By: Yousif Ismael
July 5, 2016
How do you describe the operation of the liberation of Manbij? Who are the forces participating in this operation?
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which includes Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens, and Christians are involved in liberating Manbij. Within the SDF, there is the Manbij Military Council (MMC), a force formed from and by the people of the city who are liberating their own home.
The operation to liberate Manbij is one of the strategic operations in the area. Manbij is located on Turkey’s border and, if the city is liberated, this will prevent ISIS terrorists from entering Turkey and then Europe. The terror acts that took place in Paris and Brussels are because of the flow of terrorists from Syria through the Turkish border to Europe. A free Manbij means a halt to the export of terror to Europe and the rest of the world. The operation is going well – after encircling the city, the fighters are entering the neighborhoods. It is progressing somewhat slowly, and that is to protect against the civilian causalities since ISIS is using civilians as human shields. ISIS has also booby trapped large areas of land and houses inside the city. Manbij residents are generally optimistic about this operation and are joyful to be freed from the oppressive system which has been forced on them, a system alien to Syria’s environment. The oppressive rule of ISIS stifled people’s freedom and stood against humanity and the rights of women in particular. After the liberation of the villages surrounding the city, we saw people reacting with happiness, and we saw women replacing the black scarfs and dresses imposed on them with their own colorful dresses.
Turkey was strongly opposed to the SDF crossing the Euphrates River, and said that they consider it as red line. What has changed? And what is the United States’ position on connecting Afrin Canton to eastern Rojava?
We do not have red lines, especially when it comes to the interests of the people of Syria. We will cross any red line as long as it is for the interests of people of Syria. The red line that Turkey has imposed is not relevant to us. Of course, the United States is participating and leading the international coalition in the operation to liberate Manbij, and this provides evidence that the U.S. is joining us in crossing this red line.
What are your goals with respect to the liberation of Azaz?
The city of Azaz is controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra, the branch of al-Qaeda [in Syria]. We are in the west of Syria, specifically in Afrin, defending ourselves and not attacking anyone. This is our aim and it will remain that way. However, the forces of Jabhat al-Nusra and other groups are bombarding Afrin with so-called “hell canons” [homemade howitzer-type cannons] and mortars. These bombardments come from Azaz on one side and from Atme one the other side. There are various armed Islamic factions that cooperating with Jabhat al-Nusra who call themselves the “moderate opposition and Afrin and surrounding villages are targeted by these groups and we must defend our areas. A few days ago the bombardment resulted in death of 10-year-old child Afrin is filled with civilians; there is no regime or ISIS presence in the area. A while back, intense fighting broke out in between Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies with ISIS in Mare city, resulting in migration of many civilians including women, children, and elderly to Afrin. Even the families of the Islamic groups’ fighters came as displaced people to Afrin, and the people of Afrin had received them with open arms. Despite the siege on Afrin since 2013, the people of the city shared their food and water with the displaced people.
Is it true that Turkey is concerned about you controlling Azaz because it is a major avenue for providing logistical aid to opposition factions loyal to them?
Not only Azaz, but Aleppo province overall. Currently Aleppo is a nerve center for terrorism. The area is run by Jabhat al-Nusra and others Islamist groups. They all receive aid and support from Turkey, and for Turkey it is important to control the area. Some of these groups consider themselves moderate, but unfortunately joined [al-Qaeda branch] Jabhat al-Nusra. We have seen American-trained groups entered Syria and gave all their weapons and equipment to Jabhat al-Nusra including TOW [anti-tank] missiles provided by the U.S.
The Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood in Aleppo has been a contentious topic for a while, with the Rojava administration saying that extremist groups are bombarding the area. How do you describe the situation?
Sheikh Maqsoud is being bombarded by those who claim they are moderate but are now in an alliance with Jabhat al-Nusra, for example, the Sultan Murad brigade, the Sultan Fatih Brigade, Ahrar al-Sham, Fastaqim Kama Umirt, etc. There are about 14 or 15 factions in Aleppo, and each faction’s ideology is no different from that of Jabhat al-Nusra. These factions are not moderate – they are fighting against the existence of Kurds, and they attack Sheikh Maqsoud, an area populated by people of many different ethnicities and religions.
Do you have any agreement or understanding with any opposition groups, or they are all extremists?
There are factions within the opposition who believe in democratic ideas and accept others, and they are now fighting under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). For example, Jaysh al-Thuwar (Army of Revolutionaries), Thuwar al-Raqqa (Revolutionaries of Raqqa), Jabhat al-Akrad (Kurdish Front) and many other groups are part of SDF. It is worth mentioning that the Turkish government now is in process of forming the so-called Jaysh al-Shimal (Army of the North), which includes several factions supported by them, including Kurds who are part of the “National Coalition”. Their main goal will be to fight the SDF, who liberated a large area in Syria from ISIS and saved countless people from terror.
How many internally-displaced persons and other refugee are now living in Rojava and northern Syria? How is the humanitarian situation?
We received a wave of displaced families in Afrin over the past month, most of whom were from Azaz and Mare, totaling about 22,000, and we also also hosting about 5,000 people in camps who have fled from inside Aleppo, Damascus, and Idlib. The displaced people stating in Rojava have freedom of movement, unlike those living in camps in other countries, and are receive support from the self-administration authorities. Before the revolution, approximately 500-600,000 people lived in Afrin, and now there are close to one million people there, and they are mostly Arabs.
In the Jazeera Canton, since the beginning we were hosting many displaced families from Deir al-Zour, Raqqa, and Damascus. It is estimated that 300,000 came to our areas after ISIS took over the region. In addition to these people, we are also hosting many who fled from Mosul, coming from Iraq to al-Hawl. In Derik, we also have many Yazidi families who fled after the fall of Sinjar.
Did you receive any humanitarian organizations, either international or regional groups?
In Afrin, the roads are cut off and the aid cannot be delivered because of the siege. Turkey has closed the border and other routes are also closed inside Syria. The area is completely under siege. We have stressed this to the U.S. administration. Thankfully we have received some aid, but its temporary – it might be good for a month, but how about afterwards?
There must be aid to the displaced people from all. There are very small numbers of NGOs affiliated with the United Nations who operate, but the scale of their operations is very limited.
Sheikh Maqsoud suffers from a lack of medicine, causing the spread of disease, and on top of that extremist groups are bombarding the area. In Manbij, we need medicine near the war front. Many displaced people flee to the camps near Kobane and they need food and medicine. Once again, we call upon the international community and the United Nations to help these people.
What is your ultimate goal in Syria?
Syria will not be as it once was – centralized and ruled by a dictator. A dictator leaves and an Islamic dictator replaces him? We are opposed to this approach. Its ideal for Syria to become a federal, decentralized state. To resolve the crises in Syria, federalism is the best choice for all. The country is multi-ethnic, including many religions and nations. In Syria, the social fabric and bonds between the various peoples and religions have been damaged and fighting has occurred. To rebuild the social fabric of the nation, people must be united across community lines and administrations and regions should be created similar to the similar to region of Rojava and northern Syria. We see this as a solution for all. In Rojava and northern Syria, the citizens from various background have agreed to rule themselves, and they hope for the experiment to be implemented in the rest of the country.
Clashes broke out in between your forces and militias loyal to the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Qamishli. How is the situation there now?
There are the “Civil Defense” forces, who are a militia loyal to and supported by the regime. Every now and then they attack the SDF, and also they would abuse the citizens in the area. The Asayish (internal security) forces were able to take control of the central prison in Qamishli, which was previously under the control of pro-regime forces. Today, the self-administration forces in the city control it. The pro-regime forces are now restricted to a small area in the city and the Qamishli airport, but all the rest of the government buildings are under control of our security forces. It is the pro-regime forces who provoke our forces.
Do you prefer Assad over the current opposition?
We do not want a dictator in Damascus or the opposition who deny the existence and legitimacy of others. If the opposition has the same ideology as the dictator, then it would not work for anyone. There must be an agreement to form a new system, a federal, democratic, multi-ethnic system in Syria. The agreement must be reached in Geneva where all sides of conflict are presented. We know the dictator Bashar al-Assad will not remain in power, especially after killing many of his own people and destroying the country. Also, an opposition refuses to accept others and lacks clear vision for a future Syria will not work. We want a system that will consider all Syrians as partners, including Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens, and Christians.
How was your visit to the United States?
It was a good visit. We look forward to opening an office in Washington as we seek to create international relations with all. We have offices in Paris, Berlin and Stockholm, and relations with the United States are part of our strategy.