The Struggle for Syria’s al-Hasakah Governorate: Kurds, the Islamic State and the IRGC

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 7

Al-Hasakah-based Arabs declaring allegiance to the Islamic State in the light of Arab-Kurdish tensions (screengrab).

The Islamic State’s attack on ethnic Assyrian Christian communities in the northeastern Syrian governorate of al-Hasakah in February and the subsequent kidnapping of approximately 220 Assyrian villagers has brought renewed international attention to the region and the complex ethnic and religious conflicts brewing there (Daily Star [Beirut], February 28; YouTube, February 23; al-Arabiya [Dubai], February 23). In addition, thousands of additional Assyrian villagers are believed to have been displaced from their homes by the fighting and forced to join members of their community in the city of Qamishli, in northeastern al-Hasakah governorate, near the Syrian-Iraqi border, while others fled to Lebanon (al-Arabiya [Dubai], March 5; al-Jazeera [Doha], February 28). An ethnically and religiously diverse region, al-Hasakah is emerging as a major focus of the country’s ongoing conflict, complicated by the governorate’s diversity, and the competition for power between a Kurdish-run autonomous regional government dominated by Partiya Yekitiya Demokrat (PYD—Democratic Union Party) that is in turn strongly influenced by the Partiya Karkeren Kurdistani (PKK—Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and communities loyal to the al-Assad government. The situation in al-Hasakah governorate is further complicated by the presence of Syrian security forces who are bolstered by Hezbollah and Iranian trainers, and Arab-majority armed opposition groups loyal to the Islamic State and other factions (YouTube, December 3, 2014). [1]

Al-Hasakah governorate is an important battle space that influences the regional conflict against the Islamic State, as it is through al-Hasakah that the Islamic State connects its holdings in Raqqa, Syria and Mosul, Iraq. The province has broader significance to the region because it is the core territory in the autonomous, Syrian Kurdish-run administration that links Rojava (western Kurdistan) to the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, with a potential long-term effect on the course of regional, transnational Kurdish nationalism. For the al-Assad government and its Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) patron, parts of al-Hasakah are its strongest remaining footholds in eastern Syria, providing a base of operations against the Islamic State and to fight back against the development of an independent or autonomous Kurdish-run administration in eastern Syria.

The Islamic State and Its Opponents

The Islamic State’s recent kidnapping operation focused on 34 Assyrian villages northwest of the governorate’s capital al-Hasakah, centered on the town of Tal Tamar along the Khabur River, a tributary of the Euphrates, and located near the front-line between the Islamic State and the Kurdish-majority militia network of the Yekineyen Parastina Gel (YPG—People’s Protection Units) which are being supported by local, Assyrian-majority militias under the Sutoro (abbreviated from “Syrian Security Office”) organization (Daily Star [Beirut], March 3; YouTube, February 27; YouTube, February 26; YouTube, February 23). The Sutoro militias were formally organized in January 2013 under the command of the local Syrian Military Council, an ethnic Assyrian armed opposition body which is strongly influenced by the Assyrian ethnic activist organization the Syrian Union Party, after the withdrawal of Syrian military units from the area following clashes with YPG (ARA News [Sanliurfa], March 12; Assyrian International News Agency [al-Hasakah], February 28). Since then, the Suturo militias have fought against Arab-majority armed opposition groups, including militant Salafist organizations that have been powerful in this region such as the Islamic State, the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (Victory Front) and Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya (Islamic Movement of the Free Ones of the Levant), with approximately 1,200 ethnic Assyrian fighters engaged in full-time security duties (Assyrian International News Agency [al-Hasakah], February 28; Orient News [Dubai], February 7).

Recently, under pressure to secure the release of the remaining Assyrian villagers seized by the Islamic State, the leadership of the Assyrian Church of the East in al-Hasakah stated that it is against the members of its communities forming military alliances with the YPG, stressed that the hostages were civilians and asserted that church properties were forced to display the image of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad due to pressure from the regime’s security forces (ARA News [Sanliurfa], March 20). This indicates that although Assyrian armed groups are typically aligned with the YPG and are an important component of its local security structure, the continued strength of the Islamic State in Al-Hasakah governorate, and its ability to strike directly at Assyrian villages, as well as the increasing regime presence, are forcing vulnerable communities like the Assyrians to pragmatically assert their neutrality.

Ethnic Tensions

A recent YPG offensive was recently launched in early March against Islamic State-controlled villages south of Qamishli, centered on the large town of Tal Hamis near the Syrian-Iraqi border. This offensive, which is concurrent and separate from a Syrian government-led operation in the same area, is further threatening the Islamic State’s control over strategic areas of the governorate that provide it with lines of supply and reinforcement between its territory in Syria and Iraq (YouTube, March 9; Daily Star [Beirut], March 3; YouTube, February 24). The YPG campaign south of Qamishli is being waged by both Kurdish and Arab fighters, particularly Arab tribal fighters who are organized into the Quwat al-Sanadid (Sanadid Force), which is drawn from local sections of the powerful, transnational Shammar tribal confederation (YouTube, March 1).

Kurdish-Arab relations in the area of Tal Hamis, which had been under Kurdish control until it was seized by the Islamic State, have been strained throughout the Syrian conflict (Orient News [Dubai], September 30, 2014; al-Jazeera [Doha], September 18, 2014). For instance, the Islamic State has effectively used Kurdish-Arab tensions to rally Arab fighters in the area of Tal Hamis to rise up against the YPG. This led to a significant portion of the local Arab population declaring allegiance to the Islamic State (YouTube, February 18, 2014). The area is of strategic importance because of its proximity to the oil fields centered on Rmeilan in the southern Qamishli suburbs. In further evidence of ethnic tensions in the area, in the aftermath of the recent YPG campaign in Tal Hamis, local Arabs were reportedly violently displaced from their homes by Kurds and forced to flee to al-Hasakah city, Qamishli and other areas of the governorate (al-Jazeera [Doha], March 2). For the three major combatant coalitions in the governorate (the Syrian government and its auxiliaries, the Kurdish-led autonomous government and the Islamic State) securing the cooperation of local Arab tribal groups, which are a significant minority in al-Hasakah governorate, or neutralizing them, is key to securing long-term control over the province. [2]

One effect of the reports of YPG (i.e. Kurdish) violence against Arab villagers in the area around Tal Hamis, even if the YPG was assisted by Arab forces, is to allow the Syrian government to present itself as a pan-ethnic unifying force, contrasting with the Kurdish-led autonomous government in al-Hasakah governorate. This narrative is being built into the newly announced loyalist political movement Jazirah Arabiya Sooria (Syrian Arab Jazirah [peninsula/island]), which is seeking to promote a pluralistic message, if heavily influenced by Ba’ath party principles of pan-Arab nationalism, to mobilize pan-ethnic dissent and action against the against the Kurdish-led administration in the greater northeastern region of Syria which is referred to as “al-Jazirah” (al-Akhbar [Beirut], March 3; Syria HR [al-Hasakah], March 2; Siraj Press [Qamishli], November 6, 2014).

This evolving narrative of resistance against the Kurdish-led administration in al-Hasakah is important as the al-Assad regime ramps up its effort to expand its control in the governorate. Core to the Syrian military’s recent campaigns in al-Hasakah governorate are ongoing efforts to recruit, train and deploy local loyalist militias, primarily drawn from Sunni Arab tribes (ARA News [Sanliurfa], March 8; ARA News [Sanliurfa], October 5, 2014; ARA News [Sanliurfa], October 31, 2013). Although the national paramilitary organization of the Quwat al-difa al-watani (National Defense Force—NDF) has been important to the al-Assad government’s limited security regime in al-Hasakah, a more recent effort has been made to aggressively draw sections of the local Arab tribal population more firmly into the regime’s security structure to fight against the Islamic State and Arab-majority armed opposition groups around the governorate’s two major cities of al-Hasakah and Qamishli (ARA News [Sanliurfa], March 8; al-Alam [Tehran], March 5; Yekti Media [Qamishli], November 26, 2014; Siraj Press [Qamishli], November 6, 2014; ARA News [Sanliurfa], October 5, 2014; ARA News [Sanliurfa], October 31, 2013).

The local implementer of this effort, reportedly working in collaboration with the Syrian Ba’ath Party’s Intelligence Bureau chief Ali Mamluk, is the Qamishli-based Tayy tribal Shaykh Muhammad al-Faris (Yekti Media [al-Hasakah], January 17; ARA News [Sanliurfa], May 17, 2014; Militant Leadership Monitor, March 2015). These growing, local loyalist militia forces clashed with YPG fighters in the city of al-Hasakah in January, which is believed to have resulted in the displacement of as much as 70 percent of the Kurdish residents of the city (ARA News [Sanliurfa], January 30; Rudaw [Erbil], January 21; Yekti Media [al-Hasakah], January 17).

The IRGC-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) and Hezbollah trainers have reportedly been working to build the capacity of loyalist militias (Orient News [Dubai], March 3; Rudaw [Erbil], March 1; al-Jazeera [Doha], February 20; ARA News [Sanliurfa], October 31, 2014). Further, Syrian opposition activists in Qamishli, reporting to a credible Syrian opposition-sympathetic news agency, allege that the Sham Wings airline company owned by Rami Makhlouf, Bashar al-Assad’s first cousin and an important regime figure, has begun direct flights from Najaf, Iraq to Qamishli. The stated purpose of these flights is believed to be the transport and deployment of predominately Iraqi Shi’a fighters organized by the IRGC-QF effectively to the battlespace of northeastern Syria (Zaman al-Wasl [Qamishli], March, 20).

The increased deployment of IRGC forces in the region would not be surprising; over the course of the Syrian civil war, IRGC-QF organized Shi’a fighters have been increasingly and more numerously deployed as an expeditionary force actively fighting for the regime in several key theaters of the conflict (Orient News [Dubai], March 9; al-Jazeera [Doha], February 25; al-Arabiya [Dubai], February 19; Syrian Reporter [Dara’a], February 11; al-Arabiya [Dubai], June 9, 2014; al-Arabiya [Dubai], December 13, 2013; YouTube, November 23, 2013). The IRGC-QF force provides an important source of additional manpower for loyalist forces to conduct attacks and to hold areas that have been cleared of enemy combatants.

Increased IRGC-QF influence over the al-Assad government’s security posture in al-Hasakah, especially the deployment of significant numbers of the IRGC-QF’s forces, would be considered a serious threat to the dominance of the YPG in many areas of the governorate. [3] It would also be considered a direct threat by the PYD to the viability and existence of the Kurdish-led autonomous government structure that is the most powerful authority in al-Hasakah. [4] The potential stationing of an IRGC-QF expeditionary force and Hezbollah fighters in al-Hasakah over the long term, in coordination with a larger and more aggressive paramilitary force mobilized largely from local, loyalist Sunni Arab tribes, could thus force a widespread armed conflict between the YPG and regime forces. [5]

Outlook

The most likely significant impact of the current Syrian military campaign in al-Hasakah is the potential expansion of the al-Assad regime’s authority via local, primarily Sunni Arab tribal paramilitary militias that are supplemented by the training and likely the kinetic operational support of the IRGC-QF’s multi-national Shi’a force. The al-Assad government, with the deployment of IRGC-QF forces in al-Hasakah governorate, a secondary or tertiary theater for much of the conflict, is likely attempting to reestablish its predominant position in the governorate, and to sustain that position over the long-term. Pragmatic Sunni Arab tribal leaders, such as those organized by Shaykh Muhammad al-Faris, could join with the IRGC-QF and the Assad regime as a result of calculating that the trend towards greater involvement of Iran will continue, leading eventually to the success of the regime campaign against the Kurds and the Islamic State in al-Hasakah. They may therefore conclude that there is a greater long-term benefit to themselves and their tribesmen on joining the “winning” side sooner rather than later.

A potential return of the regime’s predominance in al-Hasakah governorate, rather than the limited authority and patchwork military presence it has wielded over the course of the war, could allow it to limit or completely suppress the Kurdish-led autonomous government in the governorate. With the assistance of Iran and local Arab tribes, the al-Assad government could potentially be in position to dramatically reverse Kurdish social, political and cultural gains in the region.

Meanwhile, YPG militias, which are predominately oriented towards seizing and holding territory that borders Kurdish-majority areas of al-Hasakah governorate, are likely to continue to seek to mobilize more Arabs into their forces. However, they will be hampered by local Arabs’ long-standing doubt toward the Kurds’ future intentions, fuelled by Syrian government counter-narratives of resistance against the Kurds, specifically over the ideological influence of the PKK on the YPD. The Syrian government could also succeed in mobilizing Arab and non-Arab, ethnic and sectarian minorities such as the Assyrians, Armenians and Circassians, against a Kurdish-led, autonomous region, backed by the threat of a reinvigorated, expanded, and sustained Syrian military presence in al-Hasakah governorate.

The current campaign also presents the Syrian military with the opportunity to move more aggressively to reduce Islamic State control over the overwhelmingly Sunni Arab tribal villages in the southeastern area of al-Hasakah governorate near the Syrian-Iraqi border, particularly those on the Khabur River. If the al-Assad regime can achieve a sustained series of victories on the battlefield in al-Hasakah governorate, which would be won largely by the effort of its local auxiliaries and the IRGC-QF mobilized forces, it could establish a new security reality in the governorate that would have effects beyond reducing the local power of the Kurdish-led autonomous government and the Islamic State. For instance, stronger government control over al-Hasakah governorate, won with the help of the IRGC-QF, geographically expands the influence of the Syrian security forces to a position where it can co-opt local actors, especially Arab tribes, against its opponents.

In addition, positioning regime assets and inserting IRGC-QF forces in northeastern Syria could not only limit the socio-political space for the U.S.-led train-and-equip program for opposition fighters, it would also put direct, regime-led pressure on the Islamic State strategic depth in Syria. In turn, this could position the al-Assad government and its IRGC-QF allies to the international community as essential partners for countering the Islamic State and other militant Salafist organizations, as has happened in Iraq. This would limit the military and diplomatic options for states currently calling for the removal of the current Syrian government and undermine the hopes of regional actors such as Saudi Arabia and its allies that are seeking a achieve a severe reduction in Iranian influence in the Middle East.

Nicholas A. Heras is a Middle East researcher at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and an associated analyst for The Jamestown Foundation.

Notes

1. For more information about al-Hasakah governorate, see Nicholas A. Heras, “The Battle for Syria’s al-Hasakah Province,” CTC Sentinel, October 24, 2013, https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/the-battle-for-syrias-al-Hasakah-province.

2 For more information about the importance of Arab tribal groups in al-Hasakah and their conflicting loyalties, see Wladimir van Wilgenburg, “Kurdish Enclaves in Syria Battle Islamist Militant Groups,” Terrorism Monitor, May 2, 2014, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?tx_ttnews[swords]=8fd5893941d69d0be3f378576261ae3e&tx_ttnews[any_of_the_words]=Pakistan%20Frontier%20Corps&tx_ttnews[pointer]=11&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=42303&tx_ttnews[backPid]=7&cHash=741933e62cca606c82261295b58de18b#.VRbNRuEe1nA; Wladimir van Wilgenburg, “Kurdish Strategy Towards Ethnically-Mixed Areas in the Syrian Conflict,” Terrorism Monitor, December 13, 2013, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/tm/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=41754&cHash=bbedc896f6cefadf8d7284fe2c7fe764#.VRbM9-Ee1nA; Nicholas A. Heras and Carole A. O’Leary, “The Tribal Factor in Syria’s Rebellion: A Survey of Armed Tribal Groups in Syria,” Terrorism Monitor, June 27, 2013, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=41079&no_cache=1#.VRbNueEe1nA; Carole A. O’Leary and Nicholas A. Heras, “Syrian Tribal Networks and Their Implications for the Syrian Uprising,” Terrorism Monitor, June 1, 2012, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=39452#.VRbOPOEe1nA.

3. Viber interview with an ethnic Kurdish YPG fighter from Qamishli, March 15, 2015; Viber interview with an ethnic Kurdish YPG fighter from the village of Maabadi, near Tal Hamis, March 5, 2015.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.