that people should not be harmed in this process. Davutoğlu added that Turkey would continue with its measures, but ruled out any sanctions that would affect the Syrian people, including cutting the flow of water.

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