The YPG in Tal Abyad : Do the “ethnic cleansing” charges hold water?

The recent striking victories of the Kurdish YPG and its allies against ISIS in Tal Abyad has been overshadowed by accusations that the Kurdish forces have been carrying out “ethnic cleansing” against the Arab population of the area. These accusations were first levelled by Turkish President Erdogan on 11 June, still smarting at his electoral defeat –  ­“The West, which is hitting Arabs and Turkmens of Tell Abyad from the air, is sadly settling the PYD and terror organizations in their places.” ­- and subsequently taken up by Etilaf (the Syrian National Coalition) and the “Jaish al-Fatah” alliance of Islamist armed groups.

The YPG has vehemently denied these allegations, and has been supported by the FSA units who are allied with it, and a prominent Syrian oppositionist. Nevertheless the accusations persist. In what may have been a bit of a climb down, Etilaf proposed to send a fact-finding team to Tal Abyad to inquire into the situation.

In order to evaluate these charges it will be helpful to put the current situation into context

The local context
What is now the Syrian-Turkish border region was historically inhabited by a series of nomadic pastoralist groups with diverse ethnic characteristics – Kurdish, Arab, and Christian. The repressive policies of Kemalist turkey caused large numbers of Kurds to move across the border into Syria in two waves – one in the 1920s and the other around 1945. With the agricultural development of the region under the French mandate these migrants became settled peasant farmers and part of a multi-ethnic society in which political alliances were formed across ethnic lines and often manipulated by French colonial officials. (During the 1930s there was a Kurdish-Christian alliance in favour of regional autonomy)

Independent Syria was dominated by political forces which embraced an “Arabist” ideology which proclaimed a common Arab identity for the country. However this “Arabism” was highly intolerant of minorities which could not be assimilated into this framework. In 1962 the pre-Baath nationalist government adopted a new constitution which proclaimed Syria to be an “Arab Republic” (an issue which continues to dog Syrian Kurdish-opposition relations) and the administration of Hasakah governorate (which includes Jazirah) formulated a plan for the creation of an “Arab belt” along the border that would have involved the expulsion of a large proportion of the Kurdish population

In the event the government did not implement this grandiose plan but adopted a different strategy to deal with the Kurdish question. In October 1962 they carried out a hasty “exceptional census” of Hassakah in which all Kurds who could not provide documentary evidence that they had been settled in the area prior to 1945 were deemed to be “foreigners”. This affected 120 000 Kurds(20% of Syria’s Kurdish population) and created one of the most discriminatory regimes in recent history:  issued with distinctive identity cards “foreign” Kurds were unable to vote, own land or housing, obtain public or professional jobs, access public health care, marry Syrian citizens, obtain passports, or register their children’s births. By 2011 this group had swelled to more than 300 000.

Both the pre-Assad Baath regime which came  to power in 1963 and the subsequent  regime of Hafiz Asad (1971) continued to marginalise the Kurdish population and to pursue a version of the “Arab belt”. Across the country Kurds were denied all cultural rights (including the use of the Kurdish language and Kurdish names for children.)

The Jazira region in the northeast (corresponding to the PYD’s Rojava Canton of Cizire) with a large Kurdish population was already a key agricultural area based on cereal and cotton cultivation. From 1968 to 1973 the Syrian government undertook a major programme of hydraulic engineering works to provide both irrigation for new state farms and hydroelectric power: the Tabqa dam and the huge, modestly named, “Lake Assad” reservoir .This necessitated the relocation of a large number of Arab inhabitants whose land was flooded,. This was carried out in a way which revived the “Arab belt” project, with some 25 000 Arab peasants relocated into Kurdish areas. It’s not clear how much Kurdish dislocation ensued – the Kurds resisted demands that they leave their homes and the government did not resort to forcible removals, although there may have been expropriation of land for the benefit of the incomers.This was followed by a campaign to replace the Kurdish names of some 300 locations with Arab names, an actions which has left a bitter symbolic residue that still creates tensions in the area and beyond. (There may also be  be an exaggerated mythology around these events,eliding the ethnic dislocations with the Baath’s land reform programme – in the article linked to above a descendant of a Kurdish landowner complains that a holding of 8000 hectares hectares was subject to expropriation: a figure that is  pure fantasy).

The effect of all this has been to make the northeast in general, and Jazira / Cizire in particular, an area with a high potential for ethnic conflict, riddled by competing claims and historical grievances.

The anti-ISIS strategy of the YPG
In its fight against ISIS the YPG has been very skilful in developing a set of multi-ethnic alliances (something that their “secular” outlook facilitates) – including elements aligned with the FSA from Raqqa and Aleppo (the Burkan al-Furat), an Arab tribal force (the Sanadid army) and militia drawn from the Assyrian community (the Khabbour militia).

But building alliances like this has enmeshed them in the factional divisions of other ethnic communities: thus their Arab allies are drawn from one tribal confederation – the Shammar . The other side of the coin is that other tribal groups have been cultivated by ISIS, who bring experience from Iraq of fishing in turbulent waters like this. What this means is that the lines of divide in the northeastern combat zones are not drawn on ethnic lines – Kurds vs Arabs – but in a more complex factional configuration that cuts across ethnic identities.

Factional conflict or Ethnic cleansing?

So what are the implications of all this for the accusations against the YPG forces in Tal Abyad and elsewhere.

First and foremost it means that the “ethnic cleansing” reading of events is highly improbable – it has been dismissed by all the non-Kurdish groups fighting alongside the YPG, and would be inconsistent with the YPG’s strategy of multi-ethnic alliances. The stated policy of the YPG of encouraging families who have left Tal Abyad to return, and the fact that a significant number are doing so, reinforces this assessment.

Accusations that Turkmen in the Tal Abyad area have been expelled from their villages by the PYD, have been denied by the Syrian Turkmen Assembly:

The president of the Syrian Turkmen Assembly, Abdurrahman Mustafa, told Al-Monitor there were no Kurds in Hammam Turkmen, where Turkmens of Tell Abyad lived and a limited number of Turkmen refugees had come to the border to escape IS threats, air raids and clashes. Turkmens who took refuge in Kilis were escaping from the clashes between IS and the Islamic Front. Source

Etilaf has just issued a press release complaining that their fact-finding mission has been barred entry to Tal Abyad by the PYD (a missed opportunity by the PYD to allow a transparent resolution of the problem) but perhaps more importantly it notes the fact that their team witnessed some 2000 people crossing back into Tel Abyad.

My own view is that the “ethnic cleansing narrative was largely formulated by Turkey, and  propagated through forces who had their own anti-Kurdish axes to grind (and/or benefit from Turkish patronage).

Ethnic Cleansing or Collective Punishment?

But if the ethnic cleansing claim does not hold water, that does not let the YPG of the hook. The YPG regularly responds to criticism of their actions by saying that they arise from military actions against ISIS (the reason they gave when their intelligence apparently led to the US bombing of Bir Mahalli village.) What is very likely going on here is that the YPG is dealing with its opponents in a brutal fashion – perhaps even carrying out the collective punishment of communities in which elements have aligned themselves with ISIS.
The Italian anthropologist Alberto Savioli, who has worked in this region for many years, has provided photographic evidence of the destruction of the village of Shuyukh Fawqani, located in the Euphrates valley south of Kobane, by YPG forces. But in discussions with him he confirms that the local population was divided (in part on tribal lines) between YPG and ISIS supporters. It is also clear that the destruction occurred in the context of a military operation.

Shuyukh Fawqani: destroyed in YPG Operation. Photo courtesy of Alberto Savioli

Whatever the merits of the YPG/PYD (and there may be many) we should not forget that they come from a very violent political culture – they were formed in a national liberation struggle in Turkey against brutal semi-feudal social forces and an equally brutal army (300, 000 Kurds driven from their homes). They had to deal with the paramilitary ”village guards” – the equivalent of the Syrian “” – and they were not beyond executing entire families in the process.

In many ways – ideologically and generationally – the PKK/YPG has moved on, but it is not out of the question that some of these old habits survive (there is evidence that former Turkish PKK officers play an important role in the YPG). Certainly, the YPG has shown itself to be quite ruthless in its treatment of political opponents – as in it brutal actions in the Amuda killings of June 2013 (an event which the YPG has acknowledged and semi-apologised for in its communications with Human Rights Watch.)

If you look at the recent, concrete accusations levelled against the YPG most relate to a combat context (although the victims may be civilians).  In  a recent revealing statement Salih Muslim of the PYD has more or less admitted that the YPG has carried out retaliatory operations

Muslim suggested that any instances of the burning of Arabs’ homes in the area were actually retribution against Islamic State supporters. “Maybe some individuals and families who were killing the people, and fighting alongside Daesh, maybe they are afraid of judgment … “Of course, all the people — not just the Kurds — wouldn’t allow such criminals to go without any punishment.” Source

The road ahead

The capture of Tal Abyad has two important strategic consequences: on the one hand it has cut the ISIS supply lines to its primary base in Iraq; on the other it has allowed the PYD to gains control of territory that links its Cizire and Kobane cantons.

The same duality exists with regard to the future moves of  the YPG and its allies. They are positioned some 50km from Raqqa, and the US would clearly like them to move on to oust ISIS from this strategic base. However the YPG’s interests would seem to direct it westwards across the Euphrates into the territory that constitutes the final link in the Rojava chain – the districts of Jarablus and A’zaz. These two districts lying between Kobane and the solidly Kurdish Afrin canton, have largely Arab populations (80-90%). The YPG seems to be proceeding cautiously here and has proposed that the FSA units of Burkan al Furat should lead the operations in these areas with the YPG (at least nominally) in support.

There are conflicting reports as to the form of governance the YPG intends to establish in Tal Abyad – ranging from a multi-ethnic civil authority through to assimilation into Kobane Canton (this is feasible as Kurds make up some 30% of the population of Tal Abyad district and over 50% of the town).

The cantonal structure that the YPG has created in Cizire claims to provide a viable political framework for a multi-ethnic community. While it could possibly be extended to Tal Abyad, it would be far more difficult to apply it to the territories further west without the active assent of the Arab inhabitants.We will have to see how all this plays out.

To explore these issues further we need to look more closely at the nature of the PYD’s Rojava project: something that I plan to do in a subsequent blog.

REFERENCES  Rather than link to lengthy texts from the body of the blog I am providing some additional references here:.

As I’ve been preparing this post Patrick Cockburn has published an article in the London Review of Books that appears to endorse the”ethnic cleansing” view. Like most Cockburn articles it is often ambiguously worded (what on earth does it mean to say that the YPG is carrying out ethnic cleansing “despite their best intentions”?), has much that is inaccurate, and even more that is personal bias; but it also has some factual, on the ground reporting that is worthy of consideration. You can find it here.

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3 thoughts on “The YPG in Tal Abyad : Do the “ethnic cleansing” charges hold water?”

    1. Thanks for the link – this was the “senior member of the Syrian opposition” I mentioned in the post, but I’d misplaced the details of his identity. I’ll incorporate it for future reference. I’m not sure of his status in Etilaf (he is listed on their web site as a member) and I doubt the claim that he was part of a delegation, but obviously his statement is important.

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