INSIDE REPORT : Syrian Kurd deserters escape fighting for a regime they hate : Thousands of Kurds have been conscripted into the brutal Syrian Army

By Eric Bruneau – MESOP  – 12.2.2013 – The Domiz refugee camp, in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, shelters some 50,000 to 60,000 Syrian Kurds who had to flee their country. “The camp is divided into two parts”, we are told. “One is for families and the other for single men.”

In this second part, between two rows of tents provided by the UNHCR, we meet some of the young men. About 70% of these are Matloubin (‘Wanted’) as deserters from the Syrian army.

“I was supposed to go to national service”, say one, an electrical engineer. “I went to Iraq as soon as I could”. They are unanimous that Kurds are used as cannon fodder by the military regime: sent to the most exposed fronts, on the most dangerous postings. “A friend of mine was killed by a car bomb attack in Damascus”, says the engineer. “He was manning a checkpoint, a dangerous job.”

“If there is a dangerous job, Kurds are sure to be sent in”, someone adds.

In a tent close by, a young man agrees. He spent 13 months in the army before absconding: “I was sent into a shock troop on the Lebanese border to fight the rebels. I was a machine-gunner in the commandos.”

Kurdish conscripts have been deployed as reinforcements in areas that saw bitter fighting – to cover for losses, but always in small groups. “No more than five”, say one young men, “so they cannot organise among themselves to escape.”

And where to escape to, anyway? The territory under governmental control is dotted with control posts, checkpoints and road blocks where soldiers check identities. “If you do not have papers and if they discover that you are a Matloub, they take you to the side of the road and just kill you.” “Sometimes”, adds the engineer, “they pour petrol on the corpse and set fire to it in front of the post’s soldiers. And the officer tells them: ‘Now you know what will happen to you if ever you defect.’”

This extensive net plays the same role as a spider’s web, designed to catch the deserters. It prevents many young Kurds from reaching the town of Derik, in the east of Syrian Kurdistan, from where they can cross to Iraq, after paying a tax to the PYD (the Syrian Kurd revolutionary party that is often presented as the PKK’s Syrian branch).

‘No court martial … a bullet in the head and that’s it’

“We’ve been able to cross the border, but a lot of others are trapped inside Syria’s Kurdish provinces. The army roadblocks prevent them from moving. They are in danger of being caught in a search or intercepted at a checkpoint at any moment. If they are due to perform their national service, they are sent on the front. But if they are Matloubin, they are killed immediately. No martial court, no military judge: a bullet in the head and that’s it.”

The fate of those who did not desert is no better. The general feeling amongst the Domiz refugees is that their comrades, sent to the most dangerous fronts, will be killed sooner or later, either in combat with the Free Syrian Army or shot by their own officers. Ahmed, who served with the internal security ministry troops before deserting, provides further insight. “Any hesitation is seen as a sign of weakness”, he says. “Unconditional support for President al-Assad is demanded of us. If we have qualms, if we do not obey the officers’ orders – including shooting civilians – we are traitors. And, if we are traitors, we are dead.”

‘We are encouraged to loot’

To get total commitment from the young soldiers, the officers push them to commit crimes. “We are encouraged to loot.”, explains Ahmed. He admits that he himself took part to lootings. “If you do not take part, you become suspect.” His unit, he says, is involved in summary executions of civilians and rebels. Compromised in the dictatorship’s crimes the recruits – regardless of their actual support for the regime or their degree of involvement –  have no option but to fight: they can expect no mercy from the rebels.

“We were once encircled in a house. The lieutenant ordered us to surrender. We refused. We fought for maybe three hours and, at the end, we escaped. It was the only thing to do.”

Moreover, continues Ahmed, he was one of just a few Kurds in his unit, which mainly comprised Alawites – members of al-Assad’s sect – who were regime loyalists. “Just by being a Kurd, I was in danger”, he says.

Outside the tent, others agree with this. Even in peace time, the Syrian army was a dangerous place for Kurd conscripts. Kurds have been victims of the discriminatory policies of successive Syrian governments since the 1960s. Policies which sometimes looked like attempts to culturally annihilate the Kurds were theorised by Mohammed Talib Hilal, a political police lieutenant in al-Jazeera province in 1960 who later became vice president. In 1963, a census deprived 120,000 Kurds from their citizenship. (1)

“We Kurds are second class citizens for the al-Ba’ath regime – when we are citizens” (2), says the engineer, who translates for the small group gathered outside. This institutionalised racism breeds persecution in the army.

Qamishlu, 2004

Everyone agrees that things worsened dramatically after the Qamishlu riots, in mid March 2004. Brawls between Arab and Kurd football supporters in this Kurd town on the Turkish border escalated into riots. Police fired live ammunition at Kurdish demonstrators and the army entered the town and conducted house to house searches. Officially, 35 people were killed. “There were more”, says the engineer, with his friends agreeing. “Some people were killed after the riots: Kurdish soldiers, who refused to fire at the crowd. They were tortured to death, killed by the army itself. I know of three of these cases.”

Since then, the persecution of Kurdish recruits intensified. Issa has done his military service, but when the Syrian revolution turned in a civil war, he was called up again: He is a Ihtiad (‘called again’) but instead he went to Iraq.

“If we speak Kurdish in the army, we are investigated by the battalion’s political officer. We can be sent in jail. And then, it can end badly.” Issa tells the story of another Kurdish conscript, who was in the army at the same time as him. “He was beaten to death, probably while in a cell. His corpse was given back to his family and they were told he had died during training.”

But who was he? The list of young Kurds killed in these circumstances is a long one. In December 2009 Abdulbaqi Yussef, a politburo member of the PYKS, a Syrian Kurd political party, explained to me that since 2004 about forty Kurdish recruits had died during their national service. “Eleven during 2009 alone”, he said. “This barracks violence is not organised. But it reflects the climate of racist violence prevailing in the Syrian army against Kurds. Since 2004 the al-Ba’ath’s official propaganda made us, Kurds, the target of the Arab nationalism at the core of the regime’s ideology. Kurds and their political parties were shown as separatists, a threat to the Syrian Arab nation.”

Civil war changed the situation

But, with the civil war, the situation changed. To avoid a second front in the eastern provinces, and having to fight both a Syrian insurgency and the Free Syrian Army, president al-Assad’s military junta withdrew its troops in Syrian Kurdistan to their barracks. It is now the PYD and its militia that controls the Kurdish provinces, establishing there – claim its critics – a totalitarian regime and keeping the Kurds from joining the uprising, to the benefit of the dictatorship. The PYD strongly denies these accusations, arguing that it has fought the regime and had to face heavy police repression since its creation.

“The regime has avoided entering into conflict with the Kurds since the start of the uprising.”, said Roni, a representative in Europe of the Syrian Kurd Azadi party. “Listen to this: Towards the end of 2011 a relative of mine took part to a demonstration in Afrin and he was arrested with five or six other Kurds. He was identified as an organiser. They were terrorised. They thought they would be tortured. But instead they were lectured, made to sign some paperwork, promised they would never do it again, and they were let out, free. They could not believe it.

“But, as they were going out the police station, they saw a police truck, full with Arab demonstrators, arrested at the same demonstration. They had been beaten so severely they were unconscious. Several looked dead. Do you understand? By treating the Kurds differently the dictatorship makes a difference between us and the Arab opposition, to which is shown no mercy. It so wants to create resentment and animosity against us, to have us looking like collaborators to the eyes of the FSA, to have the rebels turning on us, and to give the Kurds no other choice than to join the war on the regime’s side.”

Many thousands of young Kurds have been conscripted into the Syrian army and made to fight for a government they hate. Isolated in combat groups under the orders of officers who will not hesitate to shoot their own soldiers if they show any sign of weakness, they have to fight to the bitter end, just to survive. “The officers had a saying”, says Ahmed. “They were saying to us: ‘In front of you is your father, behind you is your brother. You must kill one of them: choose!’

We mention the comparable dilemma of the Malgré Nous (‘Despite Ourselves’) in France during the Second World War. These were young Alsatians forcibly conscripted into the Third Reich armies and sent to the Eastern Front – sometimes wearing SS uniform – which meant immediate execution if ever they were captured by the Red Army or the partisans. The engineer nods approvingly: “It is our story. It is what we are living, now.”


(2)  In 2010 a presidential decree granted citizenship to the Kurds who had been deprived of it, often because they were children of those victims of the 1963 census. But these new citizens became eligible for national service.