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Tigris- Euphrates River Systems

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Traditionally, use of the Tigris-Euphrates River system’s water was determined by Islamic law.  Today, ethnic and national issues separate Turkey from Syria and Iraq and there are no common legal bodies to arbitrate the water dispute.  However, each of these states is primarily Islamic in religion, and these laws were followed by all three states prior to Turkey’s adaptation of western legal traditions under Kemal Ataturk’s modernization efforts. 

Islamic law is called shari’a, a word that “stems from a word meaning the sharing of water.” Islamic laws on sharing water originate in nomadic tradition, and predate the Mohammedan belief.  Traditional Islamic water laws are characterized by these: “the people who dig well have the first right of use, but they cannot deny the use, for drinking, to man or beast.  A man lowering a container into a well will have full possession of only the amount of water that fills it at that moment…”

Tigris- Euphrates River SystemsApplying these laws analogically would indicate that Islamic law would refuse Turkey the right to interrupt the water flow to Syria and Iraq.  However, application of the second principle would refuse Syria and Iraq the right to dictate Turkey’s use of water outside of their boundaries.  With these conflicting legal principles, it is likely that historical lack of water disputes are mainly due to the states’ inability to construct large-scale water projects effecting other states’ water supply.

Another major source of tension contributing to the water dispute is the conflict between Turkish nationalism and Arab ethnic identity.  Turkey’s secularization and modernization under Kemal Ataturk meant distancing the country from its Islamic heritage through the Arab world.  Cultural analysts have recorded a “general hostility in Turkish culture towards Arabs who are labeled ‘lazy’ and ‘dirty’.”  In the past couple of decades, Turkey has sought to move closer to its European ties, even applying for inclusion in the European Union.  This break from its Middle Eastern neighbors has cemented divisions that hinder conciliation.

Syria also has historic diplomatic tensions with Turkey.  In 1038-1939, Turkey worked to blackmail France into giving up the Syrian Alexandretta.  Since this time, Syria has argued the validity of the territorial transfer, involving itself in a territorial dispute along with the water dispute.  In addition, Syria distrusts Turkey for making security pacts with Israel, a tradition enemy of Syria’s since the taking of Syria’s Golon Heights region. 

Turkey and Syria are also having a serious dispute over Syria’s involvement with the Partiya Kerkarani Kurdistan (PKK).  The PKK is dedicated to establishing an independent Kurdish state in Southeast Anatolia, the region of Turkey most heavily populated by Kurds.  The PKK is responsible for terrorist attacks on Turkish civilians and military targets, and Turkey has declared membership and association with the organization illegal. 

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