Turkish attack on Syrian Kurds would lead to war across 600-km border – SDF leader Kobane

The Kurdish-led autonomous region in north and east Syria, known as Rojava, has sprung out of the eight-year conflict in Syria and the Kurdish forces’ bloody five-year war with the Islamic State (ISIS) that had captured large parts of the region.

In that conflict, the tough, uncompromising commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Mazlum Kobane, has gained international renown as one of the key leaders taking the fight to ISIS.

But the controversy around the man known to the international coalition against the jihadists simply as General Kobane reflects the murky lines drawn in a long, complex and multi-faceted conflict. Kobane is also known as Şahin Cilo, the name he goes by on Turkey’s most wanted terrorists list for his links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the outlawed, armed group that has fought Turkish forces for Kurdish self-rule since 1984.

Kobane denies being a member of the group, but even Washington acknowledges the links between the PKK and the SDF through the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian Kurdish militia that dominates the latter group.

With recent events in northern Syria raising the prospect of a Turkish attack on Rojava, Ahval’s Ergun Babahan spoke to Kobane about the current situation and the future of the conflict.

“There’s no such society as Syria left. Daesh (the Islamic State) has ruined the country, the Arabs have been laid to waste”, Kobane said.

As for the impending threat of a Turkish attack on Rojava, where U.S. troops have deployed alongside Kurdish forces, Kobane does not allow wishful thinking to overtake realism.

“The United States is Turkey’s strategic partner. It has only been in a tactical partnership with us to defeat Daesh”, he said. Nevertheless, Kobane said, Turkey cannot expect a repeat of their successful campaign against Kurdish forces in the northwest Syrian enclave of Afrin last year.

“Afrin and the areas east of the Euphrates river are nothing like one another. Its impossible for what happened in Afrin to take place here,” he said.

That means that, if the United States does bow to Turkey’s wishes and allow an operation, the SDF will respond with all-out warfare no matter where the Turkish army strikes, the general said.

With a 600-kilometre border between the two sides, such a war is a frightening prospect.

 “There would be war from Manbij (northern Syria) to Idlib (the Syrian rebel-held province in the west). We’ve told everyone of our decision, and America knows, so does Turkey”, Kobane said, adding that this would mean the outbreak of a second Syrian civil war.

In this sense a Turkish operation would be disastrous for the United States’ aims for the region.

“Turkey wants to bring the border to a point that suits it and take several centres (in the northern Syrian region bordering Turkey). In such a case, there will be war without end until Turkey is completely gone”, said Kobane.

This would mean drawing fighters away from the joint struggle against ISIS, he said, a situation that would gravely impact the operation and raise the risk of a resurgence of the extremist jihadist group.

“The fight against Daesh is mainly going on in Deir al-Zor and Raqqa. If Turkey invades, the fight will halt and Daesh will get stronger. The regime (of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) will enter these areas. The United States doesn’t want this, and there’s serious pressure on Turkey over it, because it would disrupt the ongoing operation”, Kobane said.

This, the Kurdish leader stresses, is Washington’s problem far more than it is a problem for the northern Syrian Kurds.

“We’ll fight, and it will be a big battle. We’re prepared for it. Turkey will put pressure on us for a couple of weeks and enact some provocations, but I see the possibility of an invasion as low. If he launches one, this will be a serious mistake for Erdoğan … It won’t turn out like he thinks”, he said.

Turkish forces have been pouring to the border, but on the other side, the SDF have been strengthening their positions and digging in with fortifications and defensive tunnels. There is a tension in the air, a feeling that a single spark could set the whole region aflame, Kobane said. Despite this, he said, the stance from the United States has been positive in seeking ways to prevent conflict.

Ergun Babahan
Ergun Babahan with Mazlum Kobane

The general said Washington had interceded when Erdoğan threatened to attack late last year, but that it had been he and the SDF who had requested the diplomatic contact.

James Jeffrey, the U.S. Special Envoy for Syria Engagement, had been happy to step in, Kobane said. But Ankara’s reasoning had not been convincing, and amounted to the simple fact that it viewed the existence of the Kurdish-dominated autonomous administration next door as a threat.

Turkey’s demands in the ongoing negotiations mediated by Jeffrey include the creation of a 30-km “safe zone” south of the Turkish border to be overseen by Turkish forces. These demands have been roundly rejected by the Kurdish side.

Instead, Kobane says, the proposals laid out by Rojava on the issue are that the safe zone will be 5 km, rather than 30 km, that the YPG forces will withdraw and be replaced by a locally-recruited force, and that the areas will be governed by local administrations. Finally, the YPG has agreed to withdraw all long-range weaponry to a safe distance from Turkey.

In exchange, Turkey must undertake not to launch an attack, Kobane said. As for the proposed forces to patrol the safe zone, the general said these should be neutral, and therefore should not include Turkish troops.

“Unless there’s a development in Afrin, then we said Turkish troops could take part in the international force. Let the people of Afrin return, give them back their belongings, and clear out the new settlers from the area. Get rid of the gangs (of jihadists in Afrin) and the Turks can stay, we said… The ball is now in Turkey’s court”, Kobane said.

It would be wise for Ankara to come to terms, according to the general, who said that all of Turkey’s moves in Syria have led it to a weaker position and strengthened Rojava.

Those moves from the beginning of the conflict had aimed to win the Turkish state control of the field in Syria, but the strategy had failed, he said.

Even the capture of Afrin last year has not been a success for Turkey, according to Kobane.

“If they’d been able to continue to take the other towns we held, then it would have been a success, but the current situation is one that will put pressure on them from a military standpoint”, Kobane said.

“When we want to, we can launch a big operation and take it (Afrin) back. We haven’t made the decision. Our issue with Turkey isn’t Afrin, it’s the 600 kilometres of border”, he said.

Nevertheless, Kobane agrees with PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan’s views around solving the disputes with both Turkey and Syria, and emphasises the need for peaceful dialogue with Turkey.

As for talks with Damascus, the general rejected the claims that the U.S. administration had prevented negotiations, but says the Americans’ warnings that talks would be fruitless had an element of truth to them: they are still not close to a resolution with the Syrian regime.

In any case, “the initiative is 100 percent on our side when it comes to talks with Damascus”, Kobane said.

This means the Kurdish groups will press on with their demands to continue the autonomous administration of the regions under their control and for the protections of the SDF, Kobane said.

“The regime has to see the truth now, that’s the stage we’re at. Without this region, there is no Syrian state – without us. The Syrian economy would be nothing”, he said.

Regime soldiers have pressing for a rapprochement with the autonomous regions, Kobane said. “As long as the international coalition is here, that won’t be possible. When the U.S. withdrawal came on the agenda (after Trump’s announcement last December), the regime came to our areas and gave Turkey the message not to invade”.

The Syrian regime since then has become bogged down in its campaign to capture the last rebel-controlled province of Idlib. Kobane says the lack of support from Iranian fighters has left the Idlib operation foundering.

Without that support, Assad’s regime has tried to enlist the aid of the SDF in Idlib, Kobane said. “But we’ve got no business in Idlib. Our only goal is Afrin”, he said.

The Afrin operation, which was carried out with the assent of Moscow after Russian observers withdrew in January 2018, has stalled relations with Russia, the general said. “But Russia is a great power, and it will play a role in the resolution of the conflict”.

Referring to speculation that the United States hopes to use its Kurdish allies to place regional pressure on Iran, Kobane said it was not something his side was prepared to engage in without provocation.

“There’s an effect of the tension with Iran, but we’ll do whatever our interests require. We won’t operate for the interests of others … We’ve said, we have our own areas, and we won’t attack those who don’t attack us”, he said.

At this point, Kobane and the Kurdish forces are looking ahead to opportunities that could arise from formal cooperation with international institutions – a situation that came as a surprise to the general when he was called to Geneva last month to sign an action plan with the United Nations to end the use of child soldiers.

“It was a surprise to everyone. It’s the first time I’ve worn a suit in my life. A political process has begun; this was the first time our administration was involved in this kind of political meeting, it’s a beginning”, he said.

Kobane said he believed the agreement would lead to further cooperation on other matters in the future.

Moreover, he said, the fact that PKK commander Cemil Bayık’s op-ed was published in the Washington Post on the same day as the agreement was down to more than chance.

“This is the beginning of formal relations. We’re going to open schools together”, he said.

© Ahval

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