MESOP TODAYS OPEN DEBATE : Yes, Syrian Kurds Have Committed War Crimes – Roy Gutman Responds to Aymenn Tamimi

Posted: 12 Feb 2017 08:52 PM PST

Roy Gutman Responds to Aymenn al-Tamimi on “Have the Syrian Kurds Committed War Crimes?” – By Roy Gutman – @Roy_Gutman

Any journalist covering a controversial topic like alleged war crimes can expect a hostile response from the subject of the story, but it’s extremely rare in my experience for a specialist in the field to respond to a major journalistic investigation by challenging the reporter’s professional integrity.

The report I wrote for the Nation on Feb. 7, the first of two parts, details the pattern of mass expulsions and political suppression by the ruling People’s Protection Units or YPG that has led to the flight of an enormous number of Arabs and Kurds from the region.

Mr Tamimi’s statements that the “author’s bias for the Syrian opposition and Turkey has been evident for years” and that he “uncritically relays dubious testimony that a far-minded journalist would have subjected to appropriate scrutiny” reads like an attempt to discredit the entire content of my story.

It calls for evidence.

The only previous article Mr Tamimi cites is my report from October 2012 about a defector from the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK and his debriefing by Turkish security services. The story reveals where the volunteer had served and why he defected, and provides a first person account of the rigors of life in the PKK.

I was the only foreign journalist to report from Semdinli the previous summer. I first heard about the defection from the governor, so I had no reason to doubt that it had occurred. Obtaining the debriefing was an example of journalistic enterprise. I am sure the PKK was embarrassed. But that doesn’t discredit the 2012 story. It certainly doesn’t discredit this latest one.
Likewise, in May 2013, at the start of a cease-fire with the PKK, I trekked into the no-man’s-land in southern Turkey and interviewed PKK fighters who were withdrawing from Turkey, but very slowly. I was once again the only reporter who ventured into the wilderness area to find the departing forces.

Of the 50 plus articles I wrote for McClatchy about the PKK, why does Mr Tamimi pick one from 2012, that anyone else would say is good journalism?

Mr Tamimi also lumps my reportage together with that of Sy Hersh, whose April 2014 report on the chemical weapons attack outside Damascus was based on unnamed former intelligence officials. Yet my sources are named, their statements can be verified and they can be checked out. This disparaging reference by Mr Tamimi also reads like is an attempt to discredit the entire story in The Nation.

My biggest single objection to his posting is that while Mr Tamimi says my article “does raise some valid points for discussion,” he doesn’t discuss them.

So here they are:

  • Tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands, of Arabs were forced from their homes by the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units or YPG.
  • Well over 500,000 Kurds fled rather than submit to YPG rule and abuses.
  • The expulsion of the Arabs was carried out in close cooperation with the Assad regime, which sought to rid the region of political dissenters and joined the YPG in destroying villages.
  • Brutal expulsions continued through mid 2016.
  • The YPG and its political organization, the Democratic Union Party, don’t acknowledge any of this, haven’t investigated haven’t punished anyone.
  • Iran played a major role in the setting up of YPG role in northern Syria.
  • The U.S. has been all but silent about the human rights abuses and possible war crimes.

Did these alleged abuses and war crimes occur? Should the YPG acknowledge, investigate and punish them? Mr Tamimi doesn’t say.

Instead of dealing with the content of the story as presented, he focuses on a few details. He questions the assertion that in Tel Hamis and Husseiniya in Hasakah province, the YPG burned houses and expelled residents after taking the towns without a fight. Amnesty International verified in 2015 that the destruction of Husseiniya occurred after it was captured without a fight. But my assertion that Tel Hamis was yielded without a fight in 2015 “can only be described as a travesty of the truth,” he says.

Once again, Mr. Tamami can’t produce the evidence. He writes there were “abundant martyrdom’ commemorations” in the “extended campaign” to take the town. But surely he must be aware that one of the five death notices he links to, one was for a death in 2013, and the other four, including one for an underage fighter, were spread through March 2015. But ISIS abandoned Tel Hamis on Feb. 27. So the death notices don’t prove there was a major battle, or a battle at all. They certainly don’t support his claim there had been an “extended campaign.”

According to Abu Ahmed, a commander of the Free Syrian Army’s Falcan Brigade, which ISIS had earlier ousted from Tel Hamis, the YPG waited three days before entering Tel Hamis and did so “without shooting a bullet.” Abu Ahmed, who no longer lives in the area, said he assembled his narrative from former brigade members who stayed in the area. He asked that his real name not be used.

But I suppose Mr. Tamimi will discount that testimony as it came from the rebel side and that it hasn’t been “subjected to appropriate scrutiny.” But has he subjected his sources, whoever they may be, to “appropriate scrutiny?”

Roy Gutman
Middle East correspondent

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