Marcus DuBois King
The Weaponization of
Water in Syria and Iraq
Attempts to identify linkages between climate-related events and con-
flict have led to ambiguous and contested results. Some analyses have found
notable correlation between human conflict and climate-related events;
however, they were criticized for being too broad in scope and scale.
debate has inspired additional, more specific research to examine individual
case studies of possible climate change-induced conflict, using fewer variables—
water scarcity in this case—and more confined geographical areas.
This essay is based on a project examining the nexus between water stress and
violence at specified stages of conflict in Syria, Iraq, Somalia, and Nigeria—areas
where hostilities are ongoing and military organizations with Islamic extremist ideol-
ogies are major combatants.
More specifically, this piece focuses on Syria and Iraq
between August 2012 and July 2015, the time period when hostilities in Syria grew
most intense and when the role of water in the conflict became discernable, and
asks: How did the supply, manipulation, and/or weaponization of water accelerate
or perpetuate conflict? Is water scarcity one plausible driver of conflict in Syria
and Iraq? The conclusions are telling, and reveal patterns that U.S. policymakers
can use in formulating a response to groups like the Islamic State.
Water Scarcity and Conflict
The greater Fertile Crescent, comprised primarily of the countries of Syria and
Iraq, experienced the worst drought in instrumental record from 2007–2010, a
phenomenon increasingly attributable to long-term climate trends.
Dr. Marcus D. King is John O. Rankin Associate Professor of International Affairs and Director
of the Master in Arts in International Affairs Program at George Washington University’s Elliott
School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MarcusKingGW.
The author would like to thank Siree Allers, an MA candidate in the Elliott School of Inter-
national Affairs, for providing research support, Arabic translation, and other efforts to this
Copyright © 2016 The Elliott School of International Affairs
The Washington Quarterly •38:4 pp. 153–169
THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY ▪WINTER 2016 153
of Syria and Iraq to meet demand for water—due to growing populations and/or
decreasing supply and flawed water policies—has only exacerbated problems
caused by drought conditions.
Water scarcity played a meaningful but com-
plicated role in creating the conditions that led
to political unrest and ultimately violent insur-
rection in Syria in spring 2011 and the spillover
into Iraq. The sociopolitical impacts played out
differently in the two countries. In Iraq, the
roots of radicalization run deeper as they are argu-
ably part of a cycle of conflict that began with the
U.S. invasion in 2003, well before the current
drought. In Syria, climate change’s impacts in
the physical environment caused detrimental
second- and third-order effects on ecological and human systems (See Figure 1):
these effects included drought conditions and food insecurity. Forced migration
and short-term and historical policy failures were fourth-order effects that deepened
pre-existing ethnic and sociopolitical fractures. Migration was especially disruptive in
Syria, where farmers and herders were forced to move to cities in search of more pro-
ductive work, only to be relegated to peripheral shanty towns.
There are clear signs that these factors contributed to the rise of militant extre-
For example, in Syria, these environmental effects created a context of
deprivation that allowed the Islamic State (IS) to recruit 60–70 percent of its
fighters locally. This is in part because IS maintained municipal service organiz-
ations such as the Islamic Network for Public Services that provided electricity
and transportation in Aleppo.
Similarly, in Iraq, the Al-Nusrah Front and IS both initially recruited heavily
from populations of disaffected Sunni Iraqis. The drought of the late 2000s inten-
sified existing grievances and increased the stress on Iraqi society through the
Figure 1: Systemic Effects of Climate Change in Syria
played a meaningful
role in violence in
Syria in 2011 and
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154 THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY ▪WINTER 2016
effects of migration and loss of agricultural productivity. In areas where the
drought weakened civil institutions and the protections they provide, new
fronts opened that not only provided a safe haven to IS combatants but also
served as an incubator where these groups could increase their numbers and
gain momentum. The north and northeastern provinces—the primary agricultural
region that typically produces two-thirds of Syria’s crop yields—were among the
most affected by the drought, and are the same regions that IS has maintained con-
sistent control of since the beginning of the conflict.
This risk will only grow worse with the projected effects of climate change in the
next decade. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates
thatclimatechangeislikelytoputever-greater pressure on water resources in the
Mediterranean and North African regions over the next decades, notably increasing
A recent study concluded that a recurrence of a three-year drought in
Syriaassevereasthatof2007–2010 is two to three times more likely to reoccur as a
consequence of human-induced climate change than
natural variability alone.
Such an event will only
increase third-order conditions of deprivation, which in
turn increases the fourth-order likelihood that extremist
groups will take advantage of the situation for recruit-
ment or other purposes. Indeed, paucity of water presents
and has created fertile ground for recruitment.
Using Water as a Weapon
A lack of water contributes to political instability and violent conflict in the first
place. The conflict can break out over the lack of water itself, or a malignant actor
can manipulate the water supply in such a way as to turn it into a weapon for use
in an unrelated conflict, effectively “weaponizing”the water. There are many histori-
cal examples of water’s use as a weapon in conflicts that have started for reasons not
related to water scarcity itself.
For instance, the Dutch opened their dikes in order to
stop advancing French forces in the Third Franco-Dutch War, and during the Korean
conflict, U.S. strategy involved attacking dams in North Korea.
In order to truly understand the weaponization of water, it is useful to understand
the term with some precision. At its most basic level, a weapon is essentially “a means
of gaining advantage or defending oneself in a conflict or contest.”
wielded by a group or individual can take many forms. It is an item, action, offensive
capability, or mechanism used or intended to kill, injure, or coerce.On the battle-
field, weapons may be anything used to gain a strategic, material, or mental advantage
over an adversary. (Interestingly, the term “weapon”is not formally defined under
international law or treaties regulating the use of force.)
Paucity of water
has created fertile
ground for IS
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THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY ▪WINTER 2016 155
The Syria and Iraq region has seen some of the earliest recorded, if not the most
frequent, history of water’s use as a weapon. The territory of Syria and Iraq consti-
tute part of the ancient Kingdom of Mesopotamia. The earliest recorded conflict
over water in this region was over 4500 years ago, when a dispute over access to
irrigation water led King Urlama of the city-state of Lagash to cut off the water
supply of the neighboring city of Umma.
A far more recent despot, Saddam Hussein, used water as a strategic weapon
against a Shia population known as the Marsh Arabs, who reside in the swampy
area near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The Marsh Arabs
rebelled against the regime in the wake of the 1991 U.S. invasion, and Hussein
responded by systematically diverting the water feeding the marshes—driving
more than 100,000 people from their homes, destroying a unique way of life,
and causing an environmental disaster of “epic proportions”according to the
U.S. intelligence community.
Restoration efforts by the government were 75
percent successful by 2008. Unfortunately, this trend had been substantially
reversed as of July 2015 due to greatly reduced water flow of the two rivers,
related to the confluence of drought and purposeful environmental manipulation
by IS. Similarly, IS control of the upper reaches of the Euphrates River enables
them to further reduce the water flow to the Marsh Arabs, whom IS also considers
enemies due to their minority status as adherents to Shia Islam.
Establishing this sort of chokehold on waterresourcesisjustonewaytoweaponize
water. To understand others, we conducted a systematic analysis of how combatants
used water in the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria from August 2012–July 2015
using information gleaned from a variety of primary and secondary sources in
English and Arabic, including IS publications, news feeds, and tweets. Altogether,
we found 44 incidents of water manipulation, which we then classified into five cat-
egories based on the perpetrator’s intended use of the water weapon for political or
military advantage: strategic weaponization, tactical weaponization, psychological ter-
rorism, extortion or incentivization, and unintentional weaponization. Figure 2 shows
how frequently water was used for each purpose by any actor in this time period. (Inci-
dents in which multiple categories were applicable were double-counted.)
We identified two types of strategic weaponization. The first is the use of water to
virtually or actually control large or important land areas or facilities to fulfill the
vision of sovereignty, and the second is as an asset to fund activities, such as
administration and weapons acquisition, of a “state.”Strategic weaponization
also includes targeting or destroying large population centers, or industrial facilities
and/or other infrastructure.
The Islamic State provides ample examples of the strategic weaponization of
water. For instance, on August 7, 2014, IS seized control of Mosul Dam, a 3.2-
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kilometer-long dam on the Tigris River upstream of Mosul city in northern Iraq. It
is unclear what IS might have done next as seizing the dam provided the primary
motivation for U.S. airstrikes the next day. Just 10 days later, from August 17–18,
Iraqi and Kurdish forces fought a pitched battle that reclaimed the dam with the
support of about 35 U.S. airstrikes.
In another example, during October 2014, IS diverted the Khalis tributary of
the Tigris River to flood parts of the town of Mansouriya in Diyala province in
Iraq. According to a local official, this action flooded over 3000 donum (781
acres) of agricultural land and inundated homes with up to two meters of water,
causing hundreds of families to flee. IS also cut off water from the Khalis tributary
for 10 days, suspending the drinking water supply to villages by the towns of Man-
souriya, Salam, and Sarajiq.
In another form of weaponization, IS has used water as an asset for funding, col-
lecting taxes on it. In Raqqa for example, the de facto capital of the Islamic State,
the Credit Bank has been turned into the tax authority that collects payments
from business for electricity, water, and security.
Tactical weaponization is primarily the use of water as a weapon on the battlefield in
direct or immediate support of military operations or against targets of strictly mili-
tary value. In other words, we characterized the weaponization of water on a small,
local scale as tactical. In September 2014, for example, IS diverted waters from
rivers in the Shirwain Basin area in Diyala province, Iraq, to inhibit an advance
by Iraqi security forces. The decision collaterally flooded nine nearby villages.
Figure 2: Incidents of Water as a Weapon in Syria and Iraq
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THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY ▪WINTER 2016 157
Instrument of Psychological Terrorism
This type of weaponization involves creating fear among non-combatants of denial
of access or contamination of the water supply. Actors can use this weaponization,
on either a strategic or tactical level. In July 2015 in Syria,
Wadi Barada Shura Council militants threatened to cut off water from the Ayn Al
Fija spring, which supplies drinking water to Damascus. They demanded the ces-
sation of military operations after the Syrian Army’s Fourth Mechanized Division
and Hezbollah’s incursion into Zabadani, a city on the border with Lebanon, after
days of indiscriminate “barrel bombings.”
Instrument of Extortion or Incentivization
This form of weaponization involves the use of the water weapon to establish
credibility as a governing authority or to reward support from the “occupied”popu-
lace. In June 2014, IS captured Mosul and Tikrit and cut off water to surrounding
villages. Water was suspended from Mosul’s water purification plant to Christian
minority villages on the outskirts of Mosul, including Qaraqosh and Bartalla. This
action compelled residents to buy water at the rate of $6.25 USD per cubic meter
instead, which is unaffordable to most residents. Water service was restored to
Mosul by mid-June, and offered at discounted prices to the Sunni residents who
returned to the city after IS’s initial seizure.
Unintentional weaponization describes an outcome when use of the water weapon
causes collateral damage to civilians or the ecological environment. We found that
water is often a relatively indiscriminate weapon. Unintentional population dis-
placement is a frequent form of collateral damage. For example, as of December
2014, various combatants had damaged 35 percent of the water treatment facilities
in Syria. The contamination of drinking water supplies is a pervasive issue.
The Islamic State and Water Weaponization
All major combatants, with the notable excep-
tion of the U.S. coalition assembled for air
strikes, have intentionally used the water
weapon according to one of our categories
(see Figure 3). However, although we did not
document any cases in this time period, it is
likely that U.S. bombing has caused some col-
lateral damage to water supply sources or
related infrastructure such as dams, levees,
ally used the water
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158 THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY ▪WINTER 2016
irrigation systems, or treatment plants at some point. Nevertheless, the data shows
that regimes intentionally used the water weapon less frequently than sub-state
actors. Notably, there were only 5 incidences of water weapon usage by state-
level actors. This may provide evidence that many states are adhering to inter-
national agreements prohibiting the use of the environment as a weapon.
The Islamic State is responsible for the most deployments of the water weapon.
IS-attributed incidents nearly equal the total of all
other incidents combined. IS’s frequent weaponization
of water is understandable when one takes their declara-
tory strategic objectives into account: territorial expan-
sion is the group’s primary goal, and the water weapon is
an effective means for expanding control of territory.
Indeed, the frequency of weaponization incidents
reached their peak by December 2014, the period
when IS reached its greatest control of territory to
date, and declined thereafter.
The Islamic State’s Strategy
The frequency and locations of use raise the question of whether the parties to the
conflicts in Syria and Iraq are exercising a coherent water weaponization strategy.
The Islamic State is the only actor that displays evidence of a truly strategic
approach. Notably, one factor that has separated IS from other extremists
groups, such as the Al-Nusrah Front, is the superior ability to articulate a vision
and implement a military strategy in support of that vision.
The vision is the
establishment of a caliphate that will presumably assume many of the attributes
of statehood, including static control of territory and providing municipal services
to its populace. Our investigations and the literature, including statements of IS,
suggest that the use of water as a weapon is indeed an integral part of IS’s strategy.
Figure 3: Use of the Water Weapon by Major Combatant Groups
The water weapon
is an effective means
for expanding and
retaining control of
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THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY ▪WINTER 2016 159
As a strategic weapon, the significance of water and related infrastructure in
Syria and Iraq is evident. It was widely reported that the decisive factor in the
U.S. decision to launch the air campaign against IS in August 2014 was the organ-
ization’s seizure of the Mosul Dam. In a letter to Congress justifying the airstrikes,
the White House explained that “failure of the Mosul dam could threaten the lives
of large numbers of civilians, threaten U.S. personnel and facilities—including the
U.S. Embassy in Baghdad—and prevent the Iraqi government from providing
crucial services to the Iraqi populace.”
In this way, it was IS’s use of water as
an instrument of both strategic and psychological terrorism that escalated the con-
flict by provoking a new actor and a new type of warfare (the aerial campaign) into
the fray. Among the parties to the conflict, IS has used terrorism as a tactic to great
effect and has been given credit by one academic for mastering the technique of
As a tactical weapon, the use of water in Syria and Iraq has caused few, if any,
military battlefield casualties. However, the water weapon has certainly taken its
toll on vulnerable noncombatants. We can measure this both by the suffering
caused by mass migration and by outbreaks of waterborne disease, which come
from water contamination and the lack of basic water sanitation and hygiene
(WASH) facilities in refugee camps. So the water weapon has proven relatively
useless as a tactical military weapon but effective as a tool of political control.
However, the humanitarian consequences of diminished water supply due to
weaponization are likely to last longer into the future, whatever the immediate
outcome of the war.
Furthermore, water weaponization is a critical enabler of a successful IS military
campaign. Our research suggests IS does not have the capability to conduct effi-
cient warfare without ready access to the water weapon. Along with other
factors, including high morale and some level of support from the Sunni popu-
lation, water enables IS to create an economy of force to exercise strategic or
virtual control over disproportionate amounts of territory with a relatively small
In several instances we identified, IS seizure and resulting ability to destroy
dams created the threat of floods that could wipe out enemy forces distributed
over a wide area as well as civilian population centers. Combatants opposing IS
are forced to take this reality into account in deciding whether to occupy phys-
ically vulnerable territory. Military leaders are also compelled to recognize IS’s stra-
tegic advantage as they plan, position forces, and execute counteroffensives.
Beyond using water as a weapon, the Islamic State—a group that wishes to
establish a wide-reaching caliphate governed by Islamic law—will have to
provide water as a basic service if it wishes to gain and retain legitimacy. In
Baghdad, for example, a heat wave in late July and early August 2015 provoked
mass demonstrations over lack of access to electricity and water. In response to
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the pressure, Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi implemented comprehensive structural
reforms and declared a long weekend. The heat wave has pressured the Kurdish
Regional Government in Iraq’s north to implement similar measures.
Islamic State likely faces similar challenges in service provision. In one video
posted by the “Scenes from Mosul”YouTube channel, for example, locals describe
a city beset by electricity cuts and exorbitant water prices.
As Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell, Syria experts at a U.S. think tank
called the Center for Climate and Security, explain, “the social contract
between governments and their publics is being stressed by these extreme
events …Governments that are responsive to publics in the face of these stresses
are likely to strengthen the social contract, while those who are unresponsive are
likely to weaken it.”
It is important to watch for emerging reports of IS’s successes
and failures in service provision. This metric will indicate their capacity to retain
territory and legitimize their presence.
The threat of IS’s use of the water weapon was the key accelerant that precipitated
U.S. involvement in the aerial campaign against IS. Our analysis of the use of the
water weapon yielded three basic observations, particularly regarding its utility to
IS. First, use of the water weapon has been a critical enabler and perpetuator of IS’s
strategic campaign of territorial acquisition. Second, IS’s ability to effectively wield
the water weapon is a major factor in achieving the political objective of winning
the hearts and minds of the Iraqi and Syrian people.
The Islamic State has used water resources as both a carrot and stick in a quest
to build popular support. IS’s modus operandi upon capturing a municipality is to
assume total control over the core needs of a civilian population, spending signifi-
cant financial resources on providing social services. These actions encompass
monopolization of all industries and municipal services facilities, including electri-
city, water, and gas supplies, local factories, and even bakeries. IS’s goal is to take
advantage of discontent to ensure what it perceives as a more efficient and egali-
tarian provision of services.
These actions show that IS has been able to quickly
adapt to the challenges of governing in some areas, methods first pioneered by
Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shiite militia.
The costs of utilities, including water, have increased dramatically under IS
rule. Taxation of these goods coupled with higher food prices and unemployment
have pushed people to desperation. IS is using water as part of this economic stran-
glehold to persuade people to join their ranks. This tactic is reportedly working
well in areas that IS has controlled for a significant period. In Palmyra, Syria, as
many as 1200 fighters joined IS between May and September of 2015.
However, intentionally raising the prices of water in an effort to drive people to
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THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY ▪WINTER 2016 161
become fighters is a double-edged sword. A population that loses confidence in
IS’s ability to provide basic services like electricity and water is less likely to
grant them the legitimacy of a state they seek.
IS had better luck in June 2014, when it captured the Iraqi cities of Mosul and
Tikrit and cut off water to surrounding villages. Water service was restored to
Mosul by mid-June, and offered at discounted prices to Sunni residents. When
IS restored the water supply, the Sunni population who had fled viewed them
Our third observation is that while the use of
water as a weapon indeed has significant his-
torical roots in Mesopotamia, IS’s systematic
and sustained deployment of the water
weapon is unprecedented in the history of
modern conflict. The Pacific Institute, a U.S.-
based think tank, maintains a “Water Conflict
Chronology”database containing descriptions
of worldwide incidents ranging from 3000 BC
to 2010 AD. It contains 343 entries but it docu-
ments no more than a handful of water weaponization incidents associated with
any previous war. Likewise, weaponization specifically classified as terrorism has
been isolated and sporadic.
These conclusions are confirmed by data collected
by a research project on water and conflict based at Oregon State University.
The three main conclusions must be seen in the context of an ever-dwindling
water supply due to stressors including climate change-driven droughts, the
destruction of water infrastructure, and the interruption of water conservation
policy implementation. There is growing evidence that the drought of 2007–
2010 is likely to reoccur. The UN Regional Initiative for the Assessment of the
Impact of Climate Change on Water Resources and Socio-Economic Vulner-
ability in the Arab Region (RICCAR) has found that higher temperatures and
longer dry seasons (periods with daily precipitation < 1 millimeter) are likely in
the Middle East and North Africa to the year 2100.
These changes over time
would compound the effects of already water scarce conditions. If the war con-
tinues into the coming year, water scarcity will in many instances magnify the
extent of damage caused by the continued use of the water weapon.
This situation underscores the need for regional coordination as soon as any
peace or truce is reached. Turkey is the upper riparian state on the Euphrates
River, and it has currently severed relations with Syria. Regional coordination,
including regulation of new dam construction and water withdrawals, will be
necessary to prevent the worst outcomes for human security in any post-conflict
situation. It is likely that sub-state actors will continue to exert influence in
more locations than was the case before the current conflict. Nation states will
IS’s systematic and
ment of the water
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162 THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY ▪WINTER 2016
likely have to take the equities of these actors in account in order to reach a sus-
tainable solution to regional water scarcity.
Strategies for U.S. Policy and Regional Engagement
Use of the water weapon by terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq should inform a
future U.S. engagement strategy in this region and
elsewhere to mitigate instability by denying non-
state actors the ability to wage this type of war.
Accordingly, any modification of U.S. strategy to
defeat IS should employ all U.S. foreign policy
tools in defense, development, and diplomacy.
Action should be taken with the realization that
the various forms of water weaponization are so
different in scope and intent that they require tai-
lored prevention strategies and responses.
In the area of defense policy, the U.S.-led coalition should abide by the Hippo-
cratic Oath in conducting its military campaign: First, do no harm. Allied military
action to dislodge IS from captured territory should be conducted in a way that
minimizes or prevents damage to water supply and infrastructure. It will also be
important to understand IS’s use of water as a tool of incentivization if and
when territory is retaken by the allied forces. This requires developing counter
strategies that provide immediate resources and support for reconstruction of
vital infrastructure benefiting populations otherwise susceptible to extremist
recruitment. Successful denial of IS’s ability to use the water weapon may be
the decisive factor in determining whether they can be defeated on the battlefield
itself and whether segments of the population that support IS can be persuaded to
As of late October 2015, the United States has shifted its strategy to allow some
“boots on the ground,”deepening engagement in the fight against IS by introdu-
cing small numbers of Special Forces. The Pentagon has given them orders to
create a task force in Northern Iraq designed to coordinate the campaign
against IS, including operations across the border into Syria.
forces should provide tactical assistance to cripple IS’s ability to wield the water
weapon through active denial of access to critical water infrastructure. For
example, highly maneuverable rapid reaction teams with air support could be
deployed to protect water bodies, associated infrastructure, and distribution
systems. The U.S. military, including ground forces, should also prioritize
Different forms of
tion require tailored
egies and responses.
The Weaponization of Water in Syria and Iraq
THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY ▪WINTER 2016 163
gathering all source intelligence that can be used to prevent weaponization of
water by IS or other regional non-state actors. In addition to information about
planned enemy offensives, this intelligence should include geospatial and hydro-
logical information pinpointing vulnerable water supplies.
In development policy, the U.S. government should play a leading role in the pro-
vision of post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction assistance. It might be a
considerable amount of time until conditions on the ground in some areas
permit the reconstruction of water infrastructure. Until those conditions grow
more permissive, the U.S. government should work with civil international organ-
izations and non-governmental development and donor agencies to restore
damaged or destroyed water infrastructure. There is precedent for such
cooperation—the U.S. military and private relief agencies cooperated closely to
replace water and sanitation infrastructure after the cessation of NATO-led air-
strikes during the Kosovo conflict in 1999.
Providing capacity-building assistance to regional governments is also a corner-
stone of the redevelopment process. Technical and financial support for environ-
mental monitoring and more efficient approaches to water management for
agriculture, such as the installation of more efficient drip irrigation systems,
should be one of the highest priorities. The best available hydrological data and
long-term drought and climate modeling should inform development projects in
the water sector. These tools are maintained by a variety of scientific and govern-
mental organizations. U.S. government agencies including USAID have the
capacity to direct this assistance. Members of the U.S. defense community includ-
ing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provide R&D and technical assistance in
support of Combatant Commands (COCOMs).
A successful U.S. strategy for regional engagement should also contain a com-
mitment to science diplomacy, specifically hydro-diplomacy. Hydro-diplomacy
can play an integral role in a conflict avoidance strategy by diminishing the
chances of future political instability fueled by water scarcity. Encouraging
regional coordination of shared water resources between Syria and Turkey
from the Euphrates River Basin is a good start. Preexisting Turkish plans for
the continued construction of dams as part of the Southeast Anatolia Project,
also known as GAP, jeopardize long-term security of downstream Syria by redu-
cing the available water supply.
M. Nouar Shamout of Chatham House and
other Arab water experts have proposed the creation of a new river commission
made up of experts inside and outside the riparian states. This formation of a
commission should be encouraged as it could provide a forum for coordinating
water policies and providing early warning about critical water situations
until a stable peace is reached.
The provision of U.S. technical assistance to
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such a commission would be a significant positive step toward peace-building in
Leveraging International Law
It is likely that sub-state actors will continue to exert influence in large areas of
Syria and Iraq. Nation-states will likely have to take the equities of these actors
in account in order to reach a sustainable solution to regional water scarcity.
For example, Kurdish minority groups are U.S. allies in the fight against IS. The
Kurds will likely emerge from the conflict with greater autonomy in the northeast-
ern areas of Syria and Iraq. The United States should therefore use its considerable
influence to coax the Kurds into discussions about the equitable allocation of
water supply to downstream territories.
At the same time, it is likely that the best possible U.S. diplomatic response to
the growing capacity of hostile non-state actors to use the water weapon is to legit-
imize state power. It can achieve this by supporting international agreements and
facilitating cooperation among the governments of Turkey, Iraq, and possibly
Syria depending on the outcome of the war. The United States can use diplomatic
leverage in the United Nations and other bodies to support the application and
enforcement of an existing body of international law that prohibits the use of
water as a weapon.
At least two conventions classify water weaponization as a war crime. First, use
of water as a weapon violates Additional Protocol II of the Geneva Conventions
relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts,
Article 49. According to the protocol “Starvation of civilians as a method of
combat is prohibited. It is therefore prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or
render useless, for that purpose, objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian
population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs,
crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation
The State Parties to the Geneva Conventions have an obligation to
bring to trial or extradite persons who have allegedly committed the violations
referred to in the Additional Protocol.
Second, using water as a weapon also violates the Convention on the Prohibi-
tion of Military or any Hostile use of Environmental Modification Techniques of
December, 10, 1976 (ENMOD). In its Article I, the Convention prohibits the
Contracting Parties from engaging in “military or any other hostile use of environ-
mental modification techniques having widespread, long-lasting or severe effects
as the means of destruction, damage or injury to any other State Party.”Violations
are reported to the UN Security Council and parties to the Convention agree to
provide support or assistance in accordance with the Charter of the United
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As water supplies diminish, the need for nations to craft international legal
responses will only grow more acute. The U.S. Intelligence Community has judged
that the use of water as a weapon will become more common during the next ten
years, not only on the subnational level, but between states as powerful upstream
nations impede or cut off downstream flow. Forecasts also predict that water will be
used within states to “pressure populations and suppress separatist elements.”
If the U.S. government is not willing to use the foreign policy tools at its dis-
posal to resolve regional water challenges, non-state actors including extremist
groups operating in Syria and Iraq may fill the gap. According to a 2012 U.S. Intel-
ligence Community Assessment, active engagement by the United States to
resolve water challenges will improve U.S. influence and may “forestall other
actors achieving the same influence at U.S. expense.”
Fight Water with …?
The drought that devastated Syria from 2007–2010 was a significant driver of the
Syrian civil war. While it is important to avoid oversimplification, the resultant
food insecurity and mass migrations were
among the key factors that marginalized popu-
lations and created widespread discontent,
creating the conditions for the outbreaks of
violence that ensued. When the war in Syria
and Iraq reached greater intensity, purposeful
manipulation or weaponization of water
increased the scale and intensity of conflict.
In Syria and Iraq, nearly all combatants under-
stood the potency of water as a weapon, but its
use has been essential to the heretofore successful war strategy of IS primarily
through its use as a tool of territorial acquisition and control over vulnerable popu-
lations. Therefore, successful denial of IS’s ability to use the water weapon may
represent a decisive factor in whether or not they can be defeated.
The magnitude of the use of water as a weapon in Syria and Iraq is probably
unprecedented in modern warfare. Emerging evidence demonstrates that climate
change will contribute to water scarcity even further in the Middle East and
North Africa as well as other areas where other conditions for conflict already
exist. Increased scarcity will only increase the potency of the water weapon. The
successful employment of a water weaponization strategy by IS not only carries
implications for U.S. engagement in Syria and Iraq, it suggests that the use of
water in warfare is likely to become an even greater factor unless countervailing
strategies are designed and implemented by states committed to defeat extremists.
The use of water
has been essential to
the heretofore suc-
cessful war strategy
of the Islamic State.
Marcus D. King
166 THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY ▪WINTER 2016
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The Weaponization of Water in Syria and Iraq
THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY ▪WINTER 2016 167
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Marcus D. King
168 THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY ▪WINTER 2016
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The Weaponization of Water in Syria and Iraq
THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY ▪WINTER 2016 169