US-Allied Syrian Forces Have Been Accused Of War Crimes — UN Says That’s Not True
Investigation absolves US-backed SDF of worst allegations but questions remain
In Syria’s brutal, six-year war of school massacres, chemical weapons, beheadings, religious persecution, torture, suicide bombers, and human shields, the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria has emerged as an island of relative stability and a beacon of hope. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party-led authorities are known for their ethnic and religious tolerance and their commitment to gender equity. The federation’s decentralized government structures are experiments in democratic ecofeminist socialism inspired by the political philosophy of American anarchist Murray Bookchin.
The federation’s military arm, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), is the most reliable ally of the United States-led international coalition against ISIS. The SDF is currently leading the offensive to capture Raqqa, the extremist group’s Syrian headquarters.
Notwithstanding its democratic ideology and Western-backing, the SDF has repeatedly been accused of committing war crimes. Now, a new United Nations report seriously calls these accusations into question. Although the report does acknowledge SDF abuses and mistreatment of civilians, it refutes allegations that the SDF committed ethnic cleansing and seems to contradict a 2015 Amnesty International report that claimed the SDF’s displacement of civilians amounted to war crimes.
That the first allegation was refuted is not surprising. Syrian Kurds committing ethnic cleansing is a reoccurring trope of Turkish government propaganda. It is based on Turkey’s opposition to the geopolitical ambitions of the Democratic Union Party rather than facts on the ground. Although Kurds dominate its two largest militias, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), the SDF is a multi-ethnic alliance that includes Arabs, Turkmens, Yazidis, Armenians, Assyrians, and Chechens. In March 2016, the Obama White House estimated that 40% of SDF fighters were non-Kurdish. This March, the SDF Command Council claimed that 50% of their fighters will be Arabs within two months.
Here’s what the report, which is based on an investigation by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, had to say about the ethnic cleansing allegations:
Though allegations of ‘ethnic cleansing’ continued to be received during the period under review, the Commission found no evidence to substantiate claims that YPG or SDF ever targeted Arab communities on the basis of ethnicity, nor that YPG cantonal authorities systematically sought to change the demographic composition of territories under their control through the commission of violations directed against any particular ethnic group.
The Commission’s second finding — that the SDF’s displacements of civilians did not amount to war crimes because the displacements were militarily necessary — is more complicated. It seemingly refutes not the baseless propaganda of an enemy combatant but the findings of a well-respected human rights organization. In October 2015, Amnesty International reported that the YPG was engaged in the “deliberate displacement of thousands of civilians and the razing of entire villages.” Amnesty rejected the YPG’s claims that the displacements were done out of military necessity and for the safety of civilians, and suggested that some displacements “were carried out in retaliation for people’s perceived sympathies with” ISIS.
The UN report takes almost the opposite view, stating that although the SDF sometimes failed to ensure displaced civilians were provided for, the displacements were justified, and thus did not amount to war crimes. For example, the report concluded that the SDF forced civilians to leave the Tishreen Dam and Minbij areas in order to disarm “anti-personnel landmines, improvised explosive devices and booby traps” that ISIS had planted.
What accounts for the contradictions between the two reports?
It is possible, of course, that one of the reports is wrong. Another plausible explanation that reconciles the seeming contradictions between the reports is that the YPG engaged in arbitrary and unnecessary displacement in the past but has ceased this practice. Amnesty conducted their investigations in July and August 2015 and dealt with events that took place from 2014 to early 2015. The UN report covers the period from 21 July 2016 to 28 February 2017.
The idea that the SDF would reform their practices to comply with international law does not seem far-fetched. The Northern Syrian federation’s constitution affirms international human rights conventions. In 2014, following a Human Rights Watch report on human rights abuses in Northern Syria, the PYD administration promised they would try to “completely prevent the recurrence of mistakes and violations.” And the administration’s actions seem to reflect this promise. In January 2016, for example, the YPG discharged four of its fighters and put them on trial for damaging civilian property. More recently, the SDF’s Manbij Military Council arrested five members of the Northern Sun Battalion accused of torturing an ISIS fighter.
The UN report comes a month after The Nation published a Roy Gutman expose that called the YPG a “systematic violator of human rights” and claimed that hundreds of thousands of people have fled the region rather than submit to “political suppression by a group that insists on ruling as a one-party state.” Although Gutman’s investigation does raise some legitimate concerns about forced displacements similar to those Amnesty reported, his article has been widely criticized because it is thinly sourced and, in some cases, factually incorrect.
Every war fought in the trenches is also fought in the mind. As Joey Lawrence put it in response to Gutman, the Syrian civil war is “a war of disinformation.” It is clear that the PYD-led forces and their allies have suffered slanderous attacks in this propaganda war. However, it is also clear they have committed real abuses on the ground. The UN report documents instances of the SDF looting and pillaging civilian properties, poor treatment of prisoners, and the forced conscription of minors.
As Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi acknowledged, despite its libertarian rhetoric, the PYD sometimes uses authoritarian tactics against its political opponents. Earlier this month, PYD authorities arrested members of the Kurdish National Council (ENKS), the federation’s main opposition party.
The crackdown comes amid growing tensions between the PYD-led administration in Northern Syria and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. On March 3 in Northern Iraq, PKK-affiliated militias, the Sinjar Resistance Units and the Êzîdxan Women’s Units, clashed with the KRG-backed Rojava Peshmerga, the paramilitary wing of the ENKS. A number of civilians and least 7 fighters were reportedly killed in the confrontation.
In the days after the confrontation, the KRG arrested approximately 32 PKK supporters. On March 16, KRG security forces opened fire on a protest in Sinjar, wounding 15 people and killing a 21-year old woman. Across the border, PYD-controled security forces arrested 40 ENKS members and burnt party offices.
The Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria is at war and surrounded by enemies on all sides. This context must be taken into account when evaluating the actions of the PYD and the Syrian Democratic Forces. Nevertheless, Amnesty International’s Lama Fakih was right in 2015 when she said it is “critical” that allies of Northern Syria do not turn a blind eye to the abuses it commits.