Calls for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to declare a ceasefire were conveyed to the group by interested parties through Syrian Kurdish authorities, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) Commander-in-Chief Mazlum Kobane told the Kurdish Peace Institute in a rare interview from northeastern Syria.
The goal of these requests, Kobane said, was for any resulting ceasefire to be used as an opportunity to pressure Turkey to de-escalate in response.
On February 10th, the PKK announced a unilateral ceasefire on Turkish territory, citing the need for all parties to focus on humanitarian relief in the aftermath of a 7.8 magnitude earthquake that has left at least 44,000 people dead and millions more displaced in Turkey and Syria. Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) co-chair Cemil Bayik gave no end date for the ceasefire and said that the outcome of the decision would depend on Turkey’s response.
Kobane has openly discussed the impact of Turkey’s long-unresolved Kurdish question on northeast Syria and has expressed a willingness to see the conflict resolved by political means. Writing in the Washington Post last December, he stated that Syrian Kurds “are ready to play a helpful role in restarting these talks [between Turkey and the PKK] and reaching the peace that we seek” and called on the international community to “immediately take concrete steps to prevent a Turkish invasion and to promote a political solution to the Kurdish conflict.”
When that piece was published, a new Turkish ground operation in Syria appeared imminent. Kobane believes that, after the earthquake, an attack is now less likely—though he does not rule out the prospect of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan choosing war as critical elections approach.
Nor is a ground operation the only threat to stability and security in northeast Syria. Kobane criticized the United States for its lackluster response to an ongoing campaign of Turkish drone strikes against security forces, political leaders, and civilians and warned that efforts to address the region’s deepening economic crisis have not been effective. What northeast Syria needs now from its allies in the fight against ISIS, he argued, is deeper political and economic engagement.
The following is a selected portion of the interview, lightly edited for clarity.
Kurdish Peace Institute: How has the earthquake that occurred earlier this month impacted the security situation here? Are you seeing a change in the level of Turkish military activity? A change in the level of ISIS activity? Any other security developments?
Mazlum Kobane: As for the direct impact of the earthquake on the security situation here, one of the main detention centers where ISIS inmates are held, the Raqqa detention center, was damaged. Some of the walls were damaged. There is a possibility that the structure could collapse. There are close to 1,000 ISIS detainees in this facility. And with this damage to the building, there is a threat—bad news could come from there.
It is notable that Turkey did not stop its artillery shelling and drone operations. Despite the humanitarian disaster, they did not stop their aggression. And the Syrian regime intends to take advantage of the recent situation regarding the earthquake even more than ISIS does.
ISIS is focusing on how to take advantage of the situation. If the earthquake had been a bit stronger, we could have seen the detention centers collapse. These centers were not built to be used as detention centers. I think one of the main things that we and the Coalition should focus on is doing our best to repair and reconstruct these detention centers and fix what needs to be fixed before we see any other disasters.
Because of the disaster in Turkey, we believe that a Turkish operation is less likely. Based on the intelligence and the reports that we had, we were expecting an operation targeting the city of Kobane in February.
Now, after this situation, we see this as less likely. However, Turkey has continued to attack and target this region. They continue drone strikes and artillery shelling because they were not able to find an opportunity to launch a ground operation.
The chaos in this region favored ISIS and the Syrian regime. They took advantage of the chaos that came with the earthquake.
You said that you believe a Turkish offensive into northeast Syria is now less likely than it was before. At this point, when would you expect any new attack to occur? And if there is an invasion, what might it look like?
Turkey is consumed with internal issues following the earthquake. As a result, public opinion in Turkey is against this idea. And we still have the Turkish elections ahead of us. Erdogan has not abandoned the idea of using a military operation as a factor to influence the results of the presidential election. So, because Erdogan has not abandoned this idea, there will always be the possibility of a Turkish ground operation against us at any time before the presidential elections.
We have four months ahead of us before the vote. Erdogan could think about a military operation at any time before that. They announced a three-month state of emergency. After this state of emergency ends, they may think about an operation again.
The target of a possible ground operation has not changed. It is still Kobane. There are a few reasons for this. First, the city is symbolic. It has a meaning for the Coalition. Second, Russia is less interested in protecting Kobane than it is in protecting other areas. Kobane is the target that Turkey can agree on with the Syrian regime and Russia.
Would you be able to talk about the steps that you have taken or any of the dialogue that has taken place to prevent new escalation? How has Turkey responded to your efforts?
Recently, because a Turkish operation was on the agenda and there were discussions about the possibility of an attack, many sides—including the British, the French, and the Americans—have spoken to Turkey and have informed them that, on our side, we have always been committed to de-escalation.
The Turks have always had their excuses. But they are not very convincing excuses. Alongside these French, British, and U.S. efforts, we used interviews with the media to publicly message to Turkey that none of what they are saying is true. They accuse us of being the PKK; we have always denied it. They say we are a threat to their national security; we reiterate that we have not attacked and will not attack Turkish soil and that we have not launched and will not launch operations into Turkish territory. We have always said that our problem with Turkey is on Syrian land—not elsewhere.
We have always emphasized that we are ready to talk and solve all these problems via dialogue. But Turkey’s response has not been positive so far. The things that they have been saying are only excuses to legitimize their operations. There has been no positive reaction or engagement from the Turkish side.
After the earthquake, the PKK announced a ceasefire on Turkish territory. You’ve said before that you think a solution to Turkey’s Kurdish question would benefit northeast Syria. Do you see this ceasefire decision as something that could be beneficial? How would you like to see the international community respond, if at all?
Yes, we have said that a solution to the Kurdish issue in Turkey would benefit our region. The conflict between Turkey and the PKK impacts our areas. This decision shows that the PKK is ready to take the initiative to announce ceasefires. We see that they have announced their intentions for dialogue, for a ceasefire, for peace.
This was a positive step on the part of the PKK. They are waiting for Turkey’s answer. Some persons have tried to send a message to the PKK through us, sometimes, to convince the PKK to announce a ceasefire, so that they could use this to put pressure on the Turks for peace. Now this has been announced by the PKK. I think this is a good step, and that there is a window of opportunity to take advantage of the ceasefire.
This presents a chance for the international actors who have asked the PKK for a ceasefire. I think this is the time for them to play their role and put pressure on Turkey.
We [the SDF] did not announce any ceasefires because we have always been committed to existing ceasefire agreements. We are only defending ourselves.
With elections approaching in Turkey, there’s a chance that we may see a different government in power there. In the event of an opposition victory, do you think that they might have a different attitude towards your region? What would you want to see from any new government in Turkey in that regard?
I would not say that Turkish policy will change if a new government takes over. But it could have some positive effects. Turkey as a state has an anti-Kurdish policy. But if the opposition wins, they will have to make some changes.
If the opposition wants to win, they will have to ally with the Kurds. Without the support of the Kurds they have no chance of winning. Kurdish voters will wait for an agreement or an understanding between the opposition and the Kurdish parties. If the opposition allies with the Kurdish parties, this will be based on an understanding that, if they win the opposition should not attack Rojava; that they should stop operations against the Kurds; and that they should be committed to finding a peaceful solution to the Kurdish issue in Turkey. These are things that Kurdish voters will need to see to vote for the opposition. And I think the opposition will need to view and consider this.
Looking at U.S. policy, Washington has been clear in its statements of opposition to any future Turkish ground invasion. But it has not actively opposed Turkish military actions short of a ground operation, like the drone strikes and artillery strikes that you mentioned. Nor have we seen much U.S. opposition to other Turkish actions that negatively impact the situation here, like restrictions on water access and economic activity. Is opposition to a ground invasion alone enough to preserve stability here? If not, why not?
We have shown our American friends that their opposition to the drone strikes and to the other operations that Turkey has carried out against our areas is not enough. We have expressed to them that the weak response of the United States to these Turkish drone strikes has led to recent actions by Turkey wherein they have used drones to target civilian infrastructure, to target civilians, and to assassinate our friends and our commanders.
We have explained to them how their weakness has led to this escalation. It has even reached the level where Turkey targeted a U.S. base with a drone strike. This means U.S. opposition to these drone operations is quite weak.
As we understand it, Turkey has declared war on us. You saw this just a week or two ago, after the earthquake—when people were still busy removing the rubble, we saw Turkey kill our people.
The impact of drone strikes and artillery strikes on the region is not less serious than the impact of a ground operation. All of these drone strikes and artillery strikes are destabilizing the area and causing some people to leave their territories and their homes. Daily drone strikes and daily artillery shelling against our areas are some of the main reasons why people are migrating.
On the ground here, I’ve heard many complaints about the deteriorating economic situation. Last year, the U.S. lifted sanctions on northeast Syria in an attempt to address these challenges—but people are telling me they haven’t seen any real change. How do you assess the impact of the sanctions exemption here? If it has not been effective, why do you think that is? And could you talk about how the economic situation here shapes some of the security matters we’ve been discussing?
Lifting U.S. sanctions on northeast Syria was a very important decision. But there are two main reasons why we are not seeing the impact that we had hoped for.
The first reason is this: the United States has always spoken about this area and about entities in this area as partners against ISIS. They have not mentioned anything political, they have not been engaged politically with this entity. This is one of the main reasons why investors are concerned.
This is why we have asked the Coalition to announce that they are not here only because they are committed to the counter-ISIS mission. There is a need for them to say that they are here for political stabilization alongside being here for the counter-ISIS campaign.
The second reason is: Yes, there was the announcement that sanctions were lifted, but there was no encouragement for companies and investors to enter and invest here. There was no program to direct companies to invest here.
The economic situation here is difficult. It impacts the daily living conditions of the people and it impacts the security situation as well.
COVID-19 and the drought here have affected the economic situation. Because of the drought, we brought more than half of the wheat that we need in from outside this year. This is a burden on the economy. There is a siege on this region as well, carried out by the Syrian regime and by Turkey. The only border crossing we can use is the Semalka crossing, and this is conditional. There is also a crossing with Iraq, but it is not usable now—the Syrian regime and the Russians have been preventing it from being used. All of these factors are worsening the economic crisis.
All of this leads to fewer job opportunities for young people. And that works in ISIS’ interests. They take advantage of youth who are unemployed.
One of our main priorities this year is to support the Autonomous Administration’s projects to improve the economic situation.
Thank you for these answers. Do you have anything else that you would like to say?
I want to add that the fight against ISIS is very strategic and very important for us. We have been doing this alongside the Coalition for the past several years. The joint efforts and joint operations against ISIS are very important—but alongside this, everyone should recognize that the fight against ISIS is no longer a security issue or a military issue alone.
There should be investment in a political future for the region. There should be political and economic support for the Autonomous Administration because both have become, and have always been, a part of the fight against ISIS. There is a need for economic and political support to become part of the Coalition’s program in the fight against ISIS…After more than eight years of joint operations and joint cooperation with the Coalition, we are convinced that there is a need for the U.S. to engage politically with the region—not just militarily.
(Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images)