The Syrian Kurds and Allegations of War Crimes
Critics respond to Roy Gutman’s special report on the Syrian Kurdish militia. Published in The Nation Feb. 21, 2017
In a two-part investigation for The Nation, published here and here, Roy Gutman has accused the Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG, of systematically violating human rights in the area it controls. Below is a response from critics, followed by Gutman’s rejoinder.
THE WAR OF DISINFORMATION
By Meredith Tax, with Joey Lawrence and Flint Arthur
Photographer Joey Lawrence, who has spent time embedded in both the Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), calls the Syrian civil war “a war of disinformation.” Roy Gutman’s two Nation articles accusing the YPG of war crimes can be seen as a salvo in that war. Gutman charges the YPG with
All these charges are false, except for what he calls “forced conscription.” But isn’t all conscription forced? Isn’t the draft usual in wartime, particularly in existential battles on home ground like that of the Syrian Kurds against ISIS? I wonder if Gutman also considers the Turkish draft a war crime. It should also be noted that people drafted in Rojava are not sent to the front lines—the YPG is a volunteer force. Draftees serve as border and civil police.
Political expulsions or ethnic cleansing: Gutman alleges that the YPG has committed massive expulsions in Syria, replacing Arabs with Kurds. Similar allegations were made in a 2015 report by Amnesty International. Gutman says that the YPG “don’t acknowledge any of this, haven’t investigated, haven’t punished anyone.” In fact, the YPG has acknowledged the charges, investigated, and decided they were bogus; they published an extremely detailed report on Oct. 16, 2016, refuting them case by case. The charge of ethnic cleansing was also rebutted by Rami Abdulrahman, head of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, in an interview on July 2, 2015; he said the allegations originated in Turkey.
Creating refugees: Gutman states that 500,000 Kurds have become refugees to get away from the YPG. Did none of them flee because of war, terror campaigns by ISIS and Turkey-sponsored jihadis, and the impossibility finding food, housing or security in a destroyed economy under constant threat? To back up his accusation, Gutman quotes Fabrice Balanche of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy: “He estimates that 500,000 Kurds—half the population—have fled northern Syria rather than submit to YPG rule.” But Balanche himself denied this in a tweet on February 13: “yes, most of the 500,000 left for economic problems, not political. Gutman’s sentence is false.”
Collusion with ISIS: Gutman believes the YPG has been colluding with both ISIS and the Syrian regime. The Syrian Kurds’ relationship with the regime is too ambiguous and conflicted to deal with in the space I have been given. But the YPG’s hatred of ISIS is extremely well-documented. Gutman tries to build a case for a YPG-ISIS deal by focusing the battle of Kobani.
Kobani city is surrounded by outlying villages that came under sporadic ISIS attack for months before the main battle began. Gutman alleges that the YPG forced people to leave in order to give these villages to ISIS. “According to former residents, the YPG abandoned the outskirts of Kobani to ISIS without a fight, ordering residents to leaves the villages they were eager to defend.” His source is Ibrahim Hussein, a regime judge in Hasakah who defected to Turkey. But, like Balanche, Hussein has publicly disavowed Gutman’s attributions, saying he misquoted and took things out of context.
In fact, these villages were evacuated to save the lives of the people who lived there. In September, 2014, ISIS attacked Kobani with tanks as well as heavy artillery and thermal missiles they had captured from the Iraqi Army in Mosul. They had a force of thousands, while the defenders had a much smaller force and no equipment except ancient Kalashnikovs bought on the black market and Rube Goldberg tanks. Under these circumstances they were hard put to defend the center of the city—they lost half of it before it was liberated—let alone outlying villages. They evacuated them so the villagers would not suffer the same fate as the Yazidis had the months before. The idea that the YPG is colluding with ISIS is beyond offensive to anyone who knows how many lives they lost and how they have continued to face ISIS suicide attacks.
Gutman also says the battle of Tel Hamis was a fraud and that ISIS turned it over to the YPG without a fight. Photographer Joey Lawrence was in Tel Hamis during the period discussed by Gutman. He says, “I saw several ISIS corpses in Tel Hamis after the battle with my own eyes, as well as the funeral for British volunteer Erik Scurfield, who was killed in the battle. There are videos easily Googled online showing various stages of the offensive.” In fact, the one documented fake battle that has taken place so far was the supposed liberation of Jarabulus by Turkish backed FSA troops, which I wrote about for The Nation last September.
Financial support from Iran. Gutman also alleges that the PKK and YPG get financial support from Iran. Since Trump was elected, similar Iran-PKK allegations have suddenly popped up in several other places—did someone in Turkish intelligence decide that the way to separate Trump from the Syrian Kurds is to link them with Iran? Gutman’s assertion that the PKK is financed by Iran is backed by no evidence except a statement by Mahmud al-Naser, a Syrian spook who defected to Turkey. His willingness to believe this shows how little research he has done on the PKK, which, much to the chagrin of Turkish intelligence, is largely financed by a huge network of supporters in Europe.
Readers who want more of this debate should check out the detailed dissection of Gutman’s arguments by Benjamin Hiller and Michael Cruickshank, two freelance journalists, in the blog Backstreet Blues. One thing remains to be said.
People are inevitably affected, in one way or another, by the political climate of the place where they live. Gutman lives in Istanbul. Since July’s failed coup, Turkey has descended into a dictatorship marked by the arrest of national and local leaders of the second-largest opposition party, the HDP; more than 100,000 people losing their jobs, including school teachers, university professors and civil servants; more journalists in jail than any other country in the world; and endless atrocities in the war against the Kurds.
Not only are Turkish journalists at risk, including eminent media figures like Can Dündar, who was arrested for blowing the whistle on Turkish arms shipments to jihadis and is now in exile. Foreign journalists who report sympathetically or even neutrally on the Kurds may be kicked out of Turkey. Two British journalists for Vice were arrested in September 2015, held eleven days and deported, while their Iraqi fixer Mohammed Rasool was jailed for 131 days before he was finally released in January 2016. Danish, Dutch, French, German and Spanish journalists have also been deported or denied visas. Wall Street Journal correspondent Dion Nissenbaum was arrested at the end of December, held for two and a half days, then deported without explanation. And on January 17 New York Times reporter Rod Nordland, who covered Turkey’s ongoing war on the Kurds, was put on a plane to London. Such repression has a chilling effect.