Turkey has renewed threats to launch another ground offensive in northeast Syria.
Speaking to reporters on Jan. 14, Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin said a new operation against the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was possible “any time.” Turkey has mounted three major attacks against the Kurdish-led force since 2016 on the grounds that it is closely linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants that are at war with Turkey. Turkey wants to establish a “security belt” 30 kilometers (18 miles) deep along its 900-kilometer (560-mile) border with Syria.
In November, Ankara appeared to be on the cusp of making good on its vows as Turkish fighter jets and drones rained bombs on military targets and civilian infrastructure in the Kurdish-majority region called “Rojava” or Western Kurdistan. Most ominously, Turkish drones hit a joint US-SDF security facility for the first time as Turkey railed against Washington’s partnership with “terrorists.” The SDF said it was pausing operations conducted together with the US-led coalition against the Islamic State, prompting sterner warnings from US officials to Ankara not to undertake any actions that would further destabilize the region.
However, it was Russia’s opposition that prevented Turkey from unleashing its forces. Russia controls the skies over much of the areas Turkey has set it sights on including Kobani, Manbij and Tell Rifaat. Without Moscow's blessing, Turkey cannot provide air support for its troops.
But as Turkey accedes to the Kremlin’s demands for rapprochement with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, there is growing worry among the Kurds that it could yet allow Turkey to attack. The issue will certainly come up when Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington on Jan. 18. Mazlum Kobane, also known as Mazlum Abdi, is the commander in chief of the SDF and the United States’ most trusted ally on the ground in Syria. Kobane has repeatedly called for peace with Turkey, but to no avail.
In a Jan. 15 interview with Al-Monitor, Kobane said he took Turkey’s threats seriously and urged Ankara to opt for peace, not war with his people. Kobane downplayed the fact that he and numerous figures in leadership positions had been active inside the PKK, saying he was Syrian and concerned with Syria’s future. Turkey should not punish Syria’s Kurds over its own failure to bring long-shelved peace talks with the PKK to a successful conclusion, Kobane added.
A transcript of the interview, lightly edited for clarity, follows.
Al-Monitor: Turkey has resumed its threats against you, saying it could attack at any time. Do you take these threats seriously, because we heard similar rhetoric in November then nothing happened?
Kobane: We take Turkey’s threats seriously. We expect an attack in February. The town of Kobani is a likely target because of its symbolic meaning for Kurds world over. Turkey is heading for elections, and we are aware that President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan wants to rally nationalist support and he appears to believe that attacking Rojava again can serve this purpose.
Al-Monitor: But it’s not just about the elections, is it? Turkey’s security establishment has always advocated a military solution to the perceived Kurdish threat and they see the autonomous administration in Rojava and the SDF as part of that threat to its security, saying you are the same as the PKK.
Kobane: Allow me to clarify several critical points: Turkey used these very same excuses to launch attacks against us in the past. Firstly, we do not pose any kind of threat against Turkey, its people, its borders or its national security. I have repeatedly stated, including in my previous interviews with you, that we the Syrian Kurds, the SDF, the Autonomous Administration want peaceful relations with Turkey. We have never attacked Turkey from within our borders since the outbreak of civil conflict in Syria and have only ever acted in legitimate self-defense when attacked by Turkey and always solely within the borders of Syria. We have no hostile intentions towards Turkey, either now or in the future.
Al-Monitor: In fact in the early days there was actual cooperation between Turkey and the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, the YPG, when Turkish forces relocated the remains of the Ottomans’ forefather Suleyman Shah closer to the Turkish border. YPG fighters wounded fighting the Islamic State were treated in Turkish state hospitals and your colleagues Salih Muslim and Ilham Ahmed met with Turkish officials in Ankara. What changed?
Kobane: Yes, we had meetings, conversations with Turkey in the military and diplomatic arenas. But when Turkey — when its government — decided to end the peace process with Abdullah Ocalan, with the PKK and the Democratic People's Party, the HDP, and to resume the conflict against the PKK in 2015 it also grew hostile against us and began to launch ground attacks starting in Jarablus, then Afrin and in Serekaniye and Tell Abyad in 2019. So, allow me to continue to explain, Ms. Zaman. We are not the PKK. We have no organic links to the PKK. We reject these accusations.
Al-Monitor: But many of you were active in the PKK at one time. And senior PKK figures have been present in Rojava.
Kobane: It’s been almost 12 years since the start of the Syrian uprising. We have been trying to build a democratic pluralistic system of governance here in northeast Syria, sharing power with Arabs, Christians, different ethnic and confessional groups with the aim of establishing a model for the rest of our country, for Syria. I am a Syrian Kurd. My future is here in this country. The PKK did help in the fight against [IS] for sure. But today, the PKK has no role in our administration. We are not, as Turkey claims, a branch of the PKK. We are not. We are separate. Yes, Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader, is a symbol for us in Rojava and for Kurds elsewhere. But we have no designs on or plans for the other parts of Kurdistan — be it in Turkey, Iraq or Iran. We are concerned with Syria and the future of all the peoples of Syria. We do not wish to be embroiled in, or become scapegoats for, Turkey’s failure to resolve its own Kurdish problem. We have suffered enough already and do not accept being constantly attacked in this way. As you know, Turkey has been attacking civilian infrastructure, power stations, oil facilities and caused considerable damage. This is a new level of escalation aimed at destroying our self-administration. Turkey must stop punishing our people and other Kurds living beyond its borders for its failure to solve its own Kurdish problem through peaceful democratic means.
Al-Monitor: Has the United States been involved in any mediation efforts on your behalf with Turkey?
Kobane: The United States administration showed itself to be clearly against any military operation by Turkey in Syria. But that said, Turkey is, as you see, persisting in its threats against us. This, in turn, demonstrates that America’s efforts are falling short. Therefore, they need to do more.
Al-Monitor: Are you confident that the United States will keep its pledge to remain in northeast Syria, at least for the duration of the Biden administration?
Kobane: Yes, let’s say that we would like to be confident. But let me clear, and all parties should take note: We want peace. But should we be attacked we will fight with all our might. We are determined to resist til the end. This won’t be like the other times, like Afrin, like Serekaniye. And this means our operations against the Islamic State will be put on hold.
Al-Monitor: Has there been any kind of positive response from Ankara to Washington’s efforts to defuse the situation?
Kobane: You would have to ask the concerned authorities.
Al-Monitor: Turkey blamed you for the Istanbul bombing in November and is now claiming that your forces killed a Turkish soldier inside Syria.
Kobane: We heard the same news from the media. We know that some clashes took place in the western side of al-Bab area — that area where our forces are not present — as a result of an attack that started from the Turkish base there, and in response that soldier was killed.
Al-Monitor: In recent times we have begun to hear Ankara not just calling for the United States to end its partnership with you, but for US forces to leave Syria altogether. That is quite a shift.
Kobane: It is certainly true that in parallel with its moves to reconcile with the Assad regime, Turkey has been saying the United States needs to withdraw its forces from Syria. Turkey, with Russian mediation, is in the process of trying to revive an alliance against us and to reactivate and to expand the Adana accords.
Al-Monitor: Do you take these efforts seriously or is it just another electoral gambit by Erdogan? Or are they being driven by Turkey’s security establishment?
Kobane: I would say both, and I would add this: The Kurdish problem cannot be resolved through military methods. History has proven this. The Kurdish issue — be it in Syria, Turkey or elsewhere — can only be solved through peaceful and sincere dialogue. And when Turkey was holding peace talks with the PKK, it certainly had a positive impact on us here in Rojava and now that the peace talks are shelved we are experiencing the reverse.
Al-Monitor: We all know that the Russians played a big part in putting the brakes on another Turkish invasion. Yet they are using the threat of one to pressure you into ditching your partnership with America and cutting a deal with the regime. At the same time they are telling Turkey that unless it makes peace with Assad, you will first.
Kobane: Russia is trying to solve existing problems in Syria by bringing Turkey and the Syrian regime around the same table. However, I do not believe such attempts can succeed. The Syrian regime will never compromise on its own demands. Chief among them is that Turkey withdraw all its troops from Syrian soil and that Turkey withdraw its support to the armed Sunni opposition groups. By the same token, I do not believe that the Syrian regime would yield to Turkey’s demands to crush the autonomous administration in the northeast. It neither has the means to do this, nor are circumstances favorable to any such plans.