BARDARASH, Iraqi Kurdistan Region — Turkey is a leading donor of humanitarian aid. It hosts more refugees than any other country in the world. Its official emergency relief outfit, known as AFAD, has won millions of hearts and minds in disaster spots across the globe. But here at the Bardarash refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, any mention of Turkey prompts fury and disgust. A reporter was cautioned against speaking Turkish. “Hush! Are you crazy? You will be attacked,” warned Botan Salahaddin, the camp’s Iraqi Kurdish manager.
Over 10,000 Syrian Kurds currently sheltering here are victims of Turkey’s ongoing offensive in northern Syria. Nearly half are children. Launched on Oct. 9, Turkey’s “Operation Peace Spring” has displaced at least 200,000 people and left 90 civilians dead, according to the Kurdish Red Crescent operating within Syria.
The crush of refugees has eased since Turkey signed US and Russian-brokered cease-fires that effectively halted Turkish advances. But violations of the cease-fires — mainly by the Turkish side — continue and “People are still coming, unfortunately,” said Salahaddin.
The Barzani Charity Foundation, a local nongovernmental organization founded by the Kurdistan Regional Government’s recently anointed prime minister, Masrour Barzani, runs the camp jointly with the UN refugee agency and provides hot meals, kerosene and blankets to new arrivals.
But a host of problems bedevil Bardarash. There are no doctors after 4 p.m., said Letitzia Gualdoni, a nurse with Medicins Sans Frontieres, which runs a small clinic here. “We are trying to set up a night shift,” she told Al-Monitor, adding, “Mental health is an intense problem.”
Syrian Kurdish refugee children at Bardarash camp in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, Nov. 18, 2019. (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)
“The new danger for these people are wolves and other wild creatures descending from the surrounding mountains in hunt of prey. If we don’t install a proper fence, children will remain at high risk. And potential Daesh infiltrators [among the refugees] are an added menace to the Kurdistan region,” said Salahaddin, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “Not a single government has helped us so far. Not Saudi Arabia, not Qatar, not the United States, not one,” he noted.
“Turkey should pay for everything, compensate everyone. The Turks caused this,” said a fellow relief worker, speaking anonymously because of strict orders to not discuss politics.
“Turkey shattered our lives. We choose to not sully our tongues by pronouncing his name, but Erdogan is a criminal,” said Ibrahim Seydo, a 40-year-old laborer. He landed at the camp in mid-October with his wife and two young children, where they huddle in a pitched tent, a fierce wind blasting through its flaps. They paid smugglers $400 to sneak them across the border.
“We have nothing left, no plans for the future. We are paralyzed.”
Recep Tayyip Erdogan is Turkey’s president and its first leader to open direct peace talks more than a decade ago with Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdish rebel group known as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Ocalan directed a guerrilla campaign against the Turkish army out of Syria until 1998, initially for Kurdish independence and then for autonomy, until he was evicted then captured in Nairobi in 1999. The group is labeled as a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union.
The collapse of the peace effort in the summer of 2015 lies at the core of the past months’ bloody upheaval, which saw US forces redeploy further south, abandoning the Kurds to Turkish aggression amid cries of betrayal. The Kurds have since cut a deal with Russia and the Syrian army to fill the void, but the stability that once prevailed in the US-protected zone has been destroyed, allowing IS cells to regroup and resume a steady drip of small but deadly attacks.
The Turkish offensive is formally aimed at uprooting the PKK’s US-backed Syrian doppelganger, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), from along its borders and establishing a so-called safe zone.
Many believe Turkey’s ultimate aim is to drive out the Kurds in a chilling repeat of the ethnic cleansing campaign or “Arab Belt” project carried out by Syria’s Baath leaders in the 1970s. Their Arabization plan envisaged a cordon sanitaire 10-15 kilometers (six to nine miles) deep — the Turks want to push this up to 30 kilometers (18 miles) — and running 275 kilometers (170 miles) along the Turkish border, according to Harriet Allsop, the British academic and author of “The Kurds of Syria.” Kurdish lands were duly usurped and transferred to thousands of Arabs resettled by the state in their place. Erdogan has openly declared his intention to bring in some one million Syrian refugees into the area.
Despite shared qualms about Kurdish irredentism, Syria’s Baathist President Bashar al-Assad has little interest in seeing this latest stab at thinning the Kurdish presence materialize, as it will by Erdogan’s own admission be done through the injection of hundreds of thousands of Sunni Arabs who supported the failed uprising against the Syrian government.
Until Ankara’s onslaught, the YPG had never openly attacked Turkey. While the peace process was still ongoing, YPG-linked Syrian Kurdish politicians such as Ilham Ahmed and Saleh Muslim had frequent contact with Turkish authorities in Ankara and Istanbul. Now Ankara is pressuring the United States and Europe to classify the YPG as terrorists alongside the PKK.
Forged in 2014 on the back of Turkish reluctance to fight the Islamic State, the YPG’s alliance with the Americans against the jihadis has sharpened Turkish paranoia over the establishment of a Western-supported Kurdish state on its borders. And when the United States refused to scrap its partnership with the Syrian Kurds, Erdogan, with President Donald Trump’s blessing, acted on his long-running threats to invade, unleashing his army on the towns of Ras al-Ain and Tell Abyad, called respectively Serekaniye and Gire Spi in Kurdish.
Seydo is from Serekaniye. His 47-year-old brother Reizan was shot by Turkish-backed Syrian militias in Serekaniye as he tried to make his way to his house, leaving behind a wife and three children. “He was unarmed. They shot him just like that, for no reason,” said Seydo, who narrowly escaped a Turkish airstrike himself in the early days of the Turkish incursion. “There was chaos throughout the city and deafening explosions as Turkish planes rained bombs. Then a bomb struck near our house. It was a horrible scene, with people moaning under the rubble, pieces of flesh lying here and there.”
Prior to the Turkish occupation, life under the Kurdish-run administration “was great,” Seydo recalled. “There was peace, order and accountability. If somebody stole from us they were taken to court.” Turkey’s Arab proxies in the Syrian National Army face no such censure as they loot and occupy Kurdish homes, proudly documenting their exploits in social media posts in which they call Kurds “pigs” and “infidels.”
Their impunity extends to murder, as seen in the case of the slain female Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf. The soft-spoken civil engineer was dragged out of her car by her hair until the skin on her scalp came off. The 35-year-old was then beaten senseless and repeatedly shot by the militant group Ahrar al Sharqiya, which is fighting on behalf of Turkey. The militia says it is conducting an internal investigation but few expect any heads to roll. Turkey has aired zero contrition and Erdogan has called the SNA fighters “heroes.”
Human Rights Watch confirmed that the SNA “have summarily executed civilians and failed to account for aid workers who disappeared while working in the ‘safe zone.'” In a research note today, the New York-based monitoring group noted that the SNA “has also apparently refused to allow the return of Kurdish families displaced by Turkish military operations and looted and unlawfully appropriated or occupied their property.” Several Kurds who attempted to return to Serekaniye were killed by the militants.
“Executing individuals, pillaging property, and blocking displaced people from returning to their homes is damning evidence of why Turkey’s proposed ‘safe zones’ will not be safe,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Contrary to Turkey’s narrative that their operation will establish a safe zone, the groups they are using to administer the territory are themselves committing abuses against civilians and discriminating on ethnic grounds.”
YPG officials say Turkey’s SNA allies include hardened jihadis — among them former IS fighters — a claim that has been corroborated by the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and senior Iraqi Kurdish officials speaking not for attribution to Al-Monitor.
Sardar is a Syrian Kurd from Serekaniye who like many of the town's inhabitants has sought refuge in the YPG-controlled town of Hasakah. The 32-year-old who declined to reveal his last name for fear of retribution said his repeated attempts to return to his hometown where he made a living selling mobile telephones have failed. Kurds are barred from entry and Arabs are expected to prove that they did not work with the YPG, Sardar said.
Sardar told Al-Monitor that an Arab friend who managed to inspect their respective homes found both partially destroyed and robbed of all their valuables. “He told me he plans to flee the city as it is not safe at all and that many Turkish proxies from Idlib and the Aleppo countryside have brought their families to the town and are living in deserted homes,” he said, continuing, “The Turkish proxies have a long hatred against the Kurds and they are torturing even Arabs who were living in Serekaniye” prior to the Turkish incursion.
Seydo said his home was looted as well. “The fridge, the plasma televisions, the furniture, all gone.”
Before Syria’s civil conflict erupted in 2011 it was possible to imagine a different future. Erdogan had pioneered an open-border policy that saw Kurdish and Arab families divided during the carving up of the Ottoman Empire by their Allied vanquishers cross by foot into Syria and Turkey to celebrate Eid. “We would throw packets of tea from our side at them and they would fling boxes of Turkish delight back at us,” recalled Hisham Arafat, a Syrian Kurdish journalist who grew up in Serekaniye. The border was de-mined. Trade ties were booming. Turkish became the lingua franca as Syrians devoured steamy Turkish telenovelas and jockeyed for places at Turkish universities. Now a 764-kilometer (475-mile) wall erected by Turkey, its chief purpose to keep out the YPG, separates the sides.
Turkish artillery shells have been sowing terror further east in the Kurdish-majority town of Darbasiyeh, which lies beyond Turkey’s zone of control. A widow who would only identify herself as Suheyla, prematurely aged by acute liver disease, said she lived it. She had a crazed look as she recounted how she escaped with her young son and daughter, leaving all of her belongings behind. “There were many wounded, many dead all around. We had to go, but I have no idea what we will do here, how we will survive,” she said, breaking into tears. “What kind of Muslim is Erdogan? What does Turkey want from us?”
The question has lingered for decades in Avrzog, a tiny Armenian village lying 10 kilometers (six miles) south of the Turkish border on the edge of the Barwari Bela Valley in Iraqi Kurdistan. The whirring of drones followed by the screech of F-16 jets dumping their payloads on PKK targets provides the ambient noise in the region sandwiched between Syria and Turkey. A string of Christian villages hugging the Turkish border now lie empty. “Turkey is the most tyrannical state in the region,” asserted village head Nersik Garip.
Like the rest of the village’s 280 inhabitants, Garip is descended from survivors of the 1915 genocide of the Ottoman Armenians and other Christian minorities caught up in the state-sponsored bloodletting. “We have not been touched yet, but we cannot help but worry. America, Europe has done nothing to stop the Turks,” he said. The people of Avrzog were not just robbed of their lands. “We don’t speak Armenian but Kurdish. We have forgotten our mother tongue,” Garip said with a hint of shame.
In a neighboring Chaldean Christian village, headman Shemon Bendo said his people, fellow genocide survivors from Hakkari in the Turkish southeast, are “scared of Turkey” as well. “If there is even one PKK passing by this village, they will kill everyone.” Bendo said many of the region’s beleaguered Christians hold the PKK every bit as responsible. “Let them fight their war inside Turkey, not here.”
His feelings are shared by a former YPG member in Bardarash who identified himself only as Yassin Haso to protect two of his brothers still serving in the militia’s ranks. “I blame the PKK for our misery,” he said. “Over the decades we gave them thousands of our boys to fight. Why didn’t they support us against the Turkish army?” he asked with mounting agitation.
“In Serekaniye there were less than 200 of us [YPG fighters]. We were told to stay, that the PKK was coming to support us. It was a lie. They never came. After Serekaniye, even pro-PKK people have turned against them.”
Hisham Arafat contributed reporting to this article.