Syria’s social engineering experiment

For decades different actors have messed with the fabric of the northeast, site of a proposed buffer zone

Fighters with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) gather at a scanning area for people who are evacuated from the Islamic State (IS) group's embattled holdout of Baghouz,
during an operation to expel IS jihadists from the area, in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor, on February 25, 2019.   US-backed forces evacuated over 40 truckloads of people from the Islamic State group's last Syria redoubt today, as they sought to clear out civilians before a final push to crush the jihadists. / AFP / Delil souleiman

A proposed buffer zone in northern Syria could cause renewed socio-economic upheaval in a major oil and farming region whose Kurdish militia rulers used social engineering methods similar to the Syrian regime that had oppressed their people.

From Hafez Al Assad to his son Bashar to Al Qaeda, ISIS and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces militia, conquerors of the region along the Euphrates River Valley have altered social structures and neutralised established figures.

They expelled or forcibly transferred populations to solidify their power and install their frontmen, tactics Ankara may not hesitate to employ as it seeks to weaken its Kurdish foes and reduce its Syrian refugee population.

On Friday, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar announced the formation of a joint operations centre with the US to manage a buffer zone along the Turkish border. Turkey cites concern at the influence of Syrian Kurdish forces, which Ankara considers an offshoot of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and argues the proposed zone will allow Syrian refugees to return home.

There was no confirmation from Washington, suggesting ongoing differences with Turkey.

When the US reduced its military presence Syria this year, it limited Washington’s ability to prevent an expanding Turkish sphere of influence in northern Syria beyond areas in Idlib and the Aleppo countryside. It also dealt a further blow to the goal of Syrian Kurdish forces to create a continuous territory along the Turkish border.

FILE - In this file photo dated Wednesday, May 1, 2019, a woman and child sit on a hill overlooking the Euphrates River as families picnic on May Day, in Derik, Syria. Turkey wants to establish a safe zone up to 25 miles (40 kilometers) deep, east of the Euphrates River in Syria, that effectively amounts to almost all the territory in northeastern Syria that is currently controlled by Syrian Kurdish fighters from the People’s Protection Units, or YPG.  (AP Photo/Baderkhan Ahmad, FILE)

Starting in 2012, Kurdish forces took over large areas in Syria’s northeast, first as the People's Protection Units (YPG), and later as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as Kurdish leaders recruited Syrian Arabs into their ranks.

Syria’s northeast is home to the country’s biggest oil field and breadbasket. The area’s population is mixed and is significantly tribal, although Kurds are a majority in a number of cities. Before the 2011 uprising, Kurds were an estimated ten per cent of Syria’s 22 million but were disenfranchised, with hundreds of thousands denied citizenship and not allowed to teach their own language, although the late Hafez Al Assad armed the PKK as a proxy against Turkey.

The Syrian regime had rewarded YPG leaders for helping the regime crush the initially peaceful uprising against the Assad family rule. Later the SDF became the loyal local ally of the US in the coalition’s war against ISIS.

Those who gained from their association with the YPG will mostly flee if the safe zone comes to fruition.

As it expanded, Kurdish forces appointed cadres and their associates as new powerbrokers in the northeast, diminishing many established Arab and Kurdish families. Ultimate authority is mostly held by “Apogis”, the ideologically fervent believers in the personality cult of Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader imprisoned in Turkey.

The new figures solidified their influence by selling wheat and oil to the Syrian regime. The US foiled a deal in May this year between a YPG frontman in the city of Qamishli and a pro-regime company in Damascus under US sanctions to repair a large gas plant near the city of Deir Ez Zor and share the revenue, according to a Kurdish source in the YPG administration.

Socio-political arrangements imposed by the YPG have resembled the Alawite dominated Syrian regime structures under which the behind-the-scene viceroys in the northeast were security agents, while local council structures were erected to give the appearance of grass roots democracy.

One such arrangement appears to have been implemented in the town of Manbij, which the SDF captured from ISIS in early 2017. The SDF appointed Farouk Al Mashi, a tribal figure, to head the Manbij City Council.  Mr Al Mashi is son of Diab Al Mashi, a member of the rubber stamp Syrian parliament from 1954 until his death in 2009.

The elder Al Mashi became well known in Syria as the main figure in the 2003 documentary Deluge in the land of the Baath by Syrian dissident Omar Amiralay. In the film Al Mashi boasts of being the longest serving parliamentarian in the world under a "democratic edifice" built by Hafez Al Assad.

But without US support, Syrian Kurds would not have been able to sustain many of their Arab tribal clients, who now risk retribution if the area falls under Turkish control. If the proposed buffer zone is created, Ankara is likely to send in its proxy National Army, an amalgamation of former Syrian rebel units.

Radeef Mustafa, a prominent Syrian Kurdish lawyer opposed to the YPG said the group has worsened the situation by “acting as a control-obsessed militia not interested in mending society or in the development of communities”.

"The YPG have presented themselves as having a huge societal base but this is just marketing. Those who gained politically, socially or financially from their association with the YPG will mostly flee if the safe zone comes to fruition," Mr Mustafa told The National from the Turkish city of Urfa.

Mr Mustafa led peaceful protests against the Syrian regime early in the uprising in Ain Al Arab, which later became known to the world by its Kurdish name Kobani when Kurdish forces defended the border town against ISIS. But the same force which held ISIS at bay also forced Mr Mustafa into exile for his criticism of the YPG.

Since then, Mr Mustafa has been leading dialogue efforts between Arabs and Kurdish figures from northeast in case of a YPG withdrawal from the proposed safe zone.

“The way to prevent retribution is to show that the issue is not Arab or Kurd but repression that is rejected by both,” Mr Mustafa said.

Syrian refugees might head to the proposed safe zone, if they regard it as a better alternative than narrowing options in Turkey. Mr Mustafa proposes elections in the zone within six months as a step toward building a self-government until a larger political compromise for Syria is reached.

But Turkey has not been interested in pursuing such a scenario in areas under control of its rebel proxies in Idlib and northern Aleppo. These areas include the mostly Kurdish enclave of Afrin, from which the YPG withdrew last year, prompting an exodus of the area’s Kurdish population to regime-held Aleppo and remaining YPG areas in northeast Syria.