CommentaryMiddle EastWar

Where’s Talal? Spokesman Silo’s apparent ‘defection’ could signal trouble for SDF cohesion

Updated November 16

Talal Silo, a physically imposing and almost ever-present figure in the Syrian Democratic Forces senior command has reportedly left the group and travelled to Turkey-backed rebel territory near Jarablus in northern Syria.

While this reported ‘defection’ is as yet unconfirmed, Rêdûr Xelîl, who was previously spokesperson for the overwhelmingly Kurdish YPG, has changed his Twitter bio to “Syrian Democratic Forces – General Staff – Office of public relations,” which on the face of it is the role Silo apparently held until yesterday.

Xelil himself was replaced as YPG spokesperson in May by Nuri Mahmoud, a move sparking rumours that Xelil was disappeared and murdered by the YPG and counter-rumours that Xelil was to replace Silo when he was himself replaced by Mahmoud, but this was strongly resisted by Silo.

Silo’s departure is a big deal, but his move to territory held by Turkey-backed rebels could signal discontent within the Syrian Democratic Forces at all ranks, and, potentially, factional rifts with the SDF that might mean that the multi-ethnic alliance and their goal of creating an autonomous region within Syria is in doubt.

Talal Silo
Talal Silo. Image: ANHA

Silo’s rise to prominence

Talal Ali Silo is a Turkmen from northern Syria. His entry to the Syrian war came in early 2013 when he founded the Seljuk Brigade in northern Aleppo governorate as Colonel.

Along with other Syrian Turkmen groups, the Seljuk Brigade was reportedly armed by Turkey, although interestingly, and unlike other Turkmen rebel groups, the Seljuk Brigade in Manbij condemned Turkey’s 2016 Euphrates Shield military intervention.

In August 2015, the brigade joined Jaysh al-Thuwar (the Army of Revolutionaries) – a multi-ethnic alliance of rebel groups comprised mainly of Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen – just ahead of that group’s appearance at the founding of the SDF in October 2015.

Jaysh al-Thuwar members became the backbone of the Arab SDF element the United States is so fond of reminding the world about, although the alliance was not itself admitted to the U.S. train and equip programme because it refused to limit its operation to solely fighting ISIS.

Silo became SDF spokesperson and was promoted to Brigadier General. He became an obvious presence at formal SDF announcements, rubbing shoulders with Operation Inherent Resolve generals and presidential envoys, pitched as the groups face in western media.

Marking the first anniversary of the SDF’s founding, Silo railed against interference in Syrian affairs, saying in October 2016 that Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states were preventing the group’s official recognition by the Coalition, saying that the SDF was “the true opposition” in Syria and others claiming the title were “affiliated to Istanbul or Riyadh and are serving their agendas in the region.”

Less controversially – and perhaps most famously – it was Silo who in June announced to the world’s media the beginning of the multi-ethnic SDF’s battle for Raqqa.

Who what where when why

Without a statement from Silo, or the SDF on the reasons for the move, it’s difficult to assess why he has left the SDF, and we can only speculate on motives.

Update November 16

The SDF published a statement about Silo’s disappearance, saying that “he has been subjected to a lot of pressure and extortion by the Turkish state and at some stages has threatened his children in Turkey.”

The statement said that the SDF has been “investigating the circumstances of this disappearance” since they lost contact with him, and that he had submitted his resignation earlier.

The statement concludes that the SDF believes Silo’s disappearance is the result of a “special operation of Turkish intelligence and cooperation and complicity with some of his family members.”

Hurriyet Daily News on November 16 reported sources as saying that Silo “testified to the Turkish intelligence after surrendering to Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces.”

Silo’s Syrian war roots mean that he is perceived – rightly or wrongly – as representing the conservative, traditionalist element within the SDF, as opposed to the outwardly more politically progressive elements associated with the PYD and its democratic confederalism ideals. This conservative component has been linked to deals to allow ISIS members to evacuate beseiged cities and to the oft-replaced leadership in the SDF’s Deir Ezzor offensive.

His public pronouncements stuck rigidly to the party line, but it is unclear what his own thinking may have been, and his Turkmen background marked him as an outlier in the SDF senior leadership.

Reuters on Wednesday quoted “FSA spokesman” Ibrahim al-Idlibi as saying “Silo was secretly coordinating with commanders from the FSA and when he entered areas under their control he then crossed into Turkish territory.”

Middle East Eye reported that Colonel Haitham al-Afisi, deputy chief of staff of the Turkey-backed “Syrian Interim Government” told al-Araby al-Jadeed that Silo had defected to the organisation because of marginalisation of Arabs and Turkmens by Kurds in the SDF.

Al-Afisi said the move was coordinated with the Free Syrian Army and that more details would be released later.

This line makes sense, and represents an important propaganda coup for the self-appointed Syrian Interim Government and their Turkish backers, particularly in their campaign against the YPG which Turkey sees as a terrorist group and the Syrian arm of the PKK, a view not shared by the United States.

Having not heard from the man himself, we are, however, left to wonder “why now?” and by extension wonder if there’s more to this story than meets the eye, given the clear conflicts with Silo’s past positions.

Did he have a falling out with the SDF leadership? Is he attempting to profit from the culmination of the earlier move to replace him? Was he blackmailed? Is he seeking power or payment? Was he a spy? Is this just an attempt to undermine the SDF, to discredit the organisation hailed by many in the west but reviled by many in the region?

Some Twitter accounts that are fond of Turkish propaganda said that Silo warned today that the SDF project will collapse within months.

Many would be pleased to see the group’s disintegration, after all, a divided group is one that is much easier to conquer, and an isolated YPG would be much easier to target.

That targeting could come from both Erdogan and Assad.

Whatever the reason, Silo’s ‘defection’ will be an important page in the ever-growing opus on the region’s widening war.

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