2019 was a year of highs and lows for North and East Syria (commonly referred to as “Rojava”) as it began triumphantly with the final collapse of ISIS’s caliphate and ended tragically with a Turkish invasion utilizing some of those same reorganized jihadists. 2019 saw tens of thousands of civilians rescued by the SDF from the grip of ISIS, but also saw hundreds of thousands of other civilians have to flee Turkey’s bombs and artillery shells.
While the city of Afrin remains occupied and terrorized by Turkey’s military and their jihadi militias, other cities like Raqqa have started to be rebuilt and reborn. 2019 was a year of international disappointments, as the United Nations inexplicably neglected to include the Autonomous Administration of North & East Syria (AANES) and thus 1/3 of Syria in their so-called Constitutional Committee; while US President Donald Trump hastily withdrew American forces from the border which destroyed the stability and peace that had been established east of the Euphrates River.
However, 2019 was also a year of heroism and solidarity, as protesters around the world held “Rallies for Rojava” in support of North and East Syria, and citizens throughout the West demanded that their governments stand against Turkey’s attempts at ethnically cleansing the Kurds and Christian (Syriac & Armenian) minorities from northern Syria.
As we embark into 2020, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are hopeful for the future and steadfastly committed to preserving all the gains our revolution and people have made in the region, yet we believe it’s important for readers to look back on the past year through a selection of events and statements to understand the fuller picture of how we got here. The following article will attempt to do just that.
January 2019 began with an ominous warning from the YPG’s official spokesman Nuri Mahmoud, when he spoke on Ronahi TV and cautioned how “Turkey represents a danger for the entire world as Turkey is the biggest supporter of terrorism in the region.” Unfortunately, the international community didn’t listen. Elsewhere, in Manbij an explosion occurred at a restaurant that killed 11 people, including two U.S. soldiers. On the positive front, thousands of civilians (mostly women and children) in the Hajin region who had been held as “human shields” by ISIS gangs were rescued by the SDF. At one point, they rescued 2,600 civilians in two days alone. As the month closed, the SDF followed that up by rescuing another 2,000 human shields from ISIS as part of their Jazeera Storm military campaign in the Deir ez-Zor region.
As February began ISIS was surrounded into their last pockets, while the Syrian Democratic Forces or SDF continued rescuing countless civilians. In early February, they rescued 600 civilians in a single morning, while they captured large numbers of ISIS fighters from an array of countries including Turkey, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Somalia, Morocco, Germany, and Russia—displaying the global threat that ISIS had become. Amongst the rescued civilians during the SDF’s Operation Cizire Storm were hundreds of Yazidi women and children. In one single case 11 Yazidi children were rescued from ISIS gangs, with one of the boy’s a 15-year-old Sedam Hisen from Shengal’s Dokrî village telling reporters how his father was killed and he was kidnapped as a 10 year-old and forced to renounce his religion or be thrown into a dungeon.
In summing up the success of SDF’s mission as they closed in on the defeat of ISIS, Kurtay Korkmaz, a commander of the SDF at the front line in Deir ez-Zor recalled: “The success of SDF lies in its epic history. If ISIS had not been stopped by the armed and ideological struggle throughout Kurdistan, Shengal and Syria, it would have spread to the whole world. We have not only fought the ISIS in Rojava. We have taken action against them throughout the Middle East and around the world. The ISIS was crushed by just this fight. It was smashed because it attacked us. If ISIS had not come here, it would have had a very good chance of spreading and systematizing. Because the ISIS is not a normal organization, it had its options through dozens of states. We did not just fight a pair of bearded, brutal-looking guys. We fought against a best-equipped project and a mentality of organized cruelty. But we have demonstrated an extraordinary will and won.”
March was the last month of the ISIS caliphate as the world knew it. However, as the forces of the SDF and YPG / YPJ closed in on the last remaining ISIS areas, a grim picture was brought in to focus. First, came the discovery of large mass graves south of Raqqa. In one near Al Shamiya 3,000 bodies were discovered, which matched another ISIS mass grave discovered weeks before in the Panorama region of Raqqa, containing around 3,300 bodies. Finally, the last 2,000 ISIS fighters stranded near Baghouz surrendered to the SDF, meaning that ISIS had lost 100% of the territory they held in our region. In the final weeks leading up to victory 34,000 civilians were rescued, 29,600 ISIS family members and 5,000 ISIS fighters surrendered, and another 520 ISIS fighters captured in SDF Special Operations missions. In the final days of fighting 306 ISIS fighters were killed and 82 SDF fell as martyrs to bring ISIS to an end.
On Newroz, SDF Commander Çiya Fırat celebrated the heroic victory of the SDF/YPG/YPJ over ISIS by declaring “the territorial defeat of ISIS”, while proclaiming, “We dedicate this victory to the Kurdish, Arab and Syriac peoples and all the peoples in the region and the world.” Likewise, SDC spokesperson Emced Osman reminded the world how, “The force that ended ISIS was the SDF. All countries should see this success. This day, this victory was achieved with 11,000 martyrs. Nobody should look down on that.” However, Osman also cautioned that even though ISIS lost its territory, Turkey remained an even bigger danger, cautioning, “Like ISIS threatened all countries in various ways, Turkey is threatening all with the policies they implement. Turkey’s threats are more dangerous than ISIS. Their goal is to invade the Northern and Eastern Syria region and invade all of the Middle East.”
In April, such warnings about Turkey rung true, as in northwestern Syria in occupied Afrin, Turkey was continuing their wide-range of oppressive policies, which included using their jihadi militias to demolish over 20 cemeteries of Yazidi and Alevi communities. It was further reported that Turkey’s militias in Afrin were confiscating 100 to 300 kilos from each truck transporting wood in the Jindirese district, and extorting olive grove farmers in the villages of Etmana, Shadiya, Qude, Koliya, Barbina and Hesen by charging them 100 Syrian Liras for each tree they owned. To stop the population of Afrin from rebelling against such policies, the Turkish Army then began constructing a 3 meter high wall through the Sherawa and Shera districts, while bulldozing any Kurdish homes which were in the way. In two separate cases they tore down 20 houses in Cilbil village and another 15 homes in Cilbira. The conditions in occupied Afrin reached such a dire point that Special Envoy to the International Coalition Against ISIS Brett McGurk wrote a piece for the journal Foreign Affairs entitled “Hard truths in Syria”, where he opined that the attacks against Afrin do not stem from Turkey’s concern for their security but a desire by Erdogan to extend territory, while noting that the street names in Afrin had been Turkified and the Kurdish language removed from schools, with classes now being taught in Turkish.
Tragically, through May and June, Turkey’s brutal occupation of Afrin continued to dominate events, as 11,000 hectares of land around Afrin were set on fire deliberately by Turkish-backed militias. Norşan Hisên from the Afrin Municipalities Committee described the situation by pointing out how, “The Turkish state and its mercenary allies want to change the demographic structure of Afrin by inhumane methods such as forced migration and massacre. The occupying Turkish state and its mercenary allies added forest fires to inhuman practices as they know that the people of Afrin will resist until the end.” The use of fire as a method of terror then spread from the forests of Turkish-occupied Afrin, to the farmlands of northeastern Syria, as hundreds of suspicious fires were started, burning over 4,100 hectares of the barley and wheat fields, as ISIS sleeper cells wanted to ruin the upcoming harvest season.
As the Autonomous Administration and SDF were battling ISIS sleeper cells, they also began asking for those fighters under their custody to be brought to justice and receive internationally-backed trials or tribunals. In doing so, Imad al-Karaf, co-chair of the Judicial Council stated, “11,000 people have fallen in the fight against the ISIS, 25,000 fighters have been injured. The local population has resisted terror for the whole world. ISIS has planned and committed its crimes in northern and eastern Syria. The jihadists have been arrested in this region. Delegations from Europe have been in favor of setting up an international tribunal in the region, and these promises must now be put into practice. For the establishment of such a tribunal, logistical and legal support is necessary in order to be able to proceed according to international conventions.”
Relatedly, in July, the Rojava Center for Strategic Studies organized an international forum on ISIS in Amude (the largest ever of its kind), welcoming over 125 guests from 15 countries. The keynote speaker Dr. Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute defended the AANES project, stating “The Kurds have built a functioning society out of the ashes of the Syrian War, and one that could thrive if the international community lifts embargoes and sanctions. It’s time to stop treating the Kurds as a diplomatic football. They have earned their place at the table, and they have more credibility than others to shape the post-ISIS future.” Another American, Dr. Thoreau Redcrow, presented his own research showing all the ways that the Turkish state had armed and assisted ISIS over the years, professing “This kind of conference I think will basically leave no more doubt to the rest of the world, and hopefully what would come out of that is either an international tribunal, or Turkey would be brought to the ICC for war crimes, because you cannot allow a state to foster a movement such as ISIS, which rapes, enslaves and murders so many people, and not have any punishment on the people.”
Unfortunately, the terror of ISIS continued through July, as the Turkish state was still present throughout northern Syria, creating a situation where Turkish-backed jihadi militias kidnapped over 300 civilians in Afrin in two days, and 600 in a single week. These actions were followed by the same militias and gangs digging up historic sites and hills throughout Afrin in the hopes of looting ancient artifacts to extract and sell to Turkish museums. The looted sites include those around Jindires, Sendika, Ayn Dare, and Sherawa; as well as the Roman-era cave Dodriye. In a dramatic contrast, as Turkey’s Army and their militias were destroying history as ISIS used to do, the Autonomous Administration was reconstructing the Raqqa Library, which had all of its 100,000 books burned and was looted during the reign of ISIS. In order to begin over 7,000 books were donated for the library’s collection, as thankfully brave citizens had rescued some of the works from destruction by burying them in their yards, and those were starting to be returned to the new library.
In August, the Rojava Information Center identified over 40 former ISIS members who were now working in Afrin as part of the Turkish-backed occupation. They included commanders, brigade leaders, recruiting officers, and coordinators working directly with the Turkish intelligence (MIT) services. Researcher Joan Garcia from the center remarked, “This database shows just a fraction of the depth and extent of Turkish collusion with ISIS. Multiple prominent ISIS commanders and fighters are now operating openly as commanders in militias funded, armed, trained and controlled by Turkey. Some of these individuals work in direct cooperation with the Turkish intelligence services (MIT), and all are part of a chain of command reaching directly to Ankara and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.”
In a similar fashion, Xalid Hesen, a member of the Union of Lawyers in Raqqa also demanded accountability for Turkey’s President, arguing he should be brought before the International Criminal Court in The Hague for the occupation in Afrin, stating “The actions of his regime are war crimes and violate international law. Our goal is for Erdoğan to be tried for his crimes.” For their part, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) noted how 160,000 family members of jihadi gangs in Idlib had been relocated to villages in Afrin as part of Turkey’s attempted ethnic cleansing of the Kurdish-majority Afrin region.
In stark contrast, while Turkey was enacting demographic change, the Autonomous Administration was using September to repair the water system in Raqqa and removing debris, allowing over 700,000 people who had fled ISIS to return back to their former homes. In so doing, the daunting task of repairing the 800,000 buildings destroyed in Raqqa during the war had begun, with the issuing of 2,000 new building licenses in the city.
October of 2019, could be seen as the most consequential month in the history of the AANES and North and East Syria, as it saw so many developments in a very short period of time. In the weeks leading up to the first week in October, the U.S. Military had persuaded the SDF to destroy defensive border tunnels and trenches along the border with Turkey based on the promise of not allowing the Turkish Army to invade northern Syria. In fact, part of the deal entailed the SDF letting the U.S. and Turkey drive-thru and fly over Administration held areas to survey the progress, which upon reflection allowed the Turkish military to survey all the obstacles for their attack. All of this came to a head on October 6th, when US President Donald Trump had a phone call with Turkey’s President Erdogan and unexpectedly gave him the green light to invade, betraying America’s SDF allies who had been instrumental in defeating ISIS over the last five years.
Essentially, Turkey argued they wanted to invade northern Syria to ethnically cleanse a 30 km Kurdish-free “safe zone”, which they intended to repopulate with 2-3 million non-Kurdish Syrian refugees from other parts of Syria now residing in Turkey, who are loyal to Erdogan. To carry out this ethnic cleansing, the Turkish Military sent in their jihadist “SNA” (Syrian National Army) coalition as shock troops, and began pillaging and executing people on the highway, including the Kurdish woman politician Hevrin Khalaf, who was brutally killed on video, as Turkish media celebrated her gruesome death. Khalaf was the Secretary General of the Future Syria Party and wanted to establish a democratic pluralistic society in Syria, and for that she was targeted for assassination by Turkish-backed jihadis who tore the hair from her scalp and mutilated her body following her murder. The SDC responded with a statement which read: “It appears clearly that those who rely on war and destruction, led by Turkey, are still determined in their aggressive criminal policies by spreading chaos in the region which was considered the most secure and stable area in Syria, leading to the revival of spirit in the body of terrorist organizations that was defeated as ISIS.”
Turkey’s goal was to sow chaos in the first few days of the invasion and convince US President Trump to not only stand aside as they attacked the SDF, but completely withdraw, which appears to have worked at first, as it was soon announced that US forces would fully withdraw from northern Syria. As US forces fled, the US Air Force bombed their own anti-ISIS bases in retreat, and the ones they didn’t blow up, Russia gladly took over. Symbolically, perhaps showing their opinion on the situation, one retreating U.S. soldier driving out of Syria was photographed with an YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) patch on his arm, representing the brave Kurdish women who helped defeat ISIS and who Turkey’s jihadis now wanted revenge on. Then as Turkey began to heavily bomb cities in northern Syria, the Autonomous Administration demanded the U.S. institute a “no-fly zone” of protection, to at least make the fight fairer since they were never given anti-aircraft guns, but the U.S. did not respond. So the SDF then asked Russia and the Syrian Government to protect the skies from Turkey and give them a no-fly zone from Turkish jets. This angered some in the US State Department, but the vast majority of observers recognized that this situation was thrust upon the SDF and that it was the US hasty withdrawal that caused it.
Around the same time, the General Command of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) issued a statement which cautioned: “This Turkish military operation in northern and eastern Syria will have a significant negative impact on our war on ISIS and will destroy everything that has been achieved from the state of stability over the past years.” And their warning proved prophetic, as days later, because of Turkey’s invasion and bombing around 800 foreign ISIS members and their families managed to escape from the Ain Issa camp. The SDF also called for, “our people of all sects, Arabs, Kurds and Syriacs, Assyrians to join forces and stand with their legitimate forces to defend our country against this Turkish aggression”—a call which was heeded, as 5 Turkish tanks were destroyed in the first 2 days of Turkey’s invasion. Tens of thousands of protestors then took to the streets in Dêrik, Girkê Legê, Tirbespiyê and Til Birak cities in the Qamishlo Canton to condemn Turkey’s invasion while declaring that “SDF is our will”.
As Turkey’s jihadi SNA militias committed mass killings and atrocities against civilians, Boris Yuhana, an Assyrian Christian from Til Temir, pleaded “What does Erdoğan want from us? We are not well at the moment because of the war, but before that we lived in peace. Now Erdoğan has come and wants to kill us, our Kurdish and Arab brothers and sisters. We really don’t know what he gets out of it and what he wants from us. I call on our people living abroad to stand up and fight a revolutionary struggle. The whole world should be told what is done to us. I also appeal to the UN not to remain silent. Erdoğan and its terrorist groups are attacking innocent people. He has no right to do so. He has no right to attack the Kurds, the Assyrians or any other people or religious community. He wants to occupy our country, but we will not accept that.”
As it became clear to Turkey that they couldn’t invade and occupy all of northeastern Syria, they zeroed in on the two cities of Girê Spî (Tell Abyad) and Serê Kaniyê (Ras al-Ayn) for occupation and full ethnic cleansing. But to do so, they first needed to heavily shell the cities and use white phosphorus chemical weapons on civilians to achieve a military advantage. As scenes of young Kurdish children with chemically burned skin showed up in the world’s media, TEV-DEM Executive Board Member Foza Yûsif went on Jin TV to notify the people how, “Turkey is carrying out all sort of crimes in our lands. All our people need to stand up. Just as our heroic fighters have been writing an epic of resistance… Our people should organize protests in front of consulates and UN buildings all over Europe, America and the Middle East. Our fighters need the support of the people; we should not leave them alone. As we have defeated ISIS, we will defeat the ISIS that Erdogan and his mercenaries are trying to reactivate.”
As October wore on and the battles for Serê Kaniyê and Girê Spî were fiercely being fought by outgunned SDF forces who were holding back the 2nd largest army in NATO (Turkey), Baz Kerkûkî, the SDF Commander on the Serê Kaniyê front obliged the people to never give up, proclaiming, “The occupiers want to break our will. But we will not allow it. If they rely on their technical forces then we are resisting and fighting with our righteousness.” Commander Kerkûkî also appealed to the Kurdish people in particular to fulfill their historical duty, since one of the main motivations of Turkey’s invasion was to ethnically cleanse the Kurds, stating “We must defend the gains that our people have achieved… We should not leave it like the Republic of Mahabad. This is the greatest patriotic duty. That task stands before all of us.”
As October ended and November began the importance of the US alliance with the SDF became clear to the world, along with Turkey’s ties to ISIS, when the leader of ISIS Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed by US forces with direct assistance from an SDF informant who had located the ISIS leader 5 km from the Turkish border and even secured a DNA sample from him. In an interview with NBC News, SDF General Mazloum Abdi described how his intelligence service had a source deep in al-Baghdadi’s inner circle who described a room-by-room layout of the terror leader’s compound on the Turkish border, including the number of guards, floor plan and tunnels. Abdi also pointed out that his source was on location during the raid and left with the attacking U.S. forces.
These developments lead the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria’s Executive Council co-presidents Abdulhamid El Mihbaş and Bêrîvan Xalid to hold a press conference and announce, “The whole world is a witness to the fact that it is the very self of the Turkish state that has trained, organized and supplied the ISIS. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in the Turkish-controlled Idlib territory, 5 km to the Turkish border. ISIS Spokesman al-Muhajir was killed in Jarablus, which Erdoğan calls ‘the safest area in Syria’, while his sister was arrested in Azaz and his wife turned out to have been arrested by Turkey one and a half years ago. All available information shows that Erdoğan and the Turkish state are the partners of ISIS and al-Nusra, and threaten Europe and the world with ISIS mercenaries and refugees.”
As November and December wore on, a status quo developed, where the Turkish Military and their jihadi militias of the SNA were limited to a box between the cities of Serê Kaniyê and Girê Spî—which the Turkish Government had earmarked for demographic displacement and relocation of Syrian refugees currently residing within Turkey. As a result of Turkey’s invasion, over 300,000 civilians had to flee their homes from these two areas, ostensibly creating the opportunity now for ethnic cleansing as well, as most Kurds had fled and would be replaced by pro-Turkish Syrian Arabs from other parts of Syria. To show these dramatic changes the Rojava Center for Strategic Studies (NRLS) organized a forum on the ongoing ethnic genocide policies carried out by Turkish state in northern Syria. At the forum TEV-DEM Executive Board Member Foza Yusif evaluated the situation, stating, “No matter which attacks it carries out, the Turkish state won’t achieve success. The Turkish state attacks aim at destroying the people’s trust; they try to divide the peoples of the region. ISIS mercenaries attack the region in the name of Syrian migrants. Erdogan has tried to break our will for 8 years. We will continue to defend ourselves and our gains.”
December also brought about a year-end reporting of the figures connected to all SDF operations for the year, which summarized how in the final defeat of ISIS 1,306 ISIS fighters were killed, and more than 40 counter terrorism operations were foiled, in battles which saw 256 SDF fighters martyred. As for the Turkish invasion from October to December, the Turkish Military carried out 379 bombing attacks from the sky with drones or jets, and made over 1,020 attacks with artillery, howitzers, or tanks. As a result 522 civilians were murdered, 2,757 civilians (many of them children) were injured, and 400,000 civilians were driven from their homes. In the defensive resistance to Turkey’s invasion, 1,534 Turkish soldiers and mercenaries were killed, while 508 SDF fighters fell in battle.
As 2019 ended, in a sign of hope, hundreds of Assyrians, Syriacs and Armenians in Til Temir came together at Mary al-Azra Church to celebrate Christmas despite the ongoing attacks of the Turkish state and their allied gangs. Hopefully their desire for peace will reach all of Syria in 2020.