Hydropolitics , Middle East security, and the reach of the neo-Ottoman project in Syria [slides]


At the International Conference on Environmental Crises in the Indian Ocean World since 1800, hosted in May 2021 by McGill University’s Indian Ocean World Centre (IOWC), Prof. Jon Unruh and I present ongoing research exploring the significance of neo-Ottomanism and hydropolitics within the Middle East security environment.


The changing scale and duration of drought in the Levant has undermined the agricultural and life-providing traits of the Fertile Crescent. Crop failure, food insecurity, and economic downturn in rural areas have served as a case in point of environmental change in this region. Looking to the sociopolitical implications of these changes, it is now widely accepted that the 2006-2011 drought in Syria played a central role in what has become a violent internationalized civil war, spilling into neighboring Iraq. While climate change stands as an important determinant to drought in this region, scholars, civil society, and public commentators have insufficiently considered the role of surface and ground water in these changes. Where water flowing through the Tigris-Euphrates river system stands as the lifeblood of much of the Middle East, the geographic extent of this hydrological basin asks us to look upstream, to its source areas in Turkey and beyond the conflict zone. Positioning itself at the intersection of resource management and geopolitics, this article uses hydropolitics to disentangle Turkey’s influential role in the Middle East security landscape. Where Lake Van and the Taurus mountain range mark the source of both the Tigris and Euphrates, respectively, major dam projects since the 1970s have incrementally lowered the annual flow volume of both rivers. While both Iraq and Syria have accused Turkey of water hoarding, the country’s near two-decade long leadership has argued its sovereign right to this resource, continuing to develop new dam projects. Having already weaponized this resource to flood Kurdish settlements, there is a credible claim that Turkey will use water to achieve other political goals. The authors explore this by considering the neo-Ottoman project, one defined by a revival of the former empire’s ideals, foreign policy, and regional influence. Looking to the current occupation of northern Syria by Turkish armed forces, we draw attention to the relevance of water weaponization and drought-influenced security vacuums in this new form of regional imperialism.


Presentation slides are available here.