This report aims to shed light on three major socio-political chapters and phases in the city of Ras al-Ayn (hereafter referred to by its Kurdish name of Serê Kaniyê) since the outset of the millennium up to the current day. Much attention has been paid to details of the barbaric acts perpetrated by the Syrian regime and its followers in the region in the aftermath of the Kurdish uprising in 2004. Focus has also been paid to the struggle over the city during the Syrian civil war, including breaches and violations committed by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and its allied jihadist groups until the city was occupied by the Turkish armed forces.
Serê Kaniyê has historically been labelled a ‘miniature Syria’ since the city represented Syria’s ethnic and religious diversity including Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Syriacs, Armenian, Turkmen, Muslims, and Yazidis. However, this reality began to be unraveled by external forces which indicated the fragile reality the situation was; and how external factors were able to foment ethno-religious tensions and conflicts as the Syrian regime did in 2004. Similarly, Turkey’s role in 2012-2013 battles and its direct involvement in the war against Serê Kaniyê in 2019 were also profoundly destabilizing.
Syria’s marginalization of Serê Kaniyê and the plight of its people gave birth to this paper, which attempts to archive part of the plight of this city and its residents who have been subject to decades of repression and subjugation. Turkey’s ongoing military occupation of Serê Kaniyê and Tell Abyad (hereafter Girê Spî) represents the various tragedies that have been imposed on the city. However, this paper is not a historical perspective, rather it endeavors to contextualize the events that swept the city extending from three specific periods: starting with the crucial events in the 2004 period, followed by the 2012-13 period, and then finally from 2019 up to recent.
The research is largely based on six interviews carried out by The Kurdish Center for Studies with people involved in the three various phases. The information gathered is then juxtaposed with other information gathered from other resources to ensure accuracy.
CHAPTER I: THE KURDISH UPRISING (2004)
Although the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 overshadowed Arab-Kurdish relations in Syria, Syrian Kurds gained confidence as they witnessed the US invasion and the subsequent fall of the Saddam Hussein regime closely. The establishment of autonomy for the Iraqi Kurds was further validation. The US invasion subsequently increased tensions between Arabs and Kurds in Syria as many Arabs accused the Iraqi Kurds (and by extension the Syrian Kurds) of collaborating with the US invasion of Iraq. It was argued by Arab nationalists that the Iraq invasion could have not taken place had it not been for the Kurdish nationalist affiliations with those outside Syria. They feared that developments in Iraqi Kurdistan (Southern Kurdistan) could give rise to similar aspiration for Syrian Kurds in Rojava (Western Kurdistan) – especially as the US became a de-facto occupying neighbor to Syria.
Damascus was thus closely following the events unraveling in Iraq in the aftermath of the fall of the Baathist regime in Iraq, which “led to the deterioration of relations between Damascus and the Iraqi Kurdish parties.” Geopolitical instability in Syria in the period spanning from 2003 to 2004 led Damascus to take extreme retaliatory acts against Kurds in Qamişlo, Syria’s largest Kurdish city. This policy culminated in a massacre of the Kurds following the aftermath of a football match in which supporters of the hosting team of Jihad and those of the guest al-Fituwa of Deir Ezzor brawled on March 12, 2004 in Qamişlo. Hesîçe’s (Hasaka) then governor, Salim Kaboul, gave orders for the Syrian security forces to fire directly at supporters of Jihad. Seven people were martyred (all Kurds) including three children.
The next day, thousands of people joined the mourners to the Qudur Beg Cemetery followed by two days of angry protests and demonstrations that spread beyond Qamişlo, but into all Syrian cities. The protestors were pushed by a range of complex factors such as poverty, anger, desperation, but also hope for the possibility of a better future.
These collective feelings of injustice and anger served as the driving force behind the protests that swept the Kurdish cities extending from Derik in the east up to Kobanê on the Euphrates river and Afrin in northwest Aleppo including the two Kurdish quarters of Ashrafiya and Sheikh Maqsoud in the city of Aleppo. Zor Ava (Wadi al-Masharea’) in Damascus joined the protests too. Kurdish students at the two universities of Damascus and Aleppo were the major protestors in these cities.
The government response was swift and brutal. In Qamişlo, 26 Kurds were martyred, while 160 others were injured. Two thousand people were detained by the security branches. Reports of torture in security cells came to the surface. Children and women were also assaulted.
Serê Kaniyê: Protests, Mobilization, Violence, and Looting
Traditionally, the various Syrian ethno-religious groups have been easily drawn into internal conflicts and upheavals. Syria, since the first years of the rule of Bashar Assad, was a geopolitical system that was open to a range of internal predicaments. For instance, in 2000, tensions emerged between peasants and the Bedouins in the governorate of al-Sweida in the south of the country. In 2003, there had been intense clashes between the Assyrians and Arabs on the Khabur River banks, while in 2005 Ismailis and Alawites in Qadmous (Tartus) and Misyaf (Hama) had similar clashes. These historical ethno-religious tensions and conflicts also increased the probability of a dispute between Arabs and Kurds in the Jazira region of Syria, which eventually materialized on the ground in Serê Kaniyê in 2004.
It is well known that Serê Kaniyê is an ethnically and religiously diverse region. In a country where the idea of peaceful coexistence involved the assimilation of all diverse groups into one ethno-social class, the 2004 events exposed how fragile such a coexistence was where an outsider force to Serê Kaniyê was able to sow sedition and stir people up against each other.
Amid such a reality, the Syrian regime adopted new measures of violence. It imposed a blockade, arrested people, and issued orders to fire live ammunition at people. One of the adopted measures was to stir up collaborators of the regime against Kurds. Such a mobilization and deliberate fomenting of tensions was more effective in ethnically-mixed cities like Serê Kaniyê and Hesîçe, than in Qamişlo (which is heavily Kurdish). In Serê Kaniyê, the situation was unprecedented since the city was primarily inhabited by Kurds and Arabs.
On the two first days after the city joined the uprising, there remained no security presence in the city of Serê Kaniyê. Mass demonstrations predominated in the main streets of the city. Slogans chanted by protesters condemned the violence unleashed by the regime and called for freedom and glorified martyrs. On the third day, the regime adopted a new measure by encouraging the Arab population to loot Kurdish properties, similar to the one mounted against Jews in Baghdad in the 1940s. The aim behind this policy “was to give a green light to terrorize the Kurdish community and to deepen the rift between the Kurds and Arabs.”
Added to this, the city was witnessing an unprecedented level of mobilization and instigation. The regime opened its depots to the “popular army” and began to arm civilians, notably those Baathists willing to “protect” the state against the Kurdish “danger.” While the Arab nationalists who were receiving arms and ammunitions in an area close to the Cultural Center and the Baath Bureau in the city, an Arab citizen lost his life by a bullet fired by one of those receiving arms. It was claimed that the murdered man was calling for calm and self-restraint.
The aim of the deployment by the security forces of civilians to counter Kurdish agitation was to intensify the struggle and depict the protests as an Kurd vs. Arab encounter. In this way, the regime aimed to impede Arabs from joining the protests which were directed against the regime. It was understood that the absence of the security forces was to escalate the situation and await strategic mistakes by the Kurds, although the city of Serê Kaniyê did not witness sabotaging acts on a large scale. The Damage Assessment Committee estimated that damages caused to government institutions at 2.5 Syrian million (nearly 50,000 US dollars). The committee estimated that the damage caused to the destroyed statue of the former Syrian President Hafez Assad was at 250,000 SYP.
In Amûdê, damages were put at 56 million SYP, Dirbêsiyê 35 million SYP, Qamişlo, 70 million, and Derik 72 million. Yet, while security forces retreated to their offices, some protesters sought to protect public facilities in Serê Kaniyê. However, some of the protestors were arrested and interrogated later.
Yet, damages caused to properties of Kurds were never assessed by the government. Nearly 40 commercial shops located in the mixed area in the city close to the Baath Party Bureau up to the Main Souq and the Kana’es (Churches) Street were damaged, looted, and destroyed. Other properties owned by the Kurds were either looted or sabotaged. These acts took place after the protests were dispersed on the evening of March 13th after security and Civil Police retreated to their offices.
Skirmishes, Arrests, and Martyrs
The most dangerous development involved clashes between the Kurdish family of Ibrahbim Pasha Milli and a local family in which Nuri Mahmoud Khalil Ibrahim Pasha (who was to be avenged a year later) was killed. This occurrence had the protentional to lead to an armed conflict in the city. Nuri would be added to the list of martyrs of the 2004 uprising by the Kurdish national movement. Later, Human Rights groups and the Kurdish movement would add Ahmed Kinjo, who died of torture at security branches on August 3, 2004, to the list as well.
Later, the local council of the Kurdish National Council in Serê Kaniyê would add Abdul Baqi Yusuf Hassan to the list. Hassan died on February 8, 2016. He was arrested during the uprising. When Hassan was released, he suffered from severe PTSD owing to relentless barbaric torture he underwent in the security branch of the Syrian State Security in the city.
At this juncture, the regime pushed its supporters and collaborators, notably the Baathists, to hold counter-protests which traveled towards the Kurdish quarters. Had it not been for the sounds of firing which made these groups retreat, clashes could have erupted between Kurds and Arabs.
This social upheaval lasted for a considerable period of time in the city. The Kurds could not return to their looted and damaged shops until at least two months later. At the same time, forcing civilian witnesses to participate in the hastily established tribunals continued to tear the social fabric in the city and amassed ethnic and nationalist proclivities. Some of those arrested and interrogated were not in the city, nor took part in the protests resulting in wide and increasing distrust towards the tribunals and the government. Understandably, the names enrolled on the wanted people lists were based on tips by regime collaborators.
Ironically, later, many of the collaborators who supported the regime in 2004 took the side of the opposition in 2011. Some were later engaged in battles against the regime security forces with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The Kurds who incurred damages in 2004 took a neutral position and abstained from taking up arms. Furthermore, local Kurds would often aid members of Syrian security personnel when they were abused on the streets by the FSA.
The battle of Serê Kaniyê between the FSA and al-Nusra Front supported by Turkey, would reveal again how fragile the social fabric in Serê Kaniyê was, and the ability for outside forces to instigate and divide its people. While the Syrian regime took this task in 2004, it was Turkey who assumed that role in 2011.
CHAPTER II: THE FIGHT FOR SERÊ KANIYÊ (2012-2013)
With increasing militancy and the subsequent formation of armed factional groups which curtailed the peaceful demonstrations that started against the regime of Bashar Assad in 2011, Syria was plunged into a bloody and protracted civil war. Turkey pushed the FSA and Jihadist-leaning factions towards Serê Kaniyê to divide the Kurdish areas and drag the region into military engagements against Assad regime forces. Additionally, this policy aimed to impede the Kurds from any attempts to fill the security gap ensued from regime forces withdrawal. This intervention imposed ensured a digression in the civil war in the Jazira region and surpassed the issue of regime change. Hostilities in Serê Kaniyê were to impose chauvinistic Turkish objectives on the city similar to those of 2004.
Preparing the Ground
Before the FSA and jihadist groups, including al-Nusra Front, Ghurabaa al-Sham, and the Ahfad al-Rasul Brigades, embarked upon the operation to control the city of Serê Kaniyê, logistical and operational preparations had long been ongoing to employ sleeper cells for their zero hour.
Some of these groups and the people involved in them had fled Serê Kaniyê to areas like Marghada, Girê Spî, Manbij, the countryside of Aleppo, and to Ceylanpınar on the border with Serê Kaniyê. Other factions still in the city advocated the idea of fighting the Syrian regime forces directly. However, although the jihadist group the al-Nusra Front did not take part in the first battle and in the siege imposed against the regime forces inside the city on November 8, 2012, it had commissioned three of its leaders disguised as civilians to meet covert anti-regime activists in the city two months before the encounter.
Among the delegates of the al-Nusra Front was Abu Thar al-Iraqi, Abu Assad from Hesîçe’s Ghweran, and Abu Ahmed al-Tayy. Naturally, contact between activists in the city and fighters of FSA remained in place. This was not merely restricted to al-Nusra Front, but figures such as Nawaf Raghed al-Bashir, head of al Furat and al-Jazira Liberation Front, who was the head of the Baghara Arab clan, remained in contact with the local community in the city. Part of these interactions were based on tribal affiliations. Factions that were formed in Girê Spî had close links with their relatives in the city, which direct contributed to the increase of sleeper cells in the city.
The Military Engagement
On November 8, 2012, FSA factions entered the city of Serê Kaniyê where they engaged with regime forces. In the clashes that erupted, 20 Syrian regime soldiers were killed. Likewise, 8,000 civilians left the city to Ceylanpınar on the Turkish side of the border with Serê Kaniyê. They were transferred eventually to the Akjakale refugee camp close to the border. The remaining civilians within the city became further concerned with their fate after the opposition factions started controlling the city. Locals feared the same scenario of shelling as other Syrian cities which fell into the clutches of the opposition. The civilians argued that the struggle in the city should remain restricted to peaceful demonstrations.
During hostilities, FSA factions captured 20-25 members of the regime forces in the Customs Building and the Military Security Branch offices. The fate of many of these captured still remains unknown.
Before hostilities emerged, the nearest point held by the opposition was the village of Mabrouka in the southern countryside of Serê Kaniyê. Manbij (west of the Euphrates) was no longer held by regime forces; as opposition factions had gained control of that city too. The same reality was in Girê Spî, which was open to lootings upon which Arab clans formed local factions, which also played an important role in controlling Serê Kaniyê. At this juncture, the al-Nusra Front had gained control of the important Bir Muhesin that connected Sloug (20 km to the east of Girê Spî) and Girê Spî close to the border with Turkey, and it controlled a base of the regime forces on the road of Girê Spî, Kobanê, and Ain al-Arous. This approach demonstrated al-Nusra Front’s strategy in controlling essential road junctures before taking part in the military operations in Serê Kaniyê.
The military operations were coordinated and directed by the Turkish armed forces. However, at the time, Turkey was not vocal in its hostilities towards the Kurds although they were engaging in covert anti-Kurdish objectives on the ground. Turkey was also awaiting the results of the peace process with the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan that had commenced in 2012. However, Turkey was increasingly perturbed with the retreat of regime forces from the area, which allowed the Kurds to gain ground. Turkey also maintained its contacts with the factional groups clandestinely and provided them with ammunition. Turkey also connected with jihadist-leaning groups such as Ghurabaa al-Sham and al-Umma Brigade which were funded by a Gulf state. To disperse suspicion, Turkey prevented opposition factions from encountering the regime forces at a checkpoint in the village of Tal Halaf (5 km in west of Serê Kaniyê), and another military base at the periphery of the village of Asfar Najjar, while other factions entered the city from Turkey.
At 04:30 on November 8, opposition factions engaged in clashes with the regime in three locations in the city: Nazlet Saber, Binayet and Rai, and al-Maqbara. The first attack was on the Police Station in the city. The password among the jihadist fighters was “al-Qarea”, a reference to a Sura in the Quran. Fighters who did not know the password were immediately arrested by the FSA, though they were released later. Nearly some 300 fighters took part in the attack comprising 50 factions. These numbers would increase in the following days as many people joined the ranks.
On November 11, the Syrian Army launched an artillery and air attack on the city in which many civilians lost their lives in al-Mahata quarter in the city, and close to the border crossing with Turkey. At least 16 people were killed. However, the regime attack ceased soon after as it had little to no presence on the ground in the city which was then left to its fate. All government institutions and security offices were now controlled by the factions, which also controlled the whole city except for Kurdish quarters and al-Sinaa checkpoint which was under the control of YPG. The regime retained control over only one base, which was at Asfar and Najjar village. Battles to control the base lasted four days. YPG, however, refrained from any engagements in the battle. Nevertheless, on November 19, YGP fighters were compelled into a fateful encounter with al-Nusra Front and Ghurabaa al-Sham who were both instigated by Turkey.
YPG’s Inevitable Encounter
The idea of founding the YPG (People’s Protection Units) was first floated in 2004, following the Kurdish uprising. Violence unleashed by the Syrian regime forces at the time necessitated such a move, which became reality following the events of the Syrian revolution of 2011. By early 2012, the notion of self-defense units was taken on by ‘Martyr Khabat’ along with a group of his comrades who formed the first military force that could defend the areas the Kurds resided in.
At first, the new forces were named the Self Defense Units, but they later took the acronym YPG following a crucial conference held in the city of Derik in December 2012. The units had eight brigades. This came in line with the announcement of the Higher Kurdish Council which had both the Kurdish National Council and TEV-DEM in one political entity.
At first, the units had no arms and lacked the necessary finances to develop themselves. It largely depended on support given by Kurdish people and merchants who supplied their personal properties (cars and arms) to the fighters of YPG at a time when this embryonic force was not viewed as a threat by other Syrian forces. Furthermore, Kurdish factions cast doubt on the seriousness of such units. However, the battles in Serê Kaniyê sealed the YPG’s military capacity and as one of the forces that defended the city fearlessly. Initially at least, the YPG units were not dragged into sectarian encounters with other jihadist-leaning groups in Syria.
The first YPG encounter with jihadist forces took place in Aleppo’s Kurdish quarter of al-Ashrafiya with battalions affiliated with the FSA. In Kobanê, the YPG engaged with soldiers of the Syrian army in July 2012. However, all these encounters were mere skirmishes in comparison to the fierce clashes that took place in Serê Kaniyê. In the Serê Kaniyê clash, the YPG proved that they were the sole Kurdish force that could stand up to radical and extremist groups. However, while in Serê Kaniyê the YPG gained prominence as a Syrian force in the fight against al-Nusra Front (al-Qaeda), the battle of Kobanê in 2014 and the victory attained over the Islamic State (ISIS) promoted the YPG as the key partner to and the backbone of the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, which since has been a source of anger for Turkey.
From Neutrality to Military Encounters
Apart from the battles taking place in al-Ashrafiya and Kobanê, the Serê Kaniyê battle launched by al-Nusra Front along with multiple FSA factions was the most fateful for the Kurdish units. At the time, the YPG’s only objective was to defend civilians endangered in the clashes and refrained from taking on an offensive approach. However, when the Kurdish quarters in the city were attacked, the YPG was forced to defend the people, resulting in the YPG being engaged in hostilities. At this juncture, the YPG controlled Dirbêsiyê and Til Temir, in order to prevent the FSA factions from extending further in the region under the pretext of fighting Syrian regime forces but in reality aiming to control the Kurdish areas.
The first encounter took place on November 19 when YPG’s checkpoint at al-Sinaa was attacked. During the night, a conference was held in the house of a prominent lawyer in the city. High profile-Syrian regime officers who had defected and Hesîçe’s Military Council attended the conference which was led by Abu Assad of al-Nusra Front who insisted on a policy of non-negotiation with the YPG and advocated for the removal of the Kurdish checkpoint with force. The Turkish strategists were hopeful that Abu Assad would succeed in destabilizing the YPG, while being well aware of his anti-Kurdish sentiments.
Early in the day, a military convoy of seven vehicles provided with dushkas (DShK 1938) and anti-aircraft 23 mm guns headed to the YPG held checkpoint. However, they were soon repelled, with a major loss of 20 deaths in their ranks. The YPG on the other hand lost four fighters. Later, Abed Khalil, a civilian, and the head of the Local Council of PYD, lost his life as he was targeted by a sniper of an opposition faction in the city.
The attack on the YPG checkpoint drew condemnations from the part of Riyadh al-Asaad, FSA leader, who said “some groups seek to sow sedition among Kurds and Arabs,” denying any connection between FSA and Ghurabaa’ al-Sham. However, such remarks had no effect on the ground as factions in the city renewed the attack more ferociously in the following days. To retrieve bodies from the battleground, the new leader of al-Nusra Front, who succeeded Abu Assad (the latter was killed in battles), contacted the city’s notables. A ceasefire was reached.
Two masked men (Abu Thar al Iraqi and Abu al-Yaman al-Urduni), took part in the negotiations. They revealed themselves upon meeting the YPG (they removed their face masks). They reached a mutual consensus to retrieve the bodies of the dead, while the YPG rejected the handover of arms, and instead paid 24 million SYP in compensation. The YPG’s view was that such arms would most likely be used against them later, and their need for self-protection was increasing as the possibility of a greater battle loomed. During the following clashes, the Al-Nusra Front incurred heavy losses compared to its number in Serê Kaniyê. It had nearly 60-70 fighters in the Syrian- Libyan Company. The strength the organization had owed to the presence of foreign fighters who were ideologically proficient and militarily well trained. The ceasefire that ensured was merely a pause to take a breath.
Battles, Fragile Ceasefires, and Turkish Interference
The ceasefire did not last long, largely owing to Turkish pressure to resume fighting against the Kurdish units. By November 22, the al-Nusra Front had 200 fighters, while Ghurabaa al-Sham had 100 fighters and three tanks which it had seized in Raqqa. Ghurabaa al-Sham positioned one tank on the border crossing with Turkey, and the two others in the southern part of the city. In response 40 Kurdish fighters arrived in the city from Kurdish areas. Naturally, the YPG’s resistance gained its popularity in the Kurdish quarter of the city and elsewhere.
On November 22, the London- based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that eight of al-Nusra Front militants and one YPG fighter were killed in Serê Kaniyê. Another ceasefire was reached which lasted for only six days.
Amid such a reality, Syrian regime aircrafts targeted the Police Station and the Post Office in the city. 12 people including six Kurdish civilians were killed. Three of the six were children. 21 injured people were taken to the Turkish side of the border. After this incident, a flight of Turkish F-16 jets set off from their bases from Amed (Diyarbakir) as a response to the air raids of the Syrian air force which reduced its role in Serê Kaniyê.
Between the 12th to 14th of December, the Syrian opposition effected a series of rocket attacks against the city. It was reported that they were seeking to extend fighting to nearby towns and villages. Their plan heavily affected some areas in eastern villages.
On December 1st, negotiations resumed to renew the ceasefire which came into effect on December 17, largely corresponding to YPG’s conditions which included withdrawing of the two warring sides from the city and forging a local council to include Kurds, Chechens, Syriacs, and Arabs. However, the ceasefire failed to fulfill all demands agreed upon.
Clashes soon erupted again in a fortified and viable area known as Mudir al-Mantiqa Street, close to the National Hospital in the city. Some members in the Kurdish Progressive Democratic Party took part in engagements throughout the city. On December 24, cadre in the party Alaa Qassem incurred serious injuries by a sniper. Qassem was announced as a martyr on February 2, 2013.
However, as many Kurds joined battles to resist, the Kurdish National Council (KNC) distanced itself from the fighting and its popularity in the city declined.
Amid such a fragile reality in the city, and increasing distrust between the two warring sides, the YPG gained prominence as a reliable force that could attain victories, while the FSA discredited themselves by engaging in looting and robberies. They looted the National Hospital and silos. Computers at schools were also looted.
This rise in popularity of the YPG pushed Turkey to depend on jihadist-leaning groups such as al-Nusra Front and Ghurabaa al-Sham. Turkey provided ambulances and all necessary arms and ammunition to the FSA factions which promptly sold them on the black market to make a profit from the war.
Meanwhile, a YPG fighter reported that they spared their ammunition due to lack of arms. The then leader of YPG Cemshid Osman replied to a question as to the numbers in their ranks by saying, “We could be counted on fingers, but we could be found everywhere when it is necessary.”
On January 17, battles reached a decisive turn. It was reported that 300 rebels crossed into Serê Kaniyê from the Turkish borders, and that violent clashes were taking place between the Kurdish forces and the FSA factions which actively used tanks and artillery against them. The YPG managed to seize one of the tanks that crossed from Turkey towards Kharabat. In January, 54 jihadists were killed and 8 YPG fighters lost their lives. 5 civilians, including Ahmed Sheikh Sinan from the village of Faqira who was tortured by the FSA factions on January 30, also lost their lives.
Back in the city, the YPG headed towards Mudir al-Mantiqa Street and the Christian quarters in their attempt to clear the jihadists. The jihadist groups in turn retreated back from the city, as political parties sought a ceasefire in Serê Kaniyê.
The Last Ceasefire and YPG’s Victory
On January 20, 2013, the Kurdish National Council (KNC) described what had been taking place in the city as ‘sedition’, despite the reality that by now the fighting in the city was primarily between cross-border jihadists supported by Turkey and between Kurds in the city. Dubbing the events as sedition did not take into account the security reality facing the Kurds and the YPG, and the council evaded all mention of the role played by Turkey in the ongoing battles. According to the KNC, the sedition was attributed to the Syrian regime with calls to stop the regime and its agents in playing such a role. Relatedly, the position undertaken by the National Coordination Body clarified further when it called on the international community to press Turkey to prevent importing terror to Syrian lands by condemning “attacks that target civilians in the city of Serê Kaniyê in the governorate of Hasaka.” Furthermore, in the statement, the Body noted that the current situation in the city made YPG repel such attacks and defend the multi ethno-religious social fabric of the city.
For its part, the National Coalition of the Syrian Opposition declared on January 23rd that it forged a committee from notable figures of Serê Kaniyê, “to prevent the city from falling into the criminal plots of the [Syrian] regime.” The Coalition also employed terms such as ‘sedition’ adding that the fighting was an internal issue, without referencing the crucial role played by Turkey and the active support for foreign jihadist fighters.
In early February, the Syrian opposition forged a committee made up of 8 members to mediate between the YPG and rebels. The late Syrian opposition figure, Michel Kilo, ran the committee which sought to bring the battles to a halt.
Negotiations, however, reached a deadlock with insistence from the part of the Revolutionary Military Council, an FSA affiliated force, to hand over the city and the border crossing to the political control of the KNC. It also demanded the YPG consider allowing the FSA fighters to become the sole military force to control the city, and that PYD immediately join the KNC as the sole legitimate force in the area. Likewise, Kurdish flags were to be removed in the governorate of Hesîçe. The latter seemed chauvinistic. FSA fighters had already offended a group of Kurds (some affiliated with KNC) holding the Kurdish flag while welcoming a group of FSA fighters who threw the Kurdish flag onto the ground and degraded the Kurdish youths. This incident revealed the general view of the attacking forces whose anti-Kurdish aims and acts in the Kurdish areas soon surpassed the urgency of resistance against the regime.
The Kurdish negotiators categorically rejected such demands. They proposed instead that fighters from both parties leave the city and forge a joint council with representatives from both sides. This was agreed upon later. However, while the al-Nusra Front and Ghurabaa al-Sham did not abide by the ceasefire, the FSA, and one of its leaders, Salim Idris undermined the ceasefire. Fighting in the city resumed.
At the end of the day, clashes continued. Jihadists and opposition factions realized they could not change the new reality involving the YPG on the ground. On June 17th, all opposition fighters were expelled from the city. 9 jihadists were killed and two YPG fighters lost their lives. YPG now controlled the city proper.
Results of Serê Kaniyê’s First Battle
Based on the victory attained by the YPG in the city of Serê Kaniyê, the opposition factions and jihadist groups receded from the Jazira region and ethno-religious tensions largely ceased. Serê Kaniyê had been described as the Gate to Jazira attesting to its strategic role. Had the jihadists and FSA factions controlled the city, ethno-religious tensions could have spilled over the entire region.
Serê Kaniyê was included in the Democratic Self-Administration that was announced on January 21, 2012, up to the Turkish occupation in October of 2019. While the aim of the battles in Serê Kaniyê was to deepen Kurdo-Arab divisions and maintain tension in the region, the hierarchies of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) succeeded in peacefully integrating Arabs, Chechens, and Syriacs. This move prevented forces from seeking to foment tension and negatively affecting the mutual fate of the people. In the aftermath of the Turkish invasion in 2019, large numbers of Arabs and other ethnicities who had participated in the AANES institutions fled the city.
In both 2004 and 2012 scenarios, the same figures that had collaborated with the regime repressed the Kurds. In 2004, they collaborated with the Syrian regime, while in 2012 the collaborated again with jihadist groups. These same groups then aided Turkey in occupying the city in 2019.
CHAPTER III: TURKEY’S INVASION & OCCUPATION (2019)
Ankara soon lost confidence in the armed Syrian opposition factions, the Syrian National Army (SNA), and the jihadist-leaning groups in being able to suppress Kurdish forces. Its main goal evolved to wrestling control of Serê Kaniyê away from the Kurds. Meanwhile, ISIS was no longer able to mount any mass attacks after its colossal defeat it incurred in the Battle of Kobanê and the takeover of its caliphate in Raqqa. The stability AANES brought to northeast Syria perturbed Turkey further, since Ankara has benefited greatly from the ongoing internal strife in Syria especially in relation to destabilizing the Kurds. In a case similar to the occupation of Afrin in 2018, Turkey employed its armed forces on the ground in northeast Syria. But first, obtaining a green light from the main global powers was necessary, and would allow Turkey to employ their air force and advanced weaponry.
The 2019 Turkish invasion of Serê Kaniyê and Girê Spî led to mass displacements. While the United Nations said 180,000 people were displaced within three weeks of the Turkish occupation, parts of the city of Serê Kaniyê were destroyed almost completely in the initial Turkish attack. Countless civilians were killed under the Turkish pretext of removing the AANES during its indiscriminate attacks on civilians throughout the city. Civilian properties were later confiscated and taken possession of once the Turkish occupation was truly underway. Similar to Afrin, the original people of the city were displaced, with new ones including Syrians and foreigners. Locals who had left the city with the armed factions back in 2013, pledged vengeance against the people of the city, and many murders occurred in the city soon after.
The second battle of Serê Kaniyê and the ensuing destruction allowed Turkey to engage in a new attempt to engineer demographic change. As a result, a large number of the Kurdish civilians in Serê Kaniyê lost their property to aid in Turkey’s quest for ethnic cleansing.
Washington’s Role in the Turkish Invasion
As the reign of the US President Barack Obama was drawing to a close, he was ready to increase training, support, and equip the now Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to eliminate ISIS once and for all. However, retired General Michel Flynn, Trump’s advisor for security affairs, asked President Obama to halt such support in order to allow the new administration to reassess the situation. It was later revealed that Flynn was bribed to serve Turkish interests before becoming National Security Advisor. With the arrival to the White House of Donald Trump, attempts to find an alternative for the SDF to carry out the final battle against ISIS fell to the wayside.
Eventually, ISIS was driven from Raqqa and finally defeated in Baghouz in March 2019 in east Deir Ezzor by the SDF with air support by the global coalition. The partnership between the US forces and the SDF is a major military achievement in the century in the fight against extremism. However, this partnership, that ought to have consolidated SDF-US relations, was a preamble to a disturbing policy adopted by Trump in dealing with the Syrian crisis under Turkish pressure to disengage the US from the SDF. In the end, the Trump’s administration yielded to Turkish demands.
By the end of 2018, Donald Trump announced he would withdraw all US troops from Syria. The announcement that was made on December 19th was a gift to Turkey and the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad. Prior to Trump’s announcement, Erdogan’s regime in Turkey had announced that Turkish forces were ready to mount a ground invasion into territories held by the SDF east of the Euphrates. These developments accelerated the resignation of the Secretary of Defense James Mattis. When soon after Turkish forces began amassing on the border, and the US intelligence services affirmed that Turkey would mount an operation, the new US Defense Secretary Mark Esper stated that the US would not give up its Kurdish allies, and that any unilateral Turkish military operation against Washington’s allies would be unacceptable.
Esper added that negotiations were ongoing to reach an agreement to address Turkey’s security concerns. In reality, Erdogan was in need of a third anti-Kurdish Syrian operation following his declining popularity rates in Turkey, and his desire to expand in Syria following the S400 Russian defense system deal.
Although Trump eventually retracted his withdrawal of troops from Syria, Erdogan continued his pressure and by early August 2019, he threatened to act unilaterally. However, through last-minute talks, the US agreed to allow Ankara to set up a demilitarized zone where joint (US- Turkish) patrols were to be mounted by August 7th. The US induced the SDF to accept the agreement. The SDF accepted the conditions with the understanding to prove Turkish lies and pretension. US officials were stunned by the resilience the SDF showed. However, by September 6th it was clear that this new deal did not appease Erdogan who insisted to act unilaterally and advance 32 km deep and 480 km in width into Syrian territory by the end of the month. It is important to grasp the moment: while the precise timing of the Turkish onslaught and the ‘Trump’s treason’ of the Kurds reflects the latter’s immoral approach, the eventuality of this encounter was already established since the anti-ISIS strategy was laid down during Obama’s tenure.
Knowing Turkish geopolitical interests and aspirations, the alliance between the US and the SDF could only result in Turkey reacting violently; though the US delayed this inevitable encounter while ISIS was expanding. With the defeat of ISIS (although provisionally) and the US commitment to Syria remaining undecided, Erdogan felt he could seize the opportunity on the ground. With the approach of Erdogan’s set deadline, Trump ordered US personnel to allow the Turkish invasion. Turkey cynically codenamed its invasion ‘Operation Peace Spring’ in a bid to mislead the international public opinion as it did elsewhere in Jarablus with the operation entitled “Euphrates Shield” and “Olive Branch” in Afrin to convey the idea that the attack was a purely a security procedure.
Trump’s administration enforced a ceasefire with the agreement that Turkish aspirations would be halted in the security line set by Erdogan and not further beyond. Trump’s Vice-President, Mike Pence openly threatened to destroy the Turkish economy if aggression continued beyond that line. Naturally, the partisan press in Congress and the Senate played its role in the agreement.
The Military Operation and Engagements
By the evening of October 9, 2019, Turkish artillery and aircraft had begun ceaselessly and indiscriminately pounding Serê Kaniyê and Girê Spî areas, causing mass civilian displacement, panic, and fear. On the same day, Turkish forces and its jihadist proxies advanced into Syrian territories. Some 130,000 people fled their homes in terror from Serê Kaniyê alone. The invasion raised human rights fears and questions as to what could become of those civilians and the ISIS fighters detained in jails run by the SDF, which could revive the group anew. The SDF was now engaged in fighting on two fronts: one in the north and another in the south against ISIS sleeper cells, which sought to take advantage of the Turkish aggression to regain territories.
By October 12th, Ankara produced reports that it now controlled the city, which was far from the reality on the ground. The SOHR reported that Turkish-backed forces killed 9 civilians on the road to Hesîçe including Hevrin Khalaf, the head of Syria’s Future Party as she was heading to join a peaceful ‘Human Shield Tent’ in the city of Girê Spî. Hevrin was killed by Ahmed Ihsan Fayadh al-Hayes, also known as Hatem Abu Shaqra, the leader of the jihadist group Ahrar al-Sharqiya. A convoy of SDF supporters with media outlets was also attacked close to Serê Kaniyê. 14 people were killed, and 10 others were injured. On October 13, the SDF mounted a counterattack where it regained a number of points in the city including al-Sinaa quarter and by October 15th the SDF fighters were nearly in full control of the city. However, on October 17th Turkish armed forces and SNA factions encircled Serê Kaniyê and controlled the city.
Fragile Ceasefire & SDF’s Withdrawal
On October 17th, the US and Turkey reached a five-day ceasefire agreement stipulating that the SDF withdraw a 30 km distance from the Turkish border. The SDF refused to comply with the agreement, since from the very first day of the invasion teams of the Kurdish Red Crescent could not reach the city to retrieve bodies and evacuate the injured. Clashes continued.
By October 20th, however, the SDF said it would withdraw from Serê Kaniyê in accordance with the US-Turkish agreement. Anticipating Turkish and SNA reprisals, civilians left the city en masse. The SDF retreated to Tal Tamr some 40 km distance to Serê Kaniyê. Hundreds of civilians left the city with the SDF.
Turkey Uses Internationally Outlawed Weapons
Soon it became clear that the injured civilians evacuated from Serê Kaniyê had symptoms of internationally illegal weapons, including phosphorous and napalm were used by Turkey in the battles in Serê Kaniyê. The Kurdish Red Crescent reported six such injuries, including civilians and military personnel who were taken to Hesîçe with the intention of further investigating the unknown chemicals used. The SDF reported that unconventional weapons were used by Turkish armed forces hours before the ceasefire agreement was announced and that was mediated by US Vice-President Mike Pence in Ankara.
Investigative teams dispatched by the United Nations reported that they had evidence that Turkey had used chemical weapons against children in Serê Kaniyê, according to The Guardian, while the Non-Proliferation Organization noted that they were collecting evidence on the potential use of these weapons by Turkey in its recent operation. Unsurprisingly, Ankara denied using such weapons.
Paradoxically, inspectors for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in turn stated that they would not examine tissue samples taken from victims of the attack, adding that such injuries were not indicative of chemical weapons use despite evidence to the contrary. This decision implies a conspiracy on the part of the organization. A few days previously, on October 17, Turkey had donated 30,000 Euros to the OPCW, which raised suspicions of unethical deals between Ankara and the organization. The financial contribution was largely viewed as a ‘bribe’ to cover the deadly chemical attack by the NATO member state.
The OPCW missed the opportunity to reveal the truth of white phosphorous and napalm use by Turkey’s military, as evidence was readily available in hospitals in Tal Tamr and Hesîçe. This tragic incident indicated that international bodies often lack neutrality.
Human Rights Violations in Serê Kaniyê
With a comparable number of displaced people compared to Afrin, which established the impossibility of coexisting with occupiers and its militias, the vast majority of the remaining Serê Kaniyê civilians left the city and its countryside soon after hostilities halted. This being the case, violations were subsequently less reported in the city. Few civilians had dared to remain in Serê Kaniyê. In Serê Kaniyê alone, nearly 138,000 people left their homes. This makes nearly 85% of the population, which was estimated at 162,000 people made up of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Chechens, Armenians, Syriacs, and Yazidis permanently displaced. 25,000 of these civilians are currently living in makeshift camps in Washukani (Tweina) and Serê Kaniyê (Talaea) camps in Hesîçe. Tragically, today Serê Kaniyê is no longer a diverse city. There remains few Christians and Yazidis (48 people mostly elderly, 10 Christians, and 3 Yazidis to be precise), owing to the multiple human rights breaches committed at the hands of SNA factions, while supported and backed by Turkey.
Naturally, as expected, abhorrent human rights abuses continue. Taazor has documented that 56 civilians were killed (10 summarily) in ‘Operation Peace Spring’. Nearly 540 people have been arrested and held indefinitely without trails. This includes 72 women and 45 children from both Serê Kaniyê and Girê Spî.
According to Taazor, 185 of those arrested have been forcibly disappeared, with the fear that they have been murdered. Their families know nothing about their whereabouts. During the ‘Operation Peace Spring’, 320 people were tortured in jails run by the opposition. At least five were tortured to death. 92 detainees have been kidnapped and transferred to Turkey with their fate unknown. 48 people have been arbitrarily sentenced to different terms, ranging from 13 years to life imprisonment.
Relatedly, properties including shops, farms, homes, and real estate were taken by a range of jihadist factions and groups including al-Jabha al-Shamiya, al-Majd Legion, Ahrar al-Sharqiya, Division 20th, al-Hamzat Brigade, Sultan Murad Brigade, al-Mu’tasem Brigade, Jaysh al-Islam, and Liwa Soqour al-Shimal. However, violations are predominantly orchestrated by factions and organizations affiliated with the Turkish government.
On June 23, 2020, during a visit paid by Abdulah Erin vali of Urfa, the offices of the Turkish Humanitarian Relief and Freedom Body (IHH) were opened. Two houses owned by the family of the Kurdish journalist and activist Muhyadine Iso were turned into Quran centers, (al-Fateh and al-Jazira). Turkey also appointed the members of the local council of Serê Kaniyê, which is involved in the confiscation of the two civilian houses.
The case of Iso is worthy of mention. The official in charge of the council contacted Iso to withdraw his claim for the property filed with the support of international organizations including the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. The same official met Iso’s family who were now displaced in Turkey, in order to directly pressure him to dismiss the claim. Iso, over concerns for his family, adjourned the case.
One of Iso’s homes is currently occupied by an employee (from Idlib) in IHH. While the second is occupied by two female Iraqi nationals married to two ISIS militants now operating in Libya.
While it is true that Syrian factions are running Serê Kaniyê, in reality, it is Turkey who is officially responsible for the violations in the occupied areas since it is the occupying power. Turkey has violated the sovereignty of the Syrian state and funds and supports factions to ascertain its interests.
Naturally, as the city remains occupied, grievous human rights abuses and breaches will undoubtedly continue. Demographic change, deportation, and enforced displacement, among other violations are ongoing, directed largely by Turkey and its proxy factions in Serê Kaniyê. Meanwhile, the victims of these crimes still await accountability and justice.
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