On November 6, the commander-in-chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) Mazloum Abdi announced that the Kurdish-led group was resuming its “joint program of work” with the US-led coalition. According to Abdi, the goal of this effort is to combat ISIS and secure “the infrastructure” of northeastern Syria.
The irony is that the only “infrastructure” currently existing in northeastern Syria is the US-occupied oil fields. Therefore, the SDF is happy to support the US-led looting of Syrian natural resources.
As a result of series of meetings with Coalition leaders, #SDF is resuming its joint program of work with the Coalition to combat #ISIS and securing the infrastructure of NE #Syria. According to the current stage and new developments on the ground.
— Mazloum Abdî مظلوم عبدي (@MazloumAbdi) November 6, 2019
On November 6, the Rudaw Media Network of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region released a full transcript of the interview with the SDF commander-in-chief Mazloum Abdi (SOURCE):
Below is a translated, full transcript of the interview Rudaw’s Roj Eli Zalla conducted with Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) commander Mazloum Abdi on November 5, 2019.
They discussed the US-led operation to capture late Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, negotiations with the Syrian regime’s army on the SDF’s future, and the failures of US and Russian deals with Turkey to limit their operations against Kurdish-led forces since Operation Peace Spring began on October 9.
I want to start with an easy question. You have used a number of names such as Mazloum Abdi and Mazloum Kobani during your career. Which of these would you like us to call you?
I use Mazloum Abdi, but as you wish.
Thank you so much. Last week, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad talked about Rojava. What is your comment on his speech?
Actually, we expected a more positive position from Syrian government, but unfortunately the contents of Bashar Assad’s speech was not positive. Therefore, there are subjects [in his speech] that we criticize. It also included some positive parts such as keeping the channel of dialogue with our forces and Kurds open; this was positive. He mentioned that they want to make agreements with Kurds and together face Turkish invasion; this was positive. However, his position on the resolution of the Kurdish issue and the issue of all northeast Syria was weak. It was not sufficient to reach a solution. The Syrian government has to approach this more positively, be more open to dialogue and make steps with more courage in order to resolve Kurdish issue and all of the issue of areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces.
One of the things that drew my attention was that he said he would not return to SDF-controlled areas permanently – but later, things have to be restored to pre-2011 [pre-revolution]. What do you think about this?
Our position is clear. We have always said that we have to have principal conditions for a deal with Syrian government. First, this administration [Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria] must be accepted as part of the general administration of Syria in the constitution. Second, the Syrian Democratic Forces – as an establishment- should have a special status in the framework the general defense system of Syria. We do not oppose being incorporated into the general defense system of Syria, but [want] special status. Definitely, the Kurdish issue is an essential one and the rights of Kurds have to be ensured in the Syrian constitution.
Regarding respecting the territorial integrity of Syrian soil, President Bashar al-Assad said that there are some maps and there is the name of Kurdistan, adding that this is not acceptable as it is against said integrity. Will you insist on the name of Syrian Kurdistan?
The important thing is that there are Kurds and Kurdish areas. The Syrian government has to accept this. They cannot say Kurds exist but do not have a land. There are areas mostly populated by Kurds. There are areas where Kurds make up 90 percent of their population. These are Kurdish areas and its name is Kurdistan.
Because Syrian Democratic Forces are organized, Russia has reportedly preferred them to be incorporated into Syrian defense army. How do you see this?
As I said earlier, we clearly say that Syrian Democratic Forces should keep its military organization and protect areas under its control in northeast Syria as a formal part of Syrian Army. This is our position. However, the Syrian government’s position is somewhat different. They accept the incorporation of the Syrian Democratic Forces into the Syrian Army but without having special status or a military self-administration. They prefer our [soldiers] and commanders join them individually, which we reject.
It is said the Syrian government wants the SDF to join them as the fifth legion of Syrian Army. What is your opinion on this and what does Russia say?
The Fifth Legion is an already existing special legion in the Syrian Army. If we want a different organization of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), we may have one or two different legions.
The Syrian Democratic Forces and other [local] security forces have more than 100,000 [members]; it [SDF] is a large force. They may be organized as two legions in the framework of the Syrian Army. I think Russian forces or Russians are not very clear in [their position on] this subject. They do not think like the Syrian regime, government. They do not want the military condition [of Syria] to be harmed or weak, and they do not want complications. But they do not have a clear position. Our meetings with them [Russians] continue [but] we have not reached a solution.
Have you had any serious talks with the Syrian government?
Our meetings with the Syrian government have definitely been serious since day one. I believe the meetings were in the interests of both sides – the Syrian government and us. We believe our meetings with the Syrian government since 2011 have been in the interests of both sides – Kurds and Syrian government – despite agreements and disagreements. The fact that the Syrian government has not been dissolved as an establishment was due to our meetings with the government [despite disagreements]. The Syrian government has to see this. The presence of the Syrian Democratic Forces and Kurdish Freedom Movement in Western Kurdistan [Rojava] and all of Syria was one of the main reasons behind the fact that Syria is here today, and it prevented the terrorists and opponents, affiliated to foreign [countries], from achieving their goals. The Syrian government has to see this well. We believe the endeavor of the Syrian Democratic Forces and all the Kurdish Freedom Movement in Western Kurdistan has built a good basis for our future deal with the Syrian government.
You said that you have had talks with the Russians. Have you submitted any projects to the Russians, or discussed any projects with them?
We are currently working on a military project. As you know, after some US troops withdrew from some areas, there were gaps. The Turkish state wanted to invade these areas. To prevent the creation of these vacancies, we met with the Russians and our meetings continue. We have made deals on some military matters. As you know, there was an agreement between the Russian government and Turkish state. We had some reservations on this agreement. We see many articles [of the deal] as wrong. We discussed this a lot and we told them about our reservations. They noticed some things as well. We have made a military deal with the Russians to clarify how we must work together on preventing the Turkish invasion, on the mechanism of Russian troop presence, and on their coordination with us. These are clear and getting clearer. We do not have a problem in this regard and there is progress. However, there is no clarity in terms of politics. The Russian government is serious in launching a dialogue between us and Syria and reaching a deal.
Which points of the Russian-brokered deal did you protest the most? When you reported this to the Russians, how did they respond?
We basically had reservations that [the deal would make] our people defenseless. There is a danger that the deal could make our people defenseless, or the protection of Kurdish-populated areas would be in the hands of those who do not protect our people. Our people do not see this [force] as one of protection. This was the issue. We expressed our doubts in this regard and we said that we cannot hand over the protection of our people to foreigners or those who our people do not see are protectors. [We said that] we have to resolve this. This was practically resolved.
As per the deal, the SDF has to withdraw to a 32km depth southward except for Qamishli. I want to ask a question with a few parts. Have the SDF withdrawn from these areas, because Turkey claims that the SDF forces are still present in some areas? The deal also says there will be joint patrols by Turkey and Russian to a depth of 10km. Will the Autonomous Administration stay there or withdraw as well?
The US-Turkey deal was mostly on military affairs. It stipulates that the Syrian Democratic Forces must formally withdraw from these areas. I can say that this all took place. There is no military problem regarding implementation of the deal. As I said earlier, we should not leave our people defenseless and none of our areas must lack defense, I mean the essential defense, of our people. Currently, the Syrian Democratic Forces are stationed behind the 32km area. We and the Russians have agreed not to leave our people [Kurds] defenseless. The Autonomous Administration is not on the agenda [of withdrawal] and it will do its work as before.
Turkey says that the SDF forces are still in areas like Tal Rafaat and Ras al-Ain [Sari Kani] and that these forces have to withdraw; if not, Turkey will continue its operation. Have your forces withdrawn from Tal Rafaat and Ras al-Ain?
No, the Syrian Democratic Forces are not present in these areas. We can even say that there are no YPG [People’s Protection Units] and YPJ [Women’s Protection Units] fighters as well. The forces mentioned by Turkey are not there. They have not withdrawn because they have not been there at all – [because] since the invasion of Afrin [in March 2018], a new phase started there and new military forces were established. The forces present there coordinate with Russians and other present forces. They continue their work. I can confirm that these are neither Syrian Democratic Forces nor the YPG or YPJ. These are other forces and they continue their work.
They have names. There are the Afrin Liberation Forces and others with different names, but they are not the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Let’s talk about the US. All the chaos began with the withdrawal of the US troops. The US President says that the ceasefire in Syria has been successful, but there is still fighting every day. I was in Tel Tamr yesterday and in recent days and there has been fighting. Was the ceasefire successful? What have you told the Americans?
No, the ceasefire was not a success. It was not implemented. The Turkish state did not respect the ceasefire for even an hour. It continues its attack. Their attacks continued even yesterday evening and this morning. There is shelling and their planes conduct airstrikes. They bombard our forces and those Syrian troops who are positioned between us and Turks. They attacked, captured and killed Syrian government troops. The Turkish state continues their attacks and say so publicly. They say: “We have progressed, taking this number of villages and areas.” Therefore, the US does not have accurate information. We have a joint operations cell with the Americans. They well know what I am saying is true. Their reports to their government says this, that the Turkish state does not respect the ceasefire and continues its attacks, killing civilians and conducting attacks, targeting everyone. This is clear, and it continues. We officially requested from the US, as the guarantor of their ceasefire deal with the Turks, that they to do their work to implement the economic sanctions on Turkey, even if they cannot stop them. The US have to stop the Turks by force now.
There are Syrian troops in Tel Tamr but they do not seem to have enough weapons to defend the areas they have been deployed to. Do you think they can defend these areas?
It is not the duty of Syrian troops to forcibly stop the Turks. They [deployed] weapons and preparations are not for this purpose. Their arrival here is a political one, rather than a military one. They have come based on the guarantee of Russia. Turks say that there are SDF forces there [on the border] and threaten to attack them. We made a deal with the Russians to [allow] the deployment of Syrian government’s troops to all bordering areas, not only Tel Tamr, and be positioned in front of the Turks. If the Turks respect their deal with the Russians, then they should not attack the Syrian regime forces. If they do not respect it, they will attack. Of course, the Syrian government is not at a level to militarily prevent the tanks and warplanes of the Turks. They do not mean to use force to stop them. However, it has a diplomatic and political role. If the deal is not implemented, the Russians have to be held responsible.
Tel Tamr is located within the safe zone. Will you withdraw from Tel Tamr? Why is the fighting different in Tel Tamr? Conflict continues there when it stops elsewhere, why?
The Turkish state’s goal is to control Tel Tamr because it is a strategic area and all roads pass through there. Tel Tamr is a smaller version of Syria. There are Kurds, Christians and Arabs. It is also known as a Christian city but there are other [ethnic and religious] groups as well. Therefore, it is important for us to focus on it. The Turkish state definitely wants to control it, so it targets it. It is outside the US-Turkey and Russia-Turkey deals. As per the deals, Turks have to stay outside the area. But Turks want to control there in order to impose their sovereignty. Therefore Turks have continued their attacks [against the city] for a long time to control it. Our forces have to defend the area to prevent its invasion. There are Syrian state troops as well but they are able to stop Turkish attacks by themselves. Therefore, our forces, and Assyrian and Syriac forces, have to help the Syrian government stop Turkish troops.
With their deals with Turkey to stop conflict in northern Syria not respected by Turkey – despite your commitment to the deals – what do you want to tell both the US and Russia?
This means the weakness in the positions of both the US and Russia. The US made a deal with the Turks and there had to be a 120-hour ceasefire. We withdrew our forces from Sari Kani [Ras al-Ain]. As per the deal, our forces had to stay where they were, except we had promised to withdraw to beyond the M4 international road. The forces in the west of Tel Abyad [Gire Spi] and the east of Sari Kani had to stop where were. The maps were drawn based on this. The maps were submitted to both the Americans and others in this way. It was agreed on like this. However, the Turkish state did not respect it. It has continued its attacks since that day [October 17]. The US is also aware of the Turkish violation [of the deal]. This is their [US and Russian] weakness and their lack of connection to the deal with the Turks. We tell them about this and they accept [admit] it. The US has a mechanism to stop this war. They say they will impose economic sanctions [against Turkey]. They have to impose sanctions to stop this war.
What is the US response when you tell them that their ally, Turkey, has violated the deal in relation to civilian casualties?
Their response is weak, proving the weakness of their position. They say: ’It is true and we see it too.’ Their troops, who are monitoring here, also see this. They [US] keep saying that they inform the Turkish state of this and press on them to stop it. [The US has also told us that they told Turkey] ‘If you do not stop we will impose economic sanctions.’ Their position is weak but the US can stop it if it desires.
Do you think these economic sanctions will make any change?
We believe that the US reaction should not be one of economic sanctions, but to use its pressure and tell the Turks ‘You cannot attack.’ A single word like ‘Do not attack’ from Trump to Erdogan would stop the attack. However, the US did not want its relations with Turkey to be harmed. They also did not want to harm its interests with Turkey. When comparing the interests of the Kurds and Turks, they chose Turkey. Therefore, they used economic sanctions which are also effective as the Turkish economy is very weak. If the sanctions passed by the [US] Congress are implemented, Turkey will immediately stop [its attacks]. This is a criticism [from us] against the US. The Americans say that they will implement these sanctions if Turkey conducts a bigger attack, but the Turks are gradually progressing and attacking. They [US] do not see this as a reason to implement the sanctions. We always criticize them [US] on this. We tell them ‘because you have taken this path, Turkey violates the deal and continues it attacks, so you have to implement these sanctions as they would be enough for Turkish attacks to stop.’
Now, the US says that they want to return to Rojava in order to protect oilfields. They are also bringing tanks to Rojava. Is the US return only to protect oilfields? If yes, why would they need tanks? ISIS is not strong enough to control an oilfield.
In basic terms, the US decided three times to withdraw. President Trump was determined to withdraw forces, and they have already begun the withdrawal in Kobane, Manbij, Raqqa and in some parts of Tabqa. However, there was later great pressure on the Trump administration, such as opposition from Congress and the Senate. All our American friends, soldiers and politicians, oppose the Trump administration’s [decision]. President Trump’s fame was at risk. Our friends from the coalition – France, Germany, UK and many others – also opposed it.
Most importantly, our forces resisted. They did not hand over the region to the Turks, as they wished. It was clear that a great conflict would take place and this issue would last long. As a result, the US will be held responsible. Particularly, there is the danger of the annihilation of Kurdish people in addition to demographic change. There could be ethnic cleansing. There is a great threat. These reasons greatly contributed to the creation of political and public pressure on US President Trump to reconsider his decision. Therefore, the US stepped back in its decision.
They kept their troops in the east of Syria for another project. The main reason behind [the US presence] is definitely not oil. Everyone knows the US does not need the oil. They say that this oil should not fall into the hands of Daesh [Islamic State], the Syrian regime or other forces. But everyone knows they should have remained. The [pressure from people] was the main reason behind US reconsideration [of the decision to withdraw]. We know the reason behind the US troops’ presence is not and will not be the oil. They are not related. There was a new [power] balance here. The Americans want to stay here to take part in the balance. They are also staying to lessen the pressure on the US administration.
However, we do not know how long this decision [to stay] will last. Our main belief is that we have never said we want US troops to stay here forever to protect us. We have not made such a demand from US troops or any other force. We say that those forces who have entered Syria, typically the US forces, have to stay here until there is a solution in Syria, a constitution is passed, and a new administration is established. Then, the work of these forces will end and they can withdraw. The right thing for the remaining forces – who have decided to withdraw three times – to say is ‘We are here and will stay until there is a solution in Syria, and all [ethnic and religious] groups in Syria reach a deal and agree on a constitution and establishment.’ This is our goal.
How many bases do the American forces have right now? Some of Rojava’s officials have previously said that they want the US to clarify for what purpose it is remaining. Upon their third return, did you ask what them what their goal was? Or did you have your own analysis or guess of what their aim is? What I want to ask in another way is: is there a guarantee that US forces won’t abruptly leave again?
Yes we had meetings with the Americans. We spoke about this topic. This was the only topic [we discussed]. The reason why the Americans remain is clear. Their reason for staying is for 8 specific objectives, as they see it. I don’t want to list them. They have told us why they remain, where they would be posted and how long they will stay. This was done based on an agreement with our forces. They withdrew from some areas, such as Manbij, Tabqa, and in areas in the west of our region. They have a force remaining in Kobane, and that force hasn’t withdrawn. In other areas in the east of Syria, in Deir ez-Zor up to Simalka [border crossing], they remain posted in their previous positions. They will also build new bases in new locations, like Derik and some other areas. They will be based there. The positioning of US troops will be reconsidered and based on their objectives. As I said earlier, their military presence is clear. Their movements will be made in coordination with our forces, not independently. They continue on some of their previous objectives, such as assisting our forces in protecting Daesh prisons and camps. They want to continue with some assistance programs for the people of the region. Another reason is to train the Syrian Democratic Forces. Assistance to the Syrian Democratic Forces will continue. The partnership in the fight against Daesh will continue. Concerning the airspace, US forces will again establish air control over some areas. And also, a new objective is to protect the oil wells.
Amidst all this, is there an American political promise to make you happy? I mean, has America this time given you a political promise that it will assist the Syrian Democratic Forces militarily? Some days ago, I believe it was Ilham Ahmed [head of Syrian Democratic Council’s Executive Council] who had asked for the US to at least establish a no fly zone over Rojava’s airspace against the air forces of other countries, like Turkey. Is there anything regarding this?
In the political sphere, we are critical of America’s stance. They have been here for five years, and we have been criticizing this aspect. Our criticism of the US continues. The US has only undertaken a military mission, rather than a political one. This is worthy of criticism. As you know, there are the Geneva Talks to resolve the Syrian problem on an international level. We say there are international efforts. We asked them [the US] for the representatives of North and East of Syria to be also part of the solution process, for Americans to exercise pressure. They have given some promises, but in practice, they haven’t kept their word. These are all worthy of criticism, and we will continue our criticism until they execute their duty in the political dimension.
General, you spoke of the international talks and agreements. Let me ask my final question about America’s stance in this regard. What promises have they given you to help you or insist on the SDF having representatives in the talks?
You mean the international talks?
They have promised that some representatives of the North and East of Syria have seats both on the [Syrian] Constitutional Committee and at the talks taking place in Geneva. But they haven’t done as they have promised. Thus, we exercise pressure on them to implement their promise.
What roles can Kurdish parties play in talks such as your talks with Damascus?
Actually, there is such a condition where we speak to everyone and take their opinion. We have even reached some military agreements. We, as the Syrian Democratic Forces, want our negotiations with America, Russia, or the central government in Damascus to include the Kurdish parties of Rojava as well. Recently, we met with every Kurdish party in Rojava. We got their opinion, and we also asked them to establish unity among themselves to work with the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Today, in Rojava, we are amidst what we call a historical, sensitive phase. It is possible for us to head towards an enduring agreement, or it is possible we could lose the achievements of the revolution. Things could go either way, since the phase is very sensitive. At this time, we call on Syrian Kurdish political parties to establish unity, to standby the Syrian Democratic Forces, for us to struggle together so that we come out successful for our people at the end of this phase. The stance of all the parties was positive, so we now hope they will take practical steps to establish a practical unity so that we work together. I would like to say some things, including to Southern Kurdistan (Kurdistan Region) as it also has a role to play. Truth to be told, the stance of the people of Southern Kurdistan in this phase was very positive. Our [Kurdish] people in all of the cities of Southern Kurdistan went out in support to the SDF against the invasion of the Turkish state. They declared their stance [of rejecting the Turkish invasion]. They boycotted the economy of Turkey [Turkish products]. They warmly welcomed [the boycott].
Through this medium, I would like to send my regards for everything that has been done there [in the Kurdistan Region]. It makes us proud and elated. The stance of the [Kurdistan] Regional Government, the Regional Administration, was also positive, supporting the resistance of the SDF, the struggle taking place here for Rojava. There was a strong support. We thank them for that. However, we do want to say that the threat has not been removed. There still is a threat against Western Kurdistan [Rojava]. The Turkish State’s aim is not to just destroy the achievements of the Revolution. It publicly says it wants to have Kurds expelled from the area. For us it is necessary for the support to continue, for the support to get even stronger. Weakness in Western Kurdistan also means weakness in Southern Kurdistan. It will negatively affect the South. Western Kurdistan being strong also makes Southern Kurdistan strong. We hope that the support becomes even stronger than before so that we may be able to achieve our aim, which is to protect the achievements of the revolution in Western Kurdistan. Southern Kurdistan can play a role in the unity of the political movement in Western Kurdistan, especially President [Masoud] Barzani.
We hope the administration of Southern Kurdistan [Kurdistan Region], especially President Barzani, can do their part in this regard in the sphere of the unity of the Kurdish political parties of Rojava, for us to settle on this, so that we are also able to make the resistance stronger so that both threats against our people eliminated, the threat of eradicating the Kurdish people in Rojava, and so that we are also able to obtain our rights.
What should Southern Kurdistan and its political parties do to stop war or create unity among Kurds?
The people of Kurdistan Region have done a lot, which is appreciated, and this has to be expanded and continued so the world would see that Kurds are united. The Rojava issue is not only related to a special party, but all Kurds. That’s why the positions of the three other parts of Kurdistan, especially Southern Kurdistan, is crucial. Therefore their stance should be stronger and continued. The Kurdistan Region’s authority has a good place in world diplomacy; they have relationships with many others. We know they have, to some extent, played their part in supporting the people of Rojava. But this has to be stronger and constant, to remove threats. There are some political parties [in Rojava] which listen to Southern Kurdistan. We have to bring unity to Rojava’s political parties. Therefore, Southern Kurdistan can play a great role for Rojava’s unity.
Let’s talk a little bit about ISIS. You had a major part to play in locating Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi, and later in his death. There have been many questions about it, which I don’t want to repeat. I want to ask you a question. If America had not been able to take part in the operation because of their troop withdrawal, or any other reason, and you had this information about Baghdadi’s location, what could you do alone? What was in your mind at that time?
This was a joint operation, neither we nor America were able to do it alone. We had to unite in order for the operation to work. Honestly speaking, we knew where Abubakir Al- Baghdadi was and where his house was. We had been assessing it on the ground. But in order to capture him we needed a large army and a strong military technique, we needed an army like the US with whom to do it. That is why if America had withdrawn, the operation would not have been possible.
There was another argument that said the operation was delayed because of Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops. Is that true? The US withdrawal led to his death rather than him being arrested. Is that true too?
No, the withdrawal decision led to the war between us and Turks. This delayed the operation because those fighters who were surveying him went to fight the Turks. This postponed the operation. There were also areas that needed to be assessed by the Americans for the operation to be conducted. They did not withdraw from some areas as they [areas] were part of this operation. The decision to withdraw US troops had its impact on the operation.
My last question, how did you find him? Other groups in the area also have beliefs as radical as those of ISIS. Why did no other groups come to help Baghdadi?
This is an intelligence issue, I can’t say everything. But it was a great victory that we were able to send our people to locate Baghdadi and surveil him. I want to tell you that we didn’t only see him in that place, but also in another place. We knew he was there. When we took his clothes, he was not in the place [where he was killed], but somewhere else. It was the place where he lived before moving to Idlib. There, we were able to have access to some of his things, to verify that it was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself staying there. We brought his blood from Idlib. Our person who worked there was able to bring his blood. We made sure once again that this was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself. This is an intelligence mission and it produced great success. The US intelligence and forces at their highest levels thanked our friends who worked on this mission. This was an important thing.
Why didn’t you do any operations at his previous location?
There was no chance [to get] Baghdadi before he moved [to Idlib. We did not inform them [US] about [Baghdadi’s] first location. It was kept [a secret] among our intelligence and SDF. By the time we confirmed it was him, he moved to Idlib. Later we and the Americans attacked him.
Translation by Karwan Faidhi Dri