The Syrian Democratic Forces have the Islamic State on the run in Al-Hasakah. In the last week, the Arab-Kurdish alliance, dominated by Kurdish YPG forces and backed by US-led coalition airstrikes, captured a series of villages and towns southeast of Al-Hasakah city, most notably al-Hawl. The town previously served as a waypoint for the Islamic State between Iraq and Syria.
The gains are fueling fears among Al-Hasakah’s Arab residents that the YPG will annex their territory into the semi-autonomous Rojava Kurdish state.
An October report from Amnesty International documented a “wave of forced displacement and home demolitions amounting to war crimes carried out by the [Kurdish] Autonomous Administration,” of which the YPG is the military wing.
The Amnesty report confirms Syria Direct’s reporting in March that the YPG fighters burned Arab villages in Al-Hasakah after capturing them from IS. According to a local Arab journalist, there has been an effort to “change the demographic map” of the province, the northern majority-Kurdish areas of which have already been incorporated into the Rojava state.
From the beginning, Arab brigades maintained only a symbolic presence in Al-Hasakah. As a result, the responsibility of defeating the Islamic State in the province has fallen to the Kurds, “because there isn’t any territory that Arab forces could concentrate in to start liberating from,” says Abu Jad al-Hasakawi, an Arab activist from the Hasakah countryside.
“The YPG is in control,” al-Hasakawi tells Syria Direct’s Ammar Hammou.
Q: Do you think the Arab residents of towns such as al-Hawl would rather live under IS or SDF rule?
We refuse to live under the rule of either, however I must mention an important point. When IS enters an area, it punishes individuals who have stood against it. The YPG’s punishments are collective; they will forcibly displace an entire village. When we have said this previously, the YPG has accused us of supporting IS.
Q: Some activists have expressed concerns that Kurdish SDF forces will displace or arrest Arab civilians in al-Hawl. Is this fear based on previous behavior by SDF forces?
There are plenty of examples of forced displacement by the YPG and the arrests of civilians from areas like Tal Hamis and Tal Burak. There are reports in the press and on the Syrian Network for Human Rights as well. Amnesty International also published a report about these types of abuses.
Q: Are Arabs in Al-Hasakah worried that the Kurds intend to annex their territory into a Kurdish state?
There are most certainly these fears.
Q: Why aren’t there any Arab forces that can re-capture Arab areas from the Islamic State?
Because there isn’t any territory that Arab forces could concentrate in to start liberating from. The YPG is in control. Also, all the supporting funders want Arab forces to work with the YPG, and this is something opposition Arab factions refuse. We see the YPG like we see IS, trying to control these Arab villages.