A checkpoint in Afrin in May. Photo courtesy of Afrin Media Center.
AMMAN: A car sits empty and abandoned on the Syrian side of the Bab a-Salama border point connecting northern Aleppo province with Turkey, the same place it has been for nearly two months now.
The car’s owner, Masoud Ibo—former spokesman of the majority-Kurdish Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigade Liwa Ahfad Salaheddin—travelled from Syria’s northwestern Afrin region to Turkey weeks ago and planned to return on June 4. He hasn’t been seen since.
In Afrin, news of disappearances, arrests, assassinations and kidnappings are becoming commonplace. Fighters, commanders, media workers and civilians are killed or go missing, while everyone from Turkish security forces to anti-FSA sleeper cells—and even rebel factions themselves—stand accused.
In the weeks since Ibo, also known as Abu al-Majd Komaleh, disappeared, there have been competing reports and rumors about what happened to him circulating in Syria and online. Some say the spokesman was arrested in Turkey, others that he was assassinated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
“Nobody has any information, but his car is still sitting there,” Rafat Juneid, a media official with theTurkish-backed FSA faction al-Jabha a-Shamiya in Afrin, told Syria Direct. Liwa Ahfad Salaheddin’s forces have been absorbed into al-Jabha a-Shamiya.
On June 4, the Afrin Media Center, which Ibo headed, reported his “disappearance” while returning to Syria from Turkey. The following day, the center said it received news that he had been detained in Turkey, then fell silent.
Ibo’s faction was one of a small handful of majority-Kurdish divisions bolstering Turkish-backed FSA forces that participated in Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch to capture Afrin, in northwestern Aleppo province, from local Kurdish forces in March.
The participation of Kurdish rebel factions in the Afrin fighting both troubled simplistic narratives about what was happening there and brought members of those factions under scrutiny from opponents of Operation Olive Branch.
Kurdish fighters and commanders told Syria Direct during the fighting in February that they saw themselves as “liberators,” working to drive out what they saw as an oppressive political order in the form of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the YPG, which had controlled Afrin since 2012. But to their critics—including the YPG—Kurdish FSA fighters were sellouts providing cover for Turkey to avoid accusations that the operation was motivated by anti-Kurd animus.
Now, Kurdish members of the FSA are caught in the middle, local sources tell Syria Direct—singled out for retaliation by the YPG and their supporters while subject to additional scrutiny from Turkey and their allies in the FSA.
It was in this chaotic context that Ibo disappeared, and he is not the only one. The former spokesman is one of at least four Kurdish FSA commanders and prominent figures who have been arrested by Turkish forces, disappeared or been targeted for assassination by the YPG in the past two months alone, rebel and civilian sources tell Syria Direct. Pro-Olive Branch media personnel have also gone missing.
Free Syrian Army fighters in Afrin in March. Photo courtesy of Sultan Murad Division.
For Kurdish FSA members, participating in Operation Olive Branch was arguably a calculated risk, based on the belief that they would be able to smoothe relations between fellow FSA factions and Afrin’s majority-Kurdish population, and that local residents would welcome the new order and those who brought it about.
But with tensions in Afrin still high, it appears that at least some are now paying the cost for that gamble.
In early June, at around the same time that Masoud Ibo traveled to Turkey, at least two other Kurdish commanders also went missing after reportedly being detained by Turkish security forces: Abu Maryam al-Afrini of the Sultan Murad Division and Muhammad a-Sheikh of the Martyr Mashaal Temo Brigade.
“Nobody is confirming the detention of the Kurdish leaders, or where they are,” al-Jabha a-Shamiya media official Juneid told Syria Direct from Afrin earlier this month. “They’re gone, but who has them?”
On Saturday, the Sultan Murad Division issued a statement confirming that a-Sheikh, who also goes by the name Abu Maryam al-Hasakawi, had been arrested and “accused of a number of charges” in early June, but was subsequently “able to escape.” The division called on all local factions to “help catch him and turn him over.”
Syria Direct contacted the Sultan Murad Division for comment, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.
Muhammad Hamdeen, spokesman for the Turkish-backed coalition Jaish al-Watani, which also participated in Olive Branch, told Syria Direct this month that they, too, had no information about what happened to the Kurdish commanders.
“I expect that somebody informed on them,” says Abu al-Hassan al-Kurdi, a Kurdish former media official with al-Jabha a-Shamiya. “You know how the Turks want to investigate anything.” Al-Kurdi is currently based in Turkey and asked that his real name be withheld.
A source currently serving within the recently formed, Turkish-backed Afrin council told Syria Direct he believes that Ibo and others were being held in Turkey, and that the arrests were related to “false accusations.” The source requested anonymity because he is a current member of the council.
The council member said he believed the accusations were related to Ibo and Abu Maryam helping individuals in Afrin who were previously conscripted into the YPG to “settle their status” with Turkish-backed local authorities.
“The problem is, the FSA is really eager that the YPG not enter Afrin,” he said.
A Turkish government spokesman did not respond to Syria Direct's for comment.
But even for Kurdish members of the FSA who have not run afoul of authorities in Afrin or Turkey, there is another threat—members of the YPG, the armed wing of the PYD, remain in Afrin and are carrying out assassinations and attacks against both Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies.
Since losing control of Afrin, the YPG has claimed a string of assassinations and attacks against Turkish-backed forces, reserving particular contempt for those Kurds they call “traitors” and “mercenary collaborators.”
Afrin in May. Photo courtesy of Afrin Media Center.
The YPG announced that on June 9 its forces in Afrin had shot and killed Ahmad Mistou, a Kurdish commander with al-Jabha a-Shamiya. In a statement released about the killing, the YPG accused Mistou of “killing, kidnapping, torture, humiliation, looting and forced displacement” against the people of Afrin.
“We remind them that the Turkish occupation will not be able to protect them,” the statement warned. “Ahmad Mistou is just the beginning.”
Days earlier, on June 4, a pro-YPG Facebook page that regularly posts about anti-FSA and anti-Turkey operations in Afrin claimed that Ibo, the missing ex-spokesman, had been killed by the YPG. Comments on the post celebrated the news and included the phrases: “Go to hell” and “death to traitors.”
In a surprise twist, Mistou reappeared alive in Afrin more than two months after his reported assassination, posting videos to his private Facebook page on July 18 urging Arab-Kurdish unity and thanking his faction’s leadership, “who sent me to Turkey to save me and concealed that I was alive to safeguard my safety and security.”
The YPG says it is resisting crimes committed in Afrin by Turkish-backed forces and showing that the “occupation cannot ensure the life and safety of mercenary collaborators.”
For some, that line of argument may seem move persuasive given the litany of rights abuses blamed on Ankara-backed FSA factions in and around Afrin in recent months.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), in a June 2018 report, wrote that it had received reports that Kurds in Afrin were being targeted for discrimination amid an atmosphere of “lawlessness and rampant criminality” by armed groups in territory controlled by Turkish forces.
OHCHR pointed particularly to the Sultan Murad Division and Firqat al-Hamza as sources of harassment, theft and other violations.
In June, members of the Sultan Murad Division tortured a Kurdish man in Afrin, prompting the faction to issue a statement calling the acts “individual behavior” and saying that the fighters responsible had been referred to military authorities.
FSA factions also reportedly gave away civilian homes seized in Afrin to East Ghoutans who were evacuated to Syria’s northwest earlier this year under a surrender and evacuation deal with the Syrian government.
“The FSA is practicing the same exclusionary mentality” as the PYD, the anonymous source on Afrin’s council told Syria Direct this month, “[by] putting pressure on us, whether as a council or as regular civilians.”
“The revolution has changed from a revolution for freedom and dignity,” he said. “It’s all gone.”
It is a view shared by some residents in Afrin. As time goes on and reported violations by FSA factions persist, despite attempts by Turkish authorities to curb them, some Afrin residents are growing increasingly disillusioned with the territory’s new rulers.
Abu Muhammad al-Kurdi, a civilian in Afrin, supported Operation Olive Branch at the beginning, he told Syria Direct. His brother had been a member of the FSA before he was killed in battles against government forces in 2015.
But al-Kurdi’s feelings have changed. Since Turkish-backed forces took control, he now feels “it’s impossible for Arab members of the FSA to allow the Kurdish component to have administration or independence within Afrin,” he said.
“Throughout all the years of the revolution, I never thought of myself as a Kurd or as a stranger to the Syrian revolution,” said al-Kurdi, “until the latest battles, especially Olive Branch.”