The Syrian Kurds and Allegations of War Crimes

The Syrian Kurds and Allegations of War Crimes

The Syrian Kurds and Allegations of War Crimes

Critics respond to Roy Gutman’s special report on the Syrian Kurdish militia.


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.

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.

Gutman Responds

One of the main points of my series on war crimes and human rights abuses in northern Syria is the refusal by the de facto authorities to acknowledge and investigate the mass expulsion of Arabs and the mistreatment of Kurds or to do anything about it. As Sihanouk Dibo, a spokesman for the Democratic Union Party (PYD) put it, “Expulsions never happened.”

Denial is also at the heart of the letter from Meredith Tax and her colleagues. They say that writing about these expulsions is a “false” charge and a “salvo” in the “war of disinformation.” Their letter is a staggering misrepresentation of reality.

I invite Tax and friends to tour the towns and refugee camps of southern Turkey as I did, and talk with some of the thousands of Arabs who say they were forced out of the region that many Kurds call Rojava, or west Kurdistan. I interviewed one family and tell the story of other displacements. I quote the reports of Amnesty International and the Syrian Network for Human Rights. It happened. I didn’t make this up!

Instead of accepting the basic facts, Tax cites an “extremely detailed report” by the People’s Protection Units militia (YPG) last October “refuting” the AI charges “case by case” as “bogus.” Actually, the YPG report was issued one year earlier, shortly after the AI report. I was on a reporting trip to Rojava at the time and referred to it in my article then about expulsions from Tal Abyad.

The YPG response is not an investigation but a blanket rejection of AI’s investigation. It features legalistic hairsplitting over definitions, attempts to discredit all the witnesses cited by AI, and denounces the AI report as “arbitrary, biased, unprofessional and politicized.” The YPG even condemns AI for listening to the voices of refugees “who fled their villages with IS as they were members of the terrorist organization.” This is what authoritarian regimes often do: demonize the victims of their abuses as terrorists, and claim they abandoned their homes, their property, their livelihoods and their close relatives and fled of their own volition. But Tax shouldn’t swallow this or any government-issued document on war crimes without carefully examining it against the original allegations.

The YPG’s denial is what prompted me to undertake this reporting project in the first place. The Turkish government and others used the term “ethnic cleansing” to explain the expulsions, but that didn’t sound right. So I began interviewing Arab refugees in Turkey and Kurdish refugees in Turkey and northern Iraq to determine what had really happened.

My conclusion is that it was a political or “revolutionary” cleansing carried out by the YPG at the behest of the Assad regime, which installed it in power and continues to influence its moves.

It’s a pity that Tax chooses not to write about the YPG’s relationship with the Assad regime (she says it’s “too ambiguous and conflicted to deal with in the space I have been given”). This is not peripheral, but the central element in the expulsions. The YPG appears to work hand-in-glove with the regime in deciding whom to expel. What I learned from the Arab and Kurdish lawyers and others compiling the records of war crimes and human rights abuses is that those expelled were for the most part opponents of the Assad regime or those living in border areas that the regime wanted to reclaim.

And if Tax doesn’t examine the regime-YPG relationship, how can she rebut as “false” the pattern I discovered of ISIS stepping in to expel moderate rebels when the YPG failed, and then, some time later, handing conquered villages back to the Kurds without a fight? I have charted the Damascus regime’s role in the rise of ISIS, and I’m not the only one to have done so. So many of the activities of extremist groups in Syria trace back to the Assad regime.

I don’t say the YPG colluded with ISIS but that the pattern is one of “seeming collaboration.” Practically every refugee I talked to, including some distinguished members of Kurdish and Arab society, said that, and the fact-pattern bears it out.

To the other points:

  • Iran’s major role in financing the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), also labeled a “false charge,” is sourced to a defected Syrian Arab intelligence official and a defected Kurdish judge and affirmed by KRG officials. Each has standing, so before dismissing them, Tax should do some checking. As to PKK fundraising in Europe and in Turkey, their methods also need to be checked out.
  • Forced conscription: Yes, military service is obligatory in many countries. But setting up special checkpoints and abducting young people at them, demanding that every family provide one young man and taking a young woman if a young man isn’t available, and then staging armed raids like the one featured at the top of my story, is unusual, to say the least. Don’t such practices raise obvious questions about popular support for the YPG and its aims?
  • Kurdish flight: From interviews with refugees, I drew the impression that an enormous number of Kurds do not want to be in YPG-ruled Rojava for political reasons. I quoted Fabrice Balanche correctly on the numbers who fled, but I inaccurately compressed his estimate into the same sentence as my broader observation. I acknowledge Balanche’s view that most of the refugees fled for economic reasons. He did not insist on a correction, but The Nation has made one.
  • On the run-up to the battle of Kobani, my quotes of Judge Hussein are accurate. I covered the battle at the time and recall the PYD spokesman saying the YPG was defending the hinterlands. But the rapid ISIS advance and the low casualty figures didn’t add up. Was there a heroic battle before the one for Kobani itself? Where’s the evidence? Tax provides no source for her account.
  • On Tel Hamis, I state correctly that the YPG took it without a fight. In fact, it’s in the YPG’s October 2015 response to the AI report: “As for the battle that took place in February (2015), it was confined to the town of Tel Brak and not Tel Hamis.” Lawrence mentions seeing ISIS corpses but makes no mention of destruction. Luis Miguel Hurtado of Spain’s El Mundo, who was with him on that visit, told me, “I didn’t see any destruction that would go along with air attacks or heavy fighting, certainly nothing like Kobani.”

One of the big surprises of Tax’s letter is the failure to acknowledge any crimes or abuses by the YPG, including the suppression of political opposition and independent media. One source she links to, the Backstreet Blues, is a lot more candid. “We want to point out that the PYD, as well as the YPG/YPJ, has very likely committed crimes amounting to war crimes, and it is important and valid to point these facts out,” they write. And here’s what Backstreet says about human rights violations: “Yes, the PYD acts often in an authoritarian way and was involved in the suppression of other Kurdish opposition parties. And the numbers of Kurds who have fled the region are factually correct.”

Sympathizers of the YPG, if that fairly describes Tax and her colleagues, should not be denying the crimes and abuses but urging the YPG to clean up its act. The YPG, like every party to the conflict, should be held to account.

Tax’s letter ends with a long discussion of the Turkish political crisis and the Ankara government’s suppression of Turkish media. This is a digression familiar to those inquiring about YPG transgressions, for Turkey is the YPG’s obsession and is blamed for most of what goes wrong. But it’s a big mistake to look at my investigation through that lens. To be up-front: My reporting plan was to ask the Turkish government for a detailed overview of the expulsions, which I could then check out on the ground. I thought it would be in their interest to assist me. Unfortunately, the government wouldn’t provide anything, on any basis. I also asked the US government, which was just as unhelpful. Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government, by contrast, was accessible at every level, up to and including President Barzani.

Instead of writing about the suppression of free media in Rojava, Tax speaks of the chilling effect of the Turkish media crackdown, implying that it extends to the reporting for this series. The domestic media crackdown in Turkey is severe and incompatible with the functioning of a democracy. Foreign journalists know that our days may be numbered. But that is a very different topic from the subject of this series. There’s no connection.

Read more of The Nation’s coverage of the Syrian conflict.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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