A Politically Fraught Humanitarian Crisis in Eastern Syria

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 29 August 2017

SDF/PKK fighter at a temporary refugee camp in the village of Ayn Issa, 10 Nov. 2016 / AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN

The local reporters at Raqqa 24 published a video yesterday containing interviews with some of the estimated 70,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) who have been trapped at the camps run by the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the vehicle by through which the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) operates to neutralize the political and legal obstacles to receiving Western assistance as it displaces the Islamic State (IS) across large tracts of land in eastern Syria. This has become yet another flashpoint, political and ethnic, as the SDF/PKK advances on the IS “capital” in Raqqa city.


This controversy blew up in a major way on 17 August, when Syria’s officially-recognized political opposition, the Syrian National Coalition or ETILAF, put out a statement acknowledging and supporting the online campaign, whose most visible agitator is Falak Hussein, referring—hyperbolically and tendentiously—to the “death camps” that SDF/PKK is allegedly running in northern Syria.

ETILAF, which is based in Turkey, Arab-dominated, and sternly anti-PKK, wrote in part:

Hussein pointed out that the IDPs camps that were set up by the SDF militias are no more than detention centers as the militias prevent residents of these camps from leaving towards the FSA-held areas or Turkey. The militias allow people out only if they have a “guarantor” in the area which they want to go to or if they pay large sums of money, sometimes as high as 1,000 US dollars. … Erected in desert, desolate areas, the camps lack the basic necessities of life. Hussein said that more than ten deaths were recorded in the Karama IDPs camp and six others in the Saad camp.

While clearly intended to have a political effect, the factual assertions in the ETILAF/Hussein are largely supported by independent evidence. Indeed, the assertions were based largely on a 14 August statement from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) that documented what it called the “terrible, terrible conditions” of the approximately forty SDF-run IDP camps, each containing between 2,000 and 10,000 people, scattered across Raqqa and Hasaka.

ICRC noted that there was essentially no medical care, certainly not capable of coping with child-birth. Where latrines are available, they are not sex-segregated and women have to avoid them after dark. “In other places, no sewage system nor toilets are even available”, ICRC notes. About fifty percent of the inhabitants of the camps are children, according to ICRC, which adds that the insanitary conditions and a lack of clean water have led to disease being rife among the young: “With a polluted environment and contaminated water, many children suffer from leishmaniasis, scabies, lice, or diarrhoea. In one of the camps, we saw a mother using plastic bags for her newly born baby instead of diapers, causing serious inflammation on his skin”.

The SDF/PKK has established these camps in remote desert areas, where snakes and scorpions are an inherent part of the risk to human life, and this is compounded because these zones are hard to reach, meaning that anyone bitten is more likely to die before they can receive treatment.

To circumvent some of these issues, the ICRC is trying to work with the Syrian Red Crescent and Bashar al-Asad regime’s Ministry of Water Resources to get daily shipments of water to the Arisha (a.k.a. al-Saad or al-Sad), one of the largest camps, believed to hold around 6,000 people in the southern suburbs of Hasaka city. Arisha was previously an oil refinery, and local water supplies have been contaminated with oil. There are other makeshift plans, such as getting jerry-cans of water, waste management tools, water tanks, and latrines into the camps. “Two projects in the area of al-Hawl and Shadadi will soon be resumed”, said ICRC, “while five more projects—in Allouk, Zahra, Tal es-Siman, Saffan, and Tabqa—are under discussion”. 

On 21 August, a report by Middle East Eye underlined some of these matters. “Living in an actual prison would have been easier than living in one of these camps,” said Ahmed, who fled his home in Deir Ezzor with his parents and five brothers to al-Sad/Arisha camp. “We are like prisoners in the camp, not even allowed to leave”, Ahmed added. Ahmed said six people had died recently in the camp because of the heat and the lack of medical care. Residents of eight informal camps around the combat zone that house about 18,000 people—Rajm Salibi, Arisha, al-Hawl, and Mabouka in the suburbs of Hasaka, Ayn Eissa and Karama in the suburbs of Raqqa, and Ruwaishid and Rukban near the Iraqi border—all reported poor conditions, and a lack of vital resources like medical facilities and food. Tents, the most basic of all resources, take days to arrive; people spend a week or more sleeping outdoors upon arrival.


The U.S.-led anti-IS coalition has taken as one of the indicators of its success the fact that, as the U.S. representative to the coalition Brett McGurk, put it at the end of July:

[T]he IDP flow out of these areas are all flowing, nearly one-hundred percent of them now, … into the areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces. We, of course, are doing all we can to make sure that this population receives aid. We track the numbers every single day. There’s about 275,000 now, and for the most part they are all receiving aid. … We used to hear six months ago, ‘If you use the Syrian Democratic Forces to march into some of these areas, the population’s actually going to join ISIS or fight with ISIS’. That has totally not happened.

McGurk added that not only were refugees from areas of combat between SDF and IS fleeing into “Rojava”, as the SDF/PKK calls its statelet in north-eastern Syria, but those fleeing as the regime forces advanced into IS areas were also making their way toward SDF lines.

There are two primary problems with this “voting with their feet” narrative, what one might call exigent and geographic. The fallacy with the first can be seen most easily when it is remembered that the Asad regime and its apologists have made use of IDP flows into regime-held areas to stake a claim to legitimacy. The reality, of course, is that people flee in the direction where there are no falling artillery shells and airstrikes; it says little about the political arrangements they wish to live under. Second, and much more important in this case, is that people trying to get away from the fighting, whether they intend to go to Turkey or Iraq or anywhere else, have to go through SDF-held areas, and when they do they are being detained for security and/or political reasons, complicating even the flawed argument that the direction of refugee flows determines their preference.

Middle East Eye interviewed two men who testified to experience the SDF camps more as internment centres than shelters. A 22-year-old man, Mohamed, who fled Deir Ezzor, was apprehended by the SDF/PKK, and transferred to the Karama camp in the suburbs of Raqqa. Mohamed was interrogated for hours before being left with a group of other men without a tent, “to sit and sleep in the open with nothing to shade us from the heat of the desert”. Mohamed said the only way out of the camp was to pay an extortionate bribe to the SDF guards, which he eventually did, reaching Reyhanli in Turkey after raising $700. The above-mentioned Ahmed has been unable to escape Arisha. “Even trying to make a call is difficult at the camp”, Ahmed, told MEE. “I’m always afraid that the SDF will punish me if they find out I’ve complained about the conditions or tried to reach out”.

The SDF spokesperson, Mustafa Bali, denied all responsibility for this situation, flatly refusing to acknowledge that the SDF is running any IDP camps at all, and insisting that his forces are “solely preoccupied with fighting IS”.

Blame for these circumstances cannot be laid on the SDF alone. There is no question that the blockade against Rojava maintained by the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which both see the PKK as an irredentist menace to their security, has added to the complications. Ankara, in particular, has reached for blunt levers in its continuing protest at the U.S. partnering with PKK, and one of them was cracking down on humanitarian organisations operating in Turkey that do work in Rojava. The threat hanging over NGOs working with the largely-Arab Syrian refugees in Turkey that they could lose this access if they work in Rojava has made many groups hesitant. The other side of this is not just that the PKK has set up the camps in Syria in areas that seem deliberately difficult to reach, but any NGO that tries to engage quickly finds that the PKK wants them to surrender much more autonomy than any humanitarian group is prepared to even under the most flexible reading of an emergency mandate.


These issues are part of the broader fault. The ICRC’s attempt to mitigate the situation by bringing in Asad’s Ministry, for example, while it makes technical sense, would expand on the signal failure of the anti-IS coalition: an unwillingness to construct a durable post-IS political vision, leaving the regime to return by default. The choice of the PKK is itself a crucial aspect of this posture. The PKK became the U.S.’s preferred anti-IS ally because it has conciliatory relations with the regime, and as such allowed the U.S. to pretend it could engage against IS without being dragged into the Syrian war itself.

The PKK views its Syrian dominion primarily as a springboard for its war against Turkey. The PKK, therefore, focuses on a securitized hold on territory in the Rojava area, and is content to rely in key ways on the Asad state for governance. This denies the PKK significant aspects of legitimacy and necessitates the denial of political freedom and the abuse of human rights, but it has allowed the PKK to retain its position. And this model of symbiosis with the regime has persisted in areas the international coalition has helped the PKK capture from IS, notably Minbij. The PKK immediately began imposing its authoritarian military structures on the town, having promised it would leave it to local rule. To secure itself against Turkey, the PKK ceded a belt of territory around Minbij to the pro-Asad coalition. Within the city, the PKK allowed the regime to take up key posts the PKK couldn’t cover in exchange for the provision of state salaries and other benefits. Part of this involved the return of Asad’s secret police, condemning dozens of dissidents from Minbij to regime dungeons or conscription into the regime’s criminal army.

Helping Asad reconquer Syria was not how the U.S.-led anti-IS campaign was sold, yet that is increasingly its effect. In March, the coalition helped Asad recapture Palmyra, and as the anti-IS campaign moves into Deir Ezzor the coalition has become less evasive about its de facto policy of enabling the regime’s military advances. On 24 June, CENTCOM spokesman Ryan Dillon made a now-infamous statement that if the pro-Asad forces “want to fight ISIS in al-Bukamal and they have the capacity to do so, then that would be welcomed. … [I]f the Syrian regime wants to do that … in al-Bukamal or Deir Ezzor or elsewhere, that means that we don’t have to do that in those places”. That the Asad regime and Iran have just dumped several hundred IS jihadists into this region in a cynical effort to bolster its own security and complicate the West’s policy, in both Syria and Iraq, should be no surprise; Asad has instrumentalized IS against us for a decade-and-a-half. It does call into question what Col. Dillon could possibly have been thinking in welcoming the expansion of a regime whose cruelty, incompetence, and cynicism gave rise to IS in the first place.

In summary, then, the SDF/PKK-run IDP centres are not the “death camps” that opposition and anti-PKK activists have claimed, but they are centres of widespread human misery and the West’s partner force is significantly responsible for things being as bad as they are. That the U.S.-led coalition tries to count the SDF/PKK’s handling of IDPs in its category of successes is to add insult to injury. It is most unlikely that the PKK will remain as the long-term governing authority in Raqqa; the PKK’s will is open to doubt, and its capacity is not in evidence. For the PKK, the better option will be to cash in its Arab-majority holdings, letting the regime administer territories the PKK would struggle to secure, in exchange for guarantees of autonomy in its core areas. The chance to reset this course has passed. The only thing left for the West to do is complete its strategic catastrophe in Syria in as humane a way as possible, taking care to reduce the alarmingly high civilian casualties in Raqqa and bringing pressure on the PKK to adjust its practices, such as its screening process, toward IDPs.


Originally published at The Henry Jackson Society

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