Let’s get one thing straight: Relocating civilians out of a battlespace/war zone and demolishing previously enemy-held structures is not a human-rights violation or a war crime. As ridiculous as such a claim is, that’s exactly what Amnesty International has accused the Kurds in both Rojava and Bashur of. Claims have been made that both Peshmerga and YPG forces are “ethnically cleansing” their respective regions through the destruction of Arab homes and the forced relocation of Arab civilians.
Amnesty International representatives recently met with Kurdish officials in Sulaymaniah over the claims. They have also prepared a slick exposé available on their website; interestingly enough, it only addresses Syria, even though they have made accusations about both militaries. Perhaps Amnesty wants to fight this war themselves to ensure their standards are met?
Now for the record, I can only speak about the Peshmerga side of this since I have zero experience with the YPG. Having participated in several major operations to retake Daesh-held territory, I have witnessed the destruction of these villages and homes firsthand. But 90 percent of that destruction comes from coalition air strikes, because almost every building has been occupied by Daesh fighters at one point or another. Coalition forces would bomb the shit out of the place, then Peshmerga forces would roll in, assault the objective, and Daesh forces would flee.
After the battle, a proper search and seizure of equipment is performed on each building, ensuring no stone is left unturned and all UXO/IEDs have been disarmed or relocated. When this has been completed, a forward defensive line is established by the unit that maintains ownership of the AO. With the objective secured, bulldozers are brought in to scoop up the debris and use it to form new defenses or just make a pile out of the way. Occasionally, a building is demolished if deemed strategically unsound, but what’s still standing usually only amounts to two or three structures that become occupied by Peshmerga soldiers. They certainly aren’t chasing people away and burning their homes with torches and pitchforks.
What you wouldn’t have read about from Amnesty is that many of these villages are filled with Daesh sympathizers who do pick up a rifle and fight or flee alongside Daesh. Prior to any offensive action, the majority of actual civilians flee their homes to avoid getting killed. Somehow, they always know, and truth be told I have seen almost zero collateral damage aside from infrastructure. When Peshmerga move in, they often meet groups of fleeing civilians (the majority of them Arabs) half way. These people have often packed up all their belongings into a vehicle or carry them on their backs.
I’ve even seen a man flee with his entire goat herd (can’t blame him, that’s his livelihood). These refugees are met with open arms by the Kurds and their military forces. After proper security measures are followed to avoid unnecessary deaths (individual pat-downs and vehicle searches), they are given food and water and told to stand by. At this point, the Kurdish Asaiyash (secret police) begin screening each refugee to ensure they are not Daesh or one of their sympathizers; there are often a few wolves mixed in with the sheep. Once they have been cleared, refugees are moved to the rear and relocated to a collection point.
From there, they most likely get temporarily placed in a refugee camp native to that region, provided they don’t have family or friends in the free territories. But why do these refugees need to leave their homes and crumpling villages? Unfortunately, war sucks, and the immediate effects of it are negative in many ways. If civilian populations are left in conflict zones, deaths occur on both sides. It causes major security concerns for military forces and endangers said populace. Peshmerga forces are undermanned and underequipped as is—that’s no secret. This means they don’t have the resources to secure these villages or rebuild them immediately.
Usually Daesh launches a counterattack not long after these offensives take place. The Kurds could not possibly be an effective fighting force while dealing with all these factors. To increase their chances of properly repelling any counterattack, a berm line is used to spread their forces out and create a barrier. So for the sake of success and the greater good, they simplify the equation. It would be insane for them to try to do this while occupying an actual village and counter Daesh’s guerrilla tactics. Unlike Western militaries, the Kurds don’t handicap themselves with overly sensitive ROEs or other strategies that handicap them; they can’t afford such “luxuries” in their own backyard.
Once the LOA is pushed farther along in the territory, i.e. more offensives take place and Daesh loses more ground, these villages begin to rebuild and reoccupy. Now it’s important to remember that none of this happens overnight; bureaucracy still has a place with the Kurds, after all. The people who end up inhabiting them, from what I’ve seen in the Kirkuk region, shocker here, are generally of Arab descent. These people have been the friendliest most grateful human beings I’ve ever seen in my life; they smile and wave as our convoys drive toward the front lines through their small towns.
Families come out of their homes to greet Peshmerga on their way to battle. One I’ll never forget was when we were RTB after a day of fighting about 10 minutes from the town we were passing through. As our truck of big scary Westerners in skull masks, with guns sticking out every side, bounced along, we passed two school girls in uniforms no older than nine. They were smiling and giggling to each other, one clearly egging the other on about something. Suddenly she jumps and shouts, “Biji Peshmerga!” holding up a V-for-victory sign.
Now maybe I’m just naïve, and these people are doing exactly what the villagers did in Afghanistan between us and the Taliban, or the people of Iraq did when the United States rolled into Bagdad for the first time, but it all feels genuine to me. Only time will tell, but one thing I’m sure of is these are not people suffering from human-rights violations. They are free from a tyranny whose war crimes were all around them before the Kurds chased them away.
In response to Amnesty International’s claims (against the Peshmerga, specifically), Arab tribal leaders in Makhkmour defended Peshmerga forces and stated that the Kurds were defending their villages and people from rocket attacks by Daesh on a regular basis. They said the Kurds had transferred their people away from combat zones to neighboring villages.
(Featured image courtesy of post-gazette.com)