In an Oct. 13 statement, Amnesty International announces a report reviving claims of ethnic cleansing against Arabs and Turkmen by Kurdish-led forces of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its People's Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria. The report, "'We had nowhere else to go': Forced displacement and demolitions in northern Syria," accuses the PYD and its autonomous administration in the region of grave abuses. "By deliberately demolishing civilian homes, in some cases razing and burning entire villages, displacing their inhabitants with no justifiable military grounds, the Autonomous Administration is abusing its authority and brazenly flouting international humanitarian law, in attacks that amount to war crimes," said Lama Fakih, senior crisis advisor at Amnesty. "In its fight against IS, the Autonomous Administration appears to be trampling all over the rights of civilians who are caught in the middle. We saw extensive displacement and destruction that did not occur as a result of fighting. This report uncovers clear evidence of a deliberate, co-ordinated campaign of collective punishment of civilians in villages previously captured by IS, or where a small minority were suspected of supporting the group."
While the Syrian Kurds should be held to as much scrutiny as any other armed faction, we note that they have been repeatedly punished for their success against ISIS—including with claims of ethnic cleansing. These claims have certainly been exploited (if not exaggerated) by the Turkish state in its divide-and-rule strategy that seeks to inflame Arab anger against the Kurds. It would be tragic to see Amnesty manipulated in such intrigues. So while the Syrian Kurds are not to be held above scrutiny… neither is Amnesty International. Let's examine.
Amnesty International researchers visited 14 towns and villages in al-Hasakeh and al-Raqqa governorates in July and August 2015, to investigate the forced displacement of residents and demolition of homes in areas under the control of the Autonomous Administration.
Satellite images obtained by Amnesty International illustrate the scale of the demolitions in Husseiniya village, in Tel Hamees countryside. The images show 225 buildings standing in June 2014 but only 14 remaining in June 2015—a shocking reduction of 93.8%.
A satellite image, of course, tells us nothing about how a structure was destroyed. For this, Amnesty relies on witnesses:
In February 2015, the Autonomous Administration’s military wing, the YPG (the People's Protection Units), took control of the area, which had been under IS control, and began demolitions, displacing villagers. Researchers visiting Husseiniya saw ruins of destroyed homes and interviewed eyewitnesses.
"They pulled us out of our homes and began burning the home… they brought the bulldozers… They demolished home after home until the entire village was destroyed," said one witness.
As we have said in response to such claims before: Arab residents of liberated towns and villages who had collaborated with ISIS and benefited from the jihadists' cleansing of the area's Kurds by grabbing houses and property might have every reason to fabricate reprisals.
In villages south of the town of Suluk, some residents said YPG fighters had accused them of supporting IS and threatened to shoot them if they did not leave. While in some cases residents acknowledged that there had been a handful of IS supporters in their villages the majority were not supporters of the group.
In other cases, villagers said YPG fighters had ordered them to leave threatening them with US coalition airstrikes if they failed to comply.
"They told us we had to leave or they would tell the US coalition that we were terrorists and their planes would hit us and our families," said one resident, Safwan.
Again, we'd like to know if and how Amnesty verified villagers' claims that it was only "a handful" of ISIS supporters among them. And what constitutes an "ISIS supporter"? Someone who is ideologically committed, or merely someone who plays along, hoping to gain in wealth or status under jihadist rule?
The YPG has justified the forced displacement of civilians by saying it was necessary for the civilians' own protection or militarily necessary.
"It is critical that the US-led coalition fighting IS in Syria and all other states supporting the Autonomous Administration, or co-ordinating with it militarily, do not turn a blind eye to such abuses. They must take a public stand condemning forced displacement and unlawful demolitions and ensure their military assistance is not contributing to violations of international humanitarian law," said Lama Fakih.
Oh? Does this imply that the YPG has admitted to "forced displacement"? Could we get a verbatim, attributed quote please, Amnesty? For that, you have actually go to the text of the report, not just the press announcement that journos will use to put their media accounts together. (We'll get to that.) The press release continues:
Although the majority of residents affected by these unlawful practices are Arabs and Turkmen, in some cases, for example in the mixed town of Suluk, Kurdish residents have also been barred by the YPG and Asayish, the Autonomous Administration's police force, from returning to their homes. Elsewhere, for example in Abdi Koy village, a small number of Kurdish residents have also been forcibly displaced by the YPG.
In an interview with Amnesty International, the head of the Asayish admitted civilians had been forcibly displaced but dismissed these as "isolated incidents". The spokesperson for the YPG repeated claims that civilians were being moved for their own security.
Again, this spokesperson is not named or quoted. While those making the charges are quoted repteadly (and to manipulative background music in the accompanying video). Now, if you go to the actual text of the report, Asayish director Ciwan Ibrahim is quoted as saying a total of 25 families "were forced to leave across Rojava" (the Kurdish autonomous region in Syria). He further alleged that all of those were the families of ISIS militants and were suspected of feeding information to the enemy, saying they needed to be "distanced" from the conflict zone for security reasons. Now, maybe this is true and maybe it isn't, but it would be good to flesh out the YPG-Asayish position in the press statement, rather than burying it in the text of the report. Doesn't smell honest. More from the press release:
However, many residents said they were forced to leave even though their villages had not been the site of clashes, or were at a distance from the frontline and there was no danger from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) laid by IS. Forcibly displacing civilians without imperative military necessity is a violation of international humanitarian law.
"The Autonomous Administration must immediately stop the unlawful demolition of civilian homes, compensate all civilians whose homes were unlawfully destroyed, cease unlawful forced displacements, and allow civilians to return and rebuild," said Lama Fakih.
OK, we endorse that demand… if the charges are true. We would like to hear more of what the PYD administration has to say on the matter. We noted when the cleansing charges first emerged earlier this year that a reporter who spoke to refugees across the border in Turkey stated: "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."
And we also must ask again: How many of these displaced Arabs had themselves earler displaced Kurds from their homes, with either Assad or ISIS connivance? Now, such prior displacements do not justify reprisals in kind or vigilante-style summary justice. But the question does cast doubt on the clear-cut case of victims and aggressors that Amnesty depicts. This kind of history has led to the deepening ethnic and sectarian divides that have turned northern Iraq into an intractable tangle of claims and counter-claims. The PYD is at least ostensibly committed to secular, multi-cutlural politics. We'd like to hear how they square these charges with that committment before they are indicted.
We have noted Amnesty International's recent tilt in a more elitist and technocratic direction. While this report makes much of the PYD's new de facto alliance with the US against ISIS, it also provides some very convenient propaganda to Washington's old de jure ally Turkey.
We again call upon the Kurdish authorities in northern Syria to provide greater clarity here.