Turkey is extending Hafez al-Assad's 'Arab belt'

According to Boğaziçi University faculty member and researcher Seda Altuğ, Turkey's Oct. 9 military operation has allowed the Syrian regime to regain control of the region, has hurt Kurdish aspirations of freedom and political status, and is expanding the historical "Arab Belt" demographic engineering project enacted by former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad.

İrfan Aktan

The social, military and political impacts of the war Turkey started on Oct. 9 look like they are going to last a long time. What's being done and the objectives being laid out don't support the government’s statements that it isn’t aiming to change the demographic structure of the region. 

The extremely cunning demographic engineering by the Syrian regime for over a quarter century has affected the lives of Kurds deeply, and condemned them to underdeveloped conditions. But these efforts, engineering, demographic politics, terrible violence, intelligence activities, political murders, even though they prevented a wave of rebellion that started in 2004, also created a sharp historical memory. 

I spoke with Boğaziçi University Ataturk Institute faculty member Dr. Seda Altuğ, who follows the region closely, about the impact of Turkey's war in the region and a brief history of the Rojava Kurds.

According to the 10-point Sochi agreement signed by Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin, YPG will withdraw to 30 kilometers from Turkish border, the Syrian army will move to the border regions (except for Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ayn/Serêkanî), and a joint Russian-Turkish patrol will start at a distance of 10 kilometers east and west of Turkish-controlled areas with the exception of Qamishli. What kind of outcome will this agreement cause for the Kurds?

The Sochi agreement is an important chapter for the post-2012 claims of self-determination by the Syrian Kurds and the institutionalization process that followed under the leadership of the Democratic Union Party (PYD). It’s definitely not the last chapter, but a very important cornerstone nevertheless. For one, this agreement destroys the Syrian Democratic Forces' claim to be the sole ruler in Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor, and other regions that account for nearly a third of Syria's territory—meaning that the agreement caused a big blow to the political dominance of SDF as well. It gave Assad and Russian forces an opportunity to regain control of the region. It undermined the Kurds' dreams of gaining freedom and political status. It turned upside-down the relatively stable lives and future plans of people of all kinds of religions, ethnicities and social classes living with the Kurds in the region. Until now, the internal and external security of Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa, Manbij, Tell Rifaat, Ras al-Ayn, and Tell Abyad was responsibility of SDF. In the latest situation, after both the Sochi agreement and the agreement signed between Damascus and SDF during the conflict, we can foresee how military control will be shared. But there is still no clear road map how this military control will be distributed among the countries addressed. 

Can it be said that Turkey has accomplished what it wanted through the conflict that it started on October 9? 

Through the war Turkey started on October 9, Turkey aimed to damage the autonomous SDF administration in terms of its politics, management, and military, just as it also aimed to injure the power and hope of Kurds regarding both the present and the future. We can assert that after this process and the resulting Sochi agreement, Turkey has achieved these goals to some extent, but not completely.


So is the deal Kurds made with Damascus no longer valid?

The Sochi agreement seemingly invalidated the deal SDF made with the Assad regime on the fourth day of the operation which aimed to establish a joint security line to secure the border. This is because the Sochi agreement foresees the complete removal of the SDF from the border security equation and hands control of the border over to the Syrian regime, Turkey and Russia—exactly as Turkey had wanted. It is for certain that dominance in the region will be shared, and the political and administrative power of the Kurds will be diminished significantly.

But this does not mean the ultimate conditions of the agreement will turn out exactly as Turkey has desired for decades. Even with the Sochi agreement, the governmental, legal and political dimensions of sharing power are still very ambiguous. Also, a lot of commentators are guessing that there will be negotiations between the SDF, Russia and Assad regime at the constitution meetings in Damascus in the upcoming days. I find these claims reasonable. We will all see what will happen at the end of the process.

What's happening in the SDF-controlled areas that are not along the Turkish border?

If we look at SDF-managed territory in both Kurdish and Arab regions, we see that regime and Russian tanks have entered Manbij and Tell Rifaat. But we don't know how administrative authority will be transferred elsewhere. Many commentators think Hasakah, Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa will come under the rule of the Syrian regime. Considering that Hasakah is the administrative center and Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa are oil- and water-rich Arab-majority cities, these comments seem sensible to me.

The same commentators claim the the area between Qamishlo and Derik can be granted a type of local autonomy status, perhaps alongside something like cultural rights as well. There is not much discussion yet about how and under which international authority this might be guaranteed. We also don't yet know how infrastructure issues like law, public order, property ownership, electricity, and water will be stabilized in SDF-managed areas after Turkey's war. Ultimately, PYD had created significant legal institutionalization and Damascus had passed related adjustment laws.

What do you mean?

For example, let me talk about a divorce case from Hasakah which was divided into two jurisdictions—between the SDF and the Assad regime. There was an Assyrian couple living in the SDF zone with two children who experienced irreconcilable differences in their marriage. The wife went to her family home in Qamishlo after a fight and the husband took the children and moved to another location in the regime-controlled part of town. Wanting to get her children, the woman applied to the SDF family court and the "Mala Jin" (Women’s Home) in the area. When the SDF-stamped application documents reached the family court in the regime-controlled zone, they didn't say "these papers are invalid, we don't recognize that authority.” They were accepted as valid and official documents. Because the area has dual governments, even though they don’t recognize one another officially, they recognize each other in practice so that daily life can carry on.

Arrangements were made to harmonize the laws of the two governments. This meant that the court representing the Damascus government in Hasakah had adapted the divorce laws of the SDF into its own internal laws and SDF had done the same. In the end, the woman took back her children in this way. Likewise, the high number of land and property disputes are solved through similar arrangements made in practice between the dual administrative and legal structure, and of course, through the old traditional methods of violence.


Are there ongoing constitution talks in Syria?

There had been constitution talks in Damascus on October 2 under Russian sponsorship before Turkey's incursion. The Arab co-chairman of the SDF was included in these talks.

Why was the Kurdish co-chairman absent?

Probably because of pressure from Turkey. Some Kurds already protested with signs saying things like "No to a new Lausanne" and "We won't comply with a constitution we are not a part of creating." But the talks were suspended when Turkey's military operation began. Surely both the Sochi agreement and the agreement between SDF and the regime include reference to constitution talks in the future. Many people think that a representative of SDF will join these talks, but we don't yet know what will happen. In the end, the Sochi agreement is not a deal that absolutely ends the demands by Kurds for a certain status. 

Is it possible for the Kurds to go back to pre-2011 conditions?

Many observers don't think that’s possible because in a very short period of seven years, under extremely difficult wartime conditions where death, migration, poverty, international threats and uncertainty about future were at their peak, a significant period of institutionalization was seen that was enacted with great devotion. Even with all its problems and shortfalls, a brand new order and structure was built and sustained. Of course there are those who are not content with this management, as well as those who hope for stability and confidence in the SDF region after looking at the destruction in the rest of Syria. Despite the deficiencies in the administration in the areas of political and social policy, Assad is not the only power in the region, and it is unlikely that he will continue to put the Kurds in an oppressed position. 


What kind of era was it for the Kurds before 2011? 

Before 2011, the political arena in Syria was the private property of the Assad family. Demands for rights and freedom were violently suppressed. But the Kurds were oppressed more than all the other social and religious groups; having no identity cards was only one dimension of this. After the anti-regime rebellion started in March 2011, Assad returned their identification documents to Kurds in April, one month after the rebellion started. That way he thought he could have Kurds on his side. But the Kurds replied, "You are not giving us anything, you are merely returning what you stole from us."

What kind of problems does having no identification cards create for Kurds?

It was civil death. They couldn't travel, own property, make their children citizens, go to university or work in the public sector.

When did Kurds start not having identification cards, and how much of the population did it involve?

In 1962, before the Ba'ath Party staged a coup, the Damascus regime took an extraordinary population census in the Jazira region between Ras al-Ayn and al-Malikiyah, including Hasakah, to identify “foreign spies.” The census did not include Kurds from Afrin, Kobani, Hama and Damascus. After this random census, 20 percent of Kurds in Syria had their citizenship taken away. For instance, two people from the same family could be without citizenship while the rest were citizens. It was also sometimes possible to get citizenship by bribing officials. After taking over the government through a military coup in 1963, the Ba'ath Party maintained this demographic policy. It is claimed that the number of Kurds without identification was 12,000 at first but reached somewhere between 200,000 to 300,000 in 2008.

So what was the reason for denationalizing Kurds?

They said, "Because you came here after 1945, you are not the autochthonous, local population of this region." With this, they mostly meant the Kurds who came from Turkey after the Sheikh Said rebellion in 1925. In the end, Syria received a lot of immigration from the Ottoman Empire and Turkey during the First World War and afterwards. Armenians and Assyrians escaping massacres had also gone south of the border.

Did Armenians and Assyrians lose citizenship as well?

In fact, some Armenians and Assyrians also lost their citizenship after the 1962 census. But they chose not to object at first if the person losing citizenship was male. Because the only advantage of not being a citizen is not getting drafted into military service. But over time, through individual applications, Armenians and Assyrians have had their citizenship returned. This was out of the question for the Kurds. They were called "ecnebi" (foreigners) and their children had a new status called "maktum" (unregistered). These children were completely without official documents. The only evidence of their birth was a pink slip given by the mukhtar (neighborhood administrative official).

That document showed their name, last name, place of birth and date. It was said that there were 75,000 maktum children in 1996, most of them living in the villages around Hasakah. I read that it took 29 days to register a maktum child for primary school after going back and forth between the political office, the regional police, the population department and the hospital.


Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970. What were his policies?

The coup d'etat by Hafez al-Assad was called a "correction" movement, meaning that it was a correction of the 1963 coup, in a way. Assad was actually involved in the 1963 Ba'ath Party coup. Therefore what he did in 1970 was organize a coup against his former comrades, leftist Ba'ath members. One of his first projects was to build the famous Tabqa dam on the Euphrates as a symbol of his glorious power. When the dam was built, many Arab villages were submerged.

In which year did this take place? 

Construction had actually started in 1968 but Hafez Assad opened the project in 1973. Assad then took the 4,000 Arab families who lost their homes because of the dam and settled them in the Kurdish region between Serê Kaniyê (Ras al-Ayn) and Dêrika (al-Malikiyah). That was the famous "Arab Belt" policy. An Arab village was placed between every two Kurdish villages. Every family was given almost 500 acres of land. The word ğamır means to overflow in Arabic. Arab villagers inhabiting these villages were called ğamır, those who lost their homes to "overflowing" water. In the end, Hafez Assad diluted the Kurdish population of Jazira region and created a Arab buffer zone between the Kurds of southern Turkey and the Kurds of northern Syria. The names given to these villages by the Assad regime are very remarkable.


What kind of names were they given?

They were named after the villages occupied by Israel in Palestine! The Arab population here are in a way soldiers of the regime. There is a lot of hostility between them and the Kurds until present day because they were settled on their lands.

So where were the Kurds from the new Arab villages driven to?

Some of them were forced to go to southern Syria. Some of them migrated as landless villagers and took refuge in neighboring villages.

It is known that Kurds were involved in the Armenian genocide in 1915. But only ten years after the genocide, the Sheikh Said rebellion of 1925 took place and 15,000 people lost their lives. During this time a significant number of Kurds moved south of the border to the Jazira region and once again became neighbors of the displaced Armenians who survived. Then an organization called Hoybun, which included Armenians but was led by Kurds, was founded. How did Hoybun affect Armenians and Kurds in the region?

Hoybun (Xoybûn) was a political movement founded in 1927 by the Dashnaks (Armenian revolutionaries) and some Kurdish intellectuals, and it had a big role in organizing the Ağrı rebellion. But it was not popular among the Armenian population living in Syria in 1920s. It was a local organization in that sense. The majority of Armenians were living in refugee camps during the 1920s in very difficult conditions, and Armenian parties, missionaries and charity associations had more influence. Rather than its actual political effect, Hoybun was more important because of its cultural heritage and that it was the first Kurdish nationalist movement. For instance, a language school was founded under the guidance of Heverkan clan leader Haco Ağa, the grandfather of the present-day musician Ciwan Haco. Therefore Hoybun is an important organization Kurdish political history, but we can't say the same for Armenians.


How are Armenian-Kurdish relations in the Jazira region?

We can say that it is not a hostile relationship. In Syria, Armenians are educated in their own language. But many families in the Jazira region still speak Kurdish in their homes. Because they came from Batman and Şırnak in Turkey, they still speak with the dialect of that region, even after eighty years. They have lived in the same clans as Kurds. Currently there is no political competition between Kurds and Armenians. In contrast with the Assyrians, Armenians do not have any land or rights claims in northeastern Syria.

Was there ever a time when Kurds held a managerial position in Syrian government?

Even if there was, it was not with their Kurdish identity. For example, the first military coup in Syria was led by a Kurd, Hüsni ez-Zaim. But he did it as a Syrian general, not a Kurd. There are many non-Arab and non-Sunni minorities in the military in Syria such as Kurds, Christians and Alawites because being a soldier is historically not a very respectable profession in the eyes of Sunni Arabs. It is profession preferred by poor Kurds, Alawites and Christians because it provides steady income. But Kurds and other minorities who work for the military or intelligence rise up in the ranks not because of their ethnicity or religion, but because they are Ba'ath supporters.


On which date did the current Kurdish political structure actually emerge?

For one century, Kurdish political activity never ceased. Between 1921 and 1946, because some Kurdish political leaders fled Turkey during French mandate, they were closer to Turkey. Some local and small Kurdish organizations existed in Afrin and Kobani. After 1946, when Syria gained independence, especially after the Mela Mustafa Barzani rebellion, Kurdish politics in Syria turned towards Iraqi Kurdistan. A lot of people from the Jazira region joined the Peshmerga in Iraqi Kurdistan. We can say that the Syrian Kurds were closer to Iraqi Kurdistan and Barzani between 1946 and the 1980s until the emergence of the PKK. 

How did the PKK's influence in the region begin?

Beginning in the 1980s, the influence of the PKK gradually increased, especially as a new player in Afrin. But we can also say that this was a one-sided relationship for a long time. Because the PKK leadership lived in Syria and had relations with Syrian regime, Rojava was not included in the PKK's independent Kurdistan map for quite some time. In short, the Kurdish political map in Syria is fragmented. In the same period, it can be stated that the reason why Syrian Kurds could not create their own political structure is because they always turned to their neighbors or to political structures founded by those who came from neighboring countries. Until 2004, that is.


What happened in 2004?

In 2004 there was a spontaneous, leaderless (especially at the beginning), bottom-up rebellion by the Rojava Kurds. This uprising can be viewed as a breaking point. After the U.S.'s Iraq occupation in 2003, a football team from Deir ez-Zor had a match against a team in Qamishlo. Fans from Deir ez-Zor chanted in favor of Saddam, insulted Barzani and Talabani, and attacked the Qamishlo Kurds. Then things escalated and turned into riots, and the Kurds brought down a statue of Hafez al-Assad in Qamishlo.

How long did the riots last?

They went on for almost a week. The response from Damascus was very brutal. The first accounts showed 30 dead, tens of wounded and thousands of arrested Kurds. Jazira is the most militarized region in Syria with the highest number of regime soldiers. This uprising was a historical moment that marked the first time Kurds took to the streets for collective action since 1939 (with the exception of the Kurdish Nowruz).

Was it only in Qamishlo? 

No, Kurdish university students in Aleppo, Damascus and Latakia had sit-in protests. Although socially and intellectually the Kurdish movement in Syria is weaker compared to Turkey, being Kurdish is experienced sociologically and culturally. For example, there is no language or cultural erosion. 2004 is important in that sense. A movement and a people that had been weak in terms of political capital and geographical and inter-generational distribution became visible in Syrian metropolises for the first time. This was an uprising that greatly surprised foreign observers and was very unexpected. By the way, 10 months after the 2004 riots, there were once again big street protests in Qamishlo in June 2005. This time the protest was about the unsolved murder of famous Naqxi Sheikh Maşuq Xaznawi, known for his brave speeches about the Kurdish issue. Hundreds of Kurds were arrested.


What were the demands in 2004?

The demands were very ambiguous as there was no political backing. The television channel Al Jazeera went to Qamishlo for the first time in 2004 and asked one of the young Kurds about their demands. The young man replied, “We want a federation.” He was killed by Syrian intelligence soon after. This event is historical because it confirms how the state will react to Kurds talking about their demands in Syria.

In 2004, how much influence did the then-3-year-old PYD have on Kurds?

During the Qamishlo uprising, PYD was active in Afrin through PKK but not not yet influential for the Kurdish liberal middle class, intellectuals and students in the Jazira region. On the other hand, the al-Mustakbel Party (Syria Future Party), which had Hevrin Xelef, recently murdered by the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army, as general secretary, and many other Kurdish parties were founded after 2004. The period between 2004 and 2011 is important because Kurds started to create their own organizations. During this time PYD was mostly active within the cultural arena.


When rebellion broke out in Syria in 2011, how did Kurds react?

We can't say it was a homogeneous reaction culturally and in terms of class. Most students were politicized outside of the Kurdish political parties. Just like "Turkishness" here, Kurds who approach politics based on "Syrianness" supported the rebellion wholeheartedly and established local coordination committees to oppose Assad. But by 2012, the PYD began to be more and more active in the field. Meanwhile, there was great tension between PYD and Kurdish groups who favor Barzani and Talabani. The anti-Assad liberal-leftist Arab opposition, and Kurdish youth who shared the same feelings, blamed the PYD for being pro-regime and pro-authoritarian. This view of the PYD by committees and revolutionaries continued until al-Nusra and the Free Syria Army attacked Serêkanî in 2013. With the start of attacks by ISIS, their disputes mostly ended. The Barzani-supporting Kurdish National Council (KNC), which had shown reasonable criticism of PYD in the beginning and offered to share power, gradually came under Turkey's influence, and as of 2019, has lost its social representation. After 2015, in the face of SDF fighters losing their lives in the war against an increasingly aggressive ISIS, very strong feelings of sympathy formed between Syrian Kurds internally and externally. Today, the fact that SDF funerals are attended by harsh critics of SDF and PYD is an important indicator of this. We can say that this sympathy is stronger than ever after Turkey's Afrin and Peace Spring operations.


With Turkey's military operation, Damascus has a stronger hand against Kurds now. Are there conditions to once again establish Ba'ath dominance in Rojava?

I think that the social conditions and representation for this no longer exist. Mostly Kurds, but everyone living in the region, whether they like SDF politics, social policies and leadership or not, are in a state of significant social and emotional partnership because of the self-sacrifice SDF has shown in the last four to five years to protect its lands and their loss of more than ten thousand lives in the process. On the other hand, as distinct from 2011-2013, the main issue is not fighting the Assad regime but fighting Turkey. Turkey's discourse of "we are not fighting Kurds, we are fighting terrorists" is not seen that way on the other side of the border. This is because in that region, unlike Syria's other war zones, there was a certain level of peace, stability and functionality despite all the difficulties. Jazira was the only region where no air bombardments happened during the eight years of fighting. It is because of this reason that so many people running from the air bombardments in Raqqa and Aleppo regions went to Jazira. But with Turkey entering the region, people have become afraid, angry and anxious. And since the Sochi agreement does not include anything regarding social issues, great uncertainty awaits the people in the area. But still, everyone knows that it is not possible to return to the way things were before 2011.

Kurds used to call Rojava the "little South." This meant that it would be the “last place to save” geographically and politically. But now the "little South" has become the center of Kurdish politics. What kind of an impact did the intervention Rojava has faced have on other Kurds and Kurdish politics?

It is for certain that an emotional partnership, solidarity and a sense of looking out for one other exists among Kurds. Just by looking at the protests in the region and in Europe, we can see this clearly. Likewise, it is evident that Syrian Kurds growing this much stronger instills confidence in Kurds all around the world. But in terms of Kurdish leadership, political divisions still seem permanent.

When Turkey's military operation started, an old man from Yüksekova said, "Rojava was a dream, but we woke up and that dream is over..."

The footage of tens of thousands of people loading up their belongings and animals onto trucks to escape air bombardments in the region and the atmosphere of mobilization in Turkey probably fed this feeling in people. But looking at the end of the war, the Sochi agreement and statements made by different players, one can say that the Kurds still have cards to use to negotiate. Above all, they still control oil and water resources. And most importantly, very significant social support is still in play. I think that many people are on the same page about Syrian Kurds not returning to the way they were as social actors before 2011.

What would be the consequences of settling Syrian refugees in the region?

Turkey thinks that the tension created by refugees internally would be lowered and the Kurdish population in the region will be diluted by doing this. This is, in a way, extending the Arab Belt of Hafez Assad. But a second settlement policy in the region will be like planting mines within the already very tense Arab-Kurd relations.