Kurdistan National Congress UK, Kurdish Community Centre, Halkevi Turkish and Kurdish Community Centre, Sussex Kurdish Community Centre, Peace in Kurdistan Campaign & Campaign Against Criminalising Communities (CAMPACC)
The Kurdish experiment in democratic autonomy in Syria is now under grave threat from the Al Qaeda affiliated al Nusra Front and other Islamist factions who are waging an increasingly ruthless campaign of violence and mass killings. Their onslaught is threatening civilians in the Kurdish controlled region that has remained relatively peaceful since the start of the civil war in Syria two and a half years ago. The offensive is encroaching on the autonomy exercised by the Kurds in their own region of Western Kurdistan as the central state in Damascus, preoccupied with uprisings elsewhere in the country, proved incapable of imposing its control.
A US led attack on Syria leading to the toppling of Assad and the disintegration of the Syrian army could lead to the kind of turmoil witnessed in Iraq following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. This scenario would pose a serious challenge to Turkey which may soon be forced to decide between living alongside an Islamic state ruled by the al-Qaeda backed al-Nusra Front or an autonomous Kurdish region governed by the PYD. Turkish leaders fear that success of the latter could provide inspiration for Kurds living in Turkey to demand the same rights for themselves and that this would threaten to destabilise the country; nevertheless, the establishment of an al-Qaeda linked entity on its border would surely pose a more unpredictable threat to Turkey’s longer term stability and integrity as a largely secular state. The question is whether Turkey’s political leaders really have the imagination and foresight to see this and to act accordingly.
The war in Syria is not the Kurds’ war; despite having suffered brutal repression at the hands of Assad over many years, the Syrian Kurds have refrained from joining in the attempt to overthrow the regime by violent means. The Kurds led by the PYD have argued for a peaceful transformation of Syria and it is because of their determination to take an independent position on the uprising that they have started to face an onslaught from Syrian rebel forces led by al-Nusra. In response, Saleh Muslim, leader of the PYD, has stated that Syrian Kurds do not support either the government in Damascus or the rebel groups, but only seek to protect themselves from massacres and ethnic cleansing. Islamist militias have been waging a brutal ethnic cleansing on Kurdish villagers and have been responsible for atrocities and massacres against unarmed Kurdish civilians. “Those who attack us and our homes have no respect for democracy or freedom; they have no respect for anything. It’s as if these people were from a different planet,” the Syrian Kurdish leader continued. “All that we have said and done from the very outset was to protect ourselves both from the regime and from these forces.”
Clashes in Kurdish towns
Bloody clashes have been continuing for several weeks near the Turkish border between the Syrian Kurds headed by the PYD and the al-Nusra Front threatening to destabilise the region and spill over into Turkey. In reaction, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has warned that the country would not stand by if the conflict “poses a threat to Turkey’s security.”
In a recent outrage against Kurds apparently committed by the well-funded and well-resourced al-Nusra Front, it was reported that a massacre of 120 children and 330 women took place when militants from the group launched a brutal attack on the town of Tal Abyad close to the Turkish border. This horrific massacre is supposed to have taken place on Monday 5th August, but has still not been properly investigated as of September.
One eyewitness from Tel- Hasel described the incident: “The al-Nusra militants and other rebel forces surrounded the village”, Yasin Tarbush, a relative of one of the Kurdish attack victims, told Russia Today, 27th August. “They started going door to door, entering every house. If there were any men, they killed them and took the women and children hostage.”
Commenting on the incident, the UN Human Rights office in Geneva said it was investigating and if it confirms the massacre, it would consider this to constitute a war crime and seek to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice.
While the veracity of the reporting has not been fully verified by independent sources, the news is deeply disturbing and highlights the threat currently facing the Kurds in Syria not only from militant Islamic forces but from the ambitions of Turkey which is seeking to extend its influence in the region and is alarmed by the achievement of democratic autonomy won by the Syrian Kurds.
What is certainly not in any doubt is the bloody onslaught waged by the al-Nusra Front, which appears to have been stepped up over the past few days. According to the PYD the assaults by Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria began on 17th July with brutal attacks on ‘’neighbourhoods in Tel-Abeyd, Serekaniye, Tel- Aran, Tel- Hasel’’. Civilians continue to be subjected to killing, kidnapping and shelling with heavy weaponry; homes are looted and destroyed in an attempt to force people to leave their properties and land.
Since 29th July, according to the PYD, the Kurdish towns Tel-Aran and Tel-Hasel and its villages of Aleppo, have been under brutal attacks and massacred, with hundreds of innocent Kurdish children, women and elderly people have been murdered and ritually beheaded. In addition, hundreds of civilians have been taken hostage and their fate still unknown and thousands civilians forcibly fled their homes in horror at the violence from these armed terrorist groups, according to the PYD.
The PYD continues, stating that so far ‘’hundreds of Kurdish civilians have been kidnapped, tortured and their houses have been looted and burned down. These ongoing brutal massacres are targeting all Kurdish civilians in Qamishli, Kobani and Afrin areas,’’ the party warns, appealing to the international community for urgent action. The UN, US and EU must help to stop the ethnic cleansing and brutal massacres and work towards a comprehensive political settlement that respects the rights of all the peoples in Syria.
Turkey’s questionable role
What also needs intense scrutiny is the role of Turkey in fuelling the conflict in the Kurdish part of Syria. Despite Turkish official denials of giving support to groups like al-Nusra, Turkey’s claims to be totally uninvolved cannot simply be accepted without question. There is also the issue of cross-border arms supplies coming from Turkish territory to these militant groups. These issues need to be investigated and stopped immediately.
Turkish officials might well be prepared to enter into talks with Salah Muslim, the PYD leader, but this does not mean that Turkey has ceased in its attempts to undermine the integrity of the Kurdish position inside Syria given that Turkish leaders have long been alarmed by the self-government exercised by the Kurds in the country since the outbreak of the civil war, fearing that its example of freedom and democracy will spread to Turkey itself.
It appears that the Al Nusra rebels, whose leaders have openly pledged support for the Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, are intent on destabilising the Kurdish region and dragging the Syrian Kurds into the violent conflict which they have successfully resisted so far. As an alternative to the bloody uprising, which to date has claimed some 100,000 lives, the Syrian Kurds led by the PYD have put forward detailed and constructive proposals for a peaceful democratic transformation of Syria that preserves the ethnic diversity and secular character of the country. These proposals need to be more widely supported as they lay the basis for a way forward for Syria.
The Kurds have defended the rights and freedoms of all the communities within the Kurdish controlled region, repudiating sectarianism as utterly alien to their progressive democratic principles. This enlightened Kurdish position stands in stark contrast to the divisive targeting of minorities and the deliberate ethnic cleansing carried out by groups like al-Nusra which is now tragically being extended to Kurdish villages formerly living at peace.
We support the proposals for a comprehensive peace settlement in Syria put forward by the PYD and supports the right of the Kurds in Syria to exercise democratic self-government in the region.
We call for the release of any civilian hostages held by rebel groups and urges an immediate halt to the arms supplies to these factions who are turning their weapons on innocent civilians and carrying out war crimes.
A team of experts needs to visit the Kurdish area to verify the report of this massacre, to compile evidence that will bring the perpetrators of this heinous act to justice. It is clearly a war crime to murder unarmed civilians and the manner of the killing has been shocking in its barbarity.
Unarmed civilians are clearly facing a desperate situation and an urgent threat to their lives. We urge you to respond to the emergency appeal to defend the Kurds in Syria. They stand for the values of peace, freedom and democracy for all the peoples of Syria that the international community itself claims to uphold. The Kurds are calling for our support. We should not let them down.
With Obama hell bent on taking military intervention against Assad as a punitive reprisal for the alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians it certainly appears that Syria is about to enter into a period of immense uncertainty and instability whose ultimate outcome is by no means clear. It is totally uncertain what the US is really seeking to achieve by preparing to bomb Syria other than weaken Assad and strengthen the rebel opposition. Whatever strategy Washington and its allies, including Turkey, might be seeking to draw up for a future Syria, the recognition of the democratic rights of the Kurds surely needs to be central; Kurdish rights must be protected and acknowledged along with those of the many religious and ethnic communities living in this extremely diverse country which historically has been one of the most multicultural countries in the Middle East. It is hard to see how bombing can help to achieve a democratic and secular Syria or assist in the preservation of its multicultural heritage while rebel groups affiliated to al-Qaeda are growing in strength and envisage a very different future for the peoples of Syria. The Kurds, as one of the pillars of a democratic, secular and multicultural Syria, stand for an entirely different future for the peoples of the region.
2 September 2013
*This statement was also sent as an open letter to President Barack Obama and his Ambassador in London on 9 September 2013, Matthew W. Barzun, to demand they stop their march to war in Syria.
For more information contact:
Peace in Kurdistan
Campaign for a political solution of the Kurdish Question
Email: [email protected]
Contacts Estella Schmid 020 7586 5892 & Melanie Sirinathsingh – Tel: 020 7272 7890
Fax: 020 7263 0596