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HRW Reports Abuses in Syria’s Kurdish Northeast

The group says the PYD, which operates autonomously in three cantons, has been recruiting child soldiers and detaining those who oppose its authority.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports that the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Kurdish authority governing three predominantly Kurdish enclaves in northeastern Syria, has committed arbitrary arrests, due process violations and failed to address unsolved killings and disappearances.

The PYD is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, which is on terror lists in the U.S. and Turkey. It has effectively ruled since Syrian government forces withdrew from Kurdish-majority areas in 2012, running a local administration with courts, prisons and police.

In January, the PYD announced it had formed a transitional administration in northeastern Syria. The areas are generally considered among the safest in Syria for civilians. However, “The Kurdish-run areas of Syria are quieter than war-torn parts of the country, but serious abuses are still taking place,” Nadim Houry, HRW’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director, said in a statement. “The PYD is firmly in charge, and can halt the abuse.”

The new HRW report also documents the use of child soldiers in the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the PYD’s police force and armed wing, which has been battling the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Jabhat al-Nusra and other rebel groups encroaching on its borders.

Lama Fakih, the group’s Syria-Lebanon researcher, has made several trips to Hassakeh province and other Kurdish-controlled areas. Here, she discusses the abuses uncovered in Kurdish Syria.

Syria Deeply: How has the PYD been operating?

Lama Fakih: The PYD is effectively operating [autonomously] in the conflict. It doesn’t consider itself to be a government, but it’s clearly not in opposition. They do govern over a significant population of Kurds and others in these northern cantons, and what we’ve seen is that despite the fact that there’s been abuse under PYD rule, it’s not as extreme as under ISIS or the government. But they have obligations for how to treat a civilian population that they’re failing to meet. This is particularly the case for people who oppose them: the more severe cases we saw were allegations of abuse against political opponents. We are concerned that they will try to stamp out opposition in a violent way, as others in this conflict have done.

Syria Deeply: What have been the allegations against the PYD?

Fakih: There have been numerous allegations by political parties of intimidation, of people forced to leave the area because of their activism. This is not the way to develop a new government. The PYD-led government does in its rhetoric indicate that they do want to be inclusive and we really want to push them to keep rights protected and to have a more inclusive government.

Syria Deeply: Have gains made by extremist factions changed or hardened the YPG’s tactics?

Fakih: The YPG has been fighting extreme Islamist groups, including ISIS, that are trying to encroach on their territory. There are reports that they are now stepping up the fight against ISIS in eastern Syria. The YPG has been accused of the use of child soldiers. In December, they issued a directive stopping the commissioning of soldiers under 18 in their ranks. But despite the fact that some children have been decommissioned, there continued to be children participating in the YPG and there had not been penalties or due process for those who allowed children to serve under them.

The YPG issued a statement a few days ago saying they would stop conscripting child soldiers this month. This is welcome, but they need to actively decommission the children already in their ranks. There’s no forced recruitment in the YPG – often children want to volunteer.

Syria Deeply: How has the PYD reacted to an increasing number of ISIS attacks?

Fakih: ISIS has carried out explosions in populated Kurdish areas, and in response we’ve seen the PYD do sweep operations where they detain and interrogate people. But after that, they release them. ISIS’s advance hasn’t resulted in the PYD clamping down on the population or a significant change in the way they rule. This is because the local population is not suspected; it’s not like when the Syrian government clamps down on opposition-held areas full of rebel supporters. In the northeast, they know that the threat clearly seems to be from the outside.

The YPG is a pretty professional fighting force, and the abuses that we documented are really specific to the use of child soldiers. There are concerns about the treatment of detainees, but we haven’t seen any abuses of the general population.

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