Kurds: Turkey ‘Occupying Christian Villages’ in Syria for ‘Ethnic Cleansing’

Turkish soldiers and a Turkey-backed Syrian fighter walk during a raid in a village east of Ras al-Ain on the border between Syria and Turkey in northeastern Syria, on October 28, 2019. (Photo by Nazeer Al-khatib / AFP) (Photo by NAZEER AL-KHATIB/AFP via Getty Images)

The general commander of the majority Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) accused Turkish soldiers and their allies Thursday of “occupying Christian villages” in northern Syria, where Turkish officials claimed this week their military operation had ended.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched “Operation Peace Spring” this month, an invasion of northern Syria Erdogan claimed necessary to return some of the 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey to their homeland. Turkey declared its objective to be the creation of a “safe zone” made out of Kurdish territory through the removal of the indigenous Kurdish population, who Turkey would replace with mostly Arab Syrian refugees.

Kurdish forces condemned the invasion as an attempt at “ethnic cleansing,” one they alleged continued after an agreed-to ceasefire ended on Wednesday.

America, whose withdrawal precipitated the Turkish invasion, and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s close ally Russia brokered the deal.

“Turkey has not adhered to the ceasefire agreement with USA and is continuing its war,” Mazloum Abdi, the general commander of the SDF, said on Twitter Thursday. “Turkey with Jihadists, began to occupying [sic] Christian villages and trying to break into Tall Tamir predominantly Assyriens [sic], threatened with annihilation. USA must fulfill its obligations.”

Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava), the main target of Turkey’s invasion, is home to a growing population of Christians who fled the Islamic State when the terrorist group established a caliphate centered south of the region in Raqqa. In the aftermath of the SDF, with American help, defeating ISIS in Raqqa, Christians in Rojava have been taking advantage of arable land and the absence of Sunni Arab jihadists in Kurdish territory to rebuild their lives.

As aid groups have warned, “Operation Peace Spring” is a direct threat to these communities. SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali warned in a statement similar to Abdi’s that Tal Tamir [Til Temir], home to one of Rojava’s resurging Christian communities, is under fire.

Bali added that Turkish forces had been using Syrian airspace controlled by American forces to attack civilian areas. “People are undergoing an ethnic cleansing campaign by [Turkey],” he said, describing Washington and Moscow as “responsible” for the attack because they had helped broker the ceasefire.

Reuters reported Thursday that locals had spotted American military vehicles patrolling the Syrian-Turkish border for the first time since President Trump announced this month that he would withdraw American troops from the region. A Kurdish source told Reuters the patrol would not be the last of its kind.

Videos circulating on social media from Tal Tamir show heavy clashes and fleeing civilians.

The Kurdish news service Rudaw noted on Wednesday that Tal Tamir was also home to civilians that had already fled the Turkish invasion from the town of Ras al-Ain, which Kurds refer to as Sare Kani. Locals in Tal Tamir described the situation as “not good.”

Assad’s official news service, the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), corroborated the news of “Erdogan’s terrorists and mercenaries” attacking villages in Rojava. The “terrorists” in question are members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a coalition of anti-Assad forces that includes al-Qaeda and other jihadist elements. Videos from the battlegrounds in Rojava show FSA members shouting “Allahu akbar,” the classic jihadist battle cry, and desecrating the corpses of Kurdish fighters. The SDF has referred to the FSA as “the new ISIS.”

The ceasefire agreement was in part contingent upon Assad’s forces entering Rojava and securing areas against Turkish invasion. The Kurdish forces have operated largely independent of Assad, neither attacking nor cooperating with his troops. “Operation Peace Spring” forced the SDF to accept Assad troops’ presence in its territory. SANA reported “fierce clashes” between Turkish soldiers and Assad troops in Ras al-Ayn on Wednesday.

Following the end of the ceasefire Wednesday and renewed Turkish attacks, reports from SDF members on the ground indicate that Assad’s army began to withdraw from the Turkish battle lines, leaving local civilians exposed to attack.

Assad’s defense ministry asked the SDF to become an official arm of the Syrian military on Wednesday.

“We in Syria are facing a common enemy, and we must sacrifice as the people of unified Syria from the Arabs and Kurds to restore every inch of the beloved Syrian territories,” the defense ministry pleaded.

The SDF rejected the invitation:

The Syrian Democratic Forces with all its components and members, and in front of the world, have been the best Syrian fighters for years who have fought ISIS and destroyed its so-called caliphate defending Syria and the world. Therefore, they are heroes who deserve praise and honor and not settle the status and do not need pardons or forgiveness like those issued against criminals and terrorists.

We also stress that the Syrian Democratic Forces members are disciplined fighters and a systematic military organizations with an institutional body. We absolutely reject this language of speech directed to our members. While it was better for the Syrian Ministry of Defense to address its speech to the General Command of the Syrian Democratic Forces in order to open the door of a dialogue expressing a sincere desire to unify efforts and not circumvent the reality and disclaim its responsibilities.

Erdogan made clear Wednesday that, despite his government claiming “Operation Peace Spring” had no reason to restart after the ceasefire, Turkey’s work was “not finished yet” in Syria.

“We will continue our pursuit until the last terrorist is gone. Neither threats, nor blackmail, nor insidious games will be able to hold us back,” Erdogan said, using his preferred epithet for Kurdish people.

Erdogan considers the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) a wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The YPG and YPJ (the women’s forces) make up most of the SDF and are U.S. allies pivotal in the fight against ISIS; the SDF delivered intelligence necessary to capture ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The PKK is a U.S.-designated Marxist terrorist organization.

“The only reason we launched Operation Peace Spring is our intention to destroy those terror corridors and those who want to establish that terrorist state,” Erdogan said.

Turkish National Defense Minister Hulusi Akar echoed the sentiment, saying Thursday that “nothing is finished here yet, anything could happen,” speaking to Turkish soldiers Tal Abyad, Syria. Akar claimed that Turkey’s “Euphrates Shield” operation made Turkey the “only army that fought Daesh/ISIS directly,” according to the state-run Anadolu Agency.

The 2016 “Operation Euphrates Shield” similarly targeted only Syrian Kurds and their allies with the intention of repopulating their areas with Arab Syrian refugees.

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