The Syrian Kurdish Region: A Geographic Analysis
The Geography of the Syrian Kurdish Region (SKR) has at times inhibited and aided the development of Kurdish autonomy. The most striking distinction of the SKR in comparison to other Kurdish regions is terrain and elevation. In contrast to the Kurdish regions of Iraq, Turkey, and Iran where the elevation is often over 5000 feet above sea level, the SKR has an elevation generally between 1000-2000 feet above sea level. The over 2,000,000 Kurds of Syria have no mountain sanctuary or genuine natural defense comparable to Kurds in other countries. This, coupled with political factors has contributed to the lack of effective Syrian Kurdish mobilization prior to the Syrian Civil War. Before hostilities, the Syrian regime enforced central control in the SKR without geographic obstacles.
With the Syrian regime is now minimally present in the SKR, control of terrain is changing at an extraordinary pace. From December of 2014 until June 2015, fighting against ISIS Kurdish forces and allies have expanded the Kobane and Cizire Cantons to a meeting point in the Tell Abiad region. The joining of the cantons is a historic achievement for Kurdish forces and allies. Kobane is now directly linked to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, this factor decreases reliance on Turkey for transit between Kobane and the KRG. A closer look at the geographic features of the SKR provides additional perspective to the ongoing developments.
- The Afrin Canton is home to the most mountainous terrain of the Kurdish Cantons (Afrin, Kobane-Cizire). The region termed “Kurd-Dagh” (Kurd Mountains), crosses between Afrin and southwestern Turkey. Afrin is also the most isolated Kurdish Canton in Syria. While Kobane and Cizire are now connected, Afrin is surrounded by a number of opposition forces, the Syrian Arab Army, and the Turkey. The isolation of Afrin from other Kurdish regions is a major strategic and logistical challenge for Kurdish coordination within Syria. The greatest topographic advantage of the Afrin Canton is the Afrin river basin which runs from Mersawa until Mila Xelîl. The Afrin river basin provides a genuine geographic obstacle to invading forces.
- Approximately 95 kilometers east of Afrin is the Kobane-Ciziri canton, stretching from the Euphrates to the Tigris river. This region has less drastic topographic features than Afrin. The Kobane-Ciziri Canton has two points of higher elevation. The areas around Kobane city in the West and al-Qamishli in the East region are regions of greater elevation. Lower elevations are recorded in the Euphrates, Al-Khabur, Al-Balikh, and Tigris river valleys.
- As the Kurdish militias and allies have consolidated power the movement of personnel and goods between the KRG and the Kobane-Cizire Cantons increased in pace. This development has proved strategically advantageous to Kurdish militias. The Kobane-Cizire region serves as the logistical and economic base of the SKR. YPG/YPJ forces and allies in the region have steadier supply routes as well as decreased vulnerability to attacks along such routes now that Kobane and Ciziri are unified. Additionally, economic lines between the Kurdish regions of Syria and those of Iraq are now mostly linked, with the exception of the Afrin Canton. Despite this, the new depth of terrain in Kobane-Cizire is a strategic challenge for YPG/YPJ forces and allies.
An important strategic feature of the SKR is the availability of fresh surface water. The SKR contains a number of rivers, tributaries, and seasonal streams (wadis). It is along these surface waters that the agriculture of the SKR thrives. Furthermore, the vast majority of villages and cities lie on a tributary, wadi, or river. Most of the water channels are natural, however man made canals and dams exist. Amidst the Syrian Civil War freshwater and local agriculture has aided the staying power of Syrian Kurdish militias.
- Water sources of the Afrin Canton include: the Afrin River, the Maydanki Reservoir, and a number of wadis. The Afrin River originates in Turkey, flows through the Afrin region from Mersawa until Mila Xelîl and returns to Turkey.
- The Euphrates river in the West and the Tigris in the East mark the borders of the Kobane-Cizire Canton, respectively. Along both the Tigris and Euphrates are a number of tributaries and wadis. The Tigris makes up a section of the Syrian-Turkish border and the Syrian-Iraqi border. Furthermore, between the Tigris and Euphrates lie two major tributaries resembling small rivers, the Al-Khabur and al-Balikh rivers.
The SKR does not have direct access to a sea port. The landlocked character of the SKR is its most significant geographic disadvantage. Lack of port access is a major economic inhibitor and causes the SKR to be reliant on surrounding countries for imports and exports. That being said, mild terrain and the availability of fresh water in the SKR has acted as a mild compensation for a lack of direct port access.
The mild terrain that once aided the Syrian Regime’s control of the SKR now allows for Kurdish militias and Arab allies to operate without major geographic barriers. In general, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and Air Force (SAAF) are tied down by more threatening groups including: ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and Syrian Opposition Forces closer to the coastal Alawite territory, Damascus, and Aleppo. The SKR is no longer a top priority for the Syria SAA and SAAF. Meanwhile, the Kurdish YPG/YPJ and allies continue to demonstrate battlefield success against ISIS, particularly in the Kobane-Jazira region. With the unification of the Kobane and Cizire Cantons and the positive geographic features of the SKR, Kurdish governance has the physical foundations for the further development of governance.