In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor in northeast Syria, Gen. Mazlum Kobane speaks on a range of issues including prospects for reviving dialogue with Turkey, US President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw US troops from Syria and the impact of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani's killing in Iraq.
It has been more than three months since Turkey launched its most recent offensive against the United States’ Syrian Kurdish partners who lead the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Tens of thousands of people have been displaced by the fighting, and dozens of civilians have died. US forces have redeployed and Russian and Syria regime forces have stepped in to fill the vacuum. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to expand military operations in northeastern Syria, all the way to the Iraqi border. An atmosphere of fear and quiet defiance prevails in northeastern Syria or Rojava (western Kurdistan). Mazlum Kobane, the famously calm commander of the SDF, is doing his utmost to navigate these stormy waters, seeking on the one hand to balance relations between Russia, the United States and the regime while trying to unite the Syrian Kurdish political parties.
Al-Monitor sat down with Mazlum Kobane in a secret location in northeastern Syria for over an hour.
Here are the highlights of the interview that was conducted in Turkish and lightly edited for clarity:
Al-Monitor: A lot has happened since we last met in March 2019. Turkey invaded parts of the northeast, a move that you said at the time would trigger “Syria’s second great war.” How has Turkey’s Oct. 9 Operation Peace Spring impacted your region?
Kobane: The Turkish invasion caused tremendous harm to our people. Turkey invaded a part of Syria. It brought terrorist groups into the areas inhabited by our people. I am referring to al-Qaeda-linked groups, radical Islamic groups. Our people suffered mass displacement. They were subjected to demographic engineering and ethnic cleansing. Those Kurds can no longer return to their homes. Should they do so they face death. Arabs displaced by the conflict are also unable to return. They are viewed as traitors by Turkey for having coexisted with us and accepted our administration’s rule. They have become targets as well. They are forced to survive in miserable conditions, to live in camps and deprived of their livelihoods.
In operational terms, prior to the Turkish invasion we only used to work with the US-led coalition. Now the Russians are here and Syrian regime forces are on the border.
We are trying to adjust. It’s a time consuming and a delicate business dealing with these different actors in a more complex environment. But we are managing.
Al-Monitor: There were reports that the Iranians helped broker that agreement.
Kobane: No they did not. On the positive side, our people continue to stand with us, to trust us fully. No changes there. Moreover, we no longer have any point of contact with the Turkish forces. The regime forces are currently deployed along the length of the Turkish border in northeastern Syria — that is to say, they replaced our forces there. Turkey would constantly cite our presence along its border as a threat to its national security. That argument is now dead. They can no longer accuse us of seeking to dismember Syria, of seeking to break away from Syria.
Then there is the massive outpouring of support for the Kurds from across the globe. The support was particularly striking in the United States where we saw members of Congress from both sides of the aisle rush to our defense and condemn [US President Donald] Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops. President Trump has since called me. Vice President Mike Pence has called me. The whole world knows who the Kurds are and feels sympathy for us. Unlike Turkey, we do not need to spend millions of dollars on lobbying to defend ourselves. And it is because we have a just cause.
Finally, I believe that Russia’s presence will have a positive effect in terms of solving the problems of northeastern Syria. Russia has great influence in Syria and we know it is eager for a solution and will contribute greatly in helping us reach an agreement with the Syrian regime.
Al-Monitor: Yet by your own admission there has been no progress in your talks with the regime. If Russia is as keen to help you as you say it is, why has there been no movement so far? Russia has also developed close ties with Turkey. Turkey’s national intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, and his Syrian counterpart Ali Mamlouk met in Moscow recently. It seems Russia is using its relationship with Turkey to pressure you into breaking off your alliance with the United States.
Kobane: It’s true that Russia is looking out for its own interests and as such there is a parallel track of Russia trying to patch up relations between Ankara and Damascus. We told them we understand their relations with Turkey but that these should not be used against us. Yet we know that such a risk exists. If they choose that path it will not be in their interest. Syria is not the Syria of pre-2011. And we can never go back to the old Syria. Take the Adana agreement [signed between Ankara and Damascus in allowing Turkey to pursue Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, fighters inside Syrian territory]. Russia is talking about reviving it by way of getting Turkey and Syria to shake hands. It won’t work.
Al-Monitor: Why not?
Kobane: Because Turkey is openly supporting opposition groups against the regime and most significantly the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey’s ties with the Muslim Brotherhood are strategic in nature and are not confined to Syria. Turkey will not easily forfeit its relations with them. And for as long as this holds true Turkey cannot make peace with the Syrian regime.
Al-Monitor: But Russia’s dealings with Turkey go beyond Syria. Its overarching goal appears to be to use Turkey to drive a wedge inside NATO. And as we saw in Afrin, Russia doesn’t hesitate to offer Kurdish carrots to Turkey when it deems fit. Are you not worried that this scenario could be repeated east of the Euphrates? Erdogan constantly talks about expanding operations all the way to the Iraqi border. There are claims that Turkey wants to go after al-Qahtaniyah next, which is mainly Arab and has oil. He has also asked the Russians to “give us the oil” in and around Rmeilan. He says it is to help pay for housing for Syrian refugees in Turkey in order to resettle them inside Syria, in the border areas east of the Euphrates. This presumably ties in with Turkey’s alleged plans for thinning out the Kurdish population along the border.
Kobane: Yes, we are aware of these plans. We know that Erdogan wants to go after Kobane as well. He views Kobane as an obstacle to linking the areas Turkey just invaded with Idlib. We do not dismiss any of these threats as empty rhetoric. We take them seriously. Erdogan wants to implement the map that he held up during his address at the United Nations General Assembly. That map was of Rojava.
Al-Monitor: Will Russia allow Turkey to pursue such plans?
Kobane: There are two agreements. The one between Erdogan and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin that was signed in Sochi. Then there is the other agreement signed in Ankara with US Vice President Pence. Both stand in the way of further Turkish intervention in our territory. We accepted both of those agreements. We were consulted about them and are a party to them. We complied with all of our obligations, but Turkey has not. It is violating the provisions of the agreement with the United States. That agreement protects the rights of minorities living in the areas under Turkish control. Yet Turkey is changing the demographic makeup of the area. It is abusing the rights of ethnic and religious minorities living there. It is the responsibility of Russia and the United States to ensure that Turkey does not embark on any further adventures.
Al-Monitor: So far Erdogan has pretty much done everything he has said he will do. And neither Russia nor the United States has stopped him.
Kobane: Sadly not.
Al-Monitor: Our sources tell us that the US State Department’s Syria team has floated the idea of sending oil to Turkey via Tell Abyad as a way of easing tensions with you.
Kobane: The Americans never mentioned anything of the kind to us. In any case, the oil belongs to all of the Syrian people and all of the Syrian people should benefit from it. We have controlled the oil for several years now and we have done our utmost to ensure that all of the Syria people, not only those living in the areas under our control, benefit from the oil. Syrian oil can be sold to foreign countries only with the consent of the Syrian people and that of the central government in Damascus.
Al-Monitor: But Trump says US troops are staying in Syria “for the oil” and has talked about getting US oil companies extracting and selling it.
Kobane: The oil is a form of justification for keeping US troops here. They say they will defend the oil against the Islamic State [IS] and that they will defeat IS remnants to prevent them from regrouping, from staging a comeback. US troops are redeploying in our region in line with this new plan. The redeployment is still ongoing. In fact, there is still no clarity about whether or how long US troops will continue to be here. It is up to Trump.
Eradicating IS is very hard. The withdrawal of US troops [from the US border] gave IS a big boost. This problem cannot be resolved in months. It will take years.
Al-Monitor: So you believe US troops must stay here for the long haul?
Kobane: We aren’t saying as Trump did that America will remain here for hundreds of years, or that they should remain to defend us against attacks from other forces. But the United States bears a responsibility toward us. We fought against IS together and we made many enemies because of our partnership with the United States. For example, before the Americans came we had good relations with Turkey. The United States has a responsibility now to help ensure a just political solution to the Syrian conflict, to help ensure that all the Syrian people, including the Kurds, are given their full rights in a new, democratic Syria, all enshrined in a democratic constitution.
Al-Monitor: Are we any closer to the outcome you describe?
Kobane: If we stay the course, we might just get there this year. But this is our foremost expectation from the Americans, to help us get there. Their withdrawal should be pegged to a political solution in Syria. And it is true that oil and other resources in the territory under our control provide leverage to this end.
Al-Monitor: You mention oil and IS, but the other reason the United States says it is remaining in Syria is Iran — and we just saw Iran’s top commander Qasem Soleimani die in a US drone attack in Iraq. Soleimani was the man who led and organized Iranian proxy forces in Syria. What impact has his death had on the balance of power in Syria? Iran is Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s biggest backer. Has the Assad regime been weakened by his death? Does this provide an opportunity for Russia to have more influence over Assad and help wrest concessions for the Kurds among other things? Because we know that Iran is resisting granting rights to the Kurds for fear it will encourage its own Kurds to ask for the same.
Kobane: Soleimani’s assassination will without question have an impact in Syria. And it will weaken Iran’s influence in Syria. It was totally unexpected.
Al-Monitor: Were you surprised by his death?
Kobane: Yes. And all of those who believe in a military solution to the Syrian issue need to draw lessons from Soleimani’s fate. Only a political solution can work for Syria, not brute military force.
Al-Monitor: So has this freed Russia’s hand for a political solution?
Kobane: We will need to wait and see. But it needs to be noted that once again IS will benefit from this situation.
Al-Monitor: Because Iranian proxies were fighting IS?
Kobane: Yes. We haven’t yet experienced the effects of this within the territories under our control, but it is easy to observe this happening elsewhere in Syria [in areas under the regime’s control].
Al-Monitor: Could US forces in Syria become a target for Iran? Or could Iran target the SDF by way of punishing the United States?
Kobane: We have not observed any such moves of this nature so far. Much hangs on the degree of control and support our forces are able to maintain.
Al-Monitor: Going back to Oct. 9 when Turkey launched its attack. Can you walk us through what happened exactly? Because you had through US mediation been negotiating with Turkey and agreed to let Turkish troops to carry out joint patrols in your territory. You agreed to pull back your forces up to 30 kilometers [19 miles] from the Turkish border in some areas. You removed your heavy weapons, filled in your trenches. Then Turkey invaded. Did Trump capitulate to Erdogan in a single phone call?
Kobane: Erdogan has good personal relations with Trump and Putin. But rather than focus on individuals we need to look at the broader picture. The determining factor is the interests of states. The interests of the United States, Russia and Turkey. They cast aside the sacrifices of our people in the name of such interests, setting the stage for the betrayal of the Kurds.
Al-Monitor: How are America’s interests served by Turkey attacking you, their allies?
Kobane: Turkey is a NATO member. Erdogan has played that card well against the United States and Russia. The United States does not want to lose Turkey and does not want Turkey to break away from NATO, because this means Turkey will join the Russian camp. Therefore, Erdogan has been permitted to do everything he wants. But time will tell whether all of this is in Turkey’s own interests or not.
Al-Monitor: People here in Rojava seem very focused on Libya now. Libya has become something of a barometer of how much more Turkey can flex its muscles unhindered, and also a test of its relations with Russia with its attendant consequences for their partnership in Syria.
Kobane: Turkey and Russia want to create a new Astana in Libya, but it is highly questionable whether they can succeed. Libya is quite different to Syria. There are many different states and actors intervening in Libya. Besides, when it is obvious to all how the Astana process has fared thus far it is unlikely that the Libyan people will allow a similar scenario to unfold in their country. Nor will the other states get involved in Libya.
Al-Monitor: There is speculation that Russia is using Libya as a bargaining chip with Turkey over Idlib. In exchange for Turkish acquiescence for a full-scale regime assault on Idlib Russia will humor Turkish ambitions in Libya, or something along those lines.
Kobane: I disagree. It is bigger than that. Erdogan wants to become a regional superpower. At the same time he wants to buoy his domestic standing through his posturing in Libya. He made a move. He signed a military and maritime agreement with the [Tripoli-based] Government of National Accord and in doing so elevated Turkey’s role in Libya. He holds this card now. But the other states involved in Libya are surely unhappy with this and will push back. Turkey will have a tough time in Libya.
Al-Monitor: Is Erdogan aware of this?
Kobane: I think Erdogan is either deluding himself or that those around him are either intentionally or unintentionally misleading him. Libya is not Syria. Syria and Turkey share borders. Libya and Turkey do not. Turkey is now carrying Syrian rebel mercenaries to Libya. Turkey used them against the Syrian regime. It whipped up Arab chauvinism and used them against the Kurds. None of this will fly in Libya. I know these groups. They fought us. They went for money to Libya but they will fail. The same people in [Turkey’s national spy agency] who dealt with the Syria file have been advising Erdogan on Libya. I suppose they want to repeat their operations in Syria, which they deem to be successful, in Libya now.
Al-Monitor: Do you mean Hakan Fidan?
Kobane: His team. But they will not get what they want. We are hearing reports that the Syrian mercenaries who were sent to Libya are already beginning to unravel. One group went for the sole purpose of seeking asylum in Europe. Seventeen of these guys went from Tripoli to Italy.
Al-Monitor: Getting back to your own relations with Turkey. Your people have suffered immensely and there is a lot of anger. But despite all of this do you see any chance of resuming some form of dialogue with Turkey, or more precisely with Erdogan? After all, you did have direct talks with Turkey when the peace process between Turkey and imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was still ongoing. Your forces worked with the Turkish Armed Forces to transport the remains of Suleiman Shah from their site near Kobani to their current location in Esme near the Turkish border to protect them from an IS attack. Ocalan called this the “Esme spirit.” Can the spirit of Esme be revived?
Kobane: Why not? We know that Turkey wants to return Suleiman Shah’s remains to Kobani and to rebuild his tomb there. Provided that Turkey does not mistake our goodwill for weakness we would be happy to help Turkey, to coordinate with the Turkish Armed Forces and to conduct such an operation in a spirit of peace and based on the understanding that this spirit of peace will be reciprocal.
There are other confidence-building, goodwill gestures that we would be prepared to consider.
As you know, I made a call to the people of Idlib. I told them they are welcome to seek shelter in the areas under our control, that our doors are open to them. We know that Turkey, which already has a huge burden with nearly 4 million Syrians living there, is deeply concerned by a fresh influx of up to a million Syrian refugees from Idlib because of escalating regime attacks on Idlib. Our call to the people of Idlib helps relieve Turkey’s burden. Again, in the spirit of goodwill and above all on humanitarian grounds we are ready to work with Turkey if and when the need arises to help move civilians out of harm’s way in Idlib and bring them here. If such actions help the Syrian people, serve the interests of my people living in the areas that we are responsible for, and contribute to peace, security and stability in our region — why not. But Turkey should never mistake our goodwill for weakness and should be prepared to reciprocate our goodwill.
Al-Monitor: Objectively speaking the Kurds did Turkey a huge favor by helping destroy the IS caliphate. IS were right on Turkey’s border and staged deadly attacks inside Turkey. That might be another area for potential cooperation?
Kobane: In the past the Turkish state facilitated IS’ movements inside Turkey and our assessment is that the threat to Turkey from IS remains significant. IS counts what it calls “Konstantiniye” or Turkey among its so-called provinces. IS leaders we capture and interrogate tell us that they still have cells inside Turkey. IS foreign fighters without exception all came to Syria via Turkey and are now escaping Syria via Turkey. This, in turn, suggests that there remains a secret, unwritten pact between Turkey and IS. Turkey used IS against the Kurds. It then used IS as a pretext to invade Syria. All of this will have a boomerang effect on Turkey. The risk for Turkey is great. We would be prepared to share our intelligence on IS to help Turkey fend off this threat provided it is sincere about such cooperation. But Turkey has its own very unique relationship, unlike any others, with IS.
Al-Monitor: Part of the problem with Turkey seems to be that its own Kurdish problem is held hostage to Turkey’s relations with your administration and vice versa. One of the main reasons the peace process between Turkey and the PKK collapsed in 2015 was over its demands that the Syrian Kurds join the opposition and fight for regime change, and that the PKK give up its fight in exchange for Turkey not attacking you. Do you believe that your life would be a lot easier if Turkey and your administration just dealt with each other on a bilateral basis with more modest goals, while you go about your business of seeking accommodation with Damascus?
Kobane: First of all, the Kurdish problem in Turkey and Syria are intertwined. The Kurds in Iraq are also part of this equation. We cannot separate them. Whenever a step toward peace is taken in Turkey its positive effects are felt here in Rojava. Likewise, any positive gesture by Turkey toward Syria’s Kurds has a positive impact on the Kurds in Turkey. By the same token hostile moves by Turkey have a negative impact on both sides of the border.
I know that the United States is keen to help broker peace between us and Turkey. President Trump gave me his word in our first telephone call. He said, “I will talk to Erdogan and we must fix the problem in Syria.” I said “OK, please do.” We do want to end our differences with Turkey.
And if we do, this will definitely ease the situation of the Kurds in Turkey and help shift Turkish public opinion in favor of peace. In my letter to him I emphasized the need for Turkey to address the Kurdish problem within its own borders as well. He promised to do whatever it takes to help us.
I repeat, we have tried our best to fix our problems with Turkey. As the SDF, as the YPG [People’s Protection Units], we have had direct talks with Turkey in the past and are ready to do so again. We want peace.
That said, none of this means that Turkey is responsible for fixing Syria’s Kurdish issue or that we are responsible for fixing Turkey’s Kurdish issue. We have repeatedly said we are not a party to the conflict inside Turkey. The Kurdish problem here is Syria’s domestic problem. And we can help resolve it with the help of all the countries that are currently involved in Syria — Turkey included. But ultimately this needs to be negotiated with the government in Damascus. We are all Syrians and I am confident that we can.
Al-Monitor: Ocalan lived in Syria for 20 years and is hailed by many Syrian Kurds as a leader. He could in theory weigh in?
Kobane: He mentioned this in his most recent statement [in May 2019 — the Syrian Kurds should take Turkey’s security concerns into consideration] and we supported it.
Al-Monitor: Turning to your relations with members of the Syrian Kurdish opposition, the parties gathered under the umbrella of the Kurdish National Council [KNC]. There are efforts initiated by you for reconciliation. How are they going?
Kobane: Kurdish national unity is an extremely important matter, particularly now in Rojava. We have embarked on a new process to resolve our differences. Not out of weakness or because of the recent setbacks we suffered as some claim. We the SDF are a military force. Our political representative up to now is the Autonomous Administration [of northeastern Syria] and Democratic Unity Party [PYD]. We said that the SDF should be represented by all the Syrian Kurdish political parties. The PYD should not be the only party to represent the Kurds in talks with Damascus. We met with all of these parties on this basis and all of them, the KNC included, said they were ready. Nobody refused.
The KNC asked for some confidence building measures. And we complied. That they be able to operate and organize freely in Rojava — they can. That we free all prisoners — we have. The remaining issue is missing people. There are eight such people and seven of them disappeared eight years ago. It is not new. Nobody has disappeared since our Autonomous Administration and the SDF were formed. This is a huge achievement considering the thousands of people who have disappeared elsewhere in the country. After all, we are in a conflict situation. Since 2014 nobody has gone missing in our area save for one KNC member. We found those responsible for his disappearance. We are continuing our inquiry.
And don’t forget that we did sign three agreements with the KNC that were brokered by the Kurdistan Regional Government [but were never implemented] in the past. The issues cited by the KNC predate our existence so in that sense don’t obstruct a new agreement.
Al-Monitor: What does then?
Kobane: There are different factions within the KNC. Those who live here in Rojava with us and operate here who want to work with us for the collective good of our people. But then there are those in the diaspora, and particularly in Turkey, who are opposed to this.
Al-Monitor: Can the Kurdistan Regional Government help sway them as before?
Kobane: I think so, particularly brother Nechirvan [Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq]. I spoke to him about this and he agreed to help. Brother Massoud [Barzani, chairman of the Kurdistan Democratic Party] has made some positive remarks in this regard. But I really think they could be doing more. If they really want to they can get all of the KNC to agree.
We would like to see results this year. And I am announcing this for the first time to you.
Everybody is ready and we are going to hold a conference soon on the unity of Rojava.
Kobane: We will be holding it. Most of the parties in Rojava are ready for this and to take part. And our hope is that the KNC will join us.
Al-Monitor: Isn’t part of the problem that you are asking the KNC to leave the Turkish-based Syrian opposition?
Kobane: We never put forth any such demand. On the contrary, it is the Syrian opposition that probably wants them to stay away from us. We want them to stay in the Geneva talks as part of the opposition so they can achieve something on behalf of the Kurdish people.
Al-Monitor: What about the KNC linked Roj Pesh forces. Are they on the table?
Kobane: It is no longer an issue regardless of whether they operate under our command or not. The SDF is a very large force.
Al-Monitor: How large?
Kobane: Together with our internal security forces — the Asayish — there are more than 100,000 of us.
Al-Monitor: Who pays their salaries?
Kobane: The Autonomous Administration does.
Al-Monitor: Didn’t the United States pay SDF fighters’ salaries.
Kobane: No, that was in the past. They paid a portion of their salaries and their contribution represents a very small part of our budget.
Al-Monitor: We hear that you have become more of a diplomat than a military commander in recent months, traveling to places like Geneva and Dubai. What is the nature of your relations with the Gulf states?
Kobane: I will speak about these relations generally. Our relations with Arab countries are good. We have good political relations with Egypt and we are working together with the Egyptians to hold a Cairo Congress.
Al-Monitor: What is that?
Kobane: It is a platform for seeking a solution to the Syrian conflict. It is not new. We participated in the past, but it was not a very successful experience. This time we are going to be full-blooded participants.
Al-Monitor: We heard that the SDF has an office in Cairo now.
Kobane: Yes, we do. To sum up we have good working relations with Arab countries including those in the Gulf. A lot of it is to do with our cooperation against IS, exchanging intelligence on IS. I want to stress that none of this is directed against other countries and especially not against Turkey. Syria is an Arab country and it is natural that fellow Arab countries should want to help find a solution to the conflict there.
Al-Monitor: Finally, there are the IS prisoners, the foreign fighters and their families who are a big burden on your administration. Are you making any progress in getting their governments to take them back.
Kobane: It is mostly a political problem. And none of these countries are doing enough to help fix it. Take Iraq. There are 30,000 Iraqi nationals in al-Hol. They haven’t taken a single one back even though they keep promising they will. We have Iraqi prisoners they aren’t repatriating. So, it is not just the Europeans.
Al-Monitor: What about Turkey? Are there many Turkish IS fighters and their families.
Kobane: There are hundreds of them. But Turkey hasn’t taken this up with us in any serious way. If they do we would be happy to cooperate. We have 12,000 IS prisoners and tens of thousand of their family members. This problem cannot be solved piece meal and through secret deals, and secret thanks behind closed doors. I repeat, it is a political issue. They committed crimes against our people and it is our right to prosecute them. But we need political support for this, to be treated as political interlocutors. So far no country has treated us as such. And the presence of these fighters is a source of strength and inspiration for IS. The camp in al-Hol functions like IS headquarters. Therefore, the IS prisoner issue need to be treated as a political problem and addressed with the SDF and the Autonomous Administration.
Al-Monitor: Critics say you are using the IS detainees to win political legitimacy.
Kobane: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed something to that effect. He claimed that the SDF was releasing various IS prisoners in exchange for money. This is untrue. We have been working closely with the Russian authorities on Russian IS fighters and their families, of which there are many. We have handed over 70 IS fighters to them so far. We were offended by Lavrov’s comments. These people came from Europe, from Asia, from across the globe and fought against us and committed crimes against us — and we fought back. Our people, the SDF and the Autonomous Administration, are owed big thanks for their sacrifice.