Several weeks ago, I wrote a comment piece for this paper that advocated Western support to the organization known as SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), a group I described as: “an organization which has an ideology that combines libertarian socialism, gender equality, respect for ethnic minorities, secularism and green politics”. This article provoked the publication of a refutation piece several issues later, which accused me of spreading propaganda for a hateful terrorist organisation. As my ideology could not be further from that description, I would like to address the claims spouted in the response, if only to stop a mischaracterisation of my position by what seems an obvious attempt of whitewashing the atrocities of the Syrian government.
Four accusations are charged against the SDF. Each of them would be terrible on their own: the use of child female soldiers under the influence of drugs; dressing their militiamen as civilians; preventing civilians from leaving battle zones; and supporting attacks in Europe. The piece even compares them to ISIS, which, in my opinion, is an affirmation that can only be made from either ignorance or malice. On child soldiers, the source provided is a YouTube video hosted by a channel owned by the Al-Hamza Division. This is a Turkish-backed militia that forms part of the wide array of forces Turkey has been using in Rojava to wrestle control back from the SDF and its allies. If there were a group that would like to portray the SDF as a tyrannical force, it would be them, so we should consider the possibility the video provided has been staged, as has been the case of many footage pieces during the war.
Nevertheless, there is indeed a report by Human Rights Watch that denounces the use of child soldiers by the YPG, the backbone of the SDF. While very concerning, the report also mentions these incidents are far from common in the YPG and admits a tenet policy of the organisation is refusing to use child soldiers. In addition, it should be noted that as recent as 2014, ISIS was engaging into a genocidal campaign against the Kurds, so, terrible as it is, some teenagers were forced to fight to save their lives. The cases reported happened under units that were not under the central control of the YPG, and the organisation promised to investigate the matter, reiterating their commitment to universal human rights. They also ask for external support in their mission to maintain basic civil standards in both the war front and the areas where their control is tenuous. In this, the YPG have done more to tackle the problem of child soldiers in Syria than any of the other warring parties, which have also been accused of using underage individuals in their armies.
“Comparing the SDF to ISIS can only come from either ignorance or malice”
The second claim is that the SDF dresses their combatants with civilian clothes, which, as explained in the article, goes against Article 48 of the Geneva Conventions, blurring the line between civilians and soldiers. I have only been able to find a single instance of this happening – precisely in the video provided by the writer. I assume the SDF does not encourage its forces to use civilian clothes, but probably in the chaos of the war some units, or even individual soldiers, have retorted to this tactic to escape the enemy’s fire. Not that it matters: according to Amnesty International, the Turkish army has indiscriminately fired at civilians fleeing Afrin, killing up to 17 children in just a single incident. Thus, it seems that sadly Article 48 is rendered moot by the cruelty of Erdogan.
The piece also claims the SDF have been blocking civilians from leaving Afrin. The spokesman for the UN Secretary General is the source for this claim, as it is shown in the video linked by the author. However, the very spokesman admits the UN has not been able to contact the local authorities of Afrin, which implies that their source of information is Turkey, as no other parties where fighting in the area. The story was only reported by organisms like the Anadolu Agency, the propaganda arm of the Turkish government. I would like to see more solid evidence.
Finally, it is claimed the SDF advocate terrorist acts against civilians in Europe. According to the news that is taken as an evidence for this claim, a Kurdish group based in the diaspora, the Apoist Youth Initiative, called for violence against assets of the Turkish government, as well as the parties and organisations that, according to them, enable the violations of human rights carried out by the present Turkish government (i. e. most European governments). The group follows Abdüllah Öcalan, the long-time jailed founder of the wide Kurdish leftist movement, but apart from both taking inspiration from him, no links have been found between the AYI and the SDF forces fighting in Syria. I want to state that I absolutely condemn the actions of this group against civilians and institutions of Turkish origin, that have no blame whatsoever for the foreign policy of their country. Nonetheless, Kurdish led groups are not the only ones increasing the tension among the diasporas. In Germany, an Erdogan-critical regional MP of the leftist party Die Linke was recently hit in the head and called a ‘traitor’ in Turkish by an unknown man. Across the Atlantic, supporters of Erdogan became infamous when they beat up protesters during the last visit of the Turkish dictator to Washington D.C.
Believing that we should not intervene militarily in Syria is a completely legitimate position, one I happen to hold. However, I will not accept falsehoods directed against the only group that is showing some commitment to democracy, tolerance of minorities, and feminism. While I agree past intervention in Lybia and Iraq has been a colossal disaster, that does not mean we have to diplomatically support either the criminal Syrian government (which has been known to use gas against its own citizens) or the Islamist controlled opposition (whose record with human rights is shaky at best). That is why I believe the best-case scenario for Syria is a SDF-led government. Because being against Western imperialism does not mean blindly supporting the worst satraps of the Middle East.