Turkish attacks on northern and eastern Syria have brought the areas controlled by the Autonomous Administration of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) into the spotlight. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) is a de facto autonomous region in northern Syria that is made up of several Syrian governorates including Raqqa, Hasaka, Deir Ez-Zor, and Aleppo. The main military force in the region is the SDF which works in close cooperation with the US-led international coalition against ISIS. The SDF is supported by troops from the Russian military police and some units of the Syrian army that were allowed into the area as a result of an agreement with the SDF which followed the Turkish ground incursion of October 2019.
Mazloum Abdi, commander-in-chief of the SDF, discusses the possibility of a new Turkish incursion into areas controlled by AANES. He explains his perspective on how such an attack could imperil the war against ISIS and what Washington and the international coalition should do to prevent it.1
How would you describe the recent Turkish attacks on northern and eastern Syria?
Since November 20, Turkey has been intensively targeting our regions, our military forces, our civilian population, and our infrastructure with scores of airstrikes, drones, and artillery shelling. In doing so, Turkey is committing war crimes against us and violating international law. The attacks resulted in the deaths of 18 civilians and 17 combatants. They also led to the destruction of 45 vital infrastructure facilities including electricity, oil, gas, and water plants, as well as hospitals and service delivery centers.
How do these attacks affect your fight against ISIS?
We have noticed that there was an increase in the activities of ISIS in conjunction with these attacks. According to our information, ISIS is planning to carry out attacks from the south, taking advantage of the fact that our forces are busy defending the region and protecting the citizens against the Turkish aggression in the north. Thus, any Turkish military escalation against our forces directly leads to an increase in ISIS activity. This is what we have experienced over the past few years.
Also, the Turkish bombardment has recently targeted the security forces responsible for protecting Al-Hol camp which houses more than 55,000 families (some with ties to ISIS fighters), thus depleting the ability of our security and military forces to ensure the safety of the camps and the security of other detention centers. These attacks also incapacitate the humanitarian response and create an insecure situation that threatens stability.
How, then, do you counter these attacks?
We respond to these attacks by peaceful means to prevent a potentially catastrophic war. We have spoken with our friends, partners, and the guarantor powers to stop these attacks and prevent Turkey from carrying out a new ground invasion that will negatively affect all parties and inflame the Syrian-Turkish border region. But, in the event of any ground invasion, our forces will fight to protect our people and defend our areas. We have been, and continue to be, committed to the ceasefire agreements that Russia and the United States reached with Turkey in October 2019.
What, in your opinion, are Turkey’s goals in these continuous attacks that target vital facilities such as gas and oil fields?
By targeting vital facilities, Turkey aims to displace the population, bring about demographic changes, and create a permanent state of instability that will benefit terrorist organizations while negatively affecting regional and global security. Turkey wants to create permanent hotbeds of conflict that will undermine the region's long-term security.
But why would Turkey want to create such hotbeds?
The AANES provides a reasonable governance model for Syrians that gives them hope for a future in which all elements of Syrian society could coexist. The fact that more than one million displaced people from different regions of Syria are now living in areas controlled by AANES is evidence enough. By destroying vital infrastructure in our regions, Turkey seeks to undermine this model of self-administration which now enjoys broad local legitimacy and provides services and security to more than five million Syrians.
What is the position of Syrian government forces on these Turkish attacks? How do you coordinate?
After the Turkish invasion of the cities of Serekaniye (Ras al-Ayn) and Tal Abyad in 2019, we allowed, in agreement with Russia, some Syrian army units into the Syrian-Turkish border region and into the lines of contact with Turkish forces. These units are deployed on the entire Syrian-Turkish border. However, the ambiguous position of the authorities in Damascus towards the recent Turkish attacks—which basically aim to permanently occupy Syrian territory—is incomprehensible to us.
In the absence of a political solution, the objective of our military coordination with the Syrian army is to prevent a Turkish occupation of Syria. We believe that Syrians must unite in the face of external interference and fight to preserve Syria's territorial integrity.
Have you received any assurances from either the United States or Russia that Turkish military operations, similar to those that occurred in 2019, will be deterred? And will Moscow continue its mediatory role between the SDF and Damascus?
Both the US and Russia have declared their opposition to any Turkish attack on Syrian territory, and while we commend their position, we do not see it as sufficient to hinder such an attack or to prevent a Turkish ground offensive against northern and eastern Syria.
As for the Russian mediation between us [the SDF] and Damascus, it is ongoing, but there is a need for a political solution to the Syrian crisis. However, what we can see today is that Damascus is not yet ready for such a solution.
The international coalition is your partner in the fight against ISIS. Why do you not coordinate to thwart Turkish attacks?
The role and task of the international coalition forces in Syria is clearly to fight ISIS. We and the international coalition are conducting joint counterterrorism operations in Syria with the sole objective of bringing about the final defeat of this organization. Yet, the Turkish escalation against our regions has long hampered these joint efforts. We have always sought to solve these problems by peaceful methods and means. This is what we attempted in 2019 when we tried to implement a security mechanism on the Syrian-Turkish border that was guaranteed to nullify the Turkish arguments and pretexts, but the Turkish response was to declare war and occupy more of our lands.
Despite the current Turkish escalation, our commitment to eradicate ISIS is unwavering as we continue to work with our partners in the international coalition to achieve common goals.
Can Washington, being the leader of the coalition, mediate between the SDF and Turkey with the aim of reaching a final solution to protect the security of the region?
Yes, certainly. Washington’s weight on the international stage gives us hope of resolving our problems with Turkey through diplomatic means. We have always been open to dialogue and to the achievement of peace, and that is a principled position for us. We have distinctive relations with the United States with whom we coordinate security and military efforts within the framework of the international campaign to eliminate ISIS. The United States also has security and military relations with Turkey within the framework of NATO. This is particularly advantageous as it affords the United States the influence and capacity to resolve the problems between the SDF and Turkey.
Jiwan Soz is a researcher and journalist specializing in Turkish and minority affairs in the Middle East. He is a member of the French Press Syndicate (SNJ). Follow him on Twitter @JiwanSoz1.
1. The author conducted the interview via Whatsapp on December 4, 2022. Abdi responded to the questions sent to him through his media office.