A top American ally in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) has confirmed that he was targeted for assassination Friday within the vicinity of the international airport in Sulaimaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan, when a drone exploded nearby, setting off a small fire but causing no damage or casualties. Turkey is widely believed to have carried out the attack, though Turkish Defense Ministry officials have denied any involvement in the affair, according to Agence France-Presse.
Speaking exclusively to Al-Monitor, Mazlum Kobane, commander-in-chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), said “Yes, the attack took place near a convoy that was taking us to the airport.” Ilham Ahmed, head of the Syrian Democratic Council, a top governing body in Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria, was with him when the drone struck the airport perimeter.
Kobane called the drone strike “a flagrant attack on Iraq and its sovereignty.”
US Central Command said late Friday that three US military officials were also in the convoy. The Pentagon said the strikes “directly threatened the safety of US personnel,” working to defeat IS, but did not indicate who was responsible. Kobane was traveling to the airport to board a plane belonging to the US military to carry him back to northeast Syria.
Kobane said he was in Sulaimaniyah on routine US-led coalition business “within the framework of a joint program to fight [IS]."
The White House and the State Department had not yet commented on the incident as of time of publication of this article. However, the Biden administration will likely come under strong pressure from Congress, where anti-Turkish sentiments run high over Ankara’s hostility to the Syrian Kurds and its cozy ties with Russia, to react strongly once Easter celebrations end.
This attack threatened the lives of U.S. military personnel, Syrian Democratic Forces, and General Mazloum Abdi, a critical U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State. This is unacceptable.— Sen. Chris Van Hollen (@ChrisVanHollen) April 8, 2023
There must be a full investigation and those responsible must be held accountable. https://t.co/2WoKzAxrB3
Asked whether Turkey was responsible for the drone strike, Kobane referred to the Iraqi presidency’s statement today calling on Ankara to apologize. Turkey had no legal justification to continue “intimidating civilians under the pretext that forces hostile to it are present on Iraqi soil.” The presidency was likely referring to Turkey’s continued attacks on Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants based in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The PKK has been waging an armed insurgency against the Turkish army for Kurdish autonomy since 1984 and is designated as a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union. Ankara insists that Kobane and other Syrian Kurdish officials running northeast Syria are no different to the PKK, because many previously served within the rebels’ ranks; it has long urged the United States to scotch its partnership with the group. Turkey has justified three separate large-scale assaults against the SDF since 2016, which resulted in the loss of the majority Kurdish enclave of Afrin and large swathes of territory further east along the Turkish border, on these grounds.
Kobane noted that this was not the first time that Turkey had sought to kill him. “There were previous attempts by the Turkish state, the latest of which was the attack that targeted the headquarters of the counterterrorism forces affiliated with our forces in Hasakah,” Kobane noted. He was referring to a Turkish drone strike in November on a base used jointly by the SDF and US-led coalition forces where Kobane holds meetings with foreign officials and members of the international media.
Kobane continued, “Turkey plans to destabilize the region, encroach on its security and create chaos permanently.” He speculated that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was deliberately sowing conflict to help clinch victory by mobilizing his nationalist base in the run-up to watershed elections that are due to be held May 14. “He can do anything to reach power again,” Kobane noted, adding that Turkey was “constantly seizing any opportunity to strike at our partnership with the international coalition led by America.” Kobane said Turkey’s actions failed to dent his resolve to pursue the SDF’s battle against jihadis together with the United States.
Kobane has repeatedly denied Ankara’s claims that his group poses any threat to Turkey. The SDF has rarely if ever opened fire on Turkish forces across the border or inside Syria and only when attacked themselves. The SDF denies any organizational ties with the PKK, though the militants’ imprisoned leader — Abdullah Ocalan — is widely revered by backers of the self-styled Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria. Either way, the SDF is keenly aware that any hostile move against Turkey — a NATO ally — would imperil its partnership with the United States.
In a tweet that he posted earlier today, Kobane said, “We strongly condemn the targeting of Sulaimaniyah airport by Turkey.” The tweet was in response to a statement by Bafel Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the second-largest party in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq that controls the Sulaimaniyah region. Talabani said, “Criminal acts and trespassing on the border of the Kurdistan Region and Iraq, guided by a local security intelligence agency, are not uncommon and we have a long history with them.” Talabani was probably alluding to the rival Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the senior partner in the coalition running the Kurdistan Region that has close links to Turkey.
ندين بشدة استهداف مطار السليمانية من قبل تركيا، هذه الانتهاكات مستمرة في العراق وسوريا ولها أبعاد خطيرة ضد المنطقة.— Mazloum Abdî مظلوم عبدي (@MazloumAbdi) April 8, 2023
موقف الاتحاد الوطني القومي المساند لأشقائه في سوريا يزعج تركيا.
سنستمر في علاقاتنا المبدئية مع أشقائنا وحلفائنا في السليمانية وإننا في صف واحد ضد هذه الانتهاكات. https://t.co/C5bf5kbHHT
Relations between the KDP and Washington have soured recently over the latter's growing criticism of the Kurdistan Regional Government's poor human rights record. However, it is highly improbable that the KDP would jeopardize its relations with the United States, whose support to peshmerga forces remains critical, and endanger the lives of US military personnel by sharing such intelligence with Turkey, knowing full well it would likely act on it.
Turkey’s increasing brazenness is based on Ankara’s calculation that it can get away with it. The war in Ukraine has raised Turkey’s strategic stock and the need to keep Ankara out of the Kremlin’s orbit apparently outweighs Washington’s concerns over the safety of its SDF allies.
Today, the PUK directly pointed the finger of blame at the KDP in an incendiary statement that said, “An intelligence and espionage plot executed in advance led to the attack on [Sulaimaniyah International Airport], equivalent to sending an occupying force into the Kurdistan Region. Hence, we strongly condemn this attack. We expected the relevant authorities to act, investigate and shun this crime rather than blindly justifying it, but, as in the past, a self-imposed minority within the KDP, who have special and secret connections, have become guides for using the government's institutions in service of other countries' intelligence agencies to undermine the security of the Kurdistan Region and [Sulaimaniyah] province.”
The statement will almost certainly escalate existing tensions with the KDP, which erupted last summer over the KDP’s claims that the PUK had sanctioned the murders in Erbil, the KDP-run capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, of two intelligence officials who had defected from the PUK’s elite Counter Terrorism Group (CTG). Several well-placed regional sources with ties to the intelligence community who spoke anonymously to Al-Monitor speculated that CTG officials disgruntled with Talabani’s heavy-handed style had tipped off Ankara as to Kobane’s presence.
Talabani, who has publicized his friendship with the highly popular SDF leader, is in hot water with Ankara over his alleged support not only for the SDF but the PKK as well.
Turkey last week imposed a three-month flight ban on Sulaimaniyah airport because of what the Turkish Foreign Ministry alleged was its “infiltration” by the PKK. Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin last week charged in an interview with the state-run Anadolu news agency that the PKK had “a very serious establishment in Sulaimaniyah.” Turkey would not turn a blind eye to this, he said.
In an apparent effort to shield Talabani, the SDF initially denied that Kobane was in Sulaimaniyah, calling it fake news. Today, SDF spokesperson Farhad Shami said the denial was a deliberate move to ensure that Kobane made it back safely to northeast Syria. “As part of our emergency security response related to the safety of our forces’ command, we deliberately restricted the release of information about the Turkish attack on Sulaimaniyah airport, where our commander-in-chief [Mazlum Kobane] was present,” Shami tweeted.