Commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) Mazloum Abdi hoped that the administration of US President Joe Biden would “rectify the errors” of its predecessor when it gave the greenlight to Turkey to “occupy” regions in northeastern Syria.
In a telephone interview to Asharq Al-Awsat on Thursday, he called on the Biden administration to adopt a “new strategy” to reactivate America’s role and “put an end to the Syrian holocaust.”
Are SDF forces still cracking down on ISIS cells east of the Euphrates River?
After ISIS was geographically defeated in the battle of Baghouz, there was a need to eliminate its sleeper cells and end its popular support. This prompted the SDF to begin to coordinate with the international coalition against terrorism. We achieved the desired results by arresting several leaders and members of the organization, which was carrying out murders and bombings. Our campaign is still ongoing.
We noted, however, that the sleeper cell attacks increased after Turkey occupied Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad in northeastern Syria.
The operations against the cells have not ended. On the contrary, there is a need for us to intensify the operations, especially after the organization started to expand its attacks to the Syrian Badia (desert) and its attempts to expand to regions that were liberated by our forces. The threats are still present. This is our vision and that of the coalition, as well. Our efforts at this time are therefore focused on expanding operations against the cells.
Is everything being coordinated with the coalition?
We can say that the coordination is good at this time. Nothing has changed since the new American administration took office. Based on the meetings we held with coalition officials, it appears to be leaning towards expanding its counter-terrorism operations, especially after ISIS threatened to carry out attacks in various regions and several countries.
We noticed an uptick in ISIS attacks east of the Euphrates and other regions. Why is that?
There are two reasons. The first, as we have said, is the Turkish occupation of Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad that has reinvigorated the organization, which is receiving support from Turkish occupation forces. We have confirmed reports that ISIS members, who had fled northern and eastern Syria, had arrived in regions that are occupied by Turkey, such as Afrin, Azaz, al-Bab, Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad. ISIS has regrouped under the so-called Syrian National Army and has been provided with military and logistic support by Turkey. Turkey has facilitated the terrorists’ passage to our regions where they have carried out murders and attacks that have mostly targeted civilians.
The second reason is our preoccupation with resisting the Turkish occupation that targets our regions every day. This has allowed ISIS to carry out some operations. Other sides are also seeking to exploit these attacks in order to weaken the SDF and autonomous administration.
Some say that Arabs are being marginalized in regions east of the Euphrates.
This is not true. On the contrary, our Arab brothers make up the majority of the SDF. We do not distinguish between ethnicities. They all live together in peace and harmony while still preserving their national and cultural identities.
You are sometimes accused of labeling anyone opposed to you as being affiliated with ISIS.
I believe the facts on the ground refute these claims. Freedom exists in Rojava and northeastern Syria. All political views, including opposition to the autonomous administration, are welcome. Their rights are guaranteed in the freedom to hold rallies and protected under the autonomous administration’s laws.
What about the increased ISIS attacks in the Badia? Is coordination taking place with the Syrian government or Russia in the war against ISIS west of the Euphrates?
No, there is no cooperation in this issue. This is due to the geographic divide between us. But another more significant reason is that any coordination in this regard should entail comprehensive agreement on other files. We believe that these files are a priority over military coordination, which does not exist at this moment.
How do you view the current American troop presence?
We believe that the deployment is part of the war against terrorism. It helps restore stability in Syria. The US is also a major power and plays a great and central role in resolving the crisis. It cannot be sidelined.
American officials say that the deployment in Syria is not permanent and that it is tied to the complete defeat of ISIS. Did you receive word of this?
No such discussions were held between us. We believe that the American presence in Syria hinges on the defeat of terrorism and restoration of security and stability in northern and eastern Syria. It also hinges on resolving the Syrian crisis according to United Nation resolutions and participation in the reconstruction of the country.
In October 2019, the Americans pulled out from some regions east of the Euphrates. How did that affect your forces?
The American administration committed a major mistake by withdrawing from the Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad regions. Let us be more clear: former President Donald Trump granted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the greenlight to occupy those regions. There is no doubt that the move impacted our forces’ ability to fight terrorism as we became preoccupied with defending those regions. The withdrawal negatively reflected on the US and its strategy in Syria and the Middle East.
So what are your expectations from the Biden administration?
We believe the administration will work on rectifying the massive amount of errors that were committed by the Trump administration. This includes the whole approach towards the Syrian crisis. We urge the new administration to adopt a new strategy that would reactivate America’s role in pushing for an end to the Syrian “holocaust.”
Some say that the Biden team is more sympathetic of your demands. What are your expectations?
The US has interests in Syria and the region. We share similar views on important issues, such as the fight against terrorism. The long-term strategy, however, does not change with a change in presidents and administrations. Some minor changes do take place that could alter some goals and policies. At this point, the new administration’s policy has not been shaped, despite some positive and encouraging signs shown to our forces and autonomous administration.
Agreements in the east of the Euphrates region have been reached between Russia and Turkey, the US and Turkey and Damascus and the SDF. What is the situation like amid all of these deals?
We are preserving the balance in the region through contacts with all parties. Each side enjoys its area of influence. The Russian and regime forces entered our regions through an understanding with us. On October 23, 2019, Russia signed a deal with Turkey that asks it to preserve the ceasefire between our forces and the Turkish occupation and the international coalition forces. The regime forces, meanwhile, are tasked with protecting the Syrian border in line with its role in preserving Syrian state sovereignty.
What about the Peace Spring Operation region? Did you carry out what was asked of you?
The so-called “peace spring” region refers to Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad, but the Turkish occupation is trying to impose its labels on the area. It announced similar labels when it referred to Afrin as the “olive branch” region. We do not recognize such labels. We are committed to the agreement signed between former US Vice President Mike Pence with Erdogan and another signed between Russian President Vladimir Putin with Erdogan.
In line with the agreements, we withdrew 30 kilometers away from the region. The other side was required to fully pull out as well, with Syrian border guards set to deploy. Turkey, however, did not respect the understandings. In fact, it is trying to expand its occupation. The two state sponsors of the agreements are morally bound to pressure Turkey to implement them. Turkey’s attacks against our forces and unarmed civilians in Ain Issa, Tal Tamr and Kobani reveal its intentions to destabilize the region.
What about Turkey and Russia’s patrols near Kobani and their understanding on Afrin?
The patrols in the Kobani countryside are part of the agreement with Moscow. They are part of an attempt to impose a sort of calm between us and Turkey after its occupation of Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad.
The violations against Kurdish civilians in Afrin – the region’s true locals – are, however, unprecedented throughout history due to their atrociousness. The only side responsible for this is the Turkish occupier. Russia is also partly to blame because it has not deterred Turkey from committing those crimes. The Turkish occupation has cordoned off Afrin, even preventing rights and humanitarian groups and the media from uncovering the crimes committed there. I therefore, call on Russia to assume its moral responsibility in ending the Turkish occupation of Afrin.
Russia’s military recently expanded to Derik where US forces are deployed.
As we have said before, the Russian military police carries out patrols along the border in line with the October 23, 2019 agreement.
We have, however, seen run-ins between the Russian and American forces.
We constantly stress to both sides the need to focus on operations aimed at restoring stability and combating ISIS.
Does Russia coordinate with you amid the deployment east of the deployment and presence of a large Russian base in al-Qamishli?
Yes, coordination is ongoing with us over the deployment and mobilization of patrols. All of their movements are taking place according to a mechanism that was agreed between us.
Who is your ally today, Russia or the US?
We do not oppose either side. We have established relations with them in pursuit of the interests of our people and their aspirations for freedom and a dignified life, as well as security and stability.
What about the efforts to reunite Kurdish internal ranks?
We have come a long way in the dialogue that we had launched. The most significant achievement is restoring trust between the two sides. We also completed the memorandum over the political leadership, which will be the basis for any future agreement. Other disputed issues are secondary affairs and agreements will be reached over them during future rounds of dialogue that will be launched soon.
Is the SDF ready to meet the military demands and include other factions in its ranks?
Our doors are open to all forces that believe in the principles and goals of the SDF. These forces should not have goals that contradict with ours and the principle of coexistence. They must also defend our territories against all forces that seek to violate them.
Some sides criticize you for following leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan.
The PKK is a fraternal Kurdish party. We enjoy ties with it along with other Kurdish parties in the southern Kurdistan region. We are not affiliated with it. We are the Syrian Democratic Forces. We are independent in our decisions and have a clear strategy that we are implementing Syria, which is the sole area of our operations. We do, however, adhere to the idea and democratic nation project proposed by Ocalan.
What about your alleged siege of the “security square” in al-Hasakeh? Is it true that the regime has you surrounded in Aleppo?
We have never besieged Hasakeh. Movement between our regions and those held by the regime had never come to a halt. The regime, however, is imposing an oppressive and unjustified siege of the Shahba region, where refugees from Afrin have fled. A similar siege is being imposed on the al-Sheikh Maksoud and Ashrafiyeh neighborhoods in Aleppo whereby no food, fuel and medical supplies are allowed in. The regime has set up checkpoints to limit the movement of the locals after its hopes for the fall of Ain Issa were dashed.
I believe the main reason for the siege is the regime’s mentality of elimination that drives it to restore the situation in Syria to the way it was before 2011. The provocations and tensions that it is stoking in Hasakeh and Qamishli and attempts to spark Arab-Kurdish strife are all part of efforts to pressure the autonomous administration and turn back the hands of time. On our end, we are trying to restore calm, avoid being dragged towards strife and seeking serious dialogue over fateful issues. We are not pursuing further escalation.
Rounds of dialogue were previously held with the regime. Are they still ongoing?
The dialogue came to halt due to the regime’s stubborn and backwards mentality. Just days ago, a Syrian Democratic Council delegation was in Damascus, but it left emptyhanded because the regime rejects all solutions and initiatives that could lead to a political resolution of the Syrian crisis. We believe this stubbornness will not do it any good.
But military agreements with Damascus still stand.
The understandings hinge on Russia because it ensures that they continue. These understandings have not expanded to become comprehensive agreements because the regime is shirking its commitments and refuses to make any concessions that could build trust with it. This is hindering the possibility of military agreements being expanded to launch serious national political dialogue. We believe that any military understanding that is not backed by a political one will not last long, which we hope would never come to pass.
In the bigger picture, there has been talk about the formation of a Syrian military council. Is the SDF ready to take part in such a council that includes you, the regime and opposition?
I had previously said that we do not oppose joining any Syrian national military structure that achieves Syrian national goals in restoring security and stability in the country and preserves that the SDF. Such a council should not have a nationalist, religious or sectarian identity. It should instead believe in defending the nation and should not be subject to foreign agendas.
Is that possible?
Yes, as long as the will and determination are available and intentions are sincere.