Locals in northern Syria ready to resist Turkish incursion – Kurdish leader

A unilateral Turkish intervention in northeast Syria would be only possible if supported by the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, a top Syrian Kurdish official told Ahval in an interview.

Ilham Ahmed is the co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF and its allies have played a key role in the global coalition against ISIS, but Turkey views the Kurdish-led groups as terrorists due to their links to outlawed domestic militants.

Ahmed joined Ahval editor Ilhan Tanir for a wide-ranging, interpreted interview at the SDC’s Washington offices. The Kurdish leader strongly rejected Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s plan to create a “safe zone” in northern Syrian territory controlled by the SDF and said any country that supports such a zone would be facilitating an invasion.

Visiting New York City this week for the United Nations General Assembly, Erdoğan said during his UN speech that up to 2 million of the 3.6 million Syrians in Turkey could be moved to the safe zone, and that Turkey would build them spacious homes with gardens free of charge.

The plan looks to address growing discontent at the size of Turkey’s population of asylum seekers, which Turks in recent surveys have said they view as one of the biggest problems facing the country.

But Ahmed said northeast Syria is not Erdoğan’s territory and that locals would resist his plan, which she said would lead to ethnic cleansing similar to what was witnessed in Afrin after Turkish forces captured that area from Kurdish militias in early 2018. After the invasion, more than 100,000 native Kurds were reportedly displaced from their homes.

The Kurdish leader also called on Turkey to respond to the overtures of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), to renew a peace process between the Turkish state and Kurdish fighters that broke down in 2015. Turkey sees the SDF and its affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as extensions of the PKK, which the United States, the European Union and Turkey designate as a terrorist group.

Ilhan Tanir (IT): Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is talking about intervening in northeast Syria and creating a safe zone. During his speech this week, he showed a map of the proposed zone at the United Nations General Assembly. What’s your reaction to that map?

Ilham Ahmad (IA): It was clear from the beginning what Erdoğan wants. He has been speaking about resettling Syrian refugees that are living in Turkey to this area. And we reject his proposal. Any country that would support Erdoğan in this plan, we would consider that country as an occupying force or a country that facilitates the occupation of Syria.

IT: Yet it appears that his proposal of the safe zone is getting some U.S. support.

IA: We are not committed to any negotiation that happens between Turkey and the United States which we are not involved with. We are also not aware of this map. What we care about is the security of the area and keeping the area stabilised. The description of the safe zone that we hear from the American side is so different from the description Turkey is speaking about. And we did not hear that big figure of the Syrian refugees that Erdoğan is speaking about that they are going to be moved to this area.

People who went to Turkey from our region and who currently live in Turkey can come back. I am talking about those who were not involved with ISIS, they can come back. Because the people that he is planning to relocate are not from our region. Then where are you going to settle them? Are you going to settle them in the houses of the people of the area? You`re simply causing new problems.

IT: Erdoğan says he is going to build new houses with backyards and gardens.

IA:  This area is not Erdoğan`s farm. He wants to change the demographics. He wants to change history. It is ethnic cleansing. They settled people in Afrin too. We saw how they settled people in Afrin, what happened to Afrin. They want to do the same scenario in our region now.

IT: Since they did it in Afrin why they should not be able to do in northeast Syria?

IA: It is against the history of the area. What happened in Afrin is they caused mass migration, they forced many people to be displaced and then they settled other people in their houses. So, you have people living in the properties of others, and the same scenario would happen east of the (Euphrates river). You cannot force that. There is Jarablus, there is Azez, there is Al-Bab, there is all of this area...Why can’t he settle refugees and do his construction projects in that area?

IT: Are you really afraid Erdoğan will carry out his promise to intervene or do you think he is bluffing?

IA: He is determined. And I would say there is a lot of risk that he is going to take action.

IT: Erdoğan is arguing that People’s Protection Units (YPG) and SDF are a national security threat to Turkey even though it is well documented that SDF and YPG fighters have not attacked Turkey. But the argument goes, if not now, in the future your structure, your fighters, when they are powerful they can attack Turkey.

IA: There has not been even a single bullet fired from our area into Turkey. If we are going to look at this way, who started the hostility? It’s Erdoğan who occupied Afrin and Erdoğan who brought forces from over the border and sent them to loot Afrin...We are defence forces, the core of our forces are defence, self-defence. So, we will never attack Turkey.

IT: As you know very well, Turkey says the YPG is connected to the PKK and that is the reason this will be a problem for Turkey in the future, because of the war between the PKK and Turkey going on for decades and continuing today.

IA: Turkey always falsely accuses us of being the PKK. But we should also not forget to ask them why the PKK was created. The policies implemented by the AK Party, the ethnic cleansing carried out by the Turkish government. For example, Afrin is not under Turkish sovereignty. What did the people of Afrin do to Turkey? Have they ever assaulted on Turkey to deserve this?

IT: Obviously the PKK situation did not start with the AKP, it started with in the late 1970s and early 80s. What is your view of the PKK, what is your view of Abdullah Öcalan?

IA: Structurally speaking, we don’t have any relation with the PKK. However, the Turkish state, rather than solving the Turkish-Kurdish problem and Kurdish issues in Turkey, they accuse anyone of being PKK. Any Kurd is PKK for them.

First the ceasefire initiative collapsed (in summer 2015), and the recent statement from Öcalan himself went without any response from Turkey. I think Turkey should restart the peace negotiations if it wants a solution. And they should not waste another opportunity. There is an opportunity now to have peace between the Kurds and Turkey. The peace process in Turkey will serve all ethnic groups in Turkey and also help Syrians as well.

IT: Do you think there is an opportunity right now to renew peace negotiations?

IA: Yes, there is an opportunity. Because Öcalan recently expressed a willingness to start an initiative and released a statement. And I think the Turks should use this opportunity to restart peace negotiations.

IT: One of the criticisms of the YPG and your structure is that there is not enough participation for other factions in the region. Not enough participation from Arabs, not enough from people who are affiliated with the Kurdish National Council (KNC) and other groups. What is your response?

IA: The majority of people have been participating in our assemblies and in our councils, and there are important decision-makers who are not Kurds. Our autonomous administration has the co-presidency system, (and includes) Arab, Kurd and Syrian, people from Raqqa, Hasakah, Kobani, and we even have Turkmens.

The majority of ethnic groups are present in the town administrations. The KNC has offices in the area, public offices, and can be active in the area. When we started the autonomous administration, we were working together with the KNC: meetings, assemblies, the preparation for the administration, we did it with the KNC. But due to Turkish pressure, suddenly they withdrew from the committees that we formed together. 

The KNC parties are allowed to work in their offices and they have offices. They do not want to work.

IT: Recently the Assad regime called the SDC a separatist terrorist organisation. Do you think there is a chance for the Assad regime and Turkey to go after your group in a partnership?

IA: They might, and I think there are many regional countries brokering talks between Turkey and Assad, such as Russia and Iran.

IT: So, who is your friend in the region, or friends, who are they?

IA: We invest a lot in enhancing the friendship between the Syrian people themselves. And we have been really succeeding in this. And we believe that strong, solid relations between the different components of the Syrian people is the most important thing.

Also, we put a priority on outreach to the international community. And the way we see friendship is how this friendship will help human rights and democratic standards between any two countries. Any country who is supporting the new democratic Syria is our friend.

IT: You had a short engagement with Trump during your visit, and he said he loves the Kurds. Do you think Trump is a friend of Syrian Kurds?

IA: In countering terrorism, in liberating major areas from ISIS and the democratic transition in Syria, we see anyone who supports this project as a friend and we consider this person as really loving the Kurdish people.

IT: Syrian Kurds have not been invited to join Syria’s constitutional committee. Do you think this project is going to be successful without Syrian Kurdish participation?

IA: No, it is not going to succeed. The constitutional committee, it has people who represent the regime, and there are people who represent the Islamists. Even the so-called civil society representative was chosen by the UN. Half the committee disapproves of Assad, half disapproves of the Islamists. So, the committee does not represent the Syrians, and that would never achieve the hopes and what the Syrian people really want.

IT: How is the climate in the region? Erdoğan says, if he does not get what he wants from the U.S., he will intervene against the Syrian Kurds. What would happen if Turks do that operation unilaterally?

IA: Erdoğan will not dare to start a large-scale attack without some sort of approval from coalition forces. This would happen with no doubt if the coalition would facilitate it. Of course, people will resist; we will resort to resistance. And I would tell you if this happens, God forbid, it would not be like Afrin, it would be much bigger than Afrin. 

IT: Why?

IT: Different circumstances, the geography is different, the people are different.

IT: So, do you think the population, the people, locals along with the YPG would resist?

IA: All people, even many Arabs, they would not want to see Turkey.

IT: But if Turkey intervenes only in places like Tel Abyad, the majority Sunni-Arab places, would you have any problem with that?

IA: It is not the business of Turkey to intervene even if it is Arabs in Tel Abyad. It is not their business. Is (Erdoğan) the father of Arabs, the grandfather of Sunni Arabs?

IT: One of your main interlocutors in Washington is U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey. Is he doing a good job? Do you think he is able to negotiate what Syrian Kurds want him to negotiate?

IA: It is not only about the Syrian Kurds, it is all of us, in northeast Syria, and I would say Ambassador Jeffrey is a wise person. He has been able to achieve some good steps so far. He is kind of a power broker, between us and the Turks. And I would say if there is a firmer American position, a stronger American position, we could reach a point where we can start really negotiating with the Turks, direct negotiation.

We want a dialogue, and to solve our issues and our problems peacefully, in a dialogue. And we are open to everything when it comes to dialogue.

IT: One of the arguments in pro-Erdoğan media is that if Syrian Kurds are strong and get their autonomy in northeast Syria, this will embolden the PKK to be even more forceful in opposing and attacking the Turkish state.

IA: I don’t agree. If we achieve good governance through peaceful negotiations with Turkey, the Kurds in Turkey whose rights are being denied would start to think more about peaceful methods of solving their issues within Turkey. If it is going to be solved with war, like Erdoğan wants, Kurds in Turkey will want to solve their issues with war as well.

If Turkey, as a strong country, took such a daring step as to start peace negotiations with Kurds, they would be a model for the Middle East. Turkey is a very diverse country and has suffered a lot from war. If after all of these long and bloody conflicts we solve our issues peacefully, that would be great for Turkey. And it would give a more civilised image to Turkey. The economy in Turkey would be much better. And then Turkey would be a model.

IT: Pro-Erdoğan circles in Turkey say the Syrian Kurdish project in northeast Syria is a project of Israel, a project of the United States, a puppet of imperialism. What is your response?

IA: I don’t think either Israel nor America was aware of what we were doing in northeast Syria at the beginning, when we established the administration. Even now there are many people in the U.S. and in decision-making circles, they don’t have a clear understanding of our administration. So, how can they have made us?

IT: The United States continues to provide weapons and support to the SDF, which Erdoğan mentioned this week in New York. All this began in 2015 when the Turkish-Kurdish peace process collapsed. Is there any connection?

IA: I would say that the collapse of peace talks in Turkey is very connected to defeating ISIS in Kobani. When ISIS was trying to capture Kobani, we saw Erdoğan saying "Kobani is about to fall." On the one hand, he was engaging the peace process in Turkey with the Kurds. But on the other hand, he was helping ISIS capture Kobani.

When we needed urgent support, there was international solidarity with Kobani, and this is how we got the support from the U.S. for the first time. ISIS was not only targeting Kobani and the Kurds, they were targeting everybody. Probably without us, the project of ISIS could have succeeded in Syria and Iraq.

Without us confronting ISIS, what could have happened to the world, if the ISIS project had succeeded? It was a historic moment when the international coalition helped us and it was the right decision. It helped all countries, the international community including Turkey.

IT: Erdoğan says Turkey is the country that does the most in the fight against terrorism.

IA: How many days did they fight against ISIS? How many Turkish soldiers were killed during the fight against ISIS? Are the factions that Turkey is currently working with better than ISIS?

Look at the FSA groups, and compare the groups that Turkey is supporting in Afrin. Are they different from ISIS? There is Islamism, Ahrar al-Sham, you cannot walk without wearing a niqab or hijab as a woman. The FSA is ISIS with a different name; the ideology is the same.

IT: They argue that that is how the local people want to live. 

IA: It is enforced by law, with weapons. A video was released recently showing how an FSA commander killed his sister because she was dating another guy. The people of Afrin were Muslims too, but they are not extremists, they are not radical. Look at Afrin now, they are forcing everybody to abide by Sharia law. The Kurdish women in Afrin, they are now forced to put on the hijab and niqab.

IT: Do you think in your areas, you force Kurdish women or regional women to take more of a lead role? We know that you created a military unit of women forces.

IA: It is not by force. Women are excluded from mandatory service. There are some instances which I understand where the criticism comes from. There are some women who join us, but their family don’t want them to join. They are adults, they can decide for themselves. And we have nothing to do but to protect them so they cannot be killed by their families. And most of the time, we try to persuade their families and try to convince their families in such circumstances.

IT: From 2011 to 2019, has there been any moment that you have regretted some decision you made in regards to the relationship with Turkey, the Assad regime, Russia, the United States or in general with the rebellion among Syrian people?

IA: The political decisions we took were mostly right. In Afrin, the situation of Afrin, I would say that, probably, we could have taken different decisions. We could have probably avoided some battles in Afrin.

IT: You mean proclaiming Afrin a self-governing canton was the wrong decision?

IA: No, I think it was a right decision.

Turkey tried to incite a lot, incite us a lot to start something from Afrin or to resist in Afrin when they attacked. So, I would say that we could have probably found a political solution for Afrin rather than seeing thousands of people displaced.

IT: You mean find some kind of political solution with Turkey before the war for Afrin?

IA: We could have worked with Turkey in Afrin. However, the international powers over there in Afrin are different than east of the Euphrates. The American influence on Turkey is different than the Russian influence on Turkey as well.

IT: Ok. Thank you so much for your time. This was a very useful and great conversation.

IA: You are welcome.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.




The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.