Turks and Kurds trade Syria ethnic cleansing accusations

As the violence continues between Turkish forces and a Kurdish-led militia in northeast Syria, the Kurds and their backers and Turkey and its supporters have been charging each other with war crimes and ethnic cleansing - and both seem to have a solid case. 

Numerous reports have emerged in recent weeks of Turkish-backed Syrian rebels violating international law, such as a video in which Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf appears to have been executed along a highway. 

In another released this week, a Turkish-backed rebel appears to shout “kill the pigs, kill the infidels” as he goes door-to-door marking which home belongs to a Kurd, which to a Christian, and which to a Muslim Arab, with the expectation that he would burn the first, loot the second and leave the third untouched. 

“This reaffirms what Kurds have been saying regarding the Turkish plan for ethnic cleansing in the Kurdish areas of northeast Syria,” Abdulla Hawez, an independent Kurdish affairs analyst, told Ahval in a podcast. 

Nicholas Heras of the Center for New American Security told the Telegraph this week that Turkish intelligence may have passed on Ankara’s preference for a non-Kurdish presence to the Syrian rebels under its command. Yet Hawez doubts Turkey advised its rebels to violate international law. 

“It doesn’t make any sense for Turkey to tell them to act in such a bad way because it’s hitting Turkey’s image globally,” he said. 

Turkey has faced international condemnation for its offensive in northeast Syria, launched on Oct. 9 in an effort to clear the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), from its border. The incursion has displaced some 300,000 people, many of them Kurds, and some who have attempted to return have reportedly been asked a series of questions starting with “are you an Arab or a Kurd?”

The United States has threatened sanctions against Turkey for the offensive, while the European Union has implemented an arms embargo. Watchdog groups and prominent observers like former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power have accused Turkey and its rebels of ethnic cleansing, in part because of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s plan to resettle up to 2 million mainly Arab Syrian refugees in the area. 

“This is a strong and troubling indicator that the Turkish government aims for permanent demographic change, which is the hallmark aim of ethnic cleansing,” Tufts University professor Bridget Conley, who teaches a course on mass atrocities, said last month

Ankara-based political analyst Ali Bakeer believes Turkey is unlikely to move forward with its resettlement plan as long as the violence continues and the YPG remains in the area, alongside the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad in some areas. 

He said that Turkey’s resettlement plan, rather than ethnic cleansing, sought to correct a forced demographic alteration. “There is a misunderstanding of the demography of northern Syria,” said Bakeer. 

Some of the areas Turkey hopes to control and use to resettle refugees have always had a Kurdish majority, such as the Jazeera region northeast of Hasakah, including Qamishli, a YPG stronghold. Yet other areas of northeast Syria have long had a majority-Arab population, or a mixed population of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen. 

In 2012, Assad forces pulled out of northeast Syria to focus on the fight against rebels elsewhere in the country. The YPG’s political body stepped in to create an autonomous administration and, after partnering with the United States in the fight against Islamic State (ISIS) in 2015, the Syrian Kurdish militia began to expand its control as far west as the city of Kobani. 

A 2015 Amnesty International report documented the YPG’s demolition of entire villages and forced displacement of thousands of Arabs. The Times newspaper charged the YPG with ethnic cleansing, reporting that it had burned Arab villages like Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn - now under Turkish control - and forcibly driven out more than 10,000 Arabs. 

“The region was re-engineered demographically and YPG controlled more areas,” said Bakeer. “Now Turkey is trying to reverse this and put Arabs back in their homes so the region can be more secure.” 

Hawez denied the charge of demographic engineering, as well as the accusation by Turkey’s Defence Ministry this week that the YPG had released more than 800 ISIS detainees from a prison in Tel Abyad. “This is merely a justification for their war crimes,” he said. 

Hawez said the recent violations in northeast Syria stemmed from what happened last year in the northwestern district of Afrin, where Syrian rebels committed violations against local Kurds in support of Turkey’s invasion and the international community failed to investigate.  

“Probably Turkey and their Syrian opposition fighters feel that they have a free hand,” he said. “The problem is Turkey is not doing enough to stop them ... There should be serious and tough action against the individuals who are involved. I don’t think that has ever happened.”

The United Nations has warned Turkey that it could be held responsible for the actions of its proxies, and Ankara has promised to investigate. Bakeer dismissed reports of white phosphorous and chemical weapons use as propaganda, but agreed that justice should be served for the perpetrators of war crimes in northeast Syria. 

“We should deal fairly with this issue,” he said. “Whoever commits violations should be put in court.”