19th October 2015
By Johannes de Jong,
General Secretary of the Christian Political Foundation for Europe (CPFE)
Hereby a response on the publication of the Report of Amnesty International (AI) on destruction of homes and some villages in Rojava. At first sight this is a shocking AI report, but after reading it in detail there are some nuances to make, to say the least.
Before going to this report it is important to start with stating the simple fact that the Rojava area is the only democratic governed area where different (cultural, religious and tribal) ethnical peoples live together and cooperate. An area where freedom of faith and equality of men and women is realized and is improving still. These aren’t just some statements but observations backed by Journalists, researchers and NGO staffers. This AI report is also about the role of People’s Protection Units (YPG), from Syria, which protected ten-thousands Yazidi’s on mount Sinjar in Iraq, and saved them from the claws of ISIS. They are still protecting 200.000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), who found shelter in Rojava, among them many Arab people.
What is absolutely astonishing in light of this report is the fact that so many Arabs join the YPG and this alliance. If the acclaimed situation: Kurdish versus Arabs (such as AI report seems to imply) would be the case, the – voluntary - growing Arab participation (within YPG forces) is a miracle. It cannot both be true or the truth is not as absolute as AI states.
Under this link you will find the UN report that states something totally different from the AI report. They state that most people which they interviewed where fleeing (temporarily) from the fighting that took place between ISIS and the YPG (and allies). This is statement 133 from this report: “Following the YPG’s retaking of previously ISIS-controlled areas of Tal Abyad in early July and villages in the Tel Tamir region of Al-Hasakah, YPG fighters reportedly looted houses belonging to Arab villagers. Despite some reports alleging forced displacement of Arab communities in these areas, most interviewees stated that they had fled in advance of clashes between ISIS and the YPG, and in fear of coalition airstrikes.
This is consistent with previous reports from German journalists and Al Monitor. It is also consistent with this statement of a British man who has been working with the YPG for a half year, fighting ISIS.
Besides this the UK director of AI (who supervised the writing of this report) stated that there was no case of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and that AI visited areas where both Arabs and Turkmens where living undisturbed:
This same director stated that all that is needed is recognition and implementation of compensation for those whose homes were destroyed. If so then there is no question of murder, rape e.g. that we usually associate with war crimes. There is a number of villages that are overly affected by the war. What actually happened there?
The AI team has visited 14 villages in a month's time including regions that showed no problems.
Now comes the most problematic of how this report was presented (complete with a dramatic short film from Youtube). All villages from different areas are lumped together without historical context or nuance. Furthermore the report does not mention at all that 1500 Arab villages were liberated in a common Kurdish/Arab offensive against ISIS. Anyone can come and see that these villages are standing, are free and populated by its citizens. It is therefore crystal clear that the facts run against the suggestion of the AI report that destroying homes and villages was a widespread strategy by the YPG.
With regard to the villages mentioned it is important to underline that there are four different areas in which these villages are located that need to be understood in their various contexts:
Tel Tamir/Khabour region
The whole world knows that ISIS has caused all the destruction there and that this area is still infested with mines. This region has for months been the front. Because of this it is incomprehensible that these villages are included in this AI report. The European Syriac Union (ESU) is trying to raise European money for rebuilding and demining in this area.
Tal Hamis (east of Hassakeh, south of Qamishli)
This region has been a frontline even longer. The villages around Tal Hamis have long been used as a base by ISIS and have quite a number of times been changed in 2014/2015 from 'owner'. The sad result was that these villages are extremely affected by the war. The alternative would have been not to engage ISIS. Around the time the AI team visited this area the fighting was fully over.
The region south of Tal Abyad has been freed from ISIS in May and June and since then there has been lively debate about 'ethnic cleansing' (something that also AI now claims did not happen). It is no surprise that this area was “empty” when the AI team visited it because the return of the people was only starting at that time. There has been heavy fighting and ISIS has laid mines in the area (as they are used to do). The most notable is that in this very same region Arab tribes (such as the Baqqara tribe) have publicly chosen to work with YPG. How can this coincide with the accusation that the YPG conscious drove out Arabs and Turkmens? And then again, how is that statement consistent with the UK AI director that they were undisturbed elsewhere. However, it is important for the EU to send a team to this area to see for themselves what the current status is. (The AI team visit to this area is already months ago.)
Generally speaking the same as Suluk also applies to the area around Sarrin where ISIS has fought hard to maintain this area as a supply route to Raqqa. The YPG tried several times to free the area southwest of Kobane from ISIS in order to close the supply-route to Raqqa. This was only just settled around June.
The only alternative for many of these specific situations was not to fight against ISIS. Even AI cannot seriously advocate that not fighting ISIS is a serious option. We do know these situations from European history. For example from the Netherlands there where German-allied frontlines that also suffered collateral damage from the Allies’ fire, which destroyed Dutch houses, streets and districts.
As a resumé, we can see that AI does not report that any civilian has been killed, no cases of rape has been unclosed and that many people could return without any problems. Besides that, it is interesting to see that many Arabs have joined the YPG and recently even more in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) also already back in May and June in the fighing around Tal Hamis, Tal Abyad and Sarrin.
It is necessary that YPG and the Rojavan Cantonal parliaments and governments of Jazire and Kobane look much more precisely into this report and in cooperation with the EU and AI to try to find out how house owners in the areas can be compensated and houses rebuild. The Democratic Self-Administration (DSA) will need financial help because they lack funds to do that by themselves.
The most problematic point for the YPG in this report is the way some people have been forced from their homes, even when this was needed to move them from a battle zone. This is a major point of concern for the SDF to avoid in the future and to do this in a more professional way.
Given the contradictions between the various reports (UN and SOHR on the one hand, on the other hand AI) it is important that the EU itself would look independently to the situation, together with the SDF and AI.
Rojava is open to AI and other organizations and they are therefore free to do research unhindered (try this with other warring parties in Syria and elsewhere). This shows that the West would make a crucial mistake if it would give up its support for the DSA/Rojava because then indeed there is no alternative to terrorism or dictatorship in Syria and the Middle East. What is needed now is more, not less international involvement, also when it comes to humanitarian issues.
Finally, let no one make the mistake to think that the YPG fighters are saints. It is a war and that means death and destruction. Do not act naïve but seize the potential of Rojava and its unique openness to improvement so that things are indeed getting better. Let’s not give the final word in Syria to Assad and ISIS.