Arabs v Kurds in northern Syria: Will history repeat itself?
Militias from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have taken control of large areas in Hasakah, Raqqa and Aleppo governorates in north-eastern Syria with the help from the international coalition, the Syrian Army and Russian warplanes.
The areas involved are home to a mix of Syrians, including Arabs and Kurds, Muslims and Christians. In fact, Kurds are a minority or non-existent in some of the areas.
The takeover caused ethnic tensions but perhaps what truly broke Arab-Kurd relations in northern Syria was when units from the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) took control of Tal Rifaat and Deir Jamal, where Arabs are the majority.
Not everyone was happy about this turn of events. Arabs, Turkmen and even some Kurds, plus factions from the Syrian opposition who are not in conflict with the Kurdish forces, protested loudly. They see in the Kurds taking control of Tal Rifaat and changing its name to Arvad as prologue to the realisation of the Kurdish nationalists’ dream of a state of their own in northern Syria — in disregard to the feelings and opinions of the rest of the Syrian people.
Some Syrians say that SDF’s provocative actions will result in years of enmity between Arabs and Kurds.
If Arabs in the areas are putting up with Kurdish control, it is because the Kurds have the support of the international coalition and Russia, allegedly because they are fighting the Islamic State (ISIS).
A few months ago, during a meeting between US Army officers and Syrian opposition leaders in southern Turkey, the US officers asked opposition factions to take the Kurds as allies to form a force to fight ISIS. One of the participants in the meeting asked one of the officers: “How can you ask us to be allied with the Kurds when they are dislodging our families in Hasakah and Tal Abyad?” The officer said the Kurds were “our allies”.
The Kurds’ alliance with the United States under the guise of fighting ISIS gave them enough drive to take control of large areas in Hasakah and Raqqa where they displaced the populations of many Arab and Turkmen villages. These displacements were all but denied by Kurdish politicians and unit leaders but documented by Amnesty International.
Some inhabitants of Hasakah and Tal Abyad, who described the Kurdish forces’ behaviour as “arrogant”, are regretting ISIS’s defeat. Some are seeking to join ISIS forces out of spite.
Some Arabs say that the Kurds are clearly pursuing the fulfilment of a secession project, having succeeded in linking areas stretching from Malikiyah to Kobane. They only need to take a zone west of the Euphrates to control territory all the way to Afrin.
The disputed zone, however, will sooner or later become the battleground between today’s brothers-in-arms and allies. Many of the inhabitants of the Arab zones are joining Jaysh al-Thuwar (the Army of Revolutionaries).
The Kurds will face a worse fate at the hands of the Syrian Army if it succeeds, with the help of Iran and Russia, in recapturing northern Syria. The regime will definitely prevent the Kurds from monopolising power even in zones with a Kurdish majority.
The Kurds face the risk of seeing their limited US-supported plans evaporate whether the regime or other group gains control of the country. They simply will not be allowed to seize areas that do not belong to them.
In short, they risk coming out as the big losers in the Syrian war. And here, history would repeat itself. A century ago, the Kurds lost after the demise of the Ottoman empire and ended up empty-handed in the Sykes-Picot agreement.