On October 12, Amnesty International released a report alleging “civilians living in areas of northern Syria under the de facto control of the Autonomous Administration led by the Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat (Democratic Union Party, PYD) are being subjected to serious abuses that include forced displacement and home demolitions.”
The report said some of these alleged abuses were war crimes.
The substance of the allegations were that the military forces of the Autonomous Administration of Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan), primarily the People's Protection Units (YPG) and Women's Protection Units (YPJ), were ethnically cleansing Arab and other non-Kurdish people from the areas they control.
A statement released by the YPG General Command on October 18 accused Amnesty of “hurling unsubstantiated accusations without sufficient evidence” and not without verifying eyewitness accounts.
“Some of the eyewitnesses in the report are members of terrorist organisations, and have been involved in criminal activities and are part of this conflict … During the preparation of their report, the authors of the Amnesty report were hosted by political parties hostile to the YPG and the Self-Administration in Rojava,” the YPG statement said.
The YPG statement examined in detail numerous contradictions in the Amnesty report, including accusing the YPG of committing crimes in places that were not under their control at the time.
It also pointed to numerous internal inconsistencies in the report. For example, the Amnesty report alleged that on July 6, the YPG displaced Turkmen civilians from Hammam Al Turkman village near the town of Suluk.
“The Amnesty report accuses the YPG of 'deporting Turkmen population' … based on news reports … written by a 'journalist' called Ghadaf Rajeh and published on the Siraj Press website, which is an unprofessional website and well-known for its links to the Syrian Coalition, which in turn is hostile to the Self-Administration and the YPG. Unlike the Amnesty report which accuses the YPG of deporting Turkmens, the reports on Siraj Press website accuse the YPG of deporting Arabs from their villages,” the YPG statement responded.
The Syrian Coalition and its affiliates have a well documented history of committing human rights abuses themselves.
“The person who documented [the Siraj Press] report is named as Anwar Al Katav, who was the commander of an Islamic battalion and was involved in deporting Kurds and looting their properties,” the YPG statement said.
The more substantial evidence offered by Amnesty was satellite images showing destruction of villages and documented accounts of civilians leaving their communities.
However, this is a war zone. Buildings get destroyed in modern warfare and Amnesty's satellite pictures showed no evidence of who was responsible for the destruction shown.
“The area that the report focuses on … was an area that witnessed intense fighting between the YPG and IS, during which heavy weaponry were used … It is the same area that had been previously controlled by various militant groups such Jabhat Al Nusra, several units of the Free Syrian Army and IS. These successive groups used terrorist strategies such as planting improvised explosive devices, mines, car bombs, suicide bombers and booby-trap houses,” the YPG statement said.
Where the YPG and YPJ have delayed civilians from returning to their homes after fighting has ceased in an area, it has been because of mines and booby traps making the communities unsafe to return to. This has affected Kurdish civilians as much as other ethnic groups.
Likewise, the YPG and YPJ have attempted to remove civilians from areas about to be engulfed in fighting. Again this has been irrespective of whether the civilians are Kurds or members of other ethnic communities.
“Currently, there are an estimated 16,000 landmines in the area between Tel Hamis and Tel Abbyad. Our specialised units have removed a quarter of that number and there are still hundreds of landmines in nearby villages and farms, since we lack sufficient means to remove more. We have repeatedly called upon the international community and institutions to help us remove those landmines to enable civilians to return to their villages safely,” the statement said.
Furthermore, large numbers of civilians have returned to the affected areas after the YPG-led forces established stable control. Moreover, while some people, of all ethnic groups, have remained refugees, the demographic balance between the various ethnicities has remained unchanged.
In an interview with Washington-based journalist Mutlu Çiviroğlu on October 15, Sipan Hemo, General Commander of the YPG, said, “We have liberated some 1500 Arab villages. Some of these villages became war zones between us and ISIS. Battles took days in some villages. I am not saying there has been no harm to those villages. But they are not more than 4 or 5 villages. We have 1500 Arab villages liberated and people in them live in peace now. If it was true, why are these 1500 villages still standing?
“Apart from that, there are Arabs who were brought to Rojava by the Baathist regime and settled throughout the Kurds' lands. These Arabs … are leading respected lives. If we had an intention of driving Arabs away, we would have driven those Arabs first…
“One more point, 30% of the YPG is made up of Arabs. If allegations in the report were true did these Arabs with us committed those atrocities too? If such things were true, would they fight alongside us in Cizîrê and Kobanê?”
A letter to Dutch parliamentarians by Johannes de Jong, General Secretary of the Christian Political Foundation for Europe noted that, despite speaking of war crimes, the Amnesty report “does not report that any civilian has been killed, no cases of rape has been disclosed and that many people could return without any problems”.
Ruspîs Assembly of Arab Tribes spokesperson Eyad Mihemed El-Dexîl told a press conference in Himo village, Qamişlo, that his organisation regularly investigated charges of YPG crimes against non-Kurdish communities, and found no evidence, Firat News Agency reported on October 16.
“Amnesty International has grounded its report on sources that want to eliminate the love and co-existence among all social circles of the region and replace it with enmity,” he said.