Throughout the fall of 2021 Turkey threatened a new invasion into North and East Syria. As of mid-November the threats abated and it became clear that no such invasion would take place in the absence of greenlights from the US and Russia -which have not been forthcoming. Nevertheless, smaller-scale deadly attacks on civilians by Turkey and Turkish-backed militias are still a nearly daily occurrence in North and East Syria.
Rojava Information Center sat down with Newroz Ahmed, the female commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, to speak about Turkish aggression, as well as SDF’s relations with other actors in the region.
What do you think about the Turkish media campaign and the latest threats? What is the position of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)?
Turkish attacks on our regions are ongoing; they are nothing new. It is not just about a media war. The Turkish government is losing popularity, inside and outside. Its relationships with the mercenary militias of the so-called Syrian National Army and Turkish presence in third countries affect its credibility. Erdogan is also facing strong internal opposition. Therefore, the strategy is to make it appear as if there is an existing threat to the Turkish nation. They have even extended the authorization to launch military operations into Iraqi and Syrian soil with the pretext of waging a war against terrorism. With this pretext, there is a military campaign in Southern [Iraqi] Kurdistan. [The same is true] in North and East Syria, where drone attacks have increased lately; the latest drone strike in Qamishlo on November 9th killed civilians. There have also been such strikes in Kobane and Til Temir; they happen on a daily basis. Furthermore, Turkish threats of invasion are a systematic weapon of war – it makes people fear for their safety and that brings about displacement and demographic change.
The goal of the Turkish occupation is to damage the Autonomous Administration and its political project. Threats against places like Tel Rifaat are part of this strategy. Tel Rifaat is an example of a town with a diverse population that believes in and is practicing coexistence between different peoples. It represents the democratic nation-building itself up. Destroying places like Tel Rifaat and the example they set is a crucial part of the Turkish state’s plans.
The attacks that will be launched will not take the form of a regular war with clear frontlines; they will spread across the whole region. The SDF is ready for possible attacks. In that sense, the support of the people is very important for us. When people organize themselves in order to show support to the self-defense forces, it is a source of energy. Because people believe in us, and that increases our responsibility towards them and towards the land.
What do you think about the Turkish media campaign and the latest threats? What is the position of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)?
The fight against ISIS is a priority for us. ISIS did not come to an end in the Baghouz battle [the SDF’s final battle to liberate territory from ISIS in 2019]. It gained in strength during the invasion of Serê Kaniye and Tel Abyad. It renewed itself; it recruited more and more.
Those ISIS fighters who fought until the end in Baghouz were taken to Ghouran prison, which is one of the most dangerous in the region. Recently, ISIS tried to launch an attack against it, but our Asayish [security forces] foiled it. It is a critical threat, since they have been reorganizing inside the prisons, in al-Hol camp, as well as in some other areas, like Deir ez-Zor. They carry out big operations like targeted assassinations and bombings. They recently attacked four villages simultaneously. That was the biggest operation since Baghouz in 2019. Before, ISIS was launching attacks through smaller cells, but now that trend is changing. The attacks involve larger cells. Therefore, there is a possibility that coming attacks will be conducted on a larger scale.
They also launch operations in Iraq and in occupied areas of Northern Syria. They have training camps and weapons storages, because it is a safe place for them. They even launch some attacks in the Syrian government areas.
ISIS is not only made up of Syrian nationals, but also others like Iraqis and Europeans, and we know they are willing to perform further large operations in other areas of the Middle East and in Europe. The threat they pose not only affects us, but the entire world also. If Turkey attacks, it will affect the stability of the region: a Turkish attack on North and East Syria would help reactivate the rule of ISIS.
Protecting the ISIS families that are in the camps is a very complicated issue, the situation can easily get out of control. For instance, during the Serê Kaniye and Tel Abyad war, Turkey launched attacks in the areas surrounding the camps in order to destabilize them. They also provide help to ISIS members to escape the camps. The locations of the sleeper cells near the camps are unknown, but we do know that Turkey’s attacks are helping ISIS rebuild itself.
What is the relation between SDF and the Syrian government? And with other actors?
We are trying to engage in dialogues with the Syrian regime in order to defend Syrian soil. The agreement we have is that we [the SDF] defend the areas under our control and the Syrian government is in charge of defending the borders.
We are confident that they will fulfil their obligation; they even made a statement explaining their position on Turkish policies: Turkey is occupying Syrian soil, it is getting ready to launch more attacks, and the Syrian government will confront them. In the statement, the Syrian government also demanded Turkey withdraw from Syrian territory. We [the SDF] are ready to work alongside the Syrian government when it comes to defending our land and ending the Turkish occupation.
We are also working alongside international actors, namely Russia and America, especially after the Serê Kaniye and Tel Abyad invasion. We have their support and some joint counter-terrorism operations against ISIS are evidence of our cooperation with them.
We urge international actors to draft a statement of condemnation against Turkish actions, like the attack on civilians, and the recent killing of an 80-year-old man in Qamishlo which made people take to the streets by the thousands. Our people suffered a lot and gave a lot of martyrs to defend this land. That is why we ask international governments for help and to stand by human rights, because Turkey’s actions are reaching a point of wanton violations of human rights, like cutting the water flow from the rivers, leading to starvation; and committing murders, kidnappings and thefts. Such crimes are morally unacceptable to human ethics.
Can you tell us more about the situation on Deir ez-Zor?
The area is very important because of all the different peoples that converge there, which is also why it is frequently used as a pawn in regional power struggles. There have been rumors that the SDF will leave and that control of the area will return to the hands of the Syrian government. These rumors are part of a strategy to scare people. We are raising awareness of this problem amongst the population. We want people to think more critically about rumours like these and develop their own opinion. Our position towards Deir ez-Zor is very clear: we will defend the region.