Kurds punished for success against ISIS

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.

  1. Qasioun retracts ethnic cleansing charges against Kurds

    Although it has not been translated into English, Qasioun website on June 16 apparently ran a retraction of their earlier story accusing the YPG of attacks on Arab non-combatants, and apologized to YPG commander Nisreen Abdullah for fabricating her quote. According to a commenter below, Qasioun retracted the story after online pressure from Kurds on Twitter. This is some confirmation that a "black propaganda" campaign is in the works here…

  2. Syrian Coalition denies YPG ethnic cleansing

    The opposition Syrian National Coalition, which was reported to have accued the YPG of ethnic cleansing, has now apparently reversed itself. The Syrian Observer reports June 18 that Coalition representative Qasim al-Khatib "arrived at the Turkish-Syrian border near the city of Tal Abyad to dispel reports of forced displacement and ethnic cleansing in the areas." He said it appears that the city was abandoned without any major conflict; that coalition forces did not shell the city of Tal Abyad, only its outskirts; and that two FSA-aligned factions, the Raqqa Rebels Brigade and at-Tahrir Brigade, joined the YPG in the fighting for Tal Abyad.

    Meanwhile, Erdogan will be comforted to know that the YPG has disavowed any aspiration to take Raqqa, because it lies outside the Kurdish demographic zone. "We do not have any plans to attack ISIS in Raqqa," YPG commander and spokesman Redur Xelil told USA Today by telephone in Tal Abyad. "ISIS suffered a major defeat from us, but they are still a danger because they hold a lot of territory in Syria and Iraq. Our priority right now is to defend the areas in Kurdish control."

    1. Syrian refugees return to Tel Abyad

      Today's Zaman reported June 22 that some 500 of the Syrians displaced from Tel Abyad have crossed back into Syria to return to their homes now that the fighting has subsided and the town is securely in YPG hands. Another blow to claims that the refugees had fled YPG attacks, and further evidence that they were simply fleeing the fighting. The report also notes that the refugees began returning after Turkish authorities re-opened the border gate. It isn't clear if it had been closed in the first place to keep more from coming in or to prevent those on Turkish soil from going home…

      Reuters that day also reported further YPG gains against ISIS in the area. Aided by US air-strikes, YPG forces took the Liwa 93 military base, southwest of Ain Issa, which had been in the hands of ISIS for nearly a year. This puts the YPG within seven kilometers of the town of Ain Issa.

      Again… maddening that the YPG are being punished for their success and heroism with a dishonest propaganda campaign…

      1. Kurds take Ain Issa from ISIS

        BBC News on June 23 reports the welcome news that the YPG have taken Ain Issa, putting them within 50 kilometers of Raqqa, the ISIS capital. However, seemingly intent on playing up divisions within the anti-ISIS coalition, Foreign Policy's David Kenner writes in his introdek: "Kurdish troops have advanced to within 30 miles of the Islamic State's capital city. But to push on they’ll have to stop fighting with the Free Syrian Army first." Now that's a pretty irresponsible lede. Given that we are talking about war, the word "fighting" makes it sound as if the YPG and FSA are shooting at each other. Many are clearly eager for this outcome, but fortunately it has not come to pass—yet. A better word would be "spatting." And even that may be exaggerated.

        Kenner writes that the YPG-FSA alliance "fractured when Kurdish forces removed the revolutionary Syrian flag over Tal Abyad, replacing it with the yellow YPG standard. The move, [FSA brigade commander] Abu Ali said, violated an agreement between the two sides that both flags would fly there: As a result, one day after the liberation of the town, he told his brigade that they would be returning to Turkey. 'We sacrificed so many martyrs for this flag,' he said. 'Would you accept your flag being insulted in this way?'"

        The supposed flag incident and fracturing of the alliance has not been reported elsewhere that we can find. Photos of the YPG-FSA joint force have shown both flags flying together.

        The Arab-versus-Kurdish divide-and-rule stratagem being employed (ironically) by both Assad and Erdogan should be repudiated—not encouraged. 

    2. Syrian Coalition ‘confirms’ YPG ethnic cleansing

      After denying it on June 18, the Syrian Coalition issued yet another statement on June 27 saying its observers had "cofnirmed" YPG displacement of Arabs from Tal Abyad. We have to say, that this charge has been rather contradicted by the facts since then. And we also must ask again how many of these supposedly displaced Arabs had themselves earler displaced Kurds from their homes, with either Assad or ISIS connivance. (Or both.) We think this flip-flopping by the Coalition could reflect a split within its ranks between those who favor an Arab-Kurdish alliance against ISIS and Assad, and those who favor an Arab-Turkish allaince against Assad and the Kurds…

      1. PYD accused of abducting Kurdish youth

        BasNews July 17 cited a report on the Rojava News website claiming that PYD forces "arrested several young Kurds under the pretext of forced recruitment" at the town of Hasakah. "This is not the first time that the PYD has kidnapped young Kurds under the pretext of military service." We aren't sure what ulterior motive is being implied by the words "claiming" and "pretext." Not that press-ganging is OK—it sure isn't. But we are not convinced the charge is true.  We have noted that BasNews is based in Barzani's capital, Erbil,and seems to have pro-KDP bias. Rojava News does not seem to have English pages, but it seems to be in the camp of the KDPS, the Barzani/KDP satellite group in Syria. We appeal for clarity from anyone better informed.

        The pro-PKK/PYD ANF News reports that the PYD and the Democratic Autonomous Administration in Rojava just celebrated the anniversary of their revolution, which they mark as having begin on July 19, 2012, when the Assad regime collapsed in the region and the autonomous zone was declared. The PYD "emphasized that both the Baath regime and radical jihadists attacked the historical steps for democracy taken in Rojava." The statement hailed "the July 19 revolution as the future of the Middle East" and announced "plans to establish a Democratic Syria Assembly that would bring together those who seek democracy and unity…"

      2. Skepticism on YPG ‘ethnic cleansing’ charges

        Verda Ozer writes on Al Monitor July 20 that the "US State Department…expressed similar concerns about alleged ethnic cleansing. Its spokesman Jeff Rathke said June 10 that the department was concerned about reports of ethnic cleansing in the area and was 'seeking more information about them.' John Bass, US ambassador to Ankara, went one step further, stating that 'Turkey and the US share common concerns' about northern Syria." But Ozer visited the border zone, crossed over into YPG-held territory—and came back skeptical of the charges. "It seems that the PYD is not discriminating against any particular ethnicity in its closure of the border. Arab and Turkmen refugees on the Turkish side of the border said that they had not been forced to flee, but had run away because of the clashes between IS and the YPG… At the moment its top priority is the fight against IS jihadis. This in turn makes it dependent on everyone's cooperation, including Arabs and Turkmens."

      3. Rojava Kurds accused of TV censorship

        An AUg. 4 report on BasNews charges that the PYD administration in Cizere canton has banned two TV channels: the Rudaw staton broadcast from Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, and the pro-Syrian opposition Orient Channel broadcast from Dubai. The account is unclear on how the signals are actually being blocked, and vague on the reasons given. "The administration accused both TV-stations of publishing false news, and damaging the Rojava revolution." The report also says two Rudaw reporters were detained for one day by Rojava's police force, Asayis. And on July 29, Candar Sernexi, a reporter for the KDP-linked Kurdistan TV and member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria (KDP-S) was arrested in Qamislo.

        We call upon the PYD to provide some clarity on these claims.

  3. ‘Caliphate’ supporters rally in Istanbul

    We've noted before the unseemly ISIS chic that is catching on in Istanbul. Now VoA reports that on June 19 the city saw a 2,000-strong "pro-Caliphate" rally, where ISIS-style Tawhid flags were flown en masse. There are a few convenient fictions here. First, video footage posted to Facebook by Revolution News shows that the flag is just different enough from the actual ISIS flag for narrow deniability. And the rally called for a "Caliphate" without specifically supporting that declared by ISIS. And it was organized by Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is officially "outlawed" in Turkey, but obviously has complete liberty to boogie in public. Marchers blocked traffic on a major thoroughfare, while chanting: ""From Turkey to Egypt, from Indonesia to Morocco, from Lebanon to Kurdistan: caliphate!, caliphate!" VoA adds, "police did not interfere with the rally."

    As Revolution News points out: "If they were yelling 'democracy!' or 'workers rights!' or 'free press' or 'stop rape' they would probably be teargassed, water-cannonned, shot with plastic bullets, beaten up and detained."

    1. Erdogan cracks down on homosexual menace

      So "Caliphate" supporters can boogie unmolested in Erdogan's Turkey, but the Istanbul Gay Pride march was met with water cannons and rubber bullets. Looks like it was entirely peaceful, but took place in defiance of a ban. ISIS flags OK, rainbow flags bad, eh? Check out the video at AJ+