RAS AL-AIN, Syria — The Mesopotamian Al-Jazira plain is populated by a majority of Arabs, but the northern districts of the province of Hasakah, including the two main cities Qamishli and Hasakah, will soon see the first steps of a Kurdish-led administrative and political decentralization. Arabs here hold different views on Kurdish autonomy, ranging from support to skepticism and opposition. Regardless of the political shape of these regions, it is urgently necessary to reconcile both communities and solve the land disputes caused by the presence of Arab settlers, in order to ward off a Kirkuk-like ethnic strife.
"The self-management plan won't discriminate among the different communities," said Ahmad al-Ahmad, an Arab staff member in the Ministry of Education from al-Jabriyya, a village next to Amuda. "Therefore, I support it. We want to see locals, whether Arabs or Kurds, managing and developing these regions," he told Al-Monitor. Ahmad is originally from Tabqa in Raqqa province and he settled in al-Jabriyya 37 years ago. He belongs to the so-called maghmurin, "flooded," Arab tribes resettled by the government along the northern border of the province of Hasakah in the 1970s, in order to compensate them for the loss of their lands flooded by the construction of the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates between 1968 and 1973. It was part of the Arabization plan drafted by Hasakah's police chief, Mohammad Talab Hilal, in 1963 to change the demographic balance at the expense of Kurds.
In a city like Ras al-Ain, where graffiti celebrates the expulsion of the Arab opposition at the hands of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) on July 17 and rockets keep being launched from the neighboring villages controlled by the rebels, some Arab residents show no hesitation in praising the YPG.
"Most Arab tribes are relieved by the departure of the Free Syrian Army [FSA] fighters," an Arab electrician told Al-Monitor. "People initially welcomed them when they liberated the city from government troops [in November 2012], but they regretted this after the arrival of looters belonging to the brigades of Ahrar al-Ghoyran, Ahrar Manbij and others."
Despite the preference accorded to Kurdish militias, Arabs in Ras al-Ain are far from convinced of the merits of political decentralization without an effective Arab-Kurdish reconciliation.
"Relations are tense; the percentage of mixed marriages is low. Before any self-management plan you need to clean hearts from fences — that means reaching an agreement between Arab and Kurdish tribes," an Arab teacher who works in a Kurdish neighborhood told Al-Monitor. “First of all, you have to explain to Arabs what the Kurdish slogans and projects stand for. After two Arab boys were arrested by the YPG for a murder in a nearby village, their father asked incredulously what entitled them to carry out arrests," the electrician, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, explained.
The main Kurdish coalition, the Kurdish Supreme Committee dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), understands perfectly that it needs to soften the terms of autonomy to reassure the opposition, the regime and other communities in general.
"The Kurds realized they need to find common ground with the other Syrian components. Therefore, they referred to the draft of a 'social contract' rather than a constitution, besides to stressing the administrative nature of this decentralization," Hajj Bakr al-Husseini, a Democratic Arab Socialist Union (ASDU) member from Amuda, told Al-Monitor. Nevertheless, such decentralization includes the formation of a "temporary" administration with executive powers and the election of a legislative assembly. The paralysis of the central government caused by the ongoing conflict might actually accentuate the need for political autonomy for these relatively stable areas.
Arabs and Kurds continue to hold divergent views on the fate of the maghmurin settlers, a question likely to ignite tensions in the near future under any Kurdish administration. Arabs recognize that the maghmurin profited from the agrarian reform, but they belittle its anti-Kurdish bias.
"I know maghmurin who were entitled to 40 dunams, since they were given self-sufficient rain-fed lands, but they obtained around 230 dunams," recalled the electrician from Ras al-Ain. "Kurds are not the only ones who lost land: 80% of our lands in Tabqa were flooded or sold to Arabs from the province of Hasakah, while some Kurds received lands in Hasakah, too," al-Ahmad told Al-Monitor.
"The Kurdish aghawat [tribal chieftains] played a negative role, as they didn't agree to allot lands among their poor relatives to circumvent the confiscation of properties exceeding the legally permitted size,” al-Husseini told Al-Monitor. "Less than one fourth of the lands were redistributed according to the political decision and they should be given now to the poor people, not to the original landlords, regardless of their ethnicity," al-Husseini continued.
Kurds admit the responsibility of the Kurdish aghawat in land dispossession, but they see the question under the lens of a racist policy waiting for compensation.
"I don't deny that Kurdish landowners share responsibility for what happened, but there was a policy of Arabization. Look how these villages were called: Haifa, Kufa," said a Kurdish law student from Ras al-Ain, pointing at the settlements named after Arab cities on the road to Dirbasiyyah. When he needs to travel to Hasakah to take his exams, the only viable road is from Dirbasiyyah, as Arab jihadists force Kurds to get off buses on the way from Ras al-Ain.
"In the end, the PYD believes in a Kurdish homeland and I'm confident they'll expel the maghmurin or levy taxes to allow them to remain on Kurdish lands," a Kurdish Syrian telecommunications worker told Al-Monitor.
In the context of the ongoing conflict between Arab jihadists and the YPG, the maghmurin might represent a menace for the Kurdish authorities, as the threat looming over their territories might prompt them to side with the rebels.
"The Kurds should remember that if it weren't for us [the maghmurin], the FSA would be already here. The rebels contacted us, but we refused to shelter them in Jabriyya to avoid government shelling," said al-Ahmad. "The maghmurin could be dragged toward supporting the rebels if they feel that their lands are endangered," admitted the electrician from Ras al-Ain.
As they pave their way toward autonomy, the Syrian Kurds need to win over support from the Jazira plain's Arab majority. The successful strategy pursued over the last year has been to provide security to legitimize the new Kurdish institutions. However, Arab residents still need to be reassured that the Kurdish rise won't mean indiscriminate retaliation for Baathist policies.
Andrea Glioti is a freelance journalist who covered the first five months of the Syrian uprising from inside the country. His work has been published by the Associated Press, IRIN News, openDemocracy, The Daily Star (Lebanon), New Internationalist and numerous Italian and German newspapers.