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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 February 2019

Syrian Kurdish leader: no timeline for US withdrawal

Ilham Ahmed discusses her talks in Washington on the US troop withdrawal and the threat from Turkey in an interview with The National

Ilham Ahmed, the co-president of the Syrian Democratic Council, visited in Washington to discuss the US troop pullout. AP Photo
Ilham Ahmed, the co-president of the Syrian Democratic Council, visited in Washington to discuss the US troop pullout. AP Photo

It has been more than 40 days since President Donald Trump announced plans to pull American troops out of Syria, but Ilham Ahmed, a Syrian Kurdish leader who met officials in Washington this week, says the format and the timeline of the withdrawal are still being debated.

Ms Ahmed is co-president of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces that led the fight against ISIS in Syria. In an interview with The National, she discussed possible post-US arrangements including the prospects of an understanding with Turkey, which considers Syrian Kurd militias to be a terrorist threat.

Q: How is your visit to the United States going so far and what have you been able to get from the Trump administration or Congress?

A: We have been holding important meetings. We are discussing the post-withdrawal situation or restructuring the withdrawal, so we avoid a rushed pull out. ISIS is still at large, even after the ground battles conclude it has sleeper cells and is very much a serious threat. We are asking the US to adjust its presence and transition to phase two, where we have to defeat ISIS as an insurgency movement, and turn the page on the socioeconomic level.

The Trump administration has not set a deadline for the withdrawal from Syria, and you said you were hoping to slow it down. Have you been able to do that?

It seems that the withdrawal will happen, but will it be a full withdrawal or will leave it behind counterterrorism units? It is unclear yet and there is no timeline at this point.

Have you discussed a Turkish safe zone in your meetings?

A Turkish-controlled safe zone was not discussed at all with us in all the meetings we have had in Washington. But protecting the border was discussed to avoid a clash with Turkey.

You reject the idea because of Turkey’s control?

Yes.

There are reports that the US is seeking European help to establish a buffer zone. Would that be acceptable for you?

If this happens under international monitoring or supervision then yes, we are open to the idea because these forces would have served and seen the reality.

What if the Assad regime strikes a deal and deploys to the North, would you accept it?

For the regime to protect the border, it would have to follow a political process where it would accept a decentralised administration – then we can talk about joint protection for the border.

Has the Trump administration given any assurances to protect you as the US president had said?

There is nothing definite yet, but what they are working on is guaranteeing the withdrawal is not rushed, and that there won’t be an invasion of our area. In theory, there are discussions, but we don’t have a mechanism or decisions yet.

Do you fear that Donald Trump may pick up the phone again, dial Recep Tayyip Erdogan and try to strike his own deal?

There is no easy answer to this question. But we recognise that there is a decision-making process in the US and discussions in the different departments on strategy options and alternatives.

What if Turkey decides to ignore US calls for restraint and go into your areas, what would your response be?

We are in talks with Russia and the Assad regime if the US pulls out. And if we don’t reach an understanding with Turkey on border security, we will weigh our options then.

Is there a proposal that the PKK members in your area would withdraw to Wadi Qandil [in Iraq]?

The talk about a withdrawal is not realistic. The bulk of our troops is Syrian; we won’t deny that when ISIS was attacking Kobani, many volunteers from Turkey joined and stayed, and some were martyred. They are Turkish Kurds but not PKK. They came to fight ISIS and when this fight is over, we are willing to discuss the matter.

Are you open to the idea of Arab troops? There were reports that an Egyptian delegation visited your area.

We are not discussing this at the moment. But if there is an international resolution to send monitors, we don’t mind an Arab contingent.

President Trump has accused Syrian Kurds of selling oil to Iran. Are you?

We are not trading oil with Iran. We have local traders and they all sell internally, for pure internal consumption and to make their own living.

Are you a separatist movement? Turkey has fears that you will seek your own state.

Turkey is pushing us in that direction [chuckles]. But in reality our project and vision are Syrian. We want a decentralised federal democratic Syria where we can have a self-administered region.

What is the problem between you and the Syrian opposition?

Ever since the Syrian opposition came under Turkish control, it collapsed. The opposition wanted us to be just Syrians, with no acknowledgment of our Kurdish heritage and specificity. They wanted to impose that very much like the regime wants to do it on the basis of nationalism/Baathism.

What are the chances for an agreement between you and Turkey?

We are trying to work for an agreement with Ankara but it is unclear at the moment if we will succeed or not.

Updated: February 2, 2019 01:30 AM

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