Turkey, Syria’s Kurds and demographic change

For several years, the Turkish state accused Syrian Kurds of aiming to carry out demographic change in northern Syria, by oppressing and possibly driving away Turkmen and Arabs.

Yet since Turkey took Afrin from the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) in March 2018, the tables have turned: Now the YPG accuses Turkey of changing the area’s demographics.

Soon after Turkey took control of Afrin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s adviser Ibrahim Kalın wrote that Turkey had never been involved in demographic change, dismissing this assertion as a “YPG lie”.

The YPG forced “demographic change in Tel Abyad, Kobani and other Arab towns in Syria, which Amnesty International reported as a possible war crime”, Kalın said.

A March 2017 United Nations report refuted this view, finding no evidence to substantiate claims that the YPG targeted Arab communities or “systematically sought to change the demographic composition of territories under their control”.

What’s more, why would the YPG seek to remake the ethnic identity of Kobani, a Kurdish-majority city?

The reality is that the Kurds lack the numbers to change the demography in Arab cities. The YPG’s political arm, PYD, itself fears the huge Kurdish migration to Europe.  

When visiting Kurdish towns, one often sees pro-PYD graffiti that includes the phrase “Ez Naçim” (“I’m not leaving” in Kurdish), which suggests many Syrian Kurds have already left to Europe. Some PYD critics have even argued that the PYD protects Arabs by allowing Arab refugees to settle in Qamishli.

A Qamishli resident said that the number of Kurds in his town has fallen, and that many have gone to Europe or the Kurdistan region of Iraq, while Arabs who have fled from other areas now live in Qamishli. As a result, Syrian Kurds may no longer have the numbers to change the local demography.

Anecdotally, few Kurds seem willing to move to places like Tal Abyad, Raqqa, Manbij or Deir ar Zour, and many Kurds who lived in these cities before Islamic State (ISIS) arrived have yet to move back. For instance, Kurds from Kobani who lived in Raqqa before the civil war have yet to return to Raqqa since the eviction of ISIS.

In addition, Arab settlers brought by the Syrian government in the 1970s to Arabise the mostly Kurdish border areas in Hasakah province have not been forced to leave. Former PYD co-head Salih Muslim said in 2013 that there is a need for a peaceful solution.

But unlike the Kurds, the Arabs do have the numbers to ethnically change Kurdish majority regions. When Assad took over many opposition areas, thousands of civilians and rebel groups fled to Afrin and other areas under Turkish control. That’s why you can find people from Ghouta and Homs living in Afrin.

Afrin’s police force is dominated by groups brought by Turkey. “They say in the media, the internal police in Afrin are Kurds. But in fact you can find maybe for each 1 or 2 Kurdish police members, 100 to 200 Arabs,” said Emin, a Kurd from Afrin who lived two months there under Turkish control, then fled.

This is very different from the areas under Syrian Democratic Force (SDF), where many checkpoints are manned by local Arabs. Moreover, the new Democratic Autonomous Administration (DAA) of North East of Syria, created in September 2018, no longer includes any references to Rojava (“west” in Kurdish). Initially, in July 2012, when the YPG took control of most Kurdish enclaves, it was called the Rojava Revolution, but now the main reference point is the coexistence of different ethnic groups, languages and identities.

“Arabs are the majority [in northeast Syria], and everyone knows this,” Abdul Hamid al-Muhabash, DAA administrative co-chair, told Ahval.

All of this makes Erdoğan’s January statements more problematic. He claims that millions of Syrians would return if Turkey took control east of the Euphrates. This means that Turkey wants to repeat the Afrin model in the east of the Euphrates. Syria’s Kurds distrust Erdoğan’s assertion last month in the New York Times that he wants to help them, and fear a Turkish incursion more than one by the Syrian government.

Syrian Kurds do not want to be annexed to Turkey, as happened in Afrin, and forced to leave their homes. While Turkey says the YPG did ethnic cleansing in towns like Tal Abyad on dubious grounds, the situation in Afrin speaks for itself.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

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