Syrian Kurds are not carrying out ethnic cleansing

Accusations of “purging Arabs” would only negatively affect their role in the war on IS – something we don’t want to see.

June 20, 2015 22:13
4 minute read.
Turkish Kurds

Turkish Kurds look towards the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani from the top of a hill close to the border line between Turkey and Syria near Mursitpinar bordergate. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The largest Syrian Kurdish force, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), last week took over the strategic town of Tel Abyad, which lies along the Syria-Turkey border. The massive offensive that also involved local Free Syrian Army-affiliated groups dislodged Islamic State (IS) militants who had ruled the city for nearly 18 months.

As the operation was taking place, thousands of residents attempted to cross the border to Turkey, fleeing the anticipated fighting between the Kurdish fighters and IS terrorists. Simultaneously, reports came out regarding “ethnic cleansing” perpetrated by Kurdish forces against local Arabs. While no adequate documentation was provided to support such reports, many – including the US State Department – raised concerns about these claims. 

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As a result, Al Jazeera dispatched a reporter to Tel Abyad to investigate.

The largest Kurdish network, Rudaw, did the same, by going to the city and talking to local residents who chose not to leave despite the fighting. Both channels found no evidence supporting the claims.

Tel Abyad is a diverse town where Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens have lived side by side for centuries. It was only during the Syrian civil war that ethnic tensions rose to the surface. When rebels took over the city for the first time in late 2012, an Islamist group named Ahrar al-Sham began a systematic campaign to drive the Kurds out of the city. Consequently, hundreds of Kurdish families left for the then-safe town of Kobani to the west and Ras al-Ayn (serekaniye) to the east.

When IS came to prominence, it took over larger parts of Raqqa province, which Tel Abyad is administratively a part of. Tel Abyad changed hands and IS was able to take full control of the town in early 2014. The terrorist group carried on what its predecessor had started with regard to intimidating and pushing Kurdish residents out.

The Kurdish YPG force that liberated Tel Abyad is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The group controls the three Kurdish enclaves in north and northeastern Syria. The PYD has been running the show in the majority of these areas since Syrian regime forces voluntarily withdrew in July 2012.

The group is perceived as leftist and is heavily influenced by the doctrines of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Since it has ruled the Kurdish areas, the PYD has been clear that its agenda is not exclusively Kurdish. It’s official name doesn’t indicate anything Kurdish. In fact, when the PYD declared its self-rule model in the Kurdish regions, it included as many Arabs and Christians as Kurds in its newly-established “democratic autonomy.”

For example, the co-chair of Jazira Canton is a former well-known Damascus loyalist who also happens to be the head of the largest Arab tribe in the Kurdish northeast. There are other Assyrian and Syriac individuals who have taken leading roles in PYD’s entity. With a populist approach, the PYD strives to include non-Kurdish components in its long-term project for the region.

It is true that the PYD is undemocratic and has been accused of collaborating with Bashar Assad’s regime on many occasions. But this doesn’t mean the group is willing to wipe out the Arabs and other non-Kurdish groups in the region. Indeed, the PYD has conducted organized campaigns against its rival Kurdish parties. In July 2013, its security forces killed a number of civilians and arrested dozens in the city of Amuda for simply being opposed to its policies.

Other examples include deportation of Kurdish activists and arrests of local leaders.

The PYD sees other Kurdish groups in Syria as a potential threat to its grip on power in the region, and therefore it continues to harass them and prevent them from taking part in governing their areas.

Arabs and other groups, on the other hand, don’t really pose any threat for the PYD, and so the group doesn’t need to repress them. There are certainly cases where the PYD has oppressed non-Kurdish individuals, but that doesn’t represent its overall dogma. In the case of Tel Abyad, the fierce fighting between the YPG fighters and IS militants was the only reason that civilians decided to flee to Turkey. In fact, many of the civilians that fled are returning to their homes now that the Kurds have taken full control of the town.

Another thing that should be noted is that the Free Syrian Army units that fight along PYD forces are made of local Arab fighters. It is unlikely that these fighters would fight alongside a group carrying out ethnic cleansing against their own brethren.

Syrian Kurds are currently championing the fight against IS and are considered one of the most effective fighting forces against the IS terror machine.

Accusations of “purging Arabs” would only negatively affect their role in the war on IS – something we don’t want to see.

The author is a Kurdish affairs analyst based in Washington, DC.

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