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Syria Between Turkey and the U.S.

In today’s Contours episode, host Carolyn Moorman sits down with Syrians for Truth and Justice Executive Director Bassam Alahmad. Together, they discuss the humanitarian situation in Syria, including Turkish political/military developments, the possibility of an American withdrawal, and the fight for justice against ongoing war crimes.

Carolyn Moorman:

Hello and welcome to the Contours Podcast by the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy. This is your host, Carolyn Moorman, and today we’ll be discussing the situation on the ground in northeast Syria by hearing from most civil society expert. I’m joined by Bassam Alahmad, the cofounder and executive director for Syrians for Truth and Justice, STJ. Bassam Previously worked for the Violations Documentation Center, VDC, documenting crimes and human rights violations in Syria. He has consulted for various international human rights organizations and Syrian media outlets, worked as a human rights trainer and authored several reports.

In 2015, he participated in the U.S. Department of State’s Leaders for Democracy Fellowship at Syracuse University. Bassam, thank you so much for joining us. I’d like to center this conversation on what life is like for Syrian civilians in northeast Syria and how you see them and civil society organizations that do work on the ground being impacted by a potential U.S. withdrawal.

So we’ve been hearing news recently that the U.S. government is having discussions about what a U.S. withdrawal would look like in Syria. More specifically, the Departments of State and Defense have been scenario-building about a withdrawal from Syria. And of course while the DOD regularly conducts these posture reviews, it is notable that these are occurring right now as we’re seeing a lot of escalation between the U.S., Iran, and Iranian-affiliated groups happening in Iraq and Syria.

Most analysts like myself fear that a U.S. withdrawal is going to lead to a tripwire and a long array of problems as any kind of change to the U.S.-SDF dynamic could cause Turkish invasions into Syria, SDF collaboration with the Assad regime, an increased role of Iran, etc. Given all of this, Bassam, I’d like to first gauge what you imagined to be how civilians living in Northeast Syria would be impacted if there was a potential U.S. withdrawal.

Bassam Alahmad:

Thank you very much and thank you for having me. Also, thanks for putting the issue of civillians in the core of this conversation because as you may know, whenever we hear about the U.S. withdrawal from northeast part of Syria, most of the publication, most of the opinion, they speak about their partners including the fighters, interpreters and so on and so on, which is also very important. I would like to speak today about the civilians, the civil society, the people who are living on the ground and they suffered, pay the heaviest price when the invasion happened in 2019 after the Trump administration gave the green light to Turkey to do the invasion in Syria.

Putting civilian in the core of this conversation is very important for me as human rights defender, but also as an executive director for Syrians for Truth and Justice. Honestly, what happened in 2019, it remembered us like the population of northeast part of Syria, but also as a Kurdish minority. This incident remembered us of what happened against the Yazidi people in Sinjar. Because the way that Turkey and this Islamist militia invaded Ras al-Ayn and Tell Abyad and the violations happened, committed during the invasion, remember the population, the local communities of what happened against the Yazidi people in 2014 when ISIS fighters took over Sinjar and committed the genocide against Yazidi people.

Carolyn Moorman:

And so, thinking about that line that you brought up, do you think it’s plausible to imagine that, let’s say the U.S. would withdraw and as we saw in 2019, the SDF takes its eye off of, let’s say, ISIS and other things to pay attention to Turkey and Turkey launches an invasion to deal with the groups like the SDF and the YPG that it considers to be completely the same as the PKK. Do you see that these human rights violations that you’re talking about that have happened already to the Syrian people in the Kurdish minority within Syria, do you see that as happening and that would happen in this kind of scenario again?

Bassam Alahmad:

Yeah. First of all, I would just like to say as Syrian, we naturally don’t wish for our territory, like Syria to became kind of a launch pad for any attacking against Turkey or another neighboring country that we are border. This is our clear strategy. We don’t wish to see Syria that’s a place to attack any neighboring country. Going back to your question about a violation, I think there is kind of double fear. So we are not fearing or we are not only afraid about what could be happen if Turkey will do another invasion in this area.

So it’s not only about the violation happened after invasion will repeated, we are also speaking about the possibility of thousand former ISIS fighter to be escaped. So the population, the civilian population here, we are not only speaking about Kurdish people, we are speaking about Arab Black communities. We are speaking about Kurds, about Syrian, Iraq, Armenia and Cherkess. We are speaking about all this minority that not only will suffer from the Islamist militia supported or controlled by Turkey, but also they will be under two fire between this armed group but also between the former ISIS fighter who are speaking about thousands of them, they are like detained in northeast part of Syria.

So what we are trying to say that any withdrawal from this area, [inaudible 00:05:47] of the civilians should be consulted. There should be a sustainable development not to allowing the Turkish backed militia but also not Iranian militia to came and venge from the people who defeated ISIS. So this is our strategy, trying to protect the area, trying to protect all civilians people, Kurds, Arab, other minority, just to live a normal life if any kind of withdrawal happened.

Carolyn Moorman:

You brought up a really important point that a lot of analysts agree on, which is that the Syrian Democratic Forces, the U.S. allied group that is largely responsible for keeping this ISIS threat locked away within all of these camps within keeping the operational capacity of ISIS low is that these groups have to be able to have the capacity to do this. And any kind of Turkish aggression takes away the eye of the SDF towards its mission and harms the Syrian people by allowing of ISIS to, again, pose a problem.

And I’d now like to also look at, we’ve talked about Turkey a little bit. And New Lines has previously done work on what life is like for people living under the Turkish occupation and that of either the Turkish forces and its proxies within Syria. We know on a strategic level that Turkey in occupying parts of Syria is looking to defend its borders against the groups that it considers synonymous with the PKK and also create some kind of ‘safe haven’ quote to send millions of Syrian refugees back to their home countries. And it uses the occupation to keep these goals going.

But the Turkish troops themselves and these proxy groups such as the Syrian National Army are known for mass human rights violations and creating a very, very difficult life for the Syrian civilians living in areas like Ras al-Ayn and Afrin. And so, I’m wondering, Bassam, what your experience and that of STJ has been like in dealing with civilians living under the Turkish occupation and that of its affiliated forces?

Bassam Alahmad:

Yeah, just want also to reiterate what I said in the previous answer that as Syrian we don’t want to see our territory to be used against Turkey or any other neighboring country that we border. But also let’s just remember that what’s happened also since the beginning of the conflict was the opposite occurred. Because here when we are also speak about when many people speaking about the rule of Turkey to allowing thousands of jihadists to come to Syria, here we are not disclosing any secrets or we are not exaggerating that dozens of dozens of reports were written also about how jihadists individuals but also groups, they used Turkey since the beginning of the conflict and they used the territory of Turkey to come to Syria and fight against Bashar al-Assad and other groups.

So going back to the first part of the question about that situation in the occupied area. So in my opinion, according to our analyze, what’s happening or what’s happened since the first military operation by Turkey, which was called Euphrates Shield and later also what’s so-called the Olive Branch in 2018 and the Peace Spring, which is occurred in 2019, in my opinion, they’re all tactics from a broader strategy. In my opinion, what’s happening, tactics of a broader strategy to kind of ethnic cleansing against Kurds in this border.

But also, when they speak about this area as it’s a safe area, it’s not true. Many organization, many independent organization like Amnesty International but also the Commission of Inquiry in each report, they announced that no part from Syria is safe. So speaking about this area as its safe area, unfortunately it’s not correct because in each report published by the Commission of Inquiry, which was created by the Humans Rights Council in August 2011 and each single report they mentioned to various violations happening in Ras- al-Ayn, Tell Abyad, Al Bab, Afrin including the war crimes and the different kind of violations.

Also when we speak about to create kind of safe zone for refugee to going back. So we think also it’s another tactic to change the demographic of this area because, of course, this is a Syrian area, any Syrian people has or have a right from any area to displace or to come back to this area. But also let’s just be aware that our main concern that Turkey pushing or forcibly deport people from Turkey who are not from this area and putting them from this area.

So we call if there is any return to Syria, it should be safe, it should be dignified, but also it should be voluntary based. So our analyze or our vision is that many tactics happening in the north part of Syria, all this tactic is part of a broader or a bigger strategy to make the percentage of the Kurdish population in this area less than it has to be in the past. Not only we are speaking about the military operation. Many times, more than 20 times also Turkey, they weaponize the water also against the population and the local community in northeast part of Syria. So unfortunately what we are seeing that tactics part of a bigger strategy to make the percentage of mainly the Kurdish population less than it has to be.

Carolyn Moorman:

And of all of the tactics that you’ve mentioned, the STJ recently filed a complaint alongside its partners with the German federal prosecutor’s office against Turkey and its allied armed groups for crimes committed in Afrin, which is, of course, one of the areas in this northern part of Syria that is occupied by Turkey. And so, I’m wondering if you can explain how this case originated and how you perceive the outlook of it given the role of Turkey and how the Syrian conflict is looking at large right now.

Bassam Alahmad:

This complaint it relates to the violations happening or occur or happen or committed by armed groups belong to the Syrian National Army, which is linked to the Syrian Opposition Coalition. This complaint we filed in STJ in collaboration with the ECCHR, we presented this information to the German authority and we ask them to open structural investigation about the crimes happened in this area. Simply to say that the people, the Kurds in Afrin, they also are human and also they deserve the same equal treatment. Because in our work at Syrians for Truth and Justice but other organization, they did a great work, they documented the crimes by Assad regime and Russia and other Iranian militia.

But we feel that still there is a huge gap when it’s come to the violation by other groups. So our main message was to see that it was to the international community, to the European government, to the world crimes units that we should deal with the Kurds in the north part of Syria as human and equal human. So this is why we try. So since the beginning of the invasion, which has happened in 2018, we collected, in collaboration with our partners, hundreds of evidence about that crimes happened in this area.

And the most important thing also to mention here that we are not speaking about what so-called individual mistakes. We are speaking about patterns or systematic patterns of violations happen in this area. So we are speaking about war crimes but also we are speaking about crimes against humanity happened against the Kurdish population in area.

So I’m trying to push European government or any stakeholders to have this inclusive approach when it’s come to not only documenting the violation in this area but also when it’s come to the effort of accountability and justice. So this is our main message that we should document the violation by all parties including SDF or SNA or Assad regime and we should deal with victims equally and try to document everything and also try to put any perpetrators to held them accountable for what they did. So this was our main message when we start planning to document and file this complaint

Carolyn Moorman:

And you hit the nail on the head at the end there about making sure that this justice process is inclusive for all parties if any kind of crime is committed by anyone. And when we talk about inclusivity with Syria, it’s really important to look at this peace process, the UN-led peace process as stated in 2254 because most analysts agree that until a long-term and inclusive peace process makes a lot of progress, we’re just going to continue to see violence, instability, displacement, all of these really bad terrible things happening in Syria to civilian populations.

And so, a lot of people, including myself, see this UN-led peace process as not having achieved any clear results and the Syrian constitutional committee is not really having achieved much either. And so I’m wondering, Bassam, what do you see as the reasons that 2254 has not really had a lot of success? And in this period where we’re not seeing a lot of movement on the peace process, how do you see civil society organizations such as STJ as filling this gap?

Bassam Alahmad:

I think in my opinion there was two main reason lead like what so called the peace process not to have any tangible results. I think one of the first reason was because the process itself was not inclusive. Unfortunately, although the UN Security Council Resolution 2254 spoke or mentioned that the regime and the opposition and other parties should be included in this process, there was a huge amount of exclusion for many political parties including the Kurdish people.

So the exclusion during the process, in my opinion was the main reason lead to this process, not to achieve any kind of tangible achievement, but also I think the power of external intervention. Many Syrian people think that the resolution actually was an outcome, kind of like reflecting the minimum consensus or agreement between the international actor. So while the international actor had this kind of minimum agreement between themselves, there was no this minimum agreement between the Syrian parties themselves.

So, now we are speaking about after eight years of this, since the adoption of this UN Security Council Resolution 2254, but also we are speaking about after four years of the creation of the constitutional committee, which was also, unfortunately again, it was not inclusive and many research including the research established by many think tank like the Middle East Institute mentioned clearly that this committee excluded most of the Kurds. So the percentage of Kurds in this constitution, it’s around 4% while we are speaking around like 15% of the percentage of the Kurdish population in Syria.

So in my opinion, exclusion both in the political process but also in the constitutional process played a role that not to see any tangible achievement. But what we are trying to say here now, we have kind of another opportunity to rethink about what happened in the past to learn from what the mistakes happened. So one of the thing I think that the UN or the U.S. or the government can push is to reassess this political process, try to push to make it more inclusive. What I mean by more inclusive to bring all political party who believe in the political solution to bring them to the same table.

But also I’m calling for and advocating also for civil society to be on the table because since we are speaking about unusual time also I think in my opinion we need kind of unusual approach. So like the constitutional committee, which we think this is a positive thing because the constitutional committee we have so-called the third part or the third group, which should supposed to be containing the representative of independent civil society, we also think that even in the political process, that civil society, independent people… Of course when we say here civil society, we are speaking about a broader definition of civil society. We’re not only speaking about NGOs. So those people also independent people, they should be represented and they should be on the table.

But also they should have the same voice in the constitutional committee because if we create any system now, if they adopted any constitution, and if this constitution didn’t mention clearly to the rights of the all Syrian people, including the Kurds, that we are preparing for another cycle of the violation. So if we really want to break this cycle of violence in the future of Syria, we should make sure that this process, the political process, that inclusive that whether we like this party or not, all people who believe in the political solution should be on the table.

The civil society, they should have a real voice in this political process. But also they should have a real voice in the constitutional committee. Here, I would like also to mention that although we see having a third part or a third group inside the constitutional committee, it’s a positive signal. But we all know that Iran, Russia, and Turkey, they played a role of choosing most of this people in the third party. So what we are calling for saying that the civil society or the independent group or third party should be the ownership of this group should belong to all Syrian people or independent or they came from the background of civil society in my opinion.

So we say publicly and say that also in private room, that we should make sure inclusiveness, inclusion, inclusivity, it’s like in the title of this transition. So we don’t want to go back to what happened in 2011 and before. What we want try to achieve is kind of transformative transition. We want to transition to a better future. We want to transition to a better country because since the creation of Syria in 1920, they never recognized, as example, a Kurdish people as people that exist.

So the Syrian Constitution, they don’t recognize Kurds. They don’t give the right for the Kurdish people to speak with their own languages. There is many gaps. So we think this is an opportunity to put all our issues on the same table, try to negotiate with other Syrian people, try to ensure that we are building an inclusive constitution, an inclusive process. All people should be represented there. Then we can have a solution for our country as many people doing around the world. So this is our main message.

Carolyn Moorman:

Do you have anything you’d like to add for our listeners before we end?

Bassam Alahmad:

Yes, and thanks again for giving me this opportunity. I would like also to mention and call the UN also to intervene and play a role because we don’t want to see the United Nations documenting the violation against the Kurds Arabs, Syrian Armenian in this area after two years, which is an important thing to document. But we want the United Nations to intervene now to guarantee that any kind of withdrawal will not lead to another genocide against Kurdish people or any group in this area because we think that the United Nation can do a lot. They can put more efforts at least to ensure or to facilitate the political negotiation or political conversation between the self-administration, the Syrian government, Turkey or all other party involved in this area.

So what UN can do, they can do more. They can facilitate this conversation between the political parties. They can speak even with the international coalition to ensure that the civilian, the protection of civilians, here we are speaking about all civilians of Northeast part of Syria. We are speaking about the Kurds, Arab, Syrians, Iraq, Armenian, but we are speaking about tens of thousands of IDPs who came from other part of Syria. So we don’t want the United Nation to document the genocide against the population of this area after two years. We want them to intervene now to ensure that the people, all people of this area are protected.

Carolyn Moorman:

And it’s a really great message, Bassam, that there needs to be inclusivity specifically for the Kurdish people in the peace process. And it only makes the work of STJ and yourself more important as the U.S. considers a withdrawal. As many of the partners involved with Operation Inherent Resolve look to what a potential post U.S. future would look like on the ground, not only for security, but also for civilians and civil society actors like STJ.

I’d like to thank you so much for coming on Contours today, and to our listeners, thank you so much for listening to this podcast episode. You can be sure to check out www.newlinesinstitute.org for more geopolitical analysis including on post-withdrawals. You can also make sure to subscribe to the podcast wherever you get your podcast, including iTunes and SoundCloud and Spotify. Thank you for listening and have a great day.

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