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Is there ‘systematic ethnic cleansing’ by Kurds in north-east Syria?

Multiple reports last week suggested that “systemic ethnic cleansing” is being carried out by forces of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) against Arab and Turkmen communities living in north-east Syria. The allegations have yet to be confirmed, but a coalition of fifteen armed opposition groups expressed their concern by issuing a statement condemning what they call a “crime of ethnic and sectarian cleansing against Sunni Arabs” in Al-Hasakah and Al-Raqqah provinces. The statement emphasised the importance of Syrian territorial unity and integrity.

“Many [Kurdish forces’] operations were carried out, including the burning and bulldozing of houses and the confiscation of properties and agricultural machinery,” said Huda Al-Ali, a researcher with the Syrian Network for Human Rights. She obtained this information by interviewing families and witnesses in the affected provinces. The Kurdish forces, she said, justified their operations as revenge against families whose sons allegedly joined ISIS. “Every Arab has become accused of ‘collaboration’ with Daesh,” she added, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

Nisreen Abdullah, a military leader of the PYD’s armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), denied these incidents on Wednesday, stressing that the group is committed to international standards and laws in the case of war.

The allegations of PYD’s aggression against the Arab and Turkmen in north-east Syria coincided with the defeat of ISIS in a battle against a combined force of Kurdish fighters and the Free Syrian Army in Tal Abyad. The town was recaptured by Kurdish and rebel fighters, effectively cutting off the key supply line for ISIS from Turkey to its de facto capital of Raqqah.

All armed factions in the north-east of Syria are working collaboratively under the Self-Ruling Forces, a coalition of small groups of Arab and Assyrian combatants. The Kurdish YPG is largest group and the leading component of the Self-Ruling Forces.

“There is no cleansing, but calls were sent to civilians living close to war zones to move to safer zones,” explained Mustafa Ebdi, a Syrian-Kurdish journalist and the managing editor of KobaniKurd.com. He added that it is possible that there are individual cases of violence by Kurdish fighters against the Arabs and Turkmen but insisted that these acts are few and are not systematic.

“Now, a civilian council will be formed of various components in order to manage the region; there is no hostility towards Arabs by the YPG nor PYD,” insisted Ebdi, who lives in the Kurdish-rule areas and reports closely with the YPG. He believes that some media reports aim “to destabilise the liberated areas” in the interests of ISIS. Last Year, Human Rights Watch documented violations committed by PYD fighters against their political opponents, including abuse in detention and unsolved abductions and murders.

The Kurdish forces have been beating ISIS in the areas under its domination, thanks to the support and aid provided by Iraq’s Kurdistan and the US-led international coalition against the group. The coalition’s airstrikes have played a major role in helping the PYD to advance by targeting ISIS bases and allowing YPG forces to replace the extremist rule of ISIS. Many Syrians, however, regard the PYD as a “separatist” group and have serious concerns that it intends to establish a “Syrian-Kurdistan” in the north of the country.

The US supports the Kurdish factions in Syria and Iraq, which has strained its relationship with Turkey. The government in Ankara views the PYD as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been in conflict with Turkey for 30 years. The US and NATO have both designated the PKK as a “terrorist organisation.”

Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the West of supporting Kurdish “terrorists” and thus killing Arabs and Turkmens in Syria. “The West, which has shot Arabs and Turkmens, is unfortunately placing the PYD and PKK in lieu of them,” he said in a speech in Ankara. To date, the Turkish government has refrained from joining the international coalition against ISIS.

In the past week, more than 6,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Turkey after witnessing the fierce clashes in Tal Abyad between ISIS and the Kurds. One refugee told McClatchy that YPG fighters evicted Arabs and Turkmens from their homes and burned their personal documents. “They forced us from our village and said to us ‘This is Rojava’,” he claimed. Rojava is the name that the PYD uses for the territory it claims for itself in north-east Syria.

In response to the allegations of ethnic cleansing, the Syrian political opposition said that a fact-finding delegation will be formed to visit Tal Abyad and investigate the claims. It is unclear how figures from the Syrian opposition will enter the Kurdish-ruled areas, given the disagreements between both groups; the investigation team will face challenges in accomplishing its mission.

Abdulrahman al-Masri is an independent journalist based in Canada. Follow him on twitter at @AbdulrhmanMasri.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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