The Battle for Syria’s Al-Hasakah Province
October 24, 2013
Syria’s resource-rich, northeastern province of al-Hasakah presents a complex human terrain where conflict is driven by the patchwork authority of the Syrian military and local and long-standing communal antagonism. Control over al-Hasakah Province, which has an ethnic Kurdish plurality, is important to the Kurds who are seeking greater autonomy and self-rule from the Syrian state. Al-Hasakah’s oil resources are also important and a source of frequent conflict between Arab and Kurdish armed groups.
This article provides background on the human geography of al-Hasakah Province, highlights the sites of most frequent conflict, and examines the major actors in the fight for control of the province. It finds that while the Kurdish community of al-Hasakah is well positioned to assert its political and military power over its areas of the province, it will still face competition from the remnants of the Syrian military in the region and Arab armed groups. The Kurds also will have to convince the region’s other ethnic and sectarian minorities that they are genuine and equal partners in governance.
Human Geography of Al-Hasakah Province
Al-Hasakah is one of Syria’s most diverse provinces, with an estimated population of approximately 1.5 million people, a plurality of whom are ethnic Kurds that are present in both rural villages and the province’s major urban areas. The three largest cities of the region, al-Hasakah, Qamishli, and Ras al-Ayn, all have diverse populations that include ethnic Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians (with Orthodox, Chaldean Catholic, and Church of the East sects represented), Armenians, Turkmen, and members of the Yazidi faith in and around the city of Ras al-Ayn. Al-Hasakah Province is primarily an agricultural area whose population is centered along the north-south flowing Khabur River between the city of Ras al-Ayn on the Turkish border and the province’s capital of al-Hasakah city, or northeast of the Khabur in a particularly fertile region that is located in the administrative districts of Qamishli and the city of al-Malikiyya.
The Khabur River serves as the semi-official western boundary of al-Hasakah Province. Several ethnic and sectarian groups—including Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Armenians, Chechens/Circassians, and Yazidis—are present along the course of the river between Ras al-Ayn and al-Hasakah. Assyrians, although present in other areas of the province including the cities of al-Malikiyya, Qamishli, Ras al-Ayn, and al-Hasakah, have been greatly concentrated in a series of 35 villages that follow the path of the river from Ras al-Ayn to al-Hasakah. Throughout the northern regions of the province, ethnic and sectarian groups live in close proximity to each other in neighboring or mixed villages.
The predominate form of social identity and mobilization among Sunni Arabs in al-Hasakah Province is through Sunni Arab tribalism. Sunni Arab tribes in the region include branches of multinational tribal confederations such as the Shammar, the Ougaidat, the Baggara, the Taie, and the Jabbour, and smaller tribal groups such as the al-Sharabiyya and the Zubayd. Ougaidat, Shammar, and the Albu Hassan branch of the Baggara that predominate in the province’s southern sub-districts of al-Arisha, al-Shaddadeh, and Markadah maintain close ties to their kinsmen in neighboring Deir al-Zour Province. Several of the region’s Sunni Arab tribes, including the Shammar, Jabbour, and the Baggara, also have cross-border ties with fellow tribesmen in Iraq which they have drawn upon for social and armed support during the course of the Syrian civil war.
In the northern, Kurdish-majority areas of al-Hasakah Province, many of these Sunni Arab tribal groups were settled in the area from 1965-1976 as part of the “Arab Belt” policy of the Ba`ath government, which established government-built Arab communities on land taken from resident Kurds that were situated amidst Kurdish villages. It is estimated that approximately 60,000 Kurds were displaced from their land by this policy. Ougaidat, Shammar and Baggara, who predominate in the province’s southern sub-districts of al-Arisha, al-Shaddadeh, and Markadah, also maintain close ties to their kinsmen in neighboring Deir al-Zour Province. Some Sunni Arab tribesmen participate in armed opposition groups that fight against both the al-Assad government and the Kurdish militias in the region, including the al-Qa`ida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. One particular tribally organized armed group that has cooperated with Jabhat al-Nusra in the region is the “Free Jazira Brigade,” which is organized by Shammar tribesmen and is an affiliate of the Free Syrian Army that has a presence near the Syrian-Iraqi border in the northeastern Yarubiyya sub-district.
The Kurds Developing an Incipient Authority in Al-Hasakah?
Currently, the strongest political and military position in the region belongs to the Kurds and their armed organizations, particularly the Popular Protection Units (YPG). While in the past the YPG has been charged with being an organization with close ties to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the YPG’s leadership is trying to position itself as a pan-ethnic organization that is the defender of all of the region’s communities—both from the al-Assad government and Salafi-jihadi organizations that are trying to impose an Islamic state on Syria. YPG leaders also insist that the organization is apolitical and subsumes itself under the Supreme Kurdish Committee, which includes the PYD and the umbrella organization the Kurdish National Council (KNC) that is close to KRG President Massoud Barzani. YPG forces are estimated to total more than 30,000 fighters from all ethnic and sectarian communities.
Conflict in the vicinity of the Khabur River is leading to the militarization of some of the area’s ethnic and sectarian communities or leading them to turn to the YPG for armed support and organization. Assyrian communities in the area have begun to form militias that man checkpoints to guard access points to their villages. They are reportedly being organized and trained by an ethnic Assyrian, former Swiss Army soldier and are seeking the assistance of the YPG. Yazidi villagers are stated to have been threatened by Salafi-jihadi fighters and as a result have either fled their villages or are turning to the YPG for armed support. In addition, the al-Sharabiyya and Zubayd Arab tribal communities in the area also reportedly feel sufficiently threatened by the ongoing conflict in Ras al-Ayn and have accepted arms and affiliation with the YPG.
Major Sites of Conflict in Al-Hasakah
The fighting in al-Hasakah Province demonstrates the complexity of the region and the nature of the al-Assad government’s patchwork authority in it. Fighting in the region, combined with a poor economy and increasingly difficult access to food resources and basic medicine, has led to internal displacement from conflict areas such as Ras al-Ayn. In late August and early September 2013, more than 30,000 refugees fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, overcrowding existing refugee camps in that region, such as in the province of Dohuk, which has been forced to accommodate more than 55,000 refugees in a camp that was meant for 15,000.
While the Syrian military retains its strongest outposts in the cities of al-Hasakah and Qamishli, it has ceded a great deal of territory in al-Hasakah Province to local armed groups. The southern countryside of the city of al-Hasakah, in the sub-districts of al-Arisha, ash-Shaddada, and Markada, is the site of clashes. The town of ash-Shaddada in particular has seen fierce fighting, with Salafi-jihadi forces led by Jabhat al-Nusra presently retaining control over it and reportedly exploiting its local oil resources for profit.
Ras al-Ayn, contiguous as it is with the Turkish city of Ceylanpinar, is a convenient logistical route for the armed opposition. Ras al-Ayn is also a fault line area that Sunni Arab Salafi-jihadi organizations would seek to incorporate into an Islamic state and Syrian Kurds would like to be part of a potentially autonomous Western Kurdistan. Low intensity conflict has been ongoing in Ras al-Ayn since the end of 2012, with the latest bouts in July and August the most intense and destructive since Kurds and Arabs began to clash for control over the city.
The second major site of conflict in al-Hasakah Province is in the far northeast districts of al-Qahtaniyya and al-Malikiyya, particularly in the sub-district of Tal Hamis in al-Qahtaniyya and the sub-district of Yarubiyya in al-Malikiyya. Tal Hamis and Yarubiyya abut the Syrian-Iraqi border area of Rabia in the Tal Afar region of Ninawa Province. This area has been the focus of frequent clashes between the Syrian military—which has conducted airstrikes against Sunni Arab armed opposition groups, the YPG and its local allies—and a reportedly tenuous alliance of Sunni Arab armed opposition groups that seeks to control the oil fields in and around the towns of Mabadi (Girke Lege in Kurdish), Gar Zero, and Suweidia, and the Syrian-Iraqi border crossing of Yarubiyya/Rabia which have been used to smuggle armed opposition fighters and materiel into Syria. Armed opposition fighters seized the Yarubiyya crossing on the Syrian side of the border in March 2013, reportedly out of a motivation to prevent the flow of military assistance from the Iraqi government of Nuri al-Maliki to the government of Bashar al-Assad.
Several Sunni Arab armed groups are present in the sub-districts of Tal Hamis and Yarubiyya, including Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qa`ida’s Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and the Shammar tribe-affiliated Free Jazira Brigade. Other armed opposition organizations that report their participation in the battle for the area include local affiliates of the Salafi-jihadi group Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamist group Tajammu` Kata’ib al-Haqq. Salih Muslim, the leader of the PYD, has stated that Kurds control 60% of the country’s oil wells, although this figure has yet to be independently verified. Fighting for control of the oil fields around Rmeilan is likely to continue well into the future, as they offer a potentially lucrative source of income for whoever controls them.
The pattern of conflict in al-Hasakah Province is a war of positioning in the context of the Syrian military’s receding power in the region. The al-Assad government is forced to rely upon an outpost strategy where the cities of al-Hasakah and Qamishli represent its most secure means of implementing a patchwork influence upon the various constituent ethnic and sectarian communities in the province. Into this vacuum, the Kurdish parties and militias, tentatively organized under the over-arching Supreme Kurdish Committee, are trying to establish an incipient form of civil governance in the region, even if it stops short of seeking complete autonomy or independence from the Syrian state. The success of this effort will depend upon the ability of the Supreme Kurdish Committee to convince al-Hasakah’s ethnic and sectarian minorities—Assyrians, Armenians, Yazidis and Turkmen—and Arabs that it can work with them to constitute an unbiased, pan-communal authority.
Currently, the YPG is publicly positioning itself to contribute to this process by seeking to become the region’s core defensive force charged with the protection of all of al-Hasakah’s constituent communities. As it distances itself from earlier charges of its close affiliation with the PYD, the YPG leadership will also need to continue to demonstrate battlefield successes against its antagonists, primarily Sunni armed groups such as the Salafi-jihadi organizations and tribal militias. It will also need to develop into a genuinely pan-ethnic fighting force to buttress the Supreme Kurdish Committee’s claims of representing all people in the province.
Nicholas A. Heras is an Analyst with The Jamestown Foundation and a Contributing Editor and Analyst with the international affairs journal Fair Observer. A former David L. Boren Fellow, he has extensive field experience throughout Lebanon and Syria researching the politics of identity, cultural conflict, and socioeconomic tension. Mr. Heras holds a B.A. in International Relations and an M.A. in International Communication from American University in Washington, D.C.
 Syria Central Bureau of Statistics, 2011, available at www.citypopulation.de/Syria.html#Land. Also see Basheer al-Baker, “Uncovering Syria (III): Counting on Kurds,” al-Akhbar, September 13, 2011.
 The Assyrians are a distinct Semitic ethnic group whose mother tongue is “Syriac,” a language that evolved from Aramaic. A majority of ethnic Assyrians are adherents of Christianity, and ethnic Assyrians who are members of the Chaldean Catholic Church are sometimes referred to as “Chaldeans.” Ethnic Assyrian communities are traditionally located in northeastern Syria, northwestern Iraq, southeastern Turkey, Lebanon, and in the global diaspora in Europe, the United States, and Australia. Also see Alberto M. Fernandez, “Dawn at Tell Tamir: The Assyrian Christian Survival and the Khabur River,” Assyrian International News Agency, undated.
 The Turkmen are descendants of Oghuz tribal, ethnic Turkic migrants who moved into the area of Syria in the 10th century. See Nicholas A. Heras, “Syrian Turkmen Join Opposition Forces in Pursuit of a New Syrian Identity,” Terrorism Monitor 11:11 (2013).
 The Yazidis are ethnic Kurds who are adherents of an esoteric religion that synthesizes belief from Zoroastrian, Manichean, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic sources. It is estimated that there are 50,000 Yazidis in Syria, 20,000-25,000 of whom live in rural areas of al-Hasakah Province and in the city of Qamishli. Some estimates, however, place the number of Yazidis in Syria much lower. See “Yazidis in Syria: Between Acceptance and Marginalization,” KurdWatch, December 2010.
 These details are based on the author’s field research conducted in al-Hasakah Province in March 2010, as well as personal interviews, Arab tribal youth economic migrants, Beirut, Lebanon, June-August 2009. For details on Qamishli, see “Al-Qamishli: Demographics,” SyriaToday.ca, undated; Hasan Biro, “In Qamishli, Tensions Rise Between PKK and Syrian Army,” Syria Deeply, April 22, 2013; “Al-Qamishli,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, undated. For details on al-Hasakah, see “Al-Hasakah Joins the Fight with Assad Forces,” Zaman al-Wsl, July 10, 2013; “Al-Hasakah City,” Homs Online, undated. For details on al-Malikiyya, see “Cities: Al-Malikiyah,” KurdWatch, undated.
 For Assyrians, see “Assyrian Villages in Khabur Syria,” Assyrian International News Agency, 2013. For Chechens/Circassians, see Dawn Chatty, “Circassian, Chechnyan, and Other Muslim Communities,” in Displacement and Dispossession in the Modern Middle East (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 108-110. For Armenians, Kurds, and Arabs, see Fernandez; al-Baker.
 “Assyrian Villages in Khabur Syria,” Assyrian International News Agency, 2013.
 The Ba`ath Party in Syria has attempted to weaken Sunni Arab tribalism as a primary form of social mobilization in al-Hasakah Province since it assumed power in the country in 1963. These details are based on the author’s field research conducted in al-Hasakah Province in March 2010, as well as personal interviews, Arab tribal youth economic migrants, Beirut, Lebanon, June-August 2009. Also see also Carole A. O’Leary and Nicholas A. Heras, “Syrian Tribal Networks and their Implications for the Syrian Uprising,” Terrorism Monitor 10:11 (2012).
 These details are based on the author’s field research conducted in al-Hasakah Province in March 2010, as well as personal interviews, Arab tribal youth economic migrants, Beirut, Lebanon, June-August 2009.
 Ibid. Also see O’Leary and Heras, “Syrian Tribal Networks and their Implications for the Syrian Uprising.”
 Ibid. Lauren Williams, “Tribes of Syria and Iraq Drawn Into the Uprising,” Daily Star [Beirut], November 15, 2012; Tim Arango and Duraid Adnan, “For Iraqis, Aid to Rebels in Syria Repays a Debt,” New York Times, February 12, 2012; Phil Sands, “Oil, Food, and Protest in Syria’s East,” The National, January 17, 2012.
 For some details, see J. Michael Kennedy, “Kurds Remain on the Sideline of Syria’s Uprising,” New York Times, April 17, 2012.
 It is estimated that more than 120,000 Syrian Kurds were denied Syrian citizenship, the majority in al-Hasakah Province, and were thus rendered stateless, on the basis of a controversial 1962 census. Their children were born stateless and thus increased the population of stateless Kurds to 300,000 out of an estimated population of 1.7 million Kurds in Syria. In April 2011, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad passed a decree that formally granted most of these stateless Kurds citizenship. For more information on Kurdish statelessness and modern repression in Syria, see “Syria-Group Denial: Repression of Kurdish Political and Cultural Rights in Syria,” Human Rights Watch, 2009, p. 8; Kennedy; “Syria: State Policies and Military Action Continue to Threaten Further Displacement,” Norwegian Refugee Council Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, November 11, 2011.
 These details are based on the author’s field research conducted in Deir al-Zour Province in July 2009, al-Hasakah Province in March 2010, as well as personal interviews, Arab tribal youth economic migrants, Beirut, Lebanon, June-August 2009.
 For more information on tribal armed groups in the Syrian conflict, see Carole A. O’Leary and Nicholas A. Heras, “The Tribal Factor in Syria’s Rebellion: A Survey of Armed Tribal Groups in Syria,” Terrorism Monitor 11:13 (2013).
 Mariam Ballout, “The Battle for the North, an Offshoot of the Syrian War: The Fight for Oil Between Kurds, Jihadists, and the Clans,” as-Safir, July 30, 2013; “Deaths in Clashes on the Syrian-Iraqi Border,” al-Jazira, March 3, 2013.
 Mutlu Civiroglu, “YPG Commander: Kurds are Bulwark Against Islamic Extremism in Syria,” Rudaw [Iraqi Kurdistan], July 22, 2013.
 “YPG: We are Committed to Supreme Kurdish Council,” Firat News Agency, September 1, 2013.
 Ibrahim Hameid, “Kurdish National Council Joins the Coalition and Muslim Rejects the Agreement,” al-Hayat, August 28, 2013.
 Andrea Giloti, “Syriac Christians, Kurds Boost Cooperation in Syria,” al-Monitor, June 20, 2013; “One of the Checkpoints that Protects the Entrance to Tal Tamar,” March 4, 2013, available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3_Dq10yiSo&desktop_uri=%252Fwatch%253Fv%253Dm3_Dq10yiSo.
 “Kurdish Yazidi Minority in Syria Targeted By Islamist Armed Group,” ARA News, April 9, 2013.
 Amed Dicle, “A Kurd-Arab War in Rojava,” Firat News Agency, September 2, 2013; Juwan Sha’doon, “Al-Sharabiya Arab Tribe in Western Kurdistan,” Rihab News, August 15, 2013.
 Bassem Mroue, “Kurds Carve Out Autonomy in Chaos of Syrian Civil War,” Associated Press, July 19, 2013.
 “Some 30,000 Syrians Flee to Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, More Expected,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees, September 5, 2013.
 Loveday Morris, Joby Warrick and Souad Mekhennet, “Rival al-Qaeda-Linked Groups Fortifying in Syria with a Mix of Pragmatism and Militancy,” Washington Post, October 13, 2013; “Jabhat al-Nusra Conquers the City of ash-Shadaada, al-Hasakah,” June 27, 2013, available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9q9YVxr6OU.
 Wladimir van Wilgenburg, “Clashes Re-Erupt in Syria Between Al-Qaeda, Kurds,” al-Monitor, July 16, 2013; “Ras al-Ayn and the Specter of the Buffer Zone,” al-Akhbar, November 16, 2012.
 Roy Gutman, “Kurdish-Nusra Battle Becoming a War Within a War in Northern Syria,” McClatchy Newspapers, July 23, 2013.
 “YPG Launches Offensive Against al Nusra Front Fighters,” PUK Media, September 29, 2013; “Fresh Clashes Between YPG Fighters and the ISIS,” Firat News Agency, September 23, 2013; Youssef Sheikho, “Syria: Al-Qaeda Looking for Local Mujahideen,” al-Akhbar, September 13, 2013; Ece Goksedef, “War in Syria Inspires Kurdish Unity,” al-Jazira, July 27, 2013; “Al-Hasaka Province: 19 YPG Fighters and 35 Fighters from the al-Nusra Front, ISIS and Some Rebel Factions Have Been Killed,” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, July 20, 2013; Abbas Deiri, Nuha Shabaan, and Bassam Hamidi, “Kurds, Iraqis Drawn into Battle for Syria’s Eastern Provinces,” Syria Direct, March 6, 2013.
 For airstrike and oil field coalition, see Ballout. For border crossing, see Aaron Y. Zelin, “Al-Qaeda in Iraq Enters the Syria Conflict,” al-Wasat blog, March 11, 2013; “Syrian Army, Rebel Clashes Bring Conflict to Iraq Doorstep,” Reuters, March 2, 2013; “Iraqi Official Says Jihadists, Weapons On the Move in Syria,” al-Arabiya, February 11, 2012.
 Deiri et al.
 “Liberating the Village of Jneedea of the Border District Ya’rubiyah,” Ahrar al-Sham, July 25, 2013; “Ugarit, al-Hasakah: Gathering of the Divine Truth Brigades Rebel Convoy Heading to Free the Qamishli Al-Bajaria Checkpoint,” July 12, 2013, available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gt0wtS2GT78&desktop_uri=%252Fwatch%253Fv%253DGt0wtS2GT78&app=desktop.
 Ballout; “Muslim: 60% of Syrian Oil Controlled By Kurds,” Firat News Agency, May 9, 2013; Josh Wood, “Syria’s Oil Resources are a Source of Contention for Competing Groups,” New York Times, March 20, 2013.