The article was written/researched by the following Journalists: Benjamin Hiller, freelance conflict Journalist since 2008 who covered extensively the Kurdish conflict as well as the different opposition factions in Syria and Michael Cruickshank, co-founder of Conflict News and specialist in analyzing social media content and geolocating/verifying video/photo evidence from conflict areas.
We do not want to discredit Gutman or his research in his article “Have the Syrian Kurds Committed War Crimes?”, published via The Nation on February 7th, 2017. It is widely known that the PYD, as well as the Kurdish militia YPG/YPJ, was involved in crimes supposedly amounting to acts of war crimes and Gutman sums up these facts, highlighted by the Amnesty International report from 2015, well in his article. But we are concerned regarding several sloppily-researched segments of the article including arguments which border on conspiracy theories. Especially as it seems that he relies for many claims only on single sources that could have their own political agenda in the first place. Additionally, there are parts in his article that are just factually wrong. Out of respect, we suppose that these were just research mistakes and not purposely invented to better support his line of reporting. We will analyze seventeen claims made in the article in the following and hope to correct these mistakes.
1. Claim: “At least 300,000 Syrian Kurds have also fled the region to neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan, according to officials there, and no fewer than 200,000 have fled to Turkey rather than submit to forced conscription and political suppression by a group that insists on ruling as a one-party state, according to Kurdish human rights monitors in Turkey. Officials in Iraqi Kurdistan say that if the Syrian Kurdish militia opened the borders, at least half the Kurdish population under its control would flee.”
Answer: Yes, the PYD acts often in an authoritarian way and was involved in the suppression of other Kurdish opposition parties. And the numbers of Kurds who have fled the region are factually correct. But Gutman neglects that the main reasons for Kurds to flee the region are the same as for other Syrian refugees: The lack of jobs, possibilities to earn money, food shortages, constant warfare and similar humanitarian issues. The first big waves of Kurdish refugees arrived in Turkey and Kurdistan-Iraq when Islamist groups attacked the Kurdish-dominated areas in the North-/North-East Syria – and rose even further when ISIS attacked these areas later on. When safety was reinstated in areas like Kobani thousands of Kurds returned from Turkey to rebuild their city. Additionally, thousands of Arabs who fled the violence in their regions in Syria moved to the Kurdish areas first in hope to find there a safe heaven. This contradicts the blanket statement above. Furthermore, the quote of the officials from Iraqi Kurdistan is contradicted by Gutman himself later on when he says that the KRG and Turkey blocked the border crossings into the PYD controlled area, not the other way around. Furthermore, when the borders were open there was a steady flow of people and goods in both directions, a fact which seems to contradict this statement. It should be noted that the Rojava authorities have also imposed restrictions on people leaving their areas, and at least during some periods and in some areas you needed permission from Rojava Asayish to leave. This has in fact been one of few areas of co-operation between KRG and PYD since neither of them wants Kurds to leave Rojava. Thus both sides have imposed restrictions on people leaving, but only the KRG and Turkey have imposed a full blockade on goods and people.
2. Claim: (…) “and has attempted to “Kurdify” traditionally Arab towns.”
Answer: We have found no conclusive evidence of a “Kurdification” of traditional Arab towns. Also, he neglects the well know and established historical “Arabification” from Kurdish areas in North-Syria during the time of Hafez al-Assad. This was a starting point of tensions and disputes in the region, long before the PKK or the PYD even existed.
3. Claim: ““The dominant force that is managing them is Iranian intelligence,” said Ibrahim Hussein, a Kurd who was a local judge under the Assad regime and stayed on in that position in Hasakah until July 2014. A Syrian Arab who had held a high-level intelligence post in northern Syria agreed. “Iran is the primary funding source for the PKK,” said Mahmud al-Naser, who defected from the Damascus regime in mid-2012.”
Answer: The first source, Ibrahim Hussein, seems a bit misplaced to make such bold claims, as it seems unreasonable that local judge would have such insights. The second source seems more reliable though and could have had the proper access. But the problem is nobody really knows the extent that there is support from Iran for the PKK. There could be a funnelling of money via proxies but hard proof is, as far as we know, non-existing. Then there would be the question if direct support from Iran to the PKK would make any sense? It seems far more likely that the PKK and Iran are currently in a kind of truce and see their “common enemies” first. The PKK so far has never directly supported Iran or Iranian militias in the Syrian conflict – and the Kurdish-Iranian offshoot PJAK has, on and off, clashed with Iranian forces inside Iran in the recent years. It is far more reasonable to argue that currently neither the PKK nor Iran want to open up yet another front and thus “agree” on “ignoring” each other so far. Additionally, we want to point out the rather good relationship between Turkey and Iran in recent times, including the peace talks on Syria as well as meetings between high-profile politicians from both sides on issues ranging from foreign policy to cross-border trade.
4. Claim: “The YPG’s collaboration with the Assad regime extends to recently active battlefronts.”
Answer: Yes and No. Of course there were silent agreements between the Syrian Army and the YPG during certain battles. Each side, especially around Aleppo, tried to advance their own agenda while “accepting” the moves of the other side. But this is, in a multi-factional and complex civil war like it is happening in Syria, common. Each faction and militia tries to keep their own power base happy and act under the accord of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. Additionally, Gutman neglects to mention the fights between the Syrian Army and the YPG in all areas of Syria. There had been tit-for-tat fights between the YPG and the Syrian Army in Aleppo’s neighborhoods for years where the Kurds shot at Syrian regime soldiers and pushed them further away from the Kurdish areas – and in return the Syrian regime used barrel bombs on these Kurdish areas, killing civilians. Furthermore, there were fights between the Syrian Army and the YPG in Qamishli and, most seriously, in Hasakah city where the Syrian Army even used their airforce to bomb the positions of the YPG. So yes, there is a “silent agreement” between these forces during certain periods – out of battle calculations – but these agreements collapsed often enough to show clearly that there is no full-blown collaboration.
5. Claim: “But the two groups have often worked in tandem against moderate rebel groups. In several notable instances, for example in Tel Hamis and Husseiniya in Hasakah province, the YPG fought in 2013 to oust moderate rebels of the Free Syrian Army but failed. Islamic State fighters moved in with their suicide bomb units, captured the towns, and in 2015 handed them over to the YPG without a fight.”
Answer: Here we arrive at the point where the article stumbles into the territory of conspiracy theories and outright factual mistakes. Gutman speaks of “moderate rebels” in Tel Hamis and Husseiniya in 2013. One of the dominant groups there was Ahrar al-Sham, a ultra-conservative Islamist militia which attacked the Kurdish areas constantly, alongside Jabhat al-Nusra (nowadays Tahrir Fateh al-Sham), the former al-Qaeda branch in Syria. In regards to Tel Hamis, we want to delve a bit deeper into the facts: The campaign to recapture Tel Hamis via Husseiniya – to open the road between Hasaka and Qamishli. On January 5th, 2014 the YPG started their attack on Tel Hamis from three different directions. But in Husseiniya, where the local Arabic tribal militia Scharabiya promised safe passage for the operation, things went south. Civilians, returning back to their villages after recent clashes, and militia members slowed down the advances of the YPG. Suddenly shots were fired onto the YPG column and a brutal fight ensued. It is claimed that the Scharabiya militia fought on both sides of the conflict, and that Jihadists from various radical Islamist groups joined in. On the 6th of January the YPG had to hastily retreat from Tel Hamis and Husseiniya after they lost supposedly 39 fighters – the highest causality number in a single day up to that point for the YPG. 31 bodies had to be left behind and the local Islamist groups bragged about these bodies on Twitter and Facebook and put the bodies in the end in a mass-grave. The retreat and defeat of the YPG by these militias had dire consequences: Tel Brak was recaptured by Islamists and held for several weeks; Islamists attacked several times the nearby village of Tel Marouf and destroyed the shrines of Kurdish mystics, and suicide bombers were able to slip through the YPG checkpoints to attack Qamishli in the aftermath of the Tel Hamis disaster. But things changed again when the weakened FSA-aligned Islamist groups (due to the continuing campaign by the YPG as well as infighting) were overrun by ISIS (some members of groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham outright joined ISIS). But in 2015 ISIS did not “hand over” these cities and areas to YPG without a fight. Indeed Tel Hamis was wrested out of control from ISIS after a long and bloody campaign – accompanied by at least 20 airstrikes by the U.S. led coalition the days before the fall of Tel Hamis. ISIS had to retreat after losing reportedly more than 150 fighters – while the YPG also lost up to several dozen fighters. So the claim that there was no fighting and the cities were “handed over” is factually incorrect. And ISIS retreated afterward additionally from several villages – presumably to keep their manpower intact and regroup at more easily defensible positions. This is called “tactical retreat” in military terms and is in no way a “hand over”. But even during the Tel Hamis battle between the YPG and ISIS and the retreat by the latter, ISIS raided several villages dominated by Assyrian Christians in the surrounding areas and abducted more than 100 civilians – supposedly to put pressure on Sutoro, the Assyrian-Christian militia, often fighting alongside the YPG in the region. So ISIS used its old tactics, seen over and over again, to retreat when facing difficult challenges, retreating to other areas and launching surprise attacks on weakly defended villages and using civilians as a bargaining chip.
6. Claim: “In late 2014, when ISIS attacked Kobani, drawing US air strikes that killed as many as 2,000 ISIS fighters, it was the other way around. According to former residents, the YPG abandoned the outskirts of Kobani to ISIS without a fight, ordering residents to leave the villages they were eager to defend.”
Answer: This argument seems also very implausible and is repeated later on again in the article, though then even claiming that they forced villagers “at gunpoint” to abandon their villages around Kobani before the ISIS attack happened and thus prevented them from defending their villages. Of course, the YPG evacuated these villages around Kobani before the ISIS attack, which everybody knew was coming. Because these villagers had no means to defend themselves against the onslaught of ISIS. And last but not least a civilian population in the middle of a battle zone is, for every military strategist, a horror scenario. In regards to Kobani, all evidence point to an orderly and military retreat, after heavy fighting and losses, in the different outlying areas. This is a normal procedure when a military force is overcome by an enemy who has larger resources and manpower. You set up different peripheries of defense and retreat when the odds are against you. Also totally forgotten by Gutman are the other aspects of the battle for Kobani which differ from his narrative: Like the additional Iraqi-Kurdish Peshmerga units (450 fighters) with heavy weapons which were let into the city after a while to support the YPG in their fight. The different Arabic FSA-aligned groups (400 fighters) fighting in Kobani alongside the YPG against ISIS. And the massive U.S. led coalition airstrikes which were the turning point of the fight against ISIS in Syria. There is no “conspiracy” here to hand over these areas to ISIS.
7. Claim: “Mohar said his orders came from the top. No one within the YPG had the right to decide—only the PKK commanders and the ruling council, he said, naming Lehman Huseyin, who uses the nom de guerre Bahoz Erdal, and Murat Karayilan. “I saw lots of other villages burning,” Mohar said. He spoke of Tal Brak, another town in northern Syria where “Karayilan decided to destroy the place, not to allow even a chicken to come out alive.””
Answer: We do not dispute the links between the PKK and the YPG/YPJ. They are of course intertwined – from an ideological standpoint as well as due to the fact that many Syrian Kurds were fighting for the PKK in the last 30 years and that Syria was a save haven for Öcalan himself for several years. Many of these Syrian-Kurdish fighters were sent back to Syria when the civil war broke out to train local Syrian Kurds and help setting up the YPG/YPJ. There is for sure also a certain “hierarchical order” in regards to the command structures between YPG/YPJ and PKK. But it is implausible that the YPG/YPJ only acted when there was a command from the PKK – for that the battlefield was/is far too fluid and it would have taken far too long to securely communicate with the PKK headquarters in Qandil (the leadership does not use mobile phones or the internet out of fear of drone strikes by Turkey – messages must be brought to them on written papers). Furthermore, both the PKK and the YPG/YPJ know that any direct exchange of weapons or the support of PKK attacks inside Turkey would discredit the standing of the YPG/YPJ with the international community immediately – and thus they likely avoid these kinds of dealings. But the biggest problem is that this claim and “inside knowledge” should have been known by a “foot soldier”, as Mohar seems to depict himself. So how could he know the workings of the upper echelon in such a hierarchical party structure and even who would decide which village to “burn down” inside Syria?
8. Claim: “At a meeting in March 2011 with PKK leaders in Damascus, national security aides assigned the PKK the role of suppressing anti-Assad protests in Hasakah province, according to Mahmud al-Naser, who at the time was a top regime intelligence official in Hasakah province. “The message to the PKK was this: ‘We established you. We supported you from 1983. Now it’s your turn to do something for us.’””
Answer: This meeting could have taken place and the source seems plausible enough. Though sadly Gutman neglects to mention the PKK/PYD crackdown inside Syria between 1998-2011 – with hundreds of PKK/PYD cadres and “foot soldiers” arrested, tortured and killed. It is not very plausible that the PKK and the Syrian Regime were “good friends” in 2011 but rather that they came to a “gentlemen’s agreement” in regards to power sharing in the Kurdish-dominated areas of Syria.
9. Claim: “Qasim Suleymani, the commander of Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), played an instrumental role in setting up the arrangements, Naser said.”
Answer: It could have happened like that, it could also not have happened at all. We do not know as Gutman sadly provides only one source.
10. Claim: Tammu and other Kurds opposed to the Assad regime quickly became the first target in the YPG crackdown. There were mass arrests and assassinations of leaders —first Tammu, killed in October 2011; then Mahmud Wali in September 2012 and Ahmad Bunjak in September 2013. “Certainly the PYD was operating under orders from the regime,” said Ibrahim Hussein, the Kurdish judge.
Answer: Yes, the PYD was probably involved in directly targeted assassinations against political opponents though it is hard to get actual hard proof on these assassinations. But the problem is that one paragraph later his key witness Mahmud al-Naser contradicts Ibrahim Hussein. Because Naser says that the Syrian regime was aware of the assassinations – but Hussein claims that they were ordered by the Syrian regime. One of these two claims must be false and thus the source could be wrong about other things too.
11. Claim: “The expulsions and destruction of villages that began in early 2014 followed a surprising pattern of seeming collaboration between the YPG, ISIS, and the Assad regime with the purpose of expelling moderate rebel forces from key border crossings and major cities across the region. Again and again, in towns where the YPG lacked the manpower or weapons to dislodge the rebels, ISIS forces arrived unexpectedly with their corps of suicide bombers, seized the territory, and later handed it over to the YPG without a fight. Afterward, the YPG expelled the Arab residents.”
Answer: Here Gutman makes out a conspiracy of major proportion without any shred of evidence. First his term “major cities”. There are only two major cities in the area, Hasakah city, and Qamishli. Both cities were never in the hands of “moderate rebels” or under full control of ISIS. And he does not explain which “key border crossings” he means – the town Yaroubia (Tel Kocher) was already under control by the YPG since 2013. Furthermore, in 2014, there were no “moderate rebels” left in these areas but only hardcore Islamists and ISIS. And yes, ISIS drove out many of the other groups – while scores of their fighters joined ISIS. And yes, the YPG/YPJ slowly but steadily expanded its area of control during 2014. And here we need to get the dynamics in this conflict again right: There is a huge difference between the capabilities of the YPG pre- and post-Kobani. Beforehand they were a light infantry force with primary experience in fighting a guerrilla war. Afterward, they were a light infantry force, with urban combat experience, but also crucially the only armed group in Syria which could count on Close Air Support from the world’s most powerful and most capable air force (the USAF). The impact this had on their fighting capabilities cannot be understated. The reason ISIS withdrew from these areas without much of a fight was simply that they learned the lesson of Kobani, in that sending wave after wave of fighters up against the USAF in an open area was a particularly bad idea. How Gutman can see any collaboration/plan between YPG, ISIS and the Assad regime in all this is unfathomable.
12. Claim: “Take the town of Tel Hamis, south of Rojava’s biggest city, Qamishli. Rebels from Brigade 313, with support from the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham, captured it from government forces in February 2013, and the YPG was unable to wrest it from them. At the end of 2013, in the midst of fighting, a column of more than 100 vehicles carrying armed Islamic State fighters arrived unexpectedly from eastern Syria and defeated two rebel brigades, Brigade 114 and the Falcon brigade, according to Naser and other sources. ISIS later withdrew to an area 20 miles south of Tel Hamis and turned the area over to the YPG without a fight in February 2015, he said. It was only then that the YPG began demolishing Arab houses, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.”
Answer: Here Gutman simplifies the battle for Tel Hamis massively and gets many things wrong. We already detailed the battle for Tel-Hamis in-depth beforehand. That ISIS did surprise attacks like the above mentioned is a normal tactic from them and was used again and again – one of their core aims was to weaken any other “Sunni-Arabic” opposition force so that they could claim to be the only “proper opposition” in the area. Then he jumps to 2015 (or better his source Naser does) and claims that ISIS handed over the area without a fight. He neglects to mention all the fighting between the YPG/YPJ and ISIS in2014 and how the Kurdish forces slowly weakened and pushed out ISIS in this area. That was again not a “hand over” but a war of attrition. And again the role of US air strikes can’t be overstated as they massively changed the tactical balance following the battle of Kobani.
13. Claim: “Another sign of ISIS collusion with the Assad regime: In the three months after ISIS captured Tel Hamis in early 2014, ISIS operatives stole some 90,000 tons of wheat stored in the town and sold it to the Assad regime, delivering it in Latakia, more than 300 miles away on the Mediterranean coast, in lengthy caravans of trucks, said Mahmoud al-Mahdi, head of the Hasakah documentation center in Sanliurfa, Turkey.”
Answer: As it is well known nowadays in the Syrian war, everybody trades with everyone. There is cross-faction trading everywhere and it is well documented that ISIS sold also oil and gasoline to regime-held areas. What this has to do with the Kurds at all is not easy to understand in the first place.
14. Claim: “Take Shiwukh, an Arab town of 45,000 in northern Aleppo province on the east bank of the Euphrates River, some 130 miles west of Tel Hamis. Arab rebel forces of the Ahrar Shiwukh and Martyr Abdulaziz Kazzal battalions captured Shiwukh from the regime in July 2012, but they agreed, in a fateful move, to share control with the YPG. In March 2014, without warning, YPG fighters abandoned their posts to ISIS, which then overwhelmed the defenses of the Arab rebels. A year later, in March 2015, Arab rebels and the YPG plotted the joint recapture of the town. But then, according to Isam al-Nayif, a commander of the Ahrar Shiwukh battalion, “the PKK stormed the town without telling us.” (He was referring to the YPG, the PKK’s Syrian affiliate).”
Answer: First of all Gutman needs to clarify if he is talking about Shuyukh Fawqani or Shuyukh Tahtani? But both are way smaller than 45000 people. Interestingly this is the first time that anybody heard of this specific deal between rebels and the YPG. Especially as almost everywhere else in North-Syria the co-operation between rebels and YPG ended in July 2013. It seems odd that the co-operation in this specific place would have lasted all the way until March 2014 – more sources and details on this arrangement would be welcome. It should be noted that ISIS attacks in this area (Kobani canton) were extremely intense in the spring of 2014 and thus could explain the different “erratic” tactics of the YPG – but again there is no proof of a “hand over”.
15. Claim: “But Kurds who fled the Kobani region by the tens of thousands tell a very different story—that the YPG handed the hinterlands of the city to ISIS without a fight, and the Syrian regime, the YPG’s silent partner, watched as armed ISIS convoys moved through the countryside to Kobani.”
Answer: This “argument” again borders on a conspiracy theory, though contradicting other statements by Gutman in his article. So technically the YPG “handed over” areas to ISIS – while the Syrian regime watched ISIS take over these Kurdish-dominated areas? What is the point here Gutman tries to make? That Assad, the YPG and ISIS conspired to let Kobani fall into the hands of ISIS – but this was thwarted than when the US started its bombing campaign against ISIS to support the Kurds, who were holding the city in a brutal house to house fight? Furthermore, we see again the claim that the YPG “handed over” areas to ISIS while it was a planned and orderly retreat to make a proper last stand in Kobani. And how should these Kurdish civilians – who supposedly got expelled from exactly these areas before ISIS attacked – know all these secret dealings, “handovers” and similar schemes? Moreover, this argument fails Occam’s Razor – the more simple explanation is that the YPG made the smart tactical decision that they couldn’t hold open ground against an opponent that both outnumbered them, and operated significant amounts of armoured vehicles. This paragraph is particularly baffling in its absence of a valid point.
16. Claim: “According to Ibrahim Hussein, the Kurdish judge in the northern Syria region under the Assad regime and the PYD until mid-2014, the hostility between YPG and ISIS was feigned. He said that well before ISIS reached villages in the hinterland, “the YPG would come and say Daesh is attacking.” When locals insisted on defending their villages, the YPG “forced them to leave at gunpoint,” he said.”
Answer: We already talked about this claim at the beginning of our criticism of Gutman’s article. So Hussein claims that the “hostility between the YPG and ISIS was feigned” – everybody can claim what they want but the facts on the ground show that they are bitter rivals and engulfed in an all-out war. Especially, it seems ridiculous that a secular “Marxist-Leninist” organization like the YPG would be on good terms with the most radical Sunni-Arabic Islamist terrorist group seen up to now in the Middle East. Furthermore, what should the YPG have done – let the villagers “defend” their villages with some old shotguns and rusty AKs? Of course, the YPG evacuated these areas before ISIS arrived there to prevent the necessity to rescue civilians from an ISIS attack and to “clear the perimeter” for the upcoming fighting.
17. Claim: “What followed was an enormous outflow of Kurds into Turkey. Before the ISIS attack, there had been 400,000 Kurds in the Kobani region, but a census taken after the fighting ended revealed only 200,000. “Where are the other 200,000?” said Hussein, who now lives in southern Turkey. “They fled before Daesh arrived.”
Answer: We included this statement here to show a general problem in the reporting of Gutman – what is the implication of this paragraph and why did he integrate it? Does he want to imply that the PYD has made “200.000” people disappear? Or prevented them from returning back? We do not know. What we do know is that civilians fled to Turkey to avoid the brutal onslaught brought by ISIS on their way to Kobani – which is a natural reaction.
These are some of the points, which we see as problematic in Gutman’s reporting. Again we want to point out that the PYD, as well as the YPG/YPJ, has very likely committed crimes amounting to war crimes and it is important and valid to point these facts out. But Gutman uses problematic sources, drifts into vast conspiracy theories without any factual proof and thus creates a narrative of an “Axis of Evil” between Assad – YPG/PKK – ISIS and the “good moderate rebels” on the other side. Besides being a conspiracy theory, it is also a simplification of a very complex war and seems to derive from the need to see everything in blatant “black and white” dichotomy, rather than as a complex environment where every armed faction and militia has its own goals and ideological backgrounds; and where the dealings between these different factions never fit into a “neat” narrative and rather depend on the time, region and balance of power at that specific moment.
Furthermore, we want to make the point that Gutman`s article almost exclusively uses evidence from the period between 2011-2014. Given that we are now in 2017, and there have been significant developments by the YPG/PKK to integrate more with local Arabs through the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a lot of the arguments made in the article seem obsolete. If the international community can accept that many of the “moderate rebels” in Syria have become radicalized and joined Islamist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Nusra), then they can also accept a more positive and inclusive evolution of the YPG. Obviously, there are still problems between Kurds and Arabs in YPG-controlled areas (dating back to the difficult history between these ethnic groups since the foundation of Syria), but the trend is nonetheless positive, making the entire thesis of this article questionable indeed.
That there must be in the end a reconciliation and peace process in regards to committed war crimes (by all sides) in Syria should be clear for every observer. Sadly these kinds of internal investigations, including trials and similar procedures, almost never happen during the war itself. Thus we suggest that on the one hand, the international community increases the pressure on groups like the PYD and YPG to change its behaviour – and that, after/if there is a peace process in Syria, that the war crimes, committed by all factions, must be brought in front of an international war crime committee.