Water and Democracy in North and East Syria

This report is by Bassam Said Ishak, the Co-Chair of the US Mission of the Syrian Democratic Council. He is a Syriac Christian from Hasakah, Syria. It was published by Syrian Democratic Times on 5 April, 2021

More than a million people in Hasakah, Syria, and the surrounding region are being deprived of water. During the widely-condemned Turkish military invasion of North and East Syria in October 2019, Turkey seized the Alouk water and power station. Under Turkish control, the Alouk water station has been cut off more than 20 times since January 2020. ISIS had looted the water supply for the region prior to that. The Assad government has not done anything to help bring water to the region.

To address the crisis, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), working with the local councils, has developed a new water supply for Hasakah. The project brings water from the Euphrates River through several existing water stations, and then into Hasakah. It restores infrastructure that was damaged during the past decade of bombs, raids, and violence. According to recent reports, the project is currently about 30 percent complete.

The Euphrates River source project is just one example of how the AANES works for the people and is of the people. Our governance structure is based on human rights, equality, feminism, pluralism, and multiethnicity. Through a network of councils such as local village councils, women’s councils, tribal councils, and others, the AANES model seeks to aggregate the input of people from the ground up. Instead of top-down, the model is built to be bottom-up, pulling advice and direction up from ground level. In addition, through our revolutionary co-leadership model, no one position of power is held by just one person. Each position is held by two people, required to be two people of two different genders, and most often two different ethnic backgrounds. We are a progressive and democratic model which seeks to be an inspiration for the rest of Syria, the Middle East, and the world.

Why would Turkey cut off our water? The Turkish state is seeking to dry up our region in order to dry up our spirit and resolve. While the rest of Syria has erupted in the past decade into civil war and strife, we have been at work establishing a true democracy in our region. 

The AANES governs approximately one-third of Syria and five million people. The AANES, and our forces the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), proved solid enough to ally with the United States and fight to repel ISIS from our lands. The authoritarian Turkish government is threatened by our democratic principles. The Assad government also doesn’t support our regional governance in the long term, and so far refuses to negotiate with us in earnest regarding the future of Syria.

My hometown is Hasakah. I grew up as part of a Syriac Christian community there. Many of my family and friends remain in the region. As a product of Hasakah, the suffering of the city is my suffering, too. As a part of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the AANES, I am a proponent of what we have been able to accomplish.

The democratic project of the AANES began in 2015 as a necessary response to the power vacuum left after Syria erupted in war. People inspired by democracy came together to stabilize North and East Syria and build a governance model that represented the democratic future of Syria, not its tyrannical past. That model continues to expand and adapt to challenges. We are an idea whose time has come.

After Turkey invaded our region of Syria, they have sought to use their military advantage as an occupying force to exert pressure on the AANES. They want us to fold. One million people have to suffer from thirst and deprivation as Turkey seeks to end our democratic project.

Not only has Turkey closed the Alouk water station over 20 times, Turkish forces have even prevented technicians from repairing the station when it was damaged. Turkish officials have also demanded more and more power to go to the occupied region of Sere Kaniye (Ras Al Ain) from the adjacent power station.

Prior to the Syrian conflict, the water pipelines coming from the Euphrates River to Hasakah had been operational. But the infrastructure was looted by both Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and ISIS, and that brought the water source down. By 2019, the Alouk water station was the only source of water for the city.

The Assad government could be acting now to bring critical humanitarian aid and water to our region, but humanitarian aid is politicized in Assad’s Syria, doled out mostly to those who curry favor with Assad.

Human Rights Watch has called the water situation “a humanitarian disaster.” The Head WHO Representative to Syria called Turkey’s conduct regarding the Alouk water station “a crime.” Ignatius Alphem II, the Supreme Head of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church, called Turkey’s deprivation of water “a barbaric act and a flagrant violation of fundamental human rights.” 

Many people are going thirsty, unable to bathe or cook as needed. In addition, people are unable to use water for food production, agriculture, or other industrial purposes. The crisis of not having water is compounded by the COVID crisis. Prevention of disease transmission requires good hygiene and hand washing. The border closings due to the pandemic also make humanitarian relief nearly impossible. Water from wells in the Hasakah region is undrinkable due salinity.

To confront the lack of water, the local councils and the AANES have arranged for large tankers of water to be brought in by truck, but it is very difficult and costly to transport water this way. The water is said to be not enough for daily needs, and of poor quality compared to the water from the Alouk station.

The response of the AANES in restoring the water pipeline shows the sticking power of our people. Our democratic project not only has the input of our people, their collaboration and voices, it has the force of their will behind it. Our democratic principles have in them the will to survive, and thrive — and that is stronger even than the Turkish military.

Our people survived the authoritarian Syrian regime for decades. We withstood the past decade of war and instability. We battled the invading armies of ISIS. We have weathered a crushing economic collapse in the past year. With our inspiring democratic model, and with our unity and persistence, we can bring water and life back to Hasakah.