A Peshmerga guard scans the horizon at one of the frontlines. Photo: Rudaw
In the space of a few months Amnesty International has issued two reports condemning the conduct of Kurds in both Syria and Iraq in their war against the Islamic State (ISIS). Both of which accuse the Kurds of essentially displacing Arab populations in order to shift the demographics in their favour under the fog of war against ISIS.
The first took aim at the Syrian Kurds accusing them of purposely displacing Arabs in a bid to consolidate their own autonomy at their expense. This followed Ankara’s accusations in the summer of 2015 that Syrian Kurds were committing a form of ethnic cleansing in Gire Spi (Tal Abyad) when they displaced approximately 20,000 of the town’s residents when they ousted ISIS from there. However it’s important to remember that the Kurds themselves were essentially ethnically cleansed from that town a mere two years beforehand by Jabhat al-Nusra who put out a fatwa against them and encouraged people to steal their property and enslave their women and children. The Syrian Kurds can no doubt be forgiven for being paranoid that in the Arab towns they may come under attack from either sleeper cells or sympathizers of the group. This hasn’t, however, stopped them from cooperating with and assisting Arab, Assyrian or Turkmen groups in the areas where their forces are fighting against ISIS nor have they sought to fundamentally shift the demographics by forcing out minorities. If anything they have striven to showcase the fact that they are building up their area to be a safe haven for minorities who face either displacement or death were ISIS to prevail over the Syrian Kurds on the battle-field.
This certainly doesn’t mean that the Syrian Kurds are perfect. But considering the circumstances and nature of this struggle they have performed admirably well. As have the armed force of the Kurdistan Region, the Peshmerga.
The Kurdistan Region is swollen with internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have fled violence from elsewhere in Iraq since the rise of ISIS. The region has sheltered an enormous 1.8 million of them and the Peshmerga are the only force who is guaranteeing their safety. The destruction of some empty previously ISIS-occupied Arab villages on the front-lines has self-evidently been borne out of necessity and prudence more than anything else.
“Back in September I embedded with the Peshmerga during a battle around Kirkuk,” journalist Benedetta Argentieri told Rudaw, “ISIS decided not to fight the Kurds, instead they put IEDs [improvised explosive device] on all the roads around and booby-trapped each house in the several villages that Peshmerga were trying to get back from the jihadi. As I was told by several sources ISIS employs this military technique very often.”
“Instead of sending EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] teams to clear the area,” she continued, “the Peshmerga decided to tear down the houses. It was primarily a security concern, since you can’t be a hundred percent sure the area has been cleared. Also with little resources, Peshmerga are trying to preserve men as much as possible.”
“I was very surprised to read the Amnesty report on this issue, since it seems it didn’t really take into account the obvious security concerns about repopulation certain areas,” she concluded.
The depopulated IED-laden villages bulldozed by the Peshmerga are along the front-lines, where incidentally it’s estimated the majority of Peshmerga’s casualties were caused by the lethal IED’s ISIS has strewn across the landscape. A protracted effort to defuse all the IEDs with limited equipment and resources and risk losing more military personnel while not holding onto those villages (many of which are in areas Iraq also claims sovereignty over) would be wholly untenable for obvious reasons. This has proven to be the unfortunate price that has to be paid by this costly war of attrition.
Amnesty’s reports and more general investigations into the conduct of the Kurds engaged in this war are certainly necessary as it’s important to assess the conduct of an armed force in a time of war, even if they are engaged against a reprehensible enemy which takes pride in showcasing its many war crimes and crimes against humanity. However the absence of any suggestion of an alternative course of action for the Kurds to take in their war against ISIS is disheartening and does little more than place an unnecessarily large blot on the Peshmerga’s earnest efforts to fight this dirty war as cleanly as they feasibly can.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.