NORTHEAST SYRIA — Turkey has resumed its threats of yet another large military operation against the Syrian Democratic Forces, the United States’ top ally in the fight against the Islamic State.
Unlike in October 2019 when Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan got the go-ahead from then-President Donald Trump to invade a large chunk of the Syrian Kurdish region, Turkey is facing resistance from the international community.
However, as his poll numbers drop, Erdogan is growing increasingly reckless and could yet strike. Whether he does or not, thousands of Syrian Kurds live in constant fear of a Turkish attack that will cause further bloodshed and misery as they struggle with the impact of the worst drought in decades and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many continue to flee the region illegally in search of a better life. Dire economic conditions and instability offer succor to the Islamic State as it seeks to regain a foothold.
Mazlum Kobane, the commander in chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces, is seeking to steer what remains the most stable and freest part of the country through these turbulent times under the protection of the United States.
The Biden administration has pledged to keep its forces in Syria through its current term. But the recent debacle in Afghanistan has sown doubts, and there is growing recognition that the Syrian Kurds need to cut a deal with Damascus and only Russia can help them get one. But can Russia, which allowed Turkey to invade the majority Kurdish enclave of Afrin in 2018, be trusted to act in good faith?
Al-Monitor sat down with Kobane, also known as Mazlum Abdi, at a military base in northeast Syria to talk about the challenges he and his people face. The 53-year-old looked fit and relaxed in dark blue combat fatigues worn by local counterterrorism forces. He chose his words carefully. Kobane clearly does not want to provoke Turkey, Russia or the Syrian government.
Al-Monitor: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is making fresh threats to launch another military operation against the Syrian Democratic Forces in northeast Syria, and daily there is speculation in the media as to where and when yet another Turkish invasion might occur. Do you believe that Erdogan will follow on his threats? He’s certainly always done so in the past.
Mazlum Kobane: Erdogan has always sought the support of international actors before embarking on a military intervention here. He’s made threats and continues to make threats. He insists he will intervene and will continue to insist. In doing so he is looking to prepare the ground for an operation. However, the existing situation in northeast Syria is different now. The balances have shifted. In the past instances, there were no binding agreements between Turkey and the international powers. Neither prior to the [October 2019] attack on Serekaniye [Ras al-Ain] or the [January 2018] attack against Afrin. But now there are two agreements in place: the agreement between Erdogan and Vladimir Putin that was signed in Sochi, and the agreement that was signed between the United States and Turkey in Ankara [in the wake of Turkey’s October 2019 Operation Peace Spring against the Syrian Democratic Forces]. In my view, unless Turkey gets the approval of either Russia or the United States, Erdogan cannot take such a step. And as far as I am aware there is no such approval.
Al-Monitor: Have Russia and the United States provided you with such guarantees?
Mazlum Kobane: Yes. The United States has given us such assurances. They were relayed to us officially. The United States said they were opposed to, and would not accept, any attack by Turkey against us. The US officials we spoke to also recalled the existing congressional sanctions against Turkey [over its acquisition of Russian S-400 missiles]. They informed us that during the last meeting between Erdogan and President Joe Biden [on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Rome] that Erdogan was told that the United States would not accept any attack against us.
The Russians also told us that they had not made any deals with Turkey. They did say though that Turkish-backed [Syrian National Army] forces might attack us rather than the Turkish military per se. They actually gave us a date. They were supposed to attack us today [Nov. 5] but nothing happened.
Al-Monitor: Where were they supposed to attack?
Mazlum Kobane: In the Tell Rifaat, Serekaniye [Ras al-Ain] and Girespi [Tell Abyad] areas. Like I said, a Turkish attack does not seem likely in the current circumstances. Besides, the Russians told us that they had told the Turks that they would not accept an attack against us. However, they are unable to determine what Turkish-backed forces might do. They said they would not accept an attack by them either. But it remains to be seen what will happen in practice, on the ground.
Al-Monitor: Are you saying they are not standing as firmly against Turkey as the Americans are?
Mazlum Kobane: No not at all. This is a very critical point and requires proper clarification. The Russians said there was no question of them allowing Turkey to attack but that Turkish-supported rebel groups might attack us without Turkey’s authorization. But we believe that the Turkish-supported rebels would never initiate any attack unless Turkey were directly involved.
Al-Monitor: You said the balances in the northeast have shifted. This is also true in Turkey where Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party, the AKP, are rapidly losing ground. Do you not believe that Erdogan might carry out an operation against you regardless of the factors you outlined so as to distract attention from economic woes and perhaps even as an excuse to delay elections that are due in 2023?
Al-Monitor: In the meantime, something rather significant occurred in Turkey. The main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, the CHP, launched a dialogue with the Kurds and, as witnessed during the 2019 municipal elections, forged a de facto alliance with them. Last month, the CHP sent a level delegation to Iraqi Kurdistan—a first. And more recently it voted against the government’s motion in the parliament to authorize the deployment of Turkish forces in Syria and Iraq for a further two years. That’s another first.
Mazlum Kobane: It’s true that they opposed this bill for the first time. The consensus around Erdogan is fading. The alliance between the AKP and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party is also weakening. These factors combined with the resistance displayed by international powers against a Turkish operation will have emboldened the CHP. At the same time, the CHP is investing in the coming elections.
Al-Monitor: You mean it’s trying to woo the Kurds?
Mazlum Kobane: Yes, but in any event it’s a positive signal and an important step. And if the CHP is acting in this way this suggests that Turkey’s internal balances are shifting. And this gives us hope.
Al-Monitor: Would you like to invite a CHP delegation to Rojava?
Mazlum Kobane: Why not? It would be a positive thing.
Al-Monitor: Economic conditions in Rojava are getting harder by the day. On the one hand, there are the embargos imposed by Turkey and sanctions imposed by the United States on the Assad regime. On the other hand, there is the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most severe droughts in decades and Turkey’s continued suppression of water along with its threats of an attack. Can these factors give the Islamic State a new lease of life?
Mazlum Kobane: DAESH [the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State] is active all across Syria. And these unfavorable economic conditions are impacting our struggle against DAESH. Its ability to regain ground is increasingly linked to economic conditions in Syria. There are way too many unemployed people. There is widespread poverty. All such factors diminish the authority of our administration. DAESH takes advantage of this. Therefore, the international coalition forces and all powers fighting against terrorism must take immediate steps to address the economic situation here. Bolstering the economy has become one of the pillars of combatting terrorism. We as the Syrian Democratic Forces say this openly. If we are to fight DAESH effectively we need to prioritize the economy.
Al-Monitor: Oil is a critical source of revenue for this region. The Biden administration, however, did not extend the Trump era waiver for the US oil company Delta Crescent to develop and market your oil.
Mazlum Kobane: Our demands are not limited to oil. Our demand is that the whole of North and East Syria be exempted from the United States’ Caesar sanctions. A formal decision is required in this regard. Anyone who wants do to business here, to contribute to the economy here, should be allowed to do so.
Al-Monitor: And how has the Biden administration responded?
Mazlum Kobane: They have been positive so far.
Al-Monitor: Then why is nothing happening?
Mazlum Kobane: We are waiting for them to fulfill their promises …
Al-Monitor: Why not?
Mazlum Kobane: Damascus is not ready for this. However much they claim that there will be no return to the pre-2011 era their mentality remains unchanged. They need to be pressured. Plus, there’s an issue of trust, particularly for Damascus.
Al-Monitor: Are they telling you to sever your ties with the United States?
Mazlum Kobane: Not exactly. They are telling us, “We do not want a state within a state. We do not want an army within an army.” We have no such demands. Our project is autonomy and we are implementing it at this time. However, they want guarantees from us with regard to the aforementioned concerns. Severing our ties with the Americans is not their precondition. Their precondition is Syria’s indivisible unity. Preserving its flag, its borders, its president. Their sovereignty. We are ready to offer guarantees on all these points. But they should be prepared to negotiate with us for our autonomy.
Al-Monitor: Would that include the Arab majority areas as well?
Mazlum Kobane: The Arabs have their demands too. There is a problem in their areas too. We did not seize those areas from the regime. Those areas rose up against the regime, then al-Qaeda and DAESH took over. We wrested those areas from DAESH. Damascus needs to enter negotiations with those areas as well.
Al-Monitor: Are the Russians sincere in their mediations efforts? Or do they simply want you to capitulate so they can get the lion’s share of the oil pie from the regime as some claim?
Mazlum Kobane: We have good relations with Russia. For the past two years, we have cooperated on the ground within the framework of the [Sochi] agreement. This problem cannot be solved without Russia. I believe Russia could be more proactive and apply more pressure on the regime.
Al-Monitor: Why aren’t they?
Al-Monitor: Where does Iran figure in this picture? Iran is after all an important player in Syria and, like Turkey, resists any political concessions for the Kurds. Don’t they need to be a part of the solution as well?
Mazlum Kobane: Russia is here at the formal invitation of the government in Damascus. In my view, Russia’s role is the determining role. And I believe that Russia will come round to our way of seeing things. They have no other choice.
Al-Monitor: But Russia also has a relationship with Turkey. It needs to keep Turkey on an even keel particularly in Idlib. And as you well know there’s a lot of talk of Turkey making concessions to Russia on Idlib in exchange for Russian concessions concerning you.
Mazlum Kobane: I don’t believe that’s possible any longer. That’s the difference today. Russia does not want more of Syria’s territory to be occupied by Turkey. In fact, that is what the Russians told us they had told Turkey.
Al-Monitor: There are other recent developments that can affect your future. Various Arab governments, notably Egypt and the Arab Emirates, are seeking to bring back Syria within the Arab League and to restore the legitimacy of the Assad regime. It looks like Assad’s not going away. Would you agree?
Mazlum Kobane: Yes, I agree.
Al-Monitor: Doesn’t that concern you?
Al-Monitor: Does the United States have a strategy for Syria or for this region? We know it is working on one but nothing has been announced so far.
Al-Monitor: Where can an agreement be reached? In Geneva, Astana?
Mazlum Kobane: These platforms are losing their credibility. Everyone has lost faith in these processes. I don’t believe we’ll get anywhere through them either. However, if America and Russia and indeed the Arab countries commit themselves to brokering an agreement between our administration and the regime, and if an agreement is reached within certain parameters, this could facilitate a solution, serve as a template for the rest of the country. If no progress has been achieved through the existing platforms over the past 10 years, we say, “Come, let’s try a new way.”
Al-Monitor: And what of Idlib?
Mazlum Kobane: I believe that if a solution is brokered for our region, Idlib will be solved as well.
Mazlum Kobane: Should the peoples of Syria, its government and the international stakeholders reach a consensus, Turkey will be forced to withdraw. And should the Erdogan government lose power in Turkey, that will definitely facilitate this. The international powers and the US-led coalition need to interact with our administration here on multiple levels. For now, relations are limited to the military arena.
The activities of this administration, be they social, economic, running the prisons and so on, all of these are part and parcel of combatting terrorism. In other words, the Syrian Democratic Forces are not solely responsible for combatting terrorism. It is therefore imperative that [the international community] works to help empower the autonomous administration, its political wing and the economy. The international community needs to make a political shift in this direction. At the end of the day, the people here are evaluating the overall performance of this administration and not just its military performance. The big wars are over. Our main demand is that these countries recognize our administration.
Al-Monitor: Won’t that escalate tensions between you and the regime?
Mazlum Kobane: The regime is not accepting any of our demands anyway. They reject the presence of the coalition forces here. Therefore, it’s really not a problem for us. The bottom line is that the stronger we are politically and militarily, the stronger our hand will be when negotiating with the regime. We are focused on a solution. So we see no contradiction [between our demand for recognition and our desire for an agreement with the regime].
Al-Monitor: Actually, the United States did dip its toes into the political sphere when it mentored talks between the Democratic Unity Party and the Kurdish National Council linked opposition parties. But the talks are frozen. Why?
Mazlum Kobane: Let us say the talks have been paused. We are waiting for [US deputy envoy for Syria] David [Brownstein] to return. When the American representative returns, the talks will resume. We had some technical issues. Travel was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Then problems emerged in southern [Iraqi] Kurdistan between the KDP [Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq] and the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party]. Clashes erupted between them. This affected Rojava. But I believe that Turkey is opposed to these talks and it makes its opposition to them clear. Some other forces want to attach conditions to our talks with the Kurdistan National Council.
Al-Monitor: Are you referring to the KDP?
Al-Monitor: What are the KDP’s conditions?
Mazlum Kobane: To be honest, I don’t really understand what they are. Kurdistan’s national unity is a strategic matter for us. We shall do our utmost to this end and will insist on achieving this unity no matter the obstacles and despite Turkish resistance.
Al-Monitor: Can you hold elections here without sealing an agreement with the Kurdistan National Congress? We know you are planning to hold municipal elections in the near future.
Mazlum Kobane: We shall invite the Kurdistan National Congress to conclude an agreement with us. And if we manage to do this that would obviously be a good thing. But we cannot wait forever. We need to hold elections in this region, including in the Arab majority areas. Our goal is to hold elections in the first quarter of 2022. We can no longer put them off. We liberated these areas from DAESH. There were security problems there for a long while, particularly in Deir ez-Zor. So the conditions for an election did not exist. But we can no longer continue with this structure. The local people need to choose their own leaders, their own administration. This is of utmost importance to us. When we liberated these areas, we the Syrian Democratic Forces made a promise. We said, “We will let you run your own affairs.” Holding elections is important for the autonomous administration’s legitimacy as well.
Al-Monitor: There are a lot of complaints about corruption in this area these days. We know this is a matter of personal concern for you.
Mazlum Kobane: It is true that corruption has become an issue and that the people are unhappy about it. We are continuing with our investigations into corruption claims. We prepared various reports with the help of our security forces. We have made some progress.
Al-Monitor: Has anyone been arrested?
Mazlum Kobane: Tens of people including people within the administration. People who stole public property.
Al-Monitor: This administration continues to be inspired by the ideology of Abdullah Ocalan. Right?
Al-Monitor: One of the main tenets of Ocalan’s ideology is preserving the environment. Yet this area is overflowing with litter and waste. Were Ocalan to see this he would undoubtedly be very angry. Couldn’t you be doing more to address this problem?
Mazlum Kobane: This is a serious shortcoming. This is true. That is why we set aside funds to address this problem in our 2022 municipal budget. In the old days people used to show greater care; they would clean the area around their homes and collect their rubbish. There was such a culture. But the war took a lot from us. Everyone was focused on the war and the environment was no longer a priority. We have local communes, neighborhood organizations. They will work together with the municipalities to solve this problem.
Al-Monitor: To be fair you are also faced with a huge COVID-19 problem. Health officials I spoke to here complain that the United Nations is not doing enough to help and they don’t seem to care.
Mazlum Kobane: There is an injustice. There is an allocation of vaccines for this region. The vaccines are meant to come via Damascus and the Yaroubiyah crossing in Iraq. But Damascus did not send us the vaccines. Only a few. And Damascus refused to let the vaccines be delivered via Yaroubiyah even though the UN had struck an agreement for this. The international community did not apply enough pressure on Damascus. We do know that the Americans tried. However, the only aid corridor [outside the regime’s control] is via Bab al-Hawa between Turkey and Idlib.
Al-Monitor: Did you get COVID-19?
Mazlum Kobane: No.
Al-Monitor: I met with the prince of the Yazidis, Dasin Farouk Beg, in Erbil. He told me, “If you see General Mazlum, please tell him to rescue our girls from al-Hol camp.”
Mazlum Kobane: Till this day, we have done what we can to help. We have been very sensitive to the Yazidis’ plight from the very start. We rescued more families, children, women and girls than any others. But DAESH continues to strike fear in their hearts and this prevents them from coming forward and identifying themselves in the camps. It is also because they have borne children by DAESH and they don’t want to leave their children behind. Yazidi society does not accept those children. It’s a social and religious problem. However, I do not believe that there are that many Yazidis here now. Our female security personnel continue with their investigations at the camps. We have a Yazidi House that deals exclusively with their affairs. I hereby invite the prince via al-Monitor. If he comes to the camp this will have a positive impact.
Al-Monitor: There has recently been a lot of speculation about your status in several news organizations and on social media. It is claimed that you have been relieved of your duties. Who am I interviewing now? Am I interviewing the commander in chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces?
Mazlum Kobane: Do you have the slightest doubt? We pay no attention to such speculations and don’t deem them to be worthy of a response. In a few days, the Syrian Democratic Forces’ military council will be convening. The requisite messages will be delivered then.
Al-Monitor: So you remain the commander in chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces? Correct?
Mazlum Kobane: Yes.