Report Finds Kurdish Wins Against Islamic State Come at High Cost
Arab residents of villages reclaimed by Kurdish forces are being systematically pushed out of their homes.
After a roadside bomb killed a fighter from one of the Kurdish militias battling the Islamic State this summer, and another was shot and wounded, residents of the town of Hammam al-Turkman were presented with a stark choice.
“They threatened us with U.S. coalition strikes, saying that if we did not leave they would tell the U.S. we were [Islamic State],” Hassan, a 35-year-old farmer forced out of his home by U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters, told researchers from Amnesty International. He had been given just 24 hours to leave by the People’s Protection Units, or YPG.
Stories similar to Hassan’s are spread throughout a new Amnesty International report detailing forced displacements, razed villages, and a dire human rights situation in parts of northern Syria in which Peshmerga forces are battling the Islamic State. The rights group charges that “these instances of forced displacement, demolitions and confiscation of civilian property constitute war crimes” under international law.
Kurdish victories against the militants are being cheered in Washington and other Western and Arab capitals. As the Kurds take back territory, however, residents of the reclaimed Syrian towns are paying a high price, with the fighters pushing them out of their homes with no timeline for when — or if — they can return.
After interviewing dozens of Syrian civilians in villages scattered about the region, the report found that Kurdish fighters from the YPG — unable or unwilling to police an Arab population along its front lines and in its rear — has simply been clearing villages or destroying those it comes across.
The people of the village of Husseiniya fled before the YPG broke through the Islamic State’s lines, for instance, but when they returned, they found that the Kurds had bulldozed or burned their homes to the ground.
Amnesty studied satellite imagery to compare the town from June 2014 to June 2015, finding that of the 225 buildings standing in 2014, only 14 remained one year later, concluding, “The destruction reflected in the satellite imagery is not consistent with shelling but rather the demolition of the village.”
One 44-year-old mother of four from the village of al-Maghat, just a short distance from Hammam al-Turkman, told Amnesty International researchers that when the Kurds showed up, “I told them we had nowhere to go, and they said we could go to hell for all they cared. There were no accusations against us, only injustice.”
All told, Amnesty said dozens of villages were impacted. It said Kurds were guilty of a campaign of “deliberate demolition of civilian homes and the forced displacement of civilians, and in some instances entire villages.” The civilians there are “being subjected to serious abuses” at the hands of U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters.
The report shifts the narrative about the Peshmerga units, whose performance on the battlefield has been the one bit of solidly good news that the Defense Department and officials in Washington have publicly cited, as the air war against the Islamic State has stalled and a $500 million Pentagon program to train Syrian fighters was ultimately scrapped earlier this month.
The U.S.-backed Kurdish units have been the only effective ground forces battling the Islamic State, holding their ground in northern Iraq while slowly but steadily make gains in Syria.
The Peshmerga have received heavily armored American MRAPs, along with Humvees, radios, and thousands of small arms, and tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition from the United States. They’ve also received accolades from politicians and U.S. military commanders. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan in July, praising Peshmerga fighters as the model for building Iraqi security forces in the future.
The Peshmerga have also shown an ability to coordinate their ground assaults with the United States in places like the Syrian town of Kobani on the Turkish border, which was reclaimed late last year after weeks of hard fighting. The Kobani fight has been hailed by U.S. commanders as the way to partner with local allies on the ground who do the street-to-street brawling while U.S. drones and fighter planes circle overhead, hitting enemy targets when they move.
U.S. officials hope that the Kurds will continue to amass battlefield wins. But if they do, Western policymakers should understand why Arab residents won’t be nearly as happy about those wins as the Kurds and their allies.
Photo credit: SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images
Correction, Oct. 13, 2015: According to the Amnesty International report, satellite imagery of the village of Husseiniya taken in June 2014 found that 225 buildings were standing. A previous version of this article mistakenly said that 224 buildings were standing in 2014.