Turkey this week launched a drone strike against Mazloum Abdi, the commander-in-chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), while he was travelling in a convoy with US officials near the airport in Sulaymaniyah (Slemani), the second-largest city in Iraqi Kurdistan. The failed assassination attempt provoked widespread anger not only as the air strike came very close to hitting US personnel, in addition to Abdi and leading Syrian Kurdish politician Elham Ahmed, but because the SDF are a key US partner allied with the US-led International Coalition to Defeat ISIS. The attack also put the spotlight on increasingly public links between the SDF and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the leftist party which is the second-largest political force in Iraqi Kurdistan and has its power base in Sulaymaniyah.
Former Coalition spokesman Colonel Myles Caggins III, now a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, spoke to Medya News’ Matt Broomfield to give his perspective on the attack. He warned that the SDF and their associated civilian entities could not expect a strong response from the US to prevent further attacks on their leaders, while also placing the failed assassination attempt in the context of Turkey’s ongoing, deadly attacks on both North and East Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan, causing continued instability and hampering anti-ISIS efforts.
What was the Syrian Kurdish leader Mazloum Abdi doing in Iraqi Kurdistan?
I’ve been watching the situation closely. I have an awareness of the operations between US forces and the SDF. General Mazloum’s presence in Sulaymaniyah should not come as a surprise. This was not his first visit there. A few weeks ago, [PUK head] Bafel Talabani was accompanied by the commander of the American Coalition, a two-star general, who brought Bafel Talabani as well as the PUK’s counter-terrorism group commander to Heseke to meet with General Mazloum, as well as other leaders in [the SDF’s] anti-terrorism forces.
In fact, the [SDF’s anti-terror forces] YAT and [PUK’s anti-terror forces] CTG announced a joined operation and collaborative training exercise a couple of days after the Turkish drone strike on General Mazloum’s convoy, that also included Ilham Ahmed and at least three American special operations advisors.
Following this attack, the US has maintained almost total silence. Why?
America’s approach on Turkey’s attacks against northern Iraq and northern Syria have killed and wounded SDF members. The SDF are the US’ partner force against ISIS. Turkey’s attacks have killed and harmed SDF members, but also innocent civilians in both Iraq and Syria. In fact, Iraq protested to the UN after Turkey killed 9 civilians and wounded 33 others, including a US citizen. Iraq protested to the US, and claimed Turkey had made more than 18,000 infractions across the border into Iraq since 2018.
This is an ongoing problem. America has taken a ‘don’t say Turkey’ approach, or what I call a ‘snitches get stitches’ approach. Washington is tight-lipped, and not willing to finger Turkey for the attack in Sulaymaniyah.
Turkey had been seeking the greenlight for a military operation on the ground against Syria. Is there a quid-pro quo here, allowing Turkey to continue attacks by other means?
There are US leaders in Washington, both politicians and military leaders, who have cautioned Turkey against actions that would destabilize the region or interfere with anti-ISIS operations. After Turkey’s last series of “Claw” operations [in northern Iraq and northeastern Syria], there was a missile attack on SDF anti-terror forces, who were trained by US special operations forces and located within 1km of American troops in Syria. There was a drone strike that killed some of the YAT troops who were trained by U.S. special operations advisors. The US protested for the first time, and made calls to Turkey to say this was counter-productive. But Turkey will continue these attacks.
Some talk of ground invasion is just rhetoric. It’s evident when Turkey is going to launch an invasion, because you’ll see troop build-up. Part of this is political speech ahead of the Turkish elections. Ground invasions aside, these drone and artillery attacks are truly destabilizing and have a disruptive effect on operations against ISIS.
Does Washington recognize these attacks are destabilizing, even if US troops aren’t directly harmed?
In Washington, it’s clear the most important relationship is with the US and Turkey because of NATO. NATO also has a military presence inside Turkey, which is in a strategic location, always receiving overtures from Moscow to align with Putin. The unwillingness of America to speak up when Turkey conducts similar activities that Iran conducts is duplicitous, and erodes the trust the world has in the USA. People I talk to in Syria and Iraq, Arabs and Kurds, feel the US might pull out and abandon its SDF partners. It’s incumbent upon America to get the policy and the messaging right, and if people are violating international rules of warfare, killing civilians through missile strikes, they should speak up in the same way as the US calls out Iran when they make these dastardly attacks on US bases within Syria and in Iraq.
With an incident like the one we saw, are there private channels where the US cautions Turkey?
I think behind closed doors, the necessary conversations are happening. In part of those conversations, Turkey illustrates it has the upper hand in the region, is calling the shots, and can point to the USA and say – the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] is listed as a terrorist organisation, and we’re just doing what you do. It creates a never-ending cycle: Turkey attacks, kills US partners on the ground, and the US stays mum. The US continues to sit back and watch Turkey do these actions, while US credibility erodes, because they’re unwilling to identify who is responsible for the attacks.
Is it in Turkey’s interests to continue being adversarial and the ‘bad boy’ of NATO, to continue securing concessions from the USA?
The relationship between Turkey and America goes back decades. It’s very deep. The military connection is well baked in. Their policies are mostly well-aligned. When this allegiance was established, no-one could have predicted the rise of ISIS in 2014. It’s evident that Turkey enabled the flow of foreign terrorist fighters into Syria, did not respond to help defeat ISIS in border towns including Kobane, and in fact fed in more problematic individuals to that region. The US stepped in, the SDF stood up, the US funds the SDF with $200,000,000 annually to help them fight ISIS and have a professional operation to detain over 10,000 ISIS fighters. Because of US commitment and SDF blood, sweat and tears, the SDF are absolutely worthy of America publicly identifying Turkey, or any other force that attacks them.
Following such an incident, what can the SDF realistically ask from the USA?
Unfortunately for the SDF, this is going to be the status quo. The USA are not willing to make the expenditure of geopolitical capital to confront Turkey militarily, they will not provide the SDF with weapons systems to defend them from Turkey, because this relationship is about defeating ISIS, and until ISIS have F-16s and sophisticated drones there’s no justifiable reason for the USA to provide anti-aircraft or drone systems that are desired by people in Rojava or Iraqi Kurdistan..
What is the progress of US-sponsored reconciliation between the Autonomous Administration and the SDF in northern Syria, and Iraqi Kurdish political groups?
There have been a series of intra-Kurdish dialogues. The border between Syria and Iraq is porous, and ISIS and other smugglers have been able to come through. Some of this is controlled by Iran for the shipment of Captagon and lethal aid. Another topic is trade: there’s a border crossing at Fish Khabour where many trucks, cargo, petroleum go through, and pay customs fees. All of which means it’s important for these political leaders to talk and coordinate and have mutual relations.
In comes Turkey to the mix. With Turkey, it’s a challenge for the Kurdistan Regional Government [led by the] Kurdistan Democratic Party to have trade and support its region while aligning with a group Turkey identifies as an offshoot of the PKK. I think this will continue for an unknown time, but hopefully through dialogue and US and global involvement there will be respect between all people and all nations, and the Autonomous Administration will continue to bring peace and prosperity through democratic confederalism and its respect for the rights of all peoples in the region, while being able to have a commerce relationship with other neighbouring areas, in both Turkey and Iraq.