A Response to Roy Gutman’s “Have the Syrian Kurds Committed War Crimes?”

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

A recent article in The Nation by Roy Gutman has generated considerable controversy, as the article attempts to highlight what it portrays as the more unsavoury and neglected aspects of the Democratic Union Party (PYD)- the main Kurdish faction operating in Syria and linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)- and its armed wing the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which constitute the majority of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition.

The article does raise some valid points for discussion. In general, there is a tendency to romanticise Kurdish forces in both Iraq and Syria- a trend exemplified in a piece by Michael Totten, in which he urges Trump to “back the Kurds to the hilt and give them the green light to declare independence.” Such a simplistic assertion overlooks complications like the sharp political division between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq led by Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party and the PYD-administered areas in Syria, the financial crisis afflicting the KRG and its inability to become economically independent, and the lack of a vision for real independence in the PYD’s approach to governance that is heavily influenced by the thinking of PKK luminary Abdullah Ocalan. Besides, there are real problems concerning the behaviour of Kurdish forces towards Arab populations in both Iraq and Syria, with cases of destruction of homes and villages documented by human rights monitors (cf. here). Political authoritarianism in the Kurdish entities should also be a major concern: Masoud Barzani still clings to the KRG presidency despite the fact that his mandate expired long ago, and the PYD’s harsh behaviour towards its political opponents cannot be ignored.

However, acknowledging these issues should not blind the reader to the clear problem with Gutman’s work: namely, the author’s biases for the Syrian opposition and Turkey that have been evident for years. As such, he uncritically relays dubious testimony that a serious and fair-minded journalist would have subjected to appropriate scrutiny. This fault becomes most apparent in Gutman’s claim that the YPG and the Islamic State (IS) “have often worked in tandem against moderate rebel groups,” which I will focus on in particular here. Elaborating on this claim, Gutman asserts that “again and again, in towns where the YPG lacked the manpower or weapons to dislodge the rebels, IS forces arrived unexpectedly with their corps of suicide bombers, seized the territory and later handed it over to the YPG without a fight.”

Gutman attempts to support this narrative with cases such as Tel Hamis and Husseiniya in Hasakah province. What he completely omits is that on numerous occasions in 2013 and January 2014, rebel groups worked with what was then called the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) against the YPG. For example, Ahrar al-Sham, ISIS and other rebel militias worked together to expel the YPG from the important northern border town of Tel Abyad in August 2013, only for ISIS to take over the area in January 2014. It is rather strange that Gutman cites Tel Hamis and Husseiniya in a bid to support his narrative, since video evidence that explicitly mentions ISIS-Ahrar al-Sham coordination against the “PKK dogs” in Husseiniya can be found from early January 2014. The coordination eventually fell apart later that month as ISIS proceeded to subjugate all other rebel groups in Hasakah province amid wider infighting with rebel forces across northern and eastern Syria. As for the notion that Tel Hamis was yielded to the YPG without a fight, that claim can only be described as a travesty of the truth. The YPG lost numerous fighters in the extended campaigns to take Tel Hamis, with abundant ‘martyrdom’ commemorations to be found on social media.

The notion that the YPG and IS are in collusion with the latter supposedly yielding territory to the former without a fight is a recurring trope. For instance, it is repeated on multiple occasions in Anne Speckhard and Ahmet Yayla’s book that consists of interviews with IS defectors. The fact that this notion is repeated so many times does not make it any more true. The biases of the sources making these claims as well as the wider tendencies in the region towards conspiracy theories have not been sufficiently taken into account. On the wider level, even when we do suppose or note a withdrawal without a real fight, there are simpler and more logical explanations that need not entail a conspiracy, such as manpower issues, the assessment of a particular location’s strategic importance or lack thereof, and the like. For example, IS yielded the border town of Jarabulus to the Syrian rebels backed by Turkish forces in August 2016 without a real fight: the reason for this withdrawal is that IS probably determined that the town was not worth defending and that better defensive positions needed to be taken up further south within Aleppo province. As it so happens, the recent fight for the IS stronghold of al-Bab has proven to be protracted and difficult for the rebels participating in Turkey’s “Euphrates Shield” operation. In a similar vein, the YPG’s relatively swift capture of Tel Abyad in 2015 was not the result of a joint YPG-IS conspiracy against the rebels: rather IS’ fighting lines in the area had largely collapsed on account of devoting so much manpower and resources to the fight for Kobani in a wasteful attempt to show defiance in the face of so many coalition airstrikes.

The question of the U.S. relationship with the SDF going forward is an important one as the issue of who takes the key IS-held areas in Syria of Raqqa city and Deir az-Zor continues to be discussed. American attempts to deny SDF links with the PKK are not only absurd but also harmful in handling relations with Turkey. However, debates need to be held on serious grounds rooted in facts and credible evidence. Gutman’s work here has fallen far short of those standards. Unfortunately, similar problems in his reporting with regards to the PKK can be traced in his earlier work. In an October 2012 article for McClatchy purporting to offer an inside account of the PKK, Gutman relayed in an almost entirely uncritical manner the testimony of a supposed PKK defector to Turkish authorities, including claims that the PKK prohibits Islamic practices like daily prayers for its fighters and tells them that the Kurds’ religion is Zoroastrianism and that they should worship fire. The latter two claims are particularly absurd because the association of Zoroastrianism with fire worship is in fact a calumny against the Zoroastrian religion.

It is apparent that Gutman’s opinion biases have had and still have a problematic impact on his reporting. This matter needs to be highlighted rather than showing uncritical deference simply because Gutman once won a Pulitzer Prize, just as we should not show uncritical deference to Seymour Hersh’s claims of rebel responsibility for the Ghouta chemical weapons attacks in 2013 simply because he also once won a Pulitzer Prize.

Comments (6)

Eugene said:

He said, she said. Can we ever understand what is really taking place in Syria and by who? perhaps in 10 – 50 years, perhaps. The one glaring fact that the world can readily see and understand, is the destruction/displacement/killing of the country & its peoples. Nation building, regime change, splitting the country for the benefit of outsiders, for what ever reason, is in itself, criminal, but will get a free pass from justice because of who they are. The one standout, for all of the MENA, the “mother of all C-F’s” created by the so-called “war on terror”, which continues its march. Will sane judgement overcome the present mindset?

February 11th, 2017, 1:09 am


David Jones said:

You completely ignore his good work highlighting how the formation of the regional power structure of the PYD was assisted by Assad and Iran from the get go.

And the idea that the YPG would prohibit its fighters from praying hardly seems strange as they are an avowedly secular group that has as one of their primary goals to destroy the tribal, patriarchal, Islamic values that Kurdish society has traditionally held.

Focusing on one incorrect idea of YPG-IS collusion does an injustice to the piece which was far broader in scope.

February 11th, 2017, 1:17 am


almaher said:

“The article does raise some valid points for discussion. In general, there is a tendency to romanticise Kurdish forces in both Iraq and Syria- a trend exemplified in a piece by Michael Totten, in which he urges Trump to “back the Kurds to the hilt and give them the green light to declare independence.” ”

Do you think kurdish independence in Syria is real? I mean at least “cultural autonomy” as it said in the new draft syrian Constitution?

February 11th, 2017, 5:34 am


dutchnational said:

My problem, even with this defense of the PYD, is that it seems to hold the kurds to higher standards of ethical behaviour then the other players in and around Syria and it disregards the oppression of the kurds by all countries where they live.

It also does not take into regard the circumstances of the last 6 years. Islamists, arabs, jihadis all tried to invade the kurdish lands in 2012 to 2013, he UN published even a report in2013 about the ethnic cleansing of kurds in Tel Ayad by FSA and Ahrar al Sham.

Mid 2013 the kurds level of organisation was of a sufficient level that they could begin to try to expell invading arab forces out of kurdish lands, starting with Serenaike. With allied arab they later took Rabia and went on from there, only gaining the USAF as an unwilling ally late 2014 in Kobane.

During that time what is now ENKS were sidelined within Rojava because they would not agree to a multi ethnic Rojava, would not agree to democracy as they wanted to be handed over the canton of Cezire, without elections, and because they wanted an independent party militia to be able to forment a potential civil intra kurd war, just like their boss Barzani did within the KRG.

So, is the PYD perfect. No, of course not. Are they better than all other fightin groups within and around Syria? Yes they are.

February 11th, 2017, 10:39 am


Stefano said:

I think that the last line is a bit unwarranted: while I concur that we must always exert our critical thinking, the Ghouta affair is too muddy and shady and controversial to be used as a one-line example without raising a debate. There are few certainties about the attack and one of them is that the employed weapons were not designed for chemical attacks, but they were old rockets, widely available to both Assad’s forces and rebels, purposefully modified in some makeshift workshop, and this is a problem. Assad forces had much more effective and safer chemical equipment, so why did they choose to craft and then use an inefficient alternative? It does not make much sense from a strictly military point of view, was it a technical experiment, a false flag attempt, whatever?

I stop there, I don’t want to derail further the discussion, even though I think that this little comment corroborates one of your points: bias in reports about Syria. In fact Gutman is biased, I just showed I am biased too, and perhaps you too. Keep up the good work.

February 12th, 2017, 7:55 am


$ChipChop$ said:

to dutchnational:

I agree with you. Is it possible that in new syrian Constitution Rojava kurds will get syrian Kurdistan?

February 13th, 2017, 8:22 am


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