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Murder of Arab Families in Hassakeh Points to Rising Tensions Between Islamists and Kurds

Arab families living on Yezidi land are targeted. What does it mean for the fight between ISIS and the YPG?

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

On Friday, Amnesty International said that fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had targeted and killed Arab families living and working in the farming village of al-Tleiliye in Kurdish-controlled Hassakeh province. The 15 dead included seven children.

The killings come as fighting intensifies in the area between ISIS and the Kurdish YPG, or People’s Protection Units, the militant armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), now the predominant Kurdish group in power.

During more than three years of Syria’s conflict, the largely Kurdish northeast has been considered one of the safest areas of the country. These attacks point to deepening tensions between the extremist fighters of ISIS and local Kurdish populations, particularly members of the Yezidi sect.

“The attacks appear aimed at terrorizing and forcibly displacing the community living in the area,” Philip Luther, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa program director, said in a statement. The organization “fears these civilians were killed as retribution for their perceived support of the YPG, either directly or indirectly through their Yezidi Kurdish landowners, or because they were mistaken for Yezidi Kurds.”

Also last week, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that ISIS kidnapped 150 school-aged Kurds and is now forcing them into Islamic training.

We asked Cilina Nasser, Amnesty’s Syria, Lebanon and Jordan researcher, to explain what triggered last week’s killings and why Arab families in Yezidi areas have now become targets.

Syria Deeply: Why were these families suddenly targeted?

Cilina Nasser: The killings happened shortly after an escalation in the clashes.The YPG is in control of storage places for large amounts of grain from neighboring villages, and ISIS wanted to share these grains. And the YPG basically refused. Then there was an escalation in the fighting, in part due to control of the grains.

At least one of the Arab families targeted was living in a house that belonged to a Yezidi Kurd. Arabs are [living in Yezidi homes] either because they worked on the [farmland] owned by the Yezidi even before the uprising began, or because they were displaced after the conflict began and came to [Yezidi land seeking shelter].

All the Yezidi Kurds either left Syria last year, or they relocated somewhere else inside Syria. But many left the country, because ISIS, and at that time, in 2013, other armed opposition groups that considered them “infidels”, grew and started having a presence in nearby areas, so they got scared.

They are a very small minority even within the Kurdish community.The targeting of the Arabs could be linked to their working for the Yezidi Kurds. [The rebels believe that] the property of the so-called infidels should be confiscated and given to Muslims. Jabhat al-Nusra did that in 2012 and 2013: they confiscated land from Yezidi Kurds in other villages and took away their [farming] equipment.

So these Arab families were targeted either because they were perceived as supporting or helping to protect the Yezidi Kurds’ property, or because they were seen as supporting the Kurdish YPG, [by] harvesting grain and giving it to the YPG. It’s unclear which one. But it is definitely linked to them being perceived as supporting the Kurds.

Syria Deeply: Who are the Yezidi? Are they more vulnerable to attack because of their beliefs?

Nasser: Yezidis are non-Muslims and they have all fled areas in close proximity to ISIS and other non-state armed groups claiming to set up an Islamic state. In mid-August 2013, Arab families with good relations with the Yezidi residents of al-Assadiye told the people to leave the village because at that time, Jabhat al-Nusra was planning to come in and kill everyone. This came a day after an incident whereby Nusra abducted a Yezidi man from his home in al-Assadiye called Ali Sa’ado. After receiving the threat, all families immediately left the village without having the chance to take their possessions with them. Within an hour, the village was empty.

Shortly afterwards on that same day, Nusra entered the village and took full control. Later in the day, the Arab family, with good relations with the villagers who have fled al-Assadiyeh,informed the Yezidi families that Ali Sa’ado was killed, and his body was sent with the Arab man to the family.

After this incident, Yezidis in close proximity to groups perceiving them as infidels were either relocated to safer areas in Syria or left the country.

Syria Deeply: Also last week, the Syrian Observatory said that 150 schoolchildren were kidnapped by rebel forces and taken to Islamist training.

Nasser: This would be huge, if it was true. Usually if Kurdish people happen to come across a checkpoint manned by ISIS, they are targets. They will take them and at least detain them. I documented incidents last year about Kurds who were taken to detention just because they were Kurds, and were thus [suspected] of supporting the YPG in their fight against ISIS.

Syria Deeply: Do incidents like these increase fear among remaining Syrian Kurds? Or are they seen as isolated incidents?

Nasser: Most of the Kurdish areas in Syria are controlled by the Kurds themselves, by the YPG. It’s a popular group, but there are Kurdish activists who do not like the way they are committing abuses. That’s why for the Kurds, the level of fear [generally] is not high. Because ISIS is not going to invade Qamishli, for example.

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