PEOPLE WALK through debris in the center of Afrin, Syria, on March 24, 2018..
(photo credit: KHALIL ASHAWI / REUTERS)
Kurds often say they have “no friends but the mountains.” However, after the Turkish and Syrian rebel offensive took over most of the Kurdish area of Afrin in northern Syria in the last two months, they’ve been saying even the mountains cannot protect them against Turkish warplanes.
Kamal Sido, the Middle East department director for the Society for Threatened Peoples, is in Israel this week seeking to raise awareness of suffering in Afrin. He describes in detail the suffering which Kurds, displaced by the conflict, now face.
Sido is from Afrin, a bucolic area of northwest Syria whose hills are lined with olive trees that is home to a diverse group of people. He was born 40 kilometers from the Syrian city of Aleppo and left Syria in 1980 to study in Moscow. Later, he moved to Germany, where he has lived since 1990. Yet he still has family in Afrin.
“I am working with a human rights organization in Germany,” Sido says over a cup of coffee in the Mamilla shopping area overlooking the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. His organization works with various minorities in the Middle East, including Kurds, Assyrian Christians, Chaldeans and Yazidis. “And also Jews in Arab countries,” he points out. “I wrote some articles about Jews in Kurdistan and also in Syria.”
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IN THE old days, under the Assad-led Ba’athist regime, the Kurds in Afrin were subjected to Arabization. “We had no schooling in Kurdish, no newspapers. The regime also took the citizenship of 150,000 Kurds.” It was a time of deep oppression. Sido compares the suffering under Arab nationalists in the time of Assad to the current attacks by radical Islamist groups against Kurds in Afrin and elsewhere. The Syrian civil war has led to a balkanization of Syria. In 2012, when Assad’s army mostly left the Kurdish areas in eastern Syria and Afrin, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) took over and created an autonomous region.
However, Turkey sees the YPG as terrorists connected to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and has opposed their presence in Syria near the border. In January of this year, Turkey launched a major offensive into Afrin alongside Syrian rebel groups. Most of the Syrian rebels are Sunni Arabs and some of them are religious extremists, according to Sido and others who follow the conflict.
He sees the extremism in the region as threatening all minority groups and contrasts the Turkish-backed rebels with the open-minded society that Kurds created in Afrin. He says this Kurdish tolerance dates back many decades and was part of the opposition to the Assad regime.
“My father, for example, during the 1967 war with Israel, said we cannot believe the local media, and told us to listen to Israel radio’s [Arabic] news [bulletins].” He says that years ago, when there were still Jews in Aleppo, his uncle would go visit a local Jewish doctor.
Prior to the Turkish offensive, the area of Afrin was stable, Sido says. “The Kurds organized themselves with a Kurdish police and administration and schools. They removed the Arabization plans and renamed villages. It was the first time they had a university in Afrin and classes in Kurdish.” Fifty percent of the police were women, he recalls. “Now, in last two weeks after Turkish occupation, the picture has changed; now you see only women in black [religious clothing]. In the past, before Turkish occupation, there were women without hijab and in the police.”
HE POINTS to the example of Hevy Mustafa, co-chair of Afrin’s executive council, who was of Alevi Kurdish background, one of the minority groups in the region. Sido also notes that during the years of Afrin’s self-rule, some people in Afrin walked away from their religious background and left their Islamic beliefs. A society that had been traditional decades earlier was changing. Now he says all that is at risk.
“I think that because the Muslim Brotherhood hates Kurds, the Syrian opposition also hates Kurds. Hatred is the first step to make a genocide.” He says that when the Syrian rebels groups took over Afrin, they looted cars and stole from houses. “They took the cars to Azaz [a nearby town], now they are hunting for people who are against radical Islam, those who were Christians or had converted to Christianity.” Sido also fears there will be demographic change.
Between 150,000 and 200,000 people were displaced by the conflict in Afrin. They are now stranded in a small area of Syria between Afrin and the Syrian-regime held area of Aleppo. “They need humanitarian help. No one is helping them,” says Sido. He says there are many elderly people, women and children. The Kurds are trapped because Turkey controls an area between where the refugees are and Kurdish areas in the East.
Charmaine Hedding, the president of the Shai Fund, a non-profit organization that provides humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, says the situation is very difficult in eastern Syria. There are major hurdles to bringing humanitarian aid to the region. She says that activists like her are seeking to raise awareness in the US and the European Union to pressure local and regional authorities to let aid through. “We are fighting for principles. I believe in the power of one and agency, and if those who think this is wrong don’t stand up and be counted, who will?”
Sido is one of those who wants to stand up and be counted, but he wishes the international community and Israel would listen. In Germany, he says, demonstrations have helped raise awareness and he has seen some movement in France as well to condemn Turkey’s actions in Afrin. The main problem is that the deal to allow Ankara and its rebel allies to takeover Afrin also included support from the Syrian regime in Damascus, Iran and Russia. “Without [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and Iran, [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan couldn’t come to Afrin.” He says the current situation is a pragmatic alliance of these differing agendas. Turkey is seeking to defeat Kurdish autonomy in Syria, while Russia wants to undermine the YPG’s relationship with the US. He also says that local propaganda in Turkey accuses the Kurds of working with Israel.
Sido and his Kurdish friends hope the US will see that their interests dovetail with those of the Kurds in Syria and support women’s rights and human rights. He points to the fate of Yazidis in Afrin, a religious minority that has been targeted by Islamist extremists. He says in the old days, Jews used to come from Aleppo to a village called Bosoufane and sit side-by-side with Yazidis and other minorities in Afrin. Now that historic diversity and fabric of life is threatened by the ongoing conflict as ancient minority groups flee the fighting.
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