BEIRUT: The defeat of ISIS militants in the border town of Tal Abyad this month has unleashed a wave of anger by opposition supporters at the main Kurdish party, the PYD and its affiliated militia amid charges they committed “ethnic cleansing” or other violations against non-Kurds in the newly seized areas.
The opposition-in-exile National Coalition Saturday accused the PYD and the YPG militia of a range of violations against residents of northern Syria, based on the preliminary work of a fact-finding committee.
The committee’s report said the actions ranged from sending threatening messages to non-Kurdish residents to robbing homes and looting crops, livestock and vehicles, and writing racist slogans against Arabs on walls.
“Most of the mass displacement took place before the YPG entered these villages, because of the threats that reached residents, and because of the horrific news of violations committed not long ago in rural Hassakeh province,” the Coalition said.
The Coalition added that its fact-finding team was repeatedly refused permission to enter the areas in question by the YPG.
Neither the PYD nor the YPG responded to request for comment by The Daily Star.
“The most recent action of mass displacement was in the Hamam al-Turkmen villages where people were completely displaced. They spoke of a plan by the YPG to empty the area of its original residents and establish a Kurdish state,” the Coalition said.
The report named around 10 Arab and Turkmen villages as being subjected to the violations, and asked for an “international investigation” into what was taking place in the Tal Abyad area.
However, the report made no mention of accusations that the YPG has committed extrajudicial killings, despite several such claims being circulated by anti-regime activists.
The Coalition also accused the YPG of giving the international anti-ISIS coalition the coordinates of villages whose populations refused to leave, claiming that the Kurdish militia told residents that they would be targeted by airstrikes if they failed to heed its orders.
A nationwide protest was held earlier this month under the harsh slogan “the PYD: another face of terror,” as a leading activist group, the Syrian Revolution General Commission, explicitly put the party on par with both the Assad regime and ISIS extremists.
The criticism is not new, but it has taken on huge momentum that is fed nearly every day by accusations being made against the PYD and the YPG, which are the dominant force in two self-rule “cantons” along the Turkish border.
The YPG, meanwhile, has countered the many accusations by saying that its forces have encouraged residents to leave due to the ongoing military operations against ISIS, or claiming that the burning of crops was deliberate, but due to the presence of land mines left behind by the extremists. In winning back towns such as Ain al-Arab, Tal Abyad and Suluk in recent weeks and months – backed by the U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS – the Kurdish militia has also had several non-Kurdish allies.
These range from Syriac militiamen in Hassakeh, Arab tribal fighters organized into an affiliated militia, and several small fighting groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army.
These FSA fighters were forced to flee the area when ISIS seized territory last year but are now fighting alongside the YPG, and their commanders have downplayed the notion of mass punishment of locals – mainly on the grounds that the FSA fighters themselves are from the area and would not permit such actions.
The PYD and YPG propaganda machines have also produced testimony for local residents, who say that no pogroms are underway.
But a leading opposition television, Orient, has broadcast a number of testimonies by residents, backing the claims against the YPG.
The irony is that the recent accusations circulating among supporters of the opposition appear harsher than the reality. The actions of the PYD and the YPG earlier in the uprising have been even more objectionable, and directed at Kurdish political and military rivals instead of non-Kurds.
These range from allegedly killing rival Kurdish figures to kidnapping Kurdish defectors from the Syrian army and turning them over to the regime – along with the forced conscription of minors into the ranks of the YPG.
The accusations also come at a time when the YPG is being hailed in some quarters outside Syria, particularly the west, as the only secular or reliable partner in the Syrian war.
But many in the Syrian opposition, among them many Kurds, say that the party can be just as dictatorial as the Assad regime.
An anti-regime activist, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely, dismissed much of the campaign against the YPG as a reflection of the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Syrian opposition, and the worries of the pro-Muslim Brotherhood Turkish government about Kurdish-controlled areas on its border.
“It’s a silly campaign, influenced by the Brotherhood” the activist said, referring to the selection of an anti-PYD slogan for a Friday protest.
Asked about the YPG’s track record during the uprising and specifically the numerous objectionable incidents or worse laid at its doorstep, the anti-regime activist said: “What do you expect? It’s a Stalinist militia. They killed Kurds before they killed Arabs.”
Some observers say privately that while the YPG might be guilty of violations, its overall track record can hardly be compared to that of the Syrian regime, or of ISIS – and that declaring all three to be enemies is not a particularly astute move.
A member of the Coalition, meanwhile, visited Tal Abyad after its “liberation” from ISIS and refuted the claims of mass human rights violations. “We’ve seen no cases of ethnic cleansing, or burning of farms,” Qassem Khatib said. The comments earned him a wave of criticism, and calls for him to be expelled from the opposition group.
As military operations begin to subside in some areas that have been seized from ISIS recently, the true test will probably focus on whether are residents are actually allowed to return en masse, and not on what took place while the fighting was raging.
FSA Raqqa Rebels Brigade statement
National Coalition’s Qassem Khatib statement
Orient TV reports