Following Turkish airstrikes on his headquarters in northeast Syria, SDF commander Mazlum Kobane spoke with Al-Monitor about Erdogan’s threats of a new ground offensive.
In his first interview with international media following Tuesday’s drone strike on his main headquarters in northeast Syria, Mazlum Kobane (also known as Mazloum Abdi), the commander of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), said that the most likely target of a potential Turkish ground offensive against the Kurdish-controlled areas would be his native city of Kobani.
Two members of the US-backed group died in that attack, which marks the first time a Turkish drone has targeted an area in such close proximity of a US base in Syria.
A bastion of Kurdish nationalism in Syria, Kobani is where the anti-Islamic State alliance between the US-led coalition and the Syrian Kurds was formed.
Kobane aired frustration at what he called the weak response by Russia and the United States to the dozens of Turkish airstrikes that claimed at least 11 civilian lives in the Kurdish-controlled area earlier this week. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has enhanced Turkey’s value in the eyes of Russia and the West alike. Many believe the limp response of both sides to Turkey’s escalating war against the Syrian Kurds is due to their desire to pull Ankara to their respective sides.
Kobane agreed. He said unless the Kremlin and Washington stand firm, Turkey would likely follow through on repeated threats to move its troops against his forces as it has done in two separate invasions in 2018 and 2019. Any such action, he said, would further destabilize the area and torpedo US-led efforts to root out remnants of the Islamic State. Kobane attributed Turkey’s latest attacks to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s efforts to stoke nationalist sentiments ahead of elections next year. A prolonged economic downturn with runaway inflation and rising joblessness is threatening Erdogan’s near two decades in power. What better distraction than war?
Turkey argues that armed Syrian Kurdish groups and their alleged Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) mentors were responsible for a Nov. 13 bomb attack in Istanbul that claimed six lives. This week’s airstrikes were billed as revenge for those deaths. Kobane denied any connection to the bombing, saying he wants peaceful, neighborly ties with Ankara.
The following is the full text of the interview conducted in Turkish over WhatsApp, lightly edited for clarity.
Al-Monitor: Can you confirm that your headquarters adjoining a US-led coalition base in Hasakah where I interviewed you numerous times was struck in a Turkish drone attack today?
Kobane: Yes. The drone struck an area around 500 meters away from that building.
Al-Monitor: You are on Turkey’s most wanted list. Were you the target of that attack?
Kobane: I can’t say that for sure. But it’s also a fact that Turkey tried to kill me in the past on several occasions and this is where I am known to carry out my activities.
Al-Monitor: Do you believe that Turkey gave advance notice to the United States ahead of the attack because US and coalition forces are stationed literally next to your own headquarters?
Kobane: The Turks know that the Americans are present there. It’s a joint facility. We carry out joint training of our forces there. One would have to ask the Americans themselves if they were forewarned, but as far as we know, the Turks carried out a de facto attack.
Al-Monitor: What do you mean by that?
Kobane: I don’t think the Americans knew that this attack was going to take place. We can say the attack took place despite their presence there.
Al-Monitor: Were you there when the attack occurred?
Kobane: I can’t tell you that.
Al-Monitor: Do you believe that Turkey will actually carry out a ground offensive as President Erdogan again threatened today?
Kobane: We take these threats seriously. Unless there is a serious effort to deter Turkey, especially on the part of the United States and Russia, they will do it.
Al-Monitor: The Department of Defense and the State Department put out separate statements warning against further escalation, as did the Russians, who said they had been working for months to prevent a Turkish assault. What did you make of those statements?
Kobane: They are absolutely not strong enough when compared against Turkey’s threats and certainly not enough to deter further Turkish aggression. They need to do more.
Al-Monitor: But we also know that without a green light from either Washington or Moscow, Turkey cannot conduct a ground offensive against Kurdish forces located in their respective zones of influence. Any successful ground operation would require support from the air, as we saw in Turkey’s previous invasions. Unless Russia and the United States allow Turkish planes to use the airspace under their control, Turkey won’t be able to move, right?
Kobane: It’s true that unless they are granted such permission, the Turks will not carry out a ground offensive. That, anyway, is what I believe and what our people believe. If there is a ground invasion it will be because such permission was accorded or because [Russia and the United States] chose to remain silent.
Al-Monitor: Surely you’ve spoken to the Americans. Did they tell you that they would not authorize a Turkish incursion?
Kobane: That has been their stance until the present. They tell us that they do not approve of any such action by Turkey and that they would oppose it. After today’s attack we spoke to our US interlocutors. But this is a brand new situation and so we are jointly assessing it.
Al-Monitor: Did you try to reach White House Coordinator for the Middle East Brett McGurk after the attack?
Kobane: My people spoke to his people, but I did not speak to him personally. To be honest, we had our hands full with all that happened today.
Al-Monitor: Then what did the US officials you did speak to following the attack have to say?
Kobane: They said they were not expecting such an attack and that they were assessing this new situation. I am hoping that a result of this assessment the United States will adopt a far firmer stance in the face of Turkish aggression against our people.
Al-Monitor: And what are the Russians saying?
Kobane: They are saying more or less what the Americans are saying, but I would add that they are even less firm with Turkey. Russia does oppose a Turkish land incursion, but it’s just not enough. Kobani, Manbij, all those areas that are being targeted by Turkey are under Russian control.
Al-Monitor: Turkey officials claimed to the media after the latest wave of airstrikes against your lands that they did not use Syrian airspace. They said they launched their attacks from Turkish territory.
Kobane: The Turkish Armed Forces are lying. They just attacked an area 70 kilometers deep into our territory between Raqqa and Hasakah, which is controlled jointly by US and Russian forces.
Al-Monitor: Well, that must have shaken your trust in both Russia and the United States then?
Kobane: A lot hinges on how they respond to this new situation. These attacks have reached a critical threshold. They need to deter them from hereon.
Al-Monitor: Is it fair to say that the conflict in Ukraine is a factor in all of this? Turkey has emerged as a key player because of its geographic location and its close ties to Russia and Ukraine, among other things. Russia clearly wants to keep relations with Ankara on an even keel, much as does Washington and its European allies. Is this happening at the expense of the Kurds?
Kobane: There is little doubt that Turkey has taken advantage of the conflict and marketed itself successfully to the United States and Russia alike. And if both of these countries are failing to meet our expectations in the face of Turkish aggression against us, it is partly related to the dynamics around the Ukraine conflict. It’s also true that US interest in the Middle East and in Syria in particular has waned.
Al-Monitor: So how do you defend yourself in this situation? What are your options? Will you need to turn to Damascus for its help?
Kobane: That is naturally what Russia wants. They want us to seek an agreement with the Syrian regime. As for the United States, they need to articulate a clearer policy on Syria. They have no strategy beyond fighting [the Islamic State] and have failed to formulate a clear policy with regard to the future of the areas under our control. The absence of this policy makes it harder for us to negotiate successfully with Damascus.
Al-Monitor: Yet the United States is not opposed to your holding talks with Damascus?
Kobane: That’s right.
Al-Monitor: What is the obstacle to an agreement with Damascus?
Kobane: They aren’t ready, and Russia is not applying enough pressure on them. The other problem, of course, is that the government in Damascus sees itself as irreplaceable, without alternative, and this mindset makes them that more intractable and unresponsive to our demands.
Al-Monitor: Have the protests in Iran and the fact that they are concentrated in Kurdish-majority areas have any impact on the dynamics in Syria?
Kobane: We haven’t had any dealings with Iran on these issues, but the unrest in Iran is certainly having an effect on the dynamics in Syria. That said, Iran is seized with its own internal problems. We have not observed them increasing their influence in Syria in any noticeable way.
Al-Monitor: Should Erdogan make good on his threats of a land invasion, which part of northeast Syria is he likely to attack this time?
Kobane: They have recently spoken of Manbij, but we believe their true target is Kobani. Kobani is highly symbolic for the Kurds. It’s where our national struggle was launched and also where the fight against the Islamic State took off. It’s also of strategic significance, as it will allow Turkey to join Azaz [west of the Euphrates river] to the areas Turkey seized in October 2019.
Al-Monitor: Have you noticed any increased military activity by Turkey, like a troop buildup and the like, near Kobani?
Kobane: Not until now. All we’ve had are airstrikes. But an operation against Kobani would not require all that much preparation.
Al-Monitor: For Russia, Kobani is more dispensable than, say, Manbij or Tell Rifaat, which are vital for the defense of Aleppo. So perhaps it would be less resistant to the idea of a Turkish invasion of Kobani?
Kobane: It’s true they are more concerned by areas lying west of the Euphrates. But for the Americans, Kobani is a symbol.
Al-Monitor: Are you concerned that Turkey may act in concert with Hayat Tahrir al Sham fighters in any ground invasion? That worry has certainly been aired by some of your colleagues.
Kobane: Recent developments which saw HTS take over parts of Afrin, and its relations with Turkey in general, point to potential preparations for a jointly coordinated attack against us. Turkey will want to use them in an operation against Manbij and the areas around it.
Al-Monitor: Why is Turkey attacking you so intensively at this particular time?
Kobane: Turkey is opposed to gains by any Kurds, be they in Syria, Iraq, Iran or inside Turkey itself. Turkey wants to destroy our autonomous administration. That’s its overarching goal. But most immediately there is the question of elections in Turkey. Though these attacks, Erdogan and his government are laying the ground, setting the public mood for the forthcoming elections.
Al-Monitor: I am currently in Erbil, as you know, and senior officials here keep saying that if you were to draw a clear line between yourself and the Kurdistan Workers Party, Turkey would be ready to work with you. What’s your response?
Kobane: I don’t believe that this is the real issue. It’s just an excuse. Turkey is against all Kurdish gains. If the [opposition Syrian] Kurdish National Council were running this region, it too would face the same hostility from Turkey. Turkey is against the Kurds.
Al-Monitor: Some analysts in Turkey contend that the Istanbul bombing was carried out by deep state elements bent on derailing Erdogan’s potential new overture to the Kurds and in particular to the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Does that make sense to you?
Kobane: We’ve heard these theories. The truth is that there are two paths that lie before Erdogan ahead of the elections. He can either reach an agreement with the Kurdish movement, and that would give him an edge in the elections, or ignite a war. They’ve chosen war. Erdogan has chosen war.
Al-Monitor: So who do you believe was responsible for the Istanbul bomb attack?
Kobane: I believe it was an act of provocation that was conceived by the Turkish government in order to lay the ground for the war against us. We did a lot of research and have concluded that the attack was perpetrated by Syrian opposition groups operating under Turkey’s control. We established, for example, and I am revealing this information to the media for the first time, that the woman who was arrested for planting the bomb comes from a family linked to the Islamic State. Three of her brothers died fighting for the Islamic State. One died in Raqqa, another in Manbij and a third died in Iraq. Another brother is a commander in the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition in Afrin. She was married to three different Islamic State fighters and the family is from Aleppo. We had absolutely nothing to do with the bombing and we have no such policy.
Al-Monitor: You have vowed to respond to Turkey’s attacks. The SDF spokesman Farhad Shami tweeted in Turkish about “revenge.” Are you planning to go to war against Turkey?
Kobane: No, we are planning to defend our lands against Turkey, to fight if they attack us inside our lands, in Serekaniye [Ras al Ain] in Azaz, in Afrin, in Jarablus. We have no intention or desire to fight Turkey inside Turkish lands.
Al-Monitor: I know you are super busy, so one final question. I have done numerous interviews with you over the course of the years and each time you have expressed your desire for peaceful relations with Turkey. Do you still think peace with Turkey is possible for as long as Erdogan is in power?
Kobane: Judging by past experience and Turkey’s recent attacks, sadly, my answer would have to be no.
Al-Monitor: But then we just saw Erdogan shake hands with Egypt’s President [Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi and with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, men he’s long reviled and fiercely criticized. He could maybe shake hands with you too, no?
Kobane: It’s true that Erdogan is the master of U-turns. He is super pragmatic. Let us hope that there can be peace between us and Turkey one day.