This interview originally aired on Voice of America – Kurdish, conducted in Kurdish by Washington DC based journalist Mutlu Civiroglu.
General Mazlum Abdi Kobani, commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, expresses high hopes that US President Joe Biden’s team will proactively address the Syrian crisis in a way that protects the human rights of all Syrians.
Mutlu Civiroglu: As you know, a new administration came to power in the US and world powers are reshaping their policies in accordance with this change. I have questions relating to your thoughts about the new administration, and especially, about your relations with the coalition against the ISIS under the leadership of the US. But first, I wanted to ask about the operation you started against the ISIS in Deir ez-Zor. What is the latest situation in fight against ISIS?
General Mazlum Abdi Kobani: ISIS is not finished yet, and recently it has intensified its attacks. Lately they targeted our civil servants. Two of our female leaders were martyred [Two civil leaders kidnapped and beheaded by ISIS sleeper cells in Dashisha district in the countryside of Shaddadi in January]. Because the danger is continuing, we started a big operation against ISIS in Deir ez-Zor. The ISIS group that attacked our comrades were composed of 6 people, we killed 4 of them, captured 1 alive and 1 managed to escape. Other arrests also were carried out in the region. I can say that the threat is continuing, the terror organization is trying to revive itself. They come to our region from areas under the control of the Syrian regime and from Iraq. With our allies in the coalition under US leadership, our operations against ISIS sleeping cells are moving forward successfully.
Civiroglu: The prevalent impression in public opinion was that ISIS was finished. The former US president Donald Trump also frequently stated that ISIS was finished. What happened that ISIS became a potent force to launch attacks once again? The coalition stated that its partnership with you will continue. What position should US policy makers take in the light of this latest development?
Kobani: After the liberation of places like Raqqa and Kobani, coalition forces withdrew from these areas and the terrorist organization took advantage of this withdrawal and reorganized. As I mentioned earlier, they enter our region from areas under the control of the Syrian regime and from Iraq. The future political status of our region is also still unclear, and ISIS is also taking advantage of this situation. To prevent a comeback of ISIS, we urgently need to clarify the future political status of this region. The coalition forces should continue their work in these areas, liberated from the ISIS. And if they provide support for the civil administration in our region, we can pursue a more effective campaign against the ISIS.
Civiroglu: It is known that President Biden and his administration are knowledgeable about the Kurdish issue. You also stated that the situation in Syria needs to be resolved in a political, diplomatic way. What are your political expectations from the new administration? As opposed to Trump administration, what can this administration do differently?
Kobani: We welcome the new Biden administration. We are hopeful that the mistakes of the previous administration will be corrected. We hope that the new administration will play an important role in solving the conflict in Syria. Within the context of Syria, a status must be accorded to this region that we liberated from ISIS in collaboration with the Coalition. The rights of Kurdish people, the rights of other people in our region must be protected by legal means, and the problem in Syria must be solved in a comprehensive way. We hope that Washington will pursue an effective policy on this issue.
Civiroglu: You mentioned that during the previous administration some mistakes were made. President Trump’s decision to withdraw American forces met harsh criticism in Washington and in America generally. What sort of an impact did that decision have on you and on civilians?
Kobani: During the previous administration we suffered losses in some areas. People here, Kurds, Arabs and others had a lot of trust in American forces, though this trust is still there. But this trust eroded substantially when Americans allowed the Turks to attack Serekaniye [Ras al-Ain] and Afrin. We are striving to reestablish that trust between the local people and American forces. In Afrin hundreds of thousands of people were forced to abandon their homes and are now refugees. Afrin’s population was 95% Kurdish, but that ratio now is approximately 30%. The Turkish state settled Turkomens and Arabs there and changed the demographics of the area. The 2019 attacks on Serekaniye and Girêsipî [Tal Abyad] forced out, hundreds of thousands of our people from the area, and they now live in refugee camps, and are in a dire situation. They are awaiting a return to their homes. Due to all these circumstances, if a good policy is pursued during this period, these people can return to their homes and the region can revert to its natural, previous order.
Civiroglu: What can the new administration do concretely and urgently? If you had the opportunity to meet with President Biden, what concrete requests would you have from him?
Kobani: We want the regional problems to be solved in a dialogue. We want President Biden to help us in this dialogue and he can provide support to keep the calm in the region. We are pursuing a fight against terror and he can support us to fend off the attacks coming from our neighbors, and this is the primary and most urgent need we have. Unfortunately, the previous US administration paved the way for attacks against our region. This should not be repeated. We also want substantial support for our civilian administration to fight against ISIS effectively.
Civiroglu: You talked about attacks coming from your neighbors. Turkey is your neighbor but also a US ally. Ankara states that Syrian Kurds constitute a danger for its security. Do you think you -as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and as Syrian Kurds- constitute a danger for Turkey?
Kobani: As we have stated on several occasion previously, we are not a threat to Turkey. The Turks know this better than us. To the contrary, it is Turkey that attacked our lands. We are not part of the war that Turkish state wages against other Kurdish forces. We want to solve the problems with Turkish state through dialogue. I think the US can play an effective role in advancing this dialogue and we are open to it.
Civiroglu: Are you saying that you are ready to respond positively to a call from Biden Administration for a dialogue with Turkey?
Kobani: Yes, indeed. The Turkish state has invaded some of our lands. We want to solve the problems through dialogue with the Turks. We are ready for a dialogue and there are no serious hurdles preventing it. We want to solve the issues through dialogue, without fighting.
Civiroglu: President Biden and the White House National Security Adviser Jack Sullivan previously broached the subject of Kurdish rights and made some public statements on starting a new process for solving the Kurdish issue. As the SDF do you support the start of such a process, would you contribute such an initiative?
Kobani: There is a fact that needs to be acknowledged: developments in each of the four parts of Kurdistan are interconnected. The Kurdish political movement in Turkey, in Northern Kurdistan has a huge impact on all parts. Without a solution of the Kurdish issue in that part of Kurdistan, it is hard to solve issues in other parts of Kurdistan. Solving the issue in Rojava is related to solving the Kurdish issue in Turkey. An initiative to solve the problem should engage Mr. Ocalan and this would have a positive impact on other parts of Kurdistan, especially on Rojava region. This would be the best way of solving the problem between the Kurds and the Turkish state.
Civiroglu: Okay, coming back to Syria, why is the situation here as important for the security of American people? Why should Americans support a political solution of the problem in Syria?
Kobani: If the problem is solved in our region, it will have an impact in all other regions. We think that if the problem in North and East Syria is not solved, problems in other parts of Syria will also not be solved. Lack of a solution will only strengthen the ISIS and other entities that constitute a threat to American people. A political solution of the problem here, in our region will result in tranquility in the region as a whole and this would have a positive impact on American interests in the region.
Civiroglu: I want to touch the situation of the Yezidi and Christian minorities in the region. Reports from Afrin state that their situation is bad. What would you like to say about the latest situation of Christians and Yezidis?
Kobani: Within the SDF Christians and Yezidis have a significant representation. They have suffered greatly. ISIS and other radical groups attacked the Yezidis and Christians. To protect themselves, they joined the SDF. Our Yezidi people faced a huge atrocity, unfortunately in Serekaniye and Afrin also they faced huge attacks. Their villages are pillaged, and they face genocide. Now they live in some other regions under oppressive conditions, and some of them live in refugee camps in our region. We are aware that democratically minded people who monitor the situation of Yezidis and Christians are concerned. They should shoulder the plight of these minorities and protect them.
Civiroglu: You stated that the situation of Kurds is interconnected. What is the state of your relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government? They also expressed their pleasure visa vie the new American administration. SDF plays an important role in negotiations or dialogue among the Kurds and you have a leadership role in that effort. How is your relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government?
Kobani: We have close relations with Southern Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Regional Government. We also have trade relations and they are our window to the outside world. Kurdistan Regional Government can provide support in political and trade relations. It has a recognized status; they are experienced and have resources. Of course, Rojava is in need of relations with them. Some negotiations are ongoing, we want a much stronger relation with them. We are aware that Turkish state wants an inter-Kurdish war. Turkish state wants conflict between forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government and those of Northern Kurdistan [of Turkey].
Despite all the tempting, Peshmerga forces have resisted to this game [played by Turkey] and this makes us happy. We want Kurdistan Regional Government to develop good relations with each part of Kurdistan and especially with the Rojava.
Civiroglu: How is your relationship with the Syrian government? There were some clashes lately.
Kobani: The Baath regime has not changed its mentality. It wants things to return to pre-2011 times and still does not recognize Kurdish rights. It does not recognize the rights of other minorities in the region either. In Shahba region, pro-regime militia has encircled our people who escaped Afrin and Aleppo and implemented an embargo on them, have arrested some civilians. We defended our people and some unpleasant events took place. We do not want to be in an endless war with the government in Damascus. We want to solve our problems through dialogue; they should recognize the region and grant Kurdish rights.
Civiroglu: Kurds in general used to call the Kurds in Syria as their “little brother.” Americans now tease that it is Rojava nowadays that has lifted the flag for all Kurds. Whenever Americans talk about Kurds, first thing that comes to mind is the SDF, YPG, YPJ and Mazlum Kobani. We can state that here in the US a natural lobby emerged on your behalf. With some reproach, former president Trump had complained to Americans that “They loved General Mazlum more than they loved him.” On the other hand, you have friends who criticize you. They say, why have you not utilized such great opportunities more to your advantage. How would you handle this criticism?
Kobani: We value the support that our American friends provided for SDF and Rojava and we are thankful for that. At our dire hours Americans came to our help. American policy makers provided support for our struggle. The support that American forces have provided, makes us happy. We are aware of our shortcomings. We want to make it our priority in 2021, to be in more frequent contact with the US. We want our policy makers to have closer contact with American senators and other policy makers. We faced some bureaucratic hurdles and hope that they will be removed.
Civiroglu: Last year American Congress invited you to United States. Do you have plans to visit Washington and speak with the members of the Congress who invited you?
Kobani: We were involved in a war at that time and there were some bureaucratic problems. Now is an opportune time to talk with Americans about our struggle. If it were possible to meet American policy makers in their country, and if it were possible to discuss face to face the problems we encounter here, I would appreciate that indeed.
Civiroglu: You had a few contacts with President Trump. Have you had any contact with President Biden? To put it differently, do you expect any contact in the future?
Kobani: We have meetings with the new American administration. I hope that we have a stronger relation in coming days, and we start much higher levels of meetings.
Civiroglu: The battle for Kobani. Kobani became the landmark by which the whole world got to know the Kurds. Previously, in America, the Kurds were seen as a wretched and helpless people. Recently a book by the name of “Daughters of Kobani” got published. You were also leading the war in Kobani that now garners the sympathy and admiration of the world. This new book captured a lot of attention in American press. The former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her daughter Chelsea want to make a feature film based on this book. The French also made a film about the YPJ. What do you say about such works?
Kobani: Our heartfelt thanks go to the author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. When she was here in Rojava, she visited me as well. I had related to her my assessment of the resistance in Kobani. Our friends in YPG, YPJ, and SDF assisted her. She wrote a very important and valuable book. I think It is a book worthy of resistance in Kobani and resistance of those women on the forefronts of the war. We are proud of such a work and hope there will be similar ones in the future.