Akcakale, Turkey—The Kurdish militia that supplies the ground troops in the US air war against the Islamic State has been a systematic violator of human rights in the area it controls in northern Syria, causing the displacement of tens of thousands of Arabs and even more massive flight by Kurds from the region.
A six-month investigation shows that the militia, reportedly under the strong influence of Iran and the Assad regime, has evicted Arabs from their homes at gunpoint starting in 2013 and subsequently has blown up, torched, or bulldozed their homes and villages. The Nation interviewed more than 80 Arabs and Syrian Kurdish refugees in the region as well as militia officials, former militia members, former Syrian government officials, political activists, and officials in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The pace of the expulsions picked up dramatically after the United States began joint operations against the Islamic State in Syria in mid-2015, as the Kurdish militia threatened Arabs with air strikes if they didn’t leave their villages. While they slowed in 2016, expulsions continue even as the militia turns on its political rivals and jails, tortures, or expels them.
At least 300,000 Syrian Kurds have also fled the region to neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan, according to officials there, and no fewer than 200,000 have fled to Turkey rather than submit to forced conscription and political suppression by a group that insists on ruling as a one-party state, according to Kurdish human-rights monitors in Turkey. Officials in Iraqi Kurdistan say that if the Syrian Kurdish militia opened the borders, at least half the Kurdish population under its control would flee.
The militia, which calls itself the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, is the Syrian wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has fought a long, off-and-on guerrilla insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984 that reignited in mid-2015 and continues today.
The Obama administration insisted that the PKK, listed by the United States as a terrorist group, is separate from the YPG, a stance that allowed Washington to circumvent laws prohibiting dealing with such groups. Numerous witnesses, including four PKK defectors interviewed for this article, call the US stance a fiction.
Is there a YPG separate from the PKK, The Nation asked Mohar, a PKK defector, interviewed outside Syria. “What’s the difference?” he replied.
All four defectors said policy for the Syrian region that Kurds call Rojava, or west Kurdistan, is made in Qandil, Iraq, the PKK headquarters.
The YPG denies any wrongdoing. “Expulsions never happened in the past and they will not happen in the future,” said Sihanouk Dibo, a spokesman and senior adviser for the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the political wing of the YPG. He said the alliance between the YPG and the (US-led) international coalition against ISIS “is another reason why such violations can’t happen.”