Citing an escalation of violence by Islamic State-affiliated women, supervisors at the al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria are calling on the international community to find a solution for thousands of such women and children who are being held at the overcrowded refugee camp. VOA’s Mutlu Civiroglu reports from the al-Hol camp.
FILE – Women who recently returned from the Al-Hol camp, which holds families of Islamic State members, gather in the courtyard of their home in Raqqa, Syria, during an interview, Sept. 7, 2019.
WASHINGTON – A group of intruders who disguised themselves as security forces protecting al-Hol refugee camp in northeastern Syria have helped smuggle out several women affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) fighters, local authorities told VOA.
“Some smugglers put on SDF uniforms or security police outfits, and they helped some IS women escape the camp for money,” said Judy Serbilind, who monitors IS female affiliates detained at the overcrowded camp.
Serbilind refused to disclose the number of the escaped women but said there were dozens. She said most of them came from outside of Syria, particularly from Europe.
“We believe that they fled to Idlib then to Turkey. We think some of them might reach out to the embassies of their countries and some (will) stay in Turkey.”
Al-Hol is a makeshift encampment set up for those who were displaced during the war against IS in eastern Syrian province of Dir el-Zour. The camp’s population skyrocketed from about 10,000 refugees in December 2018 to over 70,000 by April 2019 following a U.S.-led operation that defeated IS from its last stronghold of Baghouz.
After several escape incidents, fearing a larger attempt by IS to infiltrate the camp, Kurdish-led security forces who guard the camp promptly increased their numbers around the area, Serbilind told VOA. To ease burden on the overloaded camp, management also released dozens of Syrian women with IS affiliation to their families and tribes provided that their families guarantee they will not go back to the militant group.
According to Human Rights Watch, more than 11,000 of people in the camp are foreign women and children related to IS.
Syrian Kurdish officials in the past have said they were holding hundreds of foreign fighters in their prisons, along with thousands of their wives and children from 44 countries. The officials said they were overwhelmed by the burden and asked the countries to retake their nationals.
At al-Hol camp, officials say they are struggling to control order as reports of arguments, fights, stabbing and even murders are on the rise. Many of these issues go unresolved due to the lack of professional personnel and as camp officials prioritize more urgent needs such as food and water.
Last July, a pregnant Indonesian woman believed to be affiliated with IS was found dead in the camp. Local security forces said an autopsy showed the woman was murdered and her body showed signs of torture.
Serbilind said that the supervisors and security forces report the IS women as saying they want to re-establish an Islamic State inside the camp. She said large blades and knives were banned from entering the site. Nevertheless, two security officers were recently stabbed by IS affiliated women using kitchen knives.
“They are also threatening to revolt once Turkey carries out its threats of crossing the borders to Eastern Euphrates,” Serbilindadded, referring to Turkey’s announced intention to enter northeastern Syria to go after the Kurdish fighters if a “safe-zone” agreement with the U.S. is not implemented.
Ankara considers Kurdish YPG group a terrorist organization and an extension of the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers Party. But Washington considers the YPG a key ally in the fight against IS and disagrees with Ankara on the linkage.
A Time Bomb
The desperate situation of al-Hol camp has long triggered international attention, with many aid organizations warning the site could be the birthplace of IS’s revenge generation.
UN-appointed Commission of Inquiry on Syria earlier this month reported that the situation in the camp was “appalling,” urging international community to take action. The investigators said most of the 3,500 children held there lacked birth registration and risked statelessness as their countries of origin were unwilling to repatriate them, fearing extremist links.
An IS propaganda video that circulated among the group’s social media users recently showed a group of women allegedly sending a message from the camp. The black-veiled women vowed to revive the so-called caliphate which was announced defeated in March after losing its final stronghold of Baghouz.
“We ask that were you able to contain the Mujahideen’s women that you are keeping in your rot camp? We tell you no, they are now a ticking bomb,” one of the IS women is shown as saying in the video.
Some researchers believe that women themselves may not be able to actively participate in a possible resurgence of IS, but their extreme viewpoints could encourage sympathizers around the world and affect the future of their children.
“I think that the danger lies in their ability to ensure that the next generation are raised with really radical viewpoints,” said Mia Bloom, a professor of communications and Middle Eastern studies at Georgia State University.
“The danger is less from the women themselves than the women are able to perpetuate the conflict moving to the next new phase,” Bloom told VOA.
UN’s Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee in a report earlier this year warned that IS could morph from a territorial entity into a covert network. The report added that the terror group is “in a phase of transition, adaptation and consolidation, seeking to create the conditions for a resurgence.”
According to Bloom of Georgia State University, the threat of IS re-emergence will remain until the international community shows enough political will to deal with the root causes of extremism that originally led to the rise of the group.
“Until we address these underlying issues, there will always be recruitment opportunities for Jihadists and extremists who exploit that fact that the international community won’t do anything to halt the violence by corrupt regimes and restore justice for civilians,” Bloom concluded.
Nisan Ahmado, Mutlu Civiroglu
Turkey’s track record in Syria suggests it might use a U.S.-backed safe zone planned for Kurdish-majority northeastern Syria to fundamentally reshape the region’s demographic makeup, though Washington would likely stand in its way.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has for months threatened to launch a cross-border military operation to drive out the People’s Protection Units (YPG) from the area, saying the Syrian Kurdish force is an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has been fighting for self-rule in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast for more than three decades.
Turkey’s offensive into northeast Syria has so far been blocked by the United States, which armed, trained and backed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), largely made up of YPG fighters, to help it defeat Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. But Turkey and the United States last week agreed to establish a joint operations centre to oversee a safe zone in Syria. Details of the deal have not been revealed, but most observers believe differences remain over safe zone size and which troops would patrol it.
Turkey’s previous cross-border offensives suggest the zone would be less than safe for many of its present, mainly Kurdish, inhabitants. After Turkey seized the northwestern Syrian Kurdish district of Afrin in early 2018, its Syrian militia proxies, the Free Syrian Army, looted houses in broad daylight.
Throughout the ongoing occupation, Turkey has done nothing to prevent documented human rights violations, including the displacement of more than 100,000 native Afrin Kurds.
Turkey also oversaw the resettlement of displaced Arabs from elsewhere in Syria in vacated Kurdish homes. It has even given them residence permits to stay in the region. By doing so, it is creating new demographic facts on the ground in a region that has historically been overwhelmingly Kurdish.
The main regions of Syrian Kurdistan are situated east of the River Euphrates. After the Aug. 7 preliminary agreement between Turkey and the United States to create a safe zone in that area, the U.S. embassy in Ankara said, “that the safe zone shall become a peace corridor, and every effort shall be made so that displaced Syrians can return to their country.”
“The term peace corridor refers to two different animals: for Turkey, it’s the total elimination of PKK cadres in northern Syria; for the U.S., it is a workable solution to make both Turkey and the YPG/PKK avoid clashing,” Mustafa Gürbüz, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington. “Unless a paradigm shift occurs on either side, it is impossible to have a long-term safe-zone agreement.”
Turkey frequently talks of its intention to send the majority of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees back to their homeland. This could mean resettling Syrian Arabs in Kurdish-majority areas, as it has done in Afrin, so as to destroy any contiguous Kurdish-majority region on Turkey’s border.
Turkey plans to resettle some 700,000 Syrian refugees in Kurdish-majority northeast Syria following the safe zone’s establishment. This is possibly part of a project to lessen the unpopular presence of Syrian refugees in Turkey and fundamentally change the demographics of northeast Syria in a similar fashion to the Syrian Baathist Arabisation drive of the 1960s and 1970s. That plan sought to repopulate Kurdish-majority areas on the Syrian border with Arabs to separate Syria’s Kurds from the Kurds of Turkey and Iraq, where Kurdish nationalism was on the rise.
The Syrian government planned to remove Kurds from a zone along the Syrian border with Turkey nine miles deep and 174 miles wide. It never fully materialised, though many Kurds were forcibly uprooted and their land resettled by some 4,000 Arab families.
Turkey may well see the safe zone as the first step to building a similar “Arab belt” along the border. The exact size and location of the safe zone is not yet clear. Turkey wants a 20-mile deep zone spanning the entire border while the United States has suggested a much smaller nine-mile deep zone. Turkey remains adamant that the zone should be no less than 20-miles deep and says it will launch a unilateral military operation if it does not get what it wants.
A zone that size would include all of Syrian Kurdistan’s major cities, many of which are close to the Turkish border, and would be unacceptable to the YPG and the multi-ethnic SDF umbrella force.
The United States may convince Turkey to instead settle for establishing the safe zone around the Arab-majority border town of Tel Abyad, where resettled Syrian Arab refugees may prove less contentious in Kurdish-majority areas.
“Kurds see Tel Abyad as a part of Syrian Kurdistan because it is one of the regions where the Arab belt project was implemented and the demographics there were changed decades ago,” said Mutlu Çiviroğlu, a Kurdish affairs analyst.
It is unclear whether the United State will be able to persuade Turkey to make significant concessions.
“The American team was convinced that Erdoğan was going to invade northern and eastern Syria,” said Nicholas Heras, Middle East security fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “There was an air of desperation from the American side during these talks that has not existed before.”
His party’s defeat in mayoral elections in Turkey’s biggest city and financial capital Istanbul shook the president, Heras said. Consequently, Erdoğan views the Syria issue “as a cornucopia that he can use to satisfy the Turkish body politic that he senses is turning against him”.
“The American team believed that Erdoğan was going to invade, push out the SDF from a large swathe of the border, and nearly simultaneously move refugees into the void,” Heras said. “What is really bothering the American side is a belief that there could still be a moment when U.S. and other coalition forces will need to fire on Turkish troops in order to protect the SDF.”
Heras said there had been a quiet war between the U.S. State Department that wanted to give the Turks more room to operate in SDF areas, and the U.S. military that was pushing back hard.
“Neither the Turks nor the Americans have agreed to much, except to keep talking,” he said. “But that is a win for both the U.S. military and the SDF, because the longer the Turks are kept at bay, the less likely Turkey can pull off an invasion.”
Heras doubted the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army would be able to operate in any safe zone, noting that they had “no protection whatsoever from coalition forces”.
“U.S.-led coalition forces in northern and eastern Syria have almost no trust for Turkey’s Syrian rebel proxies,” he said. “If they try to operate in SDF areas, they will be shot.”
Syrian Kurds believe Turkey uses its Syrian proxies in order to shield itself from charges of abuse, Çiviroğlu said. He said he doubted the United States would permit Turkey to alter the demographics of northeast Syria.
“I don’t think the U.S. will accept this because this is against international law and it doesn’t solve any problems,” he said. “Also ethically, the U.S. will not accept such a thing in my view because these are the people that have been fighting side-by-side with the U.S. against ISIS.”
Suriyanın İslam Dövləti qrupunun nəzarətindəki son istehkamından evakuasiya edilən insanların çoxunun qrupun döyüşçüləri ilə qohumluğu var. Suriyada ekstremist yaraqlıların dul qalmış arvadları və uşaqları xaricilər üçün xüsusi düşərgədə saxlanılır.
Amerikanın Səsinin bu yaxınlarda Suriyanın Əl-Hol düşərgəsinə baş çəkən müxbiri Mutlu Çiviroğlu oradakı qadınların vəziyyəti ilə tanış olub.
O düşərgədə heç də hər kəs bu işə könüllü, ürəkdən, ixtifar hissi ilə qatılmayıb.Mutlu Civiroğlu
O, düşərgədə qeyri-insani durumun, çirkablıq və qeyri-sanitariyanın hökm sürdüyünü deyib. Uşaqların vəziyyətini açınacaqlı adlandıran Çiviroğlu hökumətləri onları qəbul etməyə çağırıb. Müxbir qadınların, xüsusilə Avropa ölkələrindən gələn qadınların hökumətlərinin onları qəbul etmək istədiyini bildirib.
Adının Ayişə olduğunu deyən azərbaycanlı qadın həyat yoldaşı ilə birgə Suriyaya getdiyini deyib. Həyat yoldaşının Kobanyada öldürülməsindən sonra bu düşərgəyə sığınan Ayişə düşərgədə yaşanan çətinlikləri haqda da danışıb.
Anasının xristian, atasının şiə olduğunu deyən digər bir azərbaycanlı qadın anasının onu qəbul etmək istəmədiyini bildirib.
Mutlu Civiroğlu iki həftə öncə 14 yaşlı azərbaycanlı qızın nənəsinin də iştirakı ilə boğularaq öldürüldüyünü deyib. Qızın günahı isə başını örtmək istəməməsi olub.
Digər qadınlar da vətən həsrəti ilə yaşayır. Tacikistandan olan br qadın oğlunun çəkdiyi ümid dolu rəsmlərini göstərərək, göz yaşlarını saxlaya bilməyib.
Suriya və İraqda həyat yoldaşları İŞİD-ə xidmət edən bəzi qadınlar ölüm hökmlərinə məhkum edilib. İraqda valideynlərinin terrorçular tərəfindən öldürülən uşaqların taleyi narahatlıq mövzusudur.
Məhkəmənin qərarı ilə edam edilən qadınların övladlarının taleyi bəlli deyil.
Lakin yardım təşkilatları düşərgələrdə həyatın kritik vəziyyətdə olduğunu və fövqəladə vəziyyətdən çıxmaq üçün zaman tələb olunduğunu deyir.
A woman at al-Hol camp in Syria. Image: Mutlu Civiroglu
A pregnant woman was reportedly beaten to death this week in a Syrian refugee camp housing tens of thousands of people displaced by the war against Islamic State where they live among the militants’ wives and children in conditions described by international agencies and reporters who have visited the camp as harsh, dire, and even apocalyptic.
The woman, identified as 30-year-old Sodermini by ANHA news agency, was six months pregnant, and originally from Indonesia. On July 28, her body was discovered in a tent and taken to a hospital run by the Kurdish Red Crescent, where an autopsy determined she had suffered tremendously before she died.
The Indonesian government said it is investigating the circumstances of her death, and the woman is believed to be among about 50 Indonesian adherents to Islamic State living among about 70,000 people in the camp. It’s not known yet who killed her or why.
Children have died in the camp, and the International Committee of the Red Cross said recently that, despite the efforts of international NGOs to treat people with war wounds, infections, or who are suffering from malnutrition, the humanitarian needs in al-Hol remain “tremendous.”
Last month, Kurdish analyst and journalist Mutlu Civiroglu visited al-Hol camp and other areas managed by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, the de facto government in northern and eastern Syria. He found al-Hol to be a “ticking time bomb” – dangerously overcrowded, too large for the Kurdish internal security police force called the Asayish to control, and full of children deeply at risk of becoming the next generation of ISIS fighters.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Defense Post: To start, tell me about the camps. Who runs them? How many people are there –how many women, men and children? How many are believed to be ISIS adherents and their families? How many are civilians?
Mutlu Civiroglu: According to the U.N. over 70,000 people live in al-Hol Camp. UNICEF estimates that more than 90% of them are children and women. Nearly 20,000 of the children are Syrians. According to Kurdish officials I spoke with, in total there are about 30,000 ISIS women and their children from 62 different countries. They are mainly in al-Hol but also in Ain Issa and Roj camps.
The whole of al-Hol camp is very crowded. Over 70,000 people live there. Considering the very hot summer, the camp residents live under very tough circumstances.
We were there one day when it was very hot. The sewage water was outside, on the surface – a very unhygienic environment and invitation for disease and illness. There are not enough doctors or health centers, according to the people we spoke to.
Security-wise it’s very risky because it’s over-crowded, hard to control. A few weeks ago an Asayish officer was stabbed. A 14-year-old Azeri girl was killed because she was not covering her hair, according to the people on the ground. I had to go to the camp with strong protection after this incident. It’s like a ticking bomb. The Kurdish administration runs the camp but UNICEF [the U.N. children’s agency], UNHCR [the U.N. refugee agency], the Red Cross, World Health Organization, and other intergovernmental organizations are there to support them, from what I could see.
Abdulkarim Omar, head of foreign relations in Jazira canton, told me that including Syrians and Iraqis there a total of 30,000 ISIS women and children under their control and around 12,000 are foreigners (muhajirs) and 8,000 of them are children. Of course male suspected ISIS members are kept in prison in different locations. Currently some 6,000 ISIS fighters are under SDF control: 5,000 are Iraqi and Syrian, and the other 1,000 are foreigners from 55 different states.
TDP: How are they separated?
The ISIS families are separated from the rest of the Iraqis and Syrians. There are wires separating them from the rest of the refugee community in the camp, and their location is known by the security and Asayish forces.
TDP: Do they live more or less freely within the camp or are their schedules and movements restricted?
The camp residents were allowed to go out for shopping until recently, but several escape incidents took place, and some ISIS women were taken out by smugglers, so the camp administration recently banned residents from going out. Instead they set up a new market inside of the camp, called Baghuz market. The administration is more strict now.
Their movements have to be restricted because of the killings. I was told the Russian women did that [killing of a 14-year-old Azeri girl] – by Russian I mean women from Chechnya, Dagestan, the Muslim republics of Russia – so their movements are more restricted and security is tightened after these incidents. Some camp residents have complained that because they’re not allowed out of the camp, the prices became more expensive and they’re having a hard time living because things are more expensive now. But they also acknowledge that by the mistake of some of the ISIS wives they’re all suffering.
I was told that kids are encouraged by women to throw stones at the camp officials. This also creates pressure on the security forces to be more careful.
TDP: What is the food and water supply like? Medicine? Sanitation? Are international organisations helping with humanitarian needs?
Based on what I saw I think there is enough water, but because the camp is overcrowded it causes problems especially with the water and in the summer. The Red Cross, WHO and UNHCR are there to provide help in addition to the Kurdish administration. They are also in-camp hospitals and health centers being built and mobile health centers set up by the Kurdish Red Crescent, so I don’t think there is a very desperate need, but because of the large number of residents I’m sure from time to time food and water is becoming a problem. International organizations and the local government are there trying to do their best.
However, Kurdish officials are asking for more support from the international community in terms of medicine, hospitals, water and cleaning materials. They also want countries to take back their citizens so that the population of the camp will be reduced.
TDP: There were some reports recently that some women escaped – do you know how? What is internal security like?
I was told the same thing and also read that some people in the Asayish are involved in taking the women out of the camps, but Kurdish officials strongly denied that and said it’s propaganda and their members would never be involved in such a thing because money is nothing for them, and they do this because of their values.
But the way different sources explained it to me is this: The women were allowed to leave the camp before for shopping, and since they all have the black burqa on, they look alike, and when they leave, they never come back because their families arrange a smuggler who is waiting for them in the town. Once these women go out of the camp they change their clothes and they are smuggled out. Since the camp is very large it’s not possible to have 100% control. That’s why the camp administration has now stopped allowing the women to leave for shopping. According to sources it’s arranged by families who pay a large amount of money to smugglers.
Internal security is tight. There are many Asayish forces guarding the camp, and the main gate is also a checkpoint. Before you reach the camp you pass through several checkpoints on the road from Hasakah. After you enter the main gate there’s another gate that’s also well-protected, and visitors are strictly controlled. When you’re inside they give you protection so stabbing incidents won’t happen. With me I think there were four people guarding us.
But again, because of the large area and a huge number of residents it’s not very easy to control the camp, and since you don’t know what’s inside of the tents or what kind of weapons they might have it’s not 100% safe or secured.
Authorities in the al-Hol camp in Syria set up a market called Baghuz in an attempt to counter the smuggling of female ISIS adherents. Image: Mutlu Civiroglu
TDP: Do the families seem to be repentant?
I observed mixed feelings. Some were defiant; for example an Egyptian woman was cursing us. She was using bad language and was very aggressive towards us, and was chanting pro-ISIS slogans. Also Russian-origin ISIS wives were very aggressive, so you see that they’re very motivated by what they’re doing. Some Turkish ISIS families seemed defiant, but at the same time I saw some Azeri women look very regretful. They seemed willing to go back home.
One Tajik woman showed me drawings by her child, saying her son drew their home and they want to go home. And you see people saying they were deceived, especially Dutch and Belgian ISIS wives, they say they believed everyone was equal but realized that the rich lived better lives, and the emirs paid money to smuggle their families out of Baghuz before the SDF took control, but these women ended up in these camps in very tough circumstances.
They were criticizing Baghdadi, saying he was in Libya living a good life but they are like this [in al-Hol], and they want their countries to take them back. When I pressured ed them, saying they had many opportunities to leave and that they came to Syria willingly, they said they are ready to be in prison in their countries, but at least their children would not live in camp conditions. They hoped even when they are in prison, their families will be able to take care of children. They were well-aware that they might spend long years in prison, which I found very interesting.
Because of the tough circumstances in the camp I think going home is a common desire. But to me the most important thing was that the vast majority of the camp residents are children, and especially children under 12. They are on the dirt, they play in dusty alleys – no playground, no sanitizing, under the sun – I think no child should be living under those circumstances, no matter what their parents did. Children have nothing to do with this, so they need to be given the opportunity to play and be a child, to flourish. They need help to get out of this trauma and be de-radicalized and rehabilitated, and the camp is no place for that. They need expert support and psychological support.
I am hoping that the governments will understand that children desperately need help, because if they stay there they will be brainwashed by their mothers. In a few years these children are going to be core ISIS members, so there’s a danger waiting for societies if these kids are not helped as soon as possible.
TDP: Do you think there’s a realistic possibility of a tribunal? Why in North and East Syria rather than the International Criminal Court, or trials in Iraq for foreigners, as with some French citizens who already have been sentenced? The Autonomous Administration isn’t recognized as a government, so how would sentences or verdicts given by the tribunal have any force in international law?
The Autonomous Administration feels like they’re under pressure because there are thousands of ISIS fighters, their wives and children. It’s a heavy burden for them to carry so they need the international community to help them. Especially after the Turkish statements about a military operation inside Syria, there are concerns that such a move may help these people to flee from the prisons and camps. But so far very few countries have taken back their citizens so the problem remains on Kurds’ shoulders and they feel like they need to do something.
The idea of an international tribunal is a step in this direction to push the international community to do more to share the burden with them.
Currently the administration is not recognized officially but a tribunal can be different. The legal experts in International Forum on ISIS conference agreed that there is a base for establishing a tribunal in Rojava because there is already a judicial system, legal experts, lawyers and with the support of the international community a tribunal could be established and it would be a good way to start to find a solution to the huge problem of post-caliphate ISIS.
Again, there are thousands of fighters under SDF control, many of their wives, and tens of thousands of children and they feel like they need to do something because so far the international community is turning a blind eye to the issue.
The caliphate was ended in March. Western countries are not open to the idea to expatriate their citizens. So the problem is with Rojava, with the Syrian Kurds. The attacks show the gravity of the situation, and since nothing is being done, Kurds and their allies feel like they need to take the initiative.
Iraq is motivated to do that in a way to clear its name that was ruined when it was overrun by ISIS. The Iraqi army fled from ISIS and left it for them. But at the same time, Iraq is also driven by the idea of revenge. Numerous ISIS members have already been executed.
The system in Rojava is more progressive and closer to Western systems and it is a better location for an international court because most of the fight was done in Syria. The caliphate’s heart was in Raqqa. Manbij is where the attacks against the West were planned. Kobani is where ISIS was first defeated and ISIS’s unstoppable advance was first prevented. Baghuz was the last remaining stronghold of the caliphate. They’re all in Syria. And the SDF, YPG, YPJ, Syriac Military Council are there so Syria is more suitable than Iraq considering these people have done the work, they have paid the highest price. These people defeated ISIS.
A security gate separates the families from ISIS fighters from displaced Syrians and Iraqis at al-Hol camp. Image: Mutlu Civiroglu
TDP: Are there plans to help the victims of ISIS?
There are some orphanages for the Yazidi children, de-radicalization centers for Yazidi children and other ISIS children, and some villages for Yazidi women who were not accepted back by their communities, but the resources are very limited in the Kurdish parts of Syria. Finances, expert advice and equipment are limited, so there has to be external support. The West especially should step in because the problem is very serious and requires a joint effort by Kurds and the West, especially the countries that are members of the international Coalition. The camps have the support of the international, humanitarian organizations but mainly Kurds are running them. There are great efforts, but it’s not enough.
TDP: Do you see any sign that the International Forum on ISIS conference has influenced foreign countries to change their Syria policies? Will they leave troops in the north, will they take their citizens back?
Such international forums are good venues to understand what’s happening on the ground and hear what people people on the ground – activists, experts, military and political leadership – say. It’s very important. There were representatives from the U.S., France, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other European countries, as well as South Africa. It’s important that people from different backgrounds come and learn about the situation in Syria, ISIS captives, operations against ISIS families, and also share with the local people what their countries think about it. So it’s a good platform for them, and when these people go back they talk to the public, media and think-tanks. I’m optimistic that they’ll have an impact in their own countries.
I think the countries that have a military presence in northern and eastern Syria will continue; I don’t foresee any significant change in the plans of these countries, specifically the U.S., France, Germany and others. They’ll be there because they all know the ISIS threat is not fully resolved yet. The caliphate is ended but the danger, the ideology is there, the support base is there, sleeper cells are there. CENTCOM Commander Kenneth McKenzie and Ambassador William Roebuck’s recent visit shows that the Coalition gives the same importance to Rojava.
The world has almost forgotten Syria. International foreign policy priorities change so rapidly that Syria does not have the same spot it used to have, but ISIS is a global problem and it hasn’t been fully resolved. The resolution needs a global effort. Taking back citizens from Syria is one way of doing that, because the more people who stay there, the more is it is a ticking bomb.
All countries should repatriate their citizens, and they should try these people in their countries. If not, they should support the idea of helping to set up a tribunal in Rojava so that these people can be brought to justice and pay the price for the atrocities they committed. But I think the world is still turning a blind eye, although recently I see more awareness in terms of countries taking back at least the women and children and sentencing them in their own countries instead of keeping them in Syria.
The Turkish troops constantly harass the local, and the only way to return peace and stability is to transfer the land under control of the Syrian government.
Last month, Turkey quietly began building a wall around the northeastern Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin, which it has occupied since early 2018. Amid increased attacks on its soldiers and Syrian militiamen proxies in the enclave, one purpose of the wall is to provide additional security.
Yet there are fears the wall could be a major step by Turkey to annex Afrin and prevent the return of the tens of thousands of Kurds who had to leave their homes there as a result of the Turkish invasion.
“Sources on the ground in Afrin see this as another step of Turkey’s annexation of Afrin into its own borders,” said Mutlu Çiviroğlu, a Syria and Kurdish affairs analyst. “Since last year Afrin has been controlled by Turkey and its Syrian proxies. The civilian affairs are run by Turkey’s Hatay Governorate.”
Çiviroğlu also pointed out that the wall cuts Afrin off from the rest of Syria, in particular areas around the nearby city of Tal Rifaat, where well over 100,000 of Afrin’s displaced are currently living. This may indicate that one of Turkey’s primary aims is to prevent these Kurds from returning and reclaiming their homes.
“Locals are worried that this wall is another step by Turkey to annex Afrin,” he said. “At the same time they expect the Syrian government to give a tougher reaction, but so far we haven’t seen that.”
Çiviroğlu also pointed out that “some other sources say that this wall is designed to prevent the increased number of Afrin Liberation Forces (HRE) attacks, which have recently afflicted serious losses on Turkish soldiers and Turkish-backed forces in Afrin.”
The HRE – the Afrin branch of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) – has targeted Turkish troops and Turkish-backed forces in both Afrin and the town of Azaz, which is part of the Syrian territories Turkey captured from Islamic State (ISIS) in its 2016-17 Euphrates Shield operation. Ankara invariably responds to these attacks by firing artillery at alleged HRE targets in the Tal Rifaat area.
Professor Joshua Landis, head of the Middle East Studies Department at the University of Oklahoma, said Turkey’s wall serves several purposes.
“The cement wall around Afrin represents a visual reminder of Turkish control,” he said. “It is meant to indicate to both inhabitants of Afrin and the world that the border is permanent; Ankara is serious about staying in north Syria. On a more practical level, the wall provides security against insurgents and those who seek to return Afrin to Kurdish control and expel the Turks and Arab militias.”
Notably, the Syrian and Russian governments have not severely criticised Turkey for this action, indicating there is some acquiescence on their part.
“There is a perception among the Syrian Kurds, activists and journalists, that Russia is trying to appease Turkey on this matter so the deal to sell Ankara S-400 missiles is finalised and Moscow gets what it wants in Syria’s Idlib province,” said Çiviroğlu.
At an April 29 press conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he was unaware of the project.
“To be honest, I have never heard anything about a wall around Afrin,” he said. “But I proceed from the fact that the Turkish leadership was adamant in confirming a number of times that Turkey’s anti-terrorist activities in Syrian territory are temporary.”
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad recently reaffirmed Damascus’s opposition to Turkey’s military presence in Syria and reiterated the government’s determination “to liberate every inch of Syrian territory”, but did not mention the new wall in Afrin.
“The Syrian and Russian governments have been silent about this latest Turkish provocation because they are busy pushing north from Hama against HTS and Turkish control in the Idlib enclave,” Landis said, referring to the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which controls parts of the northern Syrian province.
He pointed out that there have been suggestions “that Turkey and Russia have come to an agreement in which Turkey will be allowed to extend its control over the north Aleppo in exchange for Syria extending its control over Idlib.”
“While the Turks push south against the Kurds, the Syrians will push north against Arab rebels,” said Landis.
Landis concluded by pointing out that there is some possibility that Damascus “may also be reluctant to stand up for the Kurds in north Aleppo province as a form of revenge against the Kurds of Rojava [Syrian Kurdistan] who have asked for a permanent American presence in northeast Syria.”
Güney Yıldız, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, thinks the walls main purpose has more to do with security than any long-term Turkish plan to annex the enclave or permanently alter its demographics.
“I think the primary purpose of the wall is to prevent the ongoing YPG – or HRE as the YPG in Afrin calls them – attacks in Afrin,” Yıldız said. “The attacks have increased in the last few weeks and Kurdish officials indicate that they will intensify their attacks during the summer.”
“Cementing demographic changes or annexing Afrin to the Turkish territory doesn’t necessarily require constructing a wall,” he said. “Having said that, I believe that Afrin will be the last place Turkey will withdraw from in Syria.”
Yıldız noted that Turkish officials value the country’s continued occupation of Afrin more than its occupation of the other, much larger, northwestern territories Turkey captured from the Islamic State in the aforementioned Euphrates Shield operation.
“For Turkish officials, agreeing to give back Al-Bab, Jarablus or Azaz or working with Russia to return Idlib back to the regime control is more preferable than ceding control in Afrin,” Yıldız said. “Turkey wants to keep the Kurds as far away from the Mediterranean as possible.”
Novinar Mutlu Civiroglu je tri sedmice svjedočio borbama za posljednje uporište ISIL-a u Siriji. Pogledajte intervju u kojem govori o Bosancima koje je tamo sreo, ali i o trenutku kada su pucali na njega – što se vidi i na snimcima koje objavljujemo.
Reporting from shattered Syria in the dying days of the caliphate, Jared Szuba talks to Kurds and Arabs about the fight for their shared future
SDF fighters in Baghuz, Syria in March 2019. Image: Jared Szuba for The Defense Post
In the last days of Islamic State’s professed caliphate, under the cover of thunder and heavy rain, Coalition aircraft bombed an ammunition depot south of the Syrian village of Baghuz.
The detonation touched off a cluster of fires in the cult’s densely-inhabited encampment.
The next morning, more than one thousand of the remaining believers gathered at the foot of Mount Baghuz to surrender to the alliance of Syrian militias that surrounded them on three fronts. To their south lay the Euphrates riverbank, within range of the Syrian Arab Army across the water.
For weeks their tents had been raked with automatic fire, their zealous mujahideen picked off by the polished snipers of the predominantly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Each night, their dugouts and shelters were slammed from all sides with American and French 155mm artillery and 120mm SDF mortars.
“Strike and wait, strike and wait,” a stocky Syrian Democratic Forces conscript told me at the base of the cliff. The progress was grueling. “We’re advancing, but can’t with the civilians in front,” he said.
Every few days the jihadists called for an evacuation, and the main assault halted. But sniper operations continued, cadre said, to prevent them from exploiting the quasi-ceasefire.
“They send the civilians out then they stay. We keep telling them, ‘Whoever doesn’t surrender, dies.’”
Behind him, a procession of black veils shuffled up the path, contrasting with the sandy bluff illuminated by the setting sun. They clung to dirty children, some crying.
A lanky teenager with a Kalashnikov gestured to the bags born by one of the black forms. Without hesitation, she jettisoned the luggage down the cliff.
“That’s the last group!” someone shouted in Arabic. A gang of fighters shouldered their rifles and jumped off sandbags, skidding and jogging down the gravel path towards the front. One told me to leave the area. “It’s going to begin again any minute.”
I legged it back to the van and climbed in. Half a football field ahead, two American-made Humvees bearing the yellow flag of the SDF squatted before of a one-story concrete home.
On the roof, silhouetted against the sun through palm fronds, two fighters extended the bipod of a PKM with casual proficiency. As we pulled away, the crackle of small arms fire broke out, then grew into a steady rhythm. A Dushka chugged away somewhere behind.
“Their resistance is softening,” said Haval Ahmed, my 20-year old escort.
“It’ll probably end within days.”
A YPJ fighter watches as people surrender to SDF colleagues in ISIS-held Baghuz, Syria in March 2019. Image: Jared Szuba for The Defense Post
The ground war against Islamic State has been declared finished. Coalition bombs are still pounding the last stragglers holed up under the south face of the cliff.
At a safe house a few kilometers north of the front, veteran SDF fighters told me Baghuz had been the most taxing fight of their war against ISIS.
“Honestly when we came here, we expected a big battle. But not these enormous numbers,” Mervan Qamishlo of the SDF’s Military Media Command said.
As we spoke, the ostensible caliphate that had once stretched nearly from Aleppo to Baghdad was being measured in square meters.
Already synonymous with savagery, the death cult nearly outdid itself in its last stand. Women and children returned fire on the SDF, an officer at the front said, and at least one surrendered mujahid said their leaders were withholding food from those who refused to fight.
The day after I arrived, a delegation of black-veiled suicide bombers mingled with the evacuees only to detonate among their own, wounding a handful of SDF guards.
Veteran jihadists from Anbar, Afghanistan, Chechnya and Turkey commanded the last of the believers, Mervan Qamishlo told me.
But if Daesh’s “elite” had concentrated in Baghuz, the same was true for their adversaries.
With every city the fanatics fled over the past four-and-a-half years, they surrendered thousands of their able-bodied survivors to a confederation of Western-backed militias that promised revenge, and a place in a new Syria.
SDF continues ISIS clearing operations inside Baghuz, Syria on March 20, 2019. Image: Mutlu Civiroglu/@mutludc/Twitter
Detachments from the YPG, its all-female counterpart the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), and the Syriac, Manbij, and Deir Ezzor Military Councils, as well as former Free Syrian Army factions such as the Liwa al-Shamal al-Dimokrati (Northern Democratic Brigade) and Jaysh al-Thuwar (Army of Revolutionaries), congregated for the final thrust of the war. (That SDF representatives in Baghuz could not account for all units participating signalled both the unity and urgency of their cause.)
Salih, a 20-year-old self-professed forward observer from Hasakah, had joined the YPG three years earlier “to fight terrorism.” We spoke on the roof of the house, overlooking miles of ruins that stretched from the Euphrates to the Iraq border.
After Baghuz, he said, he wanted “to go home.”
“We’ve finished the end of the road,” Salih, an Arab who previously had been affiliated with a Sunni rebel group, said. He stared over the sunlit battlefield with a sharp, empty gaze.
“This is the end of Daesh … We’ve liberated ourselves from terrorism inshahallah,” he said”We want a homeland so we can just live in security.”
For others, the fight was far from over.
Inside the house, a group of tired recruits just back from the front huddled on the floor scooping heaps hot rice and chicken from styrofoam trays.
I asked what they expected next after Baghuz. They hesitated, keeping their eyes on the food. A burly fighter in his late twenties took the opportunity to speak for them.
“We’ve had enough of war,” he said. He gave his name as Salaheddin.
A five-year YPG veteran who fought at al-Hol, al-Shaddadi, Manbij, Raqqa, and other battles – more than he could now recall – Salaheddin was on his third tour of the Deir Ezzor campaign.
“We’d love to rest,” he said, before adding, “we have much work ahead. Daesh isn’t finished. There are a lot of sleeper cells.”
“After we finish with the sleeper cells,” he paused, then gave a sly grin. “I’m not able to talk about that.”
YPG fighters YPG on Mount Baghuz overlooking the evacuation of ISIS civilians. Image: Jared Szuba for The Defense Post
Threat of Turkish invasion
The SDF declared Saturday it has taken a staggering 32,000 casualties in the conflict. If accurate, the losses are more than half the Pentagon’s estimate of its current forces. 11,000, including civilian volunteers who took up arms in Kobane and Efrin, are believed to have died.
The half-decade war against the Islamist genocidaires will one day be seen as the easy part, northern Syrian officials told The Defense Post.
To the north of their nascent territory, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is openly vowing a military assault to destroy the YPG and to purge its political arm, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), from local governance and re-settle hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees into Kurdish-majority areas in the north.
YPG officials, some known to be former members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), have long sought to distance the Syrian project from the insurgent group, but Turkey isn’t buying it.
The Washington establishment may have called Erdogan’s bluff on an invasion for now, but northern Syrian officials are taking the threats very seriously. In 2017, Turkey launched an incursion into Efrin that displaced hundreds of thousands of people, mainly Kurds, in an act yet to be labeled by any international body as an ethnic cleansing.
To the south, Syrian Defense Minister Ali Abdullah Ayoub last week reiterated his government’s demands for the north’s total capitulation and reintegration into the pre-war Baathist system, under which Kurds were denied citizenship for decades.
A regime assault would “only lead to more losses, destruction and difficulties for the Syrian people,” the SDF responded.
The Kremlin, having offered to mediate a favorable outcome for the north, now say they can do little to sway Assad, northern Syrian officials say.
Within their current borders, the conflict has dumped tens of thousands of ISIS prisoners and their families into under-prepared internment camps. Northern Syrian authorities are now calling for U.N.-led and financed international tribunal to be held in Rojava (the Kurdish name for majority-Kurdish lands in northern Syria), their previous requests for the repatriation of foreign fighters mostly ignored.
Without formal international recognition, heavy artillery, armor or aircraft, the fledgling province’s fate may be largely out of its leaders’ hands for now.
Democratic project in northern Syria
In the meantime, northern Syrian authorities are managing matters within their control.
“We have defeated ISIS militarily. Now, we must do so ideologically,” said SDF media chief Mustafa Bali.
The north’s security institutions are set to be reorganized to focus on internal security operations. Officials are tight-lipped about details, but both the SDF and Asayish, or police forces, have already received new training programs focusing on hunting ISIS sleeper cells and dealing with explosives.
The U.S. Defense Department has requested $300 million in the 2020 budget for “vetted Syrian opposition” partners, including increased outfitting of northern Syria’s internal security forces and $250 million to support “border security requirements” of partner forces.
“Fighting at the front is different than the internal battle,” Aldar Xelil, senior TEV-DEM foreign affairs official, explained to me in Qamishli.
“The sleeper cells are considered the hardest phase. Harder than the phase we are undertaking now,” Mervan told me in Baghuz, as gunfire rattled in the distance.
Shouldering the weight will be the Asayish and internal intelligence services. But the vanguard against whatever remains of ISIS or its ideology will be the population of northern Syria itself, officials say.
People leave their belongings behind as they surrender from ISIS-held territory to SDF fighters in Baghuz, Syria in March 2019. Image: Jared Szuba for The Defense Post
There is a perception among many northern Syrians that segments of region’s Sunni Arab population are now more religiously conservative after living years under Islamic State, so the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria has instituted an ambitious education campaign to break down what they see is a toxic mixture of Sunni Arab chauvinism and Assadist authoritarianism.
“For 50 years this region was indoctrinated with the racism of Arab nationalism under the Baath party,” Bali said. Sectarianism, officials say, is ingrained in the Syrian constitution, legal code, and culture.
“This generation must learn and be raised [knowing] there are others such as Kurds, others such as Syriacs, others such as Christians, and it’s their right to live like you,” Bali said.
“Hussein and Mu’awiya,” early Islamic figures associated with the roots of the Sunni-Shia split, “are gone,” Bali said. “They’re dead. We need to learn how to live together.”
They will need to proceed cautiously.
The PYD’s social policies have already incurred protest in some majority-Arab areas, such as Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. Their enforcement of mandatory conscription for men and moves against political opponents have earned them some detractors among the Kurdish population.
“Every new project is met with violent reaction,” Bali told me. Nonetheless, officials say they are confident Syria’s disparate sects will embrace their stated goal of secular democratic confederalism – and a society in which women wield significant authority – once properly exposed to it.
“Society needs to breathe the oxygen of life,” Bali said. “The educational system can rescue future generations from war, from sectarian war.”
“We want to remove the barriers between nationalisms and religions,” Xelil said.
“We’re seeing a lot of progress … but we still need much time.”
They may not have it.
‘Multiple parties, not multiple armies’
The Pentagon’s reassuring gestures to the SDF belie the deeper crisis: that American diplomats have not yet found a force sufficient to replace the more than 2,000 U.S. troops maintaining stability in the north.
Nor have they found an appropriate force to man the Turkish border. Nor have they made northern Syrian officials any promises.
A residual presence of a few hundred American troops is not remotely adequate to accomplish either, former U.S. defense and national security officials say.
Northern Syrian officials have called for an international force for border protection against Turkey, and continue to receive sympathetic reassurances from the French and British.
But the Europeans say they cannot commit to a mission not led by a sizeable U.S. force. Even if American officials could wheedle Trump up to leaving, say, 1,000 residual troops, they still appear not to have an exit strategy to offer their western allies.
James Jeffrey, Washington’s pointman on the crisis, downplayed the dilemma last Friday.
“We’re not really looking to a coalition being peacekeepers or anything like that … We’re asking coalition personnel to continue to contribute and to up their D-ISIS operations, and we’re getting a pretty good response initially,” Jeffrey said.
US Ambassador James F. Jeffrey swears in as Special Representative for Syria Engagement, at the US Department of State on August 17, 2018. Image: US State Dept/Ron Przysucha
Meanwhile, Jeffrey’s team is seeking local Syrian forces to guard the border in order to “meet everybody’s needs.”
So far that has proven elusive. Turkey rejects any YPG presence on the border, a position Jeffrey endorsed last week. “We don’t want another Qandil in Syria,” Jeffrey said, referring to the PKK headquarters in northern Iraq.
“We need defense against Turkey, not the other way around,” a northern Syrian source with knowledge of the discussions said.
Publicly, officials from the SDF’s political arm, the Syrian Democratic Council, say they believe Jeffrey’s team is working on their behalf, and that they can understand the U.S.’s strategic concerns as Turkey flirts with Moscow.
Privately, there are frustrations. Jeffrey is perceived as ingratiating to an erratic and duplicitous supposed NATO ally using the YPG issue as a political steam-valve.
Indeed the American team appears to be waiting out Turkey’s regional elections, set for March 31, to plan the next move.
The friction may well be mutual. Northern Syrian officials reject the veteran diplomat’s proposals to bring in at least two exiled Syrian militia forces, the Rojava Peshmerga and the Syrian Elite Forces (the latter affiliated with Syrian opposition leader Ahmed Jarba), to secure the Turkish border.
“Not possible,” Xelil told me. “First of all, Jarba doesn’t have the forces. Secondly, to those who liberated this region and administrate it, there’s no place for Jarba in this whole project. Where did this come from? It’s not possible.”
The Elite Forces’ brief cooperation with and integration into the SDF in 2016 and 2017 was seen as a political win for the Kurdish-led administration, but they fell out during the battle of Raqqa in 2017.
The Rojava Peshmerga is aligned with the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria, a political rival of the PYD closely linked to its namesake in Iraq.
“The [Rojava] Peshmerga,” Xelil said, “is a red line.” He accuses the force of being trained and funded by Turkey. “How can we trust them?”
Importing rival forces with unclear allegiances will only complicate matters, northern Syrian officials said, at a time when the SDF is striving to unify its own various components.
“Democracy means multiple parties, not multiple armies,” the source said.
“We don’t see this as in the best interest of North and East Syria’s security,” the source said, speaking to The Defense Post on the condition of anonymity.
The American team is set to discuss its “initial concept,” whatever that may be, with Turkish officials any day now.
“After this is agreed upon, then we can discuss the details,” Xelil said.
In the meantime, they have instructed northern Syrian officials not to engage with the Assad regime, a difficult seat to take.
Even if the U.S. can cut a deal for additional forces, the Autonomous Administration must still confront near-Sisyphean tasks.
Much of Syria’s north lies in ruins from eight years of war, and there is no coherent plan to rebuild.
Trump unilaterally cancelled $230 million set aside for the endeavor last year. The president wants the rest of the Coalition to foot the bill, and U.S. officials say the $230 million has been replaced by pledges from Gulf nations. But the city of Raqqa, which was largely destroyed by Coalition airstrikes, alone needs some $5 billion, the city’s mayor said last autumn.
Apartment buildings near February 23 Street, Raqqa, Syria, July 25, 2018. Image: Gernas Maao/The Defense Post
Incidentally, the Saudis asked the U.S. government if Trump’s December withdrawal announcement meant they were off the financial hook (Trump’s subsequent tweet made it clear they were not).
The northern administration’s domestic legitimacy rests heavily on its ability to fight ISIS. With the caliphate gone, people will be looking for a return to normalcy.
“The SDF bring great security but it can still be hard to get basic goods. The situation is much better now than before, but we need help,” said Hassan, a shopkeeper in Tal Abyad.
Civilians who spoke to The Defense Post in Hasakah, Manbij, and other areas of northern Syria echoed similar sentiments. Whatever their opinions of the SDF, they feared the American withdrawal.
“We’re still living in a state of war,” Xelil said. “We need a number of services to be rebuilt. We’re deficient in municipal services, electricity, food distribution, healthcare. Syria in general is crushed.”
“The services in some other areas may be better, but our ambition is stronger,” Xelil said.
SDC officials have elicited the technical support of the Syrian regime in limited projects, but full reconstruction depends on a political settlement to the civil war.
And the Americans appear unwilling to offer that, likely in deference to Ankara’s long-standing opposition to the SDC’s participation in the U.N.-sponsored peace talks in Geneva.
“We need doors open for our participation in political operations,” a source with knowledge of the discussions told The Defense Post, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter.
Lack of reconstruction is a serious long-term security threat, former U.S. officials said.
A Raqqa Internal Security Force member guards an entrance to a courtyard in Raqqa, Syria, February 19, 2018. Image: US Army/Sgt. Travis Jones
In Deir Ezzor, especially, tribal grievances linger from the ISIS war and the destruction of the local oil economy by Coalition bombing.
“There is animosity towards the Kurds in some Arab areas for what is perceived as heavy-handed governance or the inequitable sharing of power and resources,” said Alexander Bick, who was Syria director in Barack Obama’s National Security Council.
“That’s a fairly combustible situation. Certainly something the Defense Department is well aware of, and has tried to address by pushing the SDF to be more inclusive, but there aren’t perfect solutions to it – particularly in the absence of resources, which this administration has decided not to put in.”
US support for the YPG
In retrospect, former U.S. officials who spoke to The Defense Post say roots of today’s crisis were sown from the beginning.
On the one hand, aligning with the YPG’s tactical goals has borne perhaps the most successful U.S. Special Forces train-and-assist mission to date.
But American officials ignored the gap between their and the YPG’s strategic goals for years, an oversight that now threatens to leave one of the world’s most vulnerable populations in what appears to be an intractable geostrategic crisis.
Still, officials say, the decision to arm and support the YPG was not made lightly.
“They were problematic from a number of different angles,” a former official said, not simply for their roots in the PKK, which Turkey and its western allies have designated a terrorist organization.
For the Americans, however, the alternative was to accept a Turkish proposal to utilize Arab rebels “without even being shown evidence that these groups existed in sufficient numbers, organization, training to actually carry that out.”
The YPG was undoubtedly the most adept ground force available in northern Syria. And, two former officials said, its secular ideology proved an appealing antidote to the region’s toxic sectarianism.
“There are 20 million Sunni Arabs between Baghdad and Damascus who in important respects lack meaningful political representation in either country,” Bick said.
“So as long as this persists, we can and should expect radicalism to reemerge down the road.”
It was American planners who pushed a reluctant YPG to capture vast Arab-majority territories in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor.
“I think everybody [in Washington] recognized at the time that you didn’t want to be trying to govern large swaths of territory with Kurdish forces that would be perceived as outsiders,” Bick explained.
“We didn’t want a situation, strategically, where we’d be relying … exclusively on the Kurds.”
Hence the “snowball” method: As the YPG took territory, it absorbed local factions into a “professional coalition” – the Syrian Democratic Forces.
The challenge for the Obama administration was how to leverage the YPG’s military and organizational abilities against ISIS while ensuring that the burgeoning alliance was constituted in a way that would minimize intercommunal tensions after the war.
“We worried about all of those issues,” Bick said.
“The question is not was the choice perfect, but what were the other choices?”
“Did we think about it? Yes. Did we come up with a satisfactory answer to it? No,” he said.
“Did we think that getting ISIS out was a sufficiently important priority for the United States that we would, to some extent, have to fly the plane as we built it? Yes.”
The consequences of that decision have come home to roost. Turkey’s position on the YPG shifted fiercely after the U.S. in 2016 pushed the group to capture from ISIS the majority-Arab city of Manbij, near the Turkish border.
“It’s probably the most complex security situation, fighting situation I’ve seen in over four decades of dealing with – with fights,” then Defense Secretary James Mattis said in February 2018 when asked about Turkey’s position on Manbij.
“And it is one where I believe we are finding common ground and there are areas of uncommon ground where sometimes war just gives you bad alternatives to choose from.”
US and Turkish forces conduct a convoy during a joint combined patrol near Manbij, Syria, November 8, 2018. image: US Army/Spc. Zoe Garbarino
The U.S. did not have a coherent Syria policy until at least early 2018 – a year into Trump’s presidency – a former official with knowledge of the matter said.
“As the terrain changed, they moved … You end up at a place based on one decision, one decision, one more,” the official told The Defense Post on the condition of anonymity.
“There were people saying, ‘We can stop this anytime we want.’ No, you can’t,” the former official said. “If you go in here and you start doing this, you own this problem.”
The Trump administration finally pronounced a Syria plan to Congress in January 2018, after the SDF had largely captured the country’s north.
American troops would continue to occupy the country’s resource-rich territories while the Treasury Department would economically isolate the Syrian regime to bring Assad to the Geneva negotiating table, David Satterfield, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, told a baffled senators in a chaotic hearing.
Just five weeks later, Trump began suggesting it was about time to pull the plug. In his December phone call with Erdogan, he tanked the whole policy.
“No prom queen aspires to be a crack whore. But some end up there through incremental bad decision-making,” the former official said.
With or without the Americans, the war is not over for the SDF.
Back in Baghuz, I caught one of Salaheddin’s young recruits in the stairwell of the safe house and asked what comes next for him after this battle.
He responded excitedly, “I’ll go to Efrin.”
I felt a bolt of sympathy for the kid. “You’re from Efrin?” He looked no older than 19.
He glanced over my shoulder, smile intact. “No, I’m from the graveyard of ISIS.” Kobane.
A plume of smoke rises near a village after bombs were dropped by aircraft as Turkey’s military began Operation Olive Branch against the Kurd-controlled Efrin region in Syria, January 20, 2018. Image: trthaber/Twitter
“We’ll go wherever the revolution is needed,” said a European YPJ volunteer, who gave her name as Cude, later that afternoon on the roof.
“We will take back Efrin, we will keep our liberated area and when we are finished with Rojava, we will liberate all the other oppressed areas,” she proudly told me.
No decision to widen operations against Turkey-backed Islamist rebels in Efrin has yet been made, Xelil emphasized. But covert operations and military preparations, he said, are “always being made.”
The SDF declared in February that, though it prefers dialogue with Turkey, it intends to retake Efrin and facilitate the return of its population in the post-ISIS stage.
Efrin is surrounded, Xelil said, and Russian and Syrian regime troops have been interdicting attempted YPG deployments, so any future operations depend in part on those actors.
“I think the end of Baghuz and military victory over ISIS will greatly ease matters regarding Efrin,” Xelil said.
The Americans reportedly censured the YPG for its insurgency tactics there in late 2018.
How the YPG’s ambitions may impact U.S. efforts to make nice between their partner force and NATO ally to the north was of little concern, Xelil said.
Baghuz, Syria after it was deserted by thousands of ISIS fighters and their families in March 2019. Image: Jared Szuba for The Defense Post
Northern Syrian leaders expressed profound gratitude for the support of the Americans, but Xelil said Efrin was their decision to make.
“If [the Americans] get involved, we’ll say why didn’t you get involved when Turkey attacked us?”
In Baghuz, SDF fighters were of the same mind. “If America leaves, nothing changes. We will resist,” Cude said. It was a uniform refrain.
“No one asked [the Americans] to come, no one will ask them to stay,” she said, adding, “I don’t know who to trust less, Trump or Erdogan or Putin.”
Asked if she was prepared to fight the Turkish Army or the Syrian regime, she hesitated. “I don’t know. If it’s necessary? Yeah.”
She was hopeful that a deal with Damascus would secure the north’s autonomy.
“You cannot make war all the time. You must make compromises sometimes,” she said.
Without the Americans, “it’s going to be harder, [but] we will fight until the end.”
“If we lose, we will lose fighting. There can be no surrender.”
Around midnight, back at al-Omar oilfield, some 50 miles north across the desert from Baghuz, I hunched over the embers of a dying campfire.
Two SDF fighters emerged from the darkness and sat next to me. One placed a tin pot on the coals to boil coffee, and offered me some.
The pair chatted in Kurdish for a while. Then one stood up from his chair, walked to a nearby pickup truck, and plugged his smartphone into the audio system.
A haunting Kurdish song played, one I had heard before on the road to Deir Ezzor. I asked what the words meant.
He was silent for nearly a minute, then said in Arabic, “Bombing of villages in Qandil. Turkey, about 15 years ago,” he said.
“For no reason,” he added.
We sat for several minutes in silence. One fighter rose, said goodnight, and walked away.
After some time I asked the other if he thought the Americans would stay. ”They’ll stay. They reversed the decision,” he said.
“But if you go to Efrin, won’t that make the Americans’ diplomatic efforts harder?”
He let out a long drag of his cigarette with a sigh. “God, I don’t know.” He extended his legs and planted the heels of his combat boots at the edge of the fire.
The song ended, and the officer tossed back the last of his coffee. He stood up, and took his phone from the truck.
“Sleep well. Hope to see you again.”
“Inshahallah,” I answered.
He took several paces towards the barracks then stopped. “Inshahallah after Efrin.”
American artillery thudded flatly in the distance.
*Fotoğraflar: Mutlu Civiroğlu/ Suriye
SDG’nin Bağuz operasyonu sonrası “IŞİD’in yenildiği” yönündeki açıklamasının ardından, gelişmelerle ilgili Suriye’de izleyen analist Mutlu Civiroğlu, bianet’e konuştu.
Suriye Demokratik Güçleri (SDG), Cumartesi günü Suriye’de Irak Şam İslam Devleti’nin (IŞİD) yerleşik olarak bulunduğu son yerleşim yeri Bağuz’un da ele geçirildiğini açıkladı.
SDG, IŞİD’in kesin olarak yenildiğini ilan etti. Gelişmeleri yerinde izleyen gazeteci/analist Mutlu Civiroğlu, bianet’e konuştu.
“IŞİD’in kendini hilafet olarak adlandırdığı yapı bitti”
SDG’nin Bağuz’daki başarısını nasıl değerlendiriyorsunuz? Suriye için IŞİD’den yüzde 100 özgürleştirildi demek doğru bir ifade mi?
SDG’nin Bağuz’daki başarısı tabii ki çok önemli. Uzunca yıllar Irak’ta ve Suriye’de etkili olan bir örgütün Bağuz’daki bulunduğu son bölgede sona erdirilmiş oldu.
Bu IŞİD’in kendini hilafet olarak adlandırdığı yapının bitmesi anlamına geliyor. Oldukça önemli bir başarı. Hem SDG için, hem uluslararası koalisyon için önemli bir başarı.
Saklanan bir grup IŞİD üyesi en son yakalandı ve kalanı teslim oldu. Şu anda coğrafi olarak alan kalmadı. YPG’nin başını çektiği SDG bütün bu alanları özgürleştirmiş oldu.
Yüzde 100 özgürleştirildi denilebilir mi? Bu operasyonla IŞİD’in elinde tuttuğu alan kalmadı. Ama IŞİD’in yüzde 100 bittiği anlamına gelmiyor bu. Çünkü IŞİD’in ideolojisi halen mevcut. IŞİD’i doğuran siyasi, sosyolojik, ekonomik, tarihsel nedenler özellikle Suriye bağlamında konuştuğumuz için söylüyorum, yerinde duruyor.
Uluslararası koalisyonun artık bu saatten sonraki gündemi bu özgürleştirilen yerlerde istikrarın sağlanması olacak. Özellikle uyuyan hücreler konusu ciddi bir konu. Hem Deyr-ez Zor bölgesinde hem Haseke’de, hem Halep, Menbiç, Rakka bölgelerinde bir uyuyan hücre gerçekliği var.
IŞİD’e yardım yataklık yapmış bölgelerin özgürleştirilmesi için operasyona başlanacak. Coğrafi olarak IŞİD yüzde 100 bitirildi ama siyasi, askeri ve toplumsal bir sorun olarak duruyor. Bunun hem SDG hem de uluslararası koalisyon farkında.
Onlardan gelen açıklamalardan da görüyoruz ki, zaten sahadaki görüşmelerimizde de artık Bağoz’dan sonra gündemin bu olacağını görüyoruz. Şu anda coğrafi olarak IŞİD bitirildiği için, aslında olay çok daha kapsamlı ve çok daha zor.
Düşman belli bir coğrafyadayken, siz de ona göre mücadelenizi şekillendiriyorsunuz. Ama şu anda bahsettiğimiz mücadele çok daha yorucu ve zahmetli bir süreç. Böyle bir aşama olmadan da IŞİD’in hilafetinin sona ermesi bir şey ifade etmeyecek.
“SDG tarafından verilen bedel çok ağır”
IŞİD’in bölgede yenilmesinin ardından AFP ajansına verdiğiniz demeçte de “Kürtleri iki taraftan da (Suriye-Türkiye) zorlu bir süreç beklediğini” söylüyorsunuz. Bölge Kürtleri açısından önümüzdeki dönemde en büyük problemler ne olabilir?
Suriye Kürtleri, SDG Genel Komutanı Mazlum Kobani’nin deyimiyle 11 bin kayıp verdiler. IŞİD ve diğer örgütlerle mücadelelerde 20 bin yaralı var. Verilen bedel çok ağır. Ama dünya da bu başarıyı gördü. Özellikle Suriye’de Kürtlerin oynadığı asli rol görüldü.
Uluslararası koalisyonun yükünü çeken SDG’ydi. Bu yüzden bedel ödediler ve Suriye içerisinde kendi yarattıklarını korumak istiyorlar.
Suriye’de dışarıdan bir formülün tutmadığı da görüldü. Kürtlerin, Arapların, Ezidilerin, Kürt Alevilerin beraber oluşturduğu bu yapılanma hem kendi halkları için hem de Suriye’nin geneli için bir model teşkil ediyor.
Kürtler, bu kazanımlarını siyasi alanda geliştirme çabasında olacaklar. Kürtlerin özellikle Cenevre görüşmelerinde var olma isteği var. IŞİD’in coğrafi olarak bitirilmesinden sonra Kürtlerin bu taraflarının daha çok başarı görebileceği düşünülebilir.
Bedel ödediler, sahada projeleri var. Yerelden güçlenen ve her etnik yapının kendi özgürlüğü içinde yaşayabilecekleri bir süreç istiyorlar. O sebeple siyasi açıdan Kürtlerin öncelikleri bu olacak.
Üç hafta önce ben oradaydım. Oradaki siyasi, askeri yetkililerle yaptığımız görüşmelerde Türkiye’nin bölgeye yönelik açıklamaları çok kaygı verici boyutlarda, ciddi tehdit olarak algılanmakta, onu gördük.
Önümüzdeki günlerde Türkiye’nin olası bir saldırgan tutumu ya da olası bir operasyon onların gündeminde ilk sırada. Sadece Kürtler değil bunu Araplar da, Süryaniler de görüyor.
Özellikle Afrin’de Türk Silahlı Kuvvetleri ve Türkiye destekli grupların Afrin’i ele geçirdiği dönemden sonra yaşananlar, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International gibi kurumların da dile getirdiği gibi Suriye’nin Kürt bölgelerinde ve SDG’nin kontrol ettiği bölgelerde büyük bir rahatsızlık yaratmış durumda. Aynı pratiklerin tekrarlanma ihtimali kaygı yaratıyor.
“Etnik kimliklerin anayasal güvence altına alınması bekleniyor”
O sebeple Kürtlerin, Arapların, Süryanilerin, Ezidilerin en büyük kaygısı Türkiye’nin kendi bölgelerine bir saldırı düzenlemeleri, buna karşı hazırlıkları da var zaten.
Öte yandan Suriye rejiminin halen, bunca yıldır devam eden iç savaştaki tutumunda bir değişiklik olmadığı da görülüyor. Halen Suriye’yi tek bir ulustan oluşan, tek bir ideolojinin yönetebileceği düşünülüyor. Kürtlerin kontrol ettiği toprakların seve seve ya da zorla alınacağı yönünde açıklamalar yapılıyor.
Ülkenin en büyük azınlığı olarak kendi yaşama taleplerine saygı gösterilmesi, Suriye’nin demir yumrukla yönetilemeyeceğinin anlaşılması, Suriye’nin etnik farklılıklarına uygun yeni bir anayasa oluşturulması, Kürt dilinin tanınması, Kürtçe eğitimin önünün açılması, Kürt ve diğer kimliklerin anayasal güvence altına alınması bekleniyor.
İstihbarat raporu: Ağları hala çok geniş
*Büyütmek için tıklayın.
ABD İstihbarat yetkilileri Şubat ayının ilk günlerinde kongreye sundukları “Küresel Risk Değerlendirme” raporunda “IŞİD’in kayda değer derecede liderlik ve bölge kaybına rağmen hala Irak ve Suriye’deki binlerce savaşçıya komuta ettiğini, bu savaşçıların sekiz ayrı dala (örgüte) ayrıldığını ve dünya çapında binlerce destekçisi olduğunu” kaydetmişti.
İstihbarat raporunda ayrıca IŞİD’in Suriye ve Irak’taki “normalleşme çabalarını sarsmak için saldırı hazırlıklarında olduğu, mezhep çatışmasını artırma hedefinde olduğu” ifadeleri kullanıldı.
(PT) Pınar Tarcan