Survivors of the Syrian Wars

Patrick Cockburn

When I first visited Kurdish-held territory in northern Syria, early in 2015, it was rapidly expanding. With the help of massive US air-power, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) had just retaken the city of Kobani from Islamic State. YPG fighters were linking together the Kurdish population centres south of the Syrian-Turkish frontier to create a de facto Kurdish state – they called it Rojava. I met a squad of YPG fighters mopping up after a battle with IS for control of a range of forested hills called Mount Abdulaziz, west of the Kurdish-Arab city of Hasaka. Signs of the recent IS presence included the burned-out remains of cars that had been used as bombs and some fresh pro-IS graffiti on the walls of a captured building. Lying in the debris inside were neatly printed IS ration cards with the names, ID numbers and personal details of recipients: evidence that IS, monstrous militarised cult though it was, was also a well-organised administrative machine. Foreign IS fighters had evidently been stationed in the building: in a discarded notebook were Arabic words translated into various languages as well as drawings of household items – a desk, a chair – along with their names in Arabic. The YPG soldiers, who all looked very young, were cheerful after their success. Botan Damhat, the squad leader, who was only 18, said the swift victory had come about through the combination of YPG ground troops and US airstrikes. ‘Without the American planes it would have been much harder to take the mountain,’ he said. ‘We would have won in the end, but we would have lost a lot more men.’

 

Syria map showing areas of control by pro-government forces, Kurdish forces, opposition forces.

The battle for Mount Abdulaziz was one of many victories won by YPG light infantry over the next three years. I visited Rojava again later in 2015, as the YPG was advancing from the half-ruined city of Kobani towards the Euphrates valley – the central spine of the IS caliphate. The tactical alliance between the Syrian Kurds and the US was militarily effective but politically fragile: the YPG and its civilian counterpart, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), are the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting a guerrilla war against the Turkish state since 1984. President Erdoğan, who saw the Syrian Kurdish forces as ‘terrorists’, angrily asked why the US was fighting alongside the enemy of a fellow Nato member, and threatened to send the Turkish army into Syria to eradicate the Kurdish statelet. But the YPG was the local ally the US needed to fight IS on the ground – the ally it had been looking for without success for several years. The Free Syrian Army and the Sunni Arab militias had all turned out to be too close to IS or al-Qaida, or useless and corrupt: the Pentagon admitted spending $500 million on a training programme that produced just four or five pro-American fighters instead of the five thousand they had been hoping for.

 

Even though the YPG-US combination was successful, IS fought back ferociously, reverting to guerrilla war against Kurdish civilians in places where it had been defeated. During my second trip to Rojava we drove through the town of Ras al-Ayn, which the Kurds had captured several years before. The YPG had said the road was secure. But as we passed through the town a suicide bomber blew himself up at a checkpoint behind us and soon afterwards a plume of smoke appeared ahead: another bomber had detonated his explosives. Despite such resistance, the Kurds were able to drive IS steadily back, capturing their strongholds in a series of long sieges: in 2016 they took the largely Arab city of Manbij, between Aleppo and the Euphrates; in October 2017 they took Islamic State’s de facto capital, Raqqa. According to Kurdish leaders, the YPG lost about four thousand fighters during the campaign. By now it was fighting in Arab majority areas and had been absorbed into the mixed Kurdish-Arab Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), an army that is said by the US to be 57,000-strong. The Kurds made up about half its numbers, but provided its strongest units. Militarily, the Kurdish-US war against IS was a great success. But the very completeness of the victory weakened the Kurds politically: the US no longer needed them as an ally anything like as much as it had three years earlier. Without US support, they could not hope to keep what they had won: Syrian Kurds probably number about two million in northern Syria, or about 12 per cent of the total remaining Syrian population, but they had now seized everything east of the Euphrates – between 25 and 30 per cent of Syria’s territory. On the instructions of the the Americans, they sent fighters south to Deir Ezzor province in pursuit of IS and to block President Assad’s forces from crossing the Euphrates from the west and recapturing the al-Omar oilfield, the largest in the country.

 

Turkey was never going to accept any form of Kurdish self-determination in Syria, though the Kurds argue that they are only asking for a federal system in which they have a high degree of autonomy – not independence. Turkey has long wanted to intervene militarily in Syria, but so long as the US and Russia opposed its involvement, it could do nothing: Russia and the US controlled the airspace over western and eastern Syria respectively. When the Turks did find an opportunity to attack, their first target was always likely to be the isolated Kurdish enclave of Afrin, a fertile agricultural centre previously undamaged by war. It would be impossible for the Kurds to defend because it is surrounded by Turkish or Turkish-controlled territory on three sides. But more important for the Turks, it did not come under the protection of the US air umbrella: it was in the Russian zone of influence, patrolled by Russian aircraft and protected by Russian anti-aircraft missile batteries further south. A small number of Russian troops were stationed in Afrin as a tripwire to deter a Turkish invasion, but their presence in 2018 no longer reflected the increasingly warm relations between Turkey and Russia, which had improved steadily since their nadir at the end of 2015, when the Turkish air-force shot down a Russian fighter-bomber. Turkey’s long-awaited opportunity finally came this January after Rex Tillerson unwisely announced that the US was going to keep its forces in Syria after the defeat of IS – something it had promised the Turks it would not do – and was intending, moreover, to curb Iranian influence, displace Assad and stabilise the country. It was an absurdly ambitious and unrealistic programme, far beyond US capabilities, but also a serious diplomatic mistake that succeeded in provoking Turkey, Russia and Iran at the same time. Russia gave Turkey permission to use airpower freely over Afrin, withdrew its military contingent from the enclave and opened the door for Turkish forces to invade, which they did on 20 January.

 

There was little the Kurds could do to stop the Turks and their FSA allies. They had no defence against Turkish artillery and air attack and their only supply road was held by Syrian government forces. The YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud, speaking before the fall of Afrin city, told me that Kurdish civilians could use the road, but ‘We are not allowed to send weapons to Afrin.’ Kurdish leaders kept their options open until the last moment: perhaps they would stay and fight. Aldar Khalil, a senior Kurdish leader, told me in late February that there had been no mass exodus of civilians ‘because mothers there say “We are protected by the YPG.”’ This implied the YPG would not give up the city without a fight. But there was little sign that the outside world either knew or cared what was happening in Afrin. Kurdish leaders tried to alarm the Americans by pulling military units from the Deir Ezzor front, where they had been fighting IS, saying they were needed to face the Turks further west, though they don’t appear to have sent many of them to Afrin itself. I saw only one convoy of military vehicles on the main highway heading in the general direction of Afrin and it contained Arab militiamen looking dishevelled and ill-armed. The most visible effort to relieve the pressure on Afrin was a campaign to focus international media attention on civilian suffering there. Kurdish leaders referred sourly to the obsession of the international media with the plight of civilians under bombardment by the Syrian government in Eastern Ghouta, in the outskirts of Damascus, while ignoring similar atrocities carried out by the Turkish military and their FSA allies. Elham Ahmad, a senior Kurdish official who had just returned from Afrin, said that ‘Our convoy of 150 civilian cars was hit by a Turkish airstrike. We ran away from the cars, but thirty of them were destroyed and one person killed.’

 

Attempts to focus world attention on the calamity facing the Kurds of Afrin largely failed as the Turkish forces closed in on the city. This was despite compelling evidence that its capture by Turkish forces would provoke the mass flight of a Kurdish population terrified of the Turkish army and especially of its FSA auxiliaries. Seldom can the intention to carry out ethnic cleansing have been so openly publicised by the perpetrators before it took place. Several FSA members made videos in which they expressed their hatred for the Kurds, threatening them with death or expulsion. Some FSA fighters called on Sunni Arabs displaced from elsewhere in Syria to come and take over Kurdish homes and villages. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, generally considered a pro-opposition or neutral organisation, obtained a video in which a militiaman speaking from a town in Afrin says that the place had been fully liberated from ‘separatist terrorists’ – presumably its Kurdish inhabitants – and urges people who once lived in Raqqa ‘to come and take a house with olive-growing land’. Another film shows uniformed fighters facing the camera as one of them makes a short statement referring to the Kurds as ‘infidels’ and warning that ‘by Allah, if you repent and come back to Allah, then know that you are our brothers. But if you refuse, then we see that your heads are ripe, and that it’s time for us to pluck them.’ Since the Kurds in Afrin are almost all Sunni Muslims in any case, the demand for conversion here means conversion to the IS variant of Islam. In a third video, FSA fighters are gathered on a green hill around a group of frightened-looking young men sitting on the ground with their hands behind their heads. The FSA men shout: ‘pigs’, ‘pimp’, ‘PKK pigs’. Some minorities like the Yazidis – massacred, enslaved and raped by IS, which considered them subhuman non-Muslim heretics deserving of death – had every reason to be terrified all over again. One video shows FSA fighters interrogating an 80-year-old Yazidi man about how many times a day he prays and what prayers he says: questions IS used to ask Yazidis and Shia before killing them.

 

In the event, the FSA fighters entering Afrin city from three directions on the morning of 18 March faced no resistance from the YPG, which faded away, mingling with the tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the city. The Kurdish leaders had clearly decided that, given Afrin’s geographic, military and diplomatic isolation, it wasn’t the time or place to make a last stand. Within hours of its fall, Turkish troops and the FSA began behaving much as their victims had feared they would. The occupiers’ first act in the city centre was to bulldoze a statue of a Kurdish mythic hero, Kawa the Blacksmith, and to shoot at other symbols of Kurdish identity. Those Kurds who had not fled took pictures of FSA men stealing cars, furniture, tractors and farm machinery. At the time of writing, at least 200,000 Kurds and members of non-Muslim minorities – Yazidis, Alawites and Christians – have fled. According to the UN, only a third of the 323,000 people who were in the enclave in November were still there on 19 March. Turkey says it will not keep its army in Afrin but that means little: it has full authority over its FSA proxies, and its technical absence means it can disclaim responsibility for their actions. ‘We are not permanent there,’ Bekir Bozdağ, the Turkish deputy prime minister, has said, ‘and we are certainly not invaders. Our goal is to hand the region back to its real owners after clearing it of terrorists.’ This talk of ‘original owners’ is menacing because although Afrin is a majority Kurdish region, Erdoğan made a speech in January claiming that it was 55 per cent Arab. Since two-thirds of Afrin’s population has already fled, the permanent removal of the rest of the Kurds shouldn’t be difficult to arrange. An analogy might be with Cyprus, which Turkey invaded in 1974, forcing the Greek-Cypriots to flee their homes in the north of the island; 44 years later they are still waiting to return. The YPG promises to fight a guerrilla war to resist such ethnic cleansing and make the life of the Turkish forces in Afrin ‘an ongoing nightmare’. But this sounds like bravado. The Kurdish population is draining away and the area is too cut off to be supplied militarily.

 

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The YPG may not have fought to the end for Afrin, but they will certainly fight if Turkish forces move further east to attack Manbij or the Kurdish towns and cities close to the Turkish border. Erdoğan promises a broader offensive to stamp out ‘terrorists’ in the region, a term that now seems to refer to anybody with a Kurdish identity. This nationalist rhetoric may reflect his long-term ambitions, but it’s worth pointing out that Erdoğan is usually restrained by a strong pragmatic sense. He can scarcely attack Manbij or any other Kurdish-held territory so long as it is protected by the US. General Joseph Votel, head of US Central Command, said soon after the Turkish invasion began in January that withdrawing US forces from Manbij is ‘not something we are looking into’. There are frequent patrols of US armoured vehicles, with their Stars and Stripes banners, across the Manbij area. The US does not need the Kurds as much as it once did in the fight against IS, but it still needs an ally on the ground if it is to retain any influence in Syria, and again the Kurds are the only candidates for the role. Erdoğan will wait for his opportunity to attack, just as he did with Afrin, knowing that he hasn’t won a real victory until he destroys the Syrian Kurdish quasi-state of which Afrin was only a small part. The Kurds, too, regard Afrin as the first round in the struggle to preserve what they have gained over the last seven years. They are preparing for the day when they may have to fight the Turkish army without America’s help.

 

Near an abandoned railway station in a field near Qamishli, the effective capital of the Kurdish region, I met the commanders of a YPG brigade who had just returned from a 45-day stint fighting IS in Deir Ezzor. They were, they said, ‘retraining to fight the Turks’. Their mood was more sombre – and their military experience much greater – than that of the young YPG fighters I had met three years earlier during the battle for Mount Abdulaziz. Rojvan, one of the commanders, explained that in the fight against IS their men had always had US airpower on their side but, if they fought the Turks, it would be the other way round: the YPG would be the target of airstrikes. Their retraining, he said, involved learning how to survive under air attack and how ‘to fight like a guerrilla force’. The commanders gathered in the old railway station office were veterans of many battles with IS, but they were realistic about what the odds against them would be if they were fighting Turkish forces backed by planes, helicopters and artillery. ‘Whatever happens we will fight to the end,’ one said, even if they only had Kalashnikovs, light machine-guns and RPGs against Turkish tanks. Most of these fighters had been at war since 2011. IS was making a comeback in Deit Ezzor province, they said, and they had lost several men, including a popular man called Suleiman Khalaf, who had been building earth ramparts on the front line when his vehicle was hit by a heat-seeking missile. ‘IS never gives in,’ Baran Omari, the dead man’s unit commander, said when I met him at the cemetery where Khalaf is buried. ‘They never surrender.’

 

The fall of Afrin to the Turks and the likely fall of Eastern Ghouta to Syrian government forces mark a new phase in the war in Syria. The country is now divided into three zones, each under a different authority and supported by a different foreign sponsor. Isolated and vulnerable enclaves hostile to the predominant local power, like Afrin and Eastern Ghouta, are being eliminated. The zones vary greatly in size and population: Assad controls territory where about 12 million Syrians live; the Kurdish-held region has a population of a little more than two million; and the smallest zone, lying north and west of Aleppo, is a Sunni Arab bloc, also with a population of about two million, under the direct or indirect rule of Turkey. These three are the survivors of seven years of war. Other groups – notably IS, which once ruled a third of Syria – have been all but eliminated. But the frontiers between these zones are still fluid and all sides believe they have something to fight for. Assad wants to retake the whole of Syria. Turkey wants to destroy the de facto Kurdish state; the Kurds want to maintain it. Before peace returns to Syria these issues will have to be decided on the battlefield or through diplomatic agreement. There will have to be a new balance of powers not just between local actors but between their foreign sponsors: the US, which has provided air support for the Kurds since 2014; Russia, which has done the same for Assad since 2015; and Turkey, which now has a powerful military force in northern Syria. ‘It is not a question of who is good or bad, but who can survive,’ Aldar Khalil told me. He believes that the war will go on for at least another four years until a stable balance of forces is established.

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