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Turkish intervention could trigger Syria's 'second great war'

Mazlum Kobane, the commander in chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces, talks to Al-Monitor in an exclusive interview about how the Kurds in northeastern Syria have maintained a complicated network of alliances and why the prospect of Turkish intervention in the region could trigger another war.
Mazloum Kobani, SDF commander in chief is pictured during an interview with Reuters in Ain Issa, Syria, December 13, 2018. REUTERS/Rodi Said - RC14AB5F1520

AL-OMAR OIL FIELD, Syria — After a bloody and protracted five-year war, the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the US-led coalition are on the verge of declaring victory against the Islamic State after the fall of its last crumbs of territory in Baghuz. With Islamic State cells continuing to operate to deadly effect in Syria and neighboring Iraq, it's too early to say "mission accomplished," cautioned Mazlum Kobane, the commander in chief of the SDF, in an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor March 10 at a heavily guarded complex near al-Omar oil field in eastern Syria. The charismatic 50-year-old Syrian Kurd, whom coalition officials address as “general,” is seen as one of the chief architects of the battle against the jihadis.

US diplomats and officers of all ranks who have worked with him for the past four and a half years are full of praise for Kobane, whose nom de guerre was Sahin Cilo when he was a militant in the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK, which has been fighting Turkey for Kurdish independence, and now autonomy, since 1984, is on the US State Department's list of terrorist organizations. Turkey likes to remind Washington of this irony, and it's the reason why Kobane is unlikely to be rewarded for his prowess on US soil anytime soon. His real name is Ferhat Abdi Sahin and he is on Turkey's list of most wanted terrorists. 

Kobane is from the Syrian border town of Kobani, where imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan fled to from Turkey in 1979. Ocalan was Kobane's early mentor, and a photo posted online of the pair, bathing together in the Euphrates River, is viewed as proof of their closeness.

Erect and unflappable, Kobane surrounds himself with fellow natives of Kobani. It's not surprising. He survived several assassination attempts, including, Syrian Kurdish officials claim, a Turkish airstrike on Mount Karachok that allegedly targeted him. While Kobane denies being part of the PKK, there is little doubt he is an adherent of the broader Ocalan-inspired Kurdish political network. Yet his four years at the helm of the SDF, in alliance with Arab tribes and rubbing shoulders with the Americans, places him in a unique position — one that does not sit easy with his movement’s culture of punishing prominence so that Ocalan, alone, shines.

Washington is not making Kobane’s life any easier by demanding he appease Turkey with no long-term commitment in return. At the same time, the United States has warned the SDF against its best alternate plan, that is, negotiating with the Bashar al-Assad regime.

Striking an uncharacteristically defiant tone at times, Kobane touched upon all of these issues in an hourlong interview in Turkish. The following is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity. 

Al-Monitor:  During our first interview in September 2017, you made a very interesting observation. You said that after the United States intervened here, your relations with Turkey went downhill.

Kobane:  Yes, that’s true.

Al-Monitor:  Your relations with Turkey have deteriorated even further since then. The Turkish army has occupied Afrin.

Kobane:  True.

Al-Monitor:  At the same time, you made a second very interesting observation. You said that "America told us that ‘at the end of the day, you are a part of Syria and you need to strike a deal with the regime.'" That was former US presidential envoy Brett McGurk’s policy, correct?

Kobane:  That is true, too.

Al-Monitor:  But as of now, the Trump administration is advocating the exact opposite. It is telling you not to deal with the regime.

Kobane:  Indeed, that is their current policy. That’s what American diplomats tell us. They do not view talks with the regime as a priority and want us to not rush. But we are ultimately part of Syria. We do not wish to separate from Syria. If there is to be a lasting solution for this region it needs to be with Damascus. Negotiations with the regime are inevitable. And these need to happen.

Al-Monitor:  And it looks like the regime is here to stay?

Kobane:  The United States is not interested in regime change. They say change needs to come through the electoral process. We, too, want governments in Syria to be democratically elected. We will respect whichever government is democratically elected to lead Syria because we are a part of Syria. This may seem far-fetched for now, but sooner or later it will come to pass.

Al-Monitor:  When the United States tells you not to hurry talks with the regime, what justification do they present for this?

Kobane:  To be fair, some of their concerns are justified. We need to evaluate the situation from a broader perspective. They are opposed to any changes that would affect the military balance in the areas that are currently under our authority together with the US-led coalition. Because if any such changes were to happen [the deployment of regime troops into the said areas] this will affect them adversely. And we share their view. We are telling Russians and Damascus that before any military changes in this area, there needs to be a political settlement first. We are telling them that once we have a political deal in place then some changes can be effected on the ground. But there cannot be any changes in the field until such time.

Al-Monitor:  The Trump administration’s other concern is Iran’s influence. They say they will maintain a military presence in Syria until all Iranian forces withdraw. Do you find this policy realistic? Are you prepared to help the United States in this regard?

Kobane:  We have a unique position. We control various territories. We are part of Syria. We desire a solution. We are opposed to any foreign intervention. And that includes Iran. We have always been opposed to Iran’s intervention in our territories. They made several attempts to intervene even before the Americans came and we prevented them. If they try to intervene again we will prevent them from doing so yet again. 

Al-Monitor:  The United States keeps flip-flopping, saying it will remain indefinitely in Syria only for President Trump to say he is withdrawing all US forces and then back again to saying US forces will remain, albeit in smaller numbers, 400 troops, they say. Don’t you find this confusing? Does it not erode your faith in the Americans?

Kobane:  We ultimately rely on our own strength. Before the United States came to Syria we were fending for ourselves. We were fighting. And in the long term that is how things will be. Us fending for ourselves. But of course, the United States' decision to fully withdraw was premature and of a kind that would have upended balances in Syria. But it seems as if they are staying now.

Al-Monitor:  Do you really believe they will?

Kobane:  Let’s say we would like to believe so. In the end, the United States will act in line with its own interests. But an ill-planned withdrawal would harm its interests. So, it seems that they are staying at the present. 

Al-Monitor:  There’s also a lot of talk of establishing a safe zone. The United States was hoping its European allies would commit forces to a safe zone. But they have displayed little interest in this.

Kobane:  That is true.

Before the United States came to Syria we were fending for ourselves. We were fighting. And in the long term that is how things will be. Us fending for ourselves.

Al-Monitor:  At the same time, there is the Turkey factor. We hear that the State Department and especially the new Syria envoy, Jim Jeffrey, and his team are piling a lot of pressure on you to take steps that would appease Turkey, particularly concerning Manbij. Yet, while making multiple demands of you on behalf of Turkey, what are the Americans promising you in return? How are they supposed to guarantee your security with 400 troops? What is more, they refuse to establish political ties with the Syrian Kurdish-led administration. Isn’t this a worry?

Kobane:  The 400 figure is certainly insufficient for the coalition to fulfill its mission here. We told them so. I believe the Pentagon shares our view on this. They need to increase the numbers. As for Turkey, it is not in our interest to go to war with Turkey. We do not wish to fight Turkey. That has been our position from the outset. Turkey has been the aggressive party and remains so. They attacked us in Afrin. They continually harass us. We ask that Turkey end its aggressive stance. 

If the United States’ current efforts in its dialogue with Turkey help secure this outcome, and prevent Turkish attacks and convince Turkey to end these attacks, then that would obviously be good for us. We support such efforts. 

Al-Monitor:  Are you saying that Turkey no longer attacking you is a satisfactory outcome in and of itself? How sustainable is your current status, with the United States refusing to engage with you politically and shrinking its military presence? Do you believe that the United States will remain in Syria indefinitely solely to protect the Kurds? After all, however much it values relations with the SDF, it also places a high premium on its relations with its NATO ally Turkey, despite all the tensions between them.

Kobane:  I agree. And if all these efforts, this process, fails to deliver a positive outcome, a diplomatic deal, this would obviously not be satisfactory from our point of view. It will amount to a quick fix, stopgap approach. That’s for the Turkey part. Then there’s the matter of reaching a political settlement with the regime. The international community is trying to find a solution. The United Nations-led Geneva peace talks, the Sochi talks and the Astana process. But until the present, due to Turkey’s veto, we are being excluded from all these talks. This is wrong and the United States bears responsibility toward us in this respect. If the United States really wanted to, it could bring pressure to bear and get us included in the talks. Turkey and [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan have their own style of balancing relations. In truth they are imitating us by maintaining relations with the Americans on the one hand while dealing with the Russians on the other.

Al-Monitor:  What is happening with the Manbij road map? Do you believe Turkey will ease pressure on this issue after the March 31 municipal elections?

Kobane:  Manbij is a very complex issue. Before its liberation from the Islamic State, there was an agreement between all the sides, between the coalition, Ankara, the Manbij Military Council and the SDF. We came together and made a deal. We did not create facts on the ground in Manbij. 

As the SDF, we believe we have fulfilled all of our pledges. We had some advisers there still. We pulled them out as well. During the past two weeks there were ongoing negotiations between the United States and Turkey regarding the composition of the Manbij Military Council. Turkey was presented with a list of 171 vetted names from the Manbij Military Council and the Manbij Legislative Council. The last I heard, Turkey had rejected 10 names from that list on the grounds that they did not meet their criteria. So they, too, were removed from the list. 

Al-Monitor:  What are the criteria?

Kobane:  There was nothing wrong with those names in our view. Turkey is constantly coming up with new demands, new excuses. Their criteria are that council members must be born in Manbij. We accepted this demand. There is nothing left for us to do.

Al-Monitor:  In any case, it seems Turkey would like to move its forces and its Free Syria Army allies into Manbij and only then will it feel secure.

Kobane:  Not only Manbij, it’s no cakewalk coming into the lands east of the Euphrates. Any such intervention would unleash a big war. In fact, it would unleash the second great war in Syria. That is what we say and believe. And we have prepared for one. It’s not easy. This isn’t Afrin. It’s a large area and there are many forces. And the intersection of international interests is different here. In Afrin, Turkey did a deal with the Russians. The Americans sat on their hands. Everyone is interested in this region. There are Russians in part of Manbij, in Arima. If Turkey intervenes, everyone will intervene. The situation will get extremely complicated. Turkey failed to get the green light from anybody to intervene here so far and will fail to do so in the future. But as I told you earlier, we are not in favor of any war with Turkey. After eight years of war in Syria, we want peace.

Any such [Turkish] intervention would unleash a big war. In fact, it would unleash the second great war in Syria. That is what we say and believe. And we have prepared for one.

Al-Monitor:  From an outsider’s perspective it seems almost impossible for you to juggle all these competing forces and interests. You are physically with the Americans. You cooperate, coordinate with them on a daily basis. You have made it clear that you want the Americans to stay on. For some, you have come to be identified with the Americans. At the same time you have distinguished yourself, won individual prominence with your success against the Islamic State. It is said that this has a created some level of discomfort within certain circles. Indeed, there is talk of your being assigned to a new post once Baghuz falls and victory against the Islamic State is declared. Would you care to comment on any of this? Can we say that your primary loyalty is to, and your primary identification is with the Abdullah Ocalan-led Kurdish political movement?

Kobane:  What matters to us is as follows. Rojava [Syrian Kurdistan] is a part of Kurdistan. But our work here as part of the SDF forces is being carried out in an area that exceeds the boundaries of Rojava. We have Arab allies. A third of Syrian territory is under our control. This area has its own distinct identity with Arabs, Kurds and Circassians, etc. As the SDF, half of our forces are Arab, the other half are Kurdish. The administration is the same [half Arab, half Kurdish].

Abdullah Ocalan is the leader of the Kurdish freedom movement and he lived for 20 years in Rojava. The Kurds here and even the Arabs came to know him then. They worked together. He has contributed to this area. In other words, he is a well-known figure here. And there is tremendous attachment to him on the part of the people. Especially from the Kurds, but you can be sure from certain Arabs as well. This attachment to Ocalan continues till this day.

Al-Monitor:  Does yours?

Kobane:  Yes, everybody’s does. All of the Kurds’ does. There is no problem here. But what we find malicious is Turkey’s claim that everything here is being run by the PKK. This is not true. If Turkey continues to attack this area it is because of its inability to deal with the Kurdish movement in Turkey, because of its failure to address the Kurdish reality. It's 100% because of this. Turkish hostility has nothing to do, as it claims, with our alleged links to another group. Turkey does not wish to solve the Kurdish problem. It wants to eliminate the Kurds. It says so openly. The biggest part of the Kurdish movement is inside Turkey. But Turkey is not just opposed to the Kurdish movement within Turkey and here. It opposed the 2017 referendum on Kurdish independence in Iraqi Kurdistan.

As for your other claims [a possible reassignment and unease with his alleged pro-American stance] they are baseless. Perhaps someone is spreading such rumors on purpose. I don’t know.

Al-Monitor:  What if Ocalan’s isolation by Turkish authorities were to end and he was allowed to resume communication with the outside world and told you to end your alliance with the Americans because the cost had begun to outstrip the benefits? Would you obey him?

Kobane:  I don’t believe he would ever say that. It would be wrong to speculate on something he would never say.

Al-Monitor:  In the published minutes of the meeting between Ocalan and Kurdish lawmakers from the Peoples’ Democratic Party at his island prison, when the peace process between the state and the PKK was still ongoing, it is mentioned that you personally met with Turkish officials here in Syria. Is that true?

Kobane:  Yes, when the peace process was still ongoing in 2013, 2014 and in 2015, we had meetings.

Al-Monitor:  With whom?

Kobane:  With members of [Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization] MIT. We mainly focused on border security issues. 

Al-Monitor:  Do you mean protecting your common borders against the Islamic State?

Kobane:  No. Turkey’s relations with the Islamic State were always good. In fact, during one of our meetings, the Turkish officials told us that [the Islamic State] had complained to them that Turkey had not done enough to undermine and block the YPG [People's Protection Units] during their siege of Kobani. You can write this. 

Al-Monitor:  Did you discuss the operation to move Suleiman Shah’s tomb to Esme at all?

Kobane:  No, the Turkish officers met with our comrades in Kobani. Not with me. They coordinated. We provided their convoy with escorts. Turkish forces came and relocated Suleiman Shah’s remains.

Al-Monitor:  Getting back to the Americans, it really sounds like you want them to stay.

Kobane:  Yes, sustaining our relationship with the Americans is to our benefit and that of the people.

But naturally we continue to criticize the United States for failing to establish political relations with us. And it's not doing enough to pressure Turkey on this point. If it wanted to, the United States could include the territory east of the Euphrates as part of any political settlement [with the regime] in the course of the Geneva talks. But also, let's not forget, the battle on the ground against the Islamic State is continuing. The battle will be won, but the war against the Islamic State will continue. In that respect, it’s to our advantage that coalition forces remain here. 

Al-Monitor:  What exactly are you demanding of the Americans?

Kobane:  We have four concrete demands.

One is that the coalition’s support in the war against the Islamic State continues until the Islamic State is 100% destroyed and eliminated. And it’s clearly in our interest that coalition forces remain until we reach a settlement with the regime. And again the same applies for Turkey. They need to remain here until we fix our problems with Turkey. And we must take part in the UN-led negotiations for a comprehensive peace settlement in Syria. We don’t solely seek the United States’ support for this, but all of the coalition members’ support.

Al-Monitor:  But a growing number of Arab tribes are urging you to make a deal with the regime, saying you must do so now and to ignore the Americans. They say they themselves are ready to shake hands with Assad. If the Arab tribes you are allied with all cut their separate deals with the regime, and several already have, won’t you be isolated?

Kobane:  We need to make a deal with the regime, for sure. But it needs to be in alliance with the Arabs within the framework of a united Syria. The regime now talks about reconciliation. First of all, we did not go to war with the regime. The regime pulled out of these territories and was unable to defend them. So we defended them. Given that there is no enmity between the regime and ourselves, there is no need for us to reconcile with the regime. What needs to be agreed between the regime and us is the matter of our legitimate demands.

Al-Monitor:  What are your demands? 

Kobane:  We have two principal demands. One is that our autonomous administrations here be preserved and accorded legal status. The second is that the SDF be preserved. The security of the territory east of the Euphrates River should be left to the SDF. These are our red lines. We are willing to engage in all kinds of negotiations with the regime on this basis.

Al-Monitor:  Given that the Americans refuse all contact with the regime, it would appear that you need the Russians as guarantors of any such arrangement.

Kobane:  It goes without saying that Russia has a critical role to play in resolving the Syrian crisis. Without Russia, no lasting solution can be reached. Russia can pressure the Syrian regime to solve the Kurdish problem. And our talks with Russia are continuing on this score. But the Russians played an adverse role in Afrin. Russia opened Syrian airspace over Afrin to the Turkish air force and withdrew its own forces from Afrin. This led to a breach of confidence with the Kurdish people. Russia needs to redress its mistake in Afrin if the wounds are to be healed. 

Al-Monitor:  Are you personally in touch with the regime?

Kobane:  No, I am not, but our comrades are. Our political delegations are meeting. We always were in dialogue with the regime. In fact, actual negotiations started but they are now deadlocked. We are very clear. We presented them with a road map. And if they refuse to accept our demands, even if we are left on our own, even if the coalition withdraws, we will fight. We will fight to the death for our rights.

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