Interview with co-chair of Syria Democratic Council Ilham Ahmad

Top Kurdish politician Ilham Ahmed takes part in a conference of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria's Kurdish-controlled northern regions, in the town of Rmeilan, Hasaka province, Syria September 27, 2017

WASHINGTON,— On behalf of the Washington Kurdish Institute, I would like to thank you for your time and for participating in this interview and discussing with us some of the most recent developments in Syria and the region.

I will start with one of the hottest topics of recent days, the fight against the so-called the Islamic State (ISIS). Your US-backed forces, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are currently engaging in a campaign to liberate Raqqa, the location of the de facto capital of ISIS. What is the current status of this operation?

Ahmad: The Wrath of Euphrates operation to liberate Raqqa is ongoing, and its second phase recently concluded. The third phase began days ago, and so far the results of the liberation operation are positive. The city of Raqqa is surrounded. The SDF have been able to achieve significant advances and great victories over ISIS terrorists in the countryside of the Raqqa.

Q: Turkey is accusing the United States of direct military support for the People’s Defense Units (YPG), which they consider part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), but officials from your administration deny that and state that military aid received from the US was sent to the SDF. Can you please clarify this situation?

Ahmad: There are good relationships between the YPG and the United States. The military aid from the U.S. to SDF in northern Syria is for all of the peoples of the area in their fight against ISIS. However, Turkey is always trying to provoke the U.S. government with respect to this issue because they [i.e., Turkey] see the YPG as a terrorist group. The Turkish state is constantly seeking to cut off support for the YPG forces that are fighting ISIS. The efforts by the Turkish government in this regard are to give the terror groups in Syria a last breath, and to grant Turkey new power within Syria. Hence, Turkey is aiming to expand its territories and presence in Syria, to augment what they already occupy in the country.

Q: By expanding, you mean within their military operation, Euphrates Shield?

Ahmad: Yes. Turkey has stated that its operation, Euphrates Shield, is targeting ISIS, but during the battle of al-Bab, it was apparent that these groups are not capable of fighting ISIS. We also saw what happened in Jarablus, where ISIS didn’t fight and instead withdrew from the town. Currently, Turkey is training forces including a number of Syrian groups in Jarablus, promoting Turkish ideology and culture as part of a campaign of Turkification.

Q:Turkey has repeatedly claimed that the PKK and PYD and Northern Syria federal administration are same and are linked. Could you please clearly explain to us if they are the same or linked?

Ahmad: In the 1980s, the PKK had a presence in Syria. Throughout those years, the founder of the PKK, Mr. Abdullah Ocalan, stayed in Syria and had constant communication with the various peoples of Syria including Arabs, Syriacs, and Kurds. Mr. Ocalan had a great impact on the thought of people with regards to the Kurdish issue, the brotherhood of nations, and the emancipation of women in particular by establishing a federal system that is based on women’s rights. However, after he left the country due to Adana Agreement in 1998 between the Syrian regime and the Turkish government, the PKK ended their activities in Syria and left the country.

As for the Democratic Union Party (PYD), it was established in 2003 due to the repressive policies against the Kurds by the Syrian regime. There were several wide campaigns of arrests against the Kurdish people, and the regime detained many Kurdish activists. These policies continued as long as PYD were politically active. Many Kurdish activists were killed after being tortured in the prisons of the regime.

When the people embrace Ocalan’s ideology, this does not mean that PYD is part of the PKK. They are two different organizations, and each party has its own administrations and the decision-making bodies. The Turkish state’s allegations and accusations aim to persuade others to list the PYD as terror group and to end the national liberation movement in Syria. The Turkish government realizes that PYD has an impact and is an active party in Syria, and they do not want this party to achieve positive results in its efforts at solving the Kurdish issue. Turkey is negatively affected by this issue and, by making such accusations, they seek to export these problems to Syria. The Turkish government continuously avoids addressing their own ongoing conflict with regards to the Kurdish issue, and are always trying to draw attention to Syria by saying that the PKK are in Syria. The Turkish government is trying to legitimize their presence in Syria and to attack all that we have accomplished and built in the recent past – from achieving victories over ISIS, promoting democracy, and establishing a democratic federation in northern Syria. By targeting us, Turkey is trying to win the support of the Iranian and Syrian regimes, and more generally promote an anti-Kurd tendency. Of course, the Kurdish issue also exists in Iran and Turkey. Turkey considers every single Kurd to be a terrorist that must be neutralized. Therefore, they describe the PYD as a terrorist entity to eliminate the democratic project.

Q: Remaining on the topic of Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan has very good diplomatic and commercial relations with Turkey, and this relationship established after years of Turkey’s refusal to recognize the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. Are you open to establishing relations with Turkey?

Ahmad: We have had meetings with Turkish officials during our visits to Turkey in 2013 and 2014. In those meetings, the Turkish officials admitted that the border area with Syria that is controlled by the YPG is the most secure. We have consistently sought to develop relations. We requested that Turkey open border crossings for the delivery of humanitarian aid and to develop commercial relations between us, which would have resulted in the security and stability for both sides. However, after the end of the peace process negotiations in between the PKK and the Turkish government, Turkey began a fierce campaign against the administration that we have established.

Right now, I repeat it once again, we are seeking to develop relations with Turkey, and we have never antagonized the Turkish government. We have no interest in doing so. We believe that the more we discuss matters together, the more positive results we will see. Thus, we hope to develop a dialogue similar to what Iraqi Kurdistan has with them. But developing relations must be on based on mutual recognition –I mean the Turkish government must recognize what exists on the ground and deal with it positively.

Q: Do you think that Turkey fears that your project might become a demand for Turkey’s Kurds given the similarities between the Kurdish populations in Turkey and Syria?

Ahmad: It seems like a nightmare for the Turkish government. They are hostile towards the Kurds in Turkey since they know that the Kurds are a dynamic force that can achieve a democratic system. On this basis, they are against the Kurdish rights and seek to avoid solutions to the Kurdish issue. Running away from a problem does not solve it, it complicates it even more. Had the Turkish government solved the Kurdish issue in the 1990s, we would have seen Turkey in a better shape and as an example for other countries of the region. However, they chose war and the military solution, a choice that affected the security, political, social, and economic situation. The conflict also has affected the cultural sphere of society – today we see the emergence of a Turkish chauvinist ideology, as some Turks attack Kurds and anyone seeking democracy and freedom. This is a pitiful situation. I contend that facing the issues is better than running away from them. Otherwise, Turkey cannot save itself from the current situation in Syria.

Q: With respect to the peace talks in Syria, the Geneva IV Conference on Syria is scheduled to take place this month. Are you invited? Also, can you please tell us a little bit about the recent peace talks in Astana?

Ahmad: There are efforts to include us. We were not invited to Astana talks, but, after the meeting, a delegation from PYD and the self-administration were invited to Moscow to meet with Mr. Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs. There are international efforts aimed at securing a role for Kurds in Syrian peace talks. With regards to Geneva IIII, if the international parties reach a political agreement on Syria, then I think everyone should be included in the negotiations.

Q: Turkey claims that there are Kurdish representatives participating in the peace talks from the Kurdish National Council (ENKS). Who are those Kurdish figures, and who do they represent?

Ahmad: For us, it does not matter if there are Kurdish figures participating in Syria’s peace talks, what matters for us is who represents the Kurds and lays out a solution on the negotiation table. The Kurdish figures that the Turkish government recognizes do not have any program with regards to solving the Kurdish issue, and they do not have any influence or effect on the ground. Even if they agree on some points with regards to Kurdish issues, this will have no impact on the ground because the main groups that administer the region are not represented.

Previous meetings did not yield any positive results because of the division created by Turkey and other regional states which describe some of Kurds as good or friendly Kurds and others as bad or enemy Kurds. These artificial divisions created by regional governments have become a real problem. In conclusion, it is important to include the parties who are on the ground in any future peace talks. Otherwise, there will be no practical results from such talks.

Q: What is your position on Russia’s suggestions to grant “cultural federalism for the Kurds” in Syria?

Ahmad: The Kurds did not sacrifice their lives for the sake of earning cultural rights. The cultural rights exist somewhat is Iran, and yet we see the Iranian regime executing Kurdish youths for political activism and false accusations. In Turkey, there are Kurdish television stations, but we also see kidnapping and killings against the Kurds on a daily basis.

Kurds do not only demand cultural rights, they want a decentralized system in Syria. A decentralized system will grant the rights for all Syria’s peoples, and not only for the Kurds. All the peoples within the northern federation would govern themselves and discussions would take place under the shadow umbrella of a federal Syrian parliament. Such a system will unite Syria, and it will grant the rights of its peoples.

Q: Many wonder how is your local administration was formed? Is it based on tribes or communities? What are the roles of the political parties in it, especially the PYD?

Ahmad: The councils that are formed in the cities of Rojava/northern Syria are popular councils. The smallest of the councils are in the neighborhood councils, called residential gatherings, in which people discuss issues affecting them as identified by the people themselves, not by an authoritarian system. For example, these councils address the citizens’ daily needs including economic, cultural, and defense concerns. These popular councils rely on their own capacity to create opportunities for their people without returning to or depending on the central government. These councils are formed from all of the components of the local society, including as Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens, and Syriacs. Representatives of the political parties taking part in these councils.

Often we hear that the PYD is controlling everything and the self-administration system is a centralized system. I respond, “No.” Currently, there are about 30 Kurdish political parties in Syria. 20 of them are represented in the governing structures of the northern region alongside Arab and Syriac parties. There are also many public figures who are part of the administration. In fact, the PYD did not create the system that is used in northern Syria, but they suggested the idea, and if any other party had suggested it, it would have been accepted. After the PYD laid out the idea, they discussed it with the people of the region made revisions and amendments to the original proposal before it was implemented. The system is based on equal sharing between men and women. Women’s representation in decision-making bodies is 50%, equal to men’s percentage. Co-presidency is the model of administration, for example, an Arab man will be with a Kurdish woman, a Syriac man will be with a Kurdish woman, etc.

Q: The opposition rejects your system in northern Syria, and you do not have any agreement with them. You also do not accept Assad regime. What are the reasons for disagreements between you and the opposition?

Ahmad: Since the beginning of the revolt the opposition had no clear direction or a strategic vision for implementation of an alternative. That caused great fear among us. Heading into the streets without a strategy is suicide. We made our first moves after determining a clear strategy to solve the crises in Syria. So far, the suggestions offered by the opposition are no different from the regime’s system. The opposition claims to promote a decentralized administration, meaning that the municipalities have certain powers of self-governance. In 2012, some amendments were made to Syria’s laws which are similar to what the opposition is now demanding. Thus, we have clear differences with both the regime and the opposition. We demand political decentralization of power in the country. The opposition simply wants Bashar al-Assad to leave so they can replace him.

Q: Could you please tell us about the opposition and their ideology?

Ahmad: The war in Syria has given rise to a self-proclaimed opposition including Islamic groups no different than al-Qaida. The main goal of the Astana talks was to differentiate between the extremist groups including those similar to al-Qaeda and the other opposition groups. As a result, a group was formed as a result of pressure from Turkey to protect certain armed groups, so Turkey will be able to use them later in the creation of a Turkish “safe zone” in Syria.

These groups are considered as cards in the hands of Turkey and other regional powers that have consistently interfered in Syria. There are great divisions among the political opposition. The most recognized opposition group is the Syrian National Coalition (SNC). The SNC is considered by some to be a representative of the Syrian people, but, if the international community asks the Syrian people about this opposition group, they will not grant it any recognition because of repeated scandals. I do not complain about the figures in the opposition coalition, but only about those who have been releasing statements addressing the international committee on behalf of the Syrian people. These groups have been unable to attain any results over the past 6 years.

Because of these various factors, the Syrian regime considers itself to be the strongest force in the country, and we will see in the future that they will not consider any peace talks with the opposition groups since they are weak on the ground.

Q: Do you have any intentions to turn a new page with the opposition?

Ahmad: We have constant communications with some opposition figures. However, those who are in contact with us make it clear that they want to keep the talks and relations secret so I will not mention any names. We are in contact with many figures. Many of them do not oppose our existence on the ground, but, because of other considerations such as the presence of their families in Turkey, their monthly salaries coming from the Turkish government, and other personal interests, they are unable to announce their support for our project publicly.

Q: Finally, you have met several U.S. officials during your visit to Washington. What did you ask of these officials? What is your hope from the new administration?

Ahmad: We had cooperated with the previous administration, and I hope we will continue our cooperation with the new administration. It would have been possible to achieve more positive results [in the war on ISIS] though, due to political considerations, some progress was delayed. We hope the new administration will continue supporting us, and we hope they will recognize our democratic project. We have presented our thoughts on a democratic federal Syria including the northern region and other regions in the country, and we hope to reach to agreements with the opposition groups and the international community in regards to our project.

Ms. Ilham Ahmad was born in the Kurdish city of Afrin in Rojava, Syria. Ahmad has part of the Kurdish struggle for freedom since the 1990’s, with a particular focus on women’s rights. She is one of the founders of the Kongreya Star (formerly Yekîtiya Star), a confederation of women’s organizations in Rojava. Ahmad was also a founding member and Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM), and currently serves as co-chair of the Democratic Syria Council (MSD), a coalition of multiethnic organizations representing the peoples of the federal region of northern Syria. As an active member of the Syrian Women’s Initiative for Peace and Democracy (SWIPD), a network of civil society organizations from inside and outside of Syria, Ahmad participated in a number of international conferences on women’s issues.

By Yousif Ismael, Washington Kurdish Institute