Who is doing ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Syria?

There is a famous quote from Malcolm X: “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

July 8, 2015 21:03
Who is doing ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Syria?

The words ‘Islamic State’ reads on the facade of one of the Islamic State headquarters in Tel Hamis in northeast Syria, after the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) took control of the area in 2015. . (photo credit: REUTERS)

Since the Kurds began to play a central role in Rojava and Syria in asserting their rights, which have been violated for decades, they have been attacked both politically and militarily from many sides.

In some recent reports the Kurds have been accused of carrying out “ethnic cleansing” against Sunni Arabs. After an analysis of articles published in June (starting with a report published by The Times), it appears there is a politically driven smear campaign being waged against the Kurds, carried out partly by the Syrian Islamic opposition factions and their allies. The reports and news published under the cover of a faux journalistic objectivity directly serve Islamic State (IS) and its allies.

The main question here is: What is the aim of the media groups publishing these allegations and anonymous “eyewitness accounts” without attribution or fact checking, without contextualizing the situation or allowing the accused to respond? It’s important to note that these reports come into existence following certain statements from Turkish leaders and/or extremist groups like al-Nusra or IS.

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The term “ethnic cleansing” can’t be used on the basis of anonymous, unverified hearsay. After the fall of Mosul into the hands of IS on June 9, 2014, IS and its Sunni Arab allies initiated an ongoing extermination of Yezidi Kurds, starting on August 3, 2014, in Shingal (Sinjar). A fact-finding mission of the United Nations began an investigation of this incident. After long and difficult work by many experts, hundreds of interviews with the victims and despite the vast amount of documents, medical reports, mass graves and thousands of witnesses, the mission neither dared to use term “ethnic cleansing” to describe the event nor blamed local Arabs or Sunni Muslims. Nor was this terminology used with regard to the Iraqi state’s Anfal Campaign of 1988 in the Kurdish regions, which resulted in a death toll of some 182,000 civilians, many of whom were buried alive in mass graves by the Iraqi Arab Ba’athist Legion over a period of several months.

After every success achieved by the Kurdish People’s Protection Unites (YPG) and its ally battalions (such as Liwa al-Tahrir, Suwar al-Raqa, Shams al-Shamal and Jabhat al-Akrad), we see a spate of reports accusing them of killing local Sunni Arab civilians. The “journalists” producing these reports seem to be unaware that there are currently tens of thousands of displaced Sunni Arabs living in the liberated Kurdish cities, and indeed have come to form the majority in those cities and towns since the beginning of the conflict in Syria. Displaced Sunni Arabs have been welcomed as refugees and receive all kinds of services, equally with the native Kurds in the area.

These “journalists” also seem to be unaware of the history of the region; tens of thousands Sunni Arabs were brought to the Kurdish regions since the 1950s as part of a public “Arabization” policy aimed at changing the demography of the region. Many were settled in lands that belonged to the local Kurdish population.

These native Kurds still have the legal documents for their confiscated properties, but have not attempted to retake them by force. In fact this has been a challenge for the YPG and difficult to manage administratively, as many locals have asked to have their original lands returned to them.

When the YPG, together with its allied forces from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and tribal fighters fought against IS and liberated Tal Hamis and Tel Berak in February 2015, the very same stories of mass violations and displacement emerged from certain media sources. I visited this region twice and witnessed the mass graves where the Kurds were tortured and hacked into pieces. The Kurds in these locations had been forced to leave their houses. At the same time I saw the strong presence of Sunni Arab fighters with the YPG, whose siblings were fighting alongside IS. When I talked to the Arab fighters on the Tel Hamis front lines about the reports that Sunni Arabs were suffering at the hands of the YPG, their answer was a loud laugh. The percentage of Sunni Muslims among the YPG is over 90 percent, and they adhere to their religious Sunni duties even on the front lines.

On the other hand, I ask myself why these same media organs do not publish reports on jihadists advancing toward safe areas, on their mass killings, burning of villages and displacement of tens of thousands of Kurds, Sunni/Shi’ite Arabs, Assyrians and other ethnic groups or sects? Why are these reporters not investigating the issue of displacement and continued killing of Kurds and local communities by IS and their allied local fighters? If the international media is really interested in “displacement and ethnic cleansing,” they should explore the displacement of hundreds of thousands Kurds from Tel Abyad and all other Kurdish regions that extend from the Kurdish Mountain (Jabal al-Akrad) in Latakia to Kizwan/Abdul-Aziz Mountain since the 1940s.

We should also emphasize that historically, “burning and pillaging” is typically a male activity. Those accusing YPG of such activities should be reminded that about half of the YPG fighters are women. Tens of thousands of women pillagers? In conclusion, the media discourse promoting the idea of “ethnic cleansing” by Kurds is quite far from the ethics of journalism or even a humanist approach.

There is a famous quote from Malcolm X: “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

The writer is a researcher & Middle East affairs analyst based in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

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