SDF commander's claims of Turkish allegiance raise eyebrows

Talal Silo, the former spokesman of the Syrian Democratic Forces, claims to have defected to Turkey and continues to offer contradictory accusations that the US-backed group was established as a cover for US support for Kurdish terror groups.

al-monitor Former Syrian Democratic Forces spokesman Talal Silo speaks during a press conference, Raqqa, Syria, June 6, 2017. Photo by REUTERS/Rodi Said.
Amberin Zaman

Amberin Zaman


Topics covered

syrian kurds, pkk, ypg, coalition, fsa, turkish influence in syria, syrian civil war, sdf

Dec 4, 2017

A Syrian commander in the US-led coalition against the Islamic State who allegedly defected to Turkey has accused the United States of arming "terror" groups" fighting Turkey.

In the third segment of a serialized interview with Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency, Talal Silo, the former spokesman of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), kept up allegations, many of them contradictory, that the US-backed group was established as cover for the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

“The SDF’s foundation was only theater. The United States gave the leadership to the Kurds and the PKK,” Silo claimed, adding that many of the weapons provided by the United States wound up in the hands of the PKK and the United States did not keep track of them. “The weapons go to the SDF and from there to the YPG. They reach the PKK from the YPG.”

The PKK has been fighting for an independent Kurdish state and self-rule inside Turkey since 1984 and is listed as a terror group by Turkey, the European Union and the United States alike. Silo insisted that the PKK was the real boss of the YPG and SDF.

The US support for the SDF continues to poison relations between Washington and NATO ally Turkey.

Silo, an ethnic Turkmen from the town of al-Rai, which falls inside the Turkish-controlled Euphrates Shield zone in northern Syria, took particular aim at Brett McGurk, the US presidential envoy to the global anti-IS coalition. Silo claimed that McGurk had among other things deliberately misled Turkey about the YPG’s role in Manbij, an Arab-dominated town on the Turkish border that was wrested from IS in August 2016.

The move sparked fury in Turkey because Manbij lies to the west of the Euphrates River and Ankara had declared YPG expansion beyond the river a red line. Silo charged that in Manbij, as in Raqqa, McGurk had wanted to convince Turkey that Arabs, not Kurds, were in the driver's seat when in fact it was the other way around. McGurk has long been a bete noir in Ankara over his perceived championing of the YPG. A pro-government columnist called on Turkish authorities today to issue a warrant for the star diplomat's arrest. "Those weapons McGurk gave the PKK were used against our children," wrote Ardan Zenturk for the Star.

Silo also echoed claims that the YPG and the United States had struck several deals with IS allowing fighters and their families safe passage out of Raqqa, Manbij and Tabqa and that some had found their way to the Euphrates Shield zone.

The US-led coalition has not formally responded to any of Silo’s allegations. A coalition spokesperson told Al-Monitor via email, “We are not going to comment on something Silo allegedly said, using a news agency as a secondary source.” But the spokesperson appeared to dispute Silo’s claims that the SDF was a uniquely Kurdish enterprise. “The fight is still ongoing against [IS], an enemy responsible for the death, torture, mutilation and/or rape of tens of thousands of people over the past three years. Syrian Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens, Assyrians and people of other backgrounds in the ethnically diverse Syrian Democratic Forces have liberated millions of Syrians once under [IS’] control.”

The spokesperson made little effort to disguise the coalition’s skepticism about Silo’s alleged defection. “As for Mr Silo’s ‘defection’ to Turkey, the Coalition did not know about Mr. Silo’s departure prior to his leaving the SDF. We have no further details concerning the circumstances surrounding his departure or his current status at this time.”

A Western source with intimate knowledge of the coalition’s operations in Syria was far blunter. Silo had not defected to Turkey but rather had been pressured into doing so through a combination of blackmail and financial incentives. “Basically he was denied access to his family. This is a common tactic from Turkey. They refuse and threaten Syrians who want to return to SDF-controlled areas,” the source told Al-Monitor.

Members of Silo’s family are thought to be inside Turkey, where they sought refuge when the civil conflict in Syria erupted six years ago.

A SDF commander told Al-Monitor that Turkish intelligence had been bullying Silo to defect for some time. “He resigned as spokesman around five months ago under Turkish pressure but did not leave, and resumed his duties as spokesman a month later,” the commander said. But the pressure resumed ahead of the final push to liberate Raqqa. “There were threats against his family.” Moreover, rebels with the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army allegedly threatened to seize land and other property owned by Silo in al-Rai.

A former officer in the Syrian army, Silo founded a small militia known as the Seljukian Army to join Turkey-backed rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. By his own admission, in August 2016, Silo decided to hook up with an Arab force allied with the YPG called Jaish al-Thuwar and traveled to Afrin, the YPG-controlled enclave. In October, the SDF was created and Silo became its spokesman. “It made sense to pick a Turkmen because it sent a strong message that the SDF wasn’t all Kurdish,” the SDF commander explained. “But he was a spokesman, that’s all. His departure has not made any difference to us.”

Silo has yet to divulge what prompted him to become part of the outfit that he is now so enthusiastically trashing. But a regional intelligence official claimed that Silo had been “a Turkish asset all along.” The official, speaking on condition of strict anonymity, told Al-Monitor, “According to our information, Silo was working with [Turkey’s national spy agency] MIT from the very start and they decided to pull him out.” The SDF commander said there was no evidence that Silo worked for Turkey, so when he got in his armored jeep in mid-November and headed toward Turkish-controlled Jarablus, nobody gave it a second thought. “He had tea with our [YPG] guys and then crossed over through Manbij unhindered.” The Western source said that Silo had also likely been promised “a significant financial inducement” by Turkey.

Of all Silo’s assertions, one is indisputably true: that the United States knew of the YPG’s close ties with the PKK from the very start. And the SDF’s creation was to disguise the YPG’s pre-eminent role. But over time, as the campaign moved into Arab-dominated territories, the number of Arabs in its ranks began to swell.

Silo’s contention that there are “no Arabs” in the SDF is at odds with his other claims that 80% of the SDF forces who died in Raqqa were Arabs and that Arabs within the SDF were given “only light weapons” by the coalition.

At the same time, Silo claimed that an unnamed American “intelligence chief” had traveled to northern Syria and pressed the YPG to create a Kurdish-controlled corridor all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. Yet Silo also revealed that the Americans had made no promises to support the YPG in Afrin. “I even asked McGurk at our first meeting,” Silo told Anadolu. “He said as the US government they will not support Afrin.” Connecting the broad swath of territory it controls east of the Euphrates River to Afrin, which falls to the west of the river, has long been the YPG’s strategic goal. The dream of a “Kurdish corridor” running from Iraq to the Mediterranean would necessarily have to encompass Afrin, which is why Turkey keeps threatening to invade the enclave.

The SDF commander insisted that Turkey was using Silo to distract public attention from the ongoing New York trial of the Iranian-Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab.

The 34-year-old is a star witness for the prosecution against a senior executive for the Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank, which is allegedly at the center of an oil-for-gold scheme that violated US sanctions against Iran. Since last Wednesday, Zarrab has been cataloguing the massive bribes he says he paid to senior Turkish officials to keep the scam running.

Getting Silo to “expose” US mischief in Syria helps drum up further anti-American sentiment inside Turkey and feeds the narrative that the Zarrab case is yet another American fabrication designed to weaken Turkey. But the former spokesman’s pronouncements are almost certainly also linked to Ankara’s efforts to pressure the United States to sever its ties with the YPG. The Western source observed, “The interview is so contrived that it’s obvious he’s speaking as a hostage, with that interview part of the broader deal.” The source concluded, “The only surprise is it took them nearly a month to put the interview together. A person who willingly defects would want to tell the story sooner. In fact, there is no story.”

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