14 March 2016
by Fehim Taştekin
This article was originally written in Turkish by Fehim Taştekin for Radikal and translated by Rojava Press.
In the article Taştekin interviews Aldar Xelil, a member of the executive committee of the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM), and Zuhat Kobani, a representative of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Europe, and reflects on the current calculations of the Kurds in Rojava in light of the complex geopolitics unfolding in the region.
Despite receiving warnings from the United States and artillery fire from Turkey, the Kurds are silently laying the foundation for democratic autonomy between Marea and Azaz.
Throughout the history of Syria the Kurds have moved back and forth in the gray zone between freedom one day and oppression the next. Since 1957 the Kurds have passed through arduous challenges whereby they undertook party politics during a time when it was outlawed, and even when it was legal it was seen as illegal when it crossed beyond certain red-lines. Also added was their experience of conflict. This taught them how to take their own case to an international platform. Everyone has a game plan in Syria, including the Kurds…
In my article yesterday I touched on how the US Department of State and the Pentagon had given certain warnings to the YPG, how this had been part of an attempt to appease Turkey’s anger and to keep the Kurds from moving toward the Russians while also preventing the destruction of the so-called ‘moderate’ American proxies; but I made it clear that the Americans will not be able to throw aside the Kurds if they want to remain in the game.
In short the US were saying that the YPG should not fight with groups supported by the West and Gulf powers, that they should return the places they captured around Azaz, that they should stop collaborating with the Russians and that of course they should not expect support for autonomy from the Americans!
Well what was the Kurds' response to these warnings?
I put these questions to Aldar Xelil, a member of the executive committee of TEV-DEM, and Zuhat Kobani, a representative of the PYD in Europe – two key names in the movement for autonomy in Rojava. Both think that the warnings were designed more to placate Turkey. This is to say that there is no immediate place for worry on the Kurdish front but there is also no room for complacency and letting down one's guard.
According to you what are these warnings from the United States about?
Aldar Xelil: Without a doubt the US is not of the same mind as us and our political line does not please them. Despite this they have accepted us because there is no other organized group in Syria except for us. Those [groups] around Azaz are entirely under Turkish control. And it was also because of Turkey that they did not accept us in Geneva. Turkey is using the migrant crisis very well. It has taken some steps in order to prevail over the West. And the Americans are trying to calm Turkey down with such statements.
Well are you worried that the US could abandon you?
Aldar Xelil: No we are not worried, we are confident because we have our own forces. Our forces are not dependent on the United States. We spoke very seriously with the Americans because they did not invite us to Geneva. We told them that “we will not work with you.” They are trying to persuade us and are making all kinds of promises.
Can the US do anything with you?
Aldar Xelil: They can’t make any progress toward Raqqa without us. As long as Raqqa remains under the control of Daesh (ISIS) they will continue to work with us, after that it’s not certain what will happen. We are taking precautions for all kinds of eventualities.
What do the Americans want from the Kurds? For example after [the capture of] Raqqa do they want you to fight against the regime?
Aldar Xelil: The Americans want to be rid of Daesh. Up until now they have not put the subject of fighting against the regime onto the agenda. Last year they brought up the Peshmerga (which Barzani had trained and wanted to send to Rojava), but we rejected this and they didn’t open the subject again. They are adamant that there is no fighting with Turkey. Of course the Americans know that for five years we have never created any kind of problem for Turkey along the border and we are not now.
Is the YPG collaborating with Russia in Afrin and the Aleppo?
Aldar Xelil: Russia has no authority over our actions. Russia is not here. They are only carrying out airstrikes but not even as much as the [American-led] coalition. Please allow me to stress this point: We are working for ourselves and no one else.
What is the level of cooperation with Russia? On the one hand they allowed the Rojava administration to open up an office in Moscow…
Aldar Xelil: Good things are coming together but there is no strategic relationship, there is no plan for the future with the Russians, there is only communication around technical and practical matters.
It is reported that the Kurds have received support from the Syrian army in Afrin and Aleppo…
Aldar Xelil: We have received no help from the Russians in Afrin. However sometimes when there is fighting between us and other groups they take advantage of the opportunity and strike. This is not to open the road for us. There is no cooperation with the regime in Aleppo.
Why are opposition groups attacking Şeyh Maqsoud and Ashrafieh? They claim that the YPG has closed the Castelo road and is helping the regime to encircle the opposition in Aleppo.
Aldar Xelil: As soon as the ceasefire started they began their attacks. It is they who want to cut the road. They are doing this to keep our people from going back and forth from the center of Aleppo. They are not fighting with the regime but with the Kurds. They are attacking the Kurds so that they cannot develop their autonomy. Those attacking are not Daesh, and al Nusra is not playing a big role either, it is mostly Turkish supported groups. They have even used chemical weapons in these attacks.
Saleh Moslem has said that you had documents which proved that Daesh received help from Turkey in its attacks on Tel Abyad on February 27th 2016. What kind of help are you talking about?
They attacked Tel Abyad from across the Turkish border. There were Daesh members who were killed right on the border. Everyone saw how they came, how they arrived at the border in vehicles and then attacked. Everyone knows.
‘The Move Toward Azaz Was Undertaken With America’s Knowledge’
I asked similar questions to PYD Representative Zuhat Kobani.
Did the warnings from the United States mean that things have changed?
Zuhat Kobani: The US does not want to lose Turkey. They are calibrating these statements accordingly. Because they are under pressure. They are trying to manage Turkey a bit. And the Americans also want to play their own game. At the same time they put the brakes on at Geneva. Because of pressure from Turkey. I asked the Americans, ‘do you have friends in Syria other than the Kurds’ and they said ‘no.’ ‘Outside of northern Syria you have no influence anywhere but despite this you won’t accept the Kurds at the table.’ They ask us whether or not we have any faith in the Geneva [talks] because actually they do not believe themselves that anything will come from them. They say ‘you will also participate but at the appropriate time.’ We told the Americans that ‘we are not a threat to Turkey. You mediate so that they will accept us.’ Everything is very complicated. This is the Middle East, you know.
What do you say to the American calls for you to abandon the areas around Azaz?
Zuhat Kobani: Actually America was informed about the Azaz operation. When Turkey responded so strongly and began to fire artillery [into Syria] the United States began to publicly take on this position.
Why did the United States give the green light?
Zuhat Kobani: Because if we had not advanced then the regime would have advanced. The Kurds cut off the regime’s advance.
However there are also claims that the Syrian Army helped the Kurds advance…
Zuhat Kobani: If the regime wants to advance but is unable to they would prefer Kurdish groups to be in that area instead of those supported by Turkey.
You cut off the regime’s advance but it actually benefited the regime…
Zuhat Kobani:This is not a strategic approach but a tactical approach from the regime. As a result of the Kurds occupying these areas the space for a Turkish intervention is removed. The Kurds cut off any road for the Turks when they moved toward Tel Rifat (farther South). But the regime has its own calculations. There are different voices coming out of Damascus. There are those who defend the rights of the Kurds, saying that we will solve the problem with dialogue. Certainly when the regime feels it has the strength it will direct its force toward the Kurds. For this reason we are preparing for every kind of situation.
You have never had any military aid from Russia or the Syrian Army in Afrin?
Zuhat Kobani: No. If you have money in the Middle East then you are up to your knees in weapons. Our people are buying the weapons. Our people see that this is a war of existence and they are participating with all seriousness.
Is there no back and forth with Russia?
Zuhat Kobani: The Kurdish advance is working toward Russia’s advantage. Of course we are trying to keep Russia on the Kurds' side. You know most recently they said something about federalism. In this way they have revealed their political project.
Everyone has their calculation
As Zuhat Kobani said the Middle East is a ball of contradictions. Here calculations made in the morning don’t work out at night, and those made at night don’t work out in the morning.
In short everyone has their calculation:
The United states wants to get into the region through the Kurds without excessively upsetting their alliance and relationship with Turkey; to bracket the future of Syria; to create a formal mechanism to keep the Syrian regime under pressure; and to balance out Russia.
The Syrian government see the Kurdish card as a response to Turkey for having fed the armed uprising. From the perspective of Damascus Kurdish control of the region is no issue as long as Ankara sees the implementation for autonomy in Rojava as an enemy threat. Damascus knows very well how fragile the ground upon which Rojava sits is. It believes that the Kurds will obey them owing to this fragility. But for this to work then the Kurds cannot deepen their relationship with the Americans any further.
The Russian calculation in Syria is not any different than the government’s.
What about the Kurds?
In order to extend their de facto autonomy the Kurds are open to all options; if peace then peace, if war then war, if cooperation then cooperation.
And while I am talking about Kurdish calculations I want to bracket something here. What about that security zone between Azaz and Marea that Turkey had always been harping on about? It is exactly in this region that the Kurds are trying to lay the foundation for democratic autonomy from the bottom up. Despite the warnings from the United States to withdraw and the artillery fire which came from the enraged Turkey when the Syrian Democratic Forces led by the YPG captured the Menagh air base.
Kurds refer to the region between Aleppo and the border with Kilis which includes Azaz, Jarabulus, Manbij, El Bab, Tel Rıfat and Marea as “Şehba (Shehba).” To the South of Aleppo in the Sefira region it also includes Kurdish populated areas such as Tel Aran and Tel Hasil.
According to Kurdish sources in this region, where Turkey attempted to block the YPG’s advances with its red-lines, a constituent assembly of community elders with Kurdish, Arab, Turkmen, Armenian and Chechen participation has been formed. The assembly’s first congress was held in Afrin on January 28th. The congress, which was organized by TEV-DEM, was attended by 300 people including 150 delegates. At a meeting attended by representatives of the PYD, the canton governments, and the Syrian Democratic Assembly which was formed as an alternative front to the Geneva conference, a 49-person Şehba executive committee was also formed. In the meeting it was proclaimed that in the military sphere the Syrian Democratic Forces and in the political sphere the Syrian Democratic Assembly are the sole representatives in the Shehba region.
This organization formed in Afrin resembles the kind of assembly formed in Tel Abyad with Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen participation after ISIS was cleaned from the area. This is to say that the Shehba assembly is preliminary preparation for the implementation of ‘democratic autonomy’ in this region which Ankara views with such sensitivity. In this region Jarabulus, Manbij, and El Bab are under the control of ISIS and Azaz is under the control of groups supported by Turkey. Consequently this assembly sees it as necessary to clear ISIS and Turkish supported groups from this area. As long as Turkey remains determined it will not be easy to implement this project. This determination can be seen for itself in the war which Turkish-Saudi supported organizations have waged against the Kurdish regions. These days forces composed of al-Nusra Front, Ahrar ash-Sham, the Levant Front, the Nurettin Zengi battalions, Sultan Murad Brigade, the Sultan Mohamed Fatih Brigades, the Fastaqim Kama Umirt bridages, the 13th Division, Al-Fawj al-Awal, the 16th Divison, and the Abu Amarah Battalions are attacking Şeyh Maqsoud and Eshrefieh [Kurdish neighborhoods in North Aleppo controlled by the YPG]. Other than al-Nusra these groups are the same groups which want to sit across the table from Assad at Geneva. Every faction is trying to take advantage of the ceasefire to increase its territory through fighting.
According to the Kurds these groups are an obstacle to democratic autonomy.
According to these groups the Kurds are an obstacle to the collapse of the regime.
According to the regime the Kurds are the lesser of two evils compared with the Turkish-Saudi supported groups.
According to the United States the Kurds are the most effective actor against ISIS.
Yes, everyone really does have their own calculation. Calculations within calculations, games within games.
Edited by Kurdish Question