November 7, 2019
Journalists in northeast Syria fear the return of state security services
US President Donald Trump’s decision in early October to withdraw American troops from the Syria-Turkey border put the US’s local partner in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS, Daesh), the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in an unenviable position. Faced with an offensive by Turkey, NATO’s second largest military, the SDF struck a deal with its rival Damascus whereby the latter deployed troops across SDF territories in order to prevent the Turkish incursion from widening.
International developments have now offered the SDF a temporary reprieve. An accord between the US and Turkey on October 17, and a second accord between Russia and Turkey on October 22 more or less contained the Turkish offensive to an area 75 miles wide. Shortly afterwards Trump sent American troops to protect oil fields under SDF control, while the US military resumed patrols along a strip of border and is establishing new bases in northeast Syria. Nevertheless, the US president might withdraw these forces as the 2020 elections approach; as of Monday, a senior administration official expressed worry Trump would reverse course once again.
Against this backdrop, the Kurdish-led SDF has requested to negotiate with Damascus under Russian auspices to determine the future of the region. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is likely to wait for a US withdrawal, and/or an escalation in Turkey’s offensive in order to negotiate from a position of undisputed strength; and the interests of Russia, Turkey, Iran, and the US will heavily influence the talks’ parameters and outcomes.
Among the most important questions to be worked through: will the SDF be integrated into the Syrian Arab Armed Forces, and if so, how? What mix of Syrian army soldiers, Russian military police, Iranian-backed militias, and former SDF will occupy which parts of the strategically-located, resource-rich northeast?
Maintaining control over security provision in Kurdish-majority areas is a key demand for the SDF. But when the SDF negotiated with Damascus in early 2018, in a failed attempt then to stave off a Turkish invasion into Afrin, the latter demanded the return of the army and intelligence services to that Kurdish-majority enclave. The SDF and regime were equals at the time—so it is unclear why Bashar al-Assad would concede now on this critical issue, when his interlocutors are at their most vulnerable.
Recent interviews with four local journalists highlight how a return of Syria’s infamous state security services to SDF-held territories means exposing residents to the danger of detention, torture, and harassment, first and foremost those who have worked as paid or unpaid citizen journalists.
“There are hundreds of activists, journalists, and opposition people, there are those who wrote about Bashar [al-Assad], the government…it’s impossible for them to remain in this area under the shadow of the Syrian regime,” said Sameyyan, the pseudonym of a Kurdish journalist in northeastern Hasakah province.
“If the Syrian government comes back as it was before, its security apparatus and such, I will certainly leave,” added Sameyyan, who spent time in jail before the war because of his agitating for Kurdish national rights.
In its 2018 annual report, the Syrian Center for Journalistic Freedoms documented 309 journalists killed by the Syrian Government from 2011 through 2018—the organization documented the Islamic State (ISIS, Daesh) killing sixty journalists in the same period. The report features the cases of award-winning Syrian Palestinian photographer Neiraz Saeed, who was tortured to death in government custody, and Alaa al-Din Ebesh, whose family only learned about his 2015 execution three years after it occurred in Damascus’ notorious Saydna prison.
In the northeastern city of Qamishli on the Syrian-Turkish border, another Kurdish journalist says that his decision to leave or stay “depends on what form the regime comes back in.”
“If the agreement between the regime and SDF has no guarantees for protecting the media or opposition people, I think I will have to leave Syria. Even journalists loyal to the regime were arrested recently in Damascus and Aleppo…the regime wants to return the country to what it was before 2011,” he said.
Even if the SDF secures a degree of power over security provision, the government has proven itself quick to violate agreements over the course of the war. Most recently, in the southern province of Daraa, it has disregarded the terms of local truces signed with rebels in summer 2018, detaining media activists and former opposition members, forcing young men wanted for military service to fight on distant fronts, and harassing civilians.
Russia sponsored the southern truces but has proven unwilling or unable to enforce their terms, calling into question its efficacy as a guarantor for a deal in the northeast.
“As soon as the regime comes back with its security apparatus I will leave,” said Khalid, a journalist from the Arab-majority city of Manbij that is slated to be handed over to the government (despite a putative handover, the SDF-affiliated Manbij Military Council and its police are still mainly in control the city). “I will apply for political asylum from another country, the European Union, Latin America, any country that can give me any type of political asylum I will take it immediately.”
“For most families in Manbij right now, either their children are with Daesh [ISIS], or the Free Syrian army, or is a regime soldier who defected, or they have kids of mandatory recruitment age who they haven’t sent for military service…the regime will deal with all of these people through its security services. Without a doubt—forced disappearances, torture, mistreatment,” said Khalid.
Russia sponsored the southern truces but has proven unwilling or unable to enforce their terms, calling into question its efficacy as a guarantor for a deal
As Khalid indicates, Arab-majority populations under SDF control are most at risk from a return of the state’s security services. A portion of the SDF’s Kurdish leadership did not intend to capture Arab territories like Raqqa city to begin with, and with the exception of oil-rich areas, the SDF is likely to cede some of them to the government in return for concessions.
When Damascus has previously recaptured Arab-majority districts known for their revolutionary activity, such as the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, or east Aleppo, it has punished civilian populations by denying municipal services, confiscating homes, and demolishing entire neighborhoods under the guise of redevelopment. Harassment and the threat of detention are a routine part of life for residents of these areas who worked in media, humanitarian aid, or activism—and for their families.
In an August interview, journalist Mohammad Hassan floated the idea of returning home to Deir Ezzor province from Turkey, where he covers Syrian developments. Now that the government seems poised to reassert control, his thinking has changed.
“I will not accept that I, my children, or my descendants live under Assad’s rule. [I’d rather] stay outside the country until judgment day.”
Dan Wilkofsky is a Syria analyst and former editor at Syria Direct. Follow him on Twitter as @Dwilkofsky1.
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