Syrian Kurds ready to accept U.S.-led talks with Turkey, commander says
General Mazlum Abdi, commander-in-chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) spoke to Mutlu Çiviroğlu of Voice of America about recent developments in North and East Syria, often referred to as Rojava.
The transcript below has been translated and amended from MedyaNews for clarity.
I would like to ask your opinion about the new U.S. administration and especially your relations with U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS). I also want to ask about the operation you started against ISIS in Deir-Ez-Zor. And what situation is now in Rojava?
As you know, ISIS has not been defeated and their attacks continue. Recently, they targeted our civilian workers, and two women political leaders were martyred. As the attacks continued, we launched a major operation against ISIS.
The ISIS group consisted of six people and attacked our friends, we killed four of them, one of them managed to disappear and we caught the other one. Many other people were also arrested in the region. In general, I can say that the danger of ISIS continues and the terrorist organisation is trying to revive itself. They are coming from territory under the control of the Syrian regime, and Iraq. But with our operations with our allies from the US-led coalition against ISIS continue successfully.
The widespread opinion was that ISIS was defeated. Former U.S. President Donald Trump frequently made statements about the end of ISIS. What has happened now ISIS can launch attacks again? The U.S.-led coalition made statements that the alliance with you will continue. What role should U.S. politicians take against these attacks?
Coalition forces withdrew after Raqqa and Kobani were liberated from ISIS and the group benefited from this withdrawal and recovered. As I mentioned, they come to our region from territory under the control of the Syrian regime, and Iraq. The political future of the region has not yet been clarified, so ISIS benefits from that as well. In order to prevent the resurrection of ISIS, we need to first clarify the political future of the region. Coalition forces should continue their work. If they support the civilian administration in the region, we can wage a more effective fight against ISIS.
It is known that President Joe Biden and his administration are aware of the Kurdish problem. You said that the situation in Syria should be resolved politically. What are your political expectations from the new U.S. administration? What can this administration do differently from the past as part of the solution process in Syria?
We welcomed the new administration. We hope that the wrong policy in the past will be set right. We hope the United States will play an important role in the solution process in Syria. Following a solution, the Syrian regime should have a status in the regions we liberated from ISIS with the help of the coalition. The rights of the Kurdish people and the rights of other peoples in our region should be protected by law and the problems in Syria should be solved completely. We want Washington to conduct an effective policy on this issue.
You said that some mistakes were made under the previous administration. Trump's desire to withdraw U.S. forces generated strong reactions in Washington and across America. What was the effect of the decision on you and on civilians?
There were some issues we dealt with during the previous administration. The people here, Kurds and Arabs, relied heavily on the U.S. forces, and this trust still exists. But this trust was damaged when the United States allowed Turkish forces to attack Serekaniye and Afrin.
We are trying to restore the trust between the U.S. forces and the people. Hundreds of thousands of people in Afrin had to leave their homes and now live as refugees. There were 90 to 95 percent Kurds in Afrin, but now that rate is around 30 percent. The Turkish state implemented demographic changes through Turkmen and Arabs.
Hundreds of thousands of people from Serakaniye and Gira Spa had to migrate during the attacks in 2019 and now they are staying in refugee camps and their condition is not good. They are waiting to return to their homeland. A new policy conducted in this new period should see people returned to their homes and regions returned to their natural state.
What can the new administration do concretely in a short time? If you had the opportunity to meet Biden, what would you request concretely?
We want the problems in the region to be resolved through dialogue. We ask the United States to assist this dialogue and to ensure peace in the region. We are waging a fight against terrorism here and they can support us against attacks from our neighbours, which is urgently needed. Unfortunately, the previous administration paved the way for threats to the region. This should not be repeated. In order for the struggle against ISIS to be effective, the United States has to provide support to the political administration here.
You talked about attacks from neighbours. Turkey says that Kurds in Syria pose a threat to its security. Are the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Syrian Kurds a threat to Turkey?
We have said this before, we pose no threat to Turkey. Turks know this better than we do. The Turkish state attacked our lands. We are not a party to the war waged by the Turkish state against other Kurdish forces. We want to solve the problems with the Turkish state through dialogue. I think the United States can play an effective role in advancing this dialogue, and we remain open to it.
So you are ready to respond positively to the Biden administration's call for a dialogue with the Turkish state?
Of course. We have lands occupied by the Turkish state. We want to solve the problems with the Turks through dialogue, we are ready for dialogue and there is no serious obstacle to this. We want to solve problems without fighting.
White House National Security Advisor Jack Sullivan previously touched on the rights of the Kurds and called for a new settlement process between the Kurds and the Turkish government. Does the SDF see such a process positively? Would you take part in this process?
The truth is, the situation in all four parts of Kurdistan is interconnected. The Kurdish political movement has had a great impact in Turkey. It is difficult to have a solution in other parts without a solution in Turkey. The solution in Rojava is also related to the solution in Turkey. A solution initiated with (Kurdistan Workers’ Party leader) Abdullah Ocalan will have a positive impact on other parts, especially Rojava. This is the best method to solve the problem between the Kurds and the Turkish state.
Why do you think that such an initiative would be important for the safety of the American people? Why would the United States support a political solution in Syria?
If the problem is solved in our region, it will impact the world. We think that if the problem in northeast Syria is not solved, the problems in the whole country will not be solved. If there is no solution, ISIS and other elements will become stronger and continue to threaten the security of the American people.
I would like to ask about the situation of Yazidi Kurds and Christian minorities in the region. According to reports from Afrin, the situation is severe. What would you like to say about the current situation of Christians and Yazidis?
The representation of Christians and Yazidis in the SDF is high. ISIS and other Islamic radical groups attacked Yazidis and Christians. They were severely persecuted. They joined the SDF to protect themselves. Our people in Shengal were also subjected to persecution due to the attacks in Serakiniye and Afrin. Their villages were plundered and they faced the threat of genocide. Now they are living under pressure in other areas, some of them stay in refugee camps in our region. We know that Yazidi and Christian minorities are on the agenda of democratic organisations. They must protect the struggle of minorities.
You mention that the situation of the Kurds is interconnected. How are your relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (in Iraq)?
We have a close relationship with (Iraqi) Kurdistan, including growing commercial relations. The Kurdistan Regional Government (in Iraq) can provide political and commercial support to Rojava. They have (autonomous) status there and have experience and opportunities. Of course, Rojava needs their support. Some negotiations are happening, we want a stronger relationship. We know that the Turkish state wants Kurds to fight against each other. The Turkish state wants clashes between the forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government and the (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) forces.
Despite this, the fact is that (Iraqi Kurdish) Peshmerga forces do not want to be part of such a game. We want the Kurdistan Regional Government to develop good relations with all parties, especially with Rojava.
How are your relations with the Syrian government? There have been some conflicts recently.
The Baathist regime has not changed its policy yet. They want the region to be same as before 2011 and don’t recognise Kurdish rights or the rights of other minorities. Our people immigrating from Shehba, Afrin, and Aleppo were encircled, placed under embargo, and had civilians arrested. We protected our people and then some problems occurred between us and the regime. We do not want to be at war with the Damascus government. We want to solve our problems through dialogue, for them to accept the rights of Kurds, and recognise our region.
Some criticised you and said you are unable to utilise the friendships of the United States and other great powers. How do you evaluate this criticism?
We get support from our American friends for the SDF and Rojava, and we are grateful for this. The United States has supported us in difficult times. U.S. politicians and soldiers supported our struggle. We are aware of some of our shortcomings. We want to be in close contact with the Unite States more frequently, especially in 2021. We want our political forces to negotiate with U.S. senators and other political forces. There were some bureaucratic obstacles in front of us, and we hope that those obstacles will be cleared.
Last year, the U.S. Congress invited you to visit. If there is an opportunity, do you have any plans to visit Washington?
We were at war at the time and there were some bureaucratic problems. But now is the time to discuss with the Americans. If I have the opportunity to meet with U.S. politicians, and if I can discuss the problems here with them face to face, I would of course be delighted to.
You were in contact with Trump several times. Have you ever had contact with Biden? Or do you expect contact in the coming period?
We talked with the new U.S. administration. I hope we will have a stronger relationship in the coming days and we can start talks at a higher level.
A new book titled"The Daughters of Kobani" was published recently. You also spearheaded the war in Kobani, which was important in letting the world know about Kurds. What would you like to say about these works and Kobani?
Many thanks to the author of the book, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. She also interviewed me when she came here. I told her my views on Kobani. Friends in the People’s Protection Units (YPG), Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), and SDF also helped her. She wrote a very important and valuable book. I think it is worthy of the women who resisted in Kobani. We are honoured with these works and wish them to increase.