For Syrian Kurds, lost dreams and a betrayal that stings

Why We Wrote This

Outgunned by Turkey and feeling betrayed by President Trump, where do Syria’s Kurds go from here? It’s a sad question, and an employee of the Kurdish autonomous administration has a telling answer: Iraq.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Vice President Mike Pence meets with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, Oct. 17, 2019, for talks on the Kurds and Syria. Mr. Pence later said he had secured a cease-fire agreement, but Turkey termed it only a "pause in operations."

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After meeting last week with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Vice President Mike Pence said he had negotiated a “cease-fire” agreement for northern Syria. Turkey presented it instead as a “pause in operations” so that Kurdish fighters could withdraw from the strip of Syrian territory that Turkey was invading to create a long-sought buffer zone.

But the Kurds, America’s former allies in the fight against the Islamic State, see the U.S. withdrawal, which opened the door to Turkey’s assault, as a betrayal. The truce made no difference.

Before the U.S. pullout ordered by President Donald Trump, the Kurds controlled nearly a third of inhabited Syria. There they enjoyed an unprecedented degree of self-governance and the unique opportunity to exercise cultural rights long denied by the Syrian regime. Those dreams seem lost.

“The cease-fire deal is betrayal in legal attire,” says Hamid Khalaf, whose sister, a Syrian Kurdish politician, was murdered by Turkish-backed militias. “America stabbed the Kurdish people in the back, the Kurdish people who lost 11,000 fighters on the front lines against the Islamic State in defense of democracy, freedom, equality, and humanity – in defense of all the people of the world.”

Hamid Khalaf knows all too well that his sister, a Kurdish politician in northern Syria, was killed in cold blood.

The video footage taken just moments before she was executed by Turkish-backed militiamen has been widely circulated. Thirteen seconds into the video, you hear the voice of Hafrin Khalaf identifying herself as a political party leader.

A medical report captures the brutality of what ensued: She was shot multiple times and dragged violently by the hair.

For the agony that his sister experienced, Mr. Khalaf, a resident of Switzerland for a dozen years, blames the president of the United States and his abrupt decision to pull out of Syria.

“The United States is responsible for what is happening in northeast Syria,” he says, sitting in the living room of his apartment in Bern. “America is specifically responsible for the death of my sister because the decision to withdraw U.S. troops cleared the path for Turkey to strike Syria. ... The betrayal came from Trump.”

Mr. Khalaf, whose sense of stinging betrayal is widely shared among Syrian Kurds, was referring to the fateful Oct. 6 phone call between President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Three days later, Turkey attacked the very Kurdish fighters that the United States and its allies had relied on to defeat the Islamic State militarily on the ground in northern Syria. Turkey’s so-called “Operation Peace Spring” – preparations for which had begun months earlier – aims to clear northern Syria of Kurdish fighters that Ankara sees as inextricably linked to its own Kurdish insurgency.

Abandoned by the United States and outgunned by Turkey, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) agreed to hand over key border towns to Syrian forces loyal to the government in Damascus, finding common cause in fending off Turkish aggression.

The deal was brokered by Russia, a consistent military and diplomatic backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has managed to outlast a cataclysmic civil war. In a flash, the map of war-torn Syria was redrawn and reimagined by all of the conflict’s parties, leaving the Kurds in limbo.

“There isn’t a deal with Damascus but an understanding based on the need of border protection and fight against Turkish invasion,” Mazloum Abdi, the commander in chief of the SDF, said in a statement Wednesday. “This is solely a military move.”

‘Betrayal in legal attire’

Facing blowback at home and abroad amid reports of war crimes – including the killing of Ms. Khalaf – and prison breaks by ISIS, the White House slapped economic sanctions on Turkey.

Then, on Oct. 17, Vice President Mike Pence negotiated what he called a “cease-fire” agreement. Ankara presented it instead as a “pause in operations” so that Kurdish fighters could withdraw from an area more than 250 miles long and some 20 miles deep.

Before the U.S. pullout, Kurdish forces considered terrorists by Turkey controlled nearly a third of inhabited Syria. There the Kurds enjoyed an unprecedented degree of self-governance and the unique opportunity to exercise cultural rights long denied by the Assad regime.

These Kurdish-held territories were relatively safe, a base for Western soldiers and hundreds of international humanitarian workers, and an entry point for foreign journalists. Kurds were also the gatekeepers of prisons holdings Iraqi, Syrian, and foreign fighters linked to ISIS.

“The cease-fire deal is betrayal in legal attire,” says Mr. Khalaf, who maintains the high-rise in which he lives. “America stabbed the Kurdish people in the back, the Kurdish people who lost 11,000 fighters on the front lines against the Islamic State in defense of democracy, freedom, equality, and humanity – in defense of all the people of the world.

“The Kurds were stabbed by the hand of Trump,” he adds amid tears for his slain sister. “Turkey was the dagger.”

Dominique Soguel
Hamid Khalaf, at his apartment in Bern, Switzerland, grieves his sister, Hafrin Khalaf, a prominent Kurdish politician who was executed in northern Syria by Turkey-backed militiamen. She was ambushed and shot dead with her driver on Oct. 12.

At a cabinet meeting Monday, Mr. Trump again defended his withdrawal decision. “We helped the Kurds,” he said. “And we never gave the Kurds a commitment that we’d stay for the next 400 years and protect them.”

The five-day truce, meanwhile, has not been perfect. The terms of the agreement – which includes the lifting of sanctions – are widely seen among Kurds as a U.S. capitulation to Turkey. Mr. Trump celebrated it as the “deal of the century,” although it includes no lasting concessions from Ankara.

Ethnic cleansing?

Central to the agreement was the establishment of a demilitarized area along the Syrian border with Turkey. Such a safe zone would meet a long-running Turkish strategic goal and include areas where the Kurds had established self-rule.

It would also give Turkey an area to resettle up to 2 million Syrian refugees and alter demographic dynamics in the region. There are at least 12 divided cities along the border between Turkey and Syria, including Kobane, where Kurds bravely fought off an ISIS onslaught with the help of U.S. air power. The battle five years ago proved to be a turning point in halting the expansion of ISIS territory across northern Iraq and Syria.

Over the past two weeks, some 300,000 people have been displaced, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“Encouraging the ongoing genocide campaign is by far the greatest insult to our people so far,” said Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the SDF, in a Twitter message tagging Mr. Trump. “With all due respect, Mr. President, what makes you think you have the right to drive millions of Kurds out of their homes and resettle them elsewhere? Isn’t this ethnic cleansing?”

Kurdish forces pulled out of the flashpoint border town of Ras al-Ayn on Sunday, the first withdrawal since the so-called cease-fire. Civilians fled alongside these forces, reportedly fearful of what Turkish-backed militias – which are notorious for the inclusion of former ISIS, Al Qaeda, and criminal elements – would do.

Gruesome execution videos have been linked to advancing Islamist militias backed by Turkey. The Turkish-led takeover of Afrin, a Kurdish enclave, was marred by looting and killing last year.

Mr. Erdoğan vowed Saturday to crush “Kurdish fighters” if the 13-point deal is not fully implemented. Both sides have traded blame for violations. A Turkish soldier was killed Sunday. More than 200 civilians, including 18 children, have been killed since the start of the offensive, according to Kurdish health authorities.

Lost dream of Rojava

“The United States betrayed the blood of my son and his fellow martyrs,” says Aisha Hussein, a native of Hassakeh interviewed in Qamishli, whose son died fighting ISIS. “They promised them protection and left them to their fate.

“Rojava is now in existential danger,” she says, using the Kurds’ name for their ancestral territories in Syria, which Arabs also claim. “The Turks and their loyalists may come to slay us. ... They will destroy Rojava over us if they can. The [Syrian] regime doesn’t want to grant us any rights, but we are forced to ally with it to protect ourselves.”

The Syrian flag already flies in parts of the city of Qamishli – including in Christian pockets, the Syrian-army controlled “security square,” the court, and the airport. Residents say more flags have gone up in recent days but that checkpoints remain in the hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces. Arabs and Kurds, both for and against the regime, have made the city home. Tensions are high.

In public, people curse the United States. They know that the days of Rojava are all but over.

“I will stay in Rojava,” says Ali Saadu, a middle-aged trader. “The only way out for me is the grave. This is our land, and I will not leave it for anyone to take.”

Hoshank Hadi, a student at Rojava University, clings to the hope that all the sacrifices have not been in vain. “I do not think the Kurds will face the same oppression and injustice they did before 2011 [when protests against Assad started],” he says. “They [the regime] will be open to the Kurdish language, give us more rights. Siding with Russia and the regime will end the possibility of war and we will make some gains, although maybe not in the way that we want or the way that we have now.”

Ahmed, an employee with Syria’s Kurdish autonomous administration in Qamishli who declined to give his last name for security reasons, says he prefers the Syrian regime to Turkey but won’t be taking any chances. He will go to northern Iraq, where Kurds have a stronger grip over their autonomous region.

“I would like to stay, but I am afraid that I will be conscripted into the Syrian army and have to participate in wars that I do not believe in,” he says.

Hints that Mr. Trump could backpedal yet again and leave special forces in northeast Syria reassure no one. The key question now is what will come of Mr. Erdoğan’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi Tuesday.

“We were wrong when we trusted America,” says Ahmed. “Its history is full of betrayal. They deceived us, and we will never trust them again.”

Alan Hasan contributed from Qamishli, Syria.

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