80-year-old Kurdish man tortured to death in Afrin
The Turkish state and mercenaries continue to target civilians in Afrin. Hardly a day passes without reports of crimes in the occupied territories of North and East Syria.
Human Rights Organization- Afrin reported that the dead body of an 80-year-old Kurdish man called Aref Abdo Khalil, alias Aref Khatouneh, was found thrown near Lake Maidanki.
According to reliable local sources the victim had been kidnapped from his home village of Qezilbash, in Afrin’s Bilbile district on June 9. The area is under the sway of notorious Sultan Murad Turkmeni militias of Jaish al Nukhba.
The dead body of the disabled old man, who used to sit in a wheelchair, was found naked bearing traces of torture yesterday morning.
Local sources said that the victim had been kidnapped by Jaish al-Nukhba militiamen who broke into his home and stole his money.
The Turkish state has established a “terror regime” in all the areas it has occupied in North-East Syria. On April 23, the invaders kidnapped Sheikh Inezan, a prominent figure from the Neim tribe, which is among the most important tribes of the region.
On April 4, three civilians were kidnapped and then executed in the area between the villages of Kopirlik and Evdokoy. On the very dame day, a civilian named Sileman Bekre was kidnapped by the invaders in Afrin.
Two days ago, on June 9, eight civilians were kidnapped in the village of Raco, in Mabata by Jabhat al-Shamiya mercenaries who asked for ransom to release those detained.
16-year-old Malak Nabih Khalil was kidnapped by the Sultan Murad Brigade mercenaries on May 23. Her lifeless body has been found near the village of Firiziya in Azaz region on June 5.
Afrin has been under the occupation of the Turkish state and its mercenary allies for over two years now. The attacks of the Turkish state against Afrin began on 20 January 2018 and the invasion of the city was carried out on 18 March 2018. Since the invasion, war crimes have been systematically committed in the region. Almost every day, crimes such as the confiscation of property belonging to local people, kidnapping of civilians for ransom, torture or executions are carried out.
The occupation forces controlled by Ankara use the abductions to extort ransoms. This method has become a lucrative source of income. At least 500 cases of ransom handovers have been reported so far. Turkish-backed militias demand an equivalent of between 3,000 and 100,000 euros, depending on the ability of the victims’ relatives to pay.
Videos circulated on social media in late May showed the evacuation of abducted and imprisoned women prisoners found in an internment camp of the pro-Turkish militia Furqat al-Hamza. A number of Kurdish women, many of them Yazidis, were abducted after the invasion of the city by the Turkish army in spring 2018, and many are still in the prisons of the militias commanded by Turkey, being tortured and sexually abused. Protests against violent attacks on defenceless civilians, especially women, have been ongoing since, demanding urgent action by the international authorities which have remained silent on the Turkish occupation and resulting crimes in the region.
Turkey-linked mercenaries kidnap 11 civilians in Afrin
The Turkish state and mercenaries continue to target civilians in Afrin. Hardly a day passes without reports of crimes in the occupied territories of North and East Syria.
According to local sources 8 civilians have been kidnapped in the village of Raco, in Mabata by Jabhat al-Shamiya mercenaries. The mercenaries said they will release the kidnapped civilians if a ransom is paid. The kidnapped people have been named locally as Elî Hemo, Husên Şêxo, Ezîz Şêxo, Betal Mihemed Şêxo, Heysem Remzî Hecî Hemo, Henîf Arif Şerê, Mihemed Birîm and Henîf Henan.
Sources in the region also told ANHA that eventually two of the kidnapped civilians, Henîf Henan and Mihemed Birîm, were released after ransom was paid while there is no information about the fate of the others.
In addition, a source from the village of Meimila in Mabata, said that many more civilians were abducted by the mercenaries.
Only some of the names of the kidnapped people could be learned: Lawend Umer Simo (20), Mihemed Menan Birîm (32) and Ciwan Şukrî Umer (20).
The occupation forces kidnapped 16-year-old Malak Nabih Khalil by the Sultan Murad Brigade mercenaries on May 23. Her lifeless body has been found near the village of Firiziya in Azaz region two days ago.
According to reports revealed in late May, 11 women who had been abducted in 2018 were subject to brutal torture for two years. The women were hidden from their familes during the mentioned period of time.
The Turkish state has established a “terror regime” in all the areas it has occupied in North-East Syria. On April 23, the invaders kidnapped Sheikh Inezan, a prominent figure from the Neim tribe, which is among the most important tribes of the region.
On April 4, three civilians were kidnapped and then executed in the area between the villages of Kopirlik and Evdokoy. On the very dame day, a civilian named Sileman Bekre was kidnapped by the invaders in Afrin.
Afrin has been under the occupation of the Turkish state and its mercenary allies for over two years now. The attacks of the Turkish state against Afrin began on 20 January 2018 and the invasion of the city was carried out on 18 March 2018. Since the invasion, war crimes have been systematically committed in the region. Almost every day, crimes such as the confiscation of property belonging to local people, kidnapping of civilians for ransom, torture or executions are carried out.
The occupation forces controlled by Ankara use the abductions to extort ransoms. This method has become a lucrative source of income. At least 500 cases of ransom handovers have been reported so far. Turkish-backed militias demand an equivalent of between 3,000 and 100,000 euros, depending on the ability of the victims’ relatives to pay.
Water as a weapon of war
In an area of northern Syria, already struck by desertification which has been dramatically intensified by the global climate crisis, water is being used as a weapon of war.
For the past eight years the region commonly known by its Kurdish name of Rojava has been experimenting with building up an ecological and feminist system of self-governance. In this system, ordinary people make decisions about how their towns and neighbourhoods are run and women’s freedom is considered fundamental.
Turkey invaded Rojava in October 2019 after Trump announced US military withdrawal from the region. Turkish forces bombed the main water station on the first day of the invasion of Serekaniye (a city whose name, in Kurdish, means ‘fountainhead’, or ‘water source’) and surrounding towns and villages. Since then, the water has been shut-off on five further occasions, denying more than 650,000 people of access to water, just as the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
In addition to this, Turkey has dammed the rivers which flow from Turkey into Syria and Iraq, detaining water inside its own borders, causing a big reduction in the flow of water to the wider region – by an estimated 80 per cent to Iraq and by around 40 per cent to Syria.
In response to the ongoing crisis, UK-based co-operative the Solidarity Economy Association (SEA) has come together with a number of other international organizations and women’s structures in Rojava to launch a big crowdfunding campaign for water infrastructure and women’s co-operatives in the region. It aims to raise £100,000 ($123,463).
The #Water4Rojava crowdfunding campaign launched on 16 May and reached £25,000 ($30,865) in the first week. The campaign is also being match funded up to the first £50,000 and is being supported by well-known figures, including British actress Maxine Peak, David Graeber, Debbie Bookchin, Janet Biehl and world-renowned photographer Joey Lawrence.
‘Most of the water sources in the region were in Serekaniye and we lost them with the invasion,’ explains Heval Armanc from Aborîya Jin (Women’s Economy) – an autonomous women’s economic body in northeast Syria.
‘We have been struggling a lot more since we lost access to the water resources. We have some women’s economy projects, like our project in Derîk (another city in Rojava), where we are digging wells, planting trees and building houses. With all that we do, we are mindful about nature and not to cause any harm.’
Aborîya Jin’s main role is to help women set up and run projects like agriculture and textile co-operatives, and communal living projects with collective livelihoods. ‘If we are working alone, those projects will move very slowly, but with support the project can be very successful, that’s why the Water for Rojava campaign is very important. Access to water is even more vital now with the global pandemic – you need water to be clean and safe,’ says Armanc.
Turkey controls 90 per cent of the waterflow of the Euphrates, and around 44 per cent of the Tigris, the two main rivers of the region. Since 1992, the government has built 22 major dams which hold back the headwaters of these two great rivers.
Within Turkey’s borders, hundreds of towns and villages have been submerged and (mostly Kurdish) residents forced into cities and away from traditional ways of life. Downstream in Iraq, regions such as the ecologically and culturally unique Mesopotamian Marshes and the Marsh Arabs who depend on them for subsistence are also at threat of extinction.
In Syria, Turkey has been directly at war with the predominantly Kurdish population of the northern regions since its invasion and continued occupation of Afrin in early 2018. This is now escalating since the subsequent invasion and occupation of Serekaniye and Tel Abyad in late 2019, and water is now being weaponized and water infrastructure targeted as never before.
The local Directorate of Water, the citizen-led municipalities, the Women’s Economy, local charities and NGOs, all have plans for alternative measures to provide water, but pressures such as an economic embargo on the region and food insecurity caused by the depleted water supply, climate change and the ongoing conflict, mean that there are not enough funds to go ahead with all the projects. That’s where #Water4Rojava can help.
Support the Water for Rojava campaign
SOHR: ISIS battalion from Iraq works for Turkish intelligence
SOHR reported that an Iraqi battalion of ISIS members working for “Ahrar Al-Sharqiayyah” and Turkish intelligence.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that a battalion which comprises tens of ISIS members operates under the banner of “Ahrar Al-Sharqiyyah” and consists of nearly 40 Iraqi fighters, works for the Turkish intelligence.
According to SOHR sources, the battalion works in northern Syria with a task of carrying out executions and detonations. In addition, they are tasked with spy on ISIS foreign members who try to flee to the Turkish territory and the undercover members in Aleppo countryside, so that the battalion can arrest them. Some of those arrested ISIS members were imprisoned or executed, while others were taken to Turkey in return for large sums of money. Reliable SOHR sources confirmed that those members in prisons have been compromised in order to be sent to fight in Libya.
The Observatory said: “The headquarters of the battalion, which is led by a person known as (Abu Waqqas Al-Iraqi), is in Al-Bab city in north-eastern Aleppo. A notorious prison belonging to the battalion is also located in the area. It is worth noting that Al-Iraqi used to travel comfortably between Turkey and Aleppo countryside. Al-Iraqi appeared in a picture taken in the Turkish state of Urfah documenting his meeting with Abu Osama Al-Tayanah, an ISIS commander.”
Reliable sources have informed SOHR that Abu Waqqas has been laying low for nearly two months, while it is not known whether he has been involved in military operations in Libya on the side of the “Government of National Accord”, or travelled to Egypt with large sums of money in his possession, like Abu Hudhayfah Al-Hamawi did. Abu Hudhayfah, a former commander in “Ahrar Al-Sham”, fled to Egypt after stealing large sums of money from “Ahrar Al-Sharqiyah” when the formation was established and joined “Ahrar Al-Sham movement” at that time.
“The Iraqi battalion recently transported prisoners from its prison in Al-Bab to Idlib city, where a commander in Hayyaat Tahrir Al-Sham known as (Abu Ali Al-Iraqi) has received them. It is worth noting that (Belal Al-Shawashi Al-Tunsi, Abu Al-Waleed Al-Tunsi and Abu Osama Al-Iraqi) as well as other Egyptians were among the prisoners who have been transported to Idlib. All of these prisoners who have been taken to Idlib are ISIS commanders. The battalion also established another headquarters recently in Al-Bab city,” SOHR sources added.
“Moreover, the Iraqi battalion used to bury people it killed in a mass grave on the outskirts of Susanbat village on the road between Al-Bab and Al-Ra’i in the north-eastern countryside of Aleppo. SOHR has obtained information about the fact that this battalion has killed nearly 300 civilians, combatants and ISIS members buried in the battalion’s mass grave in Aleppo.”
SOHR state that, on January 16, 2020, Thabet Al-Hwaysh, a security official in Ahrar Al-Sharqiyyah, was killed in a car-bomb explosion in Siluk town in northern Al-Raqqah. Al-Hwaysh was the one responsible for transferring money to Abu Waqqas Al-Iraqi from Al-Bab city to Turkey, during the period when Abu Waqqas was in Turkey.
Assyrian villages in the Khabur valley under constant attack
Of the 20,000 Assyrians who were living in the Khabur valley in northeast Syria before the war began in 2011, only about 1,000 remain today. Madeleine Khamis, commander of the “Khabur Guards”, fears that even the last Assyrians will be forced into exile.
According to Madeleine Khamis, commander of the Assyrian combat unit “Khabur Guards”, the Christian inhabitants of the Khabur valley cannot return to their homeland in the long run. As long as their settlement areas in northeast Syria are threatened by the Turkish army and its Islamist allies, the last members of the Assyrian community will probably be forced into exile, Khamis fears.
Programmes and projects to promote the return of displaced persons and their reintegration had to be put on hold due to the war of aggression launched last October by NATO member Turkey and its proxy invasion troops, the so-called “Syrian National Army” (SNA) – an association of extremist FSA militias, members of the “Al-Nusra Front”, Turkmen groups and other jihadist factions from the largely Turkish-held Idlib province.
After the liberation of Til Temir (Tal Tamr), the Khabur guards, together with Christian organizations, had succeeded in bringing exiled Assyrians back into the country. Now that the Khabur valley is in Turkey’s sights, no one believes that the return projects will be resumed soon. Time and again, the region is at the centre of invasion attacks to integrate it into the illegal occupation zone.
20,000 Christian population before the war in Til Temir
The Khabur river extends along the Khabur valley in the northeast of Syria. Here, where the town of Til Temir (Kurdish name: Girê Xurma), a reflection of the population mosaic of Syria, is located, the Nestorians – Assyrians from (Hakkari – who had fled to northern Iraq during the genocide of Christians in the Ottoman Empire between 1914 and 1918, settled in 1933. The League of Nations in Geneva awarded them the settlement area. Their second exodus was preceded by the Simele massacre: some 9000 Assyrians, mainly men and young people, were murdered in various villages in the Duhok region. The village of Simele, which was particularly affected, gave its name to this genocide. There, under the leadership of the Iraqi military, some 350 people died.
The Assyrians from Hakkari founded 33 villages in the flat valley of the Khabur, while Chaldean Christians settled in another three villages. Before the beginning of the Syrian war in 2011, about 20,000 Assyrian Christians were still living here, in almost every village there was a church. Now there are not even 1,000 people left. Because of the jihadists almost all inhabitants fled abroad, most went to Canada, Australia or the US. Some of the villages are completely empty, those who stayed are mostly elderly people. Also, several hundred internally displaced persons from other regions of the country now live in Til Temir.
Most of the inhabitants of Til Temir had already fled towards the end of 2012, when mercenaries of the “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) shifted their attacks on Christians in the west and east to the northern regions and threatened to invade the city. Throughout the year there were repeated massacres, attacks and kidnappings in Homs, Damascus and Deir ez-Zor. Tn time the circle of perpetrators expanded to almost all armed jihadist militias, above all the “Al-Nusra Front”. Churches were desecrated and bombed, Christian villages systematically attacked and depopulated, religious dignitaries kidnapped and murdered. Starting in the second half of 2013, the name “Islamic State” (IS) was used more often in connection with crimes against Syrian Christians, especially around the Khabur valley. When the IS took control over more and more roads in the immediate vicinity of Til Temir, migration increased again.
In 2015, the escalation of terror in the Khabur Valley reached a new level when, in the early morning of February 23, the IS overran the western bank with 40 SUVs, took 12 Assyrian villages on the west side of the river and set fire to the churches. Some 4,000 people who wanted to seek shelter in Tur Abdin – the “Mountain of God’s servants” and heartland of the Syriacs – but were not allowed through by Turkey, managed to escape to Qamishlo and Hesekê. Others went abroad. Those who did not make it in time fell into the hands of the IS. According to various reports, the number of those kidnapped ranged from 262 to 373 and a ransom in the tens of millions was demanded for their release. In June 2015, Til Temir, the nearby Mount Kizwan (Abdulaziz) and the surrounding area were liberated by the YPG/YPJ and Christian fighting groups that had been formed after the outbreak of the Syrian war. Among the martyrs of the city was Ivana Hoffmann from Duisburg. She died on 7 March 2015 bearing the name of “Avaşîn Têkoşin Güneş” in the ranks of struggle and is considered the first internationalist to die in the armed struggle against the IS.
Assyrian Church in Til Temir
Khamis: Turkey is a colonial state
“There are absolutely no differences in the mentality of the Islamists and the Turkish state. When the jihadists invaded the Khabur valley a few years ago, our churches and other holy sites were the first target. This scenario has been repeated during the recent invasion. So far, six of our churches have been razed to the ground by Turkish combat drones. Others were largely damaged,” says Madeleine Khamis.
The commander, who is also a member of the Military Council of the Khabur Guards, calls Turkey a “colonial state”, which, according to the principle of divide et impera – divide and rule- has pursued and is constantly refining its old strategy of dividing territories, dividing the population and confusing the social structure. The same scenario as in Hatay 1938 is wanted to be implemented in the entire border strip as part of the neo-Ottoman expansion plans, says Khamis.
“Turkey wants to expand its borders by dividing and annexing parts of Northern Syria. The Assyrians accept the Turkish state neither in their settlement area nor in other parts of north-eastern Syria. Because the Turkish threat is an existential threat,” Khamis continues.
Genocidal violence against Assyrians and other Christian and ethnic groups is a common thread running through the history of the Turkish state and the Ottoman Empire, of which Turkey is the successor. When more than 1.5 million Armenians became victims of genocide under the responsibility of the young Turkish government during the First World War, pogroms, deportations and massacres also killed about 500,000 Syriacs, 300,000 of them Assyrians, and members of other ethnic groups who did not fit into the nation understanding of the “Turkish-Islamic synthesis”. The historian Joseph Yacoub, who was born in Hesekê, describes the genocide of the Syriacs as “hidden genocide”, since science has paid little attention to this event.
Church damaged during attacks
We are the descendants of survivors
“We in the Khabur Valley are the descendants of survivors of these events. Turkey, on the other hand, has always been an aggressor, destroying the civilizing heritage of the Christian settlement areas,” says Khamis. The Turkish state has not contributed to anything apart from its own ethnic nationalism and the resulting destruction, she says and adds: “Even today, it is attacking our regions and exporting Islamist terror to northeast Syria to wipe us out. As long as silence continues to reign, as long as the Turkish government’s actions are approved by the international community, as long as the outcry continues to fail, even the last Assyrian will leave the region. No one will be able to return home.”
Turkish forces and opposition groups destroy nine Yazidi shrines in Afrin
Coronavirus in Rojava: Facing a Pandemic Without a State
Published 4th May 2020
UN, WHO work with Assad to starve eastern Syria of aid during pandemic
The World Health Organization has also stopped supporting eastern Syria, an area of millions of people who are recovering from ISIS atrocities.
International organizations partnering with the Syrian regime are cutting off aid to the poorest and most vulnerable people in Syria during the global pandemic.
A recent report at Foreign Policy noted that the “United Nations informed its relief agencies several weeks ago that they were permitted to fund private charities operating in northeastern Syria only if they were registered in Damascus and authorized to work there by the Syrian government, which has proved unwilling, or unable, to meet the region’s health needs.”
This gives the Syrian regime a veto over aid to eastern Syria and a way to use it as a weapon. Turkey and Russia collaborated in the effort, as Turkey turns off water to 460,000 people in eastern Syria, and Russia supports the Syrian regime. The report indicates how dictatorships and regimes that abuse human rights come first at controlling UN and international aid, enabling them to use it only for charities linked to them and using it to empower loyalists and sideline others.
The World Health Organization has also stopped supporting eastern Syria, an area of millions of people who are recovering from ISIS atrocities, as the WHO also works through the Syrian regime rather than providing equal access to people on the ground in a Syria divided by conflict. It now turns out that people of eastern Syria are being increasingly isolated by great powers who want them to stop working with the US and either be controlled by Turkey or by the Russian-backed Assad regime.
The report notes that the UN Security Council, “acting under pressure from Russia, shut down a UN-sanctioned humanitarian aid hub on January 10 at the Yaroubia crossing on the Iraqi-Syrian border. That deprived the UN of an explicit legal mandate to serve in the region.” The crossing was used by the WHO and private groups, “delivering medical assistance into northeastern Syria.”
THE LARGER context is that Russia, Iran and Turkey want the US to leave eastern Syria. the people in eastern Syria are the victims because the local authorities were supported by America to fight ISIS. The local authorities are called the Syrian Democratic Forces and various civilian autonomous councils linked to them. The Syrian regime wants the SDF to be disbanded and become part of the Syrian regime’s forces.
Russia and Iran want the US to leave eastern Syria. Turkey, which works closely with Russia and Iran, also wants the US-backed SDF to leave; it invaded part of eastern Syria last year, sending extremist groups to attack civilians.
The pandemic has made matters worse. Desperate for medical support, the local authorities have complained that the WHO didn’t even inform them that a man who became sick in March in Qamishli had COVID-19. The organization reportedly informed the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), but it took another week to even tell the local authorities, because the UN only speaks to the Syrian regime in Damascus. Local authorities in Qamishli and Hasakah complained in a Voice of America report that the regime is concealing the number of coronavirus cases in eastern Syria and also allowing travel, despite attempts at lockdowns.
On May 7, Turkey and the extremists it backs in northern Syria cut off water to 460,000 people in eastern Syria. Turkey and the Syrian regime agree on trying to impose suffering on locals, isolate them and make sure they receive no aid.
THE WAY the UN works makes it so that no one who is not loyal to the Syrian regime receives aid in Syria. For instance, the UN’s World Food Programme conducted air drops to the Syrian-regime-run city off Deir Ezzor when it was under siege by ISIS between 2015 and 2017. The program conducted 309 airdrops at a cost of $37 million a year, according to its website. The assistance helped 200,000 people. But there were no UN-supported air drops for people in Raqqa, Qamishli, Kobane or Idlib, or in refugee camps or areas outside Syrian regime control.
The recent Foreign Policy report indicates that OCHA did ask the UN Office of Legal Affairs to look into the legality of providing relief to people who the Syrian regime didn’t want relief to go to. The experts “concluded that the UN could only fund agencies registered and approved by the Syrian government.” This means the government of Syria can decide who gets aid and can discriminate against those it doesn’t like, including for political, ethnic or religious reasons. That would appear to run contrary to all the lip service the UN and its various organizations pay to human rights and access to health care.
But the reality as it plays out in eastern Syria shows that even during a global pandemic, authoritarian regimes always come first, even if they can’t provide for their own people or don’t control most of their country. For similar reasons, people in Libya, Yemen and parts of Somalia receive no support during the pandemic.
THE SYRIAN regime has blocked aid going to eastern Syria unless local authorities will make sure it only goes to areas the regime wants. That has included blocking delivery of supplies by road from Damascus and making sure any aid flights to the regime-run airport in Qamishli are managed by the regime. The cut-off of aid is designed to isolate areas in eastern Syria and bring them to the bargaining table. The US had already walked away from some of these areas in October 2019, enabling a Turkish invasion and the rapid movement of Russia and Syrian regime forces to parts of northeast Syria.
US envoy James Jeffrey indicated in December 2018 that the SDF would need to work with Damascus and the regime, saying the US has no permanent relationship with non-state actors like the SDF. The US view of the SDF is temporary, tactical and transactional. The transaction today includes the SDF continuing to fight ISIS while the US secures oil fields near the Euphrates River to block Iran’s presence. The US calls this the Eastern Syria Stabilization Area.
As part of the transaction, US anti-ISIS envoy Jeffrey wants the SDF to continue to be subcontractors holding thousands of ISIS detainees. There was even some talk of having the UN support a coronavirus facility at Al-Hol camp where some families of ISIS detainees live, alongside other internally displaces Syrians. But that plan was also scuttled. Civilians who suffered under or even fought ISIS in eastern Syria will get no aid from the WHO or UN.
The US anti-ISIS coalition has tried to do what it can to help in eastern Syria. Under CENTCOM’s leadership, which is sympathetic to the people of eastern Syria and helping them in stabilization efforts after ISIS, some limited support has been delivered, including a multi-year electricity infrastructure effort. Had the area of Raqqa and other towns that once suffered under ISIS waited for the UN, they would still be in darkness.
- April saw a 16% decrease in ISIS sleeper-cell attacks (48 to 40), whereas joint SDF and Coalition raids increased 100% this month (11 up to 22). Despite this increase, the rate of raids has consistently remained lower than the rates we were seeing prior to the war
- Cells continue to specifically target individuals connected to the Autonomous Administration or SDF. Fatalities in general increased 21% this month, with 41% of these deaths being assassinations
- In a new development, two attacks were claimed by Ahrar-al-Sharqiya, a Turkish-backed faction forming part of the Syrian National Army (SNA). Both of the attacks took place in Ain Issa
- The 30km-deep ‘safe zone’ along the border with Turkey has remained untouched by sleeper-cell attacks
40 confirmed attacks took place in April, a 16% decrease from May (48 down to 40). 73% or 29 attacks were claimed by ISIS, leaving nine unclaimed and two attacks claimed by the SNA, as mentioned above.
RIC documented a total of 29 deaths in April, a 21% increase from March (24 up to 29). 41% of these deaths were assassinations specifically targeting village elders (Muhktars), or people claimed to be associated with the Autonomous Administration or SDF. In total 12 assassinations took place. This occurred after ISIS pamphlets were seen distributed throughout Deir-ez-Zor, threatening individuals connected to the Administration. At least 20 people were also documented as have being wounded, but not fatally, in April.
The rate of raids doubled this month (11 up to 22), but still remain lower than the rates we were seeing prior to the latest Turkish operation. 52 arrests have been documented, and three individuals operating with sleeper-cells were killed.
As throughout 2020, sleeper-cells have not targeted cities along the border with Turkey in the 30km-deep ‘safe zone’ (from Derik through to Dirbesiye and around Kobane). 75% of attacks occurred in Deir-ez-Zor, 15% in Heseke, 8% in Raqqa and 2.5% in Manbij.
In keeping with previous months’ trends sleeper-cell groups have continued to focus their energy on IEDs, attacks using small arms, and occasionally grenades – mostly with the purpose of direct elimination of an individual connected to the Autonomous Administration or SDF. There was also one instance of ISIS exploding an oil pipeline in the Heseke region.
Comment from Robin Fleming, a researcher with the Rojava Information Center:
“Unusually, two attacks this April were claimed by the Syrian National Army, specifically the Turkish proxy group Ahrar-al-Sharqiya. This group fought under Turkish command and control during operation Peace Spring, and infamously took the life of Hevrin Khalef, Secretary-General of the Syria’s Future Party and leading female Kurdish politician. These attacks show that following the Turkish invasion, these proxy groups still have a presence in NES outside of the occupied zones, and are still endangering the stability of the region.
Following a recent ISIS campaign distributing pamphlets throughout Deir-ez-Zor, threatening the lives of all those who associate themselves with the Autonomous Administration in any capacity, we saw the rate of both overall fatalities and specific assassinations rise. All of this indicates an ongoing evolution in ISIS’ tactics. It is no longer attempting merely to wreak havoc and claim as many lives as possible. Now instead ISIS is surgically targeting individuals connected to the Administration and SDF, using whatever
Turkey reduces water flow into North East Syria
The water level of the Euphrates river has decreased by 60% in the past two weeks. This was due to the Turkish state reducing the flow of the river.
Closing the part of the river that flows into the Syrian side, the Turkish state has greatly reduced the amount of water entering the country thus causing serious problems to both agriculture in the north of the country and electric supply to vital areas and facilities.
Under a prior agreement between Syria and Turkey, Syria was receiving 500 cubic meters of water per second. But Turkey is now using water as a threat and pressure way. In the summer of 2017, it decreased the flow to 100 cubic meters per second, and this year the flow of the river did not exceed 200 cubic meters per second.
In order to produce electricity, the flow rate of the river must be at least 300 cubic meters per second. A 300-cubic meter flow can operate a 105-megawatt turbine.
There are 3 dams on the Euphrates River, which run for about 600 km in Syrian territory. Rojava (Tişrîn) Dam located in Manbij is the biggest dam in Syria.
There are six dams in the Turkish side of the Euphrates river, with Ataturk Dam being the second biggest dam of its kind in the Middle East. This dam has the capacity to store approximately 48 billion cubic meters of water.
Reducing the water level of the Euphrates River is a threat for millions of Syrians in the northeast of the country. It affects drinking water as well as electricity supply. Indeed in the past week there has been repeated interruption of electricity in northeast Syria. In addition, reduction in water is a problem for agriculture
51 bodies recovered from a mass grave in Raqqa
Bodies of 51 people murdered by ISIS have been unearthed from a mass grave in Raqqa.
51 corpses have been recovered from a mass grave in the region of Til Zedan east of Raqqa city.
Yasır Hamis from Raqqa Emergency Response Teams said that the mass grave in Til Zedan area, located between al-Samra and Hamrat villages, contains at least 200 corpses. He told that remains of 51 people have been recovered so far and their work continues.
Hamis pointed out that this mass grave was more sensitive in comparison to the mass graves in other parts of Raqqa as victims were piled up over each other in this one. He noted that they were working with utmost sensitivity to make sure that bones are not mingled.
According to Hamis, the digging might take a long time as three corpses are exhumed each day.
He added that the remains in the mass grave belong to civilians aged between 25 and 35 who were murdered by ISIS mercenaries during their bloody reign in the city.
Raqqa was the city ISIS jihadists proclaimed the capital of their so-called caliphate. It is also one of the cities which suffered most and witnessed inhuman massacres, beheading, violence difficult to express with words.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces liberated the Raqqa city on 20 October 2017. Since then the city has begun to rebuild itself. Some 85% of the city and its infrastructures had been destroyed by ISIS, yet the deepest destruction had to do with life itself. Some of the survivors of the dark years of the Caliphate say that life stopped during those times.
Yet, life prevailed. And the newly declared Autonomous Administration has been working since the liberation of the city to rebuild it.
Within the scope of the coordinated activities of the Raqqa Civil Assembly and the People’s Municipality, roads were re-opened, houses and water were started to be supplied to the neighborhoods and the war debris removed.
With the reconstruction of the city and the development of a free and common way of living, 700,000 people who had fled ISIS have returned to their homes.
With the increase of the population, the reconstruction works accelerated. The People’s Municipality of Raqqa announced an amnesty for those who had repaired their destroyed houses without permission and offered assistance to put the houses at norm.
Attacks on northern Syria continue unabated
The Turkish and Jihadist occupation forces continue their attacks against northern Syria enjoying a worldwide silence on their ongoing offensive seeking to invade the region in violation of international law.
The Turkish state is systematically bombing civilian settlements in North-East Syria/Rojava on daily basis. Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to leave their homes, while hundreds of civilians have lost their lives since the invasion attacks that began on 9 October 2019.
The occupant Turkish army and allied mercenaries have launched a wave of attacks on villages in Afrin’s Shera and Sherawa districts Sunday morning.
The attacks with heavy weapons have targeted the villages of Malikiya, Shiwarxa, Meranaz, Kafr Antun and Irshadiya in Shera, and the villages of Bene, Darjimal and Soxaneke in Sherawa.
On Saturday evening the occupation forces shelled the village of Xirbitbeqir near Gire Spi (Tal Abyad). No information was immediately available about the results of the attacks on the inhabited villages.
The attacks by Turkey and its jihadist aid troops in northern Syria have not abated, even in times of the coronavirus pandemic, and are mainly directed at residential areas and civil infrastructure. While civilian population suffers casualties, the power and water supply has collapsed in large parts of north-east Syria due to the targeted artillery attacks.
As part of worldwide measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for a global ceasefire on 23 March and called on the parties to the conflict to cease hostilities, saying; “End the sickness of war and fight the disease that is ravaging our world. It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives. Silence the guns; stop the artillery; end the airstrikes. This is crucial.”
In Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) responded by declaring that they would follow the UN appeal in the autonomous region and calling on all other parties to the conflict to immediately observe a humanitarian ceasefire. But so far the other warring parties have ignored this outstretched hand.
Turkey is using the Corona pandemic to expand its zone of occupation in the midst of the crisis. Despite warnings that a Covid-19 outbreak in Syria would pose a deadly threat to 6.5 million internally displaced persons suffering the effects of nine years of war, and a renewed appeal by the UN that a cessation of fighting could help create the conditions for the provision of life-saving aid, Northern and Syria continue to be under attack.
In the cities of Serêkaniyê (Ras al-Ain) and Girê Spî (Tal Abyad), which have been included in the Turkish occupation zone in North-East Syria since October 2019, and in the self-governing areas along the Turkish-Syrian border, significant military activities of Turkey’s jihadist proxy army (“Syrian National Army”, SNA) are taking place.
Afrin has been under the occupation of the Turkish state and its mercenary allies for over two years now. The attacks of the Turkish state against Afrin began on 20 January 2018 and the invasion of the city was carried out on 18 March 2018. Since the invasion, war crimes have been systematically committed in the region. Almost every day, crimes such as the confiscation of property belonging to local people, kidnapping of civilians for ransom, torture or executions are carried out.
The occupation forces controlled by Ankara use the abductions to extort ransoms. This method has become a lucrative source of income. At least 500 cases of ransom handovers have been reported so far. Turkish-backed militias demand an equivalent of between 3,000 and 100,000 euros, depending on the ability of the victims’ relatives to pay.
UN: War crimes and torture in Afrin
Last autumn, the UN Human Rights Council published a report on the situation in Syria, which also describes the devastating human rights situation in Afrin. The Council documented that the overall security conditions in Afrin and adjacent districts remained dire with armed factions having carved up the province into geographic zones of influence.
“As a result there is a general absence of rule of law and repeated incidents of kidnappings, torture, extortion and assassination. Victims were often of Kurdish origin as well as civilians perceived as being prosperous, including doctors, businessmen and merchants,” said the report
Syrian Kurdish parties resume talks, in secret
Rival Kurdish parties in northeastern Syria have began US-sponsored reconciliation talks after repeated delays in the past and in the hope of joining the UN-sponsored peace process to resolve the Syrian conflict.
For the first time since Oct. 28, 2019, when Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) commander Mazlum Abdi announced an initiative to resolve inter-Kurdish differences, the Kurdish National Council (KNC) and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) kick-started secret, direct talks. The initiative is seemingly designed to include all the Kurdish parties in the PYD-ruled autonomous administration in northeast Syria, paving the way for the autonomous administration to join the UN-sponsored negotiations in Geneva to end the Syrian conflict.
Despite the stakes involved, success is not guaranteed given the tense political relations between the two negotiating parties following years of political conflict and media spats. The KNC is an official part of the Istanbul-based Syrian opposition in exile, while Turkey views the PYD, which espouses the ideology of the Abdullah Ocalan-led Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), as its top foe in Syria. Meanwhile, the PYD is also part of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political arm of the Kurdish-led SDF fighting alongside the US-led international coalition.
Speaking to Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity, an informed official source revealed the origins of the negotiations process. “The first direct negotiating round between the KNC and PYD was held in early April at a US military base on the periphery of Hasakah, in the presence of the US special adviser to the global coalition forces in Syria, William Roebuck, and SDF commander Mazlum Abdi.”
The attempted détente is reportedly taking place under US supervision. Roebuck has had multiple meetings with the KNC in the past three months to discuss developments in the Syrian arena and to support the initiative to unify Kurdish ranks in Syria.
At an April 25 press conference in Qamishli, Abdi said, “Remarkable progress is being made in the process to unify the Kurdish ranks. The parties, the PYD and the rest of the political parties are being responsive to the initiative.”
Commenting on the agenda for the negotiations, the source told Al-Monitor, “The two sides are discussing the adoption of a unified political vision for Syrian’s future based on discussion of a draft presented by the US side. After holding at least four meetings as part of the negotiations, the two sides agreed on the following: Syria will be a federal, democratic and pluralistic state; the current regime is an authoritarian and dictatorial regime that uses violence against its opponents; the Kurdish areas consist of an integrated political and geographical unit.”
He also said that the parties agree on building positive relations with neighboring countries and resolving the Syrian crisis in accordance with UN Resolution 2254. Both sides seek to include recognition of Kurdish national, cultural and political rights in the Syrian constitution as well secure constitutional recognition that Syrian Kurds are an indigenous people. They also agree to advocate for the return of refugees and other displaced persons to their homes and for a democratic opposition.
In Qamishli, SDC spokesman Amjad Othman told Al-Monitor, “The motives behind the agreement are much stronger than reasons preventing its conclusion. The parties to the dialogue have the single option of coming to an agreement despite the considerable challenges and difficulties which will only be resolved if the parties are serious.”
Othman said the negotiations can only succeed if the parties remain independent. “The regional influences and agendas need to be ignored, and priority needs to be given to the public interest and a joint vision to address the situations in Afrin, Ras al-Ain/Sari Kani and Gire Spi/Tell Abyad. The Kurdistan parties agreeing to and supporting the initiative would improve the odds of success.”
The KNC is allied with the Kurdish nationalist project led by Massoud Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq, having been formed in 2011 with the KDP’s support. As noted, the PYD bases its political and organizational projects on the PKK’s ideology.
Tensions between the PYD and KNC took a turn for the worse when the PYD became the most influential player in northeast Syria in 2012. The KNC viewed the PYD-led autonomous administration as a fait accompli and has refused to apply for a permit to engage in political activity there. The autonomous administration responded by exiling the KNC president, shuttering its offices and arresting dozens of its leaders and members during 2016-17.
Meanwhile, the KNC’s affiliation with the Istanbul-based Syrian opposition has served to exacerbate tensions between the two sides following multiple Turkish military operations launched against the Kurds in Syria. In fact, the PYD has accused the KNC of subordination to the Turkish state at the expense of the Kurdish people.
Kamiran Hajo, chairman of the KNC’s Foreign Relations Committee told Al-Monitor by phone from Sweden, where he resides, “We have always called for the unification of Kurdish ranks. The current circumstances seem to be right for practical steps to be taken in this direction. Following the relatively longstanding feud, the two sides are in need of an agreement that lays the foundations for the Kurds’ future in Syria.”
Hajo fears, however, that any new agreement with the PYD will suffer the same fate as previously ones reached by the two sides under Barzani’s auspices: collapse at the implementation stage. “Negotiations are not going to be easy, and there will be multiple challenges before an agreement is reached,” Hajo said. “The agreement’s implementation phase could be harder than the dialogue and agreement phase in itself. That’s what happened with the previous deals.”
Commenting on the US role in the negotiations, Ahed al-Hindi, a Washington, DC-based political analyst, told Al-Monitor by phone, “I believe that the US efforts to unify the Kurdish ranks in northeastern Syria are a part of [a broader] project designed to unify the entire Syrian north, namely the northwest controlled by the Turkish-backed [opposition] and the northeast controlled by the US-backed [Kurdish-led forces]. This project aims to build a strong position against the [Bashar] al-Assad regime and deny it the areas’ wealth, which could be used to revive the regime.”
Hindi believes the United States is determined to unify the ranks of the Syrian Kurds. He asserted, “The repeated visits Roebuck and his team made lately and his long stays in the region confirm that the US is serious in resolving inter-Kurdish differences and subsequently have the autonomous administration taking part in the Geneva talks to resolve the Syrian crisis and be represented in the opposition delegation.”
Over the course of the nine-year Syrian civil war, the Kurds in Syria have paid exorbitant prices in military and social terms. In 2018 and 2019, they lost the regions of Afrin, Ras al-Ain/Sari Kani and Gire Spi/Tell Abyad to Turkey and Turkish-backed militias, resulting in the displacement of most Kurdish residents in these areas. In addition, in the fight against Islamic State, the SDF, whose backbone is the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, lost 11,000 fighters and saw 22,000 wounded.
Despite controlling nearly 20% of Syrian territory, the SDF does not have political representation in the Geneva talks because of Turkish opposition to their presence. With Ankara continuing to reject any project that would lead to Kurdish autonomous rule in Syria, unifying to jointly pursue Kurdish interests is the only option the Kurds have left.
Kurdish authorities in northeast Syria condemn ‘cowardly’ Afrin bombing
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — Kurdish authorities in northeast Syria have condemned the “cowardly” Tuesday car bombing which killed at least 40 civilians in the northern city of Afrin.
A fuel tanker laced with explosives detonated in the city center on Tuesday evening, killing at least 40 civilians and injuring 47 others, according to Turkey’s state-owned Anadolu Agency (AA).
General Commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) Mazloum Abdi took to Twitter on Wednesday to condemn the attack.
“What happened in Afrin yesterday was a condemned terrorist act which claimed the lives of innocent people. This criminal act is the outcome of destructive policy pursued by the Turkish occupation and its mercenaries in the city of peace and olives,” Abdi wrote.
A statement released by the Syrian Democratic Council, the SDF’s political wing, accused Turkish-backed forces for the explosion.
“We condemn this cowardly terrorist act which targeted innocent civilians and threatens the remaining sons of Afrin to displace and leave their villages and cities,” read the statement.
“[The] Turkish invasion, relying on [military] fractions with terrorist ideology, has opened the door wide to terrorist forces to reorganize their ranks and carry out cowardly acts under Turkish protection,” it added.
Hours later, Abdulkarim Omar, co-chair of the Department of Foreign Relations for the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES) called on the international community to “pressure Turkey to leave Afrin and all other occupied areas.”
Afrin was invaded by the Turkish army and its Syrian proxies during Operation Olive Branch in March 2018 on the grounds that the YPG threatened Turkish national security.
Turkish authorities, including the country’s defense ministry and vice president, accused the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the backbone of the multi-ethnic Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of being behind the attack.
Several bombings have rocked Afrin since the Turkish invasion, which Ankara insists are the work of the YPG. However, SDF officials have said that they do not intend to target civilians.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also condemned the attack.
“The United States renews its call for support and implementation of a nationwide ceasefire in Syria following today’s cowardly act of terror carried out on innocent victims in Afrin. Such acts of evil are unacceptable from any side in this conflict,” he wrote on Twitter.
UPDATE: Afrin city center blast kills 42
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — An explosion in the rebel-controlled city of Afrin in northwest Syria on Tuesday killed 42 people and wounded at least 50 others, local officials tell Rudaw English.
Witnesses told Rudaw English that the attack took place just before four p.m. on a crowded street in Afrin’s city center, near the entrance to its main market referred to by locals as the Political Junction, when fully loaded fuel tanker detonated in the middle of midday traffic.
“The bodies have been charred beyond recognition, but they appear to be civilians who were just passing by,” Azad Othman, a member of the Afrin Local Council, told Rudaw English.
Shops and vehicles burned for nearly an hour as fire and rescue vehicles rushed to the scene from nearby Azaz to assist in put out flames caused by the blast.
“It was a popular market that was targeted, so most of the dead are civilians, Raed Saleh, director of the Syrian Civil Defense told Rudaw English via telephone. “Our teams are still searching and rescuing. There could be more,” he added.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took to Twitter to condemn the bombing.
“The United States renews its call for support and implementation of a nationwide ceasefire in Syria following today’s cowardly act of terror carried out on innocent victims in Afrin. Such acts of evil are unacceptable from any side in this conflict,” he wrote.
No group has claimed responsibility for the blast, but the Turkish defense ministry has accused the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which were ousted from the region by Turkey and its proxy Syrian rebel factions in March 2018. Since then, there has been a series of attacks on Turkish targets in the area, as well as reports of violations by local human rights monitors.
Similar blasts in areas controlled by Turkey-backed rebel fighters have targeted the area in recent months.
A statement by the YPG-affiliated Afrin Liberation Forces claimed to have killed two Turkish soldiers and three Syrian fighters in two separate attacks earlier this week.
“There have been three explosions targeting the city just this month, but this one is definitely the biggest and most deadly,” Afrin resident Milad al-Shehabi told Rudaw English.
Originally from Aleppo, Shehabi was displaced to Afrin two years ago. Recent fighting has displaced more that one million Syrians from rural Aleppo and Idlib, some of which still lies outside of the control of forces loyal to Bashar Assad.
Turkey supports the Syrian opposition in the war against President Bashar Assad but has joined with Russia to secure and monitor local ceasefires.
By evening, local authorities had compiled a list of names for relatives searching to check on their missing loved ones and collect their disfigured remains.
Updated at 8.51am on 29/4/2020
Kino Gabriel refutes Turkish allegations, calls on them to respect agreements signed
The spokesperson for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has denied the news that the media of the Turkish occupation is promoting about the developments in the occupied Serekaniye and Girê Spi / Tal Abyad, and affirmed their full commitment to their duty towards their people and partners.
The areas occupied by Turkey and mercenaries are witnessing what is called the “Syrian National Army”, and there is a great security chaos, and there are clashes between mercenaries almost daily.
The Turkish occupation has been working for a while to falsify the facts taking place in the occupied areas, and to spread false news and statements about the operations of the Syrian Democratic Forces.
On what the media machine of the Turkish occupation is trying to publish and which will falsify the lived reality in those areas, the spokesperson for the Syrian Democratic Forces, Kino Gabriel, issued a written statement >
“Recently, several fabricated news and statements by a number of official accounts of the Turkish Ministry of Defense appeared on the Internet, including the official account of the Turkish National Security Council, which publishes false news and information about the military situation and developments in the occupied areas of Ras Al-Ain, Tal Abyad and the Tal Rifaat region.
We in the Syrian Democratic Forces assure that all this information and news is unfounded, and a miserable attempt to distort the reality of what is happening on the ground in terms of the full commitment of our forces to their obligations towards the agreements signed in this regard, and any military presence of our forces do not exist in the aforementioned areas, while the reality is the continuation of the forces Turkish and its mercenary groups bombed villages surrounding the areas of operations, which resulted in various civilian casualties and sabotage to the infrastructure in those areas.
We reaffirm once again our full commitment to our duties towards our people and partners, our rejection of such propaganda methods, and our call for Turkey to respect the agreements signed with our partners in the region. ”
SDF’s Abdi calls for support for national unity initiative
Abdi said that talks have produced positive results which will be announced in the coming days.
SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) Commander General Mazloum Abdi spoke to the press after a meeting with a delegation from the Euphrates Region about national unity.
Abdi said there were new developments in the efforts for the achievement of Kurdish national unity, noting that political circles bore a positive approach toward the initiative.
Remarking that talks have produced positive results which will be announced in the coming days, Abdi called on all political parties to support the established initiative and act according to the national unity of the Kurds.
HUSÊN: KURDISH NATIONAL UNITY IS AN URGENT NEED
Dr. Bextiyar Husên from the delegation that met Abdi, remarked that all those that support the establishment of Kurdish national unity have united around the initiative that has been founded to this end.
Defining Kurdish national unity as an urgent need, Husên added that they would meet and talk with the PYD (Democratic Union Party) and ENKS (Syrian Kurdish National Council) on the subject.
Recalling the previous attempts for national unity, Husên said; “The Autonomous Administration and ENKS signed the Hewlêr 1, Hewlêr 2 and Duhok agreements. However, these agreements have unfortunately produced no results. There is a different atmosphere and circumstance today. It is now essential to make a decision for the benefit of the Kurdish people.”
The delegation is expected to meet ENKS and PYD tomorrow.
Turkish-backed militias beat man to death in Afrin
Members of the Sultan Murad Brigade set up and organized by the Turkish secret service MIT have beaten a 74-year-old man to death in Afrin.
Reports of further attacks by the occupation forces against inhabitants of the occupied region of Afrin come through almost daily.
On Wednesday, 74-year-old Ali Ehmed died of his injuries. When he was grazing his sheep near his hometown Meydankê, he was severely maltreated by mercenaries of the Sultan Murad Brigade and subsequently died in the hospital of Afrin.
Ali Ehmed is the second civilian who was murdered this week by the occupation forces in Afrin. Two days earlier, Fatme Kene, also 74 years old, had been killed in an attack by Pro-Turkish mercenaries.
The Sultan Murad Brigade consists of Turkish right-wing extremists and Islamists and was set up under the direction of the Turkish secret service MIT.
HRE: 10 Turkish-backed mercenaries killed, 14 others wounded
HRE units continue inflicting blows on the occupation forces in North-East Syria.
Afrin Liberation Forces (HRE) released a statement announcing the results of their latest operations against occupation forces in North-East Syria.
According to the statement, the HRE operations on April 21 and 23 left 10 Turkish-backed mercenaries dead, 14 others wounded and a vehicle destroyed.
On April 21, HRE fighters targeted the mercenary groups between the villages of Kîmarê and Beradê in Afrin’s Sherawa district. Two mercenaries were killed and three others wounded as a result.
On April 23, HRE units carried out three separate sabotage operations against occupation forces in Jarablus and Rai. Eight mercenaries were killed, at least 11 others wounded and a vehicle destroyed in these operations.
HRE fighters also hit the mercenaries at the Maratê junction in Afrin city center but the results of the action couldn’t be clarified.
Kongra Star commemorates victims of the Armenian genocide
“In the name of Kongra Star, we remember the victims of these massacres and express our condolences to them and their families. May the existing struggle and resistance be successful.”
Women’s umbrella organization in North and East Syria, Kongra Star, released a statement marking the 105th anniversary of the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire.
The statement by Kongra Star includes the following:
“Today, April 24th is the commemoration day of the Armenian genocide, which took place in 1915, 105 years ago. This massacre was carried out by the Ottomans against the Armenian, Syriac, Chaldean and Greek populations.
This was a continuation of the massacre that began in 1904 against the Armenian people. The Ottoman Empire, with its brutality and the massacre it committed, tried to exterminate and destroy the indigenous peoples of the region through rape, kidnapping and murder. Only a few were able to flee and find safety in the surrounding villages. These people wanted to be the voice to demand justice for these massacres and their victims. Until today there are no efforts to ensure that the Armenian genocide is recognized as such in the world. Only few international states have officially recognized this genocide so far. The Turkish state denies this genocide until today.
The current Turkish occupation and invasion in North and East Syria, as we can see in the present Turkish occupied regions of Afrin, Girê Spî or Serêkaniyê, are no less violent in their brutality than a century ago.
When one considers the brutality of their actions, one can see parallels with the ISIS. The Ottoman violence and oppression, which began with the massacres against the Armenians and Syriacs, is now directed against the people in North and East Syria and has the same form as well as the same goal. But the resistance of the peoples continues until today, as we can see in the resistance and struggle against the state oppression of Turkey.
The indigenous peoples today organise themselves in the form of a common administration, which includes all Kurdish and Arabic as well as Syriac, Assyrian and Armenian components, and live together here. This can be a model for the whole world. In the name of Kongra Star, we remember the victims of these massacres and express our condolences to them and their families. May the existing struggle and resistance be successful.
President Trump has said of Syria, “Let the other people take care of it now.” His repudiation of responsibility is striking, given that during his Administration the U.S. military, in its zeal to destroy ISIS, has reduced huge swaths of the country to wasteland.
Most important, they were safe. The camp stood on a strategic intersection of the M4 highway, which traverses Syria from the Mediterranean Sea to its border with Iraq. The town of Ain Issa, less than a mile away, was the headquarters of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led army that had vanquished ISIS in northern and eastern Syria. Also nearby were two large U.S. military bases, which housed hundreds of American troops, contractors, and Foreign Service workers, who had supported the S.D.F. throughout its anti-ISIS campaign. One of the bases, at the former Lafarge Cement Factory, served as the joint-operations center for Kurdish and American commanders.
Khairi assured his fellow-refugees that someone surely had a plan to protect them. A fenced-off part of the camp held more than eight hundred wives and children of killed or captured ISIS militants: if nothing else, Khairi reasoned, the U.S. forces down the road would never let so many high-value detainees escape.
As the Turkish forces approached, however, an alarming development inside the camp deepened the communal panic. Without informing anyone, the management staff, armed guards, and aid workers had all disappeared.
In town, meanwhile, about fifteen hundred S.D.F. members had been frantically organizing a defense. One of the commanders was a twenty-eight-year-old Kurd from Aleppo Province who went by the nom de guerre Brousque—Lightning, in Kurdish. Brousque had been fighting ISIS alongside American troops for six years; his four siblings, including his twenty-one-year-old sister, also served in the S.D.F. In 2017, when the S.D.F. conducted a gruelling urban assault on Raqqa, ISIS’s global capital, U.S. Special Forces provided Brousque and other Kurdish commanders with tactical guidance while keeping a safe distance from the combat. Two months into the battle, an S.D.F. fighter a few yards in front of Brousque stepped on a mine and was killed, as was a fighter behind them. The blast knocked Brousque unconscious. He woke up in a hospital, blind, his chest, neck, and face burned and lacerated by shrapnel. By the time he recovered and regained his vision, at the end of 2017, ISIS had been defeated in Raqqa. Brousque was deployed to Tell Abyad, in the far north, where he was assigned five hundred fighters to secure a fifty-mile stretch of the border with Turkey.
Tensions on the border were already high. The S.D.F. had grown out of the P.K.K., a Kurdish separatist movement in Turkey that had waged a decades-long insurgency. The U.S. military’s collaboration with the S.D.F. enraged Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. “A country we call an ally is insisting on forming a terror army on our border,” Erdoğan declared, shortly after Brousque arrived in Tell Abyad. “Our mission is to strangle it before it is even born.” Turkey had twice carried out major cross-border operations to seize Kurdish towns and cities in Syria, and further attacks seemed inevitable.
Then, last August, the U.S. brokered a deal between Turkey and the S.D.F. A demilitarized buffer zone along the Syrian side of the border required Brousque to dismantle all his fortifications, seal a tunnel system that his fighters had constructed, pull out of Tell Abyad, and move ten miles deeper into S.D.F. territory. In exchange, Erdoğan pledged not to invade. Brousque was skeptical of this promise, but he had faith in the Americans, who, according to the agreement, would act as guarantors. “We’d become good friends,” he told me, during a visit I made to Syria this winter. “I assumed that the advice they were giving us was in our interest.”
After the S.D.F. withdrew from the border, Turkish and American forces began conducting patrols and aerial surveillance together. Though no Kurds crossed into Turkey, Erdoğan soon dismissed the buffer zone as inadequate, and insisted on expanding it. In September, before the United Nations General Assembly, in New York, he announced his intention to annex more than five thousand square miles of Kurdish land, creating a “peace corridor” where two million Syrian refugees living in Turkey could be resettled. The refugees would be overwhelmingly Arab and from other parts of Syria. The southern edge of the corridor would encompass Ain Issa, Khairi’s refugee camp, and the Lafarge Cement Factory. International observers denounced the scheme as a flagrant attempt at demographic engineering that was certain to produce conflict and humanitarian disaster.
Two weeks later, the White House issued a press release stating that President Donald Trump and Erdoğan had spoken on the phone. While the details of the conversation have not been made public, it was a triumph for Erdoğan. “Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into northern Syria,” the press release explained, adding that American troops “will no longer be in the immediate area.”
After the U.S. vacated the buffer zone, Turkish jets, drones, and artillery pummelled Tell Abyad and other border cities. The S.D.F., which has no air assets, petitioned the U.S. to impose a no-fly zone, but the Americans refused. Turkey’s ground forces consisted mostly of Syrian Arab mercenaries, many of whom had previously belonged to jihadist groups with a profound animosity toward the Kurds. As these militias pushed south, in armored vehicles, nearly two hundred thousand civilians fled from their path. Reports of war crimes, such as summary executions, followed the advance. Later, the senior American diplomat in Syria, William V. Roeback, wrote an internal memo lamenting that U.S. personnel had “stood by and watched” an “intention-laced effort at ethnic cleansing.”
On October 12th, a Turkish-backed militia reached the M4, where it intercepted an S.U.V. carrying Hevrin Khalaf, a prominent female Kurdish politician. She was beaten to death. Videos posted on Twitter show the militants murdering a second unarmed passenger as well. “Another fleeing pig has been liquidated,” one of the assailants proclaims.
The next day, Turkish forces in the open desert north of the highway began shelling Ain Issa, where Brousque was told to hold the line.
“The only thing between us was the camp,” he recalled.
In Nashat Khairi’s section, a troubling rumor had begun to circulate. The Kurds were said to have turned in desperation to the Assad regime, which was now sending reinforcements to Ain Issa. For many of the refugees, who’d come to the camp seeking asylum from the regime, this was as distressing as the Turkish offensive. Still, most people were reluctant to leave without their I.D.s, which were locked in the camp’s administrative offices.
As the sound of shelling and machine-gun fire neared, another danger materialized. The ISIS-affiliated detainees had somehow got out. The S.D.F. later blamed the breach on a riot provoked by Turkish air strikes. But I met multiple witnesses who claimed to have seen S.D.F. fighters arrive in a pickup and release the detainees. This seems plausible. Much of the Western criticism of the Turkish invasion focussed on the possibility that tens of thousands of ISIS militants and relatives might escape Kurdish custody. The S.D.F., realizing that the world cared more about the spectre of terrorists on the loose than about the killing of Kurds, promoted false accounts about Kurdish prison guards being sent to the Turkish border. Although these stories were untrue, an S.D.F. spokesman told me, they “made the international community pay attention.”
From Ain Issa, most of the detainees ran north, toward the Turks. Others stayed in the camp, infiltrating the regular population and adding to its paranoia and confusion. Several people told me that some of the fleeing ISIS wives cried out, “The night is coming!”
Not long after this, a convoy of armored vehicles flying American flags approached on the highway, from the Lafarge Cement Factory. When the convoy stopped in front of the camp, relief washed over Khairi. “We were so happy,” he remembered. “We thought they were coming to save us.” Khairi told his children that everything was going to be O.K. Then the convoy started moving again.
Khairi and the other refugees did not know that Trump had ordered an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Syria, and that the convoy now receding out of sight was headed for Iraq. But they understood that it wasn’t coming back. “Everyone went crazy,” Khairi said. “It was total anarchy.” People swarmed the administrative offices, shattering the windows, breaking down the doors, and lighting them on fire. Fighting persisted between the Turks and the S.D.F., and at some point Khairi’s eight-year-old niece, Amal, was struck by a stray bullet. Her older brother, Ali Mohammad, took her to the hospital in town. The incident aggravated the hysteria, and soon nearly everyone poured out through the camp’s main gate. Unlike the detainees, most of the refugees went south—some in cars, others on foot—unsure where they were going or what they would do. When Ali Mohammad returned to the camp with Amal, she was dead.
Khairi and his relatives stayed to bury her. In a clearing outside a mosque, they dug a grave and marked it with a stone on either end. The sun was setting. No one had eaten in several days. Khairi set out to scavenge for food. It looked as if a tornado had descended on the camp. He marvelled at how quickly everything had changed.
The next day, he hired a truck. “It was very difficult for me to leave,” he told me. “It was the same as when we left our village, in Deir Ezzour.” As the truck headed south—in the same direction from which, five years earlier, they had fled—Khairi and his family found themselves, once again, homeless and running from the war.
The departing Americans, after their brief pause outside the camp, proceeded east on the M4, through the middle of the battle, with Turkish forces on their left and the S.D.F. on their right. Both sides stopped fighting to let them pass, then resumed.
In the end, Brousque and the S.D.F. held on to Ain Issa, preventing the Turks from crossing the highway. It took the Americans three days to transport all their equipment and heavy weaponry out of Syria. Locals hurled rocks at them and called them traitors. After the Lafarge Cement Factory was abandoned, two American F-15s launched missiles at it. A U.S. Army spokesman explained that the purpose of the strike was “to reduce the facility’s military usefulness”—a stunning conclusion to what had arguably been America’s most successful military partnership in the post-9/11 era.
That partnership had begun in 2014, when ISIS stormed across northern Syria and the only meaningful armed resistance it encountered was a small band of Kurdish men and women who called themselves the People’s Protection Units, or Y.P.G. (The Syrian government had pulled most of its troops out of the region two years earlier, to quell uprisings elsewhere in the country.) Thousands of ISIS militants eventually besieged Kobani, the home town of the Y.P.G.’s commander, Ferhat Abdi Sahin, better known as Mazloum. A massacre appeared at hand. When I met Mazloum, in February, he recalled telling his fighters that under no circumstances were they to let ISIS advance beyond the street where he grew up. ISIS captured his house twice, and, according to Mazloum, both times the Y.P.G. took it back. By then, the U.S. had begun providing air support to the embattled Kurds; Mazloum said that American commanders advised him to surrender Kobani, and offered to cover his retreat. He refused. When ISIS seized his house a third time, he radioed its coördinates to the Americans and asked them to destroy it. “That was when the momentum changed,” Mazloum said. “After they bombed my house, we retook the neighborhood, and from there we kept advancing.” The Kurds eventually pushed ISIS out of Kobani, at which point the U.S. proposed to continue backing them from the air, as long as they pursued ISIS on the ground.
This must have been a strange moment for Mazloum, because the U.S. had once considered him a terrorist. He was born in 1967, shortly after the creation of the Syrian Arab Republic, which institutionalized the repression of Kurds. At the age of thirteen, he was imprisoned for reading a book in Kurdish, and as a student at Aleppo University he was arrested four times, for “political activities.” Meanwhile, in Turkey, whose government had enacted severe anti-Kurd policies of its own, the P.K.K. had launched a guerrilla war against the state. The group’s founder, Abdullah Ocalan, was forced to flee to Syria, where Mazloum’s father, a physician, befriended him. Some Turks now refer to Mazloum, derisively, as Ocalan’s “spiritual son.”
After graduating with a degree in architecture, Mazloum joined the P.K.K. He rose through its ranks during the eighties and nineties, while the group carried out kidnappings, assassinations, bombings, and suicide attacks in Turkey. The U.S. officially designated the P.K.K. a terrorist organization in 1997, and a year and a half later the C.I.A. helped Turkey capture Ocalan. He was imprisoned on a small island in the Sea of Marmara, where he remains today.
In 2011, at the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, Mazloum founded the Y.P.G. as a Syrian branch of the P.K.K. Three years later, when American officials offered to support the Y.P.G., they insisted that it break ties with its parent group. Mazloum says that his organization is not connected to the P.K.K. That is preposterous; what is debatable is the nature of the connection. As the Y.P.G. recaptured more territory from ISIS, it absorbed tens of thousands of non-Kurdish fighters—Arabs, Armenians, Assyrians, and Turkmen—and, in 2015, it rebranded itself as the Syrian Democratic Forces. Recruits were still indoctrinated in Ocalan’s anti-Turkish ideology, however, and P.K.K. leaders quietly installed themselves in Syria, consolidating a shadow authority in both the S.D.F. and the emerging bureaucracy responsible for liberated areas. This bureaucracy—the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria—now governs about a third of the country, garnering considerable revenue, from taxes and trade, which, many experts believe, directly finances the P.K.K.
For the Americans, the S.D.F.’s proficiency against ISIS eclipsed concerns about antagonizing Turkey, a NATO ally. As the war against ISIS progressed, the Kurds, despite their fidelity to a designated terrorist organization, developed an extraordinarily copacetic relationship with U.S. troops and personnel. At the command level, this symbiosis seems to have been largely thanks to General Mazloum, whose competence and reliability permitted American officials to overlook his political associations. Brett McGurk, a former special Presidential envoy for the coalition fighting ISIS, told me, “Mazloum proved himself to be incredibly effective militarily—and diplomatically, bringing tens of thousands of Arabs into the force. The results spoke for themselves.” Notwithstanding a lifelong devotion to Kurdish rights, Mazloum was crucial in uniting the S.D.F.’s diverse non-Kurdish factions, especially rivalrous Arab tribes. “He’s pragmatic and subtle,” McGurk said. “He became a trusted interlocutor.”
Today, Mazloum commands more than a hundred thousand fighters, fewer than half of whom are Kurds. His astonishing trajectory, from the leader of a fledgling militia to the general of a multiethnic army controlling a large swath of Syria, has endowed him with an almost mythical stature. “People see him as a kind of prophet,” a Kurdish friend of mine said. Some Americans express a similar awe. “Mazloum is the George Washington of the Kurds,” a U.S. Army major told me.
Erdoğan, for his part, has issued a warrant for Mazloum’s arrest through Interpol, and placed a bounty on his head. For my meeting with General Mazloum, I was instructed to show up at an S.D.F. base; I was then escorted to a remote compound on a hill overlooking wetlands. Guards paced the terraces of a luxurious residence with patios and an expansive swimming pool—the Hollywood version of a narco mansion, except that everyone was nice. Mazloum, the only person on the property in uniform, received me in a small, austere room with a few couches and coffee tables. Soft-spoken and clean-shaven, with graying black hair and an open face, he radiated the guileless enthusiasm of an idealist and the imperturbability of a veteran commander.
It is a sign of the insular and secretive culture of the P.K.K. that, until last year, few people outside Syria had ever heard of Mazloum. Throughout the Raqqa offensive, he avoided the press and remained sequestered with his American counterparts inside the Lafarge Cement Factory. His first public appearance came last March, after the S.D.F. captured Deir Ezzour, ISIS’s last redoubt in Syria, erasing from the map a caliphate that once encompassed more than thirty thousand square miles. At a choreographed ceremony, Mazloum briefly addressed international media outlets that had covered the battle. When we spoke, he explained to me that it would have been inappropriate for a subordinate of his to have declared such a momentous victory. But his decision to step into the spotlight was also tactical: in addition to declaring victory, he implored the U.S. not to abandon Syria prematurely. Warning that ISIS and Al Qaeda still posed a danger to the “whole world,” he asked for continued military support, “in order to begin a new phase in the fight against terrorism.”
His worry was understandable. Three months earlier, in December, 2018, while the S.D.F. was still engaged in brutal daily combat in Deir Ezzour, Trump had declared, on Twitter, “We have won against ISIS.” Praising the “soldiers who have been killed fighting for our country,” he directed the Pentagon to withdraw all its forces from Syria within thirty days. (Two U.S. service members had been killed in Syria, compared with more than ten thousand men and women in the S.D.F.) Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned in protest, as did Brett McGurk. After Republican senators joined the backlash, Trump relented on his timetable. But he never rescinded his order to withdraw.
When I asked Mazloum if U.S. military and civilian leaders had begun preparing him for their departure after Trump’s announcement, he said absolutely not. “Basically, they told us it wasn’t going to happen,” Mazloum said. The first official warning he received to the contrary came in October, when the ranking U.S. general for the Middle East called to inform him—on the same day the rest of the world found out—that a Turkish incursion was imminent and that the U.S. would do nothing to impede it. (A U.S. Army spokesman said, “We decline specific comment on prior conversations between senior leaders.”)
The disaster that subsequently befell northern Syria has been widely attributed to Trump’s capitulation to Erdoğan, which many people view as a gross betrayal of the Kurds. Senator Mitt Romney, raising the prospect of a congressional investigation into Trump’s decision, called it “a bloodstain on the annals of American history.” Such criticism hinges on the seemingly self-evident notion that the Kurds, after defeating ISIS at great cost, had earned a debt of loyalty from the U.S. Certainly, this was Mazloum’s understanding. Trump, however, never suggested that it was his understanding. Rather, it appears that U.S. commanders and diplomats made commitments that contradicted his explicit statements—imparting a false sense of security to the Kurds that ultimately harmed them. Mazloum told me that last summer, when he agreed to pull back his forces from the Turkish border, the Americans on the ground in Syria assured him, “As long as we’re here, Turkey will not attack you.”
By all accounts, these Americans genuinely believed in their partnership with the Kurds and were anguished by the way it ended. The question is whether they did the Kurds a disservice by not adequately explaining to them that the collective will of U.S. institutions could be instantly abrogated by a Presidential tweet—and that the posting of such a tweet was likely. In Syria, perhaps more than anywhere else, the unprecedented friction between the White House and its foreign-policy apparatus is on stark display. Almost every Kurd I met, including Mazloum, distinguished between the U.S. military and its Commander-in-Chief. “After all the fighting we did together, we had lots of trust in the Americans,” Mazloum said. “We never imagined everything could change in just two days.” After a pause, he qualified the criticism: “We know this was a political decision. We still have confidence in our American brothers-in-arms.”
In 2015, when Bashar al-Assad appeared to be losing his grip on the country, Vladimir Putin came to his aid. A prodigious Russian air campaign turned the tide of the civil war. In addition to enabling regime atrocities, Russia has killed thousands of Syrian civilians. Russian security contractors have also committed horrific crimes. A 2017 video showed Russians murdering a Syrian with a sledgehammer, then decapitating him and lighting his corpse on fire. However problematic the U.S. intervention in Syria has been, it would be specious to equate Russian and American conduct in the country.
Assad and the Russians have made it clear that their long-term goal is the return of “total state control” in Syria, including in the territory captured from ISIS by the S.D.F. Nevertheless, the day before Turkey attacked Brousque’s forces in Ain Issa and U.S. troops began leaving the Lafarge Cement Factory, Mazloum met with representatives from Russia and the Assad regime. The next afternoon, government military units returned to parts of northern Syria for the first time in seven years. In an editorial in Foreign Policy, Mazloum described his choice as one between “painful compromises” and “the genocide of our people.”
During the next week, a cascade of events upended the strategic balance in Syria and, by extension, throughout the Middle East. Putin invited Erdoğan to Sochi, where the two leaders signed a treaty that halted the Turkish offensive while implicitly ceding to Turkey the land it had already taken—nearly a thousand square miles. (An earlier ceasefire, negotiated by Vice-President Mike Pence, had been neither respected by Turkey nor enforced by the U.S.) Mazloum agreed to relinquish his remaining border positions, and Russia replaced the U.S. as the neutral mediator of the buffer zone. Russian troops also joined regime forces on the S.D.F.’s new front line along the territory annexed by Turkey. Near Ain Issa, Russian soldiers commandeered the largest U.S. airbase in Syria. Russian state television broadcast video footage of American medical supplies, empty bunkhouses, and shipping containers marked “PROPERTY OF U.S. ARMY.”
When I visited Ain Issa, in February, Russian military vehicles entered and exited a former U.S. outpost on the edge of town. A large Russian flag waved on the roof of a former U.S. guard tower. It was visible from the building where I met with Brousque, who now coördinates with Russian soldiers instead of with U.S. Special Forces. It wasn’t the same, Brousque said: “We fought alongside the Americans. They ate with us. They laughed and joked with us. We had the feeling that we belonged to the same team. It’s not like that with the Russians.” Brousque recalled a celebration at the end of a training exercise, during which American troops sang and danced to traditional Kurdish music with their S.D.F. comrades. Smiling at the memory, he said, “The Russians would never do that.”
Earthen berms and trenches lined the north side of the M4. A few hundred feet beyond them were the Turkish-backed militias. Before October, downtown Ain Issa had been a bustling souk. Now it was deserted. Regime soldiers walked by shuttered stores, garages, barbershops, and restaurants. When I introduced myself and tried to ask them questions, they nervously hurried off. They wore mismatched uniforms and tattered sneakers, and several of them looked underfed. Of the handful of soldiers I managed to interview, all but one had been conscripted. None was armed, and I later learned that the S.D.F. had prohibited them from carrying weapons in town.
The regime forces that Mazloum allowed back into Kurdish territory are restricted to the frontiers and pose little danger to the S.D.F. By stopping the Turkish offensive, securing Russian protection, and limiting the deployment of regime troops, Mazloum prevented northern Syria from descending into chaos. But this emergency diplomacy grants only a temporary reprieve. The longer the Kurds must contend with an existential threat from Turkey in the north, the less able they will be to defend their Arab satellites in the south—Deir Ezzour and Raqqa—from Russia and Assad. This secondary effect of the U.S. withdrawal has the potential to become yet another catastrophe, for yet another population.
To the extent that Trump has articulated a coherent policy in Syria, it reflects his view that the country is irredeemably doomed and therefore no longer our concern. “Syria was lost long ago,” he said last year. “We’re talking about sand and death.” Trump is not the first President to cite the scale and the complexity of the Syrian war as a justification for American inconstancy. In 2013, when the regime killed more than a thousand civilians with sarin gas, Barack Obama, leery of being drawn into the conflict, backed away from punitive strikes, despite having declared a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons. The regime, uninhibited by a fear of American repercussions, has since conducted additional gas attacks and wantonly slaughtered tens of thousands of its citizens by other means. One could argue that Obama’s painstakingly considered inaction enabled more violence and misery than any of Trump’s carelessly impulsive actions. At the same time, Trump’s repudiation of American responsibility to Syria is harder to rationalize, given that during his time in office the U.S., in its zeal to exterminate ISIS, has reduced parts of the country to wasteland. Nowhere is this more true than in the city of Raqqa.
The truck that Nashat Khairi hired to take his family away from Ain Issa stopped ten miles north of Raqqa. Khairi, his wife, and their seven children unloaded their belongings on the roadside: mattresses, blankets, pots and pans, their fan and stove. All around them, thousands of refugees from the camp had pitched tents in empty fields, amid grazing livestock. Khairi told his family that they would not be staying there. After a night under the stars, he hitched a ride to Raqqa to look for someplace with a roof.
He discovered a city whose utter decimation might be unique in this century. As a candidate, Trump had vowed to “bomb the shit out of” ISIS, and, almost as soon as he entered the Oval Office, Raqqa afforded him the opportunity. By the summer of 2017, the S.D.F. had encircled the city, which ISIS militants prepared to defend with suicide bombers, an elaborate tunnel system, and ubiquitous I.E.D.s. Because the S.D.F. lacked heavy weaponry and armored vehicles, the offensive relied on U.S. air strikes. For four months, the U.S. deployed thousands of munitions, ranging from laser-guided Hellfire missiles to one-ton unguided bombs. U.S. artillery battalions complemented the barrage with more than thirty thousand shells. An adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff later told the Marine Corps Times, “Every minute of every hour, we were putting some kind of fire on ISIS in Raqqa.” I was shocked, while covering the battle, by what seemed to be a strategy of physical annihilation applied against a city that still harbored a significant civilian population. One front-line S.D.F. commander told me that he called in U.S. air strikes on solitary gunmen.
When the last ISIS holdouts surrendered, the layout of the city was unrecognizable. Months of labor were required just to uncover the streets. The effort was overseen by the Raqqa Civil Council, a municipal authority established by the Kurds which currently operates under the Autonomous Administration. The U.S. supplied excavators and paid the salaries of more than six hundred local workers. Large rig-mounted jackhammers smashed the vast mountains of concrete into manageable pieces, which were then used to fill in craters, seal ISIS tunnels, and reinforce levees on the Euphrates River. Smaller slabs were pulverized and repurposed as cement. Thousands of bodies were extracted, as were tens of thousands of mines. Once the main arteries were passable, water stations and basic plumbing were installed. People started moving back.
“It changed from a dead city to a city with a pulse,” Ibrahim Ibn Khalil, the former director of the Civil Council’s reconstruction committee, told me this winter. We met in a small café in downtown Raqqa, near the central roundabout where ISIS once performed public beheadings and crucifixions. Ibn Khalil, in a wheelchair, held a hookah pipe in his left hand and a cappuccino in his right. In January, 2018, an assassin had entered his house and shot him six times in the chest; ISIS claimed responsibility. Doctors saved Ibn Khalil’s life, but three bullets remain lodged in his back, and no hospital in Syria is equipped to take them out. Ibn Khalil told me that the American officials who had encouraged the development of the Civil Council had promised to secure him a visa so that he could undergo surgery in the U.S. But they never followed through. “It’s very disappointing for me,” he said. “This happened because I was working with the Americans.”
His personal disappointment echoes a larger one. Because the U.N. respects the sovereignty of the Syrian regime, and the regime does not authorize aid delivery to areas controlled by the S.D.F., the U.S. initially assumed the financial burden for Raqqa’s recovery. But, seven months after Ibn Khalil was shot, Trump suspended the Syria budgets of the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development. “Let the other people take care of it now,” he had said. “We’re going to get back to our country, where we belong.” Although Gulf states and European nations made up for the shortfall, which totalled around two hundred and thirty million dollars—about a quarter of what’s been raised to repair Notre-Dame, in Paris—the disruption hampered progress, and many locals lost their jobs. Five months later, when Trump first threatened to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, the Americans advising Ibn Khalil’s team—public-health, water-sanitation, and demining experts—were evacuated from the country. Those who eventually returned were confined to U.S. military bases far from Raqqa, and in October they left Syria for good. Rubble, bombs, and bodies still litter the city—unexploded ordnance continues to kill and maim people every week, typically children—and no government has offered any support for the monumental undertaking of fixing damaged buildings and erecting new ones. In Ibn Khalil’s opinion, “The world has betrayed the people of Raqqa.”
The comprehensiveness of the destruction can be visually disorienting. It’s as if the cumulative energy of the American bombardment had scrambled the normal order of things, leaving behind an Escher-like reality to which the mind needs time to adjust. Concrete staircases dangle vertically from twisted rebar; cars lie upside down; roofs jut at weird angles; slabs of concrete undulate like rumpled cloth; trees cower from old blasts. On every surface, projectiles have gouged holes of different shapes and sizes; entire blocks are sheared off at the top. Some buildings appear to defy physics, frozen mid-fall. Others have been trucked away, the only trace of them a square of dirt.
And yet, remarkably, the obliterated city abounds with activity. Because most of Raqqa was wrecked from above, the ground levels of taller structures often survived more or less intact. Many streets are lined with shops and restaurants that have reopened under multiple gutted floors. Less obvious is where everybody lives. For several days, I couldn’t figure it out. Then one evening, while we were driving around, my translator—a friend from Iraq who’d never been to Raqqa before—said, “Look at all the people.” Although solar-powered L.E.D. lamps illuminate a few main boulevards, and commercial enterprises run diesel generators, Raqqa is eerily dark at night. But now I saw what he was talking about: scattered throughout the city, dim points of light.
One of these belonged to Nashat Khairi. Three days after his family left Ain Issa, he found a cinder-block room on Raqqa’s northern outskirts, near train tracks whose rails had been removed by scavengers, and rusty freight cars converted into shelters. The room was too small for his seven children, so Khairi installed the family’s tent outside, and linked the two entrances with a tarp, thereby doubling the square footage. Between the stakes, he planted another garden with radishes and bell peppers. “This tent is dear to my heart,” he told me when I visited.
As we discussed what had happened in October, Khairi kept referring to a compact agenda that he kept in his pocket. The agenda, so old and weathered that most of its pages had detached, contained copious notes from his years as a mukhtar at the Ain Issa camp: the names, ages, and phone numbers of everyone in his section; the rations to which each family was entitled; the locations of tents with infants needing formula; dates of marriages and deaths. Between the pages were battered business cards—contact information for N.G.O.s and aid workers who had long since quit the region. Picking up a card that had fallen out, Khairi told me it belonged to a doctor who used to perform circumcisions for newborns in the camp. He carefully returned the card to its place.
Khairi had found a job helping a Raqqa merchant sell secondhand blankets, and earned around three dollars a week. (I had first met him, by chance, while he was unfolding his wares on the sidewalk one morning.) Although he often had to choose between food and kerosene—winter temperatures frequently dropped below freezing—he considered himself lucky. Thousands of refugees who had fled Ain Issa were still living in the fields north of Raqqa. The former manager of the camp told me that there is no plan to help them. When my translator and I visited the makeshift settlement, a crowd of women swarmed our car, shouting, “We’re dying of hunger!” and “Why isn’t anyone coming?” We had to drive away when they tried to force open our doors. A villager who lived nearby later told me, “They don’t even have water. Their husbands are in Raqqa looking for work.” He added, “When it rains, these fields will all be flooded.”
The reason none of these people had moved into Raqqa was that the city was already full. Around a hundred thousand people are thought to live there. In addition to former residents returning home, and people fleeing the Turkish invasion, the city has been inundated with Syrians displaced by the regime—from Aleppo, Hama, Deir Ezzour, and elsewhere. Every habitable niche has been claimed. After a week or so, I learned to identify signs of human life within the ruins: drying laundry, bricked-up holes, plastic-covered windows, and small gray satellite dishes affixed to half-collapsing walls. (The Civil Council sells generator-powered electricity for about two dollars a week, and everyone, no matter how destitute, seemed to have a television with several hundred channels.) Sometimes tower complexes were so thoroughly damaged that only a single apartment retained a modicum of structural integrity. One day, I noticed a man sweeping debris from the roof of a three-story building whose top and bottom floors had no exterior walls; he lived in the middle. When he invited me inside, I found the living room impeccably restored, with plush carpets and decorative plaster molding. A polished wood-and-glass display cabinet had survived the battle; on its shelves, porcelain figurines and delicate teacups were arranged on lace doilies.
Most people in Raqqa live in far more squalid and hazardous conditions. Large families are often crowded into one or two rooms with bowed ceilings and bulging walls—masses of blasted concrete literally pressing in on them. Given the state of these apartments, I was surprised to discover that there are few squatters in Raqqa. Almost everyone I met, including Khairi, paid rent.
At one of the dozens of real-estate offices downtown, Hassan Yassin, a middle-aged agent wearing a kaffiyeh and traditional tribal robes, told me, “We’ve never seen such a high demand.” Yassin said that property owners can usually be tracked down, and if they are dead, imprisoned, or abroad, relatives suffice. Prices range from about ten dollars a month, in the suburbs, to as much as thirty dollars a month in the popular Al Firdous neighborhood. (Al Firdous is no less damaged than anywhere else, but it boasts the Electric Park of Raqqa, whose Ferris wheel and bumper cars withstood two air strikes, and Rashid Stadium. A former ISIS torture center, the stadium has a synthetic track that people now jog around.) Yassin waved a stack of papers—his backlog of would-be tenants seeking accommodation. “It’s like that everywhere in Raqqa,” he said.
During the day, the city resonates with the din of banging hammers, power tools, and machinery. Wood shops fabricate furniture; boom trucks and bulldozers clog the roads; venders hawk salvaged brick, tile, metal, and marble. But almost none of this industry is geared toward creating new structures. At a high school flattened by an air strike, a crew of workers contracted by the Civil Council explained their work to me. As backhoes clawed through heaps of concrete, raking out gnarled rebar, laborers fed the steel rods through a straightening machine. Earthmovers then exhumed the foundation, so that the school could be resurrected on its original footprint. This final step, however, was merely theoretical: no building had occurred on any of the sites the crew had prepared.
The U.S. and its allies have refused to fund construction projects in Syria as long as Assad remains in power. “It’s become a collective consensus among donors that we will not do reconstruction in Syria,” a senior humanitarian officer told me. “ ‘Reconstruction’ is a dirty word.” The ostensible reason for withholding such assistance is to incentivize the resolution of a U.N.-sponsored peace process. But the process has been stalled for years, and few people expect it to succeed. The Western aversion to durable investment in Syria more likely arises from a broad but unspoken recognition that Assad is winning the war. “It’s political,” the humanitarian officer said. “We don’t want to do anything that will eventually benefit the regime.”
Even though the State Department and U.S.A.I.D. no longer have personnel in Syria, they still determine how the majority of foreign funding is spent there. The U.S. government distinguishes between “stabilization” and “reconstruction,” allowing the former and proscribing the latter. Stabilization projects are subject to guidelines that forbid, among other things, the building of load-bearing walls. In practical terms, this means that, if a school was minimally damaged by an American air strike, the U.S. can finance basic refurbishments, such as replacing doorframes or applying new paint. But if the school was destroyed—as the vast majority of structures in Raqqa were—the U.S., as a matter of policy, cannot replace it. The Europeans and the Gulf states generally follow the same rule.
For even these limited interventions, only public structures are eligible. Since the Second World War, the U.S. has rarely paid directly for the reconstruction of private homes in any conflict; the crucial difference in Syria is the absence of other actors to provide such aid. In Iraq, the U.N. has rebuilt more than twenty-five thousand residences that were destroyed during the war against ISIS, and the World Bank is funding major infrastructure projects. In Raqqa, deferring to the regime, neither institution has done anything.
Yassin told me that, among the buildings where he had placed renters, “we estimate that at least seventy per cent of them will have to be torn down—they’re not safe.” I asked what will happen to their occupants if that happens. “They’ll have to go somewhere else,” he said.
In Raqqa, you can’t walk down the street without encountering people whose lives have been shattered by American arms. An investigation by Amnesty International found that the U.S.-led coalition killed at least sixteen hundred civilians in the city; locals say that the actual toll is much higher. Although American officials like to claim that the U.S. “liberated” Raqqa, nobody I met there felt liberated.
One afternoon, in a neighborhood adjacent to Al Firdous, we passed a yellow taxi parked outside a building that looked as if it had been stepped on by a giant. A sheet hung over the doorway. When my translator asked if anyone was home, a middle-aged man with gray hair and a gray mustache emerged. His name was Mustafa al-Hamad. We followed him into a room with crumbling walls lined with blankets and pillows, where we were joined by his wife, Namat.
They were originally from Aleppo, where Hamad had managed a shoe store. In 2012, the revolution turned violent in their neighborhood, and they moved with their four children to Raqqa. The war had not yet reached Raqqa, and Namat’s family lived there. Hamad bought a taxi and began working as a driver. He and Namat had another daughter. After ISIS captured Raqqa, in 2014, they considered fleeing—but nowhere they could go was significantly safer. Two years later, the S.D.F. began its advance on the city, and ISIS, recognizing the need for human shields, prohibited civilians from leaving.
In 2017, as the S.D.F. approached Raqqa, the already ferocious deluge of munitions intensified. That July, a shell or an air strike killed Namat’s brother, Khalid. She and Hamad resolved to get out. The taxi could fit only them, their five children, and Khalid’s thirteen-year-old son, whom they had adopted. Hamad promised to return for Namat’s mother, sister, nieces, and nephews. They left at night, following a rutted dirt road through the wetlands on the edge of the Euphrates. Eventually, they arrived at a line of vehicles—other residents trying to escape the city—backed up from where the road disappeared into a marsh. ISIS militants had blown up a levee, flooding the way.
About a dozen men were helping people move their cars, one after another, across several hundred feet of water. “If we hear a plane, we have to go,” they told Hamad. The Americans, fearing that ISIS militants were sneaking out of Raqqa, had dropped leaflets threatening to bomb anyone attempting to ford the river.
When it was Hamad’s turn, he and his two teen-age sons got out and pushed. Namat and her daughters waded alongside them. The water rose to Namat’s chest; she held her infant above her head. They made it across, and the next day reached a town under the control of the S.D.F.
Hamad did not go back for Namat’s mother and sister—to do so would have been suicidal. Both women, along with four of Namat’s nieces and nephews, were later killed in an air strike. As soon as Raqqa was accessible, Hamad and Namat visited the site, hoping to recover their bodies. There was too much rubble.
The day after I met Hamad, he led me and my translator to the place where he had pushed his taxi across the marsh. The dirt road was still flooded, and looked exactly as he had described it. On the way back to the city, we stopped at a small scrap yard. In a wooden shack surrounded by rusty engine parts, shutters, gears, wheels, and other refuse, we found the young owner sitting on a crate, drinking tea with one of his suppliers. While I spoke to the owner about his business—there had been a brief boom, he said, but the city was soon picked over—the supplier regarded me suspiciously. He was missing several teeth, and cotton spilled from holes all over his dirty coat. He grew agitated as I continued asking questions, and finally interrupted me. “During the battle, a mortar killed my wife and three of my daughters,” he said. “Another one of my daughters lost her leg.”
The man, named Hussein Ahmad, invited me to his house, where I met his ten-year-old daughter, Fatma, who is now in a wheelchair. Fatma recalled cooking dinner with her mother and sisters when a shell tore through their kitchen. Rima was fifteen, Amira fourteen, and Waffa twelve. Ahmad said he had asked several N.G.O.s about getting a prosthesis for Fatma. He’d taped his phone number to the wall, in case someone showed up while he was out collecting metal.
Most civilians who were injured by U.S. artillery and air strikes were treated at the Raqqa Public Hospital. A former doctor from the hospital told me that by the end of the fighting only ten of his colleagues remained, the others having fled or died. Amputation became the default treatment for wounded limbs, the doctor said. One physician had performed so many amputations that ISIS accused him of deliberately impairing people. Infection and sepsis were common. Fatma said that, when she woke up in one of the wards, “they were cleaning my leg but I couldn’t feel anything—then it started to smell and they cut it.”
Because the hospital also treated ISIS militants, it was a frequent target of U.S. air strikes. (Toward the end of the offensive, it also became an ISIS fighting position.) When the current director of the hospital, Kassar Ali, took me inside the original facility, we had to scrabble through downed pipes and caved-in ceilings, the walls and floors scorched black by fire. Scattered everywhere were the remnants of medical supplies: white piles of cast plaster, contorted gurneys, smashed exam tables. Air strikes had destroyed all of the X-ray machines, CAT scanners, and MRI devices. Doctors Without Borders has financed the renovation of a new wing—which is currently the only public-health facility in Raqqa—but none of this essential equipment has been replaced. According to Ali, American commanders had visited the hospital on several occasions: “Each time, they took pictures, we had long meetings, and they promised support. But so far they’ve given us nothing.” Since October, even the visits have stopped. Reached by phone recently, Ali said that he is deeply worried about the possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak in Raqqa. “We can take care of one or two patients, at most,” he explained. The hospital has two ventilators—eight were lost to air strikes.
If people in Raqqa knew the U.S.’s rationale for refusing to engage in any substantive reconstruction of their city—because it might end up in the hands of the regime—they would no doubt feel even more betrayed than they do now. Raqqa is an Arab city, and most of its residents, unlike the Kurds, are unwilling to accept any deal with the regime. While interviewing people in Raqqa, I often heard the phrase “the devil before Assad.” When General Mazloum made his accommodation with the regime, protests broke out in the city. Some Arabs, fearing the regime’s return, have since fled. Hamad and Namat told me that if the regime comes back they, too, will leave. After they escaped Raqqa, in 2017, their daughter Noor married and moved to Hama Province, in western Syria; six months later, she was killed, along with her husband and her in-laws, in an air strike by the regime or the Russians. Hamad and Namat’s anger aside, staying would be foolhardy: as natives of Aleppo, they risk meeting the same fate as the tens of thousands of Syrians whom the regime has disappeared since 2011. When their eldest son turned eighteen, he would be conscripted.
The partially demolished apartment where they now live once belonged to Namat’s mother. When they returned to Raqqa, Hamad and Namat spent ten days clearing out rubble and shoring up the walls. Hamad wired in electricity, and Namat planted vegetables in an empty lot outside. They even had a kitchen with a sink and running water. If they left this place, I asked, where would they go? Hamad reflected, then said, “Wherever the regime isn’t.”
Dread of the regime is even more acute for those who have worked, even in limited capacities, with the U.S. At the offices of Citizenship House, a local N.G.O. based in the Al Firdous neighborhood, I met half a dozen women who ran democracy-education workshops funded by the State Department and by European governments. One of them, Yamam Abdulghani, told me, “To the regime, we’re terrorists. They accuse us of applying a Western agenda and Western ideologies.” When I asked what punishment such activities might elicit, Abdulghani said, “Look at Caesar’s pictures.” In 2013, a former military-police photographer using the pseudonym Caesar divulged thousands of images of Syrian prisoners who had been tortured and executed in regime detention centers.
The workshops at Citizenship House are quintessential “stabilization” programs. In contrast to humanitarian operations—which are supposed to address immediate needs—such programs are designed to forestall the emergence of ISIS and other extremist movements; for this reason, the U.S. and its allies will fund them. But, in Raqqa, the absence of any U.S. protection against the regime—and of any U.S. investment in rebuilding—has created exactly the kinds of conditions in which radical groups like ISIS flourish. According to Abdulghani, a bellwether for such instability in Raqqa is the current situation of its women.
Women’s rights are central to the political philosophy of Abdullah Ocalan, and the S.D.F. and the Autonomous Administration vigorously promote gender equality. A billboard outside the Raqqa Civil Council declares, “With women at the forefront of the twenty-first century, we will end all violence against humanity.” Moreover, before ISIS, few women in Raqqa wore niqabs and veils. Yet Abdulghani was one of only two uncovered women I met in the city. The other was the Kurdish co-chair of the Civil Council. Abdulghani said that the prevalence of niqabs and veils could be attributed, in part, to the lingering influence of ISIS. But the U.S. withdrawal was a bigger factor. “Before October, some women had started to uncover,” she said. “Now it’s stopped. Women are afraid of what’s coming.”
Abdulghani, who, in 2016, smuggled herself out of Raqqa in a truckful of goats, said that people often harass her on the street, calling her a prostitute and warning that ISIS will soon be back. “Everyone is preparing to leave,” she said. “No one feels secure. No one can think about tomorrow.”
Two weeks after Trump ordered a full withdrawal of the thousand or so U.S. troops in Syria, he decided to send half of them back. They would not be defending their Kurdish allies against Turkey, or deterring the regime from encroaching on Raqqa. Instead, Trump said, “we are leaving soldiers to secure the oil.” Cryptically, he went on, “Maybe somebody else wants the oil, in which case they’ll have a hell of a fight.” The Pentagon has characterized the mission differently: the “somebody” it is concerned about is ISIS, and American troops are in Syria “for the oil” only insofar as safeguarding it deprives ISIS of a potential source of revenue.
Both of these explanations feel disingenuous. It’s true that ISIS persists around the S.D.F.-controlled oil fields of Deir Ezzour Province, where U.S. Special Forces continue to carry out counterterrorism raids. But Iran, which supports the Assad regime, is also active there. Nashat Khairi and his family, for instance, can’t return to their village in Deir Ezzour because it is occupied by an Iranian-backed militia. Until October, containing Iranian adventurism was a key U.S. priority in Syria, and Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach to Iran has been perhaps the most consistent feature of his foreign-policy agenda. Iranian operations in Syria are overseen by the Quds Force, which used to be commanded by Qassem Suleimani, the general who was assassinated in a drone strike in January. Trump later defended his decision to order the strike by saying that Suleimani had “viciously wounded and murdered thousands of U.S. troops.” A U.S. withdrawal from Deir Ezzour could entail surrendering U.S. bases to the Quds Force.
Another place in Syria where U.S. troops are currently stationed is also rich in oil—a Kurdish region called Jazira. But ISIS has no presence in Jazira, and there is little need to protect its oil. Most of the crude in both Jazira and Deir Ezzour is exported to the regime, which refines it and sells a portion back to the Kurds, as diesel and petroleum. Although the Kurds and the regime fundamentally oppose each other, they engage in this commerce because neither could subsist without it: international sanctions prevent the regime from buying sufficient oil on the global market, and the Kurds have no refineries of their own. Jazira is strategically valuable not because of its peculiar oil trade but because it is where the M4 crosses into northern Iraq—another Kurdish-governed territory. The border is a lifeline for Syrian Kurds, and also a bridge between two major spheres of U.S. influence. Russia is thus determined to control it. When I visited Jazira, this winter, U.S. and Russian patrols were confronting one another almost daily on the muddy roads that crisscross its barren hills.
Russia has long presented itself as a preferable alternative to U.S. hegemony in the Middle East, and Trump’s disengagement has galvanized Putin’s regional ambitions. The most arresting thing about the video showing the Russian takeover of the U.S. airbase near Ain Issa is not the Russian helicopter touching down on an American landing zone, or the Russian soldiers moving into American barracks; it is the Russian officer invoking timeworn American rhetoric. “We are here to deliver humanitarian and medical aid to civilians, and to provide them with peace and security,” he says.
The Kurds know that Russia, Iran, and the regime want the same thing Turkey wants: an end to their autonomy in Syria. This is why many Kurds, despite Trump’s oft-expressed indifference to their welfare, cling to the hope of a renewed alliance with the U.S. Nearly all the Kurdish officials I interviewed were so desperate to salvage what remained of the American commitment to Syria that they refused to speak on the record about the withdrawal. One S.D.F. commander told me that, even during the Turkish invasion, he and his peers refrained from criticizing the U.S. in the press. “We discussed it, and decided to say we felt ‘disappointed’ instead of ‘betrayed,’ ” he said. Trump’s opinion of the Kurds, however, seems to have only deteriorated since he abandoned them. In November, he hosted Erdoğan in the Oval Office, where the Turkish President reportedly produced an iPad and showed a video comparing General Mazloum to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder of ISIS. Afterward, Trump thanked Erdoğan and the Turkish military “for the job they’ve done” in Syria. He has also mused, “The Kurds, it’s very interesting—Turkey doesn’t like them, other people do.”
Were Trump to remove the remaining U.S. forces in Jazira and Deir Ezzour, the S.D.F. would have to make additional concessions to the regime in order to secure a bulwark against Turkey. This could include handing over Raqqa. But, even if the U.S. stays in Syria, and Turkey does not renew its offensive, the status quo appears unsustainable. Once Russia, Iran, and the regime have defeated the final pockets of the Arab opposition, they will almost certainly turn their attention to the Kurds. Arthur Quesnay, a political scientist at the Sorbonne, who recently co-authored a report on northern Syria, told me, “It may take a couple of years, but the regime will gradually return and recapture territory.” Quesnay believes that the fall of Raqqa and Deir Ezzour will be only the beginning. If the regime managed to take control of a few strategic sites, such as the border crossing in Jazira, it could starve the S.D.F. of resources, precipitating its collapse. In that case, Mazloum’s army would revert to what it was before his fateful introduction to the U.S., in 2014: a small Kurdish militia, surrounded by enemies.
All over northern Syria, the Kurds are preparing for this scenario by building an extensive network of tunnels. According to Mazloum, Trump promised him that he would never allow Erdoğan to attack Kobani. But Mazloum seems to have little confidence in the reassurance: I saw more tunnels in his home town than anywhere else. Twenty-five miles of paved road connects the former U.S. airbase near Ain Issa to Kobani, which abuts the Turkish border. The entire length of this route is lined with small blue tents, spaced around seventy feet apart, each standing beside a large mound of soil. When my translator and I pulled over and entered one of them, we found two teen-agers, covered in dirt, peering into a narrow shaft. A winch was suspended above the mouth of the shaft, and when the boys retracted its cable a man in a harness surfaced from the subterranean dark. They had been digging for three weeks straight. The tunnel, which parallels the road, was thirty feet underground.
While the Kurds are adjusting to the fact that the sky is no longer on their side, so are the area’s civilians. West of Ain Issa on the M4, where the front line with the Turks cuts across sweeping plains, a small Christian village called Tell Tawil sits on a low rise, conspicuous from a distance because of its abundant trees. In 2015, as ISIS neared Tell Tawil, the entire population fled. A year later, after the S.D.F. expelled ISIS, some people returned. When the Turks invaded, there was another exodus. One afternoon, as I accompanied an S.D.F. fighter through Tell Tawil’s deserted streets, he explained that Turkish-backed militias across the fields frequently shelled the village, despite the ceasefire, and Turkish drones sometimes targeted it with missiles. All the houses were empty, and the church was boarded up.
I was therefore surprised when we came upon two old men, sitting shoulder to shoulder, on a stoop in the sun. Their names were David Abraham and Khoshaba Samuel. Abraham, who is eighty-seven years old, wore a pin-striped blazer over a V-neck sweater and a collared shirt. He said that he had lived in Tell Tawil since 1935. His wife had died six years ago, four of his five sons had settled in Sweden, and his daughter lived in the U.S. Samuel, who is eighty, had known Abraham since he was a child and still appeared to respect his seniority. “I love this land,” Abraham said. “I’ll never leave it.” Samuel nodded in agreement.
After saying goodbye to Abraham and Samuel, I asked the S.D.F. fighter to show me his unit’s forwardmost position. We were heading down a hill to the northern edge of the village when I heard footsteps approaching from behind and turned to see Abraham briskly following us. At the end of the road, the S.D.F. fighter pointed to several sandbagged foxholes outside a gated property. He gestured toward the open expanse, strewn with old tractor parts, that stretched from where we stood: this was the no man’s land.
When Abraham caught up to us, he insisted that we come to his house for a cup of coffee. I asked where he lived.
“Here,” he said, opening the gate behind the foxholes.
Three huge dogs barked and jumped on Abraham as he led us into the yard. Pushing them away, Abraham complained to the S.D.F. fighter that someone had recently shot one of the dogs in the paw. We sat at a picnic table, on a deck looking out toward the Turkish front line. Abraham said that mortars sometimes whistled over his roof. He went inside and returned with whiskey tumblers containing espresso. Roosters crowed. After a while, Samuel appeared and, without a word, took a seat across from Abraham. Like almost everyone else from Tell Tawil, they were cotton farmers. Abraham owned a six-acre parcel across the road, but, even if peace came to Syria before he died, he knew that he’d never work it again. ISIS, the Turks, and the S.D.F. had all littered it with mines.
As we stood to leave, I asked Abraham what Tell Tawil had been like during the Second World War, when Britain and Vichy France fought for control of Syria. He said that his memories were vague. One, however, did stand out. He remembered lying flat in the fields, with other children, each time planes passed overhead. ♦
SDF commander: Turkey, its mercenaries prepare for launching massive attack
SDF commander in Ain Issa district ‘s fronts has linked the Turkish reinforcements and sleeper cells attacks of mercenary gangs to preparing for launching massive attack on the areas of north and east of Syria.
As we know all world’s states are preoccupied with confronting Coronavirus pandemic, but Turkish state is interested to occupy large swaths of the lands of north and east, where it escalated its attacks on it.
Despite all UN invitations to cease-fire in Syria, but all the evidence that refer to massive attack are being prepared to be launched.
Preparations for a massive attack
In an interview with Hawar news agency (ANHA), SDF commander in the fronts of Ain Issa, Ardal Kobani, said that the signs indicate a Turkish preparation for a large-scale attack on north and east Syria.
“The occupiers are taking advantage of the status quo, to occupy more areas, and deliberately targeting civilians, the people are resisting on two fronts, resisting to prevent the emergence of the Coronavirus, and resisting the attacks of the Turkish occupation army, as the Turkish occupation state tries to transfer the Coronavirus to our areas to put north and east Syria In trouble“.
He continued in the same context, “We have information stating that people infected with the Coronavirus have been taken to Serêkaniyê area, Tel Abyad and Afrin, and they are also trying to transfer infected people to Ain Issa.”
ISIS is reorganizing its ranks
Ardal Kobani drew attention to the fact that ISIS mercenaries are taking advantage of the curfew conditions in the area, and said, “A few days ago, they attacked civilians in their homes with grenades, with this dirty method, they are trying to push the people out of their homes to break the measures taken to prevent the emergence of the Coronavirus and empty it of their residents, recruiting children as old as 15 years to carry out suicide attacks, it is clear that ISIS is preparing for an attack and reorganizing its ranks. There are movements of sleeper cells with the aim of weakening SDF. “
SDF is committed to defending the people
The leader reaffirmed the commitment of the Syrian Democratic Forces SDF to international calls for a cease-fire, but at the same time affirmed the readiness of the forces to confront the continuous attacks by the Turkish occupation army and its mercenaries.
Socially dangerous’ for having fought off ISIS
At the entrance of the Ex-Caserma Occupata, a community centre in the Tuscan seaside city of Livorno, there is some graffiti of a woman holding a gun. She wears a green, red and yellow-coloured headscarf.
Posters bearing the word ‘Rojava’ and flags with red stars on yellow backgrounds signal the centre’s clear support for the Kurdish social revolution that began in early 2013 in north-eastern Syria – now named Rojava.
Rojava has a Kurdish majority population, but is also home to other ethnic minorities, including Arabs and Yezidis. According to Yilmaz Orkan, coordinator of the Kurdistan Information Office in Italy, signs of support for Rojava, similar to those at Ex-Caserma Occupata, can be spotted at youth and social centres scattered around the country, particularly in the northern regions of Piedmont, Tuscany and Emilia Romagna, where Kurdish refugees have flocked to since the late 1980s.
‘In Italy there have always been people showing interest in the Kurdish cause, and since the People’s Protection Unit, more commonly known as YPG, fought and helped defeat ISIS, the topic gained international resonance,’ Orkan says.
‘But what made it even more popular recently is the trial of a group of Italian volunteers who joined YPG units on the ground.’
In January 2019, a court in the northern city of Turin began a peculiar legal procedure called ‘special surveillance’ against five volunteers from Italy who joined the YPG (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel), the primary component of the Syrian Democratic Forces, in north-eastern Syria.
The five volunteers – Maria Edgarda Marcucci, Davide Grasso, Jacopo Bindi, Fabrizio Maniero and Paolo Andolina – were mostly in Syria between 2016 and 2018. They had never met each other before this, but had previously been active in social and political movements in Italy.
They travelled to Syria after becoming fascinated by the revolutionary ideas emerging from Rojava after the beginning of the Syrian war in 2011. According to Orkan, these Rojavan ideals are rooted in building a ‘multi-ethnic society, based on principles of gender equality, social cohesion and environmental protection.’
Four of them ended up enrolling in the YPG and Marcucci in the YPJ, the women’s combat unit.
In January 2019, Turin’s court instigated a ‘special prevention procedure’, a legal process aimed at potentially ‘dangerous subjects’, to limit the volunteers’ civil freedoms.
Judges recommended they be expelled from their hometown of Turin for at least two years, revoking their passports and driving licences, banning them from all social and political activities – including engaging in public life by discussing their experiences in panel events and conferences. The suggested measures also included placing the defendants under curfew between 7.00pm and 6.00am.
The volunteers were labelled ‘socially dangerous’, and judges said that they represented a threat because of the combat training they received while on the ground.
The case attracted widespread criticism from young people in Italy and social centres like the Ex-Caserma in Livorno mobilized through solidarity campaigns to condemn what they see as ‘unfair’ and ‘undemocratic’ treatment, according to Elisa, a regular attendee of the community centre’s activities.
‘[This legal procedure] is a lack of respect for the European and international victims of fundamentalism and to those, Syrians and not, who perished in the war against the Islamic State,’ she said.
Jacopo Bindi, one of the five defendants, explains to New Internationalist that they all ‘felt [they were] victims of an unfair judicial system that focuses on our political views, rather than our actual conduct.’
Cracking down on dissent
Before leaving for Syria, Bindi was part of the popular ‘No Tav’ grassroots civil movement criticizing the TAV (Italian for ‘high-speed trains’) and more generally the unsustainable train infrastructure development in northern Italy. The group claims the development ignores the environment dangers inherent to the project, and the movement itself has been widely opposed by Italian authorities. Bindi believes his involvement in No Tav is what pushed judges to consider him ‘dangerous’.
‘I was a young student curious to learn about new social systems that could give an answer to my ideals,’ he says. ‘So in 2017 I decided to go to Syria and see with my own eyes the revolution that was taking place there. I needed to witness change.’
Initially, Bindi planned to stay for a month as an international observer. Hundreds of young people from western countries were already on the ground, offering what help they could. Apart from combat help, they would help organizing activities at youth centres and engage with the local population through cultural and ideological exchanges, helping out with farming and ecology activities, or write reports on the ground for western readers.
Compelled to take a more active role, Bindi ended up extending his stay by nine months, during which he served as a volunteer for youth activities and at the media centre in Afrin. Of the five, he was the only one who did not get involved in military operations. ‘I was in charge of peaceful activities, that’s why in my situation, this scenario was even more absurd,’ he says, exasperated.
Claudio Novaro, the defense attorney of the five defendants, told the Italian magazine L’Espresso that ‘the court’s claim is that their military skills could potentially be used in the No Tav context,’ making it a trial against their potential intentions rather than actual crimes committed.
The court case began a few days before another Italian volunteer, Lorenzo Orsetti, died on the battlefield in the village of Baghouz on 18 March 2019. His death attracted significant media attention in Italy.
Zerocalcare, an Italian cartoonist and author of Kobane Calling, a comic book about his own volunteer experience in Rojava, paid tribute to Orsetti’s ‘martyrdom’, as he called it, through one of his comics.
Elisa says that Orsetti’s act of courage resonated with her because she sees regimes imposing their power through fear and violence as the enemy of her generation, as fascism was for her grandparents, who lived through the Second World War.
‘I think many politically active young people felt represented by Orsetti’s commitment to social justice, that’s why we raised our voice and gathered social media resonance to not let this episode pass by unnoticed,’ she said.
As a result of the public outcry in Italy, the judges decided to drop the charges against two of the defendants – Davide Grasso and Fabrizio Maniero – and postpone a separate decision about the remaining three to the fall of 2019 which, according to the defendants, was a move to separate and weaken them.
‘[But] when Turkey began bombarding north-eastern Syria in October, the judges postponed their decision again,’ Davide Grasso told New Internationalist. On 16 December 2019, prosecutors finally convened on a special surveillance against the remaining three, with a 90-day period to officially approve the decision to convict them, or overturn it. Finally, on 17 March this year,, the court of Turin decided to apply the special procedure solely to Maria Edgarda Marcucci, the only woman of the group.
The court based their decision on the notion that Marcucci was the most threatening case, because in the fall of 2019 she took part in a protest against the arm trade between Italy and Turkey while Turkey was implementing aerial bombardment over northern Syria this past October.
‘We all feel personally attacked by this decision, without distinctions. We still feel proud of what we did for Syria and democracy, to free people from fundamentalism, and to inform Italians about what really happens in Syria,’ the five defendants wrote in a joint statement reflecting on the decision.
‘It’s a serious action against a woman who risked her life to fight ISIS and terrorism and protect civilians.’
The trial has represented a mental burden for the young activists. Years after his return, Grasso admits he was shocked and disappointed to learn the news that his own country now considered him a threat. His bank account was shut down for ‘safety reasons’ connected to his service in Rojava, and his Facebook account was suspended three times for having shared photos and posts about his experiences in Syria.
On the other hand, Bindi says his time in Syria as a peaceful supporter was life-changing: ‘It made me realize our indifference toward what happens in the rest of the world, and how isolated we are.’
But when he returned, the trial aimed to limit his freedom to share his experience. Despite the year-long legal procedure they’ve had to face, both Bindi and Grasso feel relieved to have had public opinion on their side.
Stefania Pusateri, a humanitarian worker, produced a documentary about the trial, with the title Dangerous Subjects, to raise awareness about what she considers to be an example of legal injustice.
‘It’s absurd to think that they’re the ones considered dangerous […] while real acts of terrorism often pass unpunished,’ she says.
Syrian regime forces kill Kurdish police, civilian in Qamishli; Russian troops intervene
QAMISHLI, Syria (Kurdistan 24) – The Syrian regime-affiliated National Defense Forces on Saturday opened fire on a police vehicle of the Kurdish-led self-administration in the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli, local authorities said.
A Kurdistan 24 news team reported that the shooting killed one member of the Kurdish security forces, known as Asayish, and wounded another.
A Russian patrol unit headed to the site of the incident and intervened to de-escalate and prevent clashes amid underlying tensions in the area, a Kurdistan 24 correspondent in Qamishli reported.
Local Asayish officials said in an online statement, “Members of the Syrian regime forces targeted a military vehicle belonging to our forces, which was in a joint patrol with a municipality vehicle carrying some cleaners as well as another for emergency medical transport.
The Asayish were guarding the cleaners and the ambulance, both on duty as part of efforts to prevent an outbreak of the new coronavirus disease in the region, the statement said. It added that the attack disrupted their work.
The Syrian forces killed a member of the Kurdish security forces and wounded at least three others. The shooting also resulted in the death of one passerby civilian.
The Kurdish police condemned the shooting and blamed the Syrian regime forces for the attack.
“We condemn the cowardly act carried out by members of the Syrian regime, and we assure our people that such attacks will not discourage our resolve and our insistence on achieving security and stability in our regions,” the statement read.
The shooting happened in the regime-held part of Qamishli near a roundabout in the city’s center where a statue of the former Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad stands.
This regime-held roundabout links two Kurdish-held neighborhoods of Qamishli. It is a road that vehicles of the Kurdish self-administration have taken without any obstacles over the past seven years.
Syrian regime troops have only had brief and intermittent clashes with Kurdish-led forces since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011. Both sides appear to have purposefully avoided escalation, but confrontations in Qamishli and Hasakah–both mostly regime-controlled in previous years–have resulted in Kurdish forces taking over a large portion of the two Kurdish-majority cities.
Editing by Kosar Nawzad
Syrian Women’s Leadership in a Fractured State
In addition to the central Assad-led government, both the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria and various opposition groups control territory in the country— and will likely have some say in its post-war future. Yet their respective policies on women’s rights and representation are vastly different— an important distinction to make in assessing the country’s progress and determining international support.
Leadership and Representation
Women in the Autonomous Administration and the Syrian Democratic Forces hold senior leadership roles across policy functions and at all levels of their institutions. Ilham Ahmed, the co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council, acts as the region’s de facto head of state, speaking before the U.S. Congress and meeting U.S. President Donald Trump last year. Further, the SDF operation to liberate Raqqa from ISIS control was led by a woman commander, Rojda Felat.
With the exception of women-only institutions, every deliberative body operates under a co-chair system, where all leadership positions are held jointly by one woman and one man. Offices and commissions within the Executive Council of the Administration, equivalent to cabinet departments, also use this system.
The Syrian opposition, however, lacks senior female leaders. In 2012, an early conference of the Syrian National Council elected no women to its 41-member decision-making group and the Syrian National Coalition has never had a woman president. In fact, the first woman to serve as the head of any opposition local council was only elected in 2018.
These disparities in senior leadership are reflected across the political structures of each faction. The Autonomous Administration’s constitution mandates that elected bodies and political parties, from the highest levels of the Administration to the smallest neighborhood commune, be made up of at least 40% women. Autonomous women’s organizations, like the Women’s Council of North and East Syria, exist in parallel to every mixed-gender institution, making the percentage of women actually serving in government slightly higher than men. These institutions have the ability to overrule and advise mixed-gender institutions on issues of women’s rights.
The Autonomous Administration’s constitution mandates that elected bodies and political parties, from the highest levels of the Administration to the smallest neighborhood commune, be made up of at least 40% women.
In contrast, a 2016 report from the Syrian Feminist Lobby quoted a study of 105 of the 427 local councils in opposition-held Syria at the time, which found that just 2% of their members were women. Just two women, including the Vice President, serve on the 23-member Political Committee of the Syrian National Coalition, and just 10% of the members of the Coalition’s General Body are women.
Based on this data, the Autonomous Administration would fall into the Middle East Women Leaders Index’s categorization of Ascending Representation— meaning women’s participation and leadership is high at all levels of government and across all policy areas. The report accurately classifies the Syrian government in the category of Aspiring Representation— meaning that women’s participation outside of traditional roles is still low. Despite claiming to represent a new future for the country, the Syrian opposition falls into this category as well.
Legal Status and Protections
New laws implemented by the Autonomous Administration contrast favorably with opposition laws and policies on women’s issues. In North and East Syria, the Women’s Laws address inequities in personal status that existed in Syrian law, and explicitly ban and criminalize child marriages, domestic abuse, and other forms of social inequity and gender-based violence. The region’s constitution states that “men and women are equal in the eyes of the law” and “guarantees the effective realization of equality of women and mandates public institutions to work towards the elimination of gender discrimination.”
Women who face discrimination or violence have significant institutional and social recourse. Women’s NGOs, like the Free Women’s Foundation and the Sara Organization for the Prevention of Violence Against Women, operate openly. Institutions known as “women’s houses” provide community-based mediation for domestic disputes and protection from unsafe home situations. Jinwar, an all-women’s village, is home to women who have lost their husbands in war, experienced sexual violence, and otherwise require support.
In opposition-held regions, no pretense of formal legal equality or legal protections is made. HTS, which controls much of Idlib, excludes women from political bodies and limits their basic freedoms, running gender-segregated schools,enforcing conservative dress codes, and forcing women whose husbands have been killed in the ongoing conflict to move in with a male “guardian.” These policies are enforced by ISIS-like morality police. Activists and civil society organizations that resist them face persecution, and must operate in secret; there is no legal resource for domestic violence, forced marriage, and other gender-based violence under religious law.
In opposition-held regions, no pretense of formal legal equality or legal protections is made. HTS, which controls much of Idlib, excludes women from political bodies and limits their basic freedoms…”
A recent UN report condemned the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army’s treatment of women in areas it has taken over, warning that “by targeting almost every aspect of Kurdish women’s lives…armed groups generated a palpable fear of violence and duress…[which] resulted in an undermining of women’s ability to meaningfully participate and contribute to their community.”
The report stated that these actions— like the assassination of Hevrin Khalaf, a former economy co-minister and then co-chair of the Syria Future Party targeted by Ahrar al-Sharqiya militants in October— constituted a concentrated attempt to “dismantle” the Autonomous Administration’s efforts to advance the status of women.
As the Index notes, laws and policies that regulate the lives of women and girls can either prepare them for political participation and leadership or act as obstacles to it. It is clear that the Autonomous Administration has done the former— while opposition groups have not been willing to implement such protections, and have even gone so far as to seek to force women out of public life altogether.
Why does it matter?
The Autonomous Administration provides a tried and tested blueprint for women’s political empowerment, a policy priority the opposition lacks. The gap in political and social opportunities for women between areas controlled by each faction is shocking. In areas that the SNA has captured from the SDF, like Afrin, Ras al-Ain, and Tel Abyad, the deterioration of women’s rights and basic personal safety is notable.
However, this dynamic has not factored into discussions on the country’s future, or determination of which factions deserve political and diplomatic support. Opposition groups that marginalize women have not faced any consequences for their actions— and the Autonomous Administration’s empowerment of women has not been discussed as a model for the rest of the country or a project that deserves support. Greater understanding of the fundamental differences on this issue, and the unique advances the Autonomous Administration has made, is essential for ensuring that women can play the role they deserve in all aspects of Syria’s future.
Mazlum Kobanê calls for “radical solution” to the ISIS problem
In a prison in Hesekê, ISIS prisoners instigated a riot on Sunday evening and attempted to escape. SDF Commander General Mazlum Abdi Kobanê demands “radical solution” to the ISIS problem from the international community.
The Commander General of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) Mazlum Abdi Kobanê calls on the international community to find a “radical solution” for the ISIS prisoners in North and East Syria. On Sunday evening, detained members of the jihadist militia instigated a riot in a prison in Hesekê. Some managed to escape at first but were later caught. Immediately after the incident, other security forces moved in, the area around the prison was surrounded by SDF anti-terrorist units, and the anti-ISIS coalition supported the intervention by aerial surveillance. Since Monday afternoon, the situation is under control again.
About 5,000 ISIS prisoners from 50 different states are held in the complex in the Xiwêran district. Another 7,000 are held in other prisons in the region, in addition to tens of thousands of ISIS members in various camps. But the autonomous authorities and the SDF are left alone with the problem, the home countries are not meeting their responsibility for their own citizens.
SDF Commander Kobanê says that the burden of the ISIS prisoners should not rest solely on the shoulders of the autonomous administration authorities and their institutions. In a Twitter post, he wrote: Due to great efforts made by our forces and swift intervention against the insubordination of ISIS detainees inside one prison, we were able to avoid catastrophe and take control. No prisoners escaped. Our allies must find a quick radical solution to this international problem.”
Turkish Government cut water supplies on Al-Hasaka city
Turkish Government cut water supplies
A violation of IHL who can be fatal of thousands of people.
On Saturday, Turkish Government cut the flow from a reservoir that supplies water to areas in northeastern Syria’s Hasakah province that the Kurdish-led local authorities control.
The Alouk Water Station is located near the border town of Serekaniye, which Turkey and its militant proxies took control of in October 2019 during Turkey’s so-called “Peace Spring Operation”. Since then, Turkishbacked groups have regularly cut off the water flow. This is confirmed also by a public UNICEF statement, which one claimed the move was the latest in a series of disruptions in water pumping over the past weeks.
The Allouk pumping station, which usually serves more than 460,000 people in and around Hasakah, has not been functional since 30 October 2019. Since then, KRC with other actors has been taking emergency measures to find alternative sources of water for people in the region.
Protecting water resources and infrastructure to ensure a reliable supply of water and electricity to the population is a basic need for the civil population. Water facilities are covered under a number of terms and provisions of international humanitarian law, either by treaty or by customary law.
Starvation as a method of warfare is explicitly prohibited regardless of the nature of the conflict, and the concept of objects essential for the survival of the civilian population includes drinking-water installations and supplies and irrigation works. Immunity for indispensable objects is waived only when these are used solely for the armed forces or in direct support of military action. Even then, the adversaries must refrain from any action, which could reduce the population to starvation or deprive it of essential water.
The water pipeline is still regularly cut off.
More than 460.000 people are without water supply.
The international community have to take a serious step to reduce this catastrophe.
In civil wars, which today account for most of the armed conflicts in the world, the use of water by the belligerent parties constitutes a serious threat to the population concerned. To attack water is to attack an entire way of life and makes access to water well nigh or completely impossible, thereby heightening the risks to the civilian population despite the protection it is granted under international law.
Moreover, a United Nations representative in Syria on Monday said interruption to a key water station in the country’s northeast puts at least 460,000 people at risk as efforts ramp up to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease.
The COVID-19 pandemic (or coronavirus) is unprecedented in recent history and is spreading rapidly. It is not only a public health crisis, but also a humanitarian crisis in the making. In war-torn countries, COVID-19 represents a dramatic threat to life. Health system has already been ravaged by violence, and the threat of further strain on health care from the coronavirus is an enormous risk for communities. Plans to prevent and respond to the virus must urgently move forward before it gains a foothold in countries in conflict. Denying hundreds of thousands of people access to water is denying them a basic source of protection against Covid19, given that handwashing is a fundamental means in shielding oneself of the virus.
Meanwhile, the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) replying to a calling by UN Secretary-General, declared a ceasefire in all the area.
The KRC urges all parties to the conflict to declare a ceasefire and to respect civilian life by taking every possible measure to protect and respect civilians and civilian infrastructure.
International Humanitarian Law aims at ensuring that the basic needs of civilians are met, even in times of conflict. In northeast Syria, the infrastructure (e.g. water stations and dams) for water supply systems happen to be located near the frontlines and it is critical that they are protected.
The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols protect sick, wounded and shipwrecked persons not taking part in hostilities, prisoners of war and other detainees, civilians and civilian objects. Military operations must be conducted in accordance with IHL, in particular the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution. Attacking, or rendering useless, objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as water and sanitation facilities, is prohibited.
KRC ask the Turkish Government to allow providing water to areas deprived of it immediately and urgently and to guarantee that no further water interruption is to happen under any pretext.
Owing to these circumstances and due to the critical and dramatic situation due to COVID-19 pandemic, we strongly recommend and ask the UN Security Council an immediate reopening of Yaroubiyeh border.
According to the UN, the border crossing in the past enabled support to an estimated 1.4 million people in northeast Syria.
KRC took it as our humanitarian mandatory to serve all people no matter of their background, nationality, race, religion, gender. However, the International Community have to be aware and to support these activities. We will always continue our work accepting the international humanitarian principles, protecting the ideas of international laws and principles.
Fight against pandemic in the besieged Shehba region
The North Syrian region of Shehba is under a siege. The supply of hygiene materials and medicines is difficult. Under these conditions, the population is trying to fight the pandemic.
In the desert region of Shehba live 90,000 original inhabitants and about 140,000 displaced people from Afrin. It borders on the areas occupied by Turkey and its militias and is repeatedly the target of artillery fire. The region is also acutely affected by the risk of COVID-19 pandemic. The autonomous administration, the local government and the health committee of Shehba are doing everything in their power to prevent the spread of the pandemic. After the closure of schools and public facilities, all areas are being disinfected.
Even though the Syrian regime has not yet issued a statement on the pandemic, reports of COVID-19 cases in Latakia, Aleppo and Damascus are putting people in fear. The internally displaced persons from Afrin, who live in difficult conditions in the region, are particularly threatened. The co-mayor of the Shehba Municipality, Melek Huseyin, reports that no cases have yet been detected in the region; health committees, communes and councils are active and taking precautions against the virus. Information events are being organised and people are warned through television programmes, brochures and leaflets.
The co-mayor reports on a cleaning campaign in three phases;
The first phase is the cleaning of outside areas and disinfection of all facilities, schools, shops and restaurants.
The second phase will involve the disinfection of all houses, streets, rubbish dumps, the sewage system and mosques.
In the third phase, all streets will be steamed with disinfectant.
The work is to be carried out every 15 days for the next six months.
The co-mayor concludes with the warning: “As you know, Shehba has been a war zone. For this reason, most of the houses have been destroyed, which is not good for health.”
Reliable sources have informed Syrian Observatory that Syria Democratic Forces and “Autonomous Administration in northern and north-eastern Syria” released more than 80 ISIS members. Those members had been arrested by SDF during the war against ISIS. According to SOHR sources, all released persons are Syrians and descended from Al-Raqqah, Al-Hasakah and Deir Ezzor.
It is noteworthy that some of the released members have served their sentence and some others have not. This action triggered Wide-spread popular discontent for fear that these released members could return to fight in the ranks of ISIS, especially with ISIS members spreading widely in SDF-held areas.
SOHR sources reported early this year that the “Autonomous Administration in northern and north-eastern Syria” and Syria Democratic Forces released ten persons in Al-Hasakah city, after mediation by tribal elders and Sheikhs in the area. The ten persons were arrested earlier on charge of dealing with ISIS.
This action comes few days after the release of at least 39 persons from Deir Ezzor, Al-Haskah and Al-Raqqah, by SDF after mediation by tribal elders and dignitaries. They were arrested for the same accusation.
The release of those persons is a part of the outcomes of a meeting held in early May 2018, between “Syria Democratic Council” and tribe dignitaries.
YPJ: With Newroz’s flame, we will defeat occupation
The General Command of the Women Protection Units YPJ congratulated on March 21, and said, with the flame of Newroz, we will defeat the occupation, pledged to raising the pace of the struggle in the spirit of Newroz.
The General Command of the Women’s Protection Units issued a written statement in which they congratulated Newroz, who falls today, March 21.
The text of the statement states:
We receive Newroz 2020, which has become a symbol of the spring of peoples with a spirit of Resisting Dignity, and we bless Newroz on the martyrs of the revolution, the leader Ocalan, the resisting people, and the peoples of the Middle East and the world.
For thousands of years, the Kurdish people have resisted against the suppression of the occupier, a resistance known through Kawa Hsinkar epic, which the Kurdish, Assyrian, Persian, Turkmen, and Yezidi people have introduced to the new day, celebrating their victory over the oppressors, and in this sense Newroz is not just a celebration, it is a reminder of victory on Dahkan.
As YPJ, we say that the commemoration of Newroz means a renewal of our promise to take revenge, as we have offered thousands of martyrs for the sake of freedom and in the Rojava Revolution, so for this day, raising the pace of the struggle for freedom and existence is for us the greatest promise we can make to Newroz fighters.
Today, more than ever, we must prove our existence in a spirit of resistance to Newroz, in order to protect our identity and our homeland.
In order to defeat Dahkan of the times, everyone must protect themselves, their identity, their existence, their dignity and their homeland by the thought of the leader Ocalan. The Kurdish people have suffered from injustice, from Halabja to the Qamishlo uprising, from the Zilan Valley to the Mahabad and Afrin, and more recently in Ras al-Ain and Tel- Abyed.
The tyrants are still seeking to eliminate the presence of the Kurdish people and the peoples of the region, and therefore heroes and heroines such as Arian Mercan, Ilan, Avista, and more recently Ronahi and Berxwedan sacrificed their lives to revive these peoples, and standing against the massacres and conspiracies committed against them, and this is evidence that thousands of Kawa Today, they are fighting a struggle against Dahkan of the times.
Dignity battles continue to be led by YPJ fighters
This year we celebrate Newroz with the spirit of Ronahi, Zain, Amara, Zylan, Delovan, Bimal, Hefrin and Mother Aqidah, and we are certain that with the organization of women and the struggle, Newroz 2020 will become Newroz’s revenge and historical victory.
We, YPJ, pledge to escalate our struggle with the spirit of Newroz, and we hope that all our days will be like Newroz and that our people will be victorious, and we will bless Newroz once again on our people, and on all free women”.
PYD: Solution in Syria through expel Turkish occupation from occupied areas
The General Council of PYD indicated that the resistance shown by the people of Afrin demonstrated that the truth of defending the revolution lies in adhering to democracy and dignity, noting that there is no real stability and no solution that serves Syria and its people except through the exit of Turkey and those with it from its areas of occupation in the foreground is Afrin.
The General Council of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) issued today a statement of public opinion, on the occasion of the passage of two years since the occupation of Afrin, by the Turkish occupation and its mercenaries.
The text of the statement read:
“These days, the second anniversary of the occupation of Afrin by the Turkish fascism and its tools, which caused the displacement of our people from its cities and villages, and the practice of the most heinous crimes and abuse and demographic change, bypassing all of the agreed rights and norms. In light of the clear deviation of the course of the revolution in Syria and the overlapping of agendas regional and dependency, as well as the emergence of extremist organizations, the revolution has been emptied of its content, while our regions in northern and eastern Syria have maintained a state of stability and contributed to preserving the foundations on which to build change in Syria through the project of Democratic Autonomous Administration DAA and the philosophy of self-defense project and the brotherhood of peoples, where these factors have contributed to the transformation of our regions to prevent the yard danger to Syria and its future as compared to other regions, which met the wrath of some of the parties.
The success of the experience of AA as well as the resistance that took place against the projects of creating chaos, destruction and rivalry in our regions made many forces rally to attack these areas, especially the Turkish state headed by a Syrian spear that is groups with weak Syrian affiliation and with deep loyalty to Turkey, as the failure of these plans on the hands of the people of northern and eastern Syria components pushed Turkey into direct intervention, after its plans went bankrupt through the paid forces and, unfortunately, the Syrian ones.
Afrin was one of the regions that enjoyed free will and developed a democratic project that was distinguished by the pioneering and leadership role of women, and Afrin has become a real attraction for Syrian civilians fleeing the Syrian war zones (more than 450 thousand displaced Syrians were in Afrin before the Turkish attacks). Where Turkey began invading Afrin on 20 January 2018 in order to undermine the state of stability in it and a public attempt to thwart the democratic experience in northern and eastern Syria.
The resistance that our people demonstrated in Afrin came against the expectations, as it was proven that the truth of defending the revolution lies in adhering to democracy and dignity as it appeared in Afrin and before it in Kobani in 2014, these historical resistance strengthened the Kurdish spirit and reinforced true cohesion in Afrin between the four parts of Kurdistan not to mention the volume of echo that the world circulated about the resistance of the times and its continuity for 58 days in the face of a country the size of Turkey that used various types of weapons against a small geographical spot.
Two years after the occupation of Afrin by Turkey and its mercenaries, we confirm the General Council of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) condemning the silence of the world and ignoring what Turkey is doing today in Afrin and the whole of the occupied areas in Syria, we confirm that there is no real stability and no solution that serves Syria and its people except through the exit of Turkey and those with it from the areas of its occupation, especially Afrin. We also appeal to all of our people and all democratic components and forces keen on their moral and patriotic duty to work together to close ranks to confront the Turkish threat and occupation in Syria and the necessity of getting them out.
In conclusion, we extend our sincere appreciation and greetings to our steadfast people in al-Shahba camps and confirm that we continue to struggle with them and the resistance until the liberation of Afrin and the return of its people to it and we recall the heroic resistance of the YPG and YPJ and their great sacrifices, where we all draw from the spirit of the resistance of the age in Afrin our strength and our insistence on the struggle and we affirm that the continuation of the second stage of the resistance until now, and our people in al Shahba cling to the residents of Afrin and clinging to all difficulties for one option is to return to Afrin with their dignity, indicating that the continuous resistance is the path towards victory for Afrin and its people. A great retreat without victory.
We also salute the forces of the liberation of Afrin and their sacrifices and their continued heroic resistance in their struggle on the path of the martyrs of Afrin and its resistance fighters, and we affirm that the resistance continues and we will escalate it and achieve victory in the spirit of the martyrs Avista, Karkar, Barin and all their companions who sacrificed of themselves for the sake of Afrin and its people. “
The statement concluded with slogans, “A salute to the spirit of the martyrs of Afrin and the martyrs of freedom, a tribute to our wounded heroes.
Greetings to our resisting people in Afrin and al-Shahba. “…
Syria is geopolitical prize, Kurds seek new Middle East
The American expert Dr. Thoreau Redcrow has said that Syria is a global chess board. It is not a problem that must be solved from the point of view of the interventionists, but a geopolitical prize to be won. Stressing that Ocalan’s ideas provide a road map “The Kurds will be the first domino to seek a new Middle East for all,” he said.
As the Syrian crisis enters its tenth year the interventionist parties want to prolong the life of this crisis to make the most of it and divide Syria. In this context our agency interviewed the expert Dr. Thoreau Redcrow, an American specialist in international conflicts and Kurdish affairs. The text of the dialogue reads.
1. As the Syrian crisis enters its tenth year. What are the dimensions of the international conflict in it?
Unfortunately for the people of Syria, their country has become a global chessboard where many nations have been pushing their own geopolitical interests through the use of proxy forces. Since the US and Russia/Iran don’t want to fight an open conflict with each other in their own nations, they use Syria as an arena to test each other’s will and commitment. Moreover, Turkey wishes to expand their neo-Ottoman project and is hoping to annex northern Syria for themselves or form some break away territory like Northern Cyprus which they can control. Meanwhile, the Autonomous Administration is attempting to establish their own form of local self-governance built on a multi-ethnic and gender equal vision, that is unique to the wider region.
2. All regional and international parties involved in Syria take the fight against terrorism as an excuse, but what are their real goals?
The term “terrorist” is often times not helpful, as it can be a synonym for “armed opponent”. However, if any group meets the definition as commonly understood then ISIS and al-Qaeda (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham aka HTS) would, and both of them have been armed and assisted by the Turkish Government in Syria. Most groups in Syria at present could say they are battling terrorism by fighting either of these two groups, for instance the SDF/YPG/YPJ and the US Military both have been fighting ISIS, while the Syrian Government and Russia are battling al-Qaeda (HTS) in Idlib. Meanwhile, the one nation that sets up outposts in al-Qaeda territory and doesn’t fight them is Turkey, as HTS are essentially their ground forces in Idlib.
3. Throughout history there has been a Turkish-Iranian war; what is the impact of the Turkish-Iranian conflict on Syria and the future of the region?
I wouldn’t say there’s been a war between the two, in fact I think Iran is the one country in the region which Turkey legitimately fears and doesn’t believe they could defeat in a direct conflict. In the same way that the US and Russia can’t openly fight one another since both possess nuclear weapons, Turkey and Iran both realize that fighting one another directly would badly damage both nations, so they battle in a third party territory through proxy forces (Iran has Hezbollah and Shia militias, while Turkey has various jihadist groups like al-Qaeda / HTS and the defeated remnants of ISIS which they’ve formed into their so called “Syrian National Army”).
4. Erdogan is seeking to establish a Sunni state in the region led by him and that includes parts of Syria that include Aleppo, Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, and Hasaka; why does the international community not cut the road ahead, or is there an international trend to redraw the region again?
The Turkish Army looted the industrial base of Aleppo very early on the conflict, and once they realized that Assad’s Government wouldn’t be overthrown, their Plan B was simply to take as much territory as possible to either form a puppet state like Northern Cyprus, or directly annex and steal the territory from Syria as they already did historically with Hatay. Whether they are allowed to do this will depend if the US supports such land theft, and if Russia is willing to assist the Syrian Government in driving Turkey out from the lands they now illegally occupy. I should add, that Turkey also wanted to keep “Rojava” or the Autonomous Administration early on from spanning the entire border of Turkey and reaching the sea potentially, which is what motivated their invasion and occupation of Afrin and backing of jihadi groups in Idlib.
5. Why has the Syrian crisis not been solved yet? What is the impact of the international conflict on the shape of the Middle East in general?
Syria is not a problem to be solved, but a geopolitical prize to be won. Early on the US was hoping to prevent Russia from having their only Naval Base on the Mediterranean Sea in Tartus if Assad was overthrown, but that plan was unsuccessful. Now, likewise, the Syrian Government is trying to prevent the U.S. from having any airstrips or bases in Eastern Syria within Kurdish areas, which the U.S. is hoping to use to counter Iranian regional influence and the so called “Shia highway” from Beirut to Tehran. This is also taking place in the wider picture of a regional-wide battle for influence across the Middle East between 3 factions, (faction 1) Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and the Houthis in Yemen vs (faction 2) Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Jordan vs (faction 3) Turkey, Qatar, and Azerbaijan. With the Autonomous Administration and SDF in Syria being neutral with faction 1, gaining support with faction 2, and at war with faction 3. Meanwhile Russia backs faction 1, the US backs faction 2, and both of them at times try to win the favor of faction 3.
6. Kurdish, for how long will the Turkish Kurdish conflict last? What are the main objectives of Turkey to launch attacks on the Kurdish-majority regions of northern and eastern Syria?
The Kurdish conflict will last as long as the 40+ million Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran do not have equal rights to exist as Kurds, and either autonomy or independence in all of the areas in which they live. Turkey’s motivations are first that they have a very deep fear about the 20+ million Kurds within Turkey rising up in mass against their continued occupation and brutality. This fear spills over into Syria, as they fear Kurds in Turkey will take inspiration from their example, and want to establish local governance in a similar manner.
7. Turkey committed grave violations against the Kurds in Syria during its attacks in Afrin, Ras al-Ain and Tel Abyad and caused the displacement of the Kurds from their lands. Why is it not held accountable internationally despite all the documents and evidence?
Turkey is not held accountable because they are in NATO, which means they can carry out war crimes and be shielded from blame. American and Western media also does not cover Turkey’s war crimes in the same way they would if Assad’s Government was carrying them out, because it doesn’t fit with the geopolitical objectives of the US military. The US, UK, and Germany know that if Turkey was held accountable for their war crimes, then the US who sells them the jets, the UK who sells them the missiles, and Germany who sells them the tanks would also be guilty.
8. What is the role of world powers in fueling the Turkish Kurdish conflict? And why does the United Nations and the United States of America not play their role in resolving the Kurdish issue?
Turkey’s constant need for weapons to use in their fight to oppress their Kurdish population is good for business, and makes NATO nations a lot of money. So that’s the first obstacle. The US is also worried that if they forced Turkey to stop oppressing their Kurdish population, the Turkish Government would realign themselves with Russia instead of NATO, which would ruin NATO’s plan of keeping Russia locked into the Black Sea via the Bosporus. As for the United Nations, they are not that interested in solving the Kurdish issue, as then they would also be forced to solve the Tamil, Balochi, Western Sahara, West Papuan, Ambazonia, Basque, Hazara etc issue. Many nations around the world deny the self-determination of new nations because they know it might also apply to occupied groups within their own. That is a box they are afraid to open.
9. Why does the international community not respond to Ocalan’s proposals to solve the Kurdish issue politically away from militarization? Does this have anything to do with the Greater Middle East project?
Ocalan’s ideas are a threat to every nation in the Middle East because they provide an alternative democratic roadmap of how the multi-ethnic mosaic of the region could govern themselves locally, which threatens all of the authoritarian regimes and royal families who use their nations as their personal bank accounts. History shows us that power never gives away their stranglehold easily, they must be made to with force. Luckily the Kurdistan liberation movement has both ideas and arms.
10. How does solving the Kurdish issue affect the problems of the Middle East?
Solving the Kurdish issue would have huge spill over effects for the entire Middle East, as many of the Kurdish groups would like to display an alternative model of democratic governance and defend ideas like religious freedom, and gender equality, which are lacking in much of the region. It’s seen as a Kurdish issue, but it’s really a Middle East issue, as the model that the Kurds want would also appeal to many of the ethnicities in the Middle East as it’s based around local people controlling their own destiny and promoting a sustainable and communal way of life. The Kurds would be the first falling domino to a new Middle East for everyone.
Report: Kurdish population in Afrin dropped to 18 percent
Within two years of Turkish occupation, the Kurdish population in Afrin has dropped to 18 percent. The human rights organization of Afrin has presented a report on ethnic cleansing and other violations of rights.
In March 2018 Afrin was occupied by the Turkish state. The human rights organization of Afrin has presented a report on the violations of rights during the past two years. The report was publicly read out by Heyhan Ali in the Serdem camp in Shehba.
According to the report, more than 300,000 people from Afrin were displaced by the Turkish invasion to the neighbouring canton of Shehba and other places in Syria. The Kurdish population in Afrin has dropped to 18 percent. In the course of the demographic change, jihadists from Idlib and other areas were settled with their families in Afrin.
Heyhan Ali explained that the “Turkification policy” is being further advanced in Afrin. Places and streets have been given Turkish names. For example, the Kawa crossroads, whose name refers to the Kawa the Blacksmith from the Newroz myth, has been renamed Olive Branch Crossroads. “Olive branch” was the name Turkey had given to its invasion two years ago, which was contrary to international law. Today, Turkish language classes are given in schools in Afrin. According to the report, the new school uniforms represent “the Turkish culture”. Pictures of Turkish President Erdogan hang in many places. Turkish identity cards are being forced upon the people in Afrin.
6,200 people kidnapped
In Afrin, according to the human rights organisation, 6,200 people have been forcibly abducted. The fate of 3,400 abduction victims is unknown.
Attacks against women
Women are particularly affected by the occupation regime in Afrin. The human rights organisation has documented 61 cases of attacks against women. The suicide rate of women has also increased since the occupation. Three women have committed suicide after being attacked by jihadists.
553 civilians killed
According to the report, 553 civilians have been killed by direct attacks of the Turkish state and its jihadist proxies. 55 of the victims were tortured to death.
200,000 olive trees cut down
The report states that not only the civilian population and their property are affected by the systematic attacks, but also nature and historical and sacred sites. Heyhan Ali stated that over 200,000 olive trees have been cut down and 11,000 hectares of cultivated land burned: “The green nature of Afrin has become a desert. The tree trunks were brought to Turkey for recycling.
75 historical sites plundered
75 historical sites have been looted by the occupying forces, according to the report. Dozens of mosaics were removed. In addition, 15 graves, which were sacred to various religious communities, were destroyed.
Before the eyes of the world public
Heyhan Ali concluded by pointing out that these crimes take place in front of the eyes of the world public. The human rights organisation called on the UN to fulfil its responsibility and to remove the Turkish state with its jihadist proxies from Syria.
ISIS standards in Girê Spî: Women forced to veil themselves
In Girê Spî in northern Syria, standards similar to those once established under the rule of the ISIS in Raqqa are gradually being introduced under Turkish occupation. Women are no longer allowed to leave the house without full body cover.
In the city of Girê Spî (Tal Abyad) in northern Syria, which has been occupied since October 2019 by Turkey and its jihadist allies with the de facto approval of the US, Russia and the European Union, standards similar to those once established under the rule of the ISIS in Raqqa are gradually being introduced. In many places, women are now no longer allowed to leave the house without full body cover and male company. In neighbouring settlement areas such as the town of Siluk and the village of Hemam al-Turkmen, the veil obligation is also enforced.
Girê Spî and the surrounding areas are largely controlled by the Turkish-backed jihadist militia Ahrar al-Sharqiya – the mercenary group that executed Kurdish politician and Secretary General of the Future Party of Syria (Hizbul Suri Mustakbel), Hevrîn Xelef (Havrin Khalaf), and her driver.
New living space for ISIS mentality
The houses of the Kurds expelled from Girê Spî are now occupied by the occupation troops and members of jihadists who had been brought to the city from other regions of the Turkish occupation zone in northern Syria. In the meantime, every Kurdish business has been expropriated without exception. The situation is no different for Syrian internally displaced persons. Their businesses have now also been confiscated.
The situation for young people is also critical. The so-called “military police” under the command of the Turkish army wants to increase their ranks and is luring with money. Because of the lack of prospects under the occupation, human rights organisations fear that young men will be recruited by the militias because they see no other choice for their survival.
People can no longer afford basic food
Due to the looting and destruction of the infrastructure during the Turkish invasion, there are still bottlenecks in the supply of basic goods such as water, bread and food in Girê Spî. Prices have risen dramatically. Many people can already no longer afford basic foodstuffs. In addition, kidnappings by the occupying forces to extort ransom money are increasing. This method represents a lucrative source of income.
TURKISH PROVISION OF MATERIAL SUPPORT TO AL-QAEDA-LINKED GROUPS IN IDLIB:
[The Rojava Information Center (RIC) is an independent media
organization based in North and East Syria. The RIC is made up
of local staff as well as volunteers from many countries across
Europe and North America. Some of us have experience in journalism
and media activism and came here to share our skills,
and others joined bringing other skills and experiences to the
team. There is a lack of clear and objective reporting on Rojava,
and journalists are often unable to make contact with ordinary
civilians and people on the ground. We set up the RIC to fill this
gap, aiming to provide journalists, researchers and the general
public with accurate, well-sourced, transparent information.
We work in partnership with civil and political institutions, journalists
and media activists across the region to connect them
with the people and information they need.
RIC has assisted reporters and researchers from all leading international
newspapers, websites and news sources with their
work, including: BBC, CNN, ITV, NBC, Fox News, ABC and Al Jazeera;
New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal,
LA Times; Die Welt, Die Zeit, El Pais, El Monde, Corriere Della
Sera: TFI, France 24, ZDF, ARD, DW, ARTE; Associated Press, AFP,
DPA, EFE, ANSA; Cambridge, Yale and Madrid Universities; Amnesty,
Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations: and many
other national and international news sources.]
This dossier will briefly examine the evolving relationship between Turkey and
al-Qaeda offshoots and proxies in Idlib, in particular HTS, before compiling visual
evidence of the proliferation of armored vehicles and heavy weaponry among
these groups in Idlib province.
1.1 GROUPS PRESENT IN IDLIB
1.1.1 Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)
1.1.2 Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP)
1.1.3 Hurras ad-Din (HaD)
1.1.4. National Front for Liberation (NLF) and Syrian National Army (SNA)
1.2 HTS AND OTHER GROUPS – LINKS TO AL-QAEDA
1.3 HTS AND OTHER GROUPS – LINKS TO ISIS
1.4 TURKISH SUPPORT FOR HTS AND OTHER AL-QAEDA-LINKED GROUPS IN IDLIB
1.4.1 The situation in Idlib: creeping Turkish control and influence
1.4.2 Joint Turkish-HTS operations room
1.4.3 Turkish proliferation of armor and heavy weapons among
1.4.4 The MANPADS question
2 VISUAL EVIDENCE OF TURKISH MATERIAL SUPPORT
FOR HTS AND OTHER AL-QAEDA-LINKED GROUPS
3 CONCLUSION: POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS
3.1 Taking up the offer of support from North and East Syria
3.2 Supporting the political process towards a federal solution in Syria
3.3 Bringing an end to Turkish support for al-Qaeda-linked militias
During the Syrian Arab Army’s latest advance in north-western Syria, ongoing
since 19 December 2019 and entailing the capture of over 2000km² of land to
the south and east of Idlib city, international condemnation has focused on the
immense humanitarian cost of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and Russian bombing
campaign and the displacement of up to a million civilian IDPs.
The context of the bloody war being waged by the SAA notwithstanding, it is important
that Western policy-makers maintain a clear eye when scrutinizing the
opposition in Idlib and in particular Turkey’s increased involvement in co-ordinating,
arming, fighting alongside and proliferating man-portable anti-aircraft defence
systems (MANPADS) throughout territory controlled by al-Qaeda offshoot
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), with potentially disastrous consequences for American
and global security.
Turkey variously seeks to justify its actions in Idlib as support for the legitimate
Syrian opposition; as humanitarian intervention; and even as an act of self-defence
against the Kurdish forces which have no presence whatsoever in Idlib governate.
The waters are further muddied by Russian disinformation efforts which,
in effectively insisting that everyone in Idlib is a legitimate target, ironically make
it more difficult for objective commentators to make their voices heard on the
true situation in the province.
The reality is that no meaningful secular opposition remains in Idlib, now controlled
by al-Qaeda offshoots of varying hue, and moreover that Turkey has little
interest in either defending the civilian population of Idlib, or the secular values
of elements of the original Syrian revolution.
Rather, Turkey is using the conflict in Idlib to advance its own interests, extending
its geographical and military sphere of influence deep into Syrian territory
through increasingly open and reckless collaboration with HTS – despite the fact
that HTS are listed by the Turkish government themselves as a terror organisation.
Thus we see jihadist militants sporting ISIS’ Seal of Muhammad logo riding
in US-made armored vehicles – not seized in war, but handed to them by the US’
NATO partner, Turkey.
Turkey’s current approach offers the worst of both worlds. While unlikely to make
any significant impact on the Russian advance and inevitable recapture of Idlib,
the provision of high-end military equipment to HTS will have devastating security
consequences for the US and its partners across the world. As such, we will
close with brief policy recommendations on how the situation in Idlib may be
resolved to ensure a safe and secure existence for civilians and IDPs, the removal
of the international security threat posed by HTS and the neutralization of Turkish
moves to arm and support this listed terror group, and a process of accountability
for the Syrian Government and its backers.
Fighters sporting ISIS insignia ride in an armored vehicle provided to them by NATO partner Turkey
There are three main groupings of armed factions present
in Idlib, namely:
1. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and associates, most notably the
Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), professedly independent
though still understood to maintain ties with al-Qaeda;
2. Hurras ad-Din and associates, al-Qaeda’s direct proxy
in Syria which itself works in coordination with HTS; and
3. Factions grouped under the National Front for Liberation
(NFL), long under heavy Turkish influence and
incorporated into the Turkish-controlled Syrian National
Army as of October 20191.
We will examine each of these groupings in turn, giving a
brief summary of their history and relationship to one another,
before moving on to discuss their relationship with
al-Qaeda, ISIS and Turkey.
1.1 GROUPS PRESENT IN IDLIB
1.1.1 HAYAT TAHRIR AL-SHAM (HTS)
The dominant faction in Idlib is HTS, a Sunni Islamist group which is dominated
by the former Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda’s original proxy force in Syria following
their split from ISIS) and hardline elements from Ahrar-al-Sham2. HTS can field
a reported 15,000 to 30,000 fighters, a majority of whom are former al-Nusra
Al-Nusra itself operated as the official Syrian branch of al-Qaeda from the outset
and committed acts of torture, child abduction, and summary execution – including
stoning to death women accused of committing adultery – as part of ‘a
strict interpretation of Sharia law… imposing punishments amounting to torture.’4
Al-Nusra also executed at least 20 members of the Druze minority who opposed
a campaign of forced expropriation of their houses and destruction of their religious
During the latest operation, HTS fighters have filmed themselves with decapitated heads of rival combatants,
and filmed themselves torturing captives
GROUPS PRESENT IN IDLIB INTRODUCTION
As of June 2013, al-Nusra Front had claimed responsibility for 57 of the 70 suicide
attacks in Syria during the conflict, along with mass executions and other atrocities6.
HTS itself claimed a 2017 twin bombing in Damascus that killed at least 40
people, the majority of them Iraqi Shia pilgrims7.
HTS describes itself as a military force, but retains tight control on civil society
through its ‘Salvation Government’ and system of sharia courts, often staffed by
individuals with no formal legal training or even training in sharia law. Much like
ISIS, HTS conducts morality patrols, arresting young women for failing to follow
religious dress codes; young men for shaving or listening to music; and civilian
activists for any activity in opposition to HTS’ de facto control of Idlib. HTS’s religious
police, known as ‘Sawid Al Khayr’, enforce dress codes and the segregation
of males and females on buses and in the streets8.
HTS conduct public executions for witchcraft and heresy – as well as of ISIS members9.
Human Rights Watch has documented consistent arbitrary detention and
torture of civil society activists who sought to document HTS abuses or protest
their rule, as well as assassinations and the restriction of humanitarian aid to
civilians living under its rule10. Local human rights organisations have documented
184 such cases in the space of three months11, while HTS has also conducted
widespread confiscations of Christian property12.
The US and Turkey designated the group a foreign terrorist organization affiliated
with al-Qaeda in 2018, at which time it was also sanctioned by the UN13.
INTRODUCTION GROUPS PRESENT IN IDLIB HTS
TIP GROUPS PRESENT IN IDLIB INTRODUCTION
1.1.2 TURKESTAN ISLAMIC PARTY (TIP)
In a still from a recent Turkestan Islamic Party propaganda video from Idlib, children in military uniform receive
ideological indoctrination on the role of the mujahidin [Islamic warriors]
The TIP is an Uyghur Salafist-jihadist group which has spent decades fighting for
an independent Sunni state in Xinjiang, western China. It has killed hundreds in
its bombing campaigns and, since 2002, been sanctioned by the UN due to its ties
Since 2015, the organization has sent fighters to Syria to participate in the conflict
via front organizations based in Turkey, and currently fields around 5,000 fighters
in Idlib16. They operated in close coordination with Jabhat al-Nusra, and continue
to do so with HTS. As well as killing Christians and desecrating their churches,
the TIP is notable for its extensive – and often openly advertised – deployment of
Chechen Caucasus and Uzbek al-Qaeda proxy organisations are similarly present
in Idlib, operating in coordination with HTS.
INTRODUCTION GROUPS PRESENT IN IDLIB
1.1.3 HURRAS AD-DIN (HAD)
HaD are the official al-Qaeda proxy group in Idlib and Syria, breaking away from
HTS in 201818. As the group maintaining the most overt ties with al-Qaeda, they
have faced targeted US airstrikes against their senior leadership, and former ISIS
emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was being sheltered by HaD elements when he was
assassinated by the United States in 201919.
They field several thousand fighters and maintain military co-ordination with
HTS, despite some disagreements (see below).
1.1.4 NATIONAL FRONT FOR LIBERATION (NLF)
& SYRIAN NATIONAL ARMY (SNA)
There are also militant groups in Idlib under the direct command, control and
influence of the Turkish government. The National Front for Liberation (NFL) incorporates
a score or so of factions of varying size, with dominant forces including
the Sham Legion, Ahrar al-Sham, Suqqour al-Sham, Jaysh al-Ahrar and Nour
ad-Din al-Zenki Movement remnants.
In October 2019, immediately prior to its invasion of North and East Syria, Turkey
incorporated the NFL and the Syrian National Army (SNA) – another Turkish-
armed, controlled and funded umbrella organisation which has its base of
operations in Turkish-occupied regions of Syria including Afrin, Bab, Jarabalus and
now Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad – into one command structure20. SNA elements
have entered Idlib to participate in the current conflict, while NFL elements have
also passed via Turkish soil to participate in Turkish offensives against the SDF
and territories controlled by the Autonomous Administration of North and East
Directly Turkish-controlled groups in north-west Syria are not ideologically homogenous,
ranging from Salafist jihadists through to opportunists seeking to
profit from the war, though they are united in their execrable human rights records.
The militias Turkey has united under its control have been accused of war crimes
by the UN and Amnesty International, including raping women, carrying out mass
killings against Kurdish civilians, torturing, electrocuting, executing and parading
caged civilians in the streets as a human shield21. Turkish-backed militias often
worked alongside the al-Nusra Front, and together “applied a strict interpretation
of Shari’a and imposed punishments amounting to torture or other ill-treatment
for perceived infractions,” as well as torturing and disappearing lawyers and civil
Turkey also used SNA and to a lesser extent NLF forces as its proxies during its
2018 and 2019 invasions of Afrin, Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad, killing hundreds and
displacing hundreds of thousands of civilians23/24. Those who survived have faced
summary rule by Turkish-backed militias imposing sharia law, kidnapping, torturing
and executing civilians, and committing human rights violations possibly
amounting to war crimes, along with an ongoing policy of forcible demographic
change in regions formerly populated by Kurds, Yazidis and Christian minorities25/
Per a 2020 UN report, Turkish-backed groups have committed war crimes across
areas under their control, constituting “myriad violations of human rights and
international humanitarian law by SNA fighters, using language comparing their
“enemies” to “infidels”, “atheists” & “pigs” when referring to civilians, detainees &
property…“, the displacement of the entire Yazidi population in Sere Kaniye and
large swathes of the Kurdish population, the expropriation and looting of schools,
businesses, bakeries, olive groves, vehicles, agricultural tools, “the war crime of
murder and repeatedly the war crime of pillaging… hostage-taking, cruel treatment
and torture… these violations may entail criminal responsibility for Turkish
commanders who knew or should have known about these crimes.”27
NLF/SNA GROUPS PRESENT IN IDLIB INTRODUCTION
Rojava Information Center and Syrian
Observatory for Human Rights have
documented over 100 former ISIS
fighters and commanders now part of
1.2 HTS AND OTHER GROUPS:
LINKS TO AL-QAEDA
The US position on HTS is clear
– yet NATO partner Turkey is
now supplying HTS with heavy
Though HTS insists it is independent from al-Qaeda, the UN, the US and Turkey
all continue to regard it as associated with the international terror organization28.
Internationally speaking, al-Qaeda’s use of proxy groups is on the increase. In
2018, it carried out a total of 316 attacks around the world, according to data
collected by The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project29. Its proxies have
killed hundreds including an attack in Mogadishu in 2017 that left 600 dead, while
as noted above HTS themselves have claimed terror attacks killing scores of civilians30.
In brief, HTS emerged as a merger dominated by Jabhat al-Nusra (including its
commander-in-chief, al-Qaeda operative Abu Mohammed al-Jolani), hardline Ahrar-
al-Sham elements and other jihadist groups in Idlib. As Jabhat al-Nusra, the
group openly declared allegiance to al-Qaeda31,while a subsequent rebranding to
Jabhat Fatah al-Sham did not change the reality that senior al-Qaeda members
are embedded throughout the group’s command structure.
INTRODUCTION LINKS TO AL-QAEDA
As such, the establishment of HTS was widely seen as a rebranding exercise, with
the US Embassy issuing a statement to the effect that “the United States is not
fooled by this al-Qaeda affiliate’s attempt to rebrand itself.”32 Prominent al-Qaeda-
linked individuals and designated terrorists joined the group following its formation.
More broadly, despite paying lip-service to reform and moderation in recent
months, HTS continues to violently crush dissent and apply a strict interpretation
of sharia law in the area under its jurisdiction (see above).
Per US think-tank Soufan, “HTS maintained links with al-Qaeda’s loyalists in northern
Syria and even allocated areas and resources for its supposed rivals… While
HTS proclaims that it is an independent entity not affiliated with al-Qaeda, the
organisation grew out of al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, following a
series of strategic rebrandings. Throughout its numerous iterations, HTS has not
altered its ideology and is still widely thought to maintain links with al-Qaeda.”33
Senior al-Qaeda figures embedded in the Syrian organization’s command structure
have continued to be assassinated by the United States via strikes on Idlib34/35.
It is important to note that al-Qaeda’s ‘official’ representative in Idlib and Syria
is now HaD, and moreover that HaD and HTS have come into occasional, albeit
limited, conflict. These conflicts, however, were resolved through dialog mediated
by senior al-Qaeda figures, and the groups reconciled under the aegis of al-Qaeda36.
Practically speaking, HaD and HTS operate together on the battlefield
against the SAA (see below), and HaD are only able to operate in Idlib as a result
of HTS’ blessing, logistical support and coordination.
Recent conciliatory statements by Jolani towards the West do not change the reality
that HTS and al-Qaeda at the least share a common ideology and history, that
HTS leadership is full of known al-Qaeda elements, and that the groups engage in
strategic and military coordination in north-west Syria.
LINKS TO AL-QAEDA INTRODUCTION
1.3 HTS AND OTHER GROUPS:
LINKS TO ISIS
Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIS (then known as the Islamic State of Iraq) both emerged
as al-Qaeda proxy forces, in Syria and Iraq respectively. By 2013, Jolani’s al-Nusra
and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s ISIS were clashing with one another, with Jolani
swearing loyalty to al-Qaeda while Baghdadi attempted to subsume the Nusra
Front into ISIS. There are significant strategic, tactical, and to a lesser extent theological
differences between ISIS and what is now HTS. On the one hand, then,
al-Nusra and its later incarnation HTS have been involved in armed conflict with
ISIS. Open conflict between the two groups left hundreds dead in 2014, after
which their spheres of influence coalesced in separate areas of Syria37.
INTRODUCTION LINKS TO ISIS
Fighters wearing ISIS insignia are a common sight among the ranks of HTS and other groups which receive
Until at least 2019, ISIS sleeper cells continued to operate against – and were captured
and executed by – HTS, in HTS areas of control38.
However, it must not be forgotten that both HTS and ISIS originated as al-Qaeda
proxies, that they subscribe to broadly similar Salafist ideologies, and that
they have used similarly brutal methods both in enforcing these ideologies on
populations under their control and in seeking to expand their sphere of influence39.
As such, it is unsurprising that many former ISIS members have travelled
to north-western Syria to join HTS and Turkish-controlled groups there.
The Rojava Information Center has documented the names and biographies of
over 40 former ISIS members now part of Turkish-controlled forces in north-western
Syria, while the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights has similarly recorded
the identities of over 70 former ISIS members now part of Turkish-controlled forces
in their new zone of occupation east of the Euphrates40. They include former
emirs, commanders and those responsible for coordinating jihadist fighters with
their handlers in the Turkish military intelligence services (MIT).
Turkish toleration of former ISIS elements in the ranks of factions under its direct
control is an open secret. Just as we are seeing now in Idlib, their 2018 and 2019
invasions of Kurdish regions of northern Syria featured scores of identifiable former
ISIS members making use of Turkish armor and heavy weaponry, in some instances
while openly displaying ISIS insignia. Turkish-backed groups openly filmed
themselves ‘liberating’ ISIS-linked detainees from detention facilities operated by
the SDF, and hundreds of ISIS-linked individuals were able to escape from at least
three secure facilities as a result of Turkey’s 2019 invasion east of the Euphrates41.
Idlib itself “also plays host to relocated ISIS fighters and dependents,” per a UN
report published in February 202042. The most notable instance is of course Abu
Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was able to cross into Idlib during ISIS’ demise as a territorial
entity and was being sheltered by a HaD commander at the time of his assassination
by the USA. More broadly, ISIS militants who managed to escape the final
operation to eradicate their physical caliphate – or those able to pay smugglers to
LINKS TO ISIS INTRODUCTION
flee SDF detention facilities – inevitably
head for north-western Syria, either to
Idlib or to Turkish-controlled regions.
As can be seen below, ISIS insignia are
on common display in Idlib, with an
ISIS-style Seal of Muhammed in identical
stylization and font often to be
seen proudly sported by fighters using
Some pro-HTS commentators have
sought to downplay the significance of
this insignia, arguing it is a long-standing
Muslim symbol not specifically tied
to ISIS: but the layout and stylization
used by mujahidin [Islamic warriors] in
Idlib is invariably a carbon-copy of ISIS’ black standard. No actors in the Syrian
Civil War are unaware of its significance either locally or globally, and its omnipresence
in Idlib provides the clearest visual indication possible of the ideological
stance of those armed groups Turkey is backing, arming and funding in Idlib.
Indeed, former ISIS members are even more prominent among the supposedly
less-radical groups which Turkey directly, openly supports and controls than they
are among the ranks of HTS, their old rivals in jihad. The scores of former ISIS
members identified by RIC and SOHR among the ranks of Turkish-backed factions
are just the tip of the iceberg.
Turkey provided heavy weapons, including armor, to
extremist SNA factions like Jaysh-al-Islam during their
2019 invasion of North and East Syria
Turkish-backed fighters openly bragged in propaganda videos like the one pictured about using Turkish armor to
‘liberate’ ISIS-linked individuals from SDF detention facilities
INTRODUCTION LINKS TO ISIS
IDLIB TURKISH SUPPORT FOR HTS INTRODUCTION
1.4 TURKISH SUPPORT FOR HTS
AND OTHER AL-QAEDA-LINKED
GROUPS IN IDLIB
1.4.1 THE SITUATION IN IDLIB:
CREEPING TURKISH CONTROL
As outlined above, Turkey’s relationship with jihadist groups in Idlib ranges from
direct support, arming, funding and issuing commands through a deliberately
opaque relationship with HTS to a relatively distant engagement with Hurras-ad-
Simplest to define is the relationship between Turkey and those factions directly
under its control – that is, the NLF in Idlib, now incorporated into the SNA command
structure following their aforementioned merger in October 2019, and the
SNA in Turkish-occupied regions to the north. A cursory investigation of the command
and control structure of jihadist factions in the SNA, such as Ahrar-al-Sharqiya,
Jaysh-al-Islam and Sultan Murad, shows that responsibility flows directly up
to the TAF – and by extension their commander-in-chief, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
These factions are technically subordinate to the Syrian Interim Government, a
Turkish-sponsored body which lobbies on behalf of the SNA in Geneva and other
foreign capitals. In practice, they are trained, armed, funded and commanded by
the Turkish government. The SNA number “at least 35,000 full-time fighters, all
under the near-total control of Turkey’s Ministry of Defense and National Intelligence
Organization (MIT).” 43
In areas under nominal SNA control, they are granted limited autonomy to plunder
and extort money from the local population. But real power is retained by
Turkey, through direct control of local political bodies, top-down exploitation of
economic resources, and governance through proxies “dependent on Turkey’s
political, economic and military backing for their survival.”
On the battlefield, likewise, the SNA take their commands directly from Turkey.
A recent piece of in-depth research by Elizabeth Tsurkov, speaking to multiple
sources within the ranks of the SNA,
confirmed: “All decisions, big and small,
in the ‘National Army’ are made by the
operations room run by Turkish intelligence.”
While Turkey’s control of the Idlibbased
NLF is less total than its control of
the SNA, it has nonetheless been able
to establish an “influential client-proxy
relationship with the NLF by offering its
groups a rear base, having them participate
in Turkish operations in Afrin
and in the Azaz-Jarabulus corridor, and
providing them with equipment, training
and salaries.”45 The October 2019
merger constituted a further solidification
of Turkish control over the NLF,
illustrated by the participation of NLF
elements – most notably Faylaq-al-Sham
and Jaysh-al-Ahrar – in the execution
of Turkish policy objectives against
2018 saw clashes between NLF and
HTS, with HTS objecting to the extension
of Turkish control and influence
into its zone of control in Idlib.
INTRODUCTION TURKISH SUPPORT FOR HTS IDLIB
Less ideologically extreme than HTS, the Turkish-controlled
SNA nonetheless committed multiple atrocities
during their invasion of NE Syria, including this field
HTS were the victors in that conflict, with NLF forced to sign a cease-fire agreement,
but since 2019 the Turkish-backed grouping and HTS have operated together
jointly to fight against the SAA under HTS’ aegis.
Turkey’s relationship with HTS, then, is a more complex question. As noted above,
Turkey initially listed HTS as a terror group, but over the years their relationship
has evolved into one of mutual co-dependency, with Turkey of course retaining
technical and military superiority but at the same time recognizing HTS’ territorial
dominance in Idlib. HTS is too powerful, in other words, to merely be considered
as a Turkish proxy: it has other sponsors and backers, and the jihadi organization
is able to exert a certain influence on Turkish policy in Idlib, rather than merely
following Turkish orders as in the case of the SNA. As such, Turkey’s increasing
trust in and cooperation with the Salafist-jihadist organization has alarmed observers
who fear Turkey is handing power, influence – and lethal weaponry – to
an organization it cannot expect to control.
The gradual extension of Turkey’s military operation in Idlib began with occasional
minor clashes with HTS, but as Turkey became entrenched in observation
posts so they began a tacit relationship with the dominant grouping in Idlib.
HTS guarded Turkish convoys as they entered Idlib and permitted Turkey to operate
within its zone of control. By May 2019, HTS and the NLF were coordinating
their attacks and the use of heavy weaponry, including anti-armor missiles, from
a joint operation room. HTS’ total control of Idlib means that Turkey’s extensive
operations in the region cannot take place without HTS’ express knowledge, approval
A Chatham House research paper summarizes this evolution well:
“Hostility between HTS and Turkey has turned into a form of peer-to-peer coordination.
This was clear when HTS allowed Turkish patrols to enter territories under
its control and protected Turkish observation points in northern Syria, despite
previously expressing disapproval at their presence. This nascent coordination
turned into wide-ranging cooperation, with HTS exclusively facilitating Turkish
logistics and military operations in the north. The group prevented any other
armed group being involved except with itself as an intermediary. Even Faylaq
al-Sham, which had been very close to Turkey, cannot liaise with the Turks without
the approval or agreement of HTS.”46
IDLIB TURKISH SUPPORT FOR HTS INTRODUCTION
1.4.2 JOINT TURKISH-HTS
From 2019 until the present day, Hurras-al-Din, HTS and Turkey’s NLF and SNA all
coordinate their operations in Idlib, meaning that Turkey is in coordination with
al-Qaeda’s appointed proxy in Syria, as well as al-Qaeda-linked HTS47, through its
Since Spring 2019, the NLF and HTS have been operating together via an operations
room known as “al-Fatih al-Mubeen”, thus uniting the Turkish-controlled
and al-Qaeda-linked forces in a single fighting coalition48.
HTS upload images of Turkish-provided armor through their official channels – but refer to ‘al-Fatih al-Mubeen’
operations room as a figleaf.
INTRODUCTION TURKISH SUPPORT FOR HTS OPERATIONS ROOM
This operation room has not been prominently featured in either Turkish or
al-Qaeda media, with neither HTS nor Turkey wishing to draw attention to the
increasing extent of their cooperation. In particular, the NLF do not mention this
operations room in their own propaganda published through their own channels.
It appears that Turkey’s NLF units have been merged with HTS units. HTS media
originally only covered HTS, and not NLF and other Turkish-backed units, but
NLF and even SNA units now appear in HTS propaganda videos. It is likely for
this reason that most of the combatants in footage released by HTS propaganda
channels have now removed their patches, in order to disguise the extent of collaboration
between Turkish-backed and HTS forces.
On HTS’ behalf, meanwhile, the new operations room serves as a figleaf to cover
Turkish supply of armaments to the al-Qaeda-linked group – presumably at Turkish
request. That is, HTS still refer to their own units as the ‘Mujahidin of [Hayat]
Tahrir al-Sham’ in videos without any Turkish armor or weapons pictured, but
when Turkish armor is included in the shot they refer to the new operations room
Hurras-ad-Din and other smaller, hard-line Salafist groups in Idlib have their own
operations room, ‘Incite the Believers’. As outlined above, this separate operations
room operates in coordination with the dominant faction HTS49, who in turn
are in coordination with Turkey.
In videos where HTS’ new
Turkish supplies aren’t visible,
they continue to refer
to themselves as ’the Mujahidin
of Tahrir al-Sham’
OPERATIONS ROOM TURKISH SUPPORT FOR HTS INTRODUCTION
1.4.3 TURKISH PROLIFERATION OF
ARMOR AND HEAVY WEAPONS
AMONG AL-QAEDA-LINKED GROUPS
INTRODUCTION TURKISH SUPPORT FOR HTS AL-QAEDA-LINKED GROUPS
Following the escalated SAA and Russian operation against HTS starting December
2019, and Turkey’s well-documented intervention alongside HTS, the extent
of Turkey’s support for al-Qaeda-linked groups has dramatically increased. Turkey
has both provided HTS with heavy weapons and armored vehicles for the
first time, and proliferated high-end weapons systems throughout territory under
Turkey’s provision of armor to HTS and other extremist factions marks a serious escalation. Note the ISIS flag
being worn by this HTS militant
AL-QAEDA-LINKED GROUPS TURKISH SUPPORT FOR HTS INTRODUCTION
The following section of this report will provide visual evidence of HTS fighters
and members of other extremist organizations in Idlib – in some cases openly
sporting the ISIS-style Seal of Muhammed – making use of Turkish-provided armored
vehicles, fighting under the cover of Turkish grad salvos, and otherwise
benefiting from Turkey’s deployment of tanks, armored vehicles, rocket launcher
systems and special forces into the Idlib region.
Turkey has supplied its proxies with small arms, mortars and anti-tank guided
missiles in large amounts. Despite protestations to the contrary from pro-Turkish
propaganda channels, visual evidence clearly indicates that HTS and other al-Qaeda-
linked factions including the TIP are making use of Turkish armor to launch
their latest assaults, including American-made M113 personnel carriers sold to
Turkey and then provided to the al-Qaeda offshoots.
Weapons systems such as ‘GRAD’ Multiple Rocket Launcher Systems (MRLS) may
have not been handed directly to HTS, but are certainly being put to joint use by
HTS and the NLF via their joint operations rooms50. Again, HTS propaganda footage
shows them advancing under the cover of GRAD fire, while at least one piece
of propaganda footage shared by HTS shows fighters loading up Turkish-marked
GRAD missiles. Even where these heavy armaments remain in the hands of Turkish-
dominated groups in the NLF, they are being put to joint use with HTS, while
their proliferation through HTS territory means they may well fall into HTS hands.
Finally, as a recent review from the Soufan Center thinktank noted, “While Turkey
prefers to support rebels from the National Liberation Front and the Syrian National
Army, HTS remains an effective fighting force. Turkey has supplied its proxies
with a range of weaponry, including small-arms, mortars, and anti-tank guided
missiles (ATGMs). There are growing concerns that the chaos in northwestern
Syria is allowing the al-Qaeda-linked Hurras ad-Din to rebuild its network, one
that could potentially seek to launch external operations against the West.”51
1.4.4 THE MANPADS QUESTION
Perhaps most serious is Turkey’s proliferation of man-portable air-defence systems
(MANPADS) throughout the Idlib region. A MANPADS can be used to shoot
down a helicopter, low-flying jet or civilian airliner, and these systems ending up
in the hands of al-Qaeda-linked terrorists would be an unmitigated disaster52.
As such, Turkey is tightly controlling information about the proliferation of these
systems in Idlib. In at least one incident in February, HTS claimed a MANPADS
strike which took down an SAA helicopter53. There is no visual evidence to date
of MANPADS in HTS hands, and in those pieces of footage which have leaked out
of MANPADS being used in Idlib it appears to be TAF commandos operating the
Nonetheless, with the situation in Idlib highly volatile, Turkey’s proliferation of
these lethal systems into territory held by HTS means it is increasingly likely that
al-Qaeda-linked groups will get their hands on these lethal weapons systems, capable
of shooting down airliners.
INTRODUCTION TURKISH SUPPORT FOR HTS MANPADS
2 VISUAL EVIDENCE OF TURKISH
MATERIAL SUPPORT FOR HTS
& OTHER AL-QAEDA-LINKED GROUPS
When: 29 February
What: HTS fighters using a US-built M113
Equipment supplied: M113
Source: Ebaa News (Official HTS channel)
When: 27 February
What: HTS fighters wearing the ISIS patch
using a US-built M113
Equipment supplied: M113
Source: Ebaa News (Official HTS channel)
Where: Kuffar Awid, Idlib
When: 29 February
What: Militiamen wearing the insignia of HTS militia Jaysh
abu-Bakr al-Sidiq using a US-made built M113
Equipment supplied: M113
Source: HTS media operative Mohammed Othman
Where: Idlib Governate
When: 20 February
What: HTS loading Turkish-marked MRLS (GRAD) missiles
Equipment supplied: MRLS missiles
Source: Ebaa News (Official HTS channel)
Where: Abin Selman
When: 13 February
What: Advancing under cover of GRAD rocket salvo
Equipment supplied: GRAD launcher
Source: Video shot by Turkish-backed forces,
supplied to journalist Lindsay Snell
Where: Mayzanaz and Kafr Halab, west Aleppo
When: 16 February
What: HTS fighters using US-made M113,
fighter wearing ISIS patch visible in same video
Equipment supplied: M113
Source: HTS-linked Insight media
When: 26 February
Who: Turkestan Islamic Party
What: Using Turkish-supplied armored vehicles
Equipment supplied: ACV-15
Source: TIP channel
Where: Eastern Idlib
When: 20 February
What: Using US-made M113 and Turkish-supplied ACV-15
Equipment supplied: ACV-15 (rear of first image), M113 (second image)
Source: Ebaa News (Official HTS channel)
Where: Nayrab, Eastern Idlib
When: 24 February
What: HTS using US-made M113
Equipment supplied: M113
Source: Ebaa News (Official HTS channel); pro-NLF media
When: 20 February
What: HTS using Turkish-supplied ACV-15
Equipment supplied: ACV-15
Source: SNA channels
Where: al-Narb, Idlib
When: 21 February
What: HTS using Turkish-supplied M113
Equipment supplied: M113
Source: A24 News Agency
When: 26 February
What: ‘the mujahidin of HTS’ in US-made M113
Equipment supplied: M113
Source: Ebaa News (Official HTS channel)
Where: Kafr Awaid, Idlib
When: 29 February
What: HTS fighters using Turkish-supplied
Equipment supplied: ACV-15 and M113R
Source: Ebaa News (Official HTS channel)
For as long as the Syrian conflict in general – and Idlib in particular – is conceived
in black-and-white terms, no solution will be found. This is equally true of the
‘regime vs. rebels’ and the ‘legitimate state vs. jihadis’ narratives propagated by
Turkish and Western press on the one hand, and Russian press on the other.
War crimes committed by HTS and Turkish-backed groups against civilians living
in areas under their control do not excuse the Russian and SAA carpet-bombing
campaign: but nor should Turkey’s intervention be misunderstood as anything
less than a power-grab carried out in coordination with radical jihadist groups,
which will have potentially disastrous security consequences for the West as
Turkey recklessly provides these groups with heavy weapons and disseminates
MANPADs through areas under their control.
Given that – as is clear by this stage in the conflict – NATO and the Western community
are unwilling to proactively intervene in north-western Syria, Turkey’s
intervention cannot prevent the eventual return of Idlib to Damascus’ control.
On the basis of this reality, there are some concrete steps which can be taken
towards reconciliation, while also ensuring Western security interests are protected
and that lethal weapons systems are not handed to extremist groups
who pose a threat to civilians in the USA, Europe and Middle East alike.
SUPPORT FROM NORTH AND EAST SYRIA CONCLUSION
3.1 TAKING UP THE OFFER OF SUPPORT
FROM NORTH AND EAST SYRIA
Though Turkey claims its intervention into Idlib is to protect Syrian civilians, Turkey’s
invasions of Syria have killed hundreds and displaced hundreds of thousands
of ordinary Syrians. At the same time, Turkey’s border remains closed to
refugees fleeing the lethal Russian-SAA assault, and Turkish border guards have
shot dead at least 422 civilians trying to flee into Turkey throughout the Syrian
Meanwhile, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) has
demonstrated its willingness to host up to a million IDPs from all over Syria55.
Most recently, the AANES opened its doors to IDPs fleeing Idlib, with at least 6000
IDPs from Idlib now being housed by the AANES. Loqman Ahmi, spokesperson
of the AANES, recently spoke with the UN to reaffirm North and East Syria’s willingness
to partner with the UN to house IDPs from Idlib, relieving the burden on
Europe and enabling these Syrian IDPs to remain in their own country56.
As noted above, a 2020 UN report found that Turkish-backed groups have committed
war crimes across areas under their control, constituting “myriad violations
of human rights and international humanitarian law by SNA fighters, using
language comparing their “enemies” to “infidels”, “atheists” & “pigs” when referring
to civilians, detainees & property…“, the displacement of the entire Yazidi
population in Sere Kaniye and large swathes of the Kurdish population, the expropriation
and looting of schools, businesses, bakeries, olive groves, vehicles,
agricultural tools, “the war crime of murder and repeatedly the war crime of pillaging…
hostage-taking, cruel treatment and torture… these violations may entail
criminal responsibility for Turkish commanders who knew or should have known
about these crimes.”
56 Rojava Information Center interview with Loqman Ehmi, 28 February 2019
The same report found no evidence of war crimes committed by the SDF, and on
the contrary praised the AANES for its ground-breaking efforts towards democratic
and gender equality in the regions under its control. Indeed, the AANES and
SDF are the only actors in Syria which consistently strive to meet international humanitarian
standards. Despite the US withdrawal which allowed Turkey to invade
North and East Syria, the AANES and SDF have consistently proven themselves
the West’s best partners in Syria, and loyal custodians of US and international
The fact that the AANES are welcoming IDPs from Idlib in their thousands once
again demonstrates that there was no need for Turkey to invade and occupy
North and East Syria to install Arab IDPs there. Nor is there any need for the UN
and EU to bow to Turkey’s use of refugees as a political weapon. Rather, NE Syria
has always been open to receive IDPs from all over Syria, and as such a strengthened
partnership between North and East Syria and the international community
is fundamental to resolving the humanitarian crisis in Idlib.
The USA and Europe should also act to house refugees fleeing Idlib on their own
account, rather than allowing Turkey to use refugees as a political bargaining chip.
As well as opening routes to safe third countries in the EU and elsewhere, they
should recognize that they have a loyal partner in North and East Syria willing and
able to house these IDPs on Syrian soil.
CONCLUSION SUPPORT FROM NORTH AND EAST SYRIA
A FEDERAL SOLUTION CONCLUSION
3.2 SUPPORTING THE POLITICAL
PROCESS TOWARDS A FEDERAL
SOLUTION IN SYRIA
As outlined above, a military solution is not feasible in Idlib, with international
intervention off the table and Turkey unable to seriously resist Russian aerial and
military dominance. As such, rather than allowing Turkey to prolong the conflict in
the hope of securing a larger slice of territory in North and East Syria, the United
States and the international community should offer meaningful support for a
political process and the vision of a federal Syria.
This will mean forcing Turkey to admit that it cannot – not does it seriously expect
to – prevent Russia and the SAA from taking Idlib, and recognizing that despite
recent flare-ups Turkey and Russia are taking great care not to engage one another
militarily in the field of conflict. The pressure Moscow exerts on Ankara is too
great, and Ankara likewise recognizes that NATO is not about to intervene on its
behalf in a war it has brought upon itself as part of its efforts to seize land, influence
and power in Syria.
In the words of analyst Aaron Stein, “The United States is Turkey’s ally, but has
little interest in the Turkish armed forces being bogged down in an unwinnable
war in Syria, taking casualties and being humiliated by Russian bombardment. A
ceasefire makes sound strategic sense. It also would be preferable to an outcome
in which more Syrians will die fighting for an unwinnable endeavor. Negotiations
with Russia will not be easy, nor straightforward.
“Idlib is a massive humanitarian catastrophe and the Assad regime is almost certain
to exact revenge on innocent civilians it accuses of being disloyal. The United
States ought to work to prevent this, but the path to doing so is not continuing
aid to an insurgency that will not win. The United States and Europe both should
consider continuing — if not expanding — its humanitarian assistance to ease
Turkey’s burden and support Syrian civilians.”57
The more the USA and Western community play a role in this process, the more
they can influence its outcome to ensure the best possible outcome for civilians
in north-western Syria and in terms of their security interests in the Middle East.
This means ensuring that all actors in Syria have a seat at the negotiating table,
including the AANES and SDF who are the USA’s most loyal partners in Syria but
are currently excluded from this process, as well as representatives of the wider
The vision of a federal, devolved Syria being put forward by the AANES represents
the best possible outcome for civilians in Idlib and across Syria, but for so long as
the debate is polarized between hopeless investment in a lost war in Idlib on the
one hand and Damascus’ hardball demands on the other, the best interests of
local civilians and the international community alike cannot be met.
3.3 BRINGING AN END TO TURKISH
SUPPORT FOR AL-QAEDA-LINKED
The more the burgeoning humanitarian crisis in Idlib is resolved, the less Turkey
will be able to use it as a figleaf to disguise its ambitions of territorial expansion.
Curbing Turkey’s proliferation of lethal weapons systems and heavy armor
throughout territory controlled by HTS and other al-Qaeda-linked militias is not
only a security prerogative, but a necessary step on the path toward an enduring
reconciliation and resolution in Syria outlined above.
To achieve this policy objective, it will be necessary for the international community
in general and the US and NATO partners in particular to exercise pressure
on Turkey, which is currently acting as a rogue actor and supporting listed terror
organizations, including HTS.
END TURKISH MILITIAS SUPPORT
Even setting aside the fact that Turkey has aided and abetted the growth of ISIS
in Syria and to this day shelters scores of high-ranking former ISIS members in
the ranks of its militias, Turkey’s current actions in Idlib alone warrant its formal
listing by the US Treasury Department as a State Sponsor of Terror.
Taking decisive action against Turkey’s open support for al-Qaeda-linked factions
in Idlib today could prevent a civilian airliner being shot down by these same factions
Report: 447 civilians killed by Turkish forces at Syrian border
The 447 refugees killed by Turkish security forces at the border with Syria include 83 children under the age of 18 and 56 women.
The Human Rights Organization of Afrin – Syria released a statement announcing that 447 refugees were killed by Turkish soldiers at the Turkish-Syrian border.
The statement includes the following:
“Turkish border guards shoot Syrian asylum seekers, including Kurdish citizens, and beat them when they try to enter Turkish territory, causing the death and injury of a number of them. Especially recently, after the Turkish state and its armed Syrian factions occupied Afrin area and as a result of the pressure that the indigenous people in Afrin are exposed to by the armed factions of the Turkish occupation, the cases of the flight of citizens, especially the Kurds, from them, and their asylum to Turkey across the common borders, especially in Afrin, increased.
According to the testimony of the relatives and local residents, which were documented by international and local human rights organizations, including the “Human Rights Watch” violence is used against asylum seekers and Syrian smugglers.
If Turkey has the right to secure its borders with Syria, it is obligated to respect the principle of non-refoulement that prohibits the expulsion of asylum seekers at the border when they are at risk of persecution and torture, or when their lives and freedom are threatened. Turkey is also obligated to respect international standards related to the use of excessive force, the right to life and physical liberty, including the absolute risk of subjecting anyone to inhuman or degrading treatment.
At a time when Turkey is blackmailing the European Union with refugees on its soil, in order to obtain financial and political benefits to legitimize their stay in Syria, and subject them to death and beatings, Turkey is using live ammunition and rifle butts to counter the flow of refugees, and among the victims that the border guards are killing are children and women.
Local and international human rights observatories (Human Rights Watch, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Center for Violations in Northern Syria), noted in their reports the extent of the violations that took place and are still occurring during the asylum of the citizens of Syria with various components and nationalities who are trying to enter the Turkish lands to escape the death that has been chasing them in the conflict that has been going on in Syria for 9 years. In addition, residents of the Syrian border villages and towns or farmers and landowners near the border are also targeted by Turkish gendarmerie with live bullets.
The number of Syrian citizens who were shot by Turkish border guards (gendarmerie) reached 447, including 83 children under the age of 18 and 56 women. In addition, 420 Syrian citizens were injured with gunfire or assault. Also, the Turkish state has built a separation wall along its 911 km long border with Syria to prevent the entry of refugees, resulting in continuous civilian deaths and injuries.
Although Turkey is one of the guarantor countries to de-escalation, and participates as one of the main parties to the conflict in Syria, and has the task of protecting refugees and displaced persons, it acts completely the opposite.
We, as the human rights organization in Afrin-Syria, appeal to all international human rights and civil organizations, led by the United Nations, to put pressure on the Turkish government to prevent the use of excessive force against Syrian refugees and displaced persons and others, as one of the countries of the Council of the European Union, and it must respect all international laws and regulations that stipulates respect for human rights principles and all relevant international agreemen
“Erdoğan experiences a political and military defeat in Idlib”
The HDP’s foreign policy spokesperson, Hişyar Özsoy says: “Turkey has tried to play off powers against each other, but this policy no longer works. Therefore it experiences a political, military and diplomatic defeat in Idlib”.
Hişyar Özsoy is deputy co-chair and foreign policy spokesperson of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and is currently participating in various meetings in the US. ANF talked to him about current developments in the context of the Idlib dispute and the use of refugees as a means of blackmailing the EU by the Erdoğan regime.
What do you think about the fact that Erdoğan is trying to direct the anger about the killed soldiers towards the refugees?
This is nothing new. From the very beginning the refugee issue has been used to threaten Europe. This time it has partly worked, but partly it has not. Erdoğan could not achieve much with this threat. There were very strong reactions from Europe, but Angela Merkel started to support the Turkish wish for a “security zone” within Syria. Even if the refugee card does not build up as much pressure as before, it is still in Erdoğan’s hands. This is his strongest trump card against Europe.
You are currently taking part in various meetings in the US. How is the situation viewed there?
In the US this refugee question is taken very seriously. But for Washington, the relations between Russia and Turkey and the S-400 missiles are in the foreground. It looks like there will be very serious sanctions in April if Turkey does not do anything about the S-400s. But if Turkey abandons the S-400, Turkey can count on strong US support in Idlib. Some US politicians are trying to take a Turkey-friendly position. They try to support Turkey in Idlib, but that doesn’t mean that the US will send troops to Idlib or provide air support. There are fierce discussions about this in the US government.
The supporters of Erdoğan are isolated in this respect. They don’t get much support from the Pentagon, nor from Congress in this sense. But a humanitarian aid package has been announced. This is set to be used to pull Turkey to its side. This logic is directed against Russia. Especially because of the escalation of hostilities against Iran, the US wants Turkey on its side. But as I said, the crucial point is the S-400 missiles. If this deal with Russia is abandoned, the US will make a great effort to direct relations with Turkey. But if this does not happen and Turkey does not move into an anti-Russia position as the US wants, Ankara will probably soon come under very strong pressure from the US.
Do Turkey’s blackmail attempts not isolate the country?
Look, at the moment Turkey no longer has any real diplomatic relations with Europe, the US and, to be honest, with Russia. It is constantly trying to threaten and blackmail Europe. The reason for their cooperation with Erdoğan and its government is not because they like it. They are actually tired of this government. We can talk about anger here. Erdogan has built a relationship with all of Europe based on threats. This relationship is rapidly moving towards collapse.
The policy towards the Kurds in Syria has also isolated Turkey from the US. Even Turkey’s supporters have so far been unable to make their support openly known. All institutions are against Erdoğan. The refugee question is not important for the US, it mainly concerns Europe. Some countries in Europe do not want to turn Erdoğan against themselves. For example Greece, Bulgaria, Italy and the southern countries. Erdoğan can get Merkel to make concessions, even if only partially. And that is what he is trying to do.
Will this save Turkey from its internal crisis?
Whether it works or not, we’ll see. But Erdoğan has gone so far beyond threats and blackmail that he is diplomatically at his wits’ end. This is a big problem for him, because he is currently facing Russia militarily, but he doesn’t have Europe on his side. That is a big obstacle. Turkey has tried to play the powers against each other, but this policy no longer works. That is why it is experiencing a political, military and diplomatic defeat in Idlib.
Autonomous Administration: Assad’s approach serves Turkey
In a recent interview, Bashar al-Assad stated that a Kurdish question did not exist in Syria and accused the autonomous administration of separatism. The latter called on Damascus to develop an understanding for democracy.
The unresolved Kurdish question in the Middle East has been one of the most serious conflicts in the region for more than a century, with dramatic political and humanitarian consequences – for all four central states, to which the historical settlement territory of the Kurds was divided quite arbitrarily: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. The “divide and rule” policy has not only created a Middle East that resembles an open powder keg and is constantly fed with dynamite. In the “quadripartite” Kurdistan, starting with the denial of a Kurdish existence at all, an unresolved identity conflict has established itself. Also from this aspect, the solution of the Kurdish question and Kurdish self-determination is seen as the key element of the democratization of the Middle East.
In Syria, the Kurds form the largest minority in the country. Their oppression, similar to that in Turkey, has a history of decades. The Syrian regime also relied on tyranny and denial of Kurdish existence. The recognition of Kurdish identity was considered a threat to national unity. Even before the country was marked by political instability in the 1960s – one coup followed the next – the Kurds experienced brutal oppression. In 1958, the publication of Kurdish books and the teaching of the Kurdish language in schools was banned. The authorities Arabized the names of Kurdish villages and towns. In 1962, 120,000 Kurds were deprived of Syrian citizenship after a census in Hesekê. In 1963, shortly after the Baath Party took power, plans to “Arabize” northern Syria began to take shape with the so-called “12-point plan” by Talab Hilal, the then police director of Hesekê. His racist and anti-Semitic ideas about how to deal with the Kurds were clear: Hilal called the Kurds a “malignant tumour”. To “cut it out” was the only right way to “cure” Syria.
Ten years later, the so-called “Arabization” was implemented in a 350-kilometer long and about fifteen-kilometer wide “Arab belt” along the border with Turkey in order to change the ethnic composition of the population in favor of the Arab population. In the course of the Arabization project, dozens of new villages were built and four thousand Arab families from Raqqa and Aleppo were settled as early as the beginning of the 1970s. Kurds were deliberately expelled or deported from their ancestral homeland, their cultivable land confiscated and given to the newly settled Arabs. The regime presented this de facto expropriation as “privatization”, deprived the expropriated Kurds of their citizenship and Arabized all Kurdish place names. Nevertheless, the Kurds remained steadfast and refused to comply with the regime’s demand to leave the region.
Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, who has continued the oppressive policy of his father Hafiz al-Assad since 2000, recently stated in an interview on Russian television that there is no “Kurdish question” in Syria. Claims to the contrary were “illusory and a lie”, he said and argued that, moreover, all Kurds living in northern Syria have immigrated from Turkey in the last century.
The fact that the Assad regime, despite the crisis in Syria, which has now been going on for nine years and is getting worse and worse, has apparently not changed its attitude towards the Kurds and is sticking to its assimilation policy has provoked sharp criticism in the self-governing areas of northern and eastern Syria. In a written statement, the autonomous administration recalls that Syria, once torn by internal conflicts, has become a theatre of war for numerous armed groups and international state actors within a scant decade.
“The Syrian regime, as the architect of this as yet unresolved crisis, is shirking its responsibility to find solutions instead. That Bashar al-Assad under these circumstances is sticking to the mentality that created this crisis, is unacceptable”.
The autonomous administration emphasizes that the regime’s approach and language against the Kurds do only serve the Turkish state, which occupies large areas of Syrian territory; “The government in Damascus claims that Syria will defend its territory and will not accept any occupation of ‘Syrian soil’. However, Assad’s most recent statements testify to the regime’s lack of interest in dialogue and hamper the search for a solution to the crisis. The Kurdish question is one of the most fundamental problems and the key to the democratisation of the country. A peaceful solution will pave the way to defusing Syria’s crisis.”
Alluding to the accusations of separatism raised by Assad against the Kurdish part of the population and the peoples of northern and eastern Syria, the autonomous administration calls on the regime to take a look at the recent past and at Afrin’s resistance against the Turkish state and its “terrorist jihadist factions” – a struggle that was aimed at defending the integrity of Syria.
“All those who are now accusing us of separatism in Syria should remember emphatically those who defended Serêkaniyê (Ras al-Ain) and Girê Spî (Tal Abyad) with their lives. It should not be forgotten that the regime remained silent on the invasion and merely observed incidents from a distance. We, the peoples of Northern and Eastern Syria, are committed to defending the very Syrian soil that the regime claims to protect. Our merit is obvious, we do not have to present the evidences of our struggle but we have the right to ask the Syrian regime if it has achieved any success.”
In its statement, the autonomous administration emphasizes that the regime must finally adopt a solution-oriented attitude in order to lead Syria out of the crisis, saying that, in the contrary case, the conflicts would intensify further.
“The current mentality, which has failed to come up with a solution to the Syrian crisis for years, is what has made the occupation of Northern Syrian cities by Turkey possible.”
For a Syria-wide perspective to solve all problems, a renewed political agenda is needed that allows for change and internalizes democracy, the autonomous administration proposes.
“To build a democratic Syria, the paths must be opened. At the same time it should be accepted that the Kurdish question is one of the main factors in Syria’s crisis. The autonomous administration of northern and eastern Syria is not a system that seeks to divide Syria. The project of a democratic nation, which is implemented in the self-governing areas, is based on the fraternity of the peoples. It has proved to be successful. Statements aimed at defaming this alternative system, which has already proved its worth, are of benefit only to those who want Syria to be divided,” the statement said.
Autonomous administration welcomes people from Idlib
North and East Syria is open to displaced people from Idlib. The autonomous administration takes care of the people who fled the war. Since the region itself is undersupplied due to the Turkish invasion, an appeal is made to the UN.
Over 1,500 families fled the war in Idlib to the autonomous region of North and East Syria. The autonomous administration has accommodated the displaced civilians from Idlib in camps despite their own limited possibilities and takes care of the basic supply of food and health care.
Today the Autonomous Administration has again declared that people from Idlib who had to leave their homes due to the fighting are welcome.
The statement says:
“Due to the humanitarian crisis caused by the war in Idlib, the civilian population is in a very bad situation. Cooperation is needed to alleviate the suffering of civilians in the face of the wave of migration that is taking place. Action must be taken.
The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have already declared that they will fulfil their humanitarian duty towards the people of Idlib in accordance with their responsibilities. On this basis, we are once again informing the people of Idlib that we will provide them with care within the limits of our possibilities. We declare that despite the high number of migrants in our region we will fulfill our duty.
Call to international institutions
As the autonomous administration, we face serious obstacles due to the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons from the areas occupied by the Turkish state, the closure of the Til Kocher [al-Yaarubiyah on the Iraqi-Syrian border] border crossing and the small quantities of UN aid shipments via Damascus.
We call on the UN and other international institutions to cooperate with the autonomous administration in view of the flight from Idlib. They should propose solutions on how to overcome the current difficult situation.
This should be accompanied by a reconsideration of the decision to close the Til Kocher border crossing for humanitarian aid deliveries. Humanitarian aid must arrive in north-east Syria in order to guarantee basic supplies for those seeking protection”.
Another step towards Turkification … Turkish language courses in Gire Spi
The Turkish occupation continues to follow the policy of Turkification in the areas it occupied from Syria with the aim of changing the demography of the region, and this was evident by the courses that were announced yesterday in the occupied city of Girê Spi.
Turkey and its mercenaries occupied each of the cities of Serekaniye and Gire Spi after its brutal attack on the regions of northern and eastern Syria in October 9 last year.
Since its occupation of the two cities, it began with the assistance of its mercenaries, whom it uses to implement its agendas of pillaging and pillaging the region’s goods, and displacing the indigenous people with flimsy pretexts that it creates for them, in order to displace them and resettle the mercenary families instead of them.
After its indiscriminate bombing of populated cities and villages, it managed to displace more than 300 thousand people of the two cities, and it is currently restricting the rest of the people with the aim of displacing them.
After seeing that the people adhered to their cities and villages, it started with other plans, including the Turks, with the aim of spreading the Turkish language among the people, as it announced yesterday the opening of free Turkish educational courses in Gire Spi.
According to local sources, Turkey announced that it would receive all those who would like to learn the Turkish language, and identified the educational complex in the neighborhood of housing as a place for registration and education.
About a month ago, Turkey opened a similar course in the occupied canton of Afrin and forced more than 30 young people from Afrin to join that course.
The same source added that the people in the occupied area reject the behavior of the Turkish occupation and its mercenaries, and the high cost of living there, in addition to the lack of security, and the large number of arrests and theft by mercenaries there.
Syrian Kurds push UN for action on Idlib humanitarian crisis
ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – On Saturday, officials from the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) discussed the dire situation for large numbers of displaced civilians fleeing from the embattled city of Idlib with the director of the United Nations Office for Coordination and Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
The ongoing fighting in Idlib has already displaced over 800,000 civilians. So far, 1,000 of them have fled the city to areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Manbij, Raqqa, and Tabqa following the call of the group’s leader, according to a Feb. 21 statement released by the US-based aid group Burma Free Rangers.
The SDF says it expects at least another 5,000 to flee to the northeast. “In light of the recent deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Idlib, we have talked to UN Regional Humanitarian Coordinator Kevin Kennedy today to express our readiness to scale up these efforts, with the assistance of the UN and the international community,” said AANES spokesperson Luqman Ahmi.
“We talked about how the Self Administration of North and East Syria and the UN can support one another to help IDPs fleeing war in Idlib,” Ahmi told the Rojava Information Centre.
“IDPs from Idlib have already arrived to North and East Syria. We have welcomed them and prepared camps for them. We are ready to continue this work in an organized, efficient way, in collaboration with the UN,” he added.
The local administration also called on the international community and the UN in a public statement to coordinate with the local administration to “offer proposals and resolutions to face this challenge in these severe circumstances and reconsider its decision to close the Yaroubiyeh border crossing.”
The UN’s Yaroubiyeh operation that previously supplied 40 percent of the medical provisions used in areas run by the Self-Administration was closed in January due to a veto of China and Russia in a UN Security Council vote. As a result, the humanitarian situation has worsened in northeastern Syria.
Thomas McClure, a Syria-based researcher at the Rojava Information Center, told Kurdistan 24 on Saturday, “Turkey claims its intervention into Idlib is to protect Syrian civilians, but in reality, Turkey’s invasions of Syria have killed hundreds and displaced hundreds of thousands of ordinary Syrians.”
“At the same time, Turkey’s border remains closed to refugees fleeing the lethal Russian-SAA [Syrian Arab Army] assault, and Turkish border guards have shot dead hundreds of civilians trying to flee into Turkey throughout the Syrian conflict.”
“The AANES, meanwhile, has demonstrated its willingness to host up to a million IDPs from all over Syria, most recently opening its doors to IDPs fleeing Idlib. Indeed, the AANES and SDF are the only actors in Syria which consistently strive to meet international humanitarian standards.”
McClure underlined the fact that the Autonomous Administration welcomes people fleeing from Idlib demonstrates that there is no need for “UN and EU to bow to Turkey’s use of refugees as a political weapon.”
Thousands of immigrants recently gathered at the closed Greek border after Ankara said it will not prevent their passage to Europe following the death of several Turkish soldiers in Idlib.
“Rather, Northeastern Syria has always been open to receive IDPs from all over Syria, and as such a strengthened partnership between Northeastern Syria and the international community is fundamental to resolving the humanitarian crisis in Idlib.”
Editing by John J. Catherine
The truth about Turkey’s role in Syria
Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdoğan asked NATO to exercise its mutual defence agreement stipulated by Article 5 of its charter when 33 Turkish troops were killed by Russian and Syrian forces in Idlib.
Turkey’s request is cynical and self-serving. Erdoğan betrayed the Alliance, siding with Russia in a war he helped foment.
After the 2011 popular uprising in Dara’a, which marked the beginning of Syria’s civil war, Erdoğan embraced the Muslim Brotherhood and supported Islamist rebels fighting the regime of Bashar Assad. Erdoğan envisioned himself the Caliph of Mesopotamia, leading a worldwide community of Sunni brothers.
Turkey was the major conduit for weapons and money, thinking the victory of jihadists was inevitable. However, Assad’s forces were tenacious.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama promised a regime change and drew a red line on the use of chemical weapons (CW). His warnings were hollow. More than 1,300 people, including hundreds of children, were killed in the Damascus suburbs of Ghouta, Muadhamiya, Ein Tarma, and Zamalka on 21 August 2013. Obama had no appetite for military intervention. He claimed the red line was a warning, rather an actual threat to intervene.
Erdoğan decided to expand support for the rebels and overthrow Assad he had, a year ago, hugged as ‘dear brother.’. Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency established the jihadi highway from Şanlıurfa in Turkey to Raqqa, the Islamic State (ISIS) capital in Syria. It assisted 40,000 foreign jihadists from more than 100 countries who transited through Turkey to the front lines in Syria.
The presence of Chechens and other Islamists from the Southern Caucasus was deeply unsettling to Russia. Their advances presented a risk to Russian bases in Latakia and Tartous, threatening Russia’s warm-water port on the Mediterranean. They also threatened Iran’s corridor through Iraq and Syria that was supplying Lebanon’s Hezbollah with sophisticated missiles to attack Israel.
General Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) Quds Force, met Putin in Moscow. With Turkish-backed rebels advancing on Damascus, Soleimani unfurled a map of rebel positions. Despite the consternation of his Russian hosts, he assured them, “All is not lost.”
Russian and Iranian officials agreed on a plan to rescue Assad. The IRGC, Hezbollah, and other Shiite militias would engage Sunni rebels on the battlefield. Russia would provide air support.
Putin announced Russia’s military intervention at the U.N. General Assembly on September 28, 2015. Turkey and Russia were on opposite sides. Turkey supported regime change and gave weapons to the rebels, while Russia backed the regime.
Russian-Turkish relations collapsed when a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian Sukhoi-24 along the Syrian border.
Turkey was also alienated from the United States. The United States and Turkey had a major falling out after Erdoğan alleged Washington’s complicity in the so-called coup of July 2015. Ever pragmatic, Erdoğan reached out to Putin and forged an alliance in Syria.
Turkey joined Russia in parallel diplomacy called the Astana process in January 2017. The Astana process marginalised the U.N. and excluded the United States.
Putin agreed to look the other way, while Turkish-backed jihadis and Turkish armed forces targeted the Syrian Kurds, who Erdoğan called the “real terrorists.”
Turkey invaded Afrin in January 2018. The offensive, cynically called “Operation Olive Branch”, killed hundreds of Kurds and displaced nearly a quarter million. Russia controlled the air space west of the Euphrates and was complicit.
Turkey invaded Kurdish lands east of the Euphrates in October 2019. Hundreds were killed and many displaced, including Kurds,
Armenians and Syriac Christians. Turkey’s jihadist proxies committed atrocities, mutilating the bodies of female fighters.
Erdoğan sought to dissuade Putin from attacking Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in Syria’s northwest. Despite Erdoğan’s appeal, Syrian ground forces backed by Russian air power intensified attacks, pushing 900,000 people from their homes. Turkey sealed its border leaving displaced Syrians with no place to go.
Turkey presents itself as the victim of actions by Russia and Syria. In fact, it is the aggressor.
The recent armed conflict between Turkey and Russia is a direct result of Erdoğan’s ill-conceived bravado. It was a strategic miscalculation to think that Russia and Syria would stand down in Idlib.
Now Erdoğan wants NATO involved. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Charter stipulates that an attack on one member of the Alliance is an attack on all members.
However, Erdoğan’s appeal has fallen on deaf ears. In addition to his duplicity, Erdoğan’s anti-American, anti-European and anti-NATO positions have deeply riled the West.
For sure, any loss of life is regrettable. It is, however, hard to side with the Turks when Erdoğan’s actions led to Turkey’s woes.
Turkey intensified the civil war by supplying jihadis. When the war persisted and millions of refugees went to Turkey, Erdoğan extorted money from the European Union to manage the refugee crisis, which he helped create. Turkey scorned the U.N., joining the Astana process, and it repudiated the U.S., spending $3 billion to buy Russian weapons.
The US assiduously avoided a military role in Syria. Years ago, it missed an opportunity to intervene when intervention could have saved Syria.
Despite the heart-wrenching suffering of people in Idlib, the Trump administration is unlikely to intervene militarily. Turkey will pay a steep price for Erdoğan’s hubris and bad judgment.
© Ahval English
Turkey-backed forces accused of cutting water to Syrian Kurdish-run region
Turkey’s pressure campaign on Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria took a fresh sinister turn this week when Turkish-backed Syrian rebel forces reportedly halted service at the Alok pumping station in the Turkish-occupied town of Ras al-Ain. The facility supplies water to approximately 460,000 people, including hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Syrians as well as Islamic State captives and their families.
“The Turkish-backed sources entered the water station [Feb. 24] and forced it to stop its work and threw out the technicians as well,” wrote Sozda Ahmed of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration in Northeast Syria. She told Al-Monitor via the Rojava Information Center in emailed comments, “As a result the city of al Hasakah, Tell Tamar and the rest of the Hasakah region — including Hol and Shedadi — have been left without water. Arisha camp, Hol camp [housing Islamic State fighters’ families] and Washokani camp [housing internally displaced Syrians from Ras al-Ain] have all been affected.”
Ankara has long been accused of seeking to suffocate the Syrian Kurdish-run region economically as well as militarily and politically, all part of a campaign to torpedo Kurdish aspirations of self-rule. Turkey’s borders with the Kurdish-administered northeast from Manbij all the way to the Iraqi border further east remain sealed, including to humanitarian organizations.
“Water is a weapon that Turkey has used against Syria in the past and it will likely continue to do so,” Fabrice Balanche, Syria expert and associate professor at France’s Lyon II University, told Al-Monitor.
With all eyes trained on the rebel-held province of Idlib, where Russian-backed Syrian government forces and the Turkish army have been clashing since the start of this month, the Alok affair has largely slipped under the radar. A Russian delegation was expected to arrive in Ankara tomorrow to break a deadlock over Turkish demands for a cease-fire as close to a million displaced civilians remain massed along the Turkish border, reported the state-run Anadolu news agency.
At least 16 Turkish military personnel have died so far, some of them victims of Russian airstrikes.
Balanche reckons that despite all the hawkish rhetoric, the two sides will eventually agree. A putative deal might include Russia letting Turkish forces take the Kurdish-controlled town of Kobani and move people displaced from Idlib there, Arabizing Kobani as was done in Afrin, the Kurdish-majority enclave Turkey invaded in early 2018. “All depends on whether the Kurds cut a deal with regime and tell the Americans to go or not,” Balanche noted.
Meanwhile, coming amid a global scare over the coronavirus epidemic, a sustained water cut could spell disaster for Hasakah as local authorities struggle to cope with overcrowded displacement camps crammed with infants and children.
Ahmed said that the reasons for the stoppage were not clear to the local authorities. “We only know the station has been prevented from working. We don’t know why they did this or what they want from us.” Nor was it clear whether Turkey gave the orders.
The technicians who were allegedly evicted from the Alok facility are believed to be members of a Syrian government team that routinely visits the station for maintenance purposes and has continued to do so following Turkey’s October “Operation Peace Spring” invasion of Ras al-Ain. Alok was first put out of service by shelling during the Turkish push, the United Nations reported on Oct. 18.
Kurdish authorities blamed Turkish artillery fire. Service was partially restored with the facility operating at about 20% of capacity.
Well-informed sources familiar with humanitarian relief efforts in northeast Syria said they had heard matching accounts of the situation at Alok from local authorities.
“Alok water station remains a critically important source of clean water for nearly half a million people in northeast Syria. As was done last year, when the station was damaged in hostilities, the UN and humanitarian partners are advocating to parties to ensure the station runs uninterrupted,” Danielle Moylan, spokesperson for the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told Al-Monitor. “In addition, the UN and humanitarian partners are planning emergency water supplies to affected families in the area.”
Is This the End of Rojava?
The Kurdish region of northeast Syria was autonomous for seven years, but had to ask the Syrian government for protection after an invasion by Turkey.
Turkish armed forces have controlled a strip of land in northeast Syria between the towns of Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ayn (Serekaniye in Kurdish) since October 9, 2019. Turkey, which has had a presence in northwest Syria since it invaded the Afrin region in January 2018, has split the territorial integrity of this Kurdish region, Rojava (“west” in Kurdish) or the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, politically autonomous since 2013.
Turkey’s actions are a direct threat to the political and military alliance established by the PYD (Democratic Union Party)—the Syrian branch of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party)—and northeast Syria’s other main demographic groups, the Arabs and Syriac Christians. This alliance, the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), and its political wing, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), also have to reckon with the forces of Bashar al-Assad who still hopes to regain control of the whole region, from which he withdrew in 2012. Seven years after its creation, what remains of the PYD’s pluralist, democratic project?
We set out from the Newroz refugee camp in Derik, near the Turkish and Iraqi borders. A woman living there said she had fled six times since 2018: “My family and I are from Afrin. When the Turks came, we went first to Shabab, then toward Aleppo. From there we reached Kobane. Then my son found work in Ras al-Ayn. After the Turks attacked, we had to flee barefoot to Tell Tamr and now we’re here in this camp.” A man said he had left his small farm in Tell Abyad last autumn: “We were living happily. The political system worked well. Then the Turkish president sent planes to bomb us and all the Kurds left.”
Ethnic makeup to be changed
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin signed a 10-point agreement in Sochi on October 22, 2019, ratifying Turkey’s presence in northeast Syria and forcing the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the PYD’s armed forces, to withdraw from Turkish-held territory. Since then, Turkey has been accused of driving out the Kurdish population and replacing them with 2 million Sunni Arabs who had fled from elsewhere in Syria to Turkey. “Erdoğan wants to change the ethnic makeup of the territory his army controls,” according to Abdel Karim Omar, foreign minister in the Federation’s autonomous government. “Before Turkey invaded in 2018, 85 percent of Afrin’s population was Kurdish. Now it’s 20 percent.”
We can’t be sure if these profound changes mean the end of Rojava as a political entity. When the Turkish army and its Syrian militias—known as çete (gangsters)—tried to expand their territory, they met fierce resistance.
We set off from Qamishli for Kobane, which was where Kurdish forces first seriously defeated ISIS in January 2015. At a main checkpoint held by the federation’s security forces, we were redirected to avoid the M4 east-west highway, as it was too dangerous: Turkish military drones overfly it and pro-Turkish militias, based just 400 yards from the road, make regular incursions. On October 12, 2019, Hevrin Khalaf, an influential Kurdish politician, was intercepted on the M4 at Tirwazi near Tell Abyad and brutally killed by Turkish-backed jihadist militias.
The Trump administration’s announcement on October 6 of a US military withdrawal from the region opened the way for a Turkish invasion and left the SDF no option but to call for military support from Damascus. After the Sochi agreement, Syrian troops were deployed between Kobane and the Iraqi border, except for the Turkish-occupied enclave. The Syrian army has small military posts every six miles; according to people we spoke to, its role is mainly to discourage further Turkish expansion.
The Turks have put a price on the head of SDF military commander Mazloum “Kobane” Abdi, who said of the Syrian army, “It’s largely a politically symbolic presence.” He added that there is no other Syrian military presence in SDF-controlled zones. Throughout our journey we saw only the Asayish, the Arab-Kurdish SDF police, watching the roads. We asked Abdi about future relations between Rojava and Damascus, and he said the priority was a political agreement: “We want political autonomy to be written into the Syrian constitution and the SDF to be part of the defense of the whole of Syria. These are demands we won’t compromise on. Under such an agreement, defending the north of the country would be the SDF’s responsibility.”
‘We will not let Kurds lose their rights’
Would the Syrian government accept a change that would end decades of centralism and the quest for a single Arab national identity? Damascus has given no sign of this. We spoke to Polat Can, an SDF commander who led the operation to liberate the Deir al-Zor region, long under ISIS control. “Rojava will not revert to its pre-2010 state. We will not let the Kurds lose their rights, and we will not destroy the relations we’ve established with the Arabs and the Syriac Christians.” He suggested everything else was negotiable, including the autonomous entity’s name and how its borders would be controlled.
The Kurds feel bitterness and anger over how the enclave between Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ayn was abandoned to the Turks. This feeling is especially acute because of the lack of air protection. Abdi said, “The Russians have let Turkish planes bombard our civilians, children, and defense forces. They haven’t kept their promises. Nor has the US.” Polat Can’s verdict was starker: “The Turks are killing Kurds with European weapons. Their drones are Italian and their Leopard tanks are German. If we had an air exclusion zone that could stop our troops being bombed from the air, we would kick the Turks out of Rojava in a week.”
We reached Kobane after a six-hour detour via Raqqa on badly damaged roads. The many oil tankers on the road made the air almost unbreathable. Some of the cheap, low-quality crude oil extracted in northeast Syria is used by the local population and the rest is sold by Damascus through intermediaries. The autonomous government runs public services and funds infrastructure projects through oil revenue and taxes on goods crossing the Iraqi border in both directions. But oil extraction is not at full capacity. Ziad Rustem, a member of the autonomous government’s energy commission, told us, “Only 25 percent of oil wells in northeast Syria are operating. The rest have stopped because of the war and the embargo on Syrian oil.”
Raqqa, the ISIS capital from 2014 to 2017, is now SDF-controlled. The city was badly damaged by fierce fighting, but reconstruction has begun. In the center, where ISIS used to display human heads on stakes, there are huge letters spelling “I love Raqqa.” ISIS still has a support base in this Arab-majority region and cells regularly carry out operations, including suicide attacks. But the city seemed relatively calm. When Erdoğan invaded the north, he counted on an Arab uprising against the Kurds. It hasn’t happened.
Brainwashed against the Kurds
Polat Can explained, “The Arab clans in Deir al-Zor told us, ‘Don’t bring the regime back here. You’re Kurds and we don’t like you, but at least you’re Sunnis—we can work with you.’ The Syrian regime used to brainwash the Arab population against the Kurds by telling them we’re Zionists, atheists, capitalists. But in the regions that are almost 100 percent Arab, there have been no uprisings against the SDF.”
The recent Turkish invasion brought together Kurdish groups that used to oppose PYD dominance. Nari Mattini, a longtime opponent of the SDC, has now joined them. Mohsen Tahir, a member of the Kurdish National Council (ENKS), created at the instigation of the PDK (Democratic Party of Kurdistan), which is on good terms with Turkey and is intended to counterbalance PYD-PKK influence in the region, now admits that the priority is Kurdish unity to stop ethnic cleansing. That unity will depend on how relations between the PYD and the PDK develop; currently the PYD will not allow any other military force on the ground in Rojava.
In Ain Issa, midway between Raqqa and Kobane, a Russian patrol suddenly emerged from a military base: Russia has replaced the United States here. We had already encountered a Russian patrol near the Tell Tamr front line further east, around Hasakah, and a US patrol near the eastern oil fields. It’s unclear who is calling the shots.
Do the Kurds trust the Russians more than they trust the United States? Abdi told us that, for now, “Moscow is working on a solution between the Kurds and the Syrian regime.” But he and other prominent Kurds know Russia and Turkey made a bargain over Rojava that benefited the Syrian government. “Initially, Russia ‘gave’ Afrin to Turkey in exchange for Homs, Ghouta, and a small part of Idlib for the Syrian regime. Then it ‘ceded’ Ras al-Ayn and Tell Abyad to Turkey in exchange for another bit of Idlib.” The Kurds could be the biggest losers in these trades.
It was cold and wet in Kobane, and reconstruction work in the town was on hold because of fears of another invasion. In 2014 the invader was ISIS. Kobane is now threatened by the Turkish army and its allied militias, some including former jihadist fighters. The inhabitants, convinced that war was imminent, were digging tunnels to withstand attack. If it happens, the fate of Kobane might determine Rojava’s fate too.
Syria: Who’s in control of Idlib?
The northern Syrian province of Idlib is the last remaining stronghold controlled by forces opposed to President Bashar al-Assad.
Syrian government forces have been pushing into rebel-held territory with the help of Iranian-backed militias and Russian airstrikes.
Dozens of towns and villages have been captured by Syrian forces including a key strategic highway, the main economic artery through Syria from north to south, linking Damascus, Homs and Aleppo.
According to the UN, as many as 900,000 people, mostly women and children, have been displaced since the escalation of violence in December.
The fighting has led to the collapse of a fragile cease-fire brokered in 2018 by Turkey, Iran and Russia.
Turkey supports the Syrian rebels, while Russia backs the Syrian government’s campaign to retake the area.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to drive back Syrian troops already in Idlib province unless they withdraw by the end of February.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor, said 1,240 Turkish military vehicles have crossed into Idlib in February, along with around 5,000 soldiers.
Who controls Idlib?
Idlib has been controlled by a number of rival opposition factions since government forces lost control of the province in 2015.
The main armed groups operating there are:
- Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, a jihadist alliance)
- National Liberation Front (Turkish-backed rebel alliance)
- Hurras al-Din (pro-al-Qaeda HTS offshoot)
- Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP, Chinese Uighur-dominated jihadist group)
In January 2019, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an alliance of jihadists groups, launched a large-scale offensive against rival rebel groups in the area.
HTS has now become one of the strongest militant groups in northern Syria. It largely controls Idlib province, including the provincial capital and the border crossing with Turkey at Bab al-Hawa.
In 2016, al-Nusra Front declared that it had severed formal ties with the al-Qaeda network and renamed itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.
The following year, it merged with several small jihadist groups fighting in Syria and formed HTS.
Although HTS insists it is independent and not linked to an external entity, the UN, US and Turkey consider it a group associated with al-Qaeda and list it as a terrorist organisation.
Although analysts are cautious about making numerical estimates, Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, an independent analyst, says he believes HTS is the biggest group, which still controls large parts of Idlib province, carries out most of the fighting against government forces and has between 15,000 to 20,000 fighters.
“HTS has also set up and backed a civilian administration in the area – the Salvation Government- that has thousands of employees,” Al-Tamimi says.
In a report published in January, the UN gave a slightly lower estimate of between 12,000 and 15,000 fighters in Idlib associated with HTS, including many foreigners.
This report says that there are an additional 3,500 to 5,000 fighters affiliated with the Hurras al-Din group.
Syrian government supporters say the numbers are significantly higher.
Pro-government politician, Fares Shehabi, told us that he believes there are there are as many as 100,000 HTS fighters in Idlib.
He says HTS is affiliated to al-Qaeda despite its denials. “They carry al-Qaeda flags, they practise al-Qaeda methods,” he said
The other significant force is the National Liberation Front (NLF), which was formed in 2018 by rebel factions wanting to counter HTS.
It is a Turkish-backed alliance that includes hardline Islamist groups like Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Sham, as well as several groups fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – a force considered more “moderate” by Western powers.
In October NLF merged with other rebel groups in northern Syria and rebranded itself to become part of the Syrian National Army (SNA) under the command of the Syrian Interim Government’s (SIG) Ministry of Defence.
But Aron Lund, a fellow with the US-based research group The Century Foundation, says the NLF “is still the same group of Idlib-based factions as before the SNA rebranding”, noting that the alliance is held together by Turkish leadership, as well as Turkish money, weapons and supplies.
“They’re clearly a weaker force than HTS,” according to Lund. “They lack the cohesion, logistics, and organization of that group, and they are not as well armed. However, they add some manpower and are closer to Turkey whose role is going to be key to what happens next in Idlib,” he says.
According to a report by the US Department of Defense released in February, the “Turkish-supported opposition likely consists of between 22,000 and 50,000 fighters from more than 30 different groups.”
There are other groups as well.
One is Hurras al-Din (Guardians of Religion), a splinter group from HTS that is widely believed to be al-Qaeda’s new affiliate in Syria.
Hurras al-Din is largely made up of HTS defectors and the two groups have so far found it difficult to set aside their differences and work together beyond occasional, limited collaboration.
There are also many foreign jihadists in Idlib, many of whom are fighting for groups associated with al-Qaeda.
The Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) is a group of Uighur fighters, who mostly fight alongside HTS.
The Uighurs – a Muslim ethnic minority primarily based in China’s Xinjiang province – established a presence in northern Syria in the early years of the civil war.
There are also the predominantly-Uzbek Tawhid and Jihad Brigade, which is aligned with HTS, and the Imam al-Bukhari Brigade.
“We believe there are about 30-40,000 foreign fighters mainly Uighur, Tajik, Uzbek, Turks, and others from 103 nationalities – many with their migrated families,” says Syrian MP Fares Shehabi.
But Raffaello Pantucci, of the UK-based security think tank the Royal United Services Institute, believes this number is too high.
“They and their families may not number more than several thousand,” he says.
There are also believed to be other foreign jihadists in Idlib, including Chechens and Uzbeks, although the numbers are likely to be smaller.
Civilians trapped in Idlib
A major concern now is for the civilians living in Idlib.
The UN estimates it is home to 3 million people, including 1 million children.
More than 40% of these come from other areas previously held by opposition forces.
The UN says the air and ground attacks in Idlib have been causing both “massive waves” of displacement and “major loss of civilian life”.
At least 1,710 civilians have been killed, including 337 women and 503 children since the escalation of the conflict in northwest Syria in April 2019
YPJ fighter Nûcan Cuma martyred in Serêkaniyê
YPJ announced the martyrdom of Nûcan Cuma in the resistance against the Turkish invasion of Serêkaniyê.
The General Command of the Women’s Defense Units (YPJ, Yekîneyên Parastina Gel) has announced that YPJ fighter Şêrin Silêman Murad (Nom de Guerre: Nûcan Cûma) fell a martyr in the resistance against the Turkish invasion of Serêkaniyê (Ras al-Ain).
Serêkaniyê was one of the first cities to be attacked during the Turkish invasion of northern Syria, which began on 9 October 2019. For ten days, resistance was put up against NATO’s second largest army until the agreement of a ceasefire – which was actually never respected by the Turkish army and its jihadist auxiliary forces – implicated the withdrawal of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from Serêkaniyê.
When exactly and under what circumstances Murad died, however, is unclear. For a long time it was not known whether the Kurdish woman was captured or died in battle, which delayed the announcement of her death.
Şêrin Silêman Murad was born in Girkê Legê (Arabic: al-Muabbada), a small town in northeastern Syria in which Kurds make up the majority of the population, as the daughter of a patriotic working class family. In 2011, Murad, who had been taking part in the Rojava revolution since its inception, joined the local women’s struggle groups. Since the YPJ was founded on 3 April 2013, she has been an active member.
YPJ described Murad as a selfless woman who followed her convictions with courage and dedication; “She fought in the front ranks of the resistance without batting an eyelid, her attitude testifying to the passion for revolution in the hearts of the women of Rojava. Our friend Nûcan gave her life defending her motherland. It is the dignified attitude of patriotic and freedom-loving women like hers that will lead us to victory. We remember Nûcan and our other friends who died in the Resistance of Honor with the greatest respect, deep gratitude and loving remembrance and express our condolences to their families and to the peoples of North and East Syria. We promise to continue our resistance until we have realized the ideals and achieved all their dreams.”
People arbitrarily detained as “YPG sympathizers” in Afrin
Refugees from Afrin speak of absurd abduction methods by the jihadist occupying militias.
Due to persecution and the arbitrary rule of Turkish-backed militias, M. F. had to leave the occupied Afrin city about 20 days ago. He reports on the absurd kidnapping methods of the invading forces and explains how jihadists come to the villages and address young people as “Heval” or “Refiq”, as comrade, and when they react, they kidnap them as “YPG sympathizers” and demand ransom. He also reports on what the jihadists call a “clean-up operation”, a wave of attacks on villages, in which the doors and windows of houses were smashed and the apartments looted. All those who protested, including the elderly, were mistreated by the jihadists.
“At checkpoints, they address the young people as ‘Refiq’ or ‘Heval’. If the young people turn around and look, they are kidnapped for alleged relations with the YPG, and ransom money is demanded from the families,” explains M. F. and goes on to talk about his experiences under occupation: “The gangs have kidnapped a young person from our village. He is still missing. They also kidnapped the owner of the generator that supplies the village with electricity. They demanded a ransom from the family for his release. But although the money was paid, he still hasn’t returned. The Furqat al-Hamza gang also kidnapped a woman who had left her apartment in the evening to check the electricity supply. She disappeared seven months ago.”
Regarding the reasons for his escape, M. F. says: “I have given my children the names of the martyrs. Then I learned that I was to be deported. Out of concern for my children, I was forced to leave the village.”
Amid heightened Turkish-Russian tensions in Idlib and a more assertive Iranian posture in the region, Syrian Kurds are said to be silently weighing their options in the event the conflict escalates and are not ruling out the prospect of fighting along with Syrian government forces.
Turkey had appeared rather calm last month when the Syrian army marched on Maaret al-Numan, an offensive that unfolded against the backdrop of a flurry of contacts between diplomats and military and intelligence officials in Moscow. Moreover, Turkish officials let Syrian rebel commanders know that the strategic M4 and M5 highways had to be somehow reopened as they briefed them about the talks with Russia in meetings in the Turkish border cities of Gaziantep and Reyhanli Jan. 15.
Yet when the Syrian army moved on to its next target, Seraqib, in late January, Turkey appeared to be going on a war footing to prevent the fall of the town, which lies on the junction of the M5 and M4 highways. It began sending reinforcements to Idlib, a move that came after Gen. Tod Wolters, the commander of the US European Command, visited Ankara Jan. 30 to discuss the situation in Syria, as shelling by Syrian government forces killed eight Turks, including soldiers and civilian contractors, Feb. 3 near Seraqib. While Ankara urged a return to the cease-fire line behind its 12 observation posts in the region, the Syrian forces took control of nearly 100 locations within a week, heedless of Turkey’s intervention threats. With Turkish forces cutting off the eastern approach, they drew an arch from the south to the west to quickly capture Seraqib. As a result, seven Turkish military bases, including three recently established checkpoints, were besieged as of Feb. 8.
Turkey has continued to send reinforcements into Idlib, with hundreds of vehicles crossing the border. Turkish intelligence officials have reportedly held another meeting with some 40 rebel commanders in Reyhanli, telling them negotiations with Russia have failed and they should “prepare for the worst.” A source who attended the meeting told Reuters the rebels saw Idlib city as “a red line.”
All those developments in the northwest are reverberating to the east of the Euphrates River, where the Syrian Kurds are silently preparing for possible scenarios. Amid the escalation in Idlib, the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) has mounted attacks in the Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ain areas but failed to pose a serious challenge to the Kurds. The Kurds, meanwhile, are mulling how to take advantage of evolving equilibriums in the event of a broader Russian-Turkish rift.
Turkey’s beating of war drums over Idlib has led the Kurds to consider the option of collaborating with the Syrian army in eventual offensives to retake areas to the west of the Euphrates. The focal point of the Kurds is the Afrin region, which Turkey seized in March 2018 as part of efforts to stymie the Kurdish drive for self-rule in Syria on the grounds that it is led by affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the insurgent group in Turkey that Ankara considers to be a terrorist organization. According to Syrian Kurdish sources contacted by Al-Monitor, the Kurdish sentiment and assessments could be summarized as follows:
- The Kurds have learned a good lesson from Operation Peace Spring in October, through which Turkey secured a foothold to the east of the Euphrates. They have reinforced their conviction that placing too much trust in the United States is a mistake, that they should not ignore Russia and that a settlement could be reached only through negotiations with Damascus.
- With US forces focused on the oil fields in Rmelan, Hasakah and Deir ez-Zor in the northwest, the notion of opening more room to Russia without severing ties with the United States is being put into practice. There is even talk about offering a new base to Russia, which has already taken over several facilities evacuated by the United States, in a bid to encourage it to press Damascus in favor of the Kurds.
- The Kurds could get fresh room to maneuver if a continued escalation in Idlib causes the Russian-Turkish partnership to collapse. They do not rule out the possibility of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) or the People’s Protection Units backing the government forces if the clashes in Idlib grow into a war between the Syrian army and Turkey. In such an event, new fronts might be opened from Tell Rifaat and Manbij against the Turkish-controlled Euphrates Shield triangle between Azaz, Jarablus and al-Bab, in addition to possible military moves in areas to the east of the Euphrates, where the Turkish military and the SNA are present.
- All those prospects, however, depend on Damascus engaging in full-fledged negotiations with the SDF, building on the dialogue that Russia initiated between the two sides after Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring, which resulted in the Syrian army’s return to certain stretches of the border with Turkey. If the risk of a war in Idlib does not materialize and the Syrian army reaches Afrin, the Kurds might still join the campaign at that point. At present, Russia is tacitly facilitating Kurdish operations against the Turkish-backed groups controlling Afrin.
If the escalation on the ground results in major tensions with Turkey, Russia might end its strategy of letting Turkey safely conduct military operations, including the “blinding” of air defense systems to the activity of Turkish aircraft, preventing confrontation between the Turkish and Syrian armies, reining in pro-government militia and minimizing the risk of asymmetric responses, as seen in Turkey’s Olive Branch and Euphrates Shield operations. The termination of such brake mechanisms, which have functioned thanks to joint coordination centers, might lead to surprise developments anywhere the Turkish military is present.
Alternatively, if Turkey and Russia agree on a new cease-fire line after the reopening of the M4 and M5 highways, Moscow might return to its strategy of paying regard to Turkish concerns on the Kurdish issue. For the Kurds, this would mean going back to the waiting room. The rapid changes in Idlib, however, have weakened the possibility of Russia greenlighting a Turkish offensive on Kobani in return for an Idlib deal, a scenario the Kurds have taken seriously for some time.
Meanwhile, a new aspect is emerging in Iran’s involvement in Syria, which the Kurds are not very willing to discuss as of yet. Iran had kept a low profile until recently, as the United States used the Iranian presence to justify its stay in Syria and Israel did the same to strike targets on Syrian territory. But since the killing of Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani in early January, Iran has vowed to oust US forces from Iraq and Syria as part of a broader “revenge” strategy, which appears to have brought it to the Idlib and western Aleppo fronts. Along with Hezbollah, pro-Iranian groups such as the Zainabiyoun Brigade, made up of Pakistani Shiites, and the Fatemiyoun Brigade, an Afghan Shiite militia, have taken part in the recent fighting in the region. Moreover, Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has vowed that “the Syrian government and its allies from the resistance front will go from Idlib to the eastern Euphrates to expel the Americans.”
The Iranian strategy closely concerns the Kurds. If the Kurds are to be drawn away from the United States and brought closer to Damascus, then meeting Kurdish demands on a “reasonable” level is not something Iran would object to. Despite its own Kurdish problem, Iran has been careful in its ties with the Syrian Kurds since the beginning of the Syrian crisis. While Russia sees rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus as a shortcut to closing ongoing fronts and moving on to the reconstruction stage, Iran is irked that Russia has opened too much room to Turkey. Ankara’s conditions on the Kurds, meanwhile, are blocking Moscow’s exit strategy. Tehran, for its part, favors Kurdish alignment with Damascus in a way that would bring further gains to the Syrian government.
Of note, the PKK leadership, based in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains, has come to see Damascus as the address of settlement, taking into account the Iranian factor as much as the Russian one.
Yet if the SDF keeps up its partnership with the United States, it could face the risk of the Idlib scenario being repeated to the east of the Euphrates at the expense of the Kurds; hence the significance of Velayati’s warning.
With all that said, the main factor defining the present sentiment among the Kurds is their sense of uncertainty. Thus, no one in the Kurdish movement is willing to declare a clear position yet, making do with general assessments.
Youth in Til Temir establish Military Council
The Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian and Syriac youth established the Til Temir Military Council against the Turkish attacks. Council Spokesperson Brûsk said they came together to counter the invasion attacks.
Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian and Syriac young people established the Til Temir Military Council.
“The youth of the peoples of the region came together to fight shoulder to shoulder against the occupation,” said Assembly Spokesperson Demhat Brûsk.
The Til Temir Military Council, which was established with the self-defense forces of the peoples of the region, is struggling to liberate its occupied territory.
Speaking to ANF, Til Temir Military Council spokesperson, Demhat Brûsk, stated that the Turkish state is trying to occupy their territory by targeting all the peoples and beliefs of the region.
Underlining that all the peoples of the region are under occupation attacks and threats, Brûsk said: “The city of Til Temir, where our Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian and Syriac people live, is under the occupation threats and attacks of the Turkish state. We decided to establish this military council to protect our people and our lands.”
Duty to protect the people and territory
Brûsk continued: “Young people from the mentioned communities are part of the Council. At the same time the Syriac Military Council, the Khabour Guards (Hares el Xabûr) and the self-defense forces established by the Kurdish and Arab youth have also decided to take part in this Council. So, we all took on the mission of protecting our people and our lands shoulder to shoulder.”
Call to join the Military Council
Stating that many Kurdish and Arab youth whose lands have been occupied in Serêkaniyê have also joined the Council, Demhat Brûsk said: “We are calling on our people to join the Military Council and liberate our lands. We are not only going to liberate Til Temir center but also the surrounding occupied villages. We promise to rescue our lands from and expel the invaders.”
Demhat Brûsk ended his remarks by reminding that “the Turkish invasion is targeting not only a people or a belief, but all the peoples and beliefs of the region. At the same time, it is trying to take our land from us. We will fight until we stop the invasion of the Turkish state, avenge our martyrs, and remove the invaders from our lands.”
Turkish attack on Til Temir kills six fighters
The Turkish state’s genocidal offensive seeking to invade North and East Syria has continued since October 9 in violation of international law.
According to reports from the ground, Turkish invasion forces have carried out yet another attack on the town of Til Temir (Tal Tamr) in northern Syria on Friday.
Initial reports say that six fighters of Til Temir Military Council have lost their lives in the attack. Further details about the aggression were not immediately available.
During the ongoing military offensive seeking to invade North and East Syria, which was launched on October 9, Turkish state forces and allied mercenaries have been heavily attacking the area of Til Temir in the Khabour region, inhabited by the Syriac, Assyrian and Christian community.
The villages around Til Temir and the small town of Ain Issa on the strategically important M4 highway are the focus of the invasion troops. The region lies outside the targeted “safe zone”, a thirty-kilometer-deep strip on the Turkish border, and is being attacked unabated. The Til Temir district consists of 180 villages and is crossed by the M4 highway, an important target for invading troops, located between Kobane and Ain Issa.
The region has become one of the most severely attacked targets in Northern Syria during recent weeks. Turkey’s attacks are aimed at expanding the occupied zone to the south and taking control of the strategically important M4 highway.
Occupation army continues to change demography of Afrin; settles thousands of mercenary families there
The Turkish occupying power continues to change the demography of the occupied Afrin canton by dismissing the indigenous people and settling the families of mercenaries from Idlib instead.
A source from Balbulah district said that more than 800 families from Idlib were settled in the district.
The settlement process was supervised by mercenaries of Souqur al-Shamal and Sultan Murad.
Mercenary families were settled in the district and in the villages of Bilan, Qurna, Hayama, Sariah, Bika, Qastal Khudria, Hassan Dera. ”
Mercenaries imposed on the people of Afrin the settlement of mercenaries in their homes.
In a related context, another source stated that the Turkish occupation army mercenaries settled new families of mercenaries from Idlib, in the village of Trinda, affiliated to the Afrin Center, 55 families, and the village of Burj Haidar in the district of Sherawa, 68 mercenary families in Astir village of Afrin Center two families, and the village of 240 mercenaries. In addition to the village of Kafira, affiliated to the Afrin Center 85 mercenary families, in Iskan village of Sherawa district, around 66 mercenary families, Kafr Zeit village of Jandares district about 57 mercenary families, Jouqa village affiliated to Afrin Center 24 mercenary families, Bablit village of the Afrin Center 62 mercenary families, Tel Tawil related to Afrin center 45 family mercenaries, in the village Basouta 38 family mercenaries.
Kidnapping civilians for ransom
According to a source from Raju region, the mercenaries of the Turkish occupation army kidnapped a number of citizens in Afrin and demanded ransom in exchange for their release.
The source obtained the names of the kidnapped, each of them Ezzedine Anwar Ali, who was kidnapped two weeks ago, who is 35 years old, from the people of Hassan Kalkawi village of Raju district.
Mercenaries with the kidnappers demanded an amount of 300,000. Q in return for his release.
On February 1, mercenaries kidnapped two citizens of Hayamu village, which belongs to Raju district, and they were Ayhan Muhammad Mamo and Haitham Muhammad Mamo.
The fate of those kidnapped remains unknown.
It is reported that the Turkish occupation mercenaries kidnapped a citizen of Afrin a few days ago, an oil merchant, and after receiving the ransom they killed him.
The Kurds of Northern Syria: Governance, Diversity and Conflicts: An Interview with coauthor Wladimir van Wilgenburg
Washington Kurdish Institute
By: Colin Tait, February 3, 2020
Today we’re talking with Wladimir van Wilgenburg on his latest book, the Kurds of Northern Syria: Governance, Diversity and Conflicts. Wladimir van Wilgenburg is an analyst of the Middle East, with a particular focus on Kurdish issues. Wladimir has closely covered key events on the ground, including the battles with the Islamic State in Raqqa and Baghouz Fawqani. His book provides a nuanced assessment of the Kurdish autonomous experience and prospects for self-rule in northeast Syria. It is the first English-language book to capture the transformations that have occurred since the start of the civil war in 2011. Wladimir had unprecedented access to northeast Syria and conducted momentous field work to encapsulate the evolution of self-rule in Rojava.
Thank you so much Wladimir for this opportunity to interview you about your new book. What inspired you to conduct this research and write the book? Can you discuss your research methods?
Wladimir van Wilgenburg (WW): It was not my own idea. I was approached by Dr. Faleh Jabar and he had a project for the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies to do a research project, not on the Kurds only of Syria, but also of Iran, Turkey, and Iraq. So, all the parts of Kurdistan, let’s say. Me and [co-author] Dr. Harriet Allsopp, we did the research together and the book is focused not only on the field research, interviews, but also a number of surveys. We did around 180 surveys. The idea of the project was to have a sort of standard book so that you have a book on all these Kurds from these different parts of Kurdistan. And that’s how it all started basically. Then, in 2016 I did several months of research on the ground. But because of the difficult conditions, sadly Dr. Faleh Jabar passed away in 2018 and also because of the developments on the ground that took some time for that. The book was published in 2019.
CT: What is the current state of the union in the Autonomous Administration? And what does the governance structure look like?
WW: I mean the government structure is very different if you compare it, for instance, to Iraqi Kurdistan where you have the Kurdistan Regional Government because in northeastern Syria, this is not just the Kurdish areas they control. You have, of course, Rojava, Syrian Kurdistan, but they also control areas like Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor. So, the Administration is not based on, for instance, a Kurdistani identity, the identity is multi-ethnic. It’s a combination. That’s why the Administration logo, it’s in four languages. And that’s why the situation is a little bit different than, for instance, for the Iraqi Kurds, because the Syrian Kurdish led Administration, they fought also in our Arab majority cities. For instance, in Iraq the Peshmerga didn’t really fight inside the city of Mosul but in Syria, it’s very different.
CT: How have Kurdish politics in Syria evolved since the civil war started in 2011? What are the notable successes and failures throughout the development of the PYD (Democratic Union Party) led project of self-rule?
WW: Well, the Syrian Kurdish parties, in the beginning, they attempted to establish a united sort of Administration. So, on one hand, you had the Kurdish National Council, and on the other hand you had the Democratic Union Party. Between 2012 and 2014 there were attempts to reach sort of a unity agreement, but this never worked. And as a result, they didn’t have, for instance, a similar social contract that you have in Iraqi Kurdistan where the Kurdish parties agreed on forming a government together. They didn’t have that. But despite of that they have been very successful in creating an Administration because in the end they controlled over 30% of northeastern Syria. Of course, recently they had setbacks because of Turkish operations, but in general, they managed to create, out of nothing, the whole Administration. And for instance, they managed to have an Administration with thousands of employees and they’re selling oil. So, in a short period of time between 2014 when they first announced the Administration, until now, they have managed to build like a huge Administration system. But there’s also things that can be improved. It would have been better if they could have held elections because until now, most of the councils and the Administration bodies, they’re appointed representatives from their own community. But in this kind of civil war, it’s difficult to do a democratic election. You have the Syrian civil war. I mean, they’re still fighting against ISIS. There are still challenges from the Syrian regime or attacks by Turkey. You cannot compare it to, for instance, the situation will Iraqi Kurdistan where they had the no-fly zone and there was not really a big threat at that point from Saddam Hussein. But then in the end, they had their own internal differences in Iraqi Kurdistan. So, I think they could have maybe done elections, but at the same time, I’m not sure if you can blame them for not implementing a fully electoral system yet because there also are a lot of challenges like attacks from different actors.
CT: Focusing specifically on Turkey, how did the October invasion of last year affect the Autonomous Administration?
WW: Well, what’s interesting to see that at the same time a lot of things have changed, but at the same time things have not changed so much. So, Turkey, they control a limited border strip, which is completely isolated and surrounded by the SDF and the Administration is still working in northeastern Syria. So, they’re still able to pay the salaries and so far, there have been no major defections from the Kurdish-led forces from the Syrian Democratic Forces. And the situation is somehow still stable. But the fear is that in the future, there could be another Turkish attack. Although in that case, U S says they’re going to put huge sanctions chances on [Turkey]. There is still an attempt to reach an agreement with the Syrian government, and this is still not working well. So, the fear is that there’s going to be in the future, either more pressure from Turkey or from the Syrian regime, but until now, even though that in October, Syrian government forces came to prevent the Turkish expansion, the Administration has not changed. So, as a foreigner, you can go all the way to the city of Manbij, where you don’t have regime checkpoints that arrest people. There is no regime education system in the Kurdish areas. There are no people that are being stopped and arrested by the Mahabharata of the Syrian regime. So far, the Administration has stayed intact, but they lost some territory. And the fear is that in the future, Russia could put more pressure on them to surrender to the Syrian regime. While until now also, Damascus is very much focused on the battle in Idlib. So, it also is very much related to developments elsewhere in Syria and what is going to happen with the future of this Administration.
CT: I think it was last week or the week before, the Rojava Information Center released the budget of the Administration and their economy seems to be doing well. Can you discuss the factors that contribute to the success of the economy?
WW: Well, I remember before 2014, the Administration didn’t have a budget, but what they successfully did is that they started to control a large amount of the oil through the battles against ISIS. I mean, Ramalan was already controlled before they defeated [ISIS]. There was basically an attempt by Turkish-backed groups to control Ramalan. This was like much earlier around 2012 – 2013, but then after the battle of Del ez-Zor they also controlled major oil and gas fields in Deir ez-Zor. So that made the Administration possible for Administration basically to sell the oil. Some of the oil is going to the Kurdistan Regional Government and some of the oil is going to the Syrian government still. With this money they have a budget to basically pay their employees. And another contributing factor is also that the US was paying some salaries of the fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces. They are also providing some financial assistance for mostly fighters, not for the Administration. I think this made it possible for the Administration to actually pay their employees. And this is also why that until now, although there has been a bad economic situation in the rest of Syria, there’s a lot of problems for the Syrian pound as it has crashed. There is also neighboring Lebanon where there is a lot of economic problems and protests. In general, the areas of the regime have many difficulties. For instance, with [the lack of] cooking gas and fuel for cars. But in general, the Administration has even been able to increase the salaries for the employees to deal with the rising inflation and the increasing high prices for food products. And they also banned exports of meat to the Kurdistan region and they are importing other products so that they can sell them for a cheaper price to the local population. I think that although some people say that governance wise, they were not so successful while on the military side, they were very successful. I think that’s not true. I mean they could have been more inclusive, but in general, the Administration has been quite successful in being such a big Administration, like so many employees, despite of all these challenges.
CT: The Faysh Khabur border crossing seems to be one of the lifelines of the Administration and Rojava. Do you see any imminent threats to whether the border will be open or continue to be open?
WW: There seems to be some attempts by Russia and the Syrian regime to check if they can probe the Americans to see if they can find a way to that border. But according to the official agreement between the regime and the SDF, the regime is not supposed to go to the Iraqi-Syrian border. But, also there is still a fear that Turkey could attack the small town of Kahtanieh and then make up a small corridor towards Abira that will cut off the border access because they will not control the border, but there will be no way to go around this area because it will be cut off. So far, the situation is stable. There are still threats of a possible Turkish attack, but Turkey also knows if they do an attack, there will be heavy repercussions because there’s a lot of support in the US Congress and the Senate for the Kurds in Syria. It seems the situation could stay the same. But I talked to SDF leader Mazloum Kobani and he also said, despite of everything, we should not rely on the situation. There is still a possibility that there could be an attack in Jazeera and Kahtanieh.
CT: And you discussed the inability for the Administration to be completely inclusive. Could you talk about the attitude the Arab tribes have?
WW: Well, I mean, as I said, the issue of inclusivity could be improved, but also the problem is if you look to the rest of Syria, if you compare the self-Administration to a piece of Syria [controlled by] the Syrian regime, which has killed thousands of people, not only by airstrikes but also in prisons. And if you look to the Turkish-backed groups, they have done major looting and kidnapping people for ransom. If you compare the self-Administration to the regime and Turkey including tribes, I think the SDF has been much more successful. This is not only me saying that, there’s also other research that talks about this, that basically the SDF has been more successful of let’s say coaptation of the tribes. So although some of the tribal leaders are still supported by Damascus, you’ve seen that the tribes that are still inside on the ground and the SDF maybe for various reasons, maybe they are not completely supportive of the SDF, but in Deir ez-Zor they don’t really like the Syrian regime. They prefer SDF over the Syrian regime. Also, in Raqqa, there have been challenges, but at the same time, the situation is still stable. I think this also depends on the region, but I think they have still been quite successful because even ISIS was not able to control Deir ez-Zor because all the tribes wanted to have a piece of the oil income. There were some protests in the past against the SDF because of the high fuel prices because the people are complaining why are we going to get car fuel here? It’s more expensive in Deir ez-Zor, while we have all this oil, but it is more expensive, for instance, than in Hasakah, but now I think they evened out those prices. I think in general it doesn’t mean that the Arab tribes necessarily support the system, but despite of that they have been sort of successful in including certain tribal leaders, for instance, the councils of Deir ez-Zor, in Raqqa, and also in Manbij. They have had a working relationship with these tribes. But if this Administration survives in the future and will get more recognition than it will be much more possible to get a better inclusive system because then if they have recognition, they can also have local elections. But now with all these challenges, it’s much more difficult.
CT: What other ways can the Administration improve their governance structure? I know you’ve talked several times about the inclusiveness and the inability for them to move forward with it because of all these threats. But what else can they improve on?
WW: They can improve by interacting with other Kurdish [entities]. There is now attempts by the SDF leader, Mazloum Kobani to reach a better agreement, for instance, with the British National Council. There are attempts to bring a better Kurdish unity. Also, the Syrian Democratic Council, they are organizing a dialogue. They have two Syrian dialogues. They have done this in several countries. Even people that participate in these meetings, they can criticize the Administration for their shortcomings. So what they’re trying to do is to try to bring even more people that are maybe not 100% supportive of the Administration about and maybe interested in seeing if there is space for them in this Administration to bring them together and to create an internal Syrian opposition. One of the problems I think, it’s not just because of the inclusivity of the Administration. Because if you look to the regime or the Turkish-backed groups, they’re not inclusive at all. And they don’t even care if they’re inclusive because they don’t have support of the US-led coalition. It’s just because that the SDF and the Kurds, and the Administration, they have support from the US-led coalition that there’s so much focus on [inclusivity]. But if it was the Syrian regime or if it was the Turkish backing them, there would not be this focus on inclusivity. But I think that’s why it’s also more difficult to be more inclusive because you have, the Syrian opposition that basically supports the Turkish invasion. And then you have tribes with the Syrian regime that also support the dictatorship of the Syrian regime. So I think that’s, that’s the challenge, but maybe through more intra-Kurdish dialogue and more intra-Syrian dialogue, and if they are able to continue to pay the salaries of their employees and also give more positions to certain people from Arab backgrounds, and try to improve the economic situation, not only in the Kurdish towns, but also in Deir ez-Zor. And I think it will, it will be able to improve it much better. But I think so far, they have not neglected the Arab areas. Sometimes Kurds will complain, why does all this humanitarian support go to Raqqa or Deir ez-Ezor. I think the main challenge is what’s going to happen with the Syrian regime and Russia.
CT: I know it’s hard to predict the future as it depends on a lot of the various factors that you talked about today. But are you optimistic, optimistic for the future of the Autonomous Administration? What do you see in possibly five years in northeastern Syria?
WW: I think in the short term, unless Turkey attacks, I think the Administration has a good, status quo, if the U S stays and the state situation stays like this. Then I think they have good prospects. But I think the main challenge is what’s going to happen after Idlib and if they will focus more on northeast of Syria. I was more optimistic about the future of the northeast of Syria when there was just US forces there to be very honest. I mean they still have prospects. I’m not saying that it’s going to be necessarily a negative scenario because it’s still very much out in the open. Like nobody exactly knows what’s going to happen. But I think there will be much more challenges for the Administration and the Syrian Democratic Forces now that the US has reduced its presence.
CT: What comes next for you? Do you have any upcoming projects or any current projects that you’re working on?
WW: Well, I mean I’m still working on several projects. I’m still doing research on the SDF for a paper. I am also in general writing articles about the situation in the northeast of Syria. I am also looking for possibilities of maybe publishing a new book on Kurds, but so far that’s unclear. I keep following the current situation in Rojava in northeast Syria, but also in other parts of Kurdistan, like the Kurdistan Regional of Iraq, the Kurds in Turkey and the southeast of Turkey or North Kurdistan, and the situation of the Iranian Kurds of Rojhelat. So, I keep doing news reports, but also bigger think-tank reports.
CT: Good luck with everything and thank you so much. I’m very excited to read your book.
Turkish army shells Shera and Ain Issa
The Turkish state’s genocidal offensive seeking to invade North and East Syria has continued since October 9 in violation of international law.
According to reports from the ground, Turkish military forces launched a wave of aggression against the villages of Merenaz, Malikiyê, Şewarxa and Keleha Şewarxa in Afrin’s Shera district at around 11:00 local time on Monday.
Concurrent attacks by the Turkish army targeted the northwest of the Ain Issa town and the M4 international highway.
The 93rd Brigade of the Syrian regime forces was also attacked. The bombardment reportedly began at 12:00 local time Monday noon.
Earlier today, Turkish attacks on the region claimed the life of a civilian.
The invading Turkish state and its mercenaries have been carrying out heavy weapon attacks in Sherawa and Shera districts in Afrin and Shehba regions since 4.30 this morning.
A civilian called Ali Mele lost his life in the attack on the village of Aqibe in Shêrawa (Afrin), and many more were injured.
Intense UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) flight is experienced in the regions of Shehba and Sherewa. The village of Hirble in Shehba is also under bombardment.
At the same time, the invading Turkish state and its affiliated mercenaries targeted civilian settlements and bombarded the flour mill in the village of Feysal in Shera with artillery shots.
According to information received, warplanes of the invading Turkish state are flying over Afrin and Shehba.
Turkey’s mercenaries cut down 400 olive trees in Afrin
The Turkish invasion of Afrin has left two years behind. During this period of time, the Turkish state and allied mercenaries have committed numerous crimes and massacres.
Turkish-backed mercenary groups have cut down numerous olive trees in the village of Kafarjana in Afrin’s Shera district.
According to sources on the ground, the mercenary group Liwa al-Waqas have cut down 400 40-year-old trees in the villages of Sanara and Hakaha in the Shiye district.
According to Afrin Human Rights Organization, the occupation forces have cut down more than 15,000 olive trees in the Afrin region since it was invaded.
According to the recorded data, 3 to 5 million trees were plundered by the invaders.
Only 160 are left of the total 300 olive plants in Afrin after its occupation. The Turkish state held these plants to ransom, causing a significant decrease in the soap production in the canton. A 25 percent decrease has been recorded in the production of commercial products.
SDF: Turkey wants to extend the occupation zone
The Turkish army with its proxy troops is attacking further areas outside the already occupied zone. The SDF informs about the current developments of the past days in Northern Syria.
The press centre of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has reported continued attacks of the Turkish state and its Islamist proxies on Northern Syria. According to the SDF statement, Turkey continues to try to take over further areas beyond the established occupation zone.
“The Turkish state and its militias are violating the ceasefire agreement and have carried out numerous attacks between January 21 and 24,” said the statement published today.
Among the details, it is said that mortar and howitzer shells were fired into the villages of Xirbet Beqer, Sevan and Erîda in Ain Issa town on January 21 and 22. The bombing caused material damage.
On 22 January, a mortar and howitzer attack was carried out on the village of Um El Kêf near Til Temir (Tal Tamr).
On January 24, also in the vicinity of Til Temir, a comprehensive attack was launched on positions of the Syrian army and the Syriac Military Council in the villages of Erîşa, Qasimiyê, Reyhaniyê, Ebû Hêla, Mikran, Begara, Dawudiyê, Ewêyşa and Erbaîn. Syriac Military Council responded to the attack. During the fighting, numerous jihadists were killed and a military vehicle was destroyed. Weapons and ammunition were also confiscated.
The SDF also reported reconnaissance flights by Turkish drones in the Euphrates and Cizire regions in recent days.
1,500 jihadist families settled in Serekaniye
Turkey’s demographic change policy in the occupied territories in Northern Syria is gaining momentum. 1,500 families of jihadists have already been settled in the occupied city of Serekaniye.
Since October 9, the Turkish state has been attacking northern Syrian cities in violation of international law. Despite a ceasefire agreement with Russia, the Turkish state terrorizes the people with artillery attacks and expels the original inhabitants of the region. Instead of the displaced population the families of the SNA mercenaries are settled.
The so-called “Syrian National Army” (SNA), commanded by Turkey, is an alliance of jihadist and right-wing extremist groups, some of which, like the Al-Qaeda branch Ahrar al-Sham, are also internationally recognised as terrorist organisations. The families of these jihadists from Idlib, Homs, Jarablus, Bab, Azaz and Ghouta are settled in the entire occupied territory.
According to the latest information, 1,500 families of members of the Sultan Murad Brigade and Liwa al-Sham were brought from Ceylanpınar in Northern Kurdistan to Serêkaniyê (Ras al-Ain) and settled in the districts of Xerabat and Hawarna two days ago. The jihadists celebrated the occupation with shots of joy in the air. In Ceylanpınar, a district of the Urfa province bordering Rojava, the Turkish army trained jihadists and sent them and their families across the Turkish border at Serêkaniyê.
In January 20, 2018, the Turkish occupation army attacked Afrin canton and the civilians using all heavy weapons, and targeting women, children, the elderly and young people in addition to the archaeological and historical sites.
Because of these brutal attacks, Afrin residents were forced to get out of their land and homes, most of whom now live in al-Shahba canton near Afrin, some of whom went to the rest areas of northern and eastern Syria, and a number of them went to Aleppo.
After the displacement of the people, the families of mercenaries were settled in Afrin
Before the Turkish occupation of Afrin, the population of the canton was 550,000, but after the occupation and because of the displacement of more than 300,000 people from Afrin, only 20 percent of the indigenous population remained in Afrin, while the remaining 80 percent of the population are the families of mercenaries, residents of Hama, Homs, Idlib, Daraa and al-Ghouta countryside, who have been resettled in the area with the aim of making the demographic change.
The Turkish occupation army has committed numerous violations of human rights against civilians, nature, historical and archaeological sites, and due to the absence of human rights and humanitarian organizations in Afrin, all those violations cannot be documented.
Statistics of the dead and injured
During the two years of occupation, 534 civilians were killed in Afrin, 489 of them were killed as a result of the Turkish occupation’s shelling on the area and 54 civilians were killed under torture. The killing was also extended to journalists.
In two years, more than 670 civilians were injured as a result of the shelling by the Turkish occupation army, including 300 children.
Kidnapping the civilians
More than 6,000 people have been kidnapped in Afrin, the fate of 3,300 of whom including women are still unaccounted, and more than 700 people were tortured.
The story of 30-year-old Aras is painful and tragic, and it is the greatest example of the violations and brutality of the Turkish state and its affiliates. In the result of the brutal actions practiced against him, he has become deaf, all his reproductive organs have been damaged in addition to cutting three pieces of his left ear.
On November 19, 2019, the BBC’s Arabic section published the story of the citizen Aras.
More than 500 people have been kidnapped for ransoms, and the people are kidnapped and blackmailed on charges of working with the Autonomous Administration, but the main goal of the kidnapping is to demand ransom, which in some cases can amount to US $ 100,000.
The number of bombings (mines and explosive devices) reached 198.
Cutting and burning trees
The Turkish occupation army and its mercenaries cut more than 150,000 olive trees, more than 300 perennial and rare trees and more than 15,000 oak trees in Afrin canton with the aim of selling them as firewood.
More than 10,000 olive trees, and more than 2,150 dunams of agricultural lands planted with various crops were burned.
The destruction of schools, homes and places of worship
During the period of the attacks and after the occupation destroyed 64 schools in Afrin and its countryside, either in full or in part, resulted in the denial of study by more than 50,000 students.
Afrin schools, which have been converted into centers for various entities, are as follows:
Amir Ghubari School for Girls has been converted into a military police station, Azhar Afrin School has been converted into an intelligence headquarters and a torture center, and al-Karama School has been converted into a prison and a detention for abductees.
The Commercial High School has been converted into a place and a torture and detention center, the Afrin University building has been converted into a restaurant.
In all Afrin schools, Turkish curricula are taught, while Kurdish language education has been banned.
10 religious sites were destroyed, including the Center of the Yazidi Union in Afrin, where there were more than 25,000 Yazidis in Afrin before the occupation, only 7,000 of whom remained, and a compulsory Islamic law education center was opened.
The Alawite Center in the center of Mobata district was destroyed, forcing most Alawites to displace from Mobata.
The property and possessions of the Evangelical Church were looted and stolen in the center of Afrin…
Thousands of homes were destroyed completely or partially.
Changing the names of streets, neighborhoods and villages
The name of Newroz Roundabout has been changed to the Olive Branch Roundabout.
The name of the National Roundabout has been changed to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Roundabout.
The name of Kawa al-Haddad Roundabout has been changed to the Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi Roundabout.
The names of several villages in Bulbul district have also been changed:
The village of Kutana has been changed to Zafer Obasi.
Changing the name of the village of Qastal Mekdad to Seljuq Obasi.
Changing Kurzely’s name to Jafer Obasi.
Mercenaries loot and steal civilians’ property
140 of 300 olive presses in Afrin and its countryside have been looted and stolen, while the rest of the presses, their owners have had to share with a mercenary so as not to be robbed.
The contents of 7 soap factories were looted.
During the agricultural season in 2018, mercenaries stole more than 70,000 tons of olive oil, and they were sent to Turkey and then sold in the Spanish markets as a Turkish product. This amount does not include the 2019 season.
On the other hand, the livestock sector in Afrin was looted by the Turkish state and its mercenaries, and only 20 percent of the livestock that existed before the occupation remain in Afrin.
The looting of archaeological and historical sites
7 archaeological sites in Afrin were destroyed and vandalized, a number of which have been documented:
Nabi Hori Castle (Sirius).
Ain Dara Archaeological Hill.
Barad’s Historical Site (Marmaron).
The antiquities and artifacts stolen and transported to Turkey are the Basalt lion at the Ain Dara archaeological site, and a mosaic stolen from Nabi Hori archaeological site by a mercenary called Mohammed Ali, one of the leaders of the mercenary gangs.
Murders and rapes against women
Women were specifically targeted in Afrin by forcing them to wear black dress and veils, and they were prevented from leaving the house after they had become a symbol of liberation and took leadership positions in building a democratic society in Afrin and north and east Syria. A set of abuses against women in Afrin was documented:
More than 50 women have been killed in Afrin since the occupation.
210 women were injured.
60 women were raped.
In addition to 3 suicides due to oppression and psychological repercussions resulting from violations.
Since the occupation of Afrin by the Turkish occupation army and its mercenaries, all treaties and conventions relating to the combat forms of discrimination against women have been violated.
These statistics and data have been obtained from Human Rights Organization in Afrin and the Kurdish Red Crescent.
Furthermore, a great number of YPG, YPJ, Internal Security Forces (Asayîş) and Self-Defense Forces’ fighters martyred.
The continuation of violations by mercenaries
The mercenary gangs continue committing their violations against the civilians in Afrin, who have been forcibly displaced to the canton of Al-Shahba.
The civilians’ homes, populated areas and children’s educational places are also targeted deliberately with the aim of intimidating them and preventing them from continuing their education. For example, targeting Aqiba village school more than three times in October last year.
This year, more than 102 cases of shelling and targeting with heavy weapons the populated areas in the areas of al-Shahba and rural areas of Sherawa district have been recorded.
The number of civilians martyred during these violations was 41 martyrs and 78 injured, most of them were children, women and people with special needs.
The continued shelling operations also led to the collapse of a number of civilian homes on the heads of their dwellers.
Tel Rifaat massacre
In December 2, 2019, the Turkish occupation army committed a brutal massacre against the people of Afrin who were forcibly displaced to the areas of al-Shahba in Tel Rifaat district, and the victims of the brutal massacre were 12 martyrs, most of them children.
The practices and brutality of the Turkish army and its mercenaries against the civilians are great, as they are waging a dirty and black psychological war against the people of Afrin residing in the areas of al-Shahba under the supervision of the Turkish intelligence (MIT). The aim of this psychological war is to intimidate the people, force them to displace and migrate again, and keep them away from Afrin permanently.
YPG: We repeat our oath to our people to liberate Afrin
We commit ourselves to the struggle and resistance with the aim of liberating Afrin and our people, said the YPG.
The General Command of People’s Defense Units (YPG) released a statement marking the second anniversary of the occupation of Afrin by the Turkish army and allied mercenaries.
The statement by YPG General Command includes the following:
“Two years have passed since the Turkish state and their mercenary proxies began the occupation of Afrin which still continues until today. They commit every kind of human rights violations and demographic change. The occupation started with Afrin and continues with Girê Spî (Tal Abyad) and Serêkaniyê (Ras al Ain) and without knowing any borders carries out a massacre and genocide against our people and the people of Northern Syria.
The Turkish state is attempting with all its force to legitimize their occupation and are expanding their attacks against northern Syria and western Kurdistan (Rojava) and are destroying the democratic progress that has been made by our people in regards to free co-existence with the aim of creating obstacles for further progress and development in western Kurdistan (Rojava) and northern Syria. The occupation and demographic change which they day by day are carrying out is a continuation of the occupation of Afrin which started 2 years ago. Today, in the cities of Girê Spî (Tal Abyad) and Serêkaniyê (Ras al Ain), they are expanding their fascist occupation and are changing the demographics of the region.
Today, all different types of human rights violations along with ethnic cleansing are being carried out in Afrin. Destruction and theft of the city’s wealth and theft of people’s land and properties is being carried out in a systematic way. The geography of Afrin is left face to face with the results of the fascist actions of the Turkish state. The entire world remained silent against the occupation of Girê Spî (Tal Abyad) and Serêkaniyê (Ras al Ain) and also remains silent against the occupation of Afrin which started two years ago and still see the occupation carried out by the Turkish state as legitimate and have shown no effort in taking necessary action against this occupation.
As YPG and YPJ, we will not remain silent against the expansion of the occupation and the actions that are being carried out by the fascists. We commit ourselves to the struggle and resistance with the aim of liberating Afrin and our people. We also commit ourselves more than ever before to resist against the occupiers and their expanding occupation and to more than ever before protect the value of our people and the achievements of the revolution. In this regard, we commemorate all martyrs of the Resistance of the Age and repeat our oath to our people to liberate Afrin. We will continue our struggle in every way in order for our people to be able to return to their sacred land.”
Inheritance of resistance: Kongra Star’s anniversary statement and presentation
To the press and the general public
On the 15th January 2016 Kongra star was announced as the creation of an umbrella organisation of the Rojava women’s movement. We begin our anniversary by celebrating all revolutionary, struggling, resisting and freedom seeking women in the world. The inheritance gathered by global women’s struggle continues here in every area of life and struggle with Kongra Star. To build an ethical and political society, the freedom struggle of women and society will be raised even higher by women who resist.
In Rojava Kurdistan, the women’s movement began in 2005 under the name Yekitiya Star, working within society and social organising. At the same time, within the PYD, for the development of women’s politics, autonomous and women’s projects were organised. From 2005 until 2011 a huge amount of work was done in the face of great difficulties and oppression from the Syrian state and it’s mentality. Yekitiya Star made many sacrifices and gave immeasurable effort. In this resistance struggle many women were imprisoned, tortured and disappeared. Nazlîye Keçel is an example of such a revoltuionary woman, disappeared by the state. It is still not known what happened to her.
Yekitiya Star, as made up of women revolutionaries and warriors, also played a leadership role in the Rojava revolution. It organised thousands of women in every kind of work in society and politics. The works of the Rojava women’s movement that were built up under the name Yekitiya Star, named itself Kongra Star to continue its work fighting for women’s freedom and equality. Kongra Star organised with more width and depth on the experience and acheivements of Yekitiya Star. Now, after a great struggle in all political and social fields, the autonomous women’s political system has also been built up. The system of equal representation has become an example in the Middle East and in the world.
All the women of Rojava took their place in the work of Yekitiya Star, playing a leading role and organising in all different areas before the revolution. They shouldered a great responsibility, some in the work of defence, others in political areas. Şehîd Şîlan Kobanê has become a symbol for the struggle to build up women’s freedom, the development of autonomous women’s organising, and women’s leadership. Şehîds such as Gulê Selmo, Fatma Hecî, Eyşe Elî and Dayê Aqîde have left their mark on history, falling martyr in the struggle for women’s and people’s freedom, on the journey to build a free and equal society.
Women have given heavy sacrifices and many şehîds in the creation and advancement of autonomous organising and on the way to women’s freedom. Comrades have given their hearts and souls to lead and take responsibility for the creation and organising of a system for a democratic society. Women showed their strength of belief, mind and connection particularly clearly in the time of the Afrin resistance. The self sacrifice actions of Şehîds Berîvan, Avesta Xabûr and Barîn Kobanê have become examples from this time. Furthermore, in the Kobane resistance our comrades Şehîd Rêvan, Şehîd Arîn Mîrkan and many more comrades who’s names we don’t know for sure, put themselves into the pages of the history book of women’s freedom.
Women’s rights and role in society have become apparent, and women’s will represented, between the women’s army, the efforts of women’s organising in every area of life, and so many immortal şehîds. In the current Resistance of Dignity the martyrdom of other comrades has brought the attention of the whole world onto the resistance; Şehîd Amara in defence of her honour and land, Hevrîn Xelef in the advancement and example of a democratic system, Dayê Aqîde for bringing about women’s justice.
Kongra Star is, in the broadest sense, taking on the same role and mission continuing the work and struggle that is the inheritance of all this experience of the global struggle for women’s freedom, in particular from the base build up by Yekitiya Star. Women have become organised under the umbrella of Kongra Star at every level of commune, group and council, across every aspect of societyl and have played a vanguard role in the Rojava revolution. The power of women is the measure of a free, equal, and and democratic life. This has shown itself in Kongra Star and struggled has continued in the face of the oppression, occupation and violence of the dominant male mentality. Furthermore the struggle within society has continued, and be brought about against mistreatment, rape and assault, child marriage, polygamy, massacres and femicide. Thousands of women have made actions for their historic and universal rights, and these actions are organised with the example and leading role of Kongra Star and have become a model for the whole world.
The women’s army YPJ has taken its place and played a role in all these advancements, and the defence of the Rojava revolution, and has become famous around the world. With this role and these missions, the revolution of Rojava society has become a women’s revolution and with women as the vanguard is building up a democratic and ecological society as well as women’s freedom. Many concrete changes have been made and important steps taken in the gender struggle, and it has proved itself by making the women’s liberation ideology a reality.
On this basis, we once again celebrate the anniversary of the announcement of Kongra Star by saluting all revolutionary women and those struggling, seeking freedom, resisting and defending. Honouring the memories and bringing about the dreams of those who have fallen şehîd on the road to a free life, given their spirits for struggle, equality and freedom is the goal of a free and democratic life. The anniversary of Kongra Star honours all three of our comrades Hevrîn Xelef, Amara Renas and Dayê Aqîde, and all the şehîds of the Resistance of Dignity of the Serêkaniyê war and we say “We will defend our land and defeat fascism and occupation.”
Greetings and regards
Kongra Star Coordination Rojava 14/1/2020
Rahmani: Rojava gives hope to the oppressed
In an interview with ANF, Iranian author Bahram Rahmani stresses the importance of the democratic alternative in Rojava for the oppressed of the world and calls for solidarity with the resistance against the Turkish invasion.
Bahram Rahmani, former chairman of the Association of Iranian Writers and the Iranian section of the PEN writers’ association, spoke to ANF about Turkey’s Middle East policy and Turkey’s “Kurdish policy” in Syria. Rahmani emphasizes the importance of the democratic alternative in Rojava for the oppressed of the world and assigns Turkey and Erdoğan a crucial responsibility for the war in Syria.
Astana must be investigated
The Iranian author and journalist regards the shooting down of a Russian plane by Turkey in 2015 as a decisive turning point. “Ankara has moved away from the US and NATO and started to cooperate with Russia and Iran. However, these forces were on different sides in Syria. While Russia and Iran took sides with Assad, Turkey continued its support for the jihadists. One has to look closely at how these countries, although supporting different factions, are working together on the future of Syria. They meet in Astana and make decisions. But neither the Syrian Government nor the Syrian people are present at the table. Three countries decide the future of another country.”
Turkey’s position is weakened
Despite the different interests regarding Syria, both countries have given the green light to Turkey’s occupation of northern Syria, Rahmani continues; “Erdoğan’s aim was to settle Syrian Arabs in the border area in order to prevent the relationship between the Kurds in Northern Kurdistan [Turkish territory] and Rojava. But this could not be realised until today. Turkey is not economically in a position to do this. Turkey is also in a difficult situation in Idlib. Here the ISIS and Al-Qaeda groups supported by Ankara are in power. For all these reasons, Turkey’s position is weakened.”
Erdoğan’s plan for Libya
Rahmani recalls that Erdoğan has armed and supported jihadists during the Syrian war. Since they could not be accommodated on Turkish-occupied territories in North-East Syria, Ankara is planning to send his Islamist allies into the Libyan civil war. “Regardless of what Erdoğan has done, Turkey is actually in a key position in the Middle East. Erdoğan and the Turkish state fear that the systems are changing. There is a strong popular movement against the mullahs in Iran. If the Iranian regime collapses, this will have a strong influence on Turkey. Erdoğan will not be able to stay in power.”
Erdoğan and Khamanei take an ideological approach
While Russia pursues a pragmatic policy in line with its political and economic interests, Erdoğan and Khamenei have adopted an ideological approach and support Islamists close to them. Thus Erdoğan also supports the Muslim Brother Government in Libya, says Rahmani.
Erdoğan fears the Kurds’ territorial gains
“The Turkish state has been attacking the Kurdish people and PKK for 40 years. But the Kurdish people have their demands. Erdoğan panicked when the Kurds became stronger during the peace process and the HDP was able to send 80 MPs to parliament. Despite all the repression, the HDP was able to send 50 MPs to parliament in the last elections as well. Erdoğan is even more afraid of developments in Turkey and Northern Kurdistan than of Rojava. He is afraid of the Kurdish people in Northern Kurdistan. Everybody knows that there has been no threat for Turkey from Rojava for eight years. Erdoğan is afraid that the democratic system in Rojava will be extended to Kurdistan and the Middle East.
Rojava does not suit the reactionary and imperialist states
Not only Turkey is against Rojava, but also Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel, the EU, the US and other countries are against self-government, says Rahmani. “For eight years not a single country has recognised the system in Rojava. They pretend to be against the Turkish invasion of Rojava, but at the same time they don’t like the system there. German and Swiss weapons are used in Rojava, as well as armaments from other Western countries. These countries do not want the people to administer themselves.
The system of Rojava is successful because it is based on the people
When the ISIS attacked Shengal, the Peshmerga abandoned the Yazidis and withdrew. Aid came from Rojava and the ISIS was prevented from entering the self-governing areas in northern Syria. The people of Rojava are now resisting the Turkish invasion. The system in Rojava gives hope to the poor all over the world. All oppressed peoples should support the resistance of Rojava against the Turkish state.”
The Kurdish people’s resistance against the invasion of northern and eastern Syria by the Turkish army and its proxies continues. Since the beginning of the war of aggression on October 9, 2018, Kurds in Kurdistan and all over the world responded to the occupation in a variety of ways, from political work to street protest and physical self-defence. Their resistance has received much support from internationalists around the world, who stand with them shoulder to shoulder in solidarity to put an end to the fascist AKP-regime of the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Art has always played a big role in the history of the Kurdish people and their struggles. Amongst others, the song “Şervano” has come to be the symbol of Rojava’s resistance against Turkish state fascism. Released in the same week as the beginning of the Turkish army’s “Peace Spring” operation, the song has become an important part of protests, the fields, and the front lines. It is even played at funerals in honor of the martyrs, accompanied by the singing of the attendants, who know it by heart.
The song became iconic with the circulation of videos from the funeral of YPG fighter Yusif Nebi, who had asked his family not to cry, but to sing and dance, if he dies in combat. Surrounded by large crowds of mourners, his brother and mother danced as an act of resistance against fascism.
The following interview with the composer was conducted by the Germany-based Kurdistan Report magazine. “Şervano” was written by Kurdish artist Şêro Hindê, who is working at “Hûnergeha Welat” (atelier of the homeland) in Rojava, and is also a member of the Rojava Film Commune. He is the director of the documentaries “Darên bi tenê” (Lonely Trees) and “Bajarên wêrankirî” (Destroyed Cities).
What were the circumstances in which the song “Şervano” was created? Where was the videoclip shot?
On the evening the Turkish government and its allies started the invasion on the 9th of October, we were in Qamişlo together with the musician Mehmûd Berazî and the author Ibrahim Feqe. Together, we wrote the song and composed the music. In the meantime bombs were dropping on Qamişlo, killing six people and injuring many more.
That night was very meaningful because the resistance fighters tirelessly and fearlessly took up position to protect the civilian populations and at the same time to prepare them for war again. The sight of those brave fighters persuaded us to put down what we saw in writing and composition. So we literarily saw the song “Şervano” in front of our eyes and on the following day, we started shooting the video based on the events of the previous night. We consciously worked without extravagant images and techniques in order to have be as authentic as possible.
The People’s Protection Unit (YPG) fighter from the video, Elî Feqe, is also a member of the Rojava Film Commune. He is a cameraman and an active role in the cinematic art.
Did you expect such a big impact of “Şervano”? What were the reactions?
We expected the song to reach and move people, but we too were surprised about the dimensions of the affect. We always try to create art, which reflects the Zeitgeist. However, it is important for us to express, keep alive and do justice to our centuries-old art traditions and to express our folkloric culture and dengbej music.
I would like to emphasize that our comrade Mehmûd Berazî, the composer of “Şervano”, makes the greatest contributions to music in Rojava and has the strongest influence.
The people love our songs, especially “Şervano”. Certainly, there have been other popular songs before, such as “Nivişta Gerilla”, “Tîna Çiya”, “Edlaye” and “Tola Salanîya Efrînê”, which are also often played at the funerals of our fallen friends, at protests or at the frontline. Essential elements of this music culture are the female and male resistance fighters, who show no fear of the enemy. Of course our musical work influences and touches us as much as anyone else. The emotional specificities of our artwork stem from the love and the esteem that is displayed towards us.
This became obvious also through the martyr Yusuf Nebî. His last will was that the people should not cry at his burial, but dance instead. Following his last will, his family played the song “Şervano” at the funeral, sang along the meaningful verses and danced. This sight was both, very painful and moving at the same time. For us as for everyone else.
You continue your work during the revolution. What do you do?
We were artistically active before the start of the revolution already. However, we couldn’t express ourselves as freely as now. Indeed, it’s astonishing that we feel freer than before in the development of our art, considering the adverse living conditions, the intensity of the war, the daily losses of our fighters and the civil fatalities. In this way, we as Kurdish artists want to make our contribution to the revolution. A revolution has different areas. Our task is it to convey to the outside the emotions and the spirit of the revolution in relation with the pain that our people have to suffer. In doing so, we don’t mind how the public interprets our art, whether positively or negatively. Our primary goal is to do justice to our people. To illustrate as well as relieve the suffering and to keep their morale up.
We also produce movies. The Rojava Film Commune was founded in 2015. We shoot documentaries, short movies, clips and feature films. I personally primarily focus on music, but also on my movie projects. At the moment I produce a documentary about the dengbej music culture. With the title “Darên bi tenê” (Lonely Trees), we documented dengbej songs in Şengal (Sinjar). We also produced a documentary about the life of the unforgettable artist Mihemmed Şêxo. I express myself best with the help of music.
As artists of the Rojava Film Commune and of Hûnergeha Welat, we want to add new elements to the revolution’s art. We don’t want to spread classic, well-known slogan-like art, but rather reflect the present, revolutionary spirit and feelings of Rojava’s society.
Do you face any difficulties during your work?
We work under very harsh conditions, in the midst of a war. Still, we strive to capture sharp photos and clear sounds. Our work is only possible thanks to the collective institutions, because we resist all together. As much as times of resistance are filled with creativity, they are also connected to difficulties. Big projects obviously aren’t possible in the midst of war. We have started a big research project about the dengbêj songs from Rojava. Among other things, we wanted to record some from Dicle (Tigris) to Xabûr and to piece them together in a documentary. But because of the current war conditions, we were forced to let it rest. Our only possibility at the moment is to show to the public, with the help of our projects, the omnipresence of the resistance. But unfortunately that’s not enough. For the realization of our projects, we need resources that are provided sufficiently to other institutions, which neither want to collaborate with us, nor are connected to us or Rojava in any way. They steal our projects and sell them as their own. In the near future, we want to take measures to prevent those and further thefts of course.
Are publications of further projects to be expected?
At the moment we especially work on projects, which primarily document the resistance. An important site of this great and strong resistance is Serê Kanîye (Ras al-Ain). We want to record this great resistance for history, with the help of art projects.
It is important for us to not produce typical revolution movies, but to realize projects, which create the consciousness among people to understand that we are those for whom the resistance fighters fight and sacrifice their lives. This is the direction of our work and it will be revealed in the near future. As much as we receive love and appreciation from the people, sometimes we also get criticism. This is important for the improvement of our further projects. Our singers Xalît Derîk, Haci Musa, Sîdar, Eyşe and Şefîka Şehriban Güneş, who always sing centuries-old folk songs with deep feelings, try to keep alive the cultural folk music.
How was Hûnergeha Welat founded and how is it made up?
Hûnergeha Welat was founded on the first of July 2014 in Qamişlo. There are two different areas: music and documentation. Every year, music is produced with dengbej artists and musicians, as well as movies and documentaries.
90% of the songs and videos dedicated to the revolution and which were produced in Rojava, are productions of Hûnergeha Welat. The name is in memory of the martyr Welat. This comrade was killed by a denotation of a car bomb from the so-called Islamic State. He was a very important friend, who kept himself busy with music and art and who knew a lot about the arts.
Hûnergeha Welat was a project, which we wanted to realize with him. Instead, we created the project and remembered him by naming it after him. The comrade Mehmûd Berazî is working at the moment on music. Likewise other friends, such as Kawa, Serxebên, Comerd, Ozan, Evan and many more. In the section of documentary film, the comrades Alab and Ali are the main contact persons. Of course there are many more members, who I didn’t name here but who are an essential part of our work.
The Future of Northeastern Syria: In Conversation with SDF Commander-in-Chief Mazloum Abdi
Also available in العربية
January 10, 2019
With the latest unexpected escalation between Iran and the United States in Iraq, the ongoing challenges of Syria have, for the moment, become a less-discussed point of regional tension. However, for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which precariously continues to control an autonomous region of Northeastern Syria, the last few months have tested the organization’s hold over the region.
In the months since U.S. troop withdrawal from the Turkish-Syrian border and the subsequent Turkish Operation Peace Spring, launched on October 9, the future of northeastern Syria has become in some ways less certain for the SDF. In addition to the previous major loss of Afrin during the earlier Turkish Olive Branch Operation in March 2018, the SDF has now also lost hold of Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad.
Yet for now, the two ceasefire deals Turkey signed with the United States On October 17 and with Russia on October 22 have so far prevented further conflict and expansion of Turkish territorial control into northeastern Syria. Furthermore, the SDF reached a deal with Damascus with Russian mediation to protect the Syrian border, which, though it has not led to a concrete agreement between Damascus and the SDF, has at least encouraged ongoing negotiations between the two.
In December, the author sat down for an interview with SDF Commander-in-Chief Mazloum Abdi, who explained the current position and concerns of the SDF, and how the two ceasefire deals now governing the Syrian-Turkish border have lessened the risk of a future Turkish attack. General Mazloum noted that although there is still a risk Turkey could attack either Jazira (Hassakah province) or Kobani, such a scenario would not be easy for Turkey. “They know that we will put a major fight—but there are larger agreements for now. There are agreements with Russians and also with the United States, which are preventing Turkish attacks. The Americans say that if Turkey attacks [Kobani], there will be sanctions against Turkey—and there are also Russian forces there.”
Moreover, for the local self-administration of northeast Syria (NES), not much has changed in the months since Turkey’s latest incursion. Although it had to evacuate its administration center from Ain al Issa and move to Raqqa, a number of checkpoints and the Fish Khabur border crossing with Iraq are still under SDF jurisdiction. The border crossing in particular has been key, as it allows foreign journalists and NGOs continued access to the northeast of Syria without needing to obtain a visa from the government in Damascus. What has changed is that Russian forces have replaced positions of the U.S. army, and Syrian forces now man the front line with Turkish-backed forces, though they do not maintain checkpoints.
Meanwhile, the U.S. army has now shifted its location deeper into the territory of northeastern Syria—between October and November, the U.S. army withdrew from areas near Raqqa, Kobani, and Manbij and repositioned their forces to the Hasakah province and the oil-rich Deir ar Zour. Forces are now tasked with protecting oil infrastructure and continuing the fight against ISIS.
The Resilience of the SDF
In spite of the territorial losses, one notable outcome of the fighting has been the demonstration of unity between Kurds and non-Kurds within the SDF, despite expectations to the contrary. SDF officials have reported that there was no major defection of Arab SDF fighters or uprising of Arab citizens in northeastern Syria to support either Syrian regime forces or Turkey in areas like Raqqa or Deir ar Zour. As General Mazloum stated, “Turkey’s plans were undermined; they were expecting that once they attack, the Arab-populated areas will rise against us [SDF], Raqqa, Deir Az-Zour, Manbij and Tabqah for instance.” Similarly, although there was an expectation that non-Kurdish SDF soldiers would defect, “Nothing like that ever occurred, actually, there has been more unity. And as we speak, Arab fighters are joining the SDF more than pre-Turkish invasion.”
This was not the only effort to prompt these forces to abandon the SDF. Earlier in December, Syria’s security chief Ali Mamlouk also asked Arab tribes to defect to the Syrian government. Mazloum suggested that the two efforts to prompt defection—Damascus with its threats, Turkey with its attacks—have both failed. Mazloum reported that his troops “rejected [the] call” of the Syrian government, attributing this to a shared vision: “Those who have joined the SDF believe in the ideas and goals of the SDF.”
The Challenge of Recognition
Yet the call by Ali Mamlouk highlights the continuing reality that the SDF and Syrian government are not on good terms, despite the two sides’ earlier military cooperation against Turkey. Negotiations between Damascus and the SDF to settle the status of NES in the eyes of the Syrian government have been ongoing, as the SDF leader confirmed. However, so far Damascus refuses to agree to any stipulations that they would recognize the SDF, and the government still wants to integrate SDF fighters on an individual basis into the Syrian army.
In contrast, the SDF has stated that they would only join the Syrian army in the event of a new Syrian constitution, in which the SDF “preserve[s] its autonomous status in the area of command and institutions.” According to General Mazloum, it is only “Within that framework [that] our discussions with the Russians and Syrian government [will] continue.”
So far, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad seems to be uninterested in such a deal, although an agreement with the SDF could improve the Syria’s deteriorating economy that has weakened due to the sorry state of the Syrian pound—which has hit a record low amid sanctions and war. The SDF still controls major oil and agricultural resources and is conducting trade with the Iraqi Kurds, which could provide an influx into the overall Syrian economy were some sort of agreement to be reached.
Moreover, the SDF is now primarily concerned with another type of challenge to its borders: the publicly expressed desire by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to settle a million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey into Syrian areas under his control.
As General Mazloum sees it, “It is Erdogan’s goal to bring non-locals and force them to resettle, displace the Kurdish people and democrats from their homeland—and then hire mercenaries from those resettled to use them against Syrian people’s unity, using Syrians to advance Erdogan’s agenda in Syria.” The SDF leader argued that the basic conditions necessary for resettlement of Syrian refugees have not yet been met: “First the Syrian war must be resolved so that everyone can return to their homes.”
The SDF and the local administration have always stated that it is their policy to allow any refugees originally from the area under SDF control to return and resettle there. However, the SDF commander-in-chief emphasized that the majority of Syrians in Turkey are from regions of Damascus, Homs, and Daraa in the south. General Mazloum argues that Turkey’s resettlement plan would benefit neither the NES’s current residents nor those being resettled, as he said those refugees currently in Syria “also do not want to be resettled in Northeastern Syria.” Such a resettlement plan would decrease pressures for a political solution that allows refugees to return to their homes in Syria, and the general insisted that such a process should take place in order to resolve the Syrian crisis.
In contrast, Turkey’s resettlement plan would in turn solidify the displacement of Kurdish Syrians from Afrin and other areas currently under Turkish control, eroding support for the SDF in those regions in turn. A June 2019 report from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) expressed concerns that permitting Arabs to occupy Kurdish homes in Afrin could permanently change the ethnic composition there. The SDF fears that the scenario already playing out in Afrin could also affect the areas newly controlled by Turkey, though the Turkish Defense Ministry has dismissed these accusations.
Balancing Between Russia and Damascus
Despite recent history, the SDF is not currently concerned that Russia would threaten the SDF with a green light for a Turkish attack on Kobani or other regions in order to pressure the SDF to give more concessions to Damascus as it did in January 2018. Then, Moscow allowed Turkey to attack Afrin once it became clear that the Kurds were not willing to handover Afrin to Damascus.
Now, the Russians might seek access to oil-rich areas currently under U.S. protection, but General Mazloum thinks it unlikely that such interests would manifest into action. “There are agreements between the Russians and the Americans…They [the Russians] have not asked us something like that, and they are coordinating with the Americans as well, not only us.”
The current situation demonstrates that although the SDF is weakened, it has managed to keep its de-facto autonomy, balancing between Moscow, Damascus, Ankara, and Washington without the disintegration of the SDF. Moreover, the continued U.S. presence in the oil-rich regions of northeastern Syria has now given the SDF a point of leverage in negotiations with Damascus.
However, a political agreement with Damascus is far from assured. And if the SDF and Damascus are not able to come to an agreement, tensions are likely to rise once more. The ongoing regional tensions between the United States and Iran could also negatively affect the SDF, especially in Deir ar Zour. However, Damascus does not have enough manpower to replace the SDF, especially with its deteriorating economic condition. Thus, the SDF will continue to remain a de-facto autonomous entity despite uncertainty over its future unless there are unexpected changes in the political field of Syria.