'My people are being killed': the Australian Kurds betrayed by the US withdrawal in Syria

Ben Doherty

“We are holding our hearts every day, so that they don’t break.”

Abdulrahman Khalil Elyas’s father died in Rojava last week. Because of the bombardment of the Kurdish-controlled north-east region of Syria, he was hastily buried without a funeral.

“People were too frightened,” Elyas says. “It was too dangerous. When people gather, that’s when the bombs come. He was buried without a funeral, without people saying goodbye.”

Elyas’s father was forced from his home in northern Syria by a Turkish operation last year, and lived the last months of his life in a displaced people’s camp before succumbing to a heart attack. Now, Elyas says he fears for his remaining family still trapped in Rojava.

“Every second or third day, I can make contact with them,” Elyas says through an interpreter, speaking Kurdish, the mother-tongue he’s been restricted from speaking for much of his life. “But I worry all day, every day, for my brothers, my sisters and cousins. There are many children. I fear for their future, and for my people.”

Who is in control in north-eastern Syria?

Until Turkey launched its offensive there on 9 October, the region was controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which comprises militia groups representing a range of ethnicities, though its backbone is Kurdish. 

Since the Turkish incursion, the SDF has lost much of its territory and appears to be losing its grip on key cities. On 13 October, Kurdish leaders agreed to allow Syrian regime forces to enter some cities to protect them from being captured by Turkey and its allies. The deal effectively hands over control of huge swathes of the region to Damascus.

That leaves north-eastern Syria divided between Syrian regime forces, Syrian opposition militia and their Turkish allies, and areas still held by the SDF – for now.

On 17 October Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, agreed with US vice-president Mike Pence, to suspend Ankara’s operation for  five days in order to allow Kurdish troops to withdraw. The following week, on 22 October, Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin agreed on the parameters of the proposed Turkish “safe zone” in Syria.

How did the SDF come to control the region?

Before the SDF was formed in 2015, the Kurds had created their own militias who mobilised during the Syrian civil war to defend Kurdish cities and villages and carve out what they hoped would eventually at least become a semi-autonomous province. 

In late 2014, the Kurds were struggling to fend off an Islamic State siege of Kobane, a major city under their control. With US support, including arms and airstrikes, the Kurds managed to beat back Isis and went on to win a string of victories against the radical militant group. Along the way the fighters absorbed non-Kurdish groups, changed their name to the SDF and grew to include 60,000 soldiers.

Why does Turkey oppose the Kurds?

For years, Turkey has watched the growing ties between the US and SDF with alarm. Significant numbers of the Kurds in the SDF were also members of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) that has fought an insurgency against the Turkish state for more than 35 years in which as many as 40,000 people have died. The PKK initially called for independence and now demands greater autonomy for Kurds inside Turkey.

Turkey claims the PKK has continued to wage war on the Turkish state, even as it has assisted in the fight against Isis. The PKK is listed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the US, the UK, Nato and others and this has proved awkward for the US and its allies, who have chosen to downplay the SDF’s links to the PKK, preferring to focus on their shared objective of defeating Isis.

What are Turkey’s objectives on its southern border?

Turkey aims firstly to push the SDF away from its border, creating a 20-mile (32km) buffer zone that would have been jointly patrolled by Turkish and US troops until Trump’s recent announcement that American soldiers would withdraw from the region.

Erdoğan has also said he would seek to relocate more than 1 million Syrian refugees in this “safe zone”, both removing them from his country (where their presence has started to create a backlash) and complicating the demographic mix in what he fears could become an autonomous Kurdish state on his border.

How would a Turkish incursion impact on Isis?

Nearly 11,000 Isis fighters, including almost 2,000 foreigners, and tens of thousands of their wives and children, are being held in detention camps and hastily fortified prisons across north-eastern Syria.

SDF leaders have warned they cannot guarantee the security of these prisoners if they are forced to redeploy their forces to the frontlines of a war against Turkey. They also fear Isis could use the chaos of war to mount attacks to free their fighters or reclaim territory.

On 11 October, it was reported that at least five detained Isis fighters had escaped a prison in the region. Two days later, 750 foreign women affiliated to Isis and their children managed to break out of a secure annex in the Ain Issa camp for displaced people, according to SDF officials.

It is unclear which detention sites the SDF still controls and the status of the prisoners inside.

Michael Safi

Australia’s Kurdish community says it has been devastated by the sudden withdrawal of US troops from north-east Syria, effectively greenlighting a long promised military operation by Turkey to clear the area on its border of what it alleges are insurgent Kurdish forces.

But the Kurdish community in Australia says the allegations of terrorism are fabrications, and that the Turkish operation has far broader objectives: they fear a genocide.

A declared ceasefire has ostensibly ended the current military operation but clashes continue, and the fragile truce has left Turkish troops occupying large swathes of territory in Syria’s north-east, with Russian and Syrian troops controlling the rest of the frontier. Hundreds of Syrian refugees have been forced back into that country by Turkey, and Kurdish semi-autonomous control of Syria’s north-east faces being forcibly extinguished.

In Sydney, members of the Kurdish diaspora gather to comfort each other and to share the latest information on the military operation, the wellbeing of relatives and their hopes for the fragile ceasefire.

Brusk Aeiveri says Australian Kurds are feeling the conflict acutely, compounding generations of disadvantage and discrimination.

“This conflict is on the other side of the world but we feel it like it is here, because these are our families, our people,” Aeiveri says. “And this is another chapter in a long, tragic history. Any Kurdish family, every Kurdish family, is scarred in some way.”

The Kurds, the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East, numbering between 30 million and 40 million, have been campaigning for their own state since the late 19th century.

In the dismemberment of the Ottoman empire that followed the first world war, the borders of a proposed Kurdistan were considered as part of the 1918 armistice negotiations. This was resisted by Turkey, and the plans shelved, with the British and French dividing the Kurdish homeland between the modern states of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.

A short-lived Kurdish kingdom inside Iraq was crushed by 1924 with the assistance of the British. An autonomous region in northern Iraq was established in the aftermath of the first Gulf war, and the disruption of the Syrian civil war led to the creation of a Kurdish authority controlling the region the Kurds call Rojava in northern Syria.

The Kurds have been locked in uneasy alliance with the US for decades but the Americans have proven capricious allies, alternately embracing and spurning the Kurds as it suited their immediate interests.

It is an old Kurdish aphorism – recently the title of refugee Behrouz Boochani’s book – that the Kurds have “no friends but the mountains”.

“Our mountain is strong,” Aeiveri says. “The mountain is soaked in blood but our mountain is still there.”

The people who died defending the world from Isis are now under attack.

Brusk Aeiveri

Aeiveri says the Kurdish diaspora worldwide has felt deeply betrayed by the US’s decision to hastily end its support for the Kurdish-led Syrian Defence Force.

“The people who died defending the world from Isis are now under attack from your so-called allies. Eleven thousand of our people died fighting on your behalf, and now you just walk away and abandon us, leave us to genocide.”

Kurds in Australia have asked the international community – including Australia – to impose a no-fly zone, to install an international peace-keeping force and to provide aid for those displaced in northern Syria.

Another member of the Kurdish community, who asked to remain anonymous, says while the Kurdish diaspora is spread across the world, it remains intrinsically connected to its homeland.

“Being a Kurd is central to my identity, it is who I am. I embrace my new country, I live here and love my new land, but being Kurdish will always be who I am. I was born a Kurd, and I will die a Kurd. And, right now, my people are being killed and the world doesn’t seem to care.”

Members of the Kurdish community say their lives have been “devastated” by the new outbreak of conflict. Many have been forced to stop working, they feel stressed, unable to sleep, even sick with worry.

“But we will fight on,” Aeiveri says. “We will not compromise our humanity.”