Syria’s fallen symbols of state

The Euphrates Dam, once the most potent symbol of the centrally planned development policies of the Syrian Baath Party, was taken over by rebel forces in early February. The fall of the dam is one of many recent successes of the opposition in the resource-rich northeast, which is now almost entirely out of the hands of the government.

While the economic importance of the dam in itself is limited, the news of the capture of such a major source of pride for the authorities reverberated across Syria.

When it was built in the mid-1970s, the dam was the largest ever to be built in Syria and among the largest infrastructure projects developed in the country during the 20th century. It was supposed to meet several government objectives: help provide food self-sufficiency thanks to the new lands that it would irrigate, generate new power that would meet a significant part of the country’s needs and assist in developing the eastern part of the country, whose economic and social indicators were very low.

At the time of its construction, Syria was in a different world. The dam was built thanks to Soviet money and implemented at a time of strict central planning and strong government involvement in the economy, and the belief that the state could and should lead the economic development process was widespread.

Across Syrian society, the construction of the dam was seen as a proof of the prowess of Syrian engineers and of the economic and social development potential of the country. Eight turbines capable of collectively producing 800 megawatts of electricity were installed and some 640,000 hectares of land were supposed to be irrigated by the lake that was created behind the dam. The dam was named ‘Al Thawra’ — or ‘the revolution’ — after the new name of the town located near the dam.

However, disenchantment was quick to come. The project never fulfilled its expectations and both the land irrigated and power generated were well below their capacity. Problems associated with the project included low water flows from Turkey, a lack of maintenance and poor soil quality in reclaimed areas.

The dam’s fall into rebel hands now symbolizes the central government’s gradual loss of control of increasing parts of Syria. In the northeast, in particular, there has been a significant shift in power, which is all the more important because that part of the country is the source of most of Syria’s wealth in natural resources. The region, which covers the provinces of Hassakeh, Raqqa and Deir Ez Zor, is where all of the country’s oil fields are located and where the wheat, barley and cotton crops are grown. It is also at the junction between the Turkish and Iraqi borders.

The area around the city of Deir Ez Zor — where most of the light crude oil used to be extracted with an average daily production of 120,000 barrels prior to the uprising — has been in rebel hands for several months.

However, the past few weeks saw quick advances for the rebels northwards along the Euphrates River, enabling them to control new cities and to access the fields where the country’s heavy grade crude is extracted; daily average production in that region was some 250,000 barrels in 2010.

Prior to the developments of the last few weeks, the government already had difficulties sourcing oil and has reportedly been bribing tribes and even some rebel groups to ensure steady supplies. The refinery of Banias — located on the coast and which processes around half of the country’s crude oil — has been out of business for several months because of the lack of crude.

It will be important to monitor in the coming period the levels of oil supplies in Damascus and in other cities that are still in government hands. Similarly, stocks of flour and bread, the staple food of the Syrian population, risk being in increasingly short supply.

After two years of a countrywide revolt, the capacity of the government to provide steady, although minimal, supplies of most key commodities has already defied most expectations. It would be ironic if the fall of the Al Thawra dam, a source of pride for the regime for so long, became symbolic of President Bashar al-Assad’s loss of Syria’s northeast.

Note: This article appeared first in the March 2013 edition of Executive Magazine

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