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.”
As French and US initiatives for intra-Kurdish rapprochement in Syria stall, it seems that piecemeal defections from the Kurdish National Council to the Kurdish autonomous administration in the north of the country are the rule of the day.
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.
*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
Mutlu Civiroglu is a Kurdish analyst and journalist based in Washington, D.C. In March 2019 he traveled to northeastern Syria to cover the Syrian Democratic Forces’ final battle against Islamic State in northeast Syria. Speaking to The Defense Post via WhatsApp, Civiroglu detailed his experience with the SDF in the last days of ISIS’s self-declared caliphate.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
TDP: How long have you been in Baghuz and how close are you to the front lines?
MC: I’ve been in the Baghuz area for three weeks. From time to time I travel to different cities, like Kobani and Raqqa. I’ve been inside of the Baghuz, almost 100 meters from the ISIS front line, in the range of snipers.
MC: The fighting in recent days has been the SDF attacking at night, and ISIS trying to hunt down and prevent SDF’s advance.
Coalition jets and artillery are supporting the SDF, and the clashes mainly took places at night to prevent ISIS from having an advantage in targeting SDF forces. The fear of ISIS holding civilians captive (Yezidis, other kidnapped people) and using these people and their own as human shields made the operation very difficult from an SDF perspective.
So in the daytime there is fire exchange – mortar exchange – but at night more heavy fighting has been observed. The night also gives an advantage to airplanes using thermal cameras to eliminate ISIS fighters.
TDP: What kind of resistance is ISIS putting up?
MC: ISIS have put up heavy resistance. The final phase of the operation has been continuing since January, so because of that there have been thousands of people in this tiny town, so multiple times the operation had to be paused because each time a certain number of people were released by ISIS.
This has been an obstacle for the SDF because just when they start fighting they have to stop again. Evacuating these people, screening them, searching them – it’s a very time-consuming operation. Aside from the combat operation it’s these kinds of operations that cause difficulty for the SDF and the Coalition.
But from the impact of fighting we could see that ISIS have put up very strong resistance because most of their fighters are battle-hardened, hardcore jihadis who came from different parts of the world, especially the Russian-origin – Chechen and Dagestan, from those areas – and other jihadists from North Africa and elsewhere. They were jihadists; they were strong believers in their ideology, so they put up a tough fight on the ground.
Because they have been in Baghuz for a long time they are familiar with the geography, while for the SDF – mainly Kurdish SDF – it’s very unfamiliar territory, because their cities and towns are 200 to 300 km away from here, or even longer. They have been fighting in unfamiliar territory; this causes a disadvantage for the SDF.
Moreover, because of the civilians that have been used as human shields by ISIS, it has made the job of the SDF and the Coalition very, very hard. Even at the moment we see in the last one or two days propaganda spreading that SDF and the Coalition have been targeting civilians, but all international media observed very clearly that human life, protection of civilians – even surrendered ISIS fighters or suspected ISIS fighters were given humane treatment. They were treated respectfully. So many journalists witnessed firsthand how the SDF valued human life and tried to protect them.
Coming back to the fighting, they put up a tough resistance by using heavy weaponry, by using trenches, by using suicide bombers – men and women – and in some cases motorcycle suicide attacks.
YPJ fighters screen women and children from ISIS-held camps in Baghuz, Syria. Image: Mutlu Civiroglu
One other thing I heard from SDF sources is that there was a dispute between ISIS fighters, local ISIS members and international jihadis. International, especially Russian-origin ISIS members and other international members, seemed to be willing to fight until the end whereas Syrian or more regional ISIS members were willing to surrender.
I want to share this because not all of them stayed to fight until the end. Of course this might be a tactic of the organization, to space out some of its fighters for the future, hoping that they might have some opportunities, maybe escaping from prison like what happened in Syria and Iraq before.
Whatever the reason might be, a large number of fighters chose to surrender. I believe this was a deliberate tactic of to slow down the SDF, cause exhaustion and distraction, and use so-called surrendered people in future.
TDP: Are you seeing ISIS using women or children in the fighting?
MC: I haven’t seen with my own eyes but talking with the commanders I heard that they have been using women and there are some videos from the last few days clearly showing that there are female ISIS fighters and also children are used, children carrying weapons. That has been told to us by the SDF, but there are videos and photographs proving this. Women carried out suicide attacks this week and previously as well.
Even among the women who surrendered in previous days we have seen very fanatical women. Most of them are hardcore: they don’t show any remorse, they don’t feel regret for anything, and they promise to continue ISIS’s ideology and ISIS’s fight. I saw women who still justify the treatment of the Yazidi people and enslavement of Yazidi women. So there can certainly be some women who were forced, but there’s also a large number of women who chose to be in ISIS and chose to fight for it until the end.
I believe these women may cause serious problems for their respective countries or whoever will handle them. Therefore the SDF and the Coalition should immediately come up with a joint program to decide how to handle them.
TDP: Why is it taking so long to clear this small pocket?
MC: Because there have been thousands of people. Nobody, neither SDF nor the Coalition, could predict such a high number of people could be living in such a tiny place. There were tens of thousands of people evacuated from Baghuz in recent weeks. This number is huge. Each time the operation was intensified, ISIS released some number of people, so that slowed down the operation very drastically, and the focus on saving civilian lives and possible captives’ lives pushed the SDF and Coalition to be more careful, to slow down, and at some points at the expense of frustrating and tiring their own fighters.
Having such a large number of people in a tiny place is the main reason that this operation has been very, very slow and because this is the last pocket of ISIS and it borders Iraq, it is still a mystery what kind of place it is, and what kind of preparation ISIS had. We’ve seen many trenches where people have been living, so probably surveillance planes could not catch them, and also tunnels underground. It’s like a closed box for SDF ground forces: they don’t know what to expect. That’s one of the reasons they had to be extra cautious while advancing.
TDP: Can you describe the camps ISIS fighters have been living in?
MC: Camp conditions have been very dire, very bad. The town is very small and the number of people is extremely high, so probably there was a problem with food, water, and sanitation. There is a bad smell. People were living in those trenches under poor circumstances, so I think the situation would have been very hard for them because they were surrounded.
The Coalition gave them the opportunity but not all of them agreed to surrender, so based on what we have seen the situation has been difficult because such a small place is not suitable for such a large number of people.
TDP: What’s the mood and morale like among SDF fighters? Do they seem frustrated?
MC: The mood and morale among the SDF fighters is very high. They are sure of a victory and confident they’ll bring to an end the so-called ISIS caliphate, but at the same time they are aware that ISIS is not finished with the end of the caliphate.
In a way they are getting ready for stage two of the fight against ISIS, which is going after sleeper cells, stabilization of the liberated areas, and to make sure the circumstances that allowed ISIS ideology to flourish are removed, and this requires a long, lasting and enduring struggle. They are aware of that and they are getting ready for that. Taking Baghuz will only end the territorial existence of ISIS, but its ideological existence, its ideological threat to the world, is there and they are aware of that.
The Kurdish, Arabic and Syriac ethnic groups are all very happy and the women – YPJ and other women components of SDF – are especially happy and proud that they are playing a major role in defeating an ideology that took pride in enslaving women, and treating women as worthless. Each time Yazidi women were liberated I’ve seen the happiness among the Kurdish women, YPJ fighters. It’s extra special for them, for sure.
Another ISIS video from inside #Baghouz Women also fight against SDF https://twitter.com/mutludc/status/1106757728863703041?s=21 …Mutlu Civiroglu
In this footage allegedly shared by ISIS, chaos inside #Baghouz is seen. Non-stop gunfire and smoke rises. Some women also appear carry weapon and actively fight #TwitterKurds
Frustration is there, honestly, because the operation has been taking too long and the advance is too slow. And remember this is a territory that most of them are not familiar with, they are in this territory for the first time in their lives.
There are logistics problems, water, food, sanitization, hot weather, sometimes dust storms – it makes it very hard to fight. Remember one-and-a-half months ago when there was a dust storm ISIS launched a huge attack and caused serious problems for SDF fighters. Desert conditions have their own difficulties and most SDF fighters are very unfamiliar with these circumstances, and fighting in this geography is not something they are experts in. It causes some frustration, and to me it’s totally natural. But ISIS is almost on the verge of ending.
SDF continue ISIS clearing operations inside Baghuz, Syria on March 20, 2019. Image: Mutlu Civiroglu
TDP: Do you think the SDF will declare victory for Nowruz?
MC: Although the public is pushing, the SDF is not going to declare any territorial victory until they are fully sure that Baghuz is 100 percent cleared of ISIS members, explosives, landmines, booby traps, any other danger.
They’ll make sure everything is cleared, there is no one left, there is no harm to their fighters, there is no harm to Coalition partners, there is no harm to journalists. Only then will they announce, but it’s possible that the announcement might come on Friday or Saturday. But again if there are some people remaining inside they will make sure everything is taken care of. They are not rushing; they have been fighting for months now. This operation has already taken too long, so they will not mind waiting for a few more days until everything is taken care of.
DAİŞ’in köle olarak alıkoyduğu Êzîdî çocukları bir bir kurtarılıp ailelerine teslim ediliyor. Ednan, Kînan, Walîd kurtarılan çocuklardan sadece üçü. Kînan, özgürlüğe takım elbise ve kravatla adım atarken, Ednan QSD’nin DAİŞ’ten kurtardığı annesiyle buluşacağı günü iple çekiyor.
Babası Şengal Katliamı’nda katledilen Kînan, annesi ile birlikte DAİŞ çetelerince köle olarak kaçırıldı. Ancak annesi bir patlamada yaşamını yitirdi. Ebû Saed isimli DAİŞ çetesinin İdlib’e kadar kaçırıp 30 bin dolar karşılığı amcasına teslim ettiği Kînan, gazetecilerin karşısına takım elbise ve kravatla çıkıyor ve ekliyor: “Özgürlüğümün ilk günlerinde yakışıklı görünmek istedim.”
DAİŞ çetelerinin kıstırıldığı son toprak parçası Baxoz’da, 3 Ağustos 2014’teki Şengal Katliamı tekrar gündeme getiren gelişmeler yaşanıyor. Kaçırılan Êzîdî kadınlar ve köleleştirilen çocukların trajik öyküleri çıkıyor karşımıza.
Ednan, Kînan, Walîd… Üç çocuğun da babası katledilmiş ve anneleriyle kaçırılmış. Kînan ve Walîd’in anneleri ise DAİŞ’in kontrolündeki bölgelerde yaşanan patlamalarda hayatını kaybetmiş.
Ednan onlara göre biraz daha şanslı, bir süre önce annesi de QSD savaşçıları tarafından özgürleştirilmiş ve şimdi bir birlerine kavuşacakları anı sabırsızlıkla bekliyorlar.
Ednan annesine kavuşuyor
Gazeteci Mutlu Çiviroğlu önceki gün Twitter hesabından DAİŞ tarafından kaçırılan ve QSD savaşçılarınca kurtarılan Êzîdî bir çocuğun görüntülerini paylaşarak, söz çocuğun ailesine bir an önce kavuşmasını umduğunu söyledi.
Aynı gün akşam saatlerinde Êzîdîlere ait Ezidipress internet sitesi DAİŞ’in elinden kurtarılan çocuğun annesine kavuştuğunu duyurdu.
Çiviroğlu paylaştığı görüntüde çocuğun ismini sorması üzerine, “Benim adım Ednan” diyor. Ezidipress yetkilileri de çocuğun annesine ulaşarak oğlunun kurtarıldığının haberini veriyor. Haberi duyan anne mutluluk gözyaşları döküyor. Ezidipress Ednan’ın annesinin, QSD savaşçıları ile Mutlu Çiviroğlu’na teşekkür ettiğine de yer verdi.
DAİŞ çeteleri 3 Ağustos 2014 Şengal’de Êzîdî Kürtlere yönelik gerçekleştirdikleri soykırım saldırısında Ednan’ın babasını katletti. Çeteler, annesi ve kendisini de köle olarak götürdü. Annesinin de bir süre önce DAİŞ’ten kurtarıldığı belirtiliyor.
DAİŞ’in köle olarak kaçırdığı Êzîdî çocuğu Kînan, “Çok ölü gördüm, katledilen çok insan gördüm” diyor.
Kînan ömrünün tam yarısını DAİŞ’in zorbalığının altında geçirmiş. Bir süre önce QSD savaşçılarınca kurtarılmış. Fransız radyo kanalı France İnfo’nun haberine göre, Ebû Sead isimli DAİŞ çetesi sivillerin arasında küçük Kînan’i de yanına alarak Baxoz’dan kaçarak İdlib’e gitmiş. Şengal Katliamı’nda Kînan’ın babası da katledilenler arasında. DAİŞ’in yanında yaşadığı kabusu ise Kînan, “Ben çok ölü gördüm, DAİŞ’lilerin eliyle katledilen insanlar… Bizi çok dövüyorlardı. Babamı haksız yere öldürdüler” şeklinde bir çırpıda özetliyor.
Şık bir şekilde radyo muhabirleriyle görüşmesi, dikkat çekmiş.
Bir iki boy büyük de olsa takım elbise giymiş ve kravat takmış. Şık giyinmeyi de “Özgürlüğümün ilk günlerinde yakışıklı görünmek istedim” sözleriyle ifade ediyor.
Büyük ablasını DAİŞ’liler tarafından satılmış. Annesi ise Baxoz’da yaşanan bir patlamada yaşamanı yitirmiş. Küçük Kînan annesinin ölümünden sonra Ebû Saed’in kendisini, hiç bir sebep yokken de dövmeye başladığını söylüyor.
DAİŞ çeteleri Kürtçeyi yasakladıkları için Kînan da bir çok Êzîdî çocuğu gibi 5 yıl içerisinde ana dilini tamamen unutmuş.
Baxoz, QSD savaşçılarınca kuşatmaya alındığı süreçte Ebû Saed İd lib’e kaçmaya karar vermiş. Kînan’ın amcası Ebû Saed’e ulaşarak Kînan’i almaya çalışmış. Ebû Saed amcasından aldığı 30 bin dolar karşılığı Kînan’ı bırakıyor, O da 5 gün sonra Güney Kürdistan’daki amcasına ulaşıyor.
Walid de kurtarıldı
France İnfo muhaberleri göre Kînan ve amcası ile görüşürken, amcasının telefonuna bir mesaj ile fotoğraf düşüyor. QSD savaşçıları 9 yaşında bir çocuğu kurtarmış. Adı Walid ancak DAİŞ çeteleri ona Ebdul Haman ismini vermiş.
Onun da babası DAİŞ çetelerince katledilmiş ve onun da annesi Kînan’ın annesi gibi bir patlamada ölmüş. Şimdi Walid de kurtarılan ve annesine kavuşma anını iple çeken Ednan gibi emin ellerde ve özgür…
Baxoz’da 6’sı çocuk 8 Êzîdî kurtarıldı
Demokratik Suriye Güçleri (QSD), DAİŞ çetelerine karşı final savaşının yürütüldüğü Baxoz’da 6’sı çocuk olmak üzere 8 Êzîdî’yi daha kurtardı. Alınan bilgilere göre, QSD savaşçıları Baxoz’daki operasyon sırasında 8 Êzîdî’yi daha kurtararak güvenli alanlara ulaştırdı. Kurtarılanlar 6 çocuk ve 2 kadından oluşuyor. Operasyonda kurtarılan kadınların, T. S. ve E. M. olduğu öğrenilirken, çocukların isimleri ise şöyle: Eymen Xelil Heci, Dilbirîn Celer, Xeyri Şeref, Musa Hadi, Ayşe, İbrahim.