Dispute between the Kurdish Autonomous Administration and al-Asad Regime in al-Hasakah Governorate: Background and Possibilities

EPC | 15 Feb 2021

The competition over areas of influence between the Kurdish Autonomous Administration (KAA) and the Syrian regime in the east of the Euphrates developed into direct tension with the beginning of 2021, as the two parties exchanged sieges on areas belonging to the other side, or related to the environment supporting it in Hasaka (also Hasakah) Governorate. While the two parties, with Russian mediation, reached an agreement on 2 February 2021 to lift the mutual siege on their respective regions, the agreement does not constitute a complete and final solution to the outstanding problems between them, which foreshadows new rounds of dispute.

This paper sheds light on the background of the conflict between the KAA and the Syrian regime in Hasaka Governorate, its dimensions, and the future of the relationship between them.

The field situation in Hasaka Governorate

The Kurdish forces control the greater portion of Hasaka Governorate,* including the neighbourhoods of and entrances to the city of Hasaka (the Governorate’s centre), all of which are under the control of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) and the Asayish (the security apparatus of the KAA).

On the other hand, the areas controlled by the regime forces in Hasaka Governorate do not exceed 10 percent of the total area of ​​the Governorate.[1] The areas under the control of the Syrian regime in the cities of Hasaka and Qamishli are called “security squares” because they contain the headquarters of the multiple security centres. The regime forces' control map is distributed as follows:

  • In Hasaka city: the regime forces control the city centre, which houses most of the state departments in the Governorate, the Governorate Palace (the Justice Palace), and the security headquarters. They also control Mount Kawkab, which is located in the northeast of the city, where the 153rd Special Forces Regiment is located,[2] in addition to the Masaken neighbourhood near the city centre, which is considered a contact and overlap area between the area controlled by the pro-regime National Defence Forces (NDF) and the Asayish.
  • In Qamishli city: the regime forces control the city centre, which is the location of the government complex that houses the courts, the district directorate, the civil registry, and the rest of the service departments. They also control the north of the city of Qamishli, near the Turkish border, which is a security square that houses the branches of the State Security, Military Security, Political Security and the Commercial Bank. They also control the southwest of Qamishli, which is the location of the civilian airport that has been transformed into a military base that houses a branch of the Air Force Intelligence. Nearly 200 metres to its east is a Russian base in the Villas district. To the east of the airport, specifically at a distance of two kilometres in the village of Tartab, the 154th Special Forces Regiment (Tartab Regiment) of the regime's army is located. In the Tayy neighbourhood, named after the Arab Tayy tribe, in the south of the city, the NDF are in control.

The conflict between the two parties is characterised by its security nature, given that neither the regime forces in the region nor the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, QSD), the military arm of the KAA, have got involved in the conflict, which was confined to the Asayish, the security arm of the QSD, and the NDF, which are made up of the sons of the Arab tribes, which are supported by the Syrian security services and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

At the military level, the balance of power in Hasaka Governorate tends to be in favour of the QSD forces, both in terms of numbers and armaments, given that they enjoy open US support and supply routes for weapons from US bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, in addition to the equipment and weapons in their possession, which are the outcome of US armament for many years. In any potential conflict between the two sides, the US forces in eastern Syria are expected to get involved alongside the QSD forces.

On the other hand, and based on field data, the regime cannot get involved in a large-scale military clash with the Kurds in Hasaka Governorate as it does not have sufficient forces for that purpose. Indeed, the security squares have no importance in the military sense, given that they are islands surrounded by Kurdish forces. Likewise, its forces in the camps of Kawkab and Tartab are insufficient to get involved in a long struggle, and the regime would not risk plunging them into the conflict so as not to lose its formal presence in the region.[3]

The regime does not guarantee the intervention of Russian forces on its side in the struggle against the Kurds because that would require a corresponding US intervention, which constitutes a risk that would not be taken by the Russian forces.

Causes and background of the dispute

The immediate causes of the conflict are the claim by each side that the other side is besieging its areas. Indeed, the Asayish forces have surrounded the regime’s security squares in the cities of Hasaka and Qamishli, besieged the neighbourhoods of Tayy and Halako, and prevented food and fuel from entering them. Meanwhile, the regime has besieged the neighbourhoods of Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashrafiya in Aleppo, which are inhabited by a Kurdish majority, in addition to areas in the northern countryside of Aleppo which are inhabited by Kurds, such as Tal Rifaat and the al-Shahba area, which houses five camps established by the KAA for the displaced of Afrin since the beginning of 2018.

As for the indirect causes of the conflict, they are reflected in the following:

  • A reflection of the conflict on the city of Ain Issa. It is clear that both sides wanted to improve their positions while negotiating over the city of Ain Issa in Raqqa Governorate through exerting mutual pressure in their areas of control. While the Assad regime wanted to push the QSD to make concessions in Ain Issa, the QSD aimed to stop the pressure on the part of the regime and Russia in Ain Issa.[4]
  • The arrest by the Assad regime of a number of the QSD members and their transfer to Damascus on criminal charges, and the recent arrest by the QSD of some of the regime’s members whom it described as being mandated by the regime to carry out  assassinations. Indeed, the QSD accuses the regime of assassinating its leaders in intelligence operations, the last of whom being Hamza Tolheldan.[5]
  • The incitement by the Assad regime of the tribes against the KAA, which is considered by the Kurds an attempt to tamper with the security of the areas of eastern Euphrates. Besides, the Kurds fear the NDF, which have close relations with tribal figures close to the regime. The Kurds seek the dissolution of the NDF in order to be able to monopolise the region.[6]
  • The desire of the KAA to achieve gains in Aleppo by supervising the areas inhabited by the Kurds there, both in the northern countryside of Aleppo and in the Ashrafiya and Sheikh Maqsoud neighbourhoods of the city of Aleppo, and allowing its members to operate openly without pressure from the regime forces.[7]
  • Oil constitutes an important cause in the recent dispute, as the regime seeks to obtain a share of the oil controlled by the KAA and prevent its export to opposition areas in Idlib, which has become one of the most important markets for the oil produced by the KAA.[8]
  • The QSD wanted from the siege to weaken Russia's position in the areas east of the Euphrates, as Russia is trying to draw close to the Arab tribes and incite them against the Kurdish presence in their areas.[9]

The positions of the two sides during the negotiations, which took place between them with Russian mediation, reflect the balance of power on the ground, given that the demands of the KAA reflected the desire to achieve long-term strategic gains at the expense of the Assad regime's authority in the regions east of the Euphrates, in the context of consolidating the KAA authority and strengthening the status of the eastern Euphrates region. Its list of demands included: allowing the QSD to establish its own office in Qamishli airport, the departure of the regime forces from the military neighbourhood near the Nusaybin crossing at the border with Turkey, opening the road from the town of Ain Issa in the northern countryside of Raqqa to the town of Tal Rifaat in the northern countryside of Aleppo to the QSD-controlled Ashrafiya and Sheikh Maqsoud neighbourhoods in the city of Aleppo, lifting the restrictions imposed by the regime forces on the Sheikh Maqsoud neighbourhood, which is under the control of the Kurdish units inside the city of Aleppo, and on the city of Tal Rifaat in its countryside, and the disclosure of the fate and release of nearly 700 detainees from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the hands of the Syrian regime.

On the other hand, the Assad regime's requests were limited to lifting the siege on the security squares, ending the restrictions on vehicles and passers-by who want to reach that area, and stopping the intentional restriction on the movement of Assad army members between the cities of Hasaka and Qamishli and the remaining points in the Tal Tamr region, west of Hasaka.[10]

The regime did not demand the dismantling of the Kurdish militia, at least in its areas of control in Aleppo, which now possesses more power than the regime has in those areas. Nor has it demanded to strengthen its influence in Hasaka despite the presence of an Arab majority therein, and the demand by the Tayy and Jabour tribes of the return of the regime’s authority and getting rid of the authoritarianism of the KAA. This reflects the Assad regime's fear of clashing with the US forces, and its desire not to get involved in an unguaranteed confrontation with the Kurdish forces.

The US factor appeared to be strongly present in the recent conflict between the KAA and the Assad regime, as President Joe Biden's administration did not hide its sympathy with and concern for the Kurds. Furthermore, the appointments made by Biden in his administration team confirmed the presence of important members in the administration who support the Kurds, especially the US National Security Council (NSC) Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk, who is known for his strong enthusiasm for arming the Kurds, as well as the new Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin who had overseen the establishment of the QSD, and Zehra Hirji Bell who was appointed as the Director of the Syria Office at the NSC. All those figures have directly worked with the KAA.

The KAA relies on those names to strengthen its position east of the Euphrates, and prevent Russia, the regime, or Turkey from achieving new gains at its expense. Therefore, the KAA's move to siege the security squares of the Assad regime in Hasaka and Qamishli comes in the context of trying to take advantage of the US development to change the equations in regions of East Syria and imposing a new reality.[11]

For its part, the Assad regime, which expects a change in the US approach to the Syrian file, seeks to impose a new reality by expanding its powers and trying to change the balance between the regime and the Kurds in Aleppo and the regions of eastern Syria. Rami al-Shaer, a Palestinian-Syrian diplomat close to the Kremlin, revealed that the Assad regime bets on the Biden administration after it announced its intention to return to the implementation of the nuclear agreement with Iran, and Damascus' estimates that it would be covered by those changes, especially after news of the possibility of review by the Biden administration of the Syrian issue, and the adoption of new policies in the light of this review.[12] In its 7 February 2020 issue, Newsweek magazine quoted the Permanent Mission of the Syrian regime to the United Nations (UN) as saying that Syria is ready to deal with the Biden administration if it recedes from the policies of its predecessors in Syria.[13]

Crisis management policies

The KAA took advantage of the weakness of the Assad regime and its dispersion among many files to establish KAA influence in the regions of eastern Syria. The KAA also took advantage of its awareness of the limits of Russia's ability to impose its policies in a US zone of influence. The KAA sought to bring old issues to the negotiating table in order to obtain gains thereon. However, the Kurds were keen to take into account two important aspects: first, not to provoke the Arab component to a large extent, so the problem was confined to the NDF which, although composed of Arab tribes, is not very popular within them due to the NDF bad behavior; and second, not to take the conflict as leading to the expulsion of the Syrian regime from Hasaka for fear that areas in the Aleppo Governorate under the control of the QSD forces would be exposed to danger, including neighbourhoods within the city of Aleppo, Tal Rifaat, and the city of Manbij.[14]

As for the Assad regime, based on its awareness of the weakness of its position in the dispute, it resorted to the sheikhs and elders of Arab clans and tribes in Hasaka Governorate to mobilise a position against the Kurdish side, and tried through its media apparatus to mobilise the Arab tribes in the eastern region. In this context, it called on its supporters in Hasaka to go out in “standing protests” to pressure the Kurdish forces to lift the siege on its security squares in the cities of Hasaka and Qamishli. The aim of the regime was to shuffle the cards in the face of the KAA and its supporters, namely the US forces, by hinting at the possibility of a civil strife on national grounds.[15] But the regime did not move militarily for fear of losing its presence in the areas of eastern Euphrates, a heavy loss that the regime cannot bear under its current circumstances.

On the other hand, Russia has pursued a policy of carrot and stick in its management of the crisis with the Kurdish side. Russian presented itself as a mediator between the two parties that is keen that they reach understandings that would prevent them from fighting, with the implication that Russia recognises the Kurds as a legitimate party.[16]

But at the same time, Russia made arrangements aimed at deterring the Kurds. It sent more than 250 Russian soldiers to reinforce its base near Qamishli, and allowed the Lebanese Hezbollah to send 150 operatives through Qamishli airport, who took positions at the headquarters of the regime-backed NDF near the airport. Russian forces have also trained elements of the Fifth Corps on detection and radar devices used in artillery.[17]

Russia managed to reach an understanding between the two parties on 2 February 2021 and to lift the mutual sieges between them, that is the lifting by the Kurds of the siege on the regime’s security squares in the cities of Hasaka and Qamishli in return for the lifting by the regime of the siege on several Kurdish-majority areas in Aleppo and its northern countryside, specifically Shahba, Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashrafiya.

However, it is clear from the statements that followed the agreement that it is an unsecured agreement. The Governor of Hasaka Ghassan Salim indicated that “there is no guarantor for this agreement, as we are talking about militias that carry out the dictates of the US occupier”. He underlined that the Russians are the ones who concluded the agreement but that they are not a party to it and do not expect the QSD to abide by its provisions.[18]

Sources close to the KAA said that the two parties have not yet resolved the main differences between them, and the KAA accused the regime of not agreeing to several demands, demanding that it recognise the laws in force in the areas under its control, and the instructions issued by the KAA from a military, political and economic perspective.[19] For his part, Mazloum Abdi, Commander of the QSD forces, criticised the Assad regime for not accepting any concessions that would contribute to instilling confidence between the two parties.[20]

Conclusion

The conflict between the KAA and the Syrian regime in Hasaka is linked to the wider conflict in Syria, whose outcomes are controlled by international and regional parties. The dispute is an expression of the intractable state that characterises the Syrian situation, and the inability of the local parties to the conflict to change its dynamics or influence the existing equations in the regions of eastern Euphrates. The regime, which is going through a stifling economic crisis, seeks to improve its negotiating cards in order to obtain part of the wealth in Hasaka Governorate (oil, wheat and water), while the KAA insists on taking advantage of those conditions by achieving political gains from the regime, especially in terms of the recognition of the KAA structures and its right to administer the areas under its control following the model of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

The change of the US administration and the arrival of Joe Biden to the White House have contributed to changing the expectations of the two parties and their appreciation of the inherent opportunities with the advent of this administration. As far as the KAA is concerned, most of the staff that Biden appointed in influential positions are considered friendly to the Kurds and eager to help them, while the Assad regime, as a result of indications coming from Washington, expects the Biden administration to change its approach to the Syrian issue. Thus, the conflict between the two parties could be put in the context of the process of testing the reactions of the new US administration.

The "incomplete" agreement that the two sides have reached to lift the mutual siege between them (Hasaka versus Aleppo) reflects their waiting for the clarification of the foreign policy of the Biden administration and the nature of its understanding with Russia and Turkey. At the same time, however, the agreement is a fragile one that would not resolve the dispute between the two parties, which makes it more likely that the conflict between them will recur in the coming stages.

Nevertheless, the war between the two sides appears to be unlikely, both directly through their forces or through civil strife between the Arab and Kurdish components. It is not in the interest of the Russians or the Americans to reach this stage. Besides, the presence of their forces in Hasaka constitutes an obstacle to any civil strife that would drive them into the quagmire of a war that would inevitably reflect on both of them.

References

* Al-Hasaka Governorate is located in northeastern Syria, and is bordered to the east by the Iraqi border and to the north by the Turkish border. Among the most important cities in the Governorate are al-Hasaka, the centre of the Governorate, Qamishli (which the Kurds call Qamishlo), Al-Yaarubiyah, Al-Shaddadi, Al-Malikiyah, and Ras al-Ayn (also Ras al-Ain) (which the Kurds call Kobani). Most of the Governorate's population is Arab, with a large Kurdish minority and a smaller Syriac minority in Qamishli and Ras al-Ayn. The Governorate is the main supplier of oil in Syria, where the Rmelan, Al-Hawl, and Jabisa fields are located, in addition to wheat and water resources.

[1] Abdul-Jabbar Akaidi, “The Syrian regime and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, QSD): the inevitable separation”, Al-Modon website, 2 February 2021.

[2] Ameen al-Assi, “The clash between the Syrian regime and the Kurdish Militants in Hasaka: Its Limits and Repercussions”, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed. 7 January 2021.

[3] Abdul-Jabbar Akaidi, op. cit.

[4] Hiba Mohammad, “Following the failure of the Russian mediation: QSD besieges the security squares of the Syrian regime and increases pressure on it in Hasaka”, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, 20 January 2021.

[5] Yahya al-Haj Naasan, “An incomplete agreement”, Orient News, 3 February 2021.

[6] “The sheikhs of 5 ‘large’ clans in eastern Syria call on their sons to defect from the QSD: how and with whom will they fight?”, Orient News, 8 February 2021.

[7] Musab Elhamidi, “Signs of a radical disagreement between the QSD and the regime”, Ayn al-Madina website, 22 January 2021.

[8] Yahya al-Haj Naasan, “An incomplete agreement”, op. cit.

[9] Abdul-Jabbar Akaidi, “The Syrian regime and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, QSD): the inevitable separation”, op. cit.

[10] “The siege of Hasaka enters its second week: the most important negotiating terms between the state and the QSD”, Athr Press, 23 January 2021.

[11] Musab Elhamidi, “Signs of a radical disagreement between the QSD and the regime”, op. cit.

[12] “Zavtra: Is there anyone who bets on a US role in Damascus?”, Rai al-Youm, 8 February 2021 (translation of an article by Rami al-Shaer in Russian-speaking Zavtra newspaper).

[13] Tom O'Conno, “Syria Open to Talks with Biden if US Pulls Troops, Leaves Oil, Ends Militia Support,” Newsweek, 3/2/2021.

[14] Ameen al-Assi, “Syrian Hasaka: Has the relationship between the Kurds and the regime reached a dead end?”, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed. 24 January 2021.

[15] Ameen al-Assi, “The Syrian regime is powerless in front of the QSD in Hasaka”, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed. 1 February 2021.

[16] “The Hasaka and Qamishli crisis: Russian carrot and stick”, Al-Modon website, 2 February 2021.

[17] Hiba Mohammad, “Kurdish forces continue their siege of the regime forces in Hasaka and Qamishli”, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, 1 February 2021.

[18] Yahya al-Haj Naasan, “An incomplete agreement”, op. cit.

[19] Ameen al-Assi, “Diffusion of the Hasaka crisis: the Kurds into a new round of dialogue”, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed. 4 February 2021.

[20] Ibrahim Hamidi, “Mazloum Abdi: An exclusionary mentality of the Syrian regime wants to return to pre-2011”, Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, 5 February 2021.

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