Russia-Turkey deal increases chances of ethnic cleansing

As I arrived in the region to assess the likelihood of ethnic violence against the Kurds, I passed a convoy of U.S. troops heading south into North Kurdistan. The withdrawal has not only opened the door for Turkey’s incursion to Syria but made things more dangerous. It indirectly supports the ultimate end game of Kurdish ethnic cleansing, which was sealed with the recent deal with Russia. 

The new arrangement, which includes a 150-hour extension of the ceasefire with Kurdish military, previously agreed to with the Americans, provides a window for Kurdish civilians to leave to avoid future danger. But that does not mean genocidal ethnic cleansing has been avoided. In fact, the opposite is true.

I am in North Kurdistan speaking with some of the thousands of refugees who have already crossed the border, mostly illegally, from Syria. At one of the hastily erected new camps at Bardarash, a line of new arrivals awaiting a tent and the chance for a hot meal snakes from the administration building. I watch in amazement as locals arrive with cars laden with bread and rice, which the Barzani Foundation uses to feed the entire contingent of shell-shocked arrivals who have risked their lives to find safety. As a researcher of genocide, I am here to find out the reason for their flight.

I speak with Abdul Haqim, who until a week ago was living on the border with Turkey, along with the four female members of his immediate family. Fearing for their lives as the initial indiscriminate bombing landed in their neighborhood, followed by the infiltration of the population by Turkish-backed militia during the ceasefire, he decided to leave with his family to look for safety. They paid a courier to get them across the border with North Kurdistan, the autonomous region of the Kurds in Northern Iraq. There they were directed to one of several hastily erected refugee camps preparing for what may become a flood of Kurdish refugees. 

Abdul Haqim explains that his reason for leaving runs deeper than the danger of incoming Turkish ordinance. Ethnic cleansing and genocide often use the cover of war to achieve their long-term objectives, and civilians understand that threat more than anyone. Haqim reveals that since the 1960s, his family has sought without success to get Syrian identity papers, thereby making successive generations persona non-grata there. He explains that his ethnicity as a Kurd now makes it impossible to live in Syria, whether under Turkish or Syrian rule. The current conflict is the final straw. He sees no future in Syria for Kurds.      

As Syria grudgingly accepts the Russian brokered “safe zone,” Abdul Haqim informs me that during the ceasefire Turkish forces allowed “harmful groups” to terrorize the civilians. These are not confirmed ISIS fighters, but are likely remnants of the violent extremist group that escaped capture and are waiting in the wings, looking for resurgence. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s stated rationale for the incursion into Syria is that he is rooting out Kurdish terrorists known as the PKK, a recognized terrorist group. But his anti-Kurdish rhetoric is a barely veiled threat of further nationalist violence that profoundly affects civilians too.

History has demonstrated that acts of ethnic cleansing often happen under the cover of combatting a perceived evil. The term ethnic cleansing itself was a euphemism used by the Ustaše in 1941 to describe their own intent to murder Serbs. The Nazis also used “Judenrein” a term which means “cleansed of Jews,” to describe an area where the complete removal of Jews was accomplished. Mass murder or not, the 1948 UN Genocide Convention is clear that you do not need to kill people for genocide to occur. 

Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi blamed “terrorism” and used it as the justification for the actions of the Myanmar military when it unleashed a genocidal assault on its Rohingya population in 2017, killing thousands of women and children.

And in 2015 it was the justification given by the Syrian and Russian governments for dropping bombs on hospitals and residential areas in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria, killing hundreds of civilians and prompting UN human rights investigators to accuse the two governments of war crimes. Russia is experienced at ethnic cleansing under the cover of a legitimate military operation. 

In much the same manner, I fear that the newly established “safe zone” will affect Kurds across the entire area of Northern Syria just by dint of their ethnic identity. Non-Kurdish civilians in the area, such as Assyrians and Armenians, who, it should be noted, were displaced by genocide at the hands of the Turks a century ago, are in danger too. Stateless people viewed with suspicion with no rights are now under military assault from all sides. The arrangement will not safeguard civilians, even if the parties say it does.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces fought hard to defeat ISIS, losing 11,000 fighters in the process. The global effort to defeat of ISIS resulted in many fighters being placed in detention in the very zone that the Turks are to occupy. These are highly ideological killers, ready to resurrect their violent ideals. According to recent reports, many ISI fighters and their families have already escaped their prisons, and President Trump himself made clear they may well make their way back to Paris and London.

But in many ways, the potential reanimation of ISIS is beside the point.

The prior deployment of about 1,000 U.S. troops in Northern Syria was a small price to pay, balancing a complex situation with few resources. Their withdrawal will cost more in the end. More money. More body bags. But the money and loss of military life will be nothing if we see genocidal ethnic cleansing on our watch all over again, and Kurdish civilians are already paying the price.

The dehumanizing effect of ethnic cleansing creates an impersonal amorphous mass of humanity in the refugee camps and we quickly lose sight of the fact that each of them were store owners, restauranteurs, home makers in their own right just a few days ago.

Abdul Haqim tells me how hard it was to leave their home, and how grateful he is for the safety offered. He also confirms it is not safe for Kurds to go back to Syria. His family is physically safe, but the lives of his children are forever altered. 

There is a war of civilian attrition taking place, and the diplomatic and military high ground has now been claimed by Turkey and Russia. Syrian Kurds will not feel that the “safe zone” is safe for them. 

Stephen D. Smith is the Andrew J. and Erna Finci Viterbi Endowed Executive Director of USC Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History and Education. He holds the UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education.

Tags Abdul Haqim Donald Trump ISIS Kurdish refugees Kurdistan Kurdistan independence movement Kurds Middle East Syria Syrian civil war Turkey

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