Mass expulsion or the physical extermination of an entire ethnic or religious community – ethnic cleansing – is usually treated by the media in one of two different ways: either it receives maximum publicity as a horror story about which the world should care and do something about, or it is ignored and never reaches the news agenda.
It appeared at first that the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds by Turkey after its invasion of northern Syria on 9 October would belong to the first category. There was angry condemnation of the forced displacement of 190,000 Kurds living close to the Syrian-Turkish border as Turkish soldiers, preceded by the Syrian National Army (SNA), in reality ill-disciplined anti-Kurdish Islamist militiamen, advanced into Kurdish-held areas. Videos showed fleeing Kurdish civilians being dragged from their cars and shot by the side of the road and reporters visiting hospitals saw children dying from the effects of white phosphorus that eats into the flesh and had allegedly been delivered in bombs or shells dropped or fired by the advancing Turkish forces.
People wonder why armies with complete military superiority should resort to such horrific weapons that are both illegal under international law or, at the very least, guarantee the user a lot of bad publicity. The explanation often is that “terror” weapons are deployed deliberately to terrify the civilian population into taking flight.
In the case of the Turkish invasion of Syria last month, the motive is not a matter of speculation: William V Roebuck, a US diplomat stationed in northeast Syria at the time, wrote an internal memo about what he was seeing for the State Department. The memo later leaked. It is one of the best-informed analyses of what happened and is titled: “Present at the Catastrophe: Standing By as Turks Cleanse Kurds in Northern Syria and De-Stabilise our D-Isis [sic] Platform in the Northeast.”
Roebuck, with access to US intelligence about Turkish intentions, has no doubt that Ankara would like to expel the 1.8 million Kurds living in their semi-independent state of Rojava. He says: “Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria, spearheaded by armed Islamist groups on its payroll, represents an … effort at ethnic cleansing, relying on widespread military conflict targeting part of the Kurdish heartland along the border and benefiting from several widely publicised, fear-inducing atrocities these forces committed.”
Later in the memo, Roebuck notes that the SNA irregulars had formerly been allied to al-Qaeda and Isis and that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan had openly broadcast, in a speech at the UN, Turkey‘s intention to fill depopulated Kurdish areas with Syrian Arabs from other parts of Syria who are currently refugees in Turkey. Roebuck’s reference to the extreme jihadi links of the SNA is certainly correct since its members have videoed themselves denouncing Sunni Muslim Kurds, Yazidis and Christians as infidels, along with threats to kill members of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which lost 10,000 fighting Isis in a coalition with the US.
None of this made much difference to Erdogan’s visit to Washington and his meeting with President Trump on Wednesday. He even handed back a letter sent at the time the invasion in which Trump had famously told Erdogan: “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!”
In practice, Erdogan’s military assault does not look so foolish as he balances between Trump and Vladimir Putin and rides a wave of hyper-nationalist enthusiasm at home. Complains about Turkish brutality and that of its proxies are common but focus on the overriding aim of the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds from Turkey’s border is becoming blurred and less spoken of, though it is still ongoing. Making life impossible for a civilian population can take other effective but less dramatic forms than the use of white phosphorus or roadside killings.
An example of this type of compelling pressure is the deprivation of drinking water for about 400,000 people, mostly Kurds, who rely on the Alouk water station near Ras al-Ayn, which was damaged in the fighting at the time of the invasion and is under the control of Turkish proxy forces that prevent it being repaired. The UN has been making desperate attempts to restore the water supply from Alouk, but has so far failed to do so. It points out that even before 9 October, 900,000 out of the 3 million living in northeastern Syria were in acute need and since then the situation has gotten worse.
Sceptics say that all the publicity given to the Turkish ethnic cleansing of Kurds in northern Syria since the invasion does not seem to be doing the victims much good. But the price that Turkey pays in international obloquy counterbalances, to a substantial degree, what it has gained through getting its way through close personal relations between Erdogan and Trump. Mass expulsions and killings by al-Qaeda proxies are more difficult to carry out when they have become a factor in the political battles between the White House on one side and a large part of congress and the US media and foreign policy establishment on the other.
We know that Turkey’s pressure on the Kurds to leave Rojava could be a lot worse because this has already happened in Afrin, the isolated Kurdish enclave north of Aleppo that Turkey invaded and occupied in early 2018. This is an example of the type of ethnic cleansing mentioned earlier that never gets reported. Much of the original 200,000-strong Kurdish population are now refugees and those that stayed are being harassed by the same Syrian Arab militia groups that formed the vanguard of the invasion force east of the Euphrates in October.
Information from Afrin is difficult to obtain, but what news does emerge tells of Kurds losing their houses, land and farm machinery and being at the mercy of predatory Syrian Arab militia proxies under Turkish control. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, one of the few organisations with informants in Afrin, reports that in one village, on the day that Erdogan and Trump were meeting in Washington, six local people were kidnapped and taken to a private prison by militiamen. Earlier this year, local media reported that a 10-year-old boy with Down’s syndrome was kidnapped together with his father and grandfather. All three were later killed when the remainder of the family was unable to pay a $10,000 ransom.
Such atrocities are ethnic cleansing in action and are what Trump greenlit when he opened the door to the Turkish invasion of Syria.