July 28, 2015 / 12:15 PM / in 2 years

Syrian Kurds' spending plans reflect rising ambition

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Kurdish authorities who control a growing area of Syria have ambitious spending plans for their territory, pointing to the rising influence of a minority that believes it is the real target of Turkey’s intervention in the Syrian war.

The Kurdish-led administration has already redrawn the map of northern Syria and its militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), is gaining further ground from Islamic State, helped by air support from a U.S.-led alliance.

Its prime minister, Akram Hasso, says spending will double this year from 2014 as the authorities provide services for a greater population due to the territorial gains.

“We have started projects: health, sewerage, medical, agricultural projects, and local municipality services,” said Hasso, who heads the autonomous administration of the northeast, known as Jazeera province, that was set up last year to fill a vacuum left by the retreating Syrian state.

“Now, the local municipalities are undertaking a project to asphalt the roads in all the cities of the region,” he said in an interview with Reuters conducted via Skype.

In 2016, the budget will hit at least 15 billion Syrian pounds ($55 million), nearly six times higher than last year.

Kurds live as minorities in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Although none of the populations has its own state, Kurds have ruled an autonomous region of northern Iraq since the early 1990s which borders the area now run by Kurds in northeastern Syria.

Syria’s Kurds deny they want to establish their own state, but Turkey is alarmed by their territorial gains which it fears could stir separatism among its own Kurdish minority. This concern is seen as a motivation behind the air strikes Ankara has launched in recent days against Islamic State in Syria and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey and Iraq.

Turkey’s intervention has put the Syrian Kurdish administration on guard: its three regions, or cantons, issued a joint statement on Sunday asserting their legitimate right to self-defense against any “flagrant aggression”.

However, a Turkish official had said earlier that the PYD, the YPG’s political arm, fell “outside the scope” of its operation targeting Islamic State in northern Syria.

The PYD is affiliated to the PKK, although Hasso describes himself as a political independent.

“THE ROJAVA REVOLUTION”

U.S. officials say talks are underway on establishing a Syrian safe zone along the border with Turkey in an area to be cleared of Islamic State fighters and taken over by rebels regarded as moderates by Washington and Ankara.

The idea, long advocated by Ankara, is viewed with suspicion by the Syrian Kurds. Hasso said Turkey wanted to drive a wedge between the Kurdish region of Afrin in northwestern Syria and Kobani and Jazeera further to the east. Collectively, the Kurds call these regions Rojava.

“We are preparing ourselves and - God willing - our people will stand behind the autonomous administration,” said Hasso, speaking from its de facto capital of Amuda, a town near the border with Turkey.

With air support from the U.S.-led coalition, the YPG made a major advance westwards into Islamic State territory in June. Its capture of the town of Tel Abyad on the Turkish border allowed it to link up the Jazeera and Kobani regions for the first time in the civil war.

Where Kurdish officials in Kobani and Jazeera had previously communicated via Skype, Hasso said his administration was now supplying Kobani and Tel Abyad with cheap fuel, flour, medical supplies, and helping to rebuild its sewerage system. “We are trying to supply an infrastructure for our people,” he said.

Jazeera, which broadly corresponds to the Syrian province of Hasaka, is the richest and largest of the three Kurdish cantons, each of which has its own administration. The Jazeera region is bordered by Iraq to the east and Turkey to the north, and includes agricultural lands and oil wells.

Though Turkey has closed its border with the region, the administration can import and export via Iraqi Kurdistan. Hasso said import duties are one source of revenue for his government.

It also taxes agricultural produce grown in abundance this year thanks to heavy rainfall, and sells small quantities of fuel pumped from Hasaka’s oil wells to meet local needs, he said.

Hasso said oil fields under the administration’s control are mostly idle. Production would resume only as part of an agreement ending the four-year-long Syrian civil war, he said, describing the oil as a Syrian national resource.

The Syrian Kurds’ grip over the city of Hasaka expanded this month. It had been split into areas controlled by the Damascus government and Kurds until an Islamic State attack that resulted in the YPG moving into state-held areas to expel the jihadists.

The Kurdish administration fiercely denies claims that it has cooperated with President Bashar al-Assad, though the sides have mostly left each other to their own devices since the civil war began in 2011.

It also denies claims of ethnic cleansing of Arabs and other non-Kurdish groups from areas controlled by the YPG.

Hasso said his administration included all the ethnic groups in northeastern Syria: his deputy is an Arab. He also said tens of thousands of Arabs and Assyrians who fled Islamic State attack’s recent attack on Hasaka had been offered safe haven.

“The Rojava revolution, and the democratic self-administration, has proven its effectiveness and its representation of the people of Rojava,” Hasso said.

editing by David Stamp

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