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.
Farming remains one of the largest sectors of the Syrian economy, and while Syria’s oil wealth is considered inconsequential compared with its eastern neighbor Iraq, it is a significant source of income for the country.
“Petroleum was part of the reason they did this,” said Abdel Samad Daoud, who has written a book about the land confiscations and the attempts to Arabize Kurdish areas of Syria.
Working as an agricultural engineer in a government office in Qamishli, the largest city in Hasaka province, gave Daoud access to documents that detailed the confiscations. He obtained others by bribing government officials.
“I decided to write the book in 1985,” Daoud said. “It took a very long time because I had to work in secret. It took a very long time.”
In 2003, he published the book under a pseudonym. After the anti-Assad uprising began last year, he republished it using his own name.
“From this point until you reach the Turkish border, they took all of the land from its owners. About 90 percent was given to the gumar,” Douad said, using the Syrian term for a group of Arabs whose land was submerged by a dam on the Euphrates River in 1974. The area he was indicating started at the village of Hatmia, about 10 miles south of the Turkish border. About 350 villages lost land, he said.
The Syrian government’s effort to change the Kurdish identity had started well before that – in 1962, the government began actively changing the names of Kurdish cities and villages to Arabic ones, residents of Hasaka province said.
But it was the arrival of the gumar – with their descendants, they now number about 100,000 – that grates most here. Local anti-government activists said there were rumors the government had armed the gumar since the beginning of the anti-Assad rebellion and that in recent months, gumar villages had obtained more weapons in preparation for any Kurdish attempt to take back land.
It was considered too dangerous for a journalist in Syria illegally to attempt to talk to gumar families, many of whom support Assad.
One Kurdish anti-government activist in Qatanieh, a city with a mixed population of Arabs and Kurds, as well as gumar villages on its outskirts, offered a bleak prediction. “Both Kurds and the gumar have been hurt,” the activist said. “The gumar must be given compensation. But after the regime falls, I expect it will be violent.”