General Mazlum Abdi, commander-in-chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) talked to Mutlu Civiroglu of Voice of America regarding the current developments in North and East Syria. Medya News publishes edited translated excerpts of the interview.
The SDF was founded in October 2015 as the official defence force of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) to create a secular, democratic and federalised Syria. It is made up of many different ethnic and religious and non religous groups representing Assyrian, Syriac, Ezidi, Turkman, Arab and Kurdish communities as well as Arab opposition groups.
As you know, a new administration has come to power in the US and international politics are reshaping their policy according to the new administration. I would like to ask your opinions about the new administration and especially your relations with the US-led coalition against ISIS. I also want to ask you about the operation you have begun against ISIS in Deir-Ez-Zor. What is the situation now in the, north and east of Syria?
As you know, ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is not finished and their attacks continue. Recently, they targeted our civilian workers and two of our female representatives of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria were martyred. We launched a major operation against ISIS in reponse to their continuing attacks. The ISIS group consisted of six people and they responded to our raids by opening fire on our friends, we killed four of them, one of them escaped and we caught the other one. Many other people were also arrested in the region. In general, I can say that the danger of ISIS continues and that the terrorist organisation are trying to revive themselves. They are coming from the lands under the control of the Syrian regime and Iraq. With our allies from the US-led coalition against ISIS, our operations against the ISIS’s cells have continued successfully.
The widespread opinion was that ISIS had been defeated. Donald Trump, the former president of US, also had frequently made statements about the end of ISIS. How then did ISIS have the potential to launch such attacks again? The coalition have made statements saying that the alliance with the SDF will continue, how do you see this developing?
Coalition forces withdrew after Raqqa and Kobani were liberated from ISIS and the group benefited from this withdrawal and recovered. As I said, they come to our region from the lands under the control of the Syrian regime, and Iraq. The political future of the region has not yet been clarified, so ISIS benefits from this as well. In order to prevent the resurrection of ISIS, we first also need to clarify the political future of the region. Coalition forces should continue their work in the regions they are in. If they can support the civilian administration in the region, then we can wage a more effective fight against ISIS.
It is known that President Joe Biden and his administration are aware of the Kurdish problem. You have said that the situation in Syria should be resolved politically. What are the political expectations from the new administration? What can this administration do differently from the past to contribute to a solution process in Syria?
We welcomed the new US administration. We hope that some of the unfortunate policies of the past can be set right. We hope the new US administration will play an important role in the solution process in Syria. With any negotiated solution, the regions we helped to liberate from ISIS with the help of the coalition should be given political status. The rights of the Kurdish people and the rights of other peoples in our region should be protected by law and the problem within Syria as a whole should be solved with peaceful talks. We would like Washington to conduct an effective policy on this issue.
You said that some mistakes were made during the previous administration period. Trump’s desire to withdraw American forces generated strong reactions in Washington and across America. What was the effect of that decision?
We obviously worked closely with the coalition forces during the previous administration period. The peoples of this region, Kurds and Arabs relied heavily on the American forces and this trust still exists. But this trust was damaged when the previous US administration under Trump allowed Turkish forces to attack Serekanîyê and Afrin. We are trying now to restore the trust between American forces and the people. Hundreds of thousands of people in Afrin had to leave their homes and live as refugees. Kurds made up approx 95% of Afrin, but now that rate is down to around 30%. The Turkish state forcibly made demographic change by placing Turkmen and Arabs in the homes of Kurds. Hundreds of thousands of people from Serêkanîyêye and Girê Spî had to migrate during the attacks in 2019 and now they are staying in refugee camps and their condition cannot be said to be good. They are waiting to return their homeland. Therefore, we need a new policy conducted in the new period, so people can return to their homes and the region can return to its previous natural state.
What can the new US administration do in the immediate future? If you had the opportunity to meet with President Biden, what would you request from him concretely?
We want the problems in the region to be resolved peacefully through dialogue. We ask them to assist with this dialogue, and to ensure peace in the region. We are waging a fight against terrorism here and they can also support us against attacks from our neighbors, which is also a primary and urgent need. Unfortunately, the previous administration paved the way for these threats to the region, this of course, should not be repeated. In order to effectively struggle against ISIS, the US led coaltion have to provide support to the political administration here.
You talked about attacks from neighbours. Turkey has alliances with both your neighbors and the United States. Ankara states that the Kurds in Syria pose a threat to their security. Are the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) or Syrian Kurds a threat for Turkey?
We have said many times before, we are not a threat for Turkey. The Turkish state know this better than we do. On the contrary, it has been the Turkish state that is threat to us and has attacked our lands. We are not a party to the war waged by the Turkish state against other Kurdish forces. We want to solve the problems with the Turkish state with dialogue. I think America can play an effective role in advancing this dialogue, and we are open to do it.
So you mean that you are ready to respond positively to the Biden administration’s call for a dialogue with the Turkish state?
Yes, of course. We have lands occupied by the Turkish state. We want to solve the problems with the Turkish state through dialogue, we are ready for dialogue and there is no serious obstacle to this. We want to solve problems with dialogue and without violence and fighting.
President Biden in past statements has touched generally on the rights of the Kurds and National Security Advisor Jack Sulliven has made various statements that a negotiated solution should be found between the Kurds and the Turkish government. As SDF would you be open to a negotiated settlement to the Kurdish issue?
The truth, is that the situation of the four different parts of Kurdistan is interconnected. The Kurdish political movement has had a great impact in Turkey. It is difficult to have a solution in other parts without a solution in Turkey. The solution in Rojava is also related to the solution of the northern part. A solution should be initiated with Mr. Öcalan, this will have positive affect on other parts, especially in Rojava. This will be the best method to solve the problem between the Kurds and the Turkish state.
So why do you think that such an initiative would be important for the safety of the American people? Why would America support a political solution in Syria?
If the problem is solved in our region, this will affect the whole world. We think that if the problem in northeast Syria is not solved, then the problems in the whole country and the world will not be solved either. If there is no solution, ISIS and other elements will continue to threaten the security of the American people and they will became stronger. But as a result of a political solution here, peace will be able to be achieved in the region and this will also have a positive effect on America’s interests in the region.
I would like to ask you about the situation of Yazidi Kurds and Christian minorities in the region. According to the reports from Afrin, their situation is severe. What would you like to say about the current situation of Christians and Yazidis?
The representation of Christians and Yazidis in the SDF is high. ISIS and other Islamic radical groups attacked Yazidis and Christians. They were severely persecuted. They have joined SDF to protect themselves. Our people from Shengal were subjected to persecution due to the attacks in Serêkanîyê and Afrin where many settled. Their villages were plundered and they have faced the threat of genocide. Now they are living under pressure in other areas, some of them stay in refugee camps in our region. We know that the rights of Yazidi and Christian minorities is on the agenda of many NGOs and democratic organisations. We all have a duty to protect minorities. Yazidis and Christians in our areas are a threatened minority and must be protected.
You mention about the situation of the Kurds are interconnected. How your relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government? They, too, share same thoughts as you for the new American administration. HSD plays an important role conducting dialogue between Kurds and you lead it. How are your relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government now?
We have a close relationship with the south of Kurdistan. We also have commercial relations and we have opened up trade routes to and from there. The Kurdistan Regional Government can provide political and commercial support to Rojava. They have a Kurdish status there, and have experience and opportunities. Of course Rojava needs their support. Some negotiations are being conducted, we want a stronger relationship. We know that the Turkish state wants the Kurds to fight against each other. The Turkish state wants clashes between the forces of Kurdistan Regional Government and the forces in the north of Kurdistan.
Despite all, the fact is that the Peshmerga forces are not part of such a game. We want the Kurdistan Regional Government to develop good relations with all parts, especially with Rojava.
How are your relations with the Syrian government? There have been some conflicts recently.
The Baath regime has not changed its policy yet. They want to be same as before 2011 in the region and does not recognise Kurdish rights. It does not recognise the rights of other minorities in the region either. We have protected our people when some problems have occurred between us but we do not want to be at war with the Damascus government. We want to solve our problems through dialogue, they should give rights to the Kurds and recognise the region.
The Kurds used the term “little brother” for the Kurds in Syria. The Americans say that Rojava is now carrying the flag of all Kurds. When talking about Kurds, SDF, YPG, YPJ and Mazlum Kobani first come to the minds of Americans. We can say that you have a ‘natural’ lobby here. Former President Trump told Americans “You like General Mazlum more than I do.” But you also have friends who criticise you. They say ‘Why are they not able to adequately utilize such great powers who support them?’ How do you evaluate this criticism?
We get the support from our American friends for SDF and Rojava and we are grateful for this. America have supported us in difficult times. That American politicians and the US military have supported our struggle, gives us pleasure. We are aware of some of our shortcomings. We want to be in close contact with America much more frequently, especially in 2021. We want our political forces to be able to negotiate with American senators and political actors. There were some bureaucratic obstacles in front of us, and we hope that those obstacles will soon be cleared.
Last year, the American Congress invited you there. If there is an opportunity, do you have any plans to visit Washington to meet the members of Congress who invited you?
We were at war at the time and had some bureaucratic problems. But now is the time to discuss these issues with the Americans. If I have the opportunity to meet with American politicians, and if I can discuss the problems here with them face to face, of course I will be pleased.
You have been in contact with ex President Trump several times. Have you yet had contact with President Biden? Or do you expect to be in contact in the upcoming period?
We have talked with the new American administration. I hope we will have a stronger relationship in the next days and we can start talks at a higher level.
A book called “The Daughters of Kobani” has also been published recently. You also led the war against ISIS in Kobani. This book is widely featured in the American press. Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her daughter want to adapt the book to a movie. What is your response to these lastest projects?
My many thanks to the author of the book, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. She also interviewed me when she came here. I told her my views on Kobani. Friends of YPG, YPJ and SDF also helped her. She wrote a very important and valuable book. I think it is a book worthy of the Kobani women who resisted in Kobani. We are honored with these works and wish them to increase.