Ilham Ehmed, co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council / ANF
The interview below with the co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council (MSD), Ilham Ehmed, was first aired on Voice of America (VOA) Kurdish Service on 1 February 2017.
How do you view the new Donald Trump administration in the United States and its impact on Middle Eastern politics and the war in Syria in particular?
Americans elected a new president. No one in the world and in the US is quite sure how it will pan out. Yet, it is obvious that he will focus on the security of America. American interests will be important and America’s own security will be fundamental. But, the security of America is not separate from the security of the Middle East and other countries. The support that is given to Kurds and Syria by the international coalition until now will continue. We do not know what the level of the support will look like, but it is obvious that Kurds have been an important factor in the Middle East. The success of the Kurds in the fight against ISIS proved that it is an important force in the war against terrorism. On the other hand, the democratic system that Kurds have established in Rojava in Northern Syria draws attention. Kurds are the leading force for establishing democracy and everyone sees this. There are some people who say it is a system only for Kurds. This is not true. This system with all its societal components is working according to their needs and will continue doing so. I believe for the improvement of a system like this the new Trump administration will support it.
The special envoy of the President in the fight against ISIS, Brett McGurk stayed in his post in Trump’s Administration. What can you say about that?
It is good that Brett McGurk is remaining in his post. He has experience in the fight against ISIS both in Iraq and Syria and because of this will have a positive impact.
Recently, there is talk of a plan that Trump will push for establishing a no-fly zone in Syria. What do you think about this?
This is one of the issues we have been asked during the meetings in Washington and we have some proposals for it. In order to end the killings, terror, war and establish a democratic system in Syria there is a need for a safe region. Until now, the most appropriate region that is seen is the region where we are now with our forces. This region has established a democracy that is stable and safe. For example, American soldiers can only move, fight, travel freely in this region. They cannot do that in other parts of Syria. That means that this region can be a safe region. This region can become a base for ending terror in other parts of the Syria and for establishing stability and a democratic system. For this reason it is a positive decision and will be good.
The Syrian Democratic Council was not invited to the Astana Talks on Syria. What is your attitude to this?
We were not invited to the any meetings on Syria and we were always told that it was because of Turkey's veto. For instance, America always told us that Turkey did not want us at these meetings and for this reason we could not be invited. And now for the Astana Syria Talks, Russia told us that Turkey has a veto that we are banned and they cannot invite us. The Astana meeting is not the the last meeting. It was held to determine the ceasefire. In other words, political decisions were not taken there. It was about security and determining the ceasefire. In this meeting they could figure out who is part of the Opposition and also it was aimed at dividing al-Qaeda. Yet, how much they succeeded in this we do not know. But, when Turkey takes part in a meeting like this, it is very clear. When there is a meeting on Syria for military and political action and if a force that is a power on the ground working for a solution is not included then it means that the aim of these meetings is to continue the crisis and war and this deepens the conflict. 20% of the land of Syria and the representation of 4 million people were excluded from talks and a solution. This will have very negative consequences. For us, if we are excluded from any kind of solution, the decisions that will be taken in these kind of meetings will not be accepted in our region whether it be political or military. So, it is a big mistake to take such decisions and exclude us.
What is your take on Turkey’s role in the Astana talks ?
Turkey’s participation in talks is a clear indication of Turkey’s representing the armed groups in Syria. If it hadn’t been for Turkey, those armed groups wouldn’t have been invited to the ceasefire talks, and yet they do not even want to reach resolutions. If Turkey is willing to reach a peace agreement, it needs to pressure those groups to abide, otherwise the conflict will continue. Other than that, Turkey’s role within Syria has been disruptive, they haven’t made any effort to mitigate the conflicts. When it comes to just talking, yes, Turkey has always sounded as if it were a friend to the Syrian peoples, but in reality Turkey was the one that backed IS and other armed groups instigating the clashes in Syria. For example during their incursion in Jarablus, Turkey used the pretext of IS, they reached al-Bab, but couldn’t go further. It has been a month since the Turkish state has been trying to enter al-Bab, but they haven’t been able to do so. This means that Turkey is not sincere in their fight against IS, IS is only a pretext in order for Turkey to secure its stay in the region. Jarablus is a Syrian city, yet the fighters being trained there chant the slogan "Long live Turkey and Long live Erdogan". It is pretty clear that Turkey’s purpose is to occupy a part of Syria as they threaten to target the Kurdish regions; Manbik and Afrin after they are done with al-Bab. We tried our best to reconcile with Turkey and we have had no hostility towards Turkey. However, Turkey regards the Kurds in Syria as a danger because of its internal issues with the Kurds within its borders. In order to reach peace in Syria and Turkey, it is a must that Turkey makes effort to reconcile with Kurds in Turkey and withdraw from Syria. We are ready to reconcile with Turkey and improve relations. We have posed no threat to Turkey, on the contrary we protected the borders in between us and Turkey.
You declared the federal system recently. Why would the Syria need this system?
According to the Syrian Democratic Congress, three federal regions within Syria can be created: the Southern, Northern and Central Federations. Northern Syria has been the first to experience the federal system based on the needs of people. Syria has become fragmented. The Sunnis and the Alawites have serious conflicts, they have been slaughtering each other for the past five years. Only Alawites ruling the country is a problem for the Sunnis and vice versa, and the same thing goes for the Kurds and the Arabs. In order to halt internal conflicts, the federal system maintains the national borders of Syria and creates a decentralised system within Syria and allows the regions to take initiative to govern themselves. The practice in Northern Syria set a good example for the other two parts. In this system, women’s freedom is among the fundementals. Unlike in the old system where Arabic language was the only language, now everyone can receive education in their mother tongue in the federal system. Various religions and beliefs are also protected within this system. These are just a few democratic steps
How are you dealing with civilian society, what are the difficulties the federal system is faced with?
For the past five years the region has been financially encircled on one side by Turkey and IS on the other. Furthermore the region is blocked by KDP and Barzani. I am sorry to say this but they are Kurdishm a major entity and on the border but unfortunately [they have not accepted us] so that we could have helped each other. Because of political interests the border was closed. Things are smuggled into the market within the region thus making prices higher. However, thanks to the autonomous system the region remains standing even in the worse situation, like during war time. Various civilian organisations have been founded. Because of the diplomatic sanctions on the region, these organisations haven’t been able to fully coordinate with international organisations.
There are three refugee camps in the region; one in Afrin and two in Cizire. There are refugees from Mosul and central Syria as well. All the needs of these refugees are met through the efforts of the autonomous administration, which is putting more burden on the shoulders of the region amid many other crises. United Nations provides Turkey and Jordan with millions of dollars to support the refugees, but when it comes to the refugees who found a safe place in Rojava, they turn a blind eye.
What efforts have you made to keep the border gate between Rojava and the Kurdistan Region open?
Some third parties took the initiative to open the gate. US authorities also made efforts on this issue. However, the Kurdistan Region’s relations with Turkey constitute a problem for efforts to re-open the border gate. There have been some efforts recently, and we have accepted some of the preconditions they put forward, but they haven’t taken any serious steps. We wish to end these political conflicts, the political agenda behind the sanctions should be abandoned. There is a humanitarian emergency in the region that is besieged and fighting IS. The region needs support. Whatever system the people of the region wish, we have no say about it; it will be their own preference.
- Ruken Isik
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