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    Middle East
     Mar 30, 2011


Water crisis floats Syrian unrest
By Victor Kotsev

TEL AVIV - A month after Vogue magazine called Syria's first lady Asma Assad "a rose in the desert" in a puff piece that portrayed the Assads as obsessively concerned with both family democracy and the "active citizenship" of Syrian youth, [1] the Syrian regime was busy shooting active citizens. The danger to President Bashar al-Assad's rule is arguably smaller than that in Egypt or Libya - not least because the United States, represented by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, promised solemnly not to interfere.

Yet, the wave of uprisings in the Arab world clearly did not bypass "the safest country in the Middle East" (to borrow another expression from the Vogue story). The mixture of reasons is

 
roughly the same as elsewhere (poverty and political oppression), but there is a peculiar twist that bodes much worse to come in the long run - Syria faces an unprecedented water crisis, compounded by poor agricultural infrastructure and management. There is a twist also to the geopolitical ramifications of what is happening - if it develops much further, the unrest could theoretically destabilize the entire region in a more profound way than any other regional crisis.

Amnesty International claims that at least 55 demonstrators were killed in the city of Daraa through Friday (other reports claim more than 60) , and refers to "unconfirmed reports" of 37 deaths throughout the country over the weekend. Available information is patchy and it is likely that more deaths will come to light.

Meanwhile, Assad sent in the army to another city that has witnessed protests - Latakia - and announced plans for seemingly broad reforms such as lifting a four-decade emergency rule and political liberalization. The protesters rejected the announcement, and the president, who has so far remained silent during the crisis, is expected to deliver an "important" address any time now.

The regime has attempted to blame the United States and Israel for organizing the unrest, but this argument is unlikely to persuade anybody except Assad's ardent supporters. It is hard to avoid the fact that the region of Daraa, where the current round of protests started, is one of the poorest in Syria. According to a recent Jerusalem Post report, "The city is home to thousands of displaced people from eastern Syria, where up to a million people have left their homes because of a water crisis over the past six years."

Indeed, several analysts have picked up on the economic roots of the crisis. Shortly before the unrest, American-based Syrian dissident Farid Ghadry offered a unique perspective that drew parallels to the situation in Egypt and simultaneously challenged Vogue's depiction of the work of Syria's first lady: "The coming Syrian revolution will be led by two million young Syrian women unable to find economically independent husbands and forced to embrace celibacy (Ansa'a) because of rampant unemployment and economic deprivation ... They will be an essential component in the coming revolution and this is why Asma al-Assad chairs a women's organization in Syria whose real purpose is to gauge their anger."

More recently, Asia Times Online's David Goldman tied the crisis to a spike in food prices in an insightful article titled Food and Syria's failure (Asia Times Online, March 28, 2011):
The Arab bazaar speculates in foodstuffs as aggressively as hedge funds, and the Syrian government's attempt last month to keep food prices down prompted local merchants to hoard commodities with a long shelf life. Fruit and vegetable prices, by contrast, remain low, because the bazaar does not hoard perishables. The fact that prices rose after the government announced high-profile measures to prevent such a rise exposed the fecklessness of the Assad regime.
Some media, including Reuters, The New York Times and The Jerusalem Post, have also mentioned the drought of the past few years that compounded the economic situation in Syria considerably. However, the water crisis in the country predates the current cycle of drought, and as a whole has not received sufficient attention by the media and by analysts.

Water, in fact, has been a major factor in all of Syria's conflicts, going back to the 1967 war with Israel (the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the war, contain an important aquifer). A long-standing enmity with Turkey, which was resolved in incremental steps over the past few years, [2] also revolved around water.

When, in the late 1980s, Turkey started work on the massive Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP in Turkish), designed to utilize the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers for development projects, both Syria and Iraq, downstream on the rivers, cried foul that the Turks were stealing their water. The project was slowed greatly by Kurdish terror attacks at a time when Syria supported actively the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), and it is reasonable to assume a link between the two.

The loss of aquifers such as the Golan Heights and the depletion of the Euphrates and Tigris piled on top of poor development planning, rapid population growth and unfavorable weather conditions (several prolonged periods of drought) combined to produce what the United Nations has termed the "largest internal displacement in the Middle East in recent years".

In the 1970s and 1980s, the government of Bashar Assad's father Hafez neglected the development of the traditionally strong agriculture sector in favor of oil exports and industrialization (as well as an arms race with Israel). As a result, most of Syria's farmland is still irrigated by an outdated method of flooding that wastes a great deal of water in comparison with more modern techniques such as drip irrigation.

The government also failed to formulate a coherent policy to curb pollution and to regulate private digging of wells. According to a September, 2000, report by the Israel-based Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies:
Half of the country's 160,000 wells have been dug illegally, resulting in the drop of well-water levels and dried-up rivers and springs. As a result, major Syrian urban centers (including Damascus and Aleppo) have been forced to institute harsh water rationing in recent years. Residents of Damascus endure as much as thirteen hours a day without water. In rural areas water is rationed four days a week. This situation is only expected to worsen; the Syrian population is expanding rapidly, and domestic water requirements are expected to double in less than two decades. [3]
Ten years following the report, the disastrous consequences of the neglect are tangible. Harvest yields are decreasing by the year, and, in the words of a 2009 United Nations report, the diet of countless farmers consists "of bread and sugared tea".

In the wake of the uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world, the social discontent was channeled into the current wave of protests against Assad. Still, the threat that the Syrian regime faces for now appears lesser than that to other regimes in the region. "The army is sticking by the president, a main difference with Egypt or Tunisia," Joshua Landis, a prominent American expert with strong connections to Syria, writes in his blog. "So long as the army remains united and obeys the president, it will be hard for the opposition to take over parts of the country or bring down the regime."

Another crucial difference is that practically all major international players, including traditional enemies such as Israel, have reasons to hope that Assad clings to power. The fact that the Syrian president sits on top of a massive medium-range missile arsenal, including a large number of chemical warheads, alone explains why stability in the country is of utmost importance.

More prosaic reasons also abound, and vary for each country. Israel is afraid of the presumably more radical Sunni Muslim Brotherhood taking over, should the Alawite Assad be overthrown. To quote Israeli journalist Yaakov Katz, "For all his faults, Assad is the devil we know."

Turkey is eyeing nervously Syria's Kurdish population. Just like in Iraq, it has little interest to see an autonomous Kurdish entity emerge on its borders in a hypothetical scenario that includes the breakup of Syria.

One analyst speculated that the recent lull of anti-Israeli rhetoric coming out of Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was partially the consequence of shared concerns over Syria.

In turn, Iran is an old ally of Assad, as are two BRIC members, Russia and China.

The danger of Lebanon being destabilized can also be a potential unifying factor for an impressively diverse group of countries. Syria has reportedly reined in Hezbollah on several occasions in recent years. "Washington, Israel, Turkey and Iran all have great reasons to want Assad to remain at the helm," Israeli analyst Zvi Bar'el writes in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz. "He's seen as a safety valve against an attack by Hezbollah on Israel or against its physical takeover of Lebanon."

In his almost 11 years in power, Assad has demonstrated that he can be every bit as ruthless as his father, Hafez, who in 1982 killed tens of thousands of people in order to quell unrest in the city of Hama. If the younger Assad follows in his father's footsteps, he will likely encounter severe criticism from the international community, but not much else.

Thus, at least until his army deserts him (which is still a possibility, particularly since most of the soldiers are Sunni Muslims, while the regime comes from a religious minority), he is indeed safe. He may not even need to go all the way, since the opposition is well aware of the situation, and is hardly suicidal.

However, even if he survives, without addressing the underlying issues that led to the crisis, Assad would jeopardize the long-term stability of both his regime and his country. Damage to the aquifer, in particular, with time becomes irreversible, and could trigger a vicious cycle of environmental developments that could ruin what is left of Syrian agriculture.

Notes
1. Asma al-Assad: A Rose in the Desert, Vogue, February 25, 2011.
2. Turkey, Syria's new best friend, Guardian, October 1, 2009.
3. The Geopolitics of Water, IASPS, September 2000.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst based in Tel Aviv.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Mar 28, 2011)

 
 



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