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An Ancient River in Syria Sections Off a Modern War

The near side of the Euphrates River near Manbij, Syria, is controlled by American-backed Kurdish-led forces. On the other side are Turkish-backed Arab rebels.CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times

ZOUR MAGHAR, Syria — On the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, Kurdish militiamen aligned with American troops burrow into sandbagged positions and eye their foes across the water.

On the other side, Arab rebels backed by Turkey shoot at anyone who nears the river.

For millenniums, the Euphrates has given farmers in the village of Zour Maghar water to irrigate fields of wheat, eggplant and sunflowers. Generations of families have sprawled on its banks for picnics, the older children teaching the younger to swim.

But after seven years of war, the river that has fed life in Syria’s parched east has become a hostile front, separating warring sides as it travels north to south. Deprived of its water, families have fled Zour Maghar, abandoning their mud-brick homes and leaving their fields idle.

“The river was everything for us,” said Muhammad Bozan, 35, a farmer who can no longer work his waterfront land. “We used to live from the river and now we can’t.”

Members of a family picnic in their garden in Zour Maghar, a village on the Kurdish side of the Euphrates near the Turkish border. Behind them is a wall built this year by Turkish forces, and beyond that Turkey.CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times
A pump in the Euphrates provides water for the region near Zour Maghar. South of that, the river becomes a battle zone, its water inaccessible.CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times

Syria’s war has taken hundreds of thousands of lives, displaced millions and left entire cities in smoking ruins. It has also ensnared the Euphrates, an arc of the Fertile Crescent that is considered a cradle of civilization.

On a recent trip along the river, we found a wasteland dotted with depopulated towns, gutted factories and civilians struggling to get by.

We mostly stayed on the east bank, an area out of Damascus’s hands that is effectively stateless and boxed in by hostile powers. The only way in was to cross the Tigris River from Iraq in a shaky, seatless motorboat.

As the government of President Bashar al-Assad has focused its military power on defeating rebels in the north and south, the river has emerged as the collision point for the great powers and their local allies struggling for influence in the east.

On the eastern bank are mostly American-backed Kurdish-led militias. On the west, along the northern part of the river, are Turkish-backed rebels. Farther south are Syrian forces supported by Russia and Iran. The Islamic State still holds a pocket along the river near the border with Iraq.

For now, the division is holding because none of the other powers wants to confront the United States, which has about 2,000 soldiers on the eastern side and whose fighter jets control the skies there.

Most of the world has accepted that Mr. Assad will continue to rule Syria, but the standoff and shattered landscape along the Euphrates raise questions about whether he can ever stitch the whole country back together.

The immediate question is how long the United States will stay. President Trump has said he wants to pull out the troops, who lead an international coalition against the Islamic State. If he does, the United States’ local allies fear the worst.

“The mere presence of the coalition in the region gives a message to the regime and to the Turks not to interfere: ‘This is where you stop,’ ” said Muhammad Kheir Sheikho, a member of the civil council in Manbij. “The withdrawal of the coalition forces, and at their head the American forces, would cause complete chaos in the area.”

A Place Few Americans Have Heard Of

An American military convoy patrols the front near Manbij several times a day, a show of force to protect the city from Turkey, an American ally.CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times

Three hulking, armored American military vehicles leave their base in the olive groves east of Manbij and rumble off to patrol the front lines. American soldiers staff gun turrets atop each vehicle, helicopters or drones fly overhead, and the convoy flies large American flags to make it clear who is driving.

The Americans came to Syria in 2014 to fight the Islamic State, but the jihadist group’s nearest outpost is 200 miles away. The convoy heads out several times a day to protect Manbij, a town with no resources and which few Americans have heard of, from Turkey, a NATO ally.

The American presence in Manbij is a clear indication that the United States came to Syria with one goal but picked up others along the way, complicating a potential withdrawal.

As the United States worked with Kurdish forces to take territory back from the Islamic State, its footprint in eastern Syria expanded. The area, about one-quarter of Syria and mostly desert, is now dotted with American military bases — housed in fields, in an out-of-use cement factory and in oil and gas facilities that the Syrian government would like to take back.

Kurdish troops, in a sandbagged post outside of Manbij, fear a disaster if the Americans leave.CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times
The American security umbrella has allowed Manbij to become a relatively stable island in the war-torn country.CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times

The American security umbrella has allowed Manbij to become a relatively stable island in a war-torn country. It is a local economic hub, with a bustling market and about 200,000 new residents displaced from elsewhere.

But Turkey sees Syria’s Kurdish militia as a terrorist threat on its border and has threatened to attack it. The United States worries that a Turkish attack on Manbij would siphon off the Kurdish fighters from the battle against the Islamic State in the south. Thus the American patrols to keep the Turks at bay.

But as the battle against the Islamic State winds down, the Americans will have less reason to stay.

On the flat roof of a cinder-block farmhouse converted into a military base west of town, Kurdish militiamen pointed across a shallow valley at Turkish military positions and acknowledged that the Turks could storm the area quickly if they wanted. But they did not because of the American military base nearby: a few trailers surrounded by armored vehicles, the Stars and Stripes flying overhead.

“If it weren’t for the Americans, there would be a disaster here,” said Ibrahim Sheikh Muhammad, a Kurdish militiaman.

Burned, Bombed and Still Turning

The control room of the Tabqa Dam, built by the Soviets, its turbines blown up by the Islamic State, its buildings shattered by American-led airstrikes. It is now back online.CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times

Most of the territory held by the United States and its Kurdish allies was once ruled by the Islamic State, and the scars of the military campaign to defeat it run deep.

South of Manbij stands the Tabqa Dam, which the Soviets built in 1973, creating Syria’s largest body of water, Lake Assad, and generating power for much of the country.

The jihadists of the Islamic State ran the dam for years but blew up its turbines when they retreated.

It is now back at work, sort of. Its 350 employees work in buildings shattered by coalition airstrikes that blew holes in walls and shook tiles off the floors. Inside the hydroelectric station, rows of charred circuit boxes set alight by the jihadists sit below ceilings stained black from smoke.

But three of the dam’s turbines were whirring as water rushed through below, and a man with a blowtorch worked to repair a fourth. From eight damaged turbines, engineers had salvaged enough parts to rebuild three of them.

The Tabqa Dam is a rare example of cooperation across battle lines, run by the Kurds with Syrian government help.CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times
The Tabqa Dam created Lake Assad, Syria’s largest body of water, where a Kurdish family displaced by the fighting lunches at a cafe.CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times

The dam is a rare example of cooperation across opposing sides. A power line that connects it to a smaller dam passes through a government-controlled area, sending electricity to the station that provides drinking water to the city of Aleppo, said Mohammed Sheikho, the head of the mechanical department. And the Syrian government still pays salaries to some workers.

But the dam is just limping along.

New heavy electric cables cannot be installed because the German company that made them will not send its engineers into a war zone. And the country best able to fix the rest of the dam, Russia, is allied with the Syrian government.

Even worse, there isn’t enough water.

Since the Kurds took over the area, Turkey has reduced the amount of water it allows into Syria by more than half, limiting the generation of electricity, said Muhammad Tarboush, the dam’s supervisor.

The situation had never been so dire, he said, even when the Islamic State was in charge.

“They are boycotting us with water,” he said.

Shattered City, Uncertain Future

With Raqqa’s 32 bridges destroyed by the war, residents depend on crude barges to cross the river.CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times
A bombed-out bridge in Raqqa, no longer suitable for crossing the river, has been repurposed as a diving platform.CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times
The military campaign that drove the Islamic State out of Raqqa left two-thirds of the city’s buildings damaged or destroyed.CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times
In Deir al-Zour Province, people take rowboats from the Kurdish controlled-side of the Euphrates to the other bank, controlled by the Syrian government.CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times

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