INTERVIEW: Kurdish leader Ilham Ahmed on security in North and East Syria
Ilham Ahmed is President of the Executive Committee of the Syrian Democratic Council, which governs the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. Backed by a U.S.-led international military Coalition and led by the predominantly Kurdish YPG, the SDC’s Syrian Democratic Forces wrenched control of roughly one-third of Syria from Islamic State over the last three years and established local governance councils that now include religious and ethnic minority groups and insists on women’s full public participation.
But they face enemies on all sides. Turkey, which accuses the YPG of being an arm of the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party, has for months been threatening an imminent incursion to eradicate the SDF and purge affiliated political figures. The Syrian government accuses them of separatism, and is threatening to retake northeast Syria by force.
For years, the Autonomous Administration has asked the U.S. government to advocate on their behalf for their inclusion in Syria’s postwar constitutional committee, but in apparent deference to NATO ally Turkey, the U.S. has instead negotiated a buffer zone to allow joint U.S.-Turkish patrols in northeast Syria and a withdrawal of the YPG from the Turkish border area.
Speaking via an interpreter in an interview with Jared Szuba on September 23, Ahmed said her administration is dangerously overburdened by guarding in makeshift prisons tens of thousands of suspected ISIS members captured on the battlefield, including foreigners whose countries have refused to repatriate them. Ilham Ahmed visited Washington, D.C. hoping to convince U.S. partners not to leave the SDC in such a precarious state in Syria.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
TDP: Today, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Gutierrez announced that the Syrian constitutional committee has been formed. Has anyone from the Autonomous Administration or the Syrian Democratic Forces been included?
What is your reaction to that?
We don’t accept this committee. We are not represented in it. So we are not bound to any outcome issued by this constitutional committee.
We don’t really know what was intended by our exclusion from this committee. Is it just to satisfy Turkey? I don’t think so. I am very skeptical about the intentions of international politicians. I don’t believe there is any will to solve Syria politically.
Without inclusion, conflict can only continue.
Have you communicated with the American government about this since the committee’s formation?
Not yet. In the coming days. We told [the U.S. government] even before, that it would not work if we are not included. I believe there’s an international agreement on the committee.
Have you sent a delegation recently to Damascus to discuss the matter?
A year ago was the last time. There’s no need, we’re not getting through.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry called the SDF “terrorists” ahead of the Ankara meeting between the presidents of Russia, Iran and Turkey earlier this month.
This characterization of the SDF, which has been the real force fighting against terrorism, is an injustice. It shows the reality of the regime, that they are very far away from reaching a solution with us, and shows their insistence on military hegemony.
What are the latest updates on the implementation of the security mechanism, agreed between the United States and Turkey, in the northeast?
The security mechanism will address the Turkish invasion into the region. We’ve begun the first phase, and it has calmed the situation. But it appears to be a temporary plan, not a permanent one.
Turkey is still escalating and still threatening. The danger and risk are still with us.
So at this point, the YPG has begun to pull back from the border, and the defensive positions are being destroyed with the Coalition?
What comes next? Are there still more YPG to pull back from the border?
Now in the area of the security mechanism, there are no further forces to withdraw.
The other day, a Pentagon official, [Defeat-ISIS Task Force director Chris Maier,] said there were still some [YPG], but they will withdraw from the area soon.
No, there are none.
And the distance has been agreed?
Between 5 and 14 km, depending on the area.
Erdogan has demanded 30, 40 km. How do you see that going forward? Will you accept any more than what you have already accepted?
And Erdogan has said by the end of September, if the [agreement’s] steps are not complete, he may potentially launch an attack. Do you expect the final steps to be complete by this time?
We don’t know what steps Turkey wants us to do. Turkey’s talking about 30 km, and we will not accept 30 km.
Do you feel you have a clear picture of what is being requested by Turkey?
Turkey will be satisfied with ethnic cleansing in this area, and resettling Syrian refugees not from the area, as happened in Efrin.
Turkey has said it wants to put 2-3 million people into the safe zone. Your side has said it will accept some refugees. What are the conditions for accepting those refugees?
That they belong to the area originally.
And Erdogan has said there may be construction projects for housing. Would you accept this?
The U.S. government has said something slightly different from your administration’s position. [Maier] said last week that the Americans will accept Syrian refugees into the border area with the help of the U.N., and they can either be local people, or voluntary – not “and.” He did not necessarily say they must be local people. Does that concern you?
We have informed the Americans that only local people from the area can come back. And they know this.
And you’re confident that [the Americans] are working to the best of their ability on your behalf?
So far, anything that we have refused, has not happened.
[Turkish Defense Minister] Hulusi Akar has said that they intend to build joint operating bases with the Americans on the Syrian side of the border. Would you accept this presence?
And the Americans know this?
They never brought this up with us.
General Mazlum [Abdi, commander of the SDF] said it would not be acceptable for Turkish troops to come across the border, but the Americans eventually did allow it.
They entered then they left.
So it would not be acceptable to have a sustained [Turkish military] presence?
Have the Americans given any sort of guarantee that they will protect your side of the border from Turkey if something happens, any sort of guarantee that they will remain with [Turkish forces] on the patrols in the safe area?
As of now the public statements are within this framework of de-escalation, and we hope to keep it this way.
Regarding internal security, what are the major obstacles and concerns your administration faces?
From the perspective of security, there’s still a great danger from ISIS to our region. And of course there are the Turkish threat and the [Syrian] regime’s insistence on a military solution.
Have your forces faced any threat by Iran-backed militias, for example in the Deir Ezzor area?
There are a lot of initiatives to organize the tribes and cells inside our territory. After some of the bombings that were carried out in the area, we learned that the regime was responsible, particularly in Hasakeh and in Qamishli.
Groups working for foreign agents really complicate the situation. It’s like a bomb that could explode at any time.
There’s also the topic of Efrin [the majority Kurdish enclave in northwest Syria that was captured by Turkey during Operation Olive Branch in 2018]. Abuses against civilians are increasing. Operations displacing people. Arrests, kidnapping, killings. Re-settling Arabs in the houses of the original inhabitants of Efrin. Some came from inside Turkey, and even recently some from the Idlib campaign, and from Ghouta.
There are Turkification operations. Schools are all teaching in Turkish. The local council bears the Turkish flag. It looks more like a town near Gaziantep. This is a project of partition. Turkey is dividing Syria with international support.
Tell us about the situation in al-Hol camp. Are there are any positive developments?
Not yet. There is no support. There are no strategic projects to service the camp. The security situation in the camp is very bad. Sometimes they burn tents, they kill people. Groups within the camp carry this out. Leaving the camp in this way is very dangerous.
A Pentagon official last week said the situation at al-Hol and other camps is “not sustainable,” and said the U.S. was providing training for security forces in the camp. Have the Americans been providing anything further?
No there’s nothing. The camp needs rehabilitation programs. It’s necessary to institute separation in the camp. Syrians are in the same place as Iraqis, who are in the same place as foreigners – they need to be separated in a way that they can be rehabilitated.
Has that begun?
No. The United Nations doesn’t allow it. We need huge support. And financial support. It’s like a small town. 70,000 [inhabitants].
We’ve heard there are now women’s units in the SDF special forces? Can you tell us more about it? When did this begin?
Yes. It’s new. [It began] a month ago. Because we have special forces, we have special forces training just for women. If women need to be independent, then they need their own organizations.
The situation in Deir Ezzor has always been challenging. There are continuing raids against ISIS sleeper cells there, and they’ve had good success it seems. The United Nations however, released a report last week saying that in a couple of raids involving the SDF, the U.N. received credible reports that innocent people were killed negligently.
In one incident, three men and a pregnant woman were reportedly killed as they came out of a house. This led to protests and riots against the SDF. What does your administration do in response to these reports and complaints?
These raids happen jointly with the Coalition, together. As for our policy, we don’t intend to kill. Even if they are ISIS, we prefer to capture them alive. Sometimes if there is resistance, the forces are forced to defend themselves.
If we know for sure that those killed are in fact civilians, we begin a process of reconciliation and trying to solve the issue.
How do you do that?
We have what we call reconciliation committees for the tribes. People can file complaints through local councils, through security forces, like Asayish [police]. Of course we take these cases very seriously.
That doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes, but we commit to fix it.
One of the policies that has angered people in places like Deir Ezzor is conscription. Will you continue to use conscription, and for how long?
There’s no conscription in Deir [Ezzor], nor in Raqqa, nor Tabqa.
Only in Jazira [Canton] and Kobanê – Hasakeh and Kobanê. Not in Deir Ezzor. There are the self defense forces, but they’re voluntary. We don’t arrest people in their houses and at checkpoints [for avoiding conscription].
How do you convince people to join? Of course some do it voluntarily, but …
In some instances, tribes have a lot of young men who want to join. Also there are salaries, and the symbolism of it. Also the public relations outreach of the SDF attracts people to join.
One of the things that some people in Deir Ezzor were concerned about was their share of the oil. There were concerns that elements of the Deir Ezzor Military Council were selling it across the river.
There have been a lot of troubles with the oil. The institution that was involved in oil imports gave some of the oil fields to villages. So there was fighting between the people of Deir [Ezzor] over it. Then prominent figures to us and complained, saying ‘take this from us,’ so we took it. That was at the start of the oil office, a while back.
Those who were selling it were telling us they were traders. And they’d sometimes be from Deir Ezzor. So these types would go and smuggle it to another party, and there would be problems. So we closed the pathways to smuggling.
I know the Americans weren’t happy about [sales to Syrian businessman with ties to the government Hossam] Qatirji.
Then they should find a way for us. Help us to find an alternative.
Is any of the money from the oil going to Qandil [the mountains in northern Iraq where the PKK has a significant presence]?
Why would it?
Some critics say …
It’s not even enough for the area. Production now is at its lowest, the infrastructure is totally gone … The production, oil, water, agriculture, is barely enough for the needs of the area.
I don’t mean the oil itself, I mean the money from the oil. Can you confirm none of it is going to Qandil?
I can confirm that it is not. We don’t ask anything of Qandil, so we wouldn’t send anything.