The Syrian Kurds and Allegations of War Crimes

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 By Meredith Tax and Roy Gutman
The Nation
February 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

  • Political expulsions that forced out “Tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of Arabs”
  • Creating refugees: “over 500,000 Kurds fled rather than submit to YPG rule and abuses”
  • Collusion with ISIS; Gutman sees “a surprising pattern of seeming collaboration between the YPG, ISIS, and the Assad regime with the purpose of expelling moderate rebel forces.” He says that in case after case, ISIS gave villages and cities over to the Kurds without a fight.
  • Gutman also says that “Iran is the primary funding source for the PKK” and accuses them of “forced conscription.”

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.

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