David Enders reports: Sattam Sheikhmous still farms wheat on what’s left of his grandfather’s land, shrunk from more than 32,000 acres to less than 5,000 by the Syrian government in 1966.
“They said it was a socialist policy, but we believe it was political,” said Sheikhmous, now in his 60s, referring to the government confiscation of land that began when Syria joined with Egypt, then ruled by Gamal Abdel Nasser, to form the United Arab Republic in 1958.
The land confiscation took place across the country. But in the predominantly Kurdish province of Hasaka, in Syria’s northeast corner, the resettlement of Arabs from another part of the country in the 1970s created ethnic tensions that could manifest themselves violently when the Syrian government fully relinquishes control of the area, now seen by many as only a matter of time.
“We have to ask them to give us our land back. If they don’t, we have to do whatever we need to do,” said Sheikhmous. “It’s not just our land, it’s Kurdish land. If they don’t leave peacefully, we will use weapons.”
With Syria convulsed by a civil war that shows no signs of ending soon, the country’s Kurdish region, fast against Turkey and Iraq, is surprisingly peaceful, thanks to a maneuver by the government of President Bashar Assad, who first granted the Kurds greater rights last year, then surrendered security to a Kurdish militia this summer. While anti-Assad demonstrations still take place here, there is none of the kind of fighting that has convulsed other parts of Syria.
But the history of relations between Syria’s Kurdish and Arab ethnic groups suggests that peace may be short-lived, especially if Assad falls and a successor government clashes with Kurds over long-held grievances. The confiscated Kurdish areas contain both rich agricultural land and oil, and neither will be easy for Kurds to take control of. [Continue reading…]