In the past weeks several Syrian-Arab media outlets reported charges of ethnic cleansing against Arab and Turkmen residents of Tell Abyad on the hands of Kurdish militias. Various international media outlets later picked up and circulated these charges, which have now come to be accepted as fact despite a lack of a full investigation and dubious evidence. The result has been further cementing the idea that there is a zero-sum conflict between Kurds and Arabs in Syria. While charges of ethnic cleansing should be taken seriously and an independent investigation should verify these accounts, this article will shed some light on what took place in Tell Abyad to provide an alternative account to the charges of ethnic cleansing, and then place these debates within a larger context of Kurdish political struggles in the Syrian conflict as well as the desire by the current Turkish leadership to exacerbate Arab-Kurdish divisions.
During the military operation conducted in late May by the Kurdish People`s Protection Units (YPG) to drive the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) out of Tell Abyad—a city in northern Raqqa governorate—a massive wave of the population fled the fighting toward the Turkish border. Tell Abyad is a strategic and important geographical location for ISIS due to its border crossing with Turkey as well as its position as a main artery for ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital, Raqqa in Syria. The city lies about one hundred kilometers north of Raqqa, directly on the Turkish border. The inhabitants of the city and its rural surroundings are Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, and Armenians, with a significant Kurdish presence roughly estimated at about thirty to forty percent of the population.
The last wave of displaced people from Tell Abyad was comprised of mostly Arab and Turkmen who fled as a result of the fight between the YPG and ISIS.
The armed forces operating in Tell Abyad, supported by US and allied air power, consist of the People’s Protection Units (PPU)—better known by their Kurdish initials as YPG—and its Women’s Wing, the YPJ. The second group is a joint force comprised of a number of factions from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), who are mostly Syrian Arab fighters from the region. The latter united its forces with the PPU under the “Operation Euphrates Volcano (OEV).” The OEV’s origins can be traced back to 2014, and the joint YPG-FSA alliance played a crucial role in the fighting and the subsequent defeat of ISIS in Kobani, Syria.
In the battle for Tell Abyad, residents fled toward the Turkish border. The Kurds were accused of forcing Arab and Turkmen residents to leave the area. However, if one surveys the various stories emanating from the region, the most reasonable inference is that a frightened population in Tell Abyad fled due to the battle itself, just as has been happening elsewhere in the country.
What evidence exists from what I can tell is that there might very well have been individual violations but no systematic policy to ethnically cleanse Arabs and Turkmen in Tell Abyad.
What the current charges of ethnic cleansing of Arabs and Turkmen at the hands of Kurds miss is the actually documented ethnic cleansing of Kurds in Tell Abyad at the hands of some elements of the Free Syrian Army, and continued at the hands of ISIS. Since July 2013, Kurds as well as Armenians were forced to leave their houses in Tell Abyad and its vicinity toward the Turkish border, and their properties were looted. Groups affiliated with the FSA destroyed the Armenian Church in the city during the offensive, and the destruction continued at the hands of ISIS. The city and its rural districts were mostly cleansed of the Kurdish population.
The deliberate displacement of the Kurdish population has been documented in a report presented to the United Nations on 12 February 2014. This report, titled “Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, A/HRC/25/65,” actually shows how ethnic cleansing of Kurds took place not just by ISIS, but also by groups affiliated with the FSA that the media frequently labels as “moderate” or “revolutionary.” According to the Independent Commission of Inquiry’s report, which documented the violations against the Kurds in Tell Abyad, Raqqa, Tell Aran and Tell Hassel (in Aleppo):
The pattern of conduct perpetrated by non-State armed groups in Ar Raqqah and Aleppo in July  indicates a coordinated and planned campaign to forcibly displace Kurdish civilians. The methods employed, the threat of violence and subsequent abductions demonstrate the deliberate displacement of a population on the basis of its ethnic identity. Such conduct amounts to the war crime of forcible displacement.
What is then the reality behind the claims of Kurds forcing others (mainly Arabs and Turkmens) to flee the region?
I would argue that these claims were disseminated as propaganda to cover up what happened earlier, in which Kurds were uprooted from the area even before ISIS emerged in the region. Moreover, these claims, many of which originated through Turkish sources aimed to satisfy the desires of the current Turkish leadership, which has been anxious about increased Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria as well as the increasing success of the Kurdish political party inside Turkey.
Many of these facts are further concealed from Arab audiences in the region due to anti-Kurdish propaganda in the discourses of the Syrian opposition media outlets—particularly those affiliated with Turkey.
Many of those audiences might be surprised to know that the majority of the displaced population in the province of Hassaka was from the Kurdish community, or that acute demographic changes in favor of the Arab population took place in ‘Afrin, a predominantly Kurdish area north of Aleppo. On the one hand, thousands of Arab citizens fled to ‘Afrin from the countryside of Aleppo due to war, and on the other hand, a sizable Kurdish population migrated from ‘Afrin to Turkey and European countries. Nevertheless, up until today, there were no ethnic-based tensions between the local Kurdish residents and the Arab internally displaced persons who fled to ‘Afrin. The Kurdish exodus was due to war in this case and not ethnic cleansing.
It is important to appreciate the role of political propaganda, increased sectarianization of Syria and the region, and the utilization of ethnic conflict in the geopolitical struggle between regional states when assessing claims of ethnic cleansing emanating from the Syrian conflict. In this context, the implications of these charges are that Kurdish political forces are clearing a path for a Kurdish state. However, any discussions regarding a Kurdish state or semi-state in Syria remain in the frame of slogans and counter-slogans.
Such a state is not feasible due to internal factors, such as the demographic distribution in northern Syria and the massive social overlap between Kurds and Arabs as well as other ethnicities in the region. Despite the fact that there are areas with Kurdish dominant majority such as ‘Afrin, its vicinities are predominantly Arab and it is completely isolated from the closest Kurdish area to it—Kobani or Ain al-Arab. Similar demographic and social overlap can be found in the al-Jazira region as well. Apart from these internal factors and domestic realities, other external factors such as regional and international factors also hinder the creation of such a state. Therefore I doubt that the current demarcated border would vanish in the visible future or that the “West” is preparing for the partitioning of the region into mini-states or states. Hence, I think any claim of a future Kurdish state in northern Syria is merely a slogan rather than a real objective.
I do not believe currently there is the possibility, or even the will, for such a plan. At the same time, having a central government in Damascus that erodes any Kurdish presence in politics, culture, and society is not possible either. At least until the war ends, the inhabitants of the Kurdish areas, as well as the mixed areas, might accept a Kurdish self-rule model. I do not know what the form of the Syrian state would be when the war ends (if the war ends in the foreseeable future). However, what is clear is that it is no longer possible to hide the “Kurdish reality” under the authoritarian and chauvinist Arab nationalist Ba‘th Party approach.
 The Independent Commission of Inquiry provided detailed account about the violations against the Kurdish population:
E. Arbitrary and forcible displacement
1. Government forces and pro-government militia
144. By launching indiscriminate and disproportionate aerial bombardment and shelling, the Government has caused large-scale arbitrary displacement. In doing so, it has failed in its obligations under international human rights law to protect civilians from such displacement. It has failed to comply with its duties under international humanitarian law to provide displaced civilians with shelter, hygiene, health, safety and nutrition and to ensure that members of the same family are not separated.
2. Non-State armed groups
145. Two instances of forcible displacement by armed groups, as defined under international humanitarian law, were documented.
146. On 20 July, ISIS, Jabhat Al-Nusra, the Al-Sakhana Brigades, Saw’aiq Al-Rahman, the Ibn Taimia Brigades and Ahrar Al-Sham clashed with YPG forces in Tal Abyad (Ar Raqqah).
147. On 21 July, when YPG forces withdrew, armed groups broadcast orders from mosques in Al-Jisr, Harat Al-Leil and Hay Al Shallala neighbourhoods, instructing Kurdish civilians to leave the town or face immediate attack. Thousands of Kurdish civilians subsequently fled. Many were abducted at checkpoints encircling the area. The property of those who fled was looted and burned.
148. In Aleppo, on 28 July, clashes erupted in the Kurdish enclaves of Tal Aran and Tal Hasel between Jabhat Al-Akrad and YPG forces on the one side, and affiliated groups of Jabhat Al-Nusra, ISIS and FSA on the other. The latter groups seized control of Tal Aran, setting up checkpoints and sniper positions. Using mosque loudspeakers, armed group fighters ordered the Kurdish population to leave, under threat of violence. Thousands fled the following day.
149. On 29 July, the fighting spread to Tal Hasel, with the YPG engaging in hostilities with the above-mentioned armed groups. After short, intensive clashes, the armed groups encircled the town and conducted raids on Kurdish houses, abducting fighting-age men. Using mosque loudspeakers, the groups called Kurds “unbelievers”, declaring that “swords are between us and those who decide to stay in Tal Hasel”. Specific threats were directed against Kurdish women and children, saying that those who remained would be considered “halal for the mujahideen”.
UN Human Rights Council, Report of the independent international commission of inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, 12 February 2014, A/HRC/25/65, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/53182eed4.html [accessed 21 July 2015]
[An earlier version of this article first appeared in annahar in Arabic: www.annahar.com]