A recently-retired US diplomat has said that “ethnic cleansing” has occurred under the Turkish occupation of North and East Syria. William Roebuck, former Deputy Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, made the comments in an interview last week.

“[C]ities with large Kurdish populations like Tal Abyad have basically been emptied of the Kurds,” said Roebuck in an interview for the program Intelligence Matters, with host and former CIA official Michael Morell. “So there’s been some, you know, some ethnic cleansing.”

Roebuck was referring to cities currently under the occupation of the Turkish military and Turkish-backed militias calling themselves the “Syrian National Army.” The Syrian cities of Sere Kaniye (Ras Al-Ayn) and Tal Abyad (Gire Spi), were invaded by the Turkish military on October 2019. The region of Afrin, Syria, was invaded by Turkey in early 2018. 

All of the regions invaded by Turkey had been predominantly Kurdish prior to the invasion. Data on Afrin shows the extent of the forced demographic change. While the city was 97 percent Kurdish just prior to Turkey’s invasion, survey data from the Human Rights Organisation of Afrin shows that now just 23 percent of residents identify as Kurdish — only three years later. Roughly 300,000 people have been displaced from Afrin, most fleeing to camps, makeshift shelters, and marginal housing elsewhere in northern Syria. The Turkish invasion of October 2019 resulted in an additional 300,000 displaced persons.

Roebuck used the term “ethnic cleansing” in response to a question about the long term consequences of US policy toward Syria, specifically the withdrawal of US troops from border area which immediately preceded the Turkish military invasion. That troop withdrawal, seen as a green light for the invasion, was widely condemned by the international community.

Prior to his retirement from diplomatic service in [February], Roebuck had been meeting on a regular basis with General Mazloum Abdi Kobani, who is co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with [General Nasrin Abdullah].

Roebuck further gave his insights on the Syrian conflict and solutions. He indicated that “the military situation is stalemated,” noting that the Assad government “can’t control the whole country.” Roebuck refers to a political solution through UN Security Council Resolution 2254, but does not reference the exclusion of the Syrian Democratic Council or the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria from the UNSCR 2254 negotiations. He indicates that the UNSCR 2254 process “just hasn’t gotten a lot of traction.”

Roebuck further casts doubt on whether the US currently has enough leverage to act in Syria. “I think the new administration with the Biden team needs to look at those objectives and evaluate carefully if we have the leverage: Do we have the political leverage to accomplish that? And what are those sources of leverage that we have?” he says.

Discussing the capacities of the SDF, Roebuck says, “They fought well; the US Special Forces folks that I spoke to repeatedly indicated that they were the best group that they had trained and equipped in their experience doing this over several decades.”