Talk about "No good deed goes unpunished." Now that the Kurds of Rojava (northern Syria) are nearly within striking distance of Raqqa, the ISIS de facto capital, charges are mounting of a campaign of ethnic cleansing by Kurdish forces against Arabs and Assyrians. BBC News on June 15 reported the welcome development that the Kurdish-led People's Protection Units (YPG) have taken the border town of Tal Abyad from ISIS. From here it is a straight shot of less than 100 kilometers down a major road to Raqqa (see map). The report says that more than 16,000 residents have fled the Tal Abyad area into Turkey—but only says they have fled the fighting, not targeted attacks by the YPG.
As we've noted, the charges of targeted ethnic attacks on non-combatants have emerged from the Turkish state media and Turkish-backed Syrian rebel forces, and have only in recent days been taken up by more mainstream media sources in the West. Amnesty International has not made note of the claims. We urge that the sources be considered. As the YPG has advanced towards Raqqa following the liberation of Kobani earlier this year, you could sense the panic rising in Turkey's corridors of power. Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan was even accused of tilting to ISIS during the siege of Kobani; the seizure of Raqqa by Kurdish forces would be viewed by him as an unmitigated disaster.
One mainstream Western account, Reuters of June 16, includes the following text: "The YPG denies accusations of ethnic cleansing, and the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict with a network of sources on the ground, says there is no evidence of systematic YPG abuses."
In what appears to be the first corroboration of abuses by Kurdish forces, the Syrian opposition website Qasioun reports June 16 that the local YPG commander Nisreen Abdullah has "apologized" for "migrations" (presumably meaning deportations) of Arabs from territory taken from ISIS in northern Raqqa governorate. Abdullah reportedly said those responsible for the expulsions would be punished.
So far, we have this one account, in poorly translated English. Meanwhile, the propaganda pile-on against the Rojava Kurds has taken on a life of its own. Facebook partisans are circulating a Human Rights Watch report from June 19, 2014, entitled "Syria: Abuses in Kurdish-run Enclaves," accusing authorities in the Rojava cantons of arbitrary arrests, unfair trials and use of child soldiers. This report confirms our opinion that HRW is more compromised by imperial viewpoints than Amnesty International. The accompanying video is especially embarrassing. It is entitled "UNDER KURDISH RULE"—words that appear on the screen to ominous background music, as if Kurdish rule were inherently a bad thing. To such manipulative background music, we are given accounts of dissidents held for months without charge and tortured—and denials of these accusations by leaders of the Rojava cantons. The dissidents seem to mostly be followers of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria (KDPS), which is in the orbit of Iraqi Kurdish strongman Massoud Barzani.
We're also told that youth under the age of 18 are recruited, and that "despite promises to stop the problem persists." However, a close reading indicates that youth are not being recruited into the YPG and sent to the front to fight ISIS, but into the Asayish, Rojava's internal police force. (We're not saying that makes it OK, but it does make the claim of "child soldiers" not quite accurate.)
The most serious charge concerns a June 27, 2013 incident at Amuda (in Jazira canton), in which YPG forces fired on protesters, leaving three dead. Demonstrators were protesting the "arrest of Kurdish [KDPS?] political activists," when they ran into a YPG convoy returning from the front. Nobody is claiming that the YPG was actually mobilized to confront the protesters. Rocks were thrown, the YPG troops fired into the air—and then into the crowd. Kanan Barakat, head of security for Jazira, tells HRW that the troops fired only after receiving fire from the protesters—a claim dismissed as improbable by HRW. Tellingly, in video footage of the incident, protesters are heard (with translation in subtitle) yelling "Shabiha get out!" The Shabiha is the Bashar Assad regime's paramilitary force. So this epithet speaks to the calumny against the YPG that they are collaborators with the dictatorship.
HRW does give the Rojava Kurds creds for allowing them and other rights groups access to their territory, and it is evident from the video that the HRW team was able to move around and conduct interviews quite freely.
Facebook partisans have also dug out a Nov. 28, 2013 story from the Kurdish Rudaw website in which Salih Muslim, leader of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) which rules in the Rojava cantons, said: "Syrian government policy has brought many Arabs to the Kurdish areas… One day those Arabs who have been brought to the Kurdish areas will have to be expelled." This is a discomfiting quote, but it is nearly two years old and contrasted by the actual experience of a multi-ethnic democratic experiment that has unfolded in Rojava since then, including Arabs. We also must acknowledge that the question of what to do about state-supported settlers on the lands of a colonized people is a legitimate and vexing one. Ask the Palestinians.
The YPG are virtually the only force that has been effective on the ground against ISIS, and we insist that this success is related to the fact that they have good politics and actually stand for a positive alternative—as opposed to merely being a rival reactionary sectarian force, like the Shi'ite militias in Iraq. Whenever you have a militarized environment, there is potential for abuse. And nobody should be held above scrutiny or criticism, under any circumstances. But it is clear that accusations are now mounting against the Syrian Kurds for political reasons. We await further clarity on these charges from the Rojava authorities and Amnesty International.