America’s Forgotten Allies in Syria

AFRIN, SYRIA – On January 20, Turkey began targeting northern Syria with airstrikes and heavy shelling in a campaign that it claims is designed to neutralize a security threat on its southern border. The area under attack, and Afrin, the city from which I fight, is controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).


As a commander in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which includes the YPG, let me be unequivocal: there is no truth to Turkey’s claims that we are waging war across the border. In fact, the opposite is true; with “Operation Olive Branch,” Turkey is attacking us. And yet, for reasons I cannot comprehend, it is doing so with tacit approval from the international community.

Our forces do not sponsor attacks against the Turkish state. (The YPG has only returned fire against Turkish positions that have shelled us.) Our only war is with jihadists from the Islamic State (ISIS), a fight the United States has supported us in waging. But now, with the fight against ISIS largely over, our international backers have grown quieter – just as Turkey’s rockets have gotten louder.

Ever since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, Turkey has aligned itself with the wrong side. It cooperated closely with the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham rebel group, whose leaders were al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan. Turkey also lent support to jihadists from al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly the al-Nusra Front).

And, until recently, Turkish leaders turned a blind eye to the foreign fighters transiting through their country to join ISIS in Syria. In October 2014, then-US Vice President Joseph Biden told a public audience that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had privately admitted that Turkey had “let too many people through.” Though Biden later apologized for the revelation, it reaffirmed that Turkey has repeatedly mishandled its approach to the conflict.

The SDF, on the other hand, has supported the region’s democratic aspirations by fighting for a Middle East free of jihadists. For more than a year before ISIS became a household name in the US and Europe, our fighters were dying to keep the group at bay. We defended communities and minorities from the jihadists’ wrath, and prevented them from enslaving more women and stoning more dissidents than they did. And, by removing ISIS from the Turkish border, we thwarted the group’s efforts to extend its reach deeper into Europe.

Our campaign against ISIS in Kobanî in 2015 led the US to increase its delivery of weapons, training, and air support. Through this partnership, the SDF brought ISIS to the brink of collapse. But these battles also came at a steep cost to my soldiers, who bore the brunt of the jihadists’ ferocity; ISIS killed thousands of our fighters, while the US military, which suffered some 4,500 casualities during the Iraq War, has lost only four soldiers in Syria.

Now that the fight against ISIS is winding down, the US seems less eager to support us, which has allowed Turkey to fire missiles and artillery at us with impunity. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 70 civilians – and 21 children – have been killed during the operation, while more than 100 SDF soldiers have perished, including one female soldier whose body was mutilated by Turkish forces. At the moment, we are exposed to the full wrath of a NATO army, without access to even a single helicopter to evacuate our wounded.

Turkey’s leaders claim they are fighting the SDF because we are “terrorists.” I challenge them to present evidence to support these claims. In reality, our biggest threat to Turkey is not our weapons, but our ideas and political organization. Erdoğan fears our democratic values; we have brought freedom to regions ruled by brutal dictatorship for most of five decades. As Erdoğan gives free rein to his autocratic tendencies, he worries that a true democracy on Turkey’s southern border could threaten his own grip on power.

For Erdoğan, the best scenario for Syria would a makeover as a Sunni Arab state, where Kurds and other minorities are sidelined. But, this would be to the detriment of Syria’s great diversity. In contrast, we support Syria’s ethnic and religious mosaic, and envision a future of coexistence among Christians, Circassians, and Yazidis – all groups that Turkey has shunned.

Erdoğan has claimed that he wants “to deliver Afrin to its real owners,” thereby enabling the more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey to return “to their own land as soon as possible.” Yet, to many of us, Erdoğan’s true objective in Afrin is to make the region Kurdenrein, turning us into a minority in our own home. Where are we expected to go? Kurds are not squatters in Afrin.

As Erdoğan becomes increasingly erratic and alienates his Western allies, it is the Kurds who are suffering the most. We are willing to be good neighbors and work toward a negotiated settlement. But as long as Turkey continues to target us, drawing no meaningful condemnation for the assault, we will have no choice but to defend ourselves.

Mahmoud Berkhdan is a member of the general command of the Syrian Democratic Forces, based in Afrin, Syria.

By Mahmoud Berkhdan

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