Representative in France of Syrian Kurdistan, Khaled Issa believes that the operation announced by Erdogan will cause the resurgence of Daesh.
The best allies of the West against the Islamic State (IS) organization have been dropped. Following Donald Trump’s announcement on December 19 of the withdrawal of the 2,000 US special forces in northeastern Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the Kurds of the People’s Protection Units (YPGs) constitute the backbone, find themselves lonely facing the imminent threat of intervention from Turkey.
Assuring the US President of his will to “eradicate what remains of ISIS in Syria,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan now has free rein to end Syrian Kurdish YPG forces because of their ties to the Party Workers of Kurdistan (PKK), a Kurdish organization with which the Turkish President is at war in his country, and who is considered a terrorist by Turkey and its Western allies. However, despite the upcoming departure of the Americans, 200 French forces are still stationed on the spot alongside the FDS as part of the fight against Daesh, which ulcers Ankara, who has not hesitated to warn France against any protection of Kurdish fighters in the future.
Representative of Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) in France, Khaled Issa warns, in an interview with the Point, the risks of a Turkish operation in Syria, which he says will only “strengthen Daech”, and urges Paris to work to UN Security Council to protect the “force that has defeated the Islamic State”.
How do you welcome the US withdrawal from Syria?
Khaled Issa: This decision is a surprise for everyone. We think it was necessary to wait, before the Americans withdrew from Syria, the end of the fighting against Daesh to end with the securing of this area, so that the dormant terrorist cells do not “resuscitate”, while waiting for a solution political and democratic for Syria.
Is the war against Daesh over, as Donald Trump says?
The fight goes on. If Daesh is weakened, he is not defeated. There is still a hard core of foreign jihadists, determined and formidable. We are fighting the last pockets of Daesh on the Iraqi border. Yesterday, thirty-six jihadists were eliminated. The day before yesterday, a hundred. However, whenever Daesh is in trouble, the Islamist government of Ankara [as Khaled Issa calls Erdogan’s Turkey, Ed] rushes to his aid, and puts his army and his aviation in the service of jihadists. This has always been the case. When we were liberating the city of Raqqa, the Turks attacked us and took the opportunity to occupy the cities of Afrin, Jarablous and Azaz. They bombed our territories, along the border of Rojava ([the Kurdish region of Syria, Ed], from the Tigris to the Euphrates.
Do you know what agreement was reached between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Donald Trump to agree to withdraw his troops from Syria?
We do not know in detail the terms of the transaction. But after taking Russia West of the Euphrates in exchange for the withdrawal of his mercenaries from Aleppo-East and Ghouta [ex-rebel zone east of Damascus, Ed], Erdogan wants to take over is from the river in the United States. He has in any case announced an imminent invasion of the region. But the last pocket of Daesh, located near Iraq, is several hundred kilometers away from the Turkish border! In fact, Erdogan is openly seeking to install terrorist groups in our region [this is how Khaled Issa names the Arab rebel groups of Islamist inspiration that Ankara supports, Ed] in order to eliminate the forces that really defeated Daesh. Clearly, the timing of this US withdrawal is in favor of Daesh and the Turkish state.
Do you consider this withdrawal of the United States as treason?
I will not use that word. Mr. Trump himself appreciates the interests of his country. As far as we are concerned, we fought against Daesh before the coalition arrived, and then we fought together, for example in Kobane. Our feeling is that we have done some work together on the ground, and therefore we should complete this work together. We sincerely hoped that the coalition would remain before a solution to the Syrian crisis was found. For now, US forces are still on the spot. But in case of withdrawal, the consequence for us would be dramatic, as it will encourage Turkey to occupy the region and install its terrorists. We hope that diplomacy will prevent Turkey from invading the region and coming to the rescue of Daesh.
You call the Syrian rebels backed by Ankara “terrorists”. Yet they are groups, certainly Islamists, but they are not jihadists and are, moreover, accepted by the international community.
We have records showing that all of the Daesh leaders who acted here retreated to Turkey, where they were “recycled” by Ankara, who simply changed their name. In fact, these groups linked to Turkey are largely composed of former Daesh members. They are radical jihadists who have the same mentality as the Islamic State. These jihadist leaders are now officially operating in Afrin, under cover of the Turkish army. This is no secret for anyone. All Western services are aware. The links between Erdogan, Daesh and Al Qaeda are an open secret. By the way, who represents the jihadists of Al-Nusra [former Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, Ed] during the negotiations of Astana?
Erdogan did not represent al-Nusra’s jihadists in Astana, but Islamist rebel groups.
It’s wrong. All these groups are fighting with Al-Nusra. Erdogan leads the negotiations with Al-Nosra. Erdogan owns a neo-Ottoman project. He wants to challenge the leadership of the Sunni world in Saudi Arabia, by recovering, by means of terrorists, all the territories that formerly possessed the Ottoman Empire. As far as we are concerned, all our populations, whatever their ethnic group or their faith, live in good agreement. Erdogan does not accept it and comes to take revenge. While our youth are fighting Daesh, Turkey is coming to invade their cities. Erdogan clearly comes to the rescue of Daesh.
Syrian Kurdish forces are not free from reproach. For example, they never handed over the keys of the city of Manbij, which they had seized, to the Arab populations, as they had committed to the United States. Why did they put all their eggs in the same American basket, while many foreign powers now control Syria?
It’s totally false. We did not put all our eggs in one basket. We are dealing with all the major powers of the Security Council, including Russia, the United States, France and the United Kingdom, which are involved in this matter. Moreover, the Syrian Democratic Forces are not only Kurdish, which is an insult to the Arab, Syriac, Turkmen fighters who compose it. Half of the FDS fighters are also Arab [it is estimated that only 5,000 Arab soldiers are present in the FDS, Ed]. In the Raqqa and Manbij battle, the participation of Kurdish forces was even minimal.
France seems to have been as surprised as you by the announcement of the American withdrawal. What will become of the two hundred French special forces on the spot, the presence of which infuriates Turkey?
We must be grateful to France. In Kobane, she was the first state to support resistance against terrorists. This policy, initiated under President François Hollande, continued with President Emmanuel Macron, whose public positions still emphasize that the Syrian Democratic Forces are the main ally against Daesh. If these forces were to weaken, it would be a disaster for us but also a security threat for Europe. Do not forget that terrorists who carried out attacks in Europe passed through Turkey, under the tight control of the Turkish intelligence services. The goal of Turkey is to resettle the terrorists in Syria, in order to have a means of nuisance and blackmail towards the Europeans, in addition to the refugee issue. If no one intervenes in the face of Turkey, there will be massacres of the population and the region will again become a hotbed of international terrorism.
What can France do to avoid this bloodshed that you announce?
France is a permanent member of the Security Council, which can prevent Turkish aviation from bombing the area by deciding on a no-fly zone. Paris can also prevent the invasion of Turkey by, if necessary, guaranteeing respect for the Syrian border, by allowing the sending of interposition forces, whether French or of another nationality. France is a great power and can as such mobilize the European countries, because it is the first States concerned, the terrorist threat weighing on them. Unfortunately, these countries seem divided on the issue.
The Kurdish forces are now in an unfortunate posture, with the Turkish threat in the north and the Syrian regime and its allies in the south. Who do they negotiate with?
I will even add a third danger: Daesh, who is still present in a stronghold located in the east of the country, and which is not yet totally defeated. To the north, in fact, there is the risk of an impending Turkish invasion. Finally, in the south, the regime wants to recover the territories it lost at the beginning of the war, in 2011. As far as we are concerned, we hope to reach a solution that allows both to preserve the territorial integrity of Syria, to secure the region against Daesh and to find a political and democratic solution in Syria.
Negotiations have already begun between Kurdish officials and the Syrian regime. What is your leeway?
We are doing what we can to protect our people. At the diplomatic level, we are in contact with everyone and we will find the best solution to safeguard our people, the integrity of Syria, as well as the fight against terrorists. For now, meetings with the regime have not given anything. The latter is weakened, but it enjoys the support of Iran and Russia. However, these countries have agreed with Turkey [as part of the Astana process, Ed]. Perhaps the US withdrawal from Syria will redistribute the cards.
The future of Syrian Kurdistan should, it seems, be played in Damascus. Do you want more autonomy compared to 2011?
We had nothing before 2011, whether for Kurds, Syriacs, and even Arabs who did not live in a democracy. We do not pretend to want to proclaim a state. We want to have a good place in a democratic Syria, without confessional or nationalist legitimacy, but with a large decentralization so that the forces of the periphery can participate in the central power, and maintain the balance of the country. This is called “democratic decentralization”.
Your last pressure lever probably remains these dozens of foreign jihadists that you still hold on your territory. Do you intend to use them?
We are not a vulgar band to use hostages as a means of pressure. These liberations of territories from the grip of Daesh and these arrests of jihadists were carried out in the company of the international coalition. Today we have these terrorist detainees. For now, Western countries do not want to recover them. But if our border was attacked by Turkey, it would not hesitate to release them to reinject them in Europe and to pilot attacks. Whether they are still free or imprisoned, these terrorists are only waiting for the Turkish invasion to return to service.