'Scared to Death': Syria's Kurds Feel Trapped Between Threats From Assad and Erdogan

With memories of ethnic cleansing fresh in their minds, residents tell Haaretz they fear the U.S. military pullout will create a security vacuum

Elizabeth Tsurkov
Elizabeth Tsurkov
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Kurdish demonstrators gather to protest near the border wall separating Turkey from Syria in the western Syrian countryside of Ras al-Ain, December 20, 2018.
Kurdish demonstrators gather to protest near the border wall separating Turkey from Syria in the western Syrian countryside of Ras al-Ain, December 20, 2018.Credit: AFP
Elizabeth Tsurkov
Elizabeth Tsurkov

U.S. President Donald Trump’s sudden announcement this week that the United States' military presence and humanitarian aid in northeastern Syria would be ending surprised and disappointed the Kurds in the region who rely on U.S. support. They weren’t the only ones to be surprised.

A senior official in the Democratic Union Party, the Kurdish party also known as the PYD that controls the region through its own militia, spoke to Haaretz from his home in Qamishli in northeastern Syria near the Turkish border. He said the decision had surprised everyone, including U.S. military personnel.

“American military officials have excellent ties” with the Kurdish fighters and “up to this moment, they have stood in unison [in the battle] against ISIS terrorism,” he said. “I don’t know when the withdrawal will be carried out. Just two days ago, international aid in the fight against ISIS arrived.” In interviews with Haaretz, activists and journalists from northeastern Syria confirmed the entry into the region just a few days ago of dozens of trucks packed with arms from Iraq.

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The American decision was made after Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke. Turkey had fervently opposed American support for the PYD party's militias, which are the Syrian branch of the Kurdish guerilla organization the PKK, which has been active since the 1980s in Turkey. In December, Turkey sent thousands of Turkish fighters as well as Syrian Arab rebels operating under its auspices to the Turkish-Syrian border. It has been threatening to launch an invasion from Turkey into Kurdish-ruled northern Syria to secure the border.

Control of terrain in Syria as of October 26, 2018Credit: Reuters graphic

Speaking to Haaretz hours after the American declaration was announced, residents of northeastern Syria expressed fear about two possible scenarios in the wake of the withdrawal: the Turkish conquest of the region or a renewed takeover by the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad. Kurdish journalist Akid, who lives in the town of Al-Hasakah, expressed the view of many Kurds interviewed by Haaretz when he described the sense of being caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, there is the threat of the return of the Syrian regime to the Kurdish region; on the other, there is the threat from the Turkish army. “They are not different from one another,” he said. “Either way, we face a real danger. People are scared to death. They fear a loss of security and immediate threats,” he said.

A Turkish invasion

The concern over the threat of a Turkish invasion stems in part from reports from the Afrin region of northwestern Syria, an area captured by Turkey with the help of Syrian rebels in March of this year. Since the Turkish conquest, this Kurdish region, which had been under the control of the PYD's Kurdish militias, has undergone a significant demographic shift. Syrian Arabs who had been living in areas under the control of the opposition and who were expelled this year when the rebels in the area surrendered have moved into the homes of Kurds who fled Afrin during the Turkish assault. In addition to the demographic shift, armed Syrian factions acting under Turkey’s auspices have looted Afrin and are continuing to rob the residents, humiliate them at roadblocks and arrest anyone who is suspected of harboring opposition to the new rulers, particularly opposition to Syrian Arabs who have taken over Kurdish homes.

The threat of a return of the Assad regime also frightens local residents. Under Assad's Baath regime, prior to the civil war, Kurds suffered from ethnic cleansing in border areas as a result of a policy of confiscation of their lands and suppression of their identity. Describing life prior to the outbreak of the civil war in 2011, H., a journalist who lives in the town Amuda, recounted: “They stripped the Kurds of citizenship, banned speaking our language and imposed the Baath party ideology on us.”

In 2012, after Syrian rebels invaded Aleppo, the Assad regime decided to withdraw its forces from the Kurdish regions and to transfer control to the PYD party's militias to address the manpower shortages in its ranks. The regime and the PYD militias have maintained a tense peace for the duration of the war.

In July 2018, with increasing indications from the Trump administration that the United States intended to withdraw from Syria, the PYD attempted to obtain concessions from the Assad regime in exchange for an orderly and partial return of central power to areas under PYD rule. The negotiations failed, apparently because the regime insisted on a full return to the situation prior to the war and a refusal to grant the Kurds any hallmark of autonomy.

A U.S. officer (R), from the U.S.-led coalition, speaks with a fighter from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) at the site of Turkish airstrikes, Derik, Syria, April 25, 2017.Credit: AFP

The journalist from Amuda said he believes the PYD will negotiate with the regime “and agree to any conditions that would prevent the entry into the region of Turkey even at the cost of surrendering the dream” of Kurdish autonomy. The senior official from the PYD concurred, stressing that the most significant danger in the region is posed by Turkey and its Arab allies, whom he regards as jihadists.

An end to Kurdish autonomy

Whether Turkey and its allies conquer the Kurdish-controlled regions or whether the Assad regime retakes the area, the Kurdish dream of autonomy in Syria is coming to an end. Kurdish autonomy has been a far cry from democracy, but for the first time in decades, it gave the Kurds the chance to learn their language, to speak it in public and to celebrate their holidays. This week's declaration by President Trump regarding a U.S. withdrawal from Syria dealt a fatal blow to PYD's capacity to extract concessions, even minimal ones, from the Assad regime, which now knows that all it has to do is wait for the U.S. withdrawal to take place.

Residents of the region don’t harbor any hopes that negotiations will lead to the granting of any rights to the Kurds, said D., a student from Al-Hasakah. “The Kurds are left without any supporters in the war.... As a result, I don’t think the regime will agree to any concessions in negotiations with democratic Syrian forces. They have never agreed to political negotiations with us, not even at the height of American support.”

A human rights activist who lives in Derik in northeastern Syria is also convinced that the regime will not grant any rights to the Kurds. “The regime will not agree to anything except for dictatorial rule through force,” he said.

The journalist from Amuda also expressed concern about the response of his Arab neighbors who have lived under oppressive Kurdish rule over the last few years. “If only we could return to what it was before 2011," he remarked. "The [Assad] regime and the Arabs who were brought to the region to Arabize the area [in the 1960s] will intensify their violence against the Kurds because they are not prepared to come to terms with the fact that we ruled them.”

M., a Kurdish electrician from the town of Kobani, which was almost completely destroyed during fierce battles against ISIS in 2014, summed up the wistful feelings of many in the area when he said: "With God’s help, the Americans will not disappoint the [Kurdish] people and won’t disappear. May God grant us patience."

Elizabeth Tsurkov is a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking. Her research focuses on Syria.

U.S. forces in Syria, accompanied by Kurdish fighters, drive armored vehicles near the border with Turkey, April 28, 2017.Credit: Delil Souleinman/AFP

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