Syrian Kurdish commander sees chance to ease tensions with Turkey under Biden

In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor, Mazlum Kobane said the former vice president's victory may well spell change in Ankara’s behavior.

al-monitor Mazlum Kobane, commander-in-chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), speaks with AFP during an interview in the countryside outside the northwestern Syrian city of Hasakah, in the province of the same name, on Jan. 24, 2019. Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images.

Nov 9, 2020

The victory of former Vice President Joe Biden in the US presidential election has raised expectations of renewed and constructive US engagement across the world. Such expectations are acutely felt by the Kurds of northeast Syria. Washington's top allies in the war against the Islamic State (IS) have suffered an undue share of tumult as a result of President Donald Trump’s erratic policies. His decision to green light Turkey’s October 2019 invasion, which resulted in the loss of a huge chunk of Kurdish-controlled territory and the withdrawal of US troops from the Turkish border, was a huge shock. But in the year that has elapsed since the Turkish assault, the Syrian Kurds — under the stewardship of Mazlum Kobane, the commander-in-chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — have been striving to turn adversity into opportunity.

The universal outcry over Trump’s perceived betrayal of the Kurds led the US president to backtrack and keep several hundred US troops in northeast Syria. Trump said they would remain to protect several oil fields, which hold the bulk of Syria’s reserves.

With US military protection intact, Kobane has embarked upon a series of political and economic initiatives aimed at cementing the Kurds’ hard-won gains. The most critical is the ongoing unity talks between the Democratic Unity Party, which shares power in the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration in Northeast Syria, and a group of opposition parties gathered under the umbrella of the Kurdish National Council (KNC), which has close ties to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq as well as with Turkey.

The need for intra-Kurdish unity has gained fresh urgency in the wake of the Turkish invasion that displaced tens of thousands of people, adding a new layer of misery to that inflicted by IS. Kobane succeeded in persuading the United States to become co-facilitators of the talks whose strategic objective is to help normalize relations with Turkey. This, in turn, would help Kobane achieve his overarching goal of ensuring that US troops stay put and US diplomatic engagement is sustained until Syria gets a government that respects the will of all of its citizens, including that of its long-repressed Kurds.

In an hour-long interview conducted via Signal just hours after Biden’s victory was announced on Nov. 7, Kobane told Al-Monitor that the former vice president's election may well spell change in Ankara’s behavior. Squeezed by a mounting economic crisis and potential US sanctions over the acquisition of Russian S-400 missiles, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could prove more amenable to peace with Syria’s Kurds. His wilting poll numbers are another compelling reason to attempt a reset with the Kurds. Whether that will be enough to salvage his 18-year-old administration is a question mark. In any case, Kobane said he is willing to talk peace with Turkey without any pre-conditions and might even consider mediating between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), provided that Ankara acts in good faith. In another first, Kobane also announced his willingness to become a full-time politician provided that the unity talks and other initiatives result in success. Here are the highlights of the interview that was conducted in Turkish and lightly edited for clarity:

Al-Monitor: Joe Biden has been declared the winner of the US presidential elections. Can you share your thoughts about the new US administration? What would you ask of Joe Biden if he were sitting across from you?

Kobane: We are optimistic about the new administration. In fact, they are not so new for us. When we started the fight against the Islamic State together with the United States and the Global Coalition, the same team was pretty much in place. They are in command of the situation here. They grasp its complexities. I believe they will pursue a more realistic policy in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan). As for our expectations, we must successfully conclude the fight against terror that we are conducting together. We continue to view DAESH (IS) as a threat. They have camps in regime-controlled areas. They have camps across the border, in the desert in Iraq. They have no financial problems. They are able to find money. They have no trouble recruiting fighters or with training them. They are able to deploy them everywhere. They have a network of sympathizers.

Therefore, the United States needs to send more troops here.

Al-Monitor: What kind of numbers are we talking about?

Kobane: At least double the existing number. [Following Turkey’s October 2019 invasion], coalition forces pulled out of from certain areas including Raqqa, Kobani and Manbij. But we are continuing our campaign against DAESH in all of those areas. As things currently stand, we can keep DAESH under control, but we cannot finish it off.

Our other expectation from the Biden administration is to maintain coalition troops here until a political solution is reached for Rojava and for the whole of Syria, naturally. Our military ties with the United States are very good, but we consider our political relations to be insufficient. Despite all our efforts, they have not attained the desired level.

Al-Monitor: Since March, the United States has together with the SDF been co-facilitating unity talks between the KNC and the PYD. Negotiations began in earnest in June when you announced that you shared a common vision with regard to what the outcome of the talks should be. The US Embassy in Syria referred to this in a statement that was also published in Kurmanji (the most widely spoken Kurdish dialect). That’s quite some progress, no?

Kobane: Yes. We the Syrian Democratic Forces are together with the United States formally facilitating these talks. And we have established a sound foundation for their successful conclusion. We have forged a common will, and this reflects the will of our people. A lot of effort has been invested. We have made good headway. But more work needs to be done. The negotiations are progressing slowly.

Al-Monitor: Sources tell us the talks keep getting hung up over the issue of the PKK. More precisely, the KNC is demanding that any final agreement must contain a paragraph saying that the PYD is committed to severing its ties with the PKK or for the PKK to be expelled from Rojava, or something along those lines. And you have refused. Is that correct?

Kobane: Everyone here agrees that Rojava must be administered by the Syrian Kurds and that Syria’s territorial integrity needs to be preserved. Its commonly agreed that any administration in Rojava needs to be formed by Syrian Kurds alone, that all decisions made by that administration need to be made by Syrian Kurds alone and that all such decisions need to be made transparently. It is agreed that the Syrian Kurdish identity needs to be nurtured and fortified. On this, we are in agreement. Therefore, if the KNC is truly sincere about this territory being self-administered without any external interference, there is no problem.

Al-Monitor: So what is the problem then?

Kobane: At the moment there are some problems between the Kurds. There are tensions between the PKK and the KDP (the Kurdistan Democratic Party). We do not want to be a party to those tensions. We as the Syrian Kurds, as the Syrian Democratic Forces, as the Autonomous Administration in Rojava — we refuse to take sides. We refuse to make statements either in support of or against the KDP. The same applies to the PKK. That is our fundamental principle. Similarly, we are opposed to any form of external intervention in Rojava. We all agree on this, and when we expressed this view, the [former] US Special Representative for Syria Engagement, Jim Jeffrey, was in the room.

Al-Monitor: But the KNC has been insisting on referencing the PKK in a final agreement. And you are refusing. Right?

Kobane: Yes, that’s right. And it’s not just the PKK. We refuse to name any group in this context. We as the Syrian Democratic Forces sought the help of everyone in our fight against terror, against DAESH. From the KDP, from everybody. Prior to this interview, I held talks with the KNC delegation that arrived from Erbil. I explained this to them once again. I believe that this obstacle will be overcome. Our talks are continuing. If we persevere we will succeed. If good things are desired for Rojava by all sides, then the problem will be solved.

Al-Monitor: What about the Russians? What is their position on the talks?

Kobane: This process developed independently of the Russians. However, nothing negative about the talks was communicated to us by the Russians through their official channels. Though they are not part of the process, they want to be kept informed about it. They are constantly briefed about them by us. In August, Ilham Ahmed, the president of the [SDF-affiliated] Syrian Democratic Council, met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow as you know. Then the KNC sent a delegation to Moscow. The number of Russian forces has expanded in our area in the wake of Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring, and when problems arise on the ground, we always manage to solve them. There’s no difficulty on that front either.

Al-Monitor: But the Russians want you to strike a deal with the regime?

Kobane: It’s true that they are pushing us to make peace with the regime. But we expect them to put more pressure on the regime. In any case, overall the regime is not ready for a solution. This applies to the whole of Syria. It lacks confidence. It’s not ready for a democratic solution. It’s been unable in particular to shake the Baath mentality when it comes to the Kurds. However, we remain in constant contact with the regime because we live side by side and we face common security problems.

Al-Monitor: The regime and Iran are seeking to sow discord between you and the Arab tribes.

Kobane: The regime and Iran work in concert in the territory under our control. They are trying to provoke the Arab tribes against us. We made our displeasure known to them. We can say we have stopped their mischief for now. We have good relations with the tribes everywhere, and we wish to make them even better. As you may know, we freed some 600 IS militants who are members of local tribes who were established as not having blood on their hands. We also freed some families. But of course we took maximum security measures. We investigated every detail of their past. We are constantly exchanging information with the coalition forces on these issues. We plan to free more such people over time.

Al-Monitor: One of the main purposes of the unity talks is to improve relations between the Rojava administration and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). If tensions between the PKK and the KDP continue, isn’t this likely to cause harm to the talks?

Kobane: Of course it will cause harm. It will cause a lot of harm. At the end of the day, you have Kurds on both sides. Kurdish forces. A conflict like this will cause harm to Rojava as a whole as it will to the ongoing dialogue between the Syrian Kurds. That is why we are doing our very best to help reduce these tensions. We are in contact with all the different parties. We are talking to officials from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. We are also in touch with Kurdistan Region President Nechirvan Barzani. This fight is of a kind that will cause harm not only to Rojava but to all Kurds.

Al-Monitor: What caused this quarrel?

Kobane: There is only one cause: Turkey. Turkish pressure. There is nothing to be gained by either the KDP or the PKK in this fight. Both sides continually say they are against Kurdish infighting. I am well-acquainted with both sides. Listen, they haven’t had any real fight to speak of in the past 21 years. There are no serious differences between them. Therefore, I have difficulty in understanding the current situation. This situation is the result of the intervention of outside forces. It’s the result of Turkey’s military operations against the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Al-Monitor: While talks with the KNC are aimed at bolstering relations with the KRG, their overarching strategic logic is to help normalize relations between Rojava and Turkey. This is how the United States views this process.

Kobane: Should these talks succeed, and if all the different Kurdish parties work together, I agree that it will definitely have a positive impact on our ties with Turkey. This would rob Turkey of its excuses for its continued hostility toward us. It would benefit both sides economically. And it’s true that it would make it easier for the Americans to stay here.

Al-Monitor: As of Jan. 21, there will no longer be a leader in the White House Turkey can influence with a single phone call. Would you concur that Biden’s victory presents opportunities for a reset with Turkey?

Kobane: [Under the Trump administration], Erdogan found a vacuum and went to extremes in exploiting that vacuum. He imposed his will [on the United States]. Should Erdogan face resistance to his aggressive policies, he will be forced to climb down. This would not only benefit us but the region as a whole.

I believe that Turkey’s options are shrinking. Conditions no longer favor a continuation of its aggressive stance. While we cannot say that chances of Turkey mounting a new military attack against Rojava are zero, we can say that they have been significantly reduced. At the very minimum, we believe that conditions for the existing [US- and Russian-brokered] cease-fires to hold and for a new dialogue to start are indeed ripe.

Al-Monitor: You posted a very kind message on Twitter to the Turkish people in the wake of the Izmir earthquake. Ankara will have noticed. Are you ready to sit down with Turkey without any preconditions?

Kobane: It depends on their intentions. Our intentions are open and clear. We want peace. We want stability. If Turkey doesn’t espouse a cynical approach, if it is ready to take steps with a real solution in mind, and if that solution is to the benefit of the people of Rojava, and if all outstanding issues are put on the table, why not? There is the matter of the territories occupied by Turkey. There is Afrin. There is Serekaniye (Ras al-Ain). There is Tell Abyad. And there are the hundreds of thousands of our people who were displaced as a result of Turkey’s actions.

On the question of Turkey’s national security concerns and interests, we are very clear. We are ready to accommodate them. But as you know, last year, prior to Turkey’s October assault, we were holding indirect talks with Turkey through the United States. We took many steps. We pulled our forces back from the border, and in return, Turkey occupied our lands.

Al-Monitor: Turkey’s Justice and Development Party government is under mounting pressure. It has big problems, starting with the economy. The decisive role of the Kurdish-friendly Peoples’ Democratic Party in any election is by now well established. There are claims that Turkey’s intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, met with PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan (at his island prison) in September. Erdogan may knock on the Kurds’ door yet again. This time around he may be more flexible as you say. However, he is likely to tell you to end the PKK presence in Rojava as a precondition to improving ties. The PKK will set conditions of its own. Can you act as a mediator between Turkey and the PKK? Could you, for instance, help negotiate an end to the low-intensity war being waged by PKK-linked groups in the territories occupied by Turkey as a confidence-building measure?

Kobane: First of all, it’s important to note that the PKK made big sacrifices in the war against terror in Rojava. Nobody can dispute this. The PKK will always defend the interests of the people of Rojava. It will not create problems for them. On the contrary, it will always look to ease their path. That is what we believe.

However, before talking about mediating between the PKK and Turkey, we first need to solve the problems between ourselves and Turkey. If we can really achieve a dialogue with Turkey that will have a positive effect on Rojava, and if Turkey changes its current policies, this will have a positive effect on Turkey’s problems with the PKK. In such circumstances, we will do our very best to contribute to a solution to the problems between Turkey and the PKK. Why not?

Al-Monitor: Abdullah Ocalan has a long past in Syria and Rojava. He remains the PKK’s sole and undisputed leader. Do you believe he can help with this process?

Kobane: As you know, during his last meeting with his lawyers (May 2019), Ocalan said he could play a constructive role in helping to mend ties between Turkey and Rojava. I believe that he must play a part in any new process that could potentially evolve. He can be very influential.

Al-Monitor: Would it help for you to meet with Ocalan?

Kobane: I would like to meet with Mr. Ocalan if he were free.

Al-Monitor: But he isn’t. Would you want to meet if the Turkish state allowed it?

Kobane: It is too early to answer that question.

Al-Monitor: There’s the chronic problem of Turkey cutting off the water supply to Hasakah from the Alok power station in Serekaniye. What’s the latest?

Kobane: However much this problem occurs within Turkey’s full knowledge, it's first and foremost a problem caused by the Turkish-backed Sunni opposition armed group there. They keep cutting off the water. They place Turkey in an awkward position. The Russians are mediating to solve the problem but they have failed so far. So we are working on a lasting solution that involves carrying water from the Euphrates River to Hasakah.

Al-Monitor: You recently signed an oil deal with an American oil company. Any new developments on that front?

Kobane: Oil is an economic issue. It’s not political. Talks between US oil company Delta Crescent and the KRG [for marketing the oil] are continuing. I believe they are advancing slowly because of the terms, because of prices. But I believe these will be overcome.

Al-Monitor: It’s been nine years since you returned to Rojava. Have you changed in those nine years? Has your world view changed?

Kobane: Over these nine years we waged a successful war against a very ferocious enemy. We acted in concert with international forces. We gained experience. At the same time, we gained experience in managing a civilian administration. Our skills in the diplomatic arena are also growing. As such, we feel that the responsibility that we carry for our people is growing as well. Without question, our world view, our vision has expanded. The same applies to the new generation in Rojava. They are more open to the world. They are well-versed in new technology. They are able to keep track of things. Like youth elsewhere in the world, they want freedom and a prosperous and stable life. Should Turkey enter a constructive dialogue with us, I am sure that their views on Turkey will be positively impacted as well.

Al-Monitor: You have become far more occupied by politics than military matters of late. Might we see you one day as a full-time Syrian politician?

Kobane: As you know, politics and military affairs are intertwined here. And I am running both at the moment. If we achieve progress in our political work, I will devote most of my time to politics.