Jan 29 2019

Syrian Kurds prefer Assad to Erdoğan, says official

Syrian Kurds are working out a deal with President Bashar Assad’s government to protect their territory from attack by Turkey in the wake of the looming U.S. withdrawal, Bloomberg reported.

“It isn’t comfortable for us but what is the other option?” said Ilham Ahmed, senior official with the political arm of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish militia fighting Islamic State (ISIS) alongside U.S. troops in Syria.

If forced to choose between an attack by Turkish forces or a deal with Assad, “we would go with the regime”, she told Bloomberg in an interview last weekend on a visit to Washington, DC.

The SDF and its allied People’s Protection Units (YPG/PYD) have been the most important force in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, taking heavy casualties and gaining control of one-third of the country, said Bloomberg. But their prospects of holding onto it have taken a blow since U.S. President Donald Trump announced last month that U.S. forces would soon leave.

Ahmed’s visit comes four years after the co-chairs of Congress’ Kurdish American Caucus urged then-Secretary of State John Kerry to grant the travel visa request of Salih Muslim Mohammed, PYD co-chairman, in order “to discuss directly what we can do together to defeat ISIL and advance the cause of a secular, democratic Syria.”

That was months before the end of the peace process between Ankara and the PKK, which has fought an insurgency in Turkey since 1984 and is labelled a terrorist group by Turkey and the United States.

“The Turkish government has itself been negotiating directly with the imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan,” House Members Chris Van Hollen and Marsha Blackburn wrote in January 2015. “It has also engaged on a number of occasions in conversations with Salih Muslim in Ankara, including at the level of the Under Secretary of the Turkish Foreign Ministry. The PYD has made it clear that they seek good relations with the Government of Turkey.”

Four years later, Turkey has decimated the PKK in Turkey’s southeast and vowed to destroy the YPG/PYD, which it sees as the Syrian branch of the PKK. Ankara hopes to move into parts of northeast Syria after U.S. forces depart, and the two NATO allies have discussed setting up a “safe zone” to protect Turkey’s borders.

During her visit to Washington, Ahmed met with Van Hollen, now a U.S. Senator. She said that a safe zone would be a “swamp of terrorism”, and that Kurds would fight back if Turkey sent in troops. “We can protect the safe zone ourselves,” she told Bloomberg. “We would defend ourselves.”

What she’s heard from the Americans suggests that they “aren’t going to put a deadline for the withdrawal yet,” according to Bloomberg. But if the Kurds are left out of any Syrian settlement, there could be “another wave of violence,” said Ahmed.

The Americans, she said, should be trying to help achieve a political solution between Turkey and the Kurds. In a Jan. 13 tweet, Trump threatened to “devastate Turkey economically” if Turkish forces attack the Kurdish fighters who helped destroy ISIS.